Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Compassion

I'm struggling with the notion of "compassion" at the moment. It is said that compassion should arise naturally from enlightenment. Why?

I understand that a sense of no-self will create a sense of unity with all sentient life - no problem there. But why should one then feel compassion for it all? Why that particular emotion?

41 comments:

  1. Hi Michael,

    Yeah, when I hear classy buddhisty types harping on about 'compassion' I can't help feeling like often they're sort of... lying.

    The Superman/woman-bodhisattva idealism is very strong in some strands of Buddhism, particularly some Tibetan schools, and in the 'engaged buddhism' adventure currently en vogue.

    When you see an elderly person stumble on the street or wobble on an escalator, who is the person that unthinkingly thrusts out a hand to assist? Who is the person who sees it and has responded before seeing it at all? What need is there for emotion/ a person to feel something then?

    I think most of the blarney that's parroted off about what's called 'compassion' doesn't even qualify as emotional, and when it's in relation to a self/other, or even in relation to some not self/ not other ('not self' might effectively be every bit the quagmire that 'self' can be if we get stuck in it), how can it be what was indicated in that wonderful statement from Dōgo Enchi:

    “He [the many armed/eyed Bodhisattva of Compassion] is like someone in the night who reaches behind himself, his hand groping for a pillow.”

    Further to this, I think there is a valid place for idealism and aspiration, but it seems like that should be recognised, and clarified, for what it is as it actually may not extend very far and may be of the sort of thing that we tend to intoxicate and otherwise confuse ourselves with.

    Regards,

    Harry.

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  2. Interesting question.

    But why ask, instead of just walk it?

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  3. Because only an idiot walks with his eyes shut.

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  4. Michael -

    You're absolutely right. We must "look before we leap."

    Rizal Affif -

    You're absolutely right. "He who hesitates is lost."

    Hmmm . . .

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  5. When one truly senses “unity with all sentient life” compassion becomes a self-serving emotion. I am unsure if altruism has anything to do with it.

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  6. I'm struggling with the notion of "compassion" at the moment. It is said that compassion should arise naturally from enlightenment. Why?

    Hi Michael,

    Miles' response made me revisit your original question.

    This might help move the discussion along a bit:

    1. What do you think enlightenment is?

    and

    2. What do you think compassion is?

    BTW, there's an interesting article for 'compassion' on wikipedia. It takes in the various big religious views on it. Among other things it says that compassion is a virtue, which makes sense to me, as it is substantially more than just emotional sympathy or empathy alone IMO. The term suggests to me a wide openness and acceptance that is more than our own emotions.

    The article has an interesting quote in the Buddhism section which sounds familiar, but is not properly credited and I can't remember the source (Wikiosis Alert!):

    He [the Buddha] was reputedly asked by his personal attendant, Ananda, "Would it be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is a part of our practice?" To which the Buddha replied, "No. It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice.

    link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compassion

    Regards,

    Harry.

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  7. Look before you leap, and once you decide to leap, don't hesitate.
    Is compassion an emotion? Is compassion something other than the sense of unity?

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  8. Hi Michael,

    Going back to your original question, it might be useful to know what you think 'compassion' is and what 'enlightenment' is.

    Compassion is considered a 'virtue', which, to my mind, suggests something more than just emotional feelings of sympathy or even empathy. It suggests something broader than just my own thoughts and feelings, a broader acceptance or affinity with things.

    The wikipedia article on 'compassion' is pretty interesting:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compassion

    It has this (which seems appropriate):

    He [the Buddha] was reputedly asked by his personal attendant, Ananda, "Would it be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is a part of our practice?" To which the Buddha replied, "No. It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice."

    Regards,

    Harry.

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  9. Hi Michael,

    Going back to your original question, it might be useful to know what you think 'compassion' is and what 'enlightenment' is.

    Compassion is considered a 'virtue', which, to my mind, suggests something more than just emotional feelings of sympathy or even empathy. It suggests something broader than just my own thoughts and feelings, a broader acceptance or affinity with things.

    The wikipedia article on 'compassion' is pretty interesting:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compassion

    It has this (which seems appropriate):

    He [the Buddha] was reputedly asked by his personal attendant, Ananda, "Would it be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is a part of our practice?" To which the Buddha replied, "No. It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice."

    Regards,

    Harry.

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  10. Shojin,
    You have made a valid point. Since compassion basically means shared suffering, a sense of unity with those who suffer would indeed be one and the same. The difficult part is understanding that we are also sharing our own suffering. So compassion should be understood as a mutual transaction. This is why I question any supposed altruism. If we are suffering and we practice compassion who benefits from our practice?

