Buddhist Compassion

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Go to this link for a further link to a very, very interesting short video about the Dalai Lama and the Pope.

One of the central ideas of Buddhism is compassion, which is equated with mercy. Jeffrey Hopkins explains it this way:

from Cultivating Compassion
Jeffrey Hopkins

Chandrakirti pays homage to three particular kinds of compassion. The first is called compassion seeing suffering beings, because prior to cultivating wishes for person to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering, you need to reflect on the dire condition of beings trapped in cyclic existence.

He describes the process of cyclic existence-birth, aging, sickness, and death--as stemming from ignorance and nourished with attachment and grasping. This means that our sense of self is exaggerated beyond what actually exists, and based on the exaggeration, we are drawn into many problems. Once the "I" is exaggerated, the "mine"--things that are owned by the I, mind and body--also becomes exaggerated overblown. . . . It is true that mind, body, hand, head, house, clothing are "mine"; they do belong to us, but we have an exaggerated sense of owning them.

In a word, the deplorable condition of humankind is a result of sinful pride. Buddhism wants to see an end to the deplorable condition of humankind and thus to its causes--sin. Buddhist compassion is not simply about alleviating suffering, but the causes of suffering. The difficulty with Buddhism is not what it wants at the root, but how one proposes to get to this end.

Compassion in Buddhism is a laudable quality. It is laudable in a Buddhist, it is laudable in a Christian. A Christian should desire to see the end of suffering and its causes, and ultimately hopes for this in the beatific vision. The ends are not so different--the means are a world apart.

Cultivating compassion is not an exercise in alleviating suffering--at least not at first. It is an exercise in becoming aware of the suffering of humanity that is directly caused by the fault of humankind--pride and attachment. Only secondarily does one enter a phase that desires to do something about it. Each of the great Christian Saints showed this compassion differently. Some showed compassion by combating the errors about God and Christ that led people into practices that were not pleasing to God. Some showed compassion by remaining in the cloister and praying for all humanity. Some showed compassion by feeding the poor, tending the sick, visiting those in prison.

A desire to see the end of suffering is not incompatible with Christianity. That Christianity recognizes that some good can come out of suffering is an artifact of the reality that whatever is our present condition, God has willed it for His own purposes and "all things work to the good of those who love Him and work according to His purposes." But even the great saints recognize physical suffering as a natural evil--not a good in itself, but good in its possible effects on the receptive soul.

To suggest then this wide gap between the two is to make a distinction where one is not so clearly made. I think part of the popular appeal of Buddhism, a great part, are Buddhists themselves. They are their own best advertisement. When one sees the peace, equanimity and calm that tends to surround a Buddhist who has long been tending to his or her practice, there is a tremendous appeal there. Even the best Christians seem to be washed around by the tide of circumstance--on again and off again. But this apparent imperturbability suggests a great well of calm, peace.

Of course, we don't live with the Buddhists we see in the news 24 hours a day. Few of us know any Buddhists who have come far in their practice. The reality is probably quite different than the appearance, but being one of the many not personally acquainted with a Buddhist deep into practice, I hesitate to say more than that.

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Now that I think about it, the popular appeal of Buddhism is probably due to their exoticism and being non-Western. Westerners are mostly bored with Christianity and are looking for new things (Hinduism is hip now; that religion professor I quoted said Buddhism was a '90s fling and is "so over").

When I think of Buddhists, I tend to think not of peaceful monks but of Richard Gere and the "free Tibet" slogans on the fashionably liberal cars.

By the way, I say that not in any way to denigrate Buddhism but merely to say that it's popularity should probably not be confused with a great in-depth study of its tenets. (And the video confirms this ignorance in showing that most people don't follow the Dalai Lama's statements too closely.)

Dear TSO,

Point very well taken. Most people wouldn't know a Buddhist teaching from a Catholic one. Oops--kinda what the video shows isn't it--because while the Buddhist teachings might be more "extreme" in some cases, they come from a very different place in the heart and understanding than do Catholic teachings. And people tend to view any teachings as an insufferable imposition.

Thanks for noting this.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 24, 2007 7:44 AM.

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