The other day I wrote about “Idiot Compassion,” which I described as ‘…avoiding conflict, letting people walk all over you, not giving people a harm time when actually they need to be given a hard time. It’s “being nice,” or “being good.”’
Idiot compassion, a term Chogyam Trungpa adapted from Gurdjieff, lacks both wisdom and courage. We don’t want to jeopardize being thought of as a “nice person” and so we’re unwilling to be direct with people when that’s needed. We’re afraid to say ‘no’ to our children, for example. This is the lack of courage.
And we lack the ability to see that our actions will only lead to more suffering. That’s the lack of wisdom. So when you’re naive and too quick to place trust in someone, you’re not being compassionate, you’re just making an unwise decision.
Someone on Facebook raised an interesting objection:
Compassion is central to Buddhism, and I think it’s a bit more complicated that shying away from causing pain because it will cause some people to suffer more in the future. I mean, isn’t that the type of reasoning that Buddhist monks in Burma are using to justify their attacks against Rohingya Muslims? Don’t get me wrong, I hear what you are saying, but I don’t agree that true compassion does not shy away from causing pain when necessary. I think statements like that totally miss the point of compassion in Buddhism.
The point that “Compassion [is] … a bit more complicated than [not?] shying away from causing pain because it will cause some people to suffer more in the future” is perfectly valid, but then I’d never said that that was all there was to compassion. In fact I’d made the point that even in those circumstances where you have to be compassionate and made hard decisions, a lot of self-awareness, empathy, and wisdom are required. It’s not easy to be wisely compassionate.
And the defining characteristic of compassion is that it’s about wanting people to be free from pain, and from the causes of pain, which are unskillful states of delusion, grasping, and aversion. So most of the time we aren’t going to be causing pain while acting compassionately. These are relatively rare events for most of us. Some of us may know addicts, or people who have dysfunctional lifestyles, and may often have to practice the tough compassion of saying “no.” Those of us who have children have to do that a lot. But most of our compassion is just compassion — sensing the pain of others and responding with kindness. Hopefully that’s going to be experienced on the other end as supportive, encouraging, and sympathetic, with no hint of harshness or judgement. Usually we only need to be tough when others are trying to use us to enable their own dysfunctions.
Isn’t that the type of reasoning that Buddhist monks in Burma are using to justify their attacks against Rohingya Muslims?
If you’re unaware, there are Buddhist monks in Burma who are actively persecuting the minority Muslim population. They have been stirring up hatred and encouraging violence. Sometimes they’ve been participating in violence, against every precept of Buddhism.
But they haven’t, to the best of my knowledge, been saying that they’re acting compassionately. They are more apt to say that they are “protecting Buddhism,” which is of course nonsense since they are destroying Buddhism by violating its central tenet of nonviolence, and by bringing Buddhism into disrepute world-wide.
But even if those monks were saying that they were motivated by compassion, this would in no way be a valid interpretation of compassionate action within the Buddha’s ethical framework.
Here’s the Buddha on violence:
“Here, student, some woman or man is a killer of living beings, murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, merciless to living beings. Due to having performed and completed such kammas, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, in hell.”
And here he is on compassion:
“But here some woman or man, having abandoned the killing of living beings, abstains from killing living beings, lays aside the rod and lays aside the knife, is considerate and merciful and dwells compassionate for the welfare of all living beings. Due to having performed and completed such kammas, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a happy destination, in the heavenly world.”
Leaving aside the heaven and hell aspect, the Buddha consistently presents compassion and violence as diametrically opposed, and mutually exclusive.
In the Dhammapada, the Buddha makes clear the empathic reasons for abstaining from causing harm:
All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.
All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.
And in the famous parable of the saw, he pointed out that if you experience anger even when sawed limb from limb by bandits, then in that moment you are not following his teachings. So it’s clear that these so-called monks are not following the Buddha’s teachings on compassion.
I hear what you are saying, but I don’t agree that true compassion does not shy away from causing pain when necessary. I think statements like that totally miss the point of compassion in Buddhism.
In the sutta I quoted from in my post the other day, the example was of a child with a sharp object lodged in its throat. What would you do? You want to help the child, but you’re going to hurt the child by removing the object. Well, obviously you go ahead and remove it, because the harm done by not acting is much greater.
Similarly, if you’re a doctor acting out of compassion you don’t shy away from inflicting pain by giving injections, resetting bones, etc. It is going to hurt people to tell them they have cancer; would a compassionate doctor shy away from causing pain in that circumstance? Of course not.
So sometimes when we’re acting compassionately, we have to accept that it’s going to cause hurt or pain. We don’t want to cause hurt or pain. That’s not our intention. But it’s inevitable that it’s going to happen.
But we do have to be careful of rationalizing — that is, of explaining away unkind actions by saying that they’re for the good of others. You do see that happening. One of the forms of rationalization that most bothers me is when adults hit children “for their own good.” I don’t think that’s ever necessary or acceptable. And when this is described as “love,” I shudder, for I sense a deep confusion about what love is. If there’s any desire to inflict pain as punishment, this isn’t love or compassion. This is power and control.
If there’s ever any mental harshness in your mind about the other person, or words calculated to hurt, then beware! You probably need to get in touch with your own vulnerability, and to recognize that you too mess up, that you too create suffering for yourself, despite your best efforts not to do so. You need to try to understand the other person’s confusion and delusion. They are seeking happiness in the things they do, although they may be very deluded and doing things that can’t possibly make them happy in the long term.
And most importantly, if there’s any trace of pleasure taken in delivering bad news, or in saying “no,” or in any way hurting people’s feelings, that’s an indication that cruelty is present. And when cruelty is present, compassion is absent.
PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.
These last few articles have been really thought provoking and clarifying all at once. I really appreciate your perspectives and insights, thank you.
I have been in a difficult situation with my mother–needing to draw boundaries and hurt by some of her words and behavior toward me. This post help me sort through the difference between allowing her to experience the consequences of her actions and punishing her. I wanted to say thank you.
On another website, a discussion about the Buddhist position on abortion did not include any mention of inflicting pain. There seemed to be a tendency to lean over backwards to be “politically correct” and non-committal on the topic of abortion. While there is not complete scientific agreement as to when the ability to detect pain appears in the fetus, I don’t think anyone can deny that it does emerge at some point before birth. Would it not be more honest to admit that the pain of the woman and the pain of the fetus are both real rather than avoid the issue? We have a real conflict of two legitimate sets of interests here such that glossing over the pain of the fetus is not acceptable logically or scientifically. Would it not be more humane to research when the fetus begins to experience pain and to urge mothers who feel that abortion is necessary to try to have it done before that pain begins?