Tag Archives: Compassion

Parsing Carolyn on Compassion: On Loving Your Enemies

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This post got a lot of us thinking.  I re-post it here, with the hope that you will spend time with the many comments.  They  constitute a dialogue of unusual insight and caring, in which many of us do our best to come to terms with a teaching that is virtually universal among religions and philosophies, yet seemingly impractical and rarely honored in reality.  There are also some very useful references.  Enjoy! 

My wife Carolyn was a Professor of Psychology and Therapist for many years.  I tell people I am her principal client, and this is more true than I care to believe.  This morning she was thinking of the awful things that have happened recently in our world, and she penned the following lines that I think call for reflection.  She wrote:

“Maybe the horrors in our world are instigated and carried out by the very people who most need compassion and love–but they scare us so much that they trigger more fear and even hate, disgust, depression and despair.  These all need compassion, even if we cannot completely understand.  Surely our own acts that stem from fear, or lack, or a sense of scarcity, need compassionate and tender consideration?  If I am to commit fully to love, then I am also fully committed to extend love to all–even those who commit the most horrendous atrocities. This love seems so out of reach.  Yet once in a while I know its healing power.”

Here is a coda by Rumi:

With the Beloved’s water of life, no illness remains.

In the Beloved’s rose garden of union, no thorn remains.

They say there is a window from one heart to another.

How can there be a window where no wall remains?


My good blogger friend Hariod Braun offered this insight:

“I understand; though I shall have to allow disgust to play through first; that and many thoughts for the children, both dead and alive – I think they come first in the queue. [re: Peshawar]”

I of course agree–both with Hariod and with Carolyn.  With Hariod, I cannot help feeling anguish at the slaughter of innocent children and the ultimate sacrifice of dedicated teachers. Having lost a child, Carolyn and I both know the wrenching grief that the parents of Peshawar feel as they bury their children.  The vicious assassins of the Taliban fill my heart with anger, disgust and confusion. How can a grown man feel justified in the massacre of scores of children?   What kind of a monster could do this?

Yet with Carolyn, while acknowledge these feeling of revulsion, I find that they throw this most radical teaching of the world’s religions into bold relief.  It might be illuminating at this point to juxtapose these teachings:

Christianity, the Sermon on the Mount: You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

Judaism, Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9.4:  Who takes vengeance or bears a grudge acts like one who, having cut his hand while handling a knife, avenges himself by stabbing the other hand.

Islam, Qur’an, 41.34-35: the good deed and the evil deed are not alike.  Repel the evil deed with one which is better, then lo! he between whom and you there was enmity shall become as though he were a bosom friend.

Islam, Qur’an 60.7: It may be that God will ordain love between you and those whom you hold as enemies.  For God has power over all things; and God is Oft-forgiving, Most merciful.

Buddhism, Dhammapada, 1.3-5: “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me!” In those who harbor such thoughts hatred is not appeased.  “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me!” In those ho do not harbor such thoughts hatred is appeased.  Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease.  This is an eternal law.

Hinduism, Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda 115: A superior being does not render evil for evil; this is a maxim one should observe; the ornament of virtuous persons is their conduct.  One should never harm the wicked or the good or even criminals meriting death.  A noble soul will ever exercise compassion even towards those who enjoy injuring others or those of cruel deeds when they are actually committing them–for who is without fault?

Taoism, Tao Te Ching, 49: The sage has not fixed ideas. He regards the people’s ideas as his own.  I treat those who are good with goodness, and I also treat those who are not good with goodness.  Thus goodness is attained.

There are so many theoretical quibbles among cultural belief systems–one life or many, one God or many, transubstantiation, the Filioque–which have few practical implications.  The most fundamental theme, however, is this seemingly impractical one of loving one’s enemies and doing good to those who hurt us.  This principle seems not only impractical, but downright wrong.  We need, people say, to reset the balance of Justice by punishing the evildoers, and it is astounding how often the almost universal teaching of love and compassion is honored in the breach.

The trick, I think, is to feel the feelings of disgust, sorrow, and revulsion, and to condemn and curtail the atrocities–man’s inhumanity to man–while still believing in the power and the decency of compassion; while still believing in the divine spark in every creature; while still acknowledging the unfathomable depths of every person’ soul.  As many of the quotes above imply, this is a terribly difficult thing to do both in the face of our raw feelings and in the need to actively intervene to stop cruelty–sometimes even in a war.  My most inspiring modern example of loving active resistance is Martin Luther King, Jr. whose letter from the Birmingham Jail is a magnificent rendering of Christian (and universal) values.  The most eloquent classical expression (that I know of) of the importance of compassion even in the midst of war is that of Lao Tzu in verse 31 of the Tao Te Ching:

Good weapons are instruments of fear; all creatures hate them.

Therefore followers of Tao never use them. […]

Good weapons are instruments of fear; they are not a wise man’s tools.

He uses them only when he has no choice.

Peace and quiet are dear to his heart,

And victory no cause for rejoicing.

If you rejoice in victory, then you delight in killing;

If you delight in killing, you cannot fulfill yourself. […]

This means that war is conducted like a funeral.

When many people are being killed,

they should be mourned in heartfelt sorrow.

that is why a victory must be observed like a funeral.

