Oh, for a great mansion of ten thousand rooms
Where all the poor on earth could find welcome shelter
Steady through every storm, secure as a mountain!
Ah, were such a building to spring up before me,
I would freeze to death in my wrecked hut well content.
—Tu Fu, My Thatched Hut Is Wrecked by the Autumn Wind
While serving as the Buddhist representative on the AIDS Interfaith Council in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, I was struck by what a Christian fundamentalist minister from a conservative county in California said at one meeting to her very liberal Episcopalian and Jewish colleagues.
“Don’t try to teach our people about your belief in gay rights and diversity. Don’t set your beliefs against theirs. They will just close their doors. Instead, tell them about the suffering people are experiencing with HIV, the pain, the loss, and the heartbreak. They will open their hearts and pour out their support.”
Compassion puts us directly in touch with the human condition. It is the difference between a faith that opens us to life and all its complexities and a faith that forces us to close down to protect what we cannot or will not question. Compassion enables us to accept and appreciate the experience of those with whom we have differences. In difficult situations, it gives us the power to find a path that meets the vital interests of all concerned when possible and to minimize the pain when that is not possible. Compassion cuts through beliefs and goes straight to the heart.
Related: A Quiver of the Heart
Beliefs are inevitable. Shared beliefs are the glue that holds together families, groups, organizations, countries. We identify with the groups we are part of and with the belief systems that maintain them. But that identification can become a blindfold, making it difficult for us to question what we are doing or how our group operates. In particular, identification can lead us to ignore or dismiss the pain and suffering generated by the organizations and societies to which we belong.
From the family to the nation-state, organizations are a necessary part of life as we know it. They require systems—policies, processes, security measures, and internal controls—based on the premise that people have to be managed, a premise that holds whenever large numbers of people are involved. Nevertheless, these systems inevitably dehumanize people both inside and outside the organization.
To stay in touch with our humanity as we live and interact with organizations is one of the principal challenges of our times.
John Le Carré addresses this challenge through the voice of George Smiley, his central character, as Smiley retires from the British Secret Service:
I only ever cared about the man . . . I never gave a fig for the ideologies, unless they were mad or evil. I never saw institutions as being worthy of their parts, or policies as much other than excuses for not feeling. I believe that almost any political system operated with humanity can work. And the most benign of systems without humanity is vile. The trick I suppose is to find the system that gives the least leeway to the rogues. The guarantee of our virtue is our compassion. And if you allow this institution, or any other, to steal your compassion away, wait and see what you become. The man is everything. And if your calling is anything, you will always prefer him to the collective, because the collective is humanity’s lowest and the collective is most often spoken for by people who are nothing without it.
Compassion is thus intimately related to identity. It may be difficult for us to say who or what we are, but we are usually quite clear about who or what we are not. We know we are different from those who don’t share our values, who dress differently, speak a different language, or do things we wouldn’t do. We define who we are by setting in opposition those we are not.
But when the world drops out from under us and we experience emptiness, non-self, or no ground, all sense of opposition vanishes. What happens then? Without the walls that a sense of self provides, we know immediately and deeply the suffering, the pain, and the struggles of others. When we see that, compassion is not a choice.
Related: Cultivating Compassion
This compassion is more than mere sentiment. It is a clear knowing that frees us from the need to control what arises in our lives. It is the only spiritual quality that cuts through cultural conditioning to let us see the harm our culture may do to others, whether that culture is our family, our friends, an organization, a society, or our country.
When we see through the beliefs and the blindness of our own culture and upbringing, everything in our being shifts. It is inconceivable to us that others should suffer because of our beliefs. We see directly how destructive suffering is and how unnecessary so much of it is. We cannot ignore this. Whatever our work, however we live, our chief concern is to free others from their confusion and their struggles, regardless of the implications for ourselves.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.