April 22, 2011

Buddhism and the Age of Compassion

This guest blogpost comes our way from Lama Jampa Thaye, a scholar, author, and meditation master from the UK.

From London to Los Angeles it seems like it’s the age of compassion. I hear it everywhere I go. Politicians are selling it, advertisers are packaging it, gurus are preaching it, and movie stars are wearing it.

Maybe we Buddhists should be happy about this fashion for compassion. After all, it says in the sutras:

Whoever wishes to attain Buddhahood does not need to train in many teachings but needs only to train in one—that of great compassion.

Yet, I wonder if it’s not in fact actually the age of sentimentality. Perhaps genuine compassion, the wish that all beings be free from suffering and its causes, has been confused with its ugly step-sister. Whereas compassion looks outward to others, sentimentality is all about us and our feelings—a seductive force in a culture where we want to feel good about ourselves all the time. Consequently, sentimentality has little regard for the actual well-being of those for whom it pretends to be concerned. It’s like the foolish parent, who, to feel good about herself, indulges every whim of her child with predictably disastrous results.

At the very same time sentimentality craves applause, an applause that comes at no personal cost, nowadays, if you support the currently approved cause, organization, or party. After all, voting 'compassionate,’ gets you a free pass on your personal behavior, in addition to invitations to all the best parties, where the great humanitarians and philanthropists mingle.

Unfortunately, we modern Buddhists are not free of this confusion between sentimentality and compassion. Forty or more years on from our first encounter with impeccable Asian teachers, much of our Buddhism is a patchwork of unexamined sentiments and fashionable assumptions, mostly, but not all, benign, and lightly ‘dharma-fied’ by terming them ‘compassion.’ Yet it is vital that our understanding of compassion should be consistent with Buddha’s tough and clear-minded teachings on moral discipline, since, as he insisted, unless people live an ethical life, the genuine happiness that we wish for them in this and future lives will be unobtainable.

We can find these teachings in the vows of the Pratimoksha (‘Individual liberation’), which is regarded in Tibetan Buddhism as the ethical code of the so called Hinayana, just as the Bodhisattva and Vidyadhara vows are the codes for the Mahayana and Vajrayana respectively. In the Pratimoksha vows Buddha set out four fundamental ethical trainings for both householders and monastics:

To avoid taking life
To avoid taking that which has not been given
To avoid sexual misconduct
To avoid false speech

Thus, when we wish that others be endowed with the causes of happiness, we must understand that it is only the practice of these moral precepts that constitutes such causes. In other words, the proper fulfilment of the bodhisattva vow, the supreme expression of compassionate engagement with the needs of others, depends upon our reliance on the essence of the preceding vow, the Pratimoksha.

Sometimes I feel that we are looking in the mirror and telling ourselves it’s Buddhism staring back at us, when, beneath the spiritual cosmetics, we’ve got more or less the same face and same values as before—somewhat older but still untouched by the reality of dharma. It’s a reality, which does not map neatly on to our cultural and political preconceptions but requires that we take moral discipline seriously. It’s not without importance that moral discipline is the first of ‘the three trainings’ comprising morality, meditation, and wisdom. It might even be that our own slow progress as dharma practitioners and the difficulties that have occurred in some western Buddhist communities have their roots in our inattention to this fact.

Yet it’s not too late to begin again but this time let’s start at the beginning—with the dharma served straight up, instead of diluted to our sentimental tastes or adjusted until it looks just like our pre-Buddhist self. By making Buddha’s ethical guidance our basis we might even develop a little compassion this time around in place of the watered-down love that we’ve been busy producing in the name of Buddhist compassion.

Lama Jampa Thaye

Previous Tricycle blogpost by Lama Jampa, "The Power of Commitment"

Image at top: via dechen.org

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
goldbridge's picture

Good luck....

dog's picture

"Is it the suggestion that you are intellectulizing the process?" Nope! Nor is there anything wrong with intellect-It has its limitations but its how we learn the path-remember the boat that we dscard when we rech the other shore? You wouldnt have been able to read my post or consider its implications without it either.
Youre absolutely right that it is unnecessary to call yourself a Buddhist. But if you are one, its fine to do so-think of the nuns in Tibet who would rather suffer imprisonment, rape or death rather than say they are NOT Buddhist!
"from the heart" isn't this just a conceit...a prideful suggestion that everything is truthful.
Nope-promise: from the heart;)
"You might want to consider that you are an idiot too" Well, sadly thats how I feel everyday. But it isnt the case. Like you, Im a Buddha in the (un) making and, where I come from, calling yourself an idiot is not helpful, its just another mask, another obstacle.Like I said, the pride of humility creeps in. I find "I see myself truly as an idiot" "a prideful suggestion that everything is truthful" .Inconceivable you said, so best not to conceive any stance, arrogant, intellectual, Buddhist, or idiot
I am not surprised by your reply because I am beginning to realise how many people who read Trike consider themselves 'spiritual' rather than Buddhist. But Buddhist I am in this relative world and I, like you, want people to get it right, for their sakes.So lets not wear any masks.Ultimately I guess what Im trying to say is the Buddhas message wasnt "Be a Buddhist", it was "Be a Buddha" Theres no need to fabricate qualities, the qualities arise naturally as we relax and release.(Keep that butt tight though or thatll be another fine mess Ive gotten you into Olly)

