idiot compassion

Compassion and causing pain (Day 36)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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.

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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.

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How not to practice “idiot compassion” (Day 33)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Chogyam Trungpa borrowed from Gurdjieff the very useful notion of “idiot compassion.” Gurdjieff, a rather fascinating spiritual teacher of the early to mid-20th century, had said that we are all idiots of one kind or another, and his extensive lists of the various types of idiots included “the compassionate idiot.”

Compassion is wishing that beings be free from suffering. Idiot compassion is avoiding conflict, letting people walk all over you, not giving people a hard time when actually they need to be given a hard time. It’s “being nice,” or “being good.”

It’s not compassion at all. It ends up causing us pain, and it ends up causing others pain.

The more someone self-consciously thinks of themselves as compassionate, the more likely it is that they’re a compassionate idiot.

Idiot compassion lacks both courage and intelligence.

Idiot compassion lacks courage because “being nice” and “being good” are held to be the most important qualities we can manifest, and so we’re afraid to do anything that might make us unpopular. It’s not uncommon to see a related phenomenon, “idiot kindness,” in parents’ interactions with their children. Some parents want to be their children’s best friends, and don’t want to be unpopular. And so they indulge their children, giving them what they want and never disciplining them, or using very inconsistent discipline. But it’s not a parent’s job to be a BFF for their children. It’s their job to help bring their children up to be responsible adults.

Idiot compassion lacks intelligence, because it doesn’t lead to happiness or to freedom from suffering. If someone cheats you, and you immediately decide to trust them again, you’re not helping either them or you. The person who cheats you is unlikely to have a sudden conversion to being conscientious. Any easy promise they make to change their ways is likely to be just another form of cheating. And so by letting them off the hook you don’t help them. In fact you become an enabler of their dysfunctional behavior, and thus you’re helping them to suffer more in the future, when their unskillful behavior catches up with them. And you end up suffering as well. At some point either resentment against the cheat, or against themselves, is going to kick in.

True compassion does not shy away from causing pain when necessary. Causing pain is not the same as causing harm, by the way. The Buddha talked about this in relation to speech, in an interesting dialogue with a prince named Abhaya.

Abhaya was the follower of a rival teacher, and he was sent to try to entrap the Buddha. He was to ask whether the Buddha would say words that were disagreeable to others. If the Buddha were to say he would say things that were disagreeable, then he would be accused of acting just like ordinary, unenlightened people. If he were to say he wouldn’t, then it would be pointed out that his words had in fact caused others to be upset. This was described as a “two-pronged question.” “When Gotama the contemplative is asked this two-pronged question by you,” Abhaya is told, “he won’t be able to swallow it down or spit it up.”

Of course the Buddha has no difficulty in avoiding this trap, and he turns the “two-pronged” metaphor to his advantage.

Now at that time a baby boy was lying face-up on the prince’s lap. So the Blessed One said to the prince, “What do you think, prince: If this young boy, through your own negligence or that of the nurse, were to take a stick or a piece of gravel into its mouth, what would you do?”

“I would take it out, lord. If I couldn’t get it out right away, then holding its head in my left hand and crooking a finger of my right, I would take it out, even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have sympathy for the young boy.”

So the Buddha leads Abhaya to recognize that it’s acceptable to cause pain in the short term if you want to save someone from long-yerm harm. And he goes on to say that:

In the case of words that the Tathagata [i.e. the Buddha] knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

And those are the only circumstances under which the Buddha would say something that he knew to be disagreeable.

So this is quite a tough order. What you say has to be true — not just your opinion, but actually true. This requires a great deal of mental clarity. What you say has to be beneficial — which implies that you have a good understanding of psychology and of the spiritual path, otherwise how can you know what it helpful? And you have to have an awareness of what’s the right time to say what needs to be said. This requires some empathy.

I don’t think it’s wise to say, though, that honest but critical communication should be avoided until we’ve attained some kind of near-superhuman state of wisdom. How do we learn when it’s beneficial and timely to tell the truth? How do we clarify whether we’re actually in possession of the truth? We learn by speaking, with as much courage, honesty, kindness, and wisdom as we can muster, and by reflecting on the consequences.

So ask yourself, “Am I avoiding conflict and calling it compassion? Am I afraid to be honest because I might end up being disliked? Am I letting people off the hook too easily? Am I setting myself up for resentment?” And if any of these is the case, muster your courage, and speak up, even if you make mistakes. The spiritual path is, as I like to say, the fine art of making mistakes.

Eventually this all becomes spontaneous. And in fact when the Buddha has done explaining the circumstances under which it’s skillful to say something disagreeable, he goes on to talk about the spontaneous nature of his communication. Those who are most genuinely compassionate don’t think in terms of “being compassionate.” Expressing themselves honestly and with empathy is just what they do.

So be wary of trying to be compassionate in a self-conscious way. The more you do this, the more likely it is that you’re being a compassionate idiot.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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