Now please go back to the top and peruse the replies for a rich dialogue

Carolyn on Compassion

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My wife Carolyn was a Professor of Psychology and Therapist for many years.  I tell people I am her principal client, and this is more true than I care to believe.  This morning she was thinking of the awful things that have happened recently in our world, and she penned the following lines that I think call for reflection.  She wrote:

“Maybe the horrors in our world are instigated and carried out by the very people who most need compassion and love–but they scare us so much that they trigger more fear and even hate, disgust, depression and despair.  These all need compassion, even if we cannot completely understand.  Surely our own acts that stem from fear, or lack, or a sense of scarcity, need compassionate and tender consideration?  If I am to commit fully to love, then I am also fully committed to extend love to all–even those who commit the most horrendous atrocities. This love seems so out of reach.  Yet once in a while I know its healing power.”

Here is a coda by Rumi:

With the Beloved’s water of life, no illness remains.

In the Beloved’s rose garden of union, no thorn remains.

They say there is a window from one heart to another.

How can there be a window where no wall remains?

 

 

Japanese Images of the Virtues

Tenryuji pondThis is the temple pond of Tenru-ji, Arashiyama, Kyoto.  The pond is in the shape of the Chinese Character “Kokoro,” which means heart, mind, or spirit.

The images below are in no way “official.”  They are simply paintings or statues that I came to love during the years I spent in Japan.  For me, they embody the Buddhist ideals called the four Bramaviharas.  This word refers to the “sublime attitudes”–loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity– that open the door to the “dwelling (vihara)” of the “Divine (Brama).”  They are sometimes referred to as “the four immeasurables ” since their attainment is without end.

These four are also called the “Buddhist virtues.”  As I have suggested in other posts, the idea of “virtue” has become etiolated in the modern world, perhaps as a result of a Puritanical focus on sexual propriety.  The notion of virtue, however, has a rich heritage that carries across many cultures:  Toku in Japanese (as In the great Shogun Tokugawa: the River of Virtue); Te in Chinese (this is the Te of the Tao Te Ching);  Arete in Greek, referring to the excellence of things from crafts to character; and Virtus in Latin, deriving from the word Vir (man, or more generally human).  In all of these traditions, I believe, Virtue points to a maturely developed human character–or more simply, a grownup.

The cardinal Western virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice are all complimentary facets of the jewel of character.  They exist together or not at all.  For example, one cannot be courageous, temperate, and just unless she does so wisely.  Thus all the virtues infuse and empower each other. They include perspective and focus of mind, a generous and open heart, integrity or centered and present wholeness, and a sense of fairness to all.  Aristotle said that Happiness (eudaimonia, or human flouishing) consists in activity in accord with virtue.  I believe this is a philosophical way of saying that a flourishing life is one lived from the very best in ourselves.  That, to me, is a noble aspiration.

The Eastern Virtues are likewise complementary.  It seems to me, however, that there is a shift of emphasis from the Western tradition of Wisdom as the lynchpin of the Virtues, to Loving Kindness as the leaven of the virtues.  Thus, the Western list of Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice, becomes Loving Kindness, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity in the Buddhist tradition.  Here are some of my favorite images:

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Jesus and the Fig Tree

Accursed_Fig_Tree_James_Tissot

When I was a boy, I always found this story about Jesus quite disturbing. There are renditions of this story given by Mark (11:12) and Matthew. Here is how Matthew tells it:

Matthew 21:18-22[3]
Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
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Obviously, there are many exegetical attempts to see this story as an allegory. Some scholars say that it was showing Jesus’ power over Nature. Others believe that this is an indication that the Jewish people were not bearing any fruit, and that the advent of Christianity would supercede the covenant of the Jews with God. In the story itself, Matthew and Mark have Jesus using the occasion to teach about the power of prayer: if one has enough faith, one can not only wither fig trees, but move mountains!

So much for exegesis. I wonder, however, if we could move beyond allegory, and see the story as a simple report of what happened. From this perspective, it seems to me entirely plausible that Jesus was just having a bad day! Maybe he didn’t sleep well the night before, and he was grumpy. He could have had a headache, or GI distress. If he had the power to wither the tree, he surely had the power to conjure a couple of figs.

Some people might find this interpretation irreverent, but I find it deeply consoling. If one of the greatest spiritual teachers of all time, a truly holy person of amazing depth and power, could have off days, then perhaps my times of missing the mark are not worthy of absolute condemnation. I quoted Marcus Aurelius in another post to the effect that when I am driven off course I should not become disgusted with myself, or give up, or lose patience, but return to the best in myself and love that to which I return.

I believe that owning our human imperfection is the gateway to compassion. If we can realize that we are standing on clay feet, we might be less likely to put ourselves above our fellow “human merely beings” as e.e. cummings has it. Most of us, I think, stumble through myriad quotidian failings laced with a few whoppers of a lifetime. If we can look without excuse at what we are capable of thinking or doing during our bad days, perhaps we would be better able to embrace our common humanity.

Finally, I wonder what might have happened the day after the events described in the Gospels. I like to think that Jesus had the grace to return to the fig tree and feel compassion for its withered heart. I can see him asking its forgiveness and breathing fresh life into its branches. This is a man I can admire and do my best to emulate: a man who can be irritable and selfish, but return again and again to his true and holy nature and do his best to set the world right and to reclaim his place in the family of things.