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  11. If we are suffering and we practice compassion, it is our own heart that benefits, that begins to breathe. To act out of compassion, then, who knows who benefits beyond ourselves? There is no accurate yardstick for measuring delusion. Neither is there such thing as an altruistic act... except maybe an unexpected fart. Compassion and loving kindness arise naturally as awakening or enlightenment, and that is why its cultivation is not part of our practice, but all of it.

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  12. Glad I asked - you guys between you have given me a good answer.

    I went into this discussion thinking that compassion was something altruistic - and that rather jarred with certain other understandings that Zen provides. A Confucian duty was trying to elbow its way into a non-dualistic philosophy! But you've swatted that fly.

    However, I said you'd given me an answer - but not the whole answer. (Ok, that's a big ask!) The universe expresses itself in many separate (but constantly recombing) lumps of sentient life. Fine. But take all that sentient life and scale it down to a single human.

    Out of compassion, I do my best to kill armpit bacteria on a daily basis. Scale that back up to the level of species - is compassion still a given? And if so, how does it work?

    Jeremy Bentham - a Bodhisattva?

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  13. Hi Michael,

    Without getting too far into the rather remote and impractical sphere of abstract micro-ethics (I mean, a discussion on whether or not we should clean our armpits, and, if so, should we feel guilty about it?!), it seems to me that there is no universal value on 'right' and 'wrong', no ultimate value on that, and no perfect 'compassionate' action: We kill bacteria in our gut even as we sit zazen... and the right balance of intestinal fauna is goos for what ails us.

    To live is to inevitably cause suffering to ourselves and others. To do something is to inevitably cause indirect suffering to others (even if we are helping our self or some other others directly), to do nothing is to inevitably cause suffering to others (even if we are helping our self or some others in not doing). When we look at it closely (as in yer armpits model) then the reliably simple ideas start to break down and dissolve.

    On a bigger scale, the relative stability of our economies and countries in general, our luxury to be able to ponder these whacky things and have a regular practice etc, is in no small part dependant on the suffering and relative lack of freedoms and rights of people in places like China and the middle east.

    We ourselves make 'right' and 'wrong'. Certainly there are agreed normative assumptions about 'right' and 'wrong' in our cultures and societies, but, ultimatley, we 'create our own karma' and have no-one else to blame for it... we are our own judges and executors or pardoners or parole officials. There is no God who condemns us out side this, and there is no exterior referee of karma and retribution.

    There's a freedom in that when we realise it I think, but, in this world, it may also represent a sort of terrible resonsibility. At the same time, we just have to do something.

    Regards,

    Harry.

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  14. Harry:
    I don't see it, Harry. If an old woman starts to fall, and a hand reaches out to catch her, what is the 'indirect suffering' caused by the act?

    If an elementary student struggles with reading and a teacher stays after school to help her, how is that the 'cause' of suffering?

    Michael:
    It sounds like asking "How does the Tao work?" If we could figure out how it works, it wouldn't be the Tao.

    Perhaps you should be asking about Adam Smith instead of Bentham.

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  15. Hi Erik,

    I don't see it, Harry. If an old woman starts to fall, and a hand reaches out to catch her, what is the 'indirect suffering' caused by the act?

    Well, I don't think we can, or even need to, see it all but, for a start, in preventing a fall, we might deprive a doctor of some work (i.e. had the person fallen and got an injury) and effect the economy and his/her income negatively. We might unwittingly step on an ant that we might have otherwise seen. The person mightn't need our help at all and we might make them, or ourselves, feel foolish. A minor fall might have been the cause of making the person be more careful with themselves, the next fall could be worse, a person who thought of helping but didn't might feel guilty and go home and take it out on their spouse or kids... every action changes things quickly in every direction; good results turn to bad in the blinking of an eye beyond our ability to process it. We can observe trends, and make predictions to an extent, but there are wild cards and variables beyond our comprehension (otherwise bookies and casinos wouldn't be rich!)... my point was really that it's questionable to get caught up in the chaos of the results (such as what happens to the bacteria under Michael's famous armpit): A smelly armpit sometimes just has to be met and acted on as a smelly armpit... or not. It's entirely up to us ourselves. The Jains, for example, walk around with cotton masks on so that they don't inhale and ingest microscopic forms of life from the air. They also inspired the summer retreat period in Buddhism so as not to have people walking around squashing bugs at the height of their buggie season. I doubt they'd go round spraying their pongy pits, but I have no problem with smoking a few thou of the smelly little pit-bastards at a time.

    Same with the teacher and student. Use your imagination as to how a simple act, regardless of our intention, can quickly change in its outcome... the student might get beaten up walking home alone without his pals, the teacher might have a car crash that would have been avoided had she been stuck in the usual traffic jam, the teacher might be neglecting his own family, or be failing to de-stress, in staying late... blah blah blah etc... these are just some poor examples of some immediate results. It's never as simple or as linear as this of course. That's just the way we can think about it in our pretty crude 1-D way.

