To be a mensch

October 18, 2022

This is the third of a series of three articles by Carmel Shalev on the topic of Uncertainty, Care and Responsibility.

Caring like a mother

The Karaniya Metta Sutta on the cultivation of metta or loving kindness, a boundless quality of the heart, opens by saying:

This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness … let them be able and upright, straightforward and gentle in speech, humble and not conceited.

Amaravati Sangha, SN 1:8, 1994

The starting point for being kind and caring is ethical: being ‘skilled in goodness’, decent, honest, authentic, gentle and modest – in short, a person of integrity, a mensch in the Yiddish language.

The sutta describes the quality of metta as the sentiment of a mother turned towards all: ‘Just as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart, should one cherish all living beings.’ When a mother sees her child in trouble, she is not concerned about herself but about caring for her child, and with some tragic exceptions, we all as children experienced such moments of selfless care and concern.

It might be challenging to feel such concern for strangers, people who hurt us, and those we think of as villains. Yet although we tend to mindless self-centeredness, we also know what it means to care about and for others, no matter what our gender and whether we gave birth to a child of our own. Even in times of crisis when our very survival is at stake, we not only need others but instinctively come together to support and help each other in solidarity.

The image of motherhood also underlies the Mahayana teaching on buddha nature, the potential of all human beings to awaken. The origin is in the Sanskrit tathāgatagarbha which means literally the womb (garbha) of the true person (tathāgata), one of integrity. The Chinese translated womb as treasure house and the Tibetans as heart essence, possibly due to monastic renunciation of family life and suppression of the feminine. But the womb is a rich metaphor for a space that nurtures growth within a changing, contingent, and fluid process of coming to life, each moment giving birth to the next. As if this moment is the womb of the next, and we are agents in an ongoing process of becoming who we aspire to be rather than stuck in a solid intractable self.

The way of the dharma is a practice of living mindfully and ethically so as to fulfill our human potential to care for other beings. Care is beyond utilitarian calculations of personal profit or preference. In the discourse on the monk with dysentery, Gautama and Ananda take care of a sick monk who is lying foul in his excrements unattended by his fellow monks. They say that’s because he doesn’t do anything for them. Gautama tells them, ‘You have no mother, you have no father, who might tend to you. If you don’t tend to one another, who then will tend to you? Whoever would tend to me, should tend to the sick.’ (Kucchivikara-vatthu: The Monk with Dysentery, Trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1997)

The challenge of living an ethical life and becoming a good person is wrought with uncertainty. There may not be a right or wrong answer as to what to do in real life predicaments, given the precarious uncertainty of forces beyond our control. But the practice of the middle way is to cultivate those skills that allow us to let go of impulsive reactivity and to cultivate care, concern and consideration for others. The non-selfish awareness of a situation is tinged with a quality of kind caring that comes from the heart, wishes to minimize harm and suffering, and appreciates the simple joys of life.


None of us would be here if another human being hadn’t cared for us. We all come into being from a random sperm penetrating a random ovum, through pregnancy in the womb, and the straits of the birth canal. We have all experienced the embrace of a woman’s womb, were born connected to our mothers through umbilical cords, and were dependent on their care and that of others to grow. We exist in relationship to others as well as our environment. That is the realm of ethics.

We tend to look at the world as an object from without as if it is external and separate from us, rather than viewing ourselves as subjects involved within it. We can also imagine ourselves as embedded within a mysterious web of interconnectedness, like an Indra’s net of shining orbs that reflect each other. Even the most fundamental conditions of our lives in the 21st century which we take for granted – such as sanitation, clean drinking water, electricity, and the internet, to mention just a few – are the result of the efforts of multiple others.

Life is a mystery and our human condition is wrought with imperfections and contradictions. We cannot rid ourselves of our conditioned subjectivity, but we can make an effort to let go of reactive selfish inclinations and respond rather than react to circumstances for the greater good. We have the choice to do our best to bring kind care to the relationships we find ourselves in, including with the income tax officer. It requires openness, empathy and creativity. An ethical dilemma calls for a response to a unique situation, one that has never happened before and will never happen again in precisely the same way.