dog's picture

"I hope you don't think that I'm being critical" Why not be critical? Is it so wrong? I mean, if you criticise, does it mean youre not a Buddhist? What about being critical of one's own negative actions? "That was a silly thing to do"; Is there something wrong with that?Or criticising Buddhist teachers who sleep with their students or trick them into fighting their medieval political wars?
"I see myself truly as an idiot" Sorry but again, isnt this self deprecation a little bit too much like spiritual materialism? You know, the pride of humility? All too often on these pages, I have read such comments. I may be wrong but it just strikes me as more ego; spiritual ego, but nonetheless ego. Is this the emerging face of American Buddhism, a kind of prefabricated version of what we think Buddhism is based on Western, Christian values? Sometimes great masters such as Trungpa and others came across as really arrogant-just for telling it like it was. At the end of the day, humility and self-deprecation often have 'big me' right at their heart.
"Do we have to wonder whether or not we are Buddhist, either good ones or bad ones?"
I guess we dont. But I think we do have to be Buddhists if we call ourselves Buddhist and we do have to try to be the best we can. Otherwise, we might wind up calling ourselves Buddhists when we're not (theres a lot of it about you know) and just letting it all hang out (thank you 1960s).Who cares whether we are good or bad? The Buddha and me (and, I suspect most other beings in the world would want us to do our best too-for the sake of all)
Rude? Perhaps. Truthful? From the heart.

goldbridge's picture

Well, thank you for the reply. But, may I ask, what really touched you off? Is it the suggestion that you are intellectulizing the process?

Also, I didn't call myself a Buddhist....you called yourself a Buddhist. I'm suggesting that this is not necessary.

And finally, "from the heart" isn't this just a conceit...a prideful suggestion that everything is truthful. You might want to consider that you are an idiot too.

dog's picture

" it has no motivation, there's no emotion attached to it, and there's no payoff for me in terms of feeling "good" about either myself or the act."
Interesting. But is it Buddhism? What after all, do we mean by the Bodhicitta motivation? Does having motivation preclude compassionate action as you seem to suggest?
And "no payoff for me in terms of feeling "good" about either myself or the act."
This is certainly thinking of a general Buddhist nature but it is almost the exact equivalent of karma yoga as expressed in the Gita eg"You have a right to perfom your prescribed duty, but you do not have any right to experience the fruits"
To be precise, as a Buddhist, a compassionate action is one performed with an altrusitic motviation, while maintaining an awareness of the selfless nature of subject object and action, then whose merits are dedicated to its original purpose. Of course, as Jampa Thaye indcates, none of this is truly meaningful if it is not founded on the basis of pure moral conduct

skmoore's picture

Thank you for your response, dog.

Regarding compassionate acts, perhaps I didn't phrase my thoughts well. It's the *purely* compassionate acts that, for me, have those qualities I described. An altruistic motivation seems to me to fit that pure compassion component -- as long as the altruism is not my small mind believing I know what's best in a situation or for someone else. My small mind can't know "what's best" or how to ease another's suffering, but the instantaneous act arising from the essential nature seems to be merely doing what needs to be done. Whether it's "right" or "good" or "best" doesn't enter into the equation.

None of this, of course, precludes the fact that I might act compassionately out of my small mind. I've found, though, that I run into trouble when I start thinking those small mind acts "mean something" about my spiritual state.

I speak only of my own experience. Whether all or part of that experience is considered to be Buddhism or something else is probably up to others to decide.

goldbridge's picture

I really enjoyed reading your first post, skmoore..especially for its honestly which is very refreshing to my mind. Yet, I find, and I hope you don't think that I'm being critical as I see myself truly as an idiot....that there is a result to practice:

Such is the inconceivable Buddha
So is the inconceivable buddhadharma
For those with faith in the inconceivable
Inconceivable are the results.

I bring this little contemplation up since it seems that we tend to intellectualize the practice to the expense of the result. Now, maybe I'm being too simplistice, but if we trust the result, do we ever have to worry about whether or not our actions (and our lives are filled with action) are compassionate or not? Do we have to wonder whether or not we are Buddhist, either good ones or bad ones?

Thank you again for your post.

Goldbridge of Faith

skmoore's picture

I think of the Diamond Sutra, in which the answer regarding kind acts is (paraphrased), "The Bodhisattva does not hold kind acts as prized possessions..."

For me, a truly compassionate action has some very basic characteristics: It's not premeditated, it has no motivation, there's no emotion attached to it, and there's no payoff for me in terms of feeling "good" about either myself or the act.

I can think of only a handful of truly compassionate actions I've performed, and they've certainly not moved mountains... Through my practice I've become far more aware of the fact that I usually have hidden agendas and unacknowledged motivations when I engage in something like compassionate behavior. When I realize that helping someone is generating some sense of pride or self-congratulation, I'm learning to look back to the selfishness that originated the act.