    We like to think we know best, but we can really know jack shit beyond what we do from situation to situation if we look into it a bit I think.

    Regards,

    Harry.

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  16. I see what you mean, Harry. A traditional danger with consequentialist views of ethics; surprised I didn't see where that was headed. Must have been a long week :-D

    I think there is still compassionate action, I just think it is not determined by the results any more than a romantic action, an angry action, or an instinctive action.

    As for Michael's armpit mold? I've gotta say: you people come up with some weird-ass examples to illustrate your points :-D

    Peace,
    Erik

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  17. It's more polite to mention smelly armpits than your "weird ass"!

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  18. I come from a different tradition than you guys, actually I'm not sure I come from any tradition, and it's interesting to me that nearly everyone responding to this post appears to assume compassion is an action, or at least a practice, a DOING. Why is that?

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  19. Hi Ed,

    Compassion is a "dhamma" (small "D") - an event, a happening, as is everything. You get physical dhammas (me hammering these keys) and mental dhammas (me working out what to type). Buddhist philosophers were a couple of thousand years ahead of neuroscience, because it turns out that all mental processes are indeed physical events - ion flows and changes in the structure of proteins.

    Thus it's not just compassion that's an action - but so too hope, anger, hunger and love.

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  20. Asking just what compassion is is a very good inquiry I think. It would help if we defined what we're talking about when we say 'compassion' because some people seem to think it's the same as empathy and sympathy (which are actually very different) and such... nothing wrong with that, but others seem to think it is something different to that. For all the talk about it in Buddhism, it's actually rarely clearly defined.

    Another thing which might be related is UPR (Unconditional Positive Regard) which is a quality (not just an emotion) that people in Social Care professions seek to develop.

    Regards,

    Harry.

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  21. I can offer a start: a little quick research turns up the Sanskrit word used is "karuna", and that comes from the root "kara", which means "to do" or "make."

    We need a distinction like this to see how it is not (merely) metta. How would you guys distinguish the two?

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  22. How dualistic! Erik, go and give yourself a good slapping!

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  23. Thanks for this Michael. So, an event, a happening, something that occurs rather than being instigated? (I'm thinking of the philosophical/grammatical difference between a noun and a verb, I guess.)

    Harry, yes, the UPR does sound interesting. How would you define such a thing as a 'quality' in Buddhist terms? To me, intuitively, this sounds closer to what our definition of 'compassion' should be.

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  24. Hi Ed,

    Our old pal Wikipedia offers this 'cut and paste' fodder:

    "In Theravāda Buddhism, karuṇā is one of the four "divine abodes" (brahmavihāra), along with loving kindness (Pāli: mettā), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha). In the Pali canon, the Buddha recommends cultivating these four virtuous mental states to both householders and monastics. When one develops these four states, the Buddha counsels radiating them in all directions..."

    This way of looking at it is quite typical of the traditional Buddhist view of 'inhabiting' these virtuous states, as if in doing so we're literally living in another 'realm' or world (a pretty valid, if subjective, way of looking at it experientially IMO). In more recent terms, with our psychological rationale and scientific objectivism, we'd probably talk in terms of changing our outlook, changing how we see the world, and how this affects our actions and responses etc.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karu%E1%B9%87%C4%81

    Regards,

    H.

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  25. Ed: Compassion is "something that occurs rather than being instigated?"

    I don't go the whole hog on dependent origination. (Excepting linguistic gymnastics, how the hell does craving bring about rebirth?)However, ontological guesswork aside, it's Buddhism's prescient version of Newton's first law, i.e. no cause = no effect.

    Thus to say compassion occurs is, in reality, the same as saying it's instigated. However, the intial cause(s) are not going to be wholly within the agent. We appear to act through free will whilst just being blind to the dependent origination of our choices.

    Really think this through and it begs massive questions of the apparent justice of karma and karmic fruit!

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  26. Well, you two are certainly keeping me on my toes!

    Michael, 'how does craving create rebirth?' I'd be interested to know what you think rebirth is. Also, what has karma got to do with justice?

    Harry, good stuff from Wikipedia. But what after all that is a QUALITY? Are you saying it's a state of mind?

    Regards and thanks

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  27. Nice post and good answers. I've always thought that Unconditional Positive Regard it's really close to what I understand about buddhist Compassion and that was what lead me to study a Social Care profession.

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  28. Hi Ed,

    What is a slap? Does it have a quality, or is it remote from a 'quality'?

    A quality, I reckon, can be the result of a state of mind, and also an action or event can be free of our state of mind: a slap can be all sorts of things and interpreted all sorts of ways, or not interpreted at all.