Life is in constant flux, the pace of change in our days more rushed than ever before. We are embedded in a web of changing circumstances and conditions that are not-self, including unpredictable forces of nature such as the weather, accidents such as when our computer breaks down, as well as, no less importantly, the actions of others in the situation who have a mind and will of their own. We cannot know for sure what effect the action (or inaction) we choose to take will have in actual reality. All we can do is trust our better judgment and take responsibility for our actions.

Choice and responsibility

In this age of individualism, we enjoy precious liberty in many aspects of our lives. Isaiah Berlin noted that this has two aspects. One is negative, a freedom from societal constraints and duties; the other is positive, a freedom to act as an autonomous individual. (Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, 1969.) As a woman of my generation, I truly appreciate the value of personal freedom as a liberation from the bonds of patriarchy. But the freedom to make my own decisions carries a responsibility to exercise it with regard and concern for the other. This is the essence of moral agency. ‘The ability to step back and see oneself from the outside,’ wrote Jonathan Sacks, ‘is what makes us moral agents … Morality is the capacity to care for others. It is a journey beyond the self.’ (Jonathan Sacks, Morality, p. 46.)

In terms of the dharma, when we rise above self-centered reactivity, we are free to choose how to respond, by acting or speaking out or even simply pausing to listen and bear silent witness. In emergencies there is no time for reflection and we rely on habit, instinct or intuition. But in most cases, we can take a mental pause to reflect on the situation at hand, bring awareness to our self-interest, rise above it for the greater good, and then do the best we can. When we consider others in addition to ourselves and respond rather than react, we are exercising response-ability.

Living an ethical life is not just a matter of avoiding harm, but consciously choosing to minimize it. There is no certainty as to the outcome of our choice and the consequences might not be what we hoped for. But what we can know is whether our intention is good, and that’s what matters. The intention behind our choice is key to moral agency.

In the eightfold path right intention (samma sankappa) is the second branch. It comes after right view (samma ditthi) which we might understand as the wisdom of our interconnectedness. When we face a conflict of values, a dilemma of what to do, we need to understand the situation, including our own state of mind, which can be stressed and clouded by selfish reactivity or can have clarity, good will and compassion. To respond to suffering rather than react impulsively, we need to imagine how others will be impacted by what we choose to say or do. We form intention, before acting, through a process of reflective deliberation that goes beyond the confines of self-interest to empathy for others and considers possible courses of action and their potential effects on them as well as ourselves.

When the mind is free from reactivity and the blind confines of the small self, a space opens in which we can reflect with equanimity on the circumstances, acknowledge and balance the conflicting interests, and consider what would be an appropriate choice. We all have strengths and weaknesses, but we can accept our imperfections with compassion, rejoice in our gifts, and make an effort to make the world a better place. Caring for others like a mother does not mean totally selfless giving to them. We need to take care of ourselves, our inner child as it were, as much as to take care of others. The ethical life is an ongoing balancing act between my self-interests and the needs of others. There’s no need to be a saint, it’s enough to be fair and decent.

A feminine voice and ethic

The qualities that arise in the nonreactive mind are those of the heart, the brahma viharas, and buddha nature. Their metaphors of womb and mother are what we associate with the feminine. Another simile of maternal care nurturing life comes from the Pali canon in a discourse on the cultivation of the 32 dimensions of awakening, the Bhavana Sutta (AN 7.71, trans. Bhikkhu Sujato). There it is a mother hen who sits on her eggs in the nest to keep them warm and incubated.

Whatever our gender, we all have both masculine and feminine qualities, yin and yang, animus and anima; yet there are many differences between male and female, some biological. For example, the male experience of begetting offspring takes a leap of imagination to acknowledge paternity, whereas for the female, pregnancy is an embodied experience. And sexual climax in the male is linear like the trajectory of a missile, while in the female it is like a ripple in a pond that swells and spreads in all directions.