Perhaps, with time, I will become more capable of performing a compassionate act, but I'm not holding my breath...

dog's picture

"I find the tone a little accusatory and judgemental. I think we can only really talk about our own practice as we really don't know what minds others are generating."
I think you ought to read through those two statements and see how, in the second sentence, you are condemning exactly what you did in the first one.This seems a little bit contradictory.

" I would disagree that the Pratimoksha is the moral discipline guide of the Hinayana" So youre saying it isnt?

Actually, Lama Thaye is saying that for our practice to work at any level, here at the level of compassion for others, it must be based on these fundamental principles, taken from the Hinayana Pratimoksha scripture.

Sometimes, even when people use dharma words and terminology, inexperience in actual practice through spending too much time on the internit shows through-back to the cushion, turn off computer, breathe in, breathe out.......

Dolgyal's picture

Sometime I really wonder about the absence of compassion in western buddhists altogether.
For example here is the compassion for Ven. Lama Zopa?
According to the moderator (yes, the moderator) of the gyalpo cult website: "It is time for FPMT to repair their broken samaya with Dharmaphala Dxxxxx Sxxxxxx. Their broken commitments has led to manifesting their teacher Lama Zopa unable to speak and unable to verbally convey the dharma "

Sounds like a new nasty chapter for The Yellow Book, which cost the cult everything in terms of respect and legitimacy, didn't they learn anything from the mistakes of Trijang and Zhimey?

singingorchid's picture

Well, from a very humble beginners standpoint, as I know very little of names of which person brought about what, I can say with surety that there is a very important point made here.

I believe that the purity of the practice is what is being called to the forefront here. I think it would be ignorant for us to believe that the modernization of Buddhism in the Western world was going to be anything but entertaining. It's America, for goodness sake, we do it big over here. It is too true that we cannot say what the motivations of the individual are, but I do give kudos to anyone of the Buddhist persuasion who dares to questions them, or at least be curious about them.

I too have seen the trend of Buddhism arising. The Buddha can be seen on T-shirts and fashioned into butter dishes. It's popular to be "compassionate". Amidst the commercialization, I think it is prudent that we recognize what is really occurring. It is truly essential that we continue to bring gentle attention to the "ugly step-sisters", or masked ideas of which Lama Jampa Thaye speaks, for these are the very things that continue to lead humanity away from the path of truth and enlightenment. They are too often, and far too easily, mistaken for truth.

That said, I truly believe it is our job as followers of the way, to help carefully remind others, as well as ourselves, exactly where we are coming from and the life commitment it entails. The tradition and purity depends on this.

I am grateful for Lama Jampa Thaye's strength in sharing.

Wisdom Moon's picture

An additional point would be that 'Hinayana' refers to a motivation, which is the pursuit of one's own liberation alone. It's quite possible to practise the Pratimoksha vows with the motivation of great compassion or Bodhichitta, in which case they are a Mahayana practice.

Dolgyal's picture

Herbert V. Guenther once drew a little diagram with sentimentality on one side and compassion on the other. Also on one side was apathy as degraded from equiminity.
Jampa Thaye has taken the trouble to learn Tibetan language, study from genuine scholars and be as close to an actual linage holder as anyone in the UK, many of whom talk a lot, watch a lot of YouTube videos, gossip about politics and practice very little.
Second point is all Tibetan monks' vinaya lineage from the beginning i.e.. Khenchen Shantirakshita is Hinayana, Guru Rinpoche wears three robes of the three yanas.

Wisdom Moon's picture

Lama Thaye's article is interesting, but I find the tone a little accusatory and judgemental. I think we can only really talk about our own practice as we really don't know what minds others are generating.

I would disagree that the Pratimoksha is the moral discipline guide of the Hinayana as it is also required for Mahayana and Vajrayana practice. Je Tsongkhapa said that moral discipline is the basis of all spiritual realizations, so I certainly agree with Lama Thaye that it must be the basis of our practice and it's very important to take vows and commitments that make it so.

goldbridge's picture

"I think we can only really talk about our own practice as we really don't know what minds others are generating"

Are you absolutely certain about this? Don't you throughout the day, "read" others? Have not you had any success with this level of communication? After practice sessions, aren't you more aware of the communication (including non-verbal and body) from others?

Also, isn't "tuning in" to others (and letting them tune into us) one of the functions of Sangha? It seems that we can help each other with our blind spots. This can certainly be annoying as our hidden (at least we thought so) attachments come to light.

While Lama Jampa may seem a little tough, to my mind, its a tough path! There's so much to contain and bring to the path. We need a critical view to help us wake up to what we are "doing"....and we are always, "doing". And one of the things that we are always doing is congratulating ourselves...it seems to me. Not a negative thing per se, but the call is to contain/discipline ourselves. The reward is a little more awakened mind...a little more genuine expression (not contrived and not spiritually materialistic). My impressions.....thank you for the stimulation.

gold bridge