    Cognitive Behavioral Therapists tell us we can change our feelings and our resulting behaviors by changing our thinking about things: We can change the quality of our whole experience, our personal qualities or how we are defined by our actions and responses if you like. This is a very prevalent form of therapy at the moment.

    Regards,

    Harry.

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  29. I remember when I was in the hospital in 1991; I was on full time oxygen and my survival was still quite questionable, I had a friend come to visit me. After asking how I was doing, he proceeded to tell me just how “Fucked up” his life was.

    He was seriously in debt, on the verge of divorce, he hated his job and his teenage daughter had run away from home. He was on the verge of tears the whole time he spoke and all I could do was listen. Because of the oxygen mask I couldn’t speak, and because of my condition I didn’t even have the strength to sit up to give him a hug.

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  30. Ed: What I think rebirth is, is not at all what early (or most contemporary) Buddhists meant by the term! They really mean reincarnation, but they're just not allowed to use that term!

    Miles: When in your oxygen mask you still felt compassion and compassion was still an action - just not an externally visible one, just as the vibrations which make a bell sound are not, in most bells, externally visible.

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  31. Hi again

    Michael, I may be wrong, but I believe that actually the vibration and the ringing are one and the same thing. Physically speaking, that is.

    Nonduality, by this analogy, lies in not being taken in by apparent separation of cause and effect.

    If you accept that, then to take this into an analogy and to bring the two strands of this together, might it not be that what we perceive to be the effect (ie the ringing, the compassion) is the 'quality' of the event, as Harry says?

    In this sense, then, quality is a manifestation of interaction. But as we've said, to see this quality, this interaction, as an independent thing is duality.

    In other words, the effect and the cause are indistinguishable. To be enlightened is to have the 'quality' of compassion; it just is.

    Similarly, for there to be an action, there must be an agent. I accept that. But for there to be an agent there must also be an action. They arise and fall together; they are co-dependent phenomena, dharmas; not one, not-two. You cannot establish a temporal link - which is where most arguments about rebirth go wrong, IMO.

    What do you think?

    Regards

    Ed

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  32. "Michael, I may be wrong, but I believe that actually the vibration and the ringing are one and the same thing. Physically speaking, that is. "

    Yeah, actually it isn't that way. The bell vibrates, and then causes the air surrounding it to vibrate, and that vibration then comes into our ears, and our brains interpret that as "ringing". So I guess they are not the same. Not sure if that works for your analogy, though.

    For me, compassion is a feeling. Yes, it is very similar to loving-kindness. Yes, it is difficult to distinguish it. But I don't care. I feel compassion, then I do anything out of compassion. Compassion is not the action, it's what prompted the action. But that doesn't really mind.

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  33. Ed, Pablo, both your descriptions can be accurate - the vibration is the ringing in one sense, but if ringing is a sound then the air and the eardrum are also the ringing.

    Ed, I wouldn't want to separate off compassion from the person feeling it, certainly not - it's a biochemical event within them. However, this doesn't explain why an enlightened person would feel compassion rather than anger or despair.

    I know Buddhists are conditioned not to think this way - but the point of Buddhism is to stop thinking the way we've been conditioned to think!

    Someone told me a story of some Japanese monks who were drinking heavily. Surprised, the interviewer asked, "So what's enlightenment like?"
    "Depressing."

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  34. Michael, it sounds to me that those Japanese monks have not made it past the Second Noble Truth; maybe they should let go of their attachments.

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  35. I think they will once they broach the third bottle!

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  36. Thanks for the correction, Pablo; I'm not sure that it invalidates my hypothesis, but that's ok: I won't cling to it!

    Michael, perhaps what you are really questioning here is enlightenment, not compassion?

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  37. Ed, Michael is always questioning enlightenment! :D

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  38. Ed - yes!
    Pablo - yes!

    The enlightened person sees things in a certain way. They then behave according to this understanding.

    The problem is different "enlightened" people behave very differently! So how can we tell? e.g. The abbot at Throssel Hole is very serious - almost Confucian! Thich Nhat Hanh is gently smiling. Rinzai was combative, Hakuin even agressive!

    With such wildly varying examples, it makes sense to question enlightenment!

    The finger pointing at the moon may block out the moon - but at least that clumsy finger says not to be misled into looking at the latest comet or supernova.

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  39. Michael, why would an enlightened person feel compassion instead of anger or despair? And how is compassion a biochemical event, when there is no such thing?

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  40. Hi Shojin,

    1. "why would an enlightened person feel compassion instead of anger or despair?"
    Um - that was what I was asking - please, you tell me!
    2. "how is compassion a biochemical event, when there is no such thing?"
    Ok, you can't point at "a" biochemical event as it is really a series of dominoes falling. No one domino is the event - but the term "biochemical event" seems a handy way of describing a particular form of dependent origination.

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