No less important are differences that are the result of social conditioning under thousands of years of patriarchy, the subordination of women as inferior beings to the control of men, and the gender roles of male as hunter and warrior and female as consort, child bearer and tender of the hearth. Male thought was associated with the rational and the intellectual while female thought was linked with the corporal and the emotional, which were of lesser value. Wisdom was also a male domain – the wise old woman was portrayed as an ugly and dangerous crone or witch.

Patriarchal patterns were pervasive in Gautama’s time too. The name of his son, Rahula, means fetter, his mother’s name was Maya which means illusion (though according to Stephen Batchelor they may be later monastic interpolations), and he effectively abandoned both of them on his spiritual journey. The schools of Buddhism that developed after his death regarded women as inferior to men. Women monastics, bhikkhuni, were required to take a greater number of vows than men and they were subordinate to and reliant upon the order of male monastics. There are few lineages of women monastics in the Mahayana tradition, but in the Theravada tradition they became extinct centuries ago; and to this day in Thailand women cannot be ordained as bhikkhuni. The shift of secular Buddhism from ascetic withdrawal in the search for transcendent truths to an ethics in the life of engaged lay persons also makes room for a feminine voice.

Old habits of mind die hard. Until not long-ago women were also presumed to be inferior to men in their capacity to attain the highest levels of moral development. Carol Gilligan refuted this presumption in her seminal book, In a Different Voice (1982). She studied the way boys and girls address ethical dilemmas and found that they are simply different. Boys tend to view ethical conflicts as competing rights and to resolve them through formal and abstract thinking. Girls tend to think in terms of preserving relationships and connections.

A striking example would be Solomon’s judgment in the dispute between two women over a child they both claimed to be theirs, to cut the infant in two. Even if it was a ruse, I doubt any woman would have come up with such an idea. Gilligan articulated a feminine ethic of passion and care to complement what she called the masculine ethic of fairness and justice.

As a young student, long before I met the dharma, her thinking inspired me to articulate an ethic of responsibility which perceives the human condition as essentially social, to complement the ethic of individual rights. Back then I wrote: ‘Whereas the theory of rights regards freedom as the liberty of unrestrained choice, the theory of responsibility goes beyond the mere possibility of choice to the manner in which it is exercised. Autonomy replaces liberty to denote the act of choosing responsibly, acknowledging the social context in which a choice is made and the decision maker’s ability to affect others as much as self through any chosen action.’ (Carmel Shalev, Birth Power – 1989, p. 127.) Now, I discover that an ethic of care and responsibility can be fleshed out with the teachings and practices of the dharma.

Compassion and wisdom in the web of life

We live in an age of unprecedented personal freedom, certainly in developed communities, and this is a gift and privilege to be exercised with responsibility for its potential effect on others and with concern for their wellbeing. Ethics are not just the realm of personal relationships but also of broad social, economic, political and cultural patterns and structures from the local to the global to the ecological. In the Shambhala tradition of Tibet there is an ancient prophecy of the bodhisattva (one who embarks on the path of awakening for the benefit of all sentient beings) as a warrior, in times when all life on earth is in danger because great barbarian powers of destruction have arisen. (Chogyam Rinpoche, Shambhala – The Sacred Path of the Warrior , 1995)

Joanna Macy found this vision inspiring for her life work on deep ecology. The Shambhala warrior, she wrote, wears no uniform or insignia and moves unnoticeably around the terrain of the barbarians. They know the dangers threatening life on earth arise from our own decisions, our own lifestyles, and our own relationships. Times might come when they must even walk in the corridors of power, and it is then they go into training.

‘How do they train?’ she asked Chogyam Rinpoche.

‘In the use of two weapons,’ he replied, compassion and insight.

