Compassion is not what you think it is – Part 2
Hofman A Turing
This is the second part of an essay exploring compassion from the perspective of a member of The Satanic Temple (TST).
“Compassion has nothing to do with achievement at all. It is spacious and very generous. When a person develops real compassion, he is uncertain whether he is being generous to others or to himself because compassion is environmental generosity, without direction, without ‘for me’ and without ‘for them.’” – Chögyam Trungpa *
“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” – Elie Wiesel *
In the second part of this series we briefly explore Buddhist compassion, wisdom, will, and death.
In Part 1 I mentioned 20th century Tibetan master Chögyam Trungpa’s understanding that “true compassion has the potential to appear cruel or ruthless.*” To be clear, I am not suggesting that compassion cannot include acts of kindness. Nor am I promoting the idea that we should set out to be ruthless or cruel. Actual compassion requires a lot of maturity, skill, knowledge, and experience to know when it’s appropriate to go one way or the other.
Compassion is frowned upon in many LHP communities. There are good reasons for this attitude, even as it is also equally confused about the fact that there are at least two types of compassion. Idiot compassion should be frowned upon, and actual compassion should be valued.
“There are 2 different types of compassion. There is actual compassion, direct compassion, absolute compassion. Then there is the other kind of compassion that Mr. Gurdjieff calls idiot compassion, which is compassion with neurosis, a slimy way of trying to fulfill your desire secretly. This is your aim, but how you give the appearance of being generous and impersonal.” (From “Illusion’s Game”, as quoted in Recalling Chögyam Trungpa, Shambala 2005)
Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale, and he thinks empathy is a bad thing. Check out his fascinating argument here in this short video. In Part I defined terms like sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Given those definitions, I posit we are playing a semantics game, and that he is pointing to the negative aspects of empathy without considering empathy as a precursor to the more evolved capacity of actual compassion. In fact, he makes the case for compassion while he argues against empathy. In his 2014 piece called “Against Empathy” he presents us with different levels of compassion. Consider the following quote from that essay:
“Summing up, compassionate helping is good for you and for others. But empathetic distress is destructive of the individual in the long run.
It might also be of little help to other people because experiencing others’ pain is exhausting and leads to burnout. This issue is explored in the Buddhist literature on morality. Consider the life of a bodhisattva, an enlightened person who vows not to pass into Nirvana, choosing instead to stay in the normal cycle of life and death to help the masses. How is a bodhisattva to live? In Consequences of Compassion (2009) Charles Goodman notes the distinction in Buddhists texts between “sentimental compassion,” which corresponds to empathy, and “great compassion,” which involves love for others without empathetic attachment or distress. Sentimental compassion is to be avoided, as it “exhausts the bodhisattva.” Goodman defends great compassion, which is more distanced and reserved and can be sustained indefinitely.”
Remember, TST has 7 tenets.
The 1st tenet is the focus of this essay series – “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.”
The 7th tenet is equally relevant to the current discussion – “Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.“
Wisdom and Compassion are the two pillars of Buddhism. One without the other is like a car missing two wheels. For us Westerners, and especially those in a Western LHP tradition, there is a tendency to focus on wisdom and knowledge. On the other hand, those in RHP traditions tend to focus mostly on compassion (or some interpretation thereof). In the following quote Trungpa really spells it out for us. To make the most out of what he is saying it is useful to keep in mind the key words from the tenets – empathy, compassion, reason, wisdom, and justice.
“It is perhaps most important in working with others that we do not develop idiot compassion, which means always trying to be kind. Since this superficial kindness lacks courage and intelligence, it does more harm than good. It is as though a doctor, out of apparent kindness, refuses to treat his patient because the treatment might be painful, or as though a mother cannot bear the discomfort of disciplining her child. Unlike idiot compassion, real compassion is not based upon a simple-minded avoidance of pain. Real compassion is uncompromising in its allegiance to basic sanity. People who distort the path – that is, people who are working against the development of basic sanity – should be cut through on the spot if need be. That is extremely important. There is no room for idiot compassion. We should try to cut through as much self-deception as possible in order to treat others as well as ourselves. So the final copout of a bodhisattva is when, having achieved everything else, he is unable to go beyond idiot compassion.” (From “The Heart of the Buddha: Entering the Tibetan Buddhist Path”, as quoted in Recalling Chögyam Trungpa, Shambala 2005)
Trungpa also modernized and popularized “crazy wisdom” in the West, a Himalayan tradition many on the LHP would appreciate. It is no surprise that the likes of W.S. Burroughs and Alan Ginsberg were attracted to Trungpa. The most famous of adepts in this tradition is 16th century Bhutanese master Drukpa Kunley. In an essay about Kunley, titled “The Flaming Thunderbolt Of Wisdom: A Penis Over Every Doorway”, the writer says the following on such teachers:
“They are duty bound to upset the establishment, with their prescribed rights and wrongs, sleeping at odd hours, partying, pulling apart established routines, dressing up, walking around nude perhaps – all of this is designed to bust the bubble of carefully constructed institutionalized behavior and thought, projecting us out of ego-strapped self-limitation.”
