September 05, 2009

Daily Dharma: Does Compassion Come Naturally?

Q: Doesn’t it come to us naturally that it’s in our self-interest to extend compassion to those beyond our local groups?

A: No, it doesn't. Because to worry about what some disenchanted Muslim teenager in Pakistan is feeling right now does not come naturally in the sense of visceral response. It does, however, make intellectual sense; the world is moving to a point where, if only out of self-interest, we need to think about that person. One virtue of some of the religious traditions is that they have well-worked-out procedures for assisting this intellectual process. In other words, it's one thing to realize logically that my fate is intertwined with the fate of Muslims around the world: If they're unhappy, they'll eventually make me unhappy. But it's another to feel it, to look at someone and get a deep sense of fraternity with them. That's where religious practice plays an important role. In Buddhism there is metta [loving-kindness] meditation, in which we cultivate compassion for all sentient beings. This sort of practice is what I would consider a product of cultural evolution.

–Robert Wright, from "Darwin and the Buddha: Tricycle Interviews Robert Wright," Tricycle, Spring 2003

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