Compassion recognizes and experiences the pain of our world and brings motivation and courage to act, but it is heated with passion and can burn you out, so you need the wisdom of insight into the radical interdependence of all phenomena. ‘With insight into our profound inter-relatedness – our deep ecology,’ wrote Joanna, ‘you know that actions undertaken with pure intent have repercussions throughout the web of life, beyond what you can measure or discern.’ (Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, Coming Back to Life, 1998, pp. 60-61.)

In these times of globalization, overpopulation, climate change and pandemic, with the politics of identity tearing us apart between extremes of ultra-right and -left, a middle way ethics is needed more than ever. The dharma offers practical, on- and off-the-cushion wisdom for engaging in the social and ecological body. The purpose is not enlightenment but living a good life, one that is meaningful and makes a difference for the better. There’s no refuge from the imperfection of the world. When we encounter a predicament, we cannot know how it will resolve. All we can do is pause to bear witness, and then choose to respond from the heart for the greater benefit, to the best of our judgment. There’s no guarantee as to the outcome, but we can know that we acted from a benevolent intention.

Meaning, the very value of our life, is related to such generous good will toward both ourselves and others. The search for meaning is an ongoing question. What are my gifts that I can share with others to make a difference for the better? The answer is not to be found out there in a realm of transcendence, but in the actual mundane reality of the moment.

Carmel Shalev is a now retired academic public interest lawyer who specialized in human rights, health policy and bioethics. Her latest book is In Praise of Ageing: Awakening to Old Age with Wisdom and Compassion (2020). These essays are part of a work in progress on the ethics of uncertainty, care and responsibility from a secular dharma view.



4 Replies to “To be a mensch”

Anne-Laure Brousseau

Dear Carmel, Thank you so much for these beautiful, comprehensive essays and for publishing them in this context of a secular dharma community. I can hardly express how moving it has been for me to read them, especially “To be a Mench,” with its poetic depth, and great emotional and intellectual generosity. I feel that in these wise essays, you are teaching by example—among many virtues—the skillfulness of empathy.
Just now I’ve also been reading “Care Ethics and Poetry” which John Peacock recommended in the summer reading list of Bodhi College’s newsletter. Within my particular frame of reference, the feeling I have reading your essays reminds me of my reading of a poem by a modern Greek poet I greatly admire—George Seferis’s “Mythhistorima,” about the history of the Greeks. At the end of the poem, at the end of their journeying at sea, on the shore (their spears, I imagine, left standing in the sand), the poet thinks of those who will come after, and observes “We who had nothing will teach them peace.”
Thank you, Carmel

Carmel Shalev

Dear Anne-Laure, thank you so much for your kind words, and for the poetry.

ZaZa Cruse

Middle Way is THE way.
Although, loosely translating the Buddha, he said “don’t keep bad friends”. Meaning: we don’t set out to hurt others physically, fight them (verbally, or physically), or be cruel. But it does not mean we condone or embrace their awful behavior. To me, it means we understand it’s human nature that has occurred throughout the ages. We feel compassion for their mental, emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual plight and we do our best to keep the five essential tenets of: refraining from incorrect speech, refraining from taking that which is not given, refraining from sexual misconduct, refraining from drink and drug which leads to carelessness, and refraining from killing living creatures. All of these things are occurring on a daily basis. All very comprehensive tenets and very doable. Even learned scholars and teachers such as Chogyan Trungpa Rinpoche (CTR) were victims to their humanness and behaved in less than commendable ways. And he was and still is posthumously one of the most comprehensive teachers on Buddhism today.


I love the title of your blog.

Many years ago I was on an Insight Dialogue retreat with Greg Kramer in Australia. During question time in a dharma talk on the Eightfold Path, Greg was asked if he could give a brief summary of the path as an integral unit of living.

Without missing a beat, Greg replied:

“My Rumanian-born mother, summarised it for me when I was a child. She said, ‘Greg, be a mensch!’ “

I heard the Buddha’s applause.

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