Many years ago a great teacher, known as the Tree Roshi, lived in a tree, secluded, and meditated for many years. After his great awakening, not only birds flocked around him, but people from all over were drawn to see him. Great groups of people gathered and begged him to come down out of the tree and share his wisdom with them.

Finally, he had no choice.

The tree Roshi climbed down to earth, sat with others and listened to their needs.

"Please tell us what you have learned," they begged of him.

"Whatever is harmful to you, do not do to another," he replied simply. "Whatever would bring you benefit, do to others as well."

"Is that it?" The people were disappointed. "Even an eight year old child knows that," they said.

"Yes," answered the Tree Roshi. "Even an eight year old child knows it, but even an eighty year old man cannot do it."

The fruit of all true practice is kindness, kindness to others and also to ourselves. It is easy to speak and read about kindness, it is another to make it into your flesh and bones.

What is kindness, really? How does it appear and function in this world, and why is it so hard for an eighty year old man who has been practicing his whole life, to obey the Tree Roshi's simple teaching? This itself is a koan, a Zen question that is paradoxical and confusing to the logical mind. But kindness does not arise from the logical mind, it arises from another part of ourselves.

In Zen we find a notion of idiot compassion, which describes someone who thinks that by adopting an external show of kindness, they are truly benefiting someone. They may give a crying child candy to wipe his tears away, perhaps not realizing that he is diabetic and that the candy may do great harm. Or, a person may extend a helping hand to another, which, in fact, may weaken, or enslave them. They may truly need to be rebuffed and pushed away, so that they might learn how to stand tall on their own.

Who is so wise to know what is truly needed by a specific individual at a certain period in time?

All true spiritual practices are based upon kindness. In all walks of life we find the obvious appearances of kindness; encouraging words, smiles, displays of emotion and concern. However, the external appearance of kindness is one thing, true acts of kindness are something else.

In Zen, as we practice we are purified of greed, anger and delusion and then naturally perform spontaneous acts of kindness that are appropriate to what is going on.

The Jewish and Chrisian practice of kindness demands that we reach out to one another, offer charity, prayer, and become constantly aware of the needs of our neighbors and fulfill them.

Zen says that when we have cleansed ourselves thoroughly from self-centered absorption and negative responses, true kindness arises naturally. Finally, it becomes the rock upon which our life stands.

Jewish practice suggests that no individual is wise enough to know the consequences of their deeds. True kindness arises from discipline and the observance of specifically delineated thoughts and actions. These actions are to be taken despite our passing moods and feelings.

Basically, these directives are guides to extreme mindfulness in all aspects of life. They provide healing responses in situations where we might not be aware of what is truly needed.

Both these practices ask that we simply give unconditionally whatever is needed, let go of self-centered absorption and take care of all of life. When we are not dwelling upon our own particular pain and desires, how much suffering can we feel?

There is a story of a ripe Zen student — the Zen Fisherman. He has completed his studies and comes down from the mountain to mix with the world. If you look for him, you cannot find him. He is somewhere in the marketplace, with the other fishermen. The only way you will know him, is that wherever he goes, withered trees burst into bloom.

When a person is devoted to purifying their inner world and performing acts of true kindness, then wherever they go, withered people and branches all come back to life.

This reflection was contributed to Spirituality & Practice for the anniversary of 9/11. Brenda Shoshanna is a psychologist, Zen practitioner and one of our Living Spiritual Teachers.