(For those of you interested in crazy wisdom and the Trickster archetype, make sure to read this interview when you get a chance.)
Compassion, Will, and Death
Will is a core concept in most Western LHP traditions, often derived largely from one of many interpretations of Crowley and/or Nietzsche. I suspect that this valuation of individual will is often interpreted to be at odds with compassion. Hopefully discussion up to this point is at least making such conclusions about will and compassion now appear more suspect.
How does individual will allow for great compassion? Let’s consider an extreme example, the famous self immolation of Thích Quảng Đức in 1963 Vietnam, as an act of protest and defiance. As a Mahayana Buddhist he followed “the middle way” of the Bodhisattva (in Asia the middle way is neither LHP nor RHP). After years of war, suffering, and injustice his plea for compassion was to garner international attention. He demonstrated superhuman strength and will, as he didn’t move, twitch, or even make a sound as he burned to ashes. This was an epic act of rebellion against authority and injustice. Those on the LHP that fully reject self sacrifice must at least respect the will required for such an act. An act of great compassion.
TST’s third tenet states that “One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone”. This tenet not only applies to the above example of Thích Quảng Đức, it presently underlies our current legal efforts to maintain women’s reproductive freedom in the face of theocratic legislation. And just as this tenet is about ending forced motherhood, it is also about the right to end one’s life when only suffering remains.
In Part 1 I have numerous examples of how many Christians act in the name of compassion while doing the opposite. Another prime example is the extremes to which the so-called “pro life” movement will go to extend suffering.
Skillful Means (Upaya)
“Upaya can be unconventional; something not normally associated with Buddhist doctrine or practice. The most important points are that the action is applied with wisdom and compassion, and that it is appropriate in its time and place. The same act that “works” in one situation may be all wrong in another. However, when used consciously by a skilled bodhisattva, upaya can help the stuck become unstuck and the perplexed to gain insight.” *
A master like Trungpa understands the complexities of the given situation and the variables across different types of people. Sometimes the most compassionate act is to show indifference and let them figure it out for themselves. The best approach might be simply to support them in whatever they’re feeling at that moment. At other times it is to appropriate to shock them or to do something to make them very uncomfortable. We must always to use our best judgment as to when we may simply be fulfilling our own needs or projecting our own insecurities and shortcomings onto others, and therefore when the best course of action is to do nothing at all.
Finally, is vital to differentiate between interpersonal interactions and our individual relationship to the society or culture at large. Undoubtedly, as with any philosophy, there are many problematic implementations and interpretations of Eastern philosophy (particularly in “new age” or pop psychology/self-help variations, see “spiritual bypassing“). It is all too easy to justify any self serving behavior by arbitrarily cherry picking bits and pieces from any philosophy. For example, if someone tries to justify apathy by claiming compassion on an issue of social justice, when it clearly lacks compassion to do nothing.
Choosing to let a friend or family member figure out some personal issue on their own is not to be equated with letting groups of people figure out how to deal with injustice by themselves. Granted, we all need to pick our battles in accordance with our interests and capabilities. So long as we recognize that our tastes and biases can simply differ from friends and allies, there is no need become an activist about every social justice cause, as long as we support and not hinder others in their pursuits.
The goal of this series was to offer an understanding of compassion from the perspective of a member of The Satanic Temple. Everything in here is my opinion and should not be taken as any sort of official TST position. It is my hope that individuals of all backgrounds (LHP, RHP, or other) will reconsider many of their assumptions about compassion. There is no one right way to do it, but there are wrong ways. Appearances do not tell the story. A lot of ground was covered in a small amount of copy, and certainly there is much that warrants further clarification and discussion.
I am going to finish with the following quote from Lilith Starr of TST’s Seattle chapter. In her essay about different Satanic perspectives, she describes her perception of TST as follows:
“This is the beautiful dark web I see in the Satanic Temple and its allies, spreading thready like mycelium or dark matter across vast spaces, connecting so many who have walked the path alone. We have been outcast, misunderstood, left to make it on our own at the fringes of society. But we have awakened, one by one, each lighting up a node and unfurling tendrils out to all the others.”
Featured image: Prometheus (artist unknown), archetype of the rebel and the trickster, demonstrated wisdom and compassion when he stole fire and gave it to humanity.