Without Compassion, What Hope?

Race relations, immigration, Ground Zero and many other issues are sparking debates across a wide spectrum of politicos and religious.

What does an apolitical Buddhist nun wish to offer?

I used to have strong opinions about various issues related to what I perceive to be discrimination and injustice. Why? I was an immigrant to the United States at the age of ten. Having personally experienced differential treatment based on my ethnicity and culture, one of my first jobs I took on after college was a civil rights investigator. Constantly searching for discrimination with detective magnifier tore me apart emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. And now as a Buddhist nun looking to celebrate differences among traditions, I recognize that in general, Western theories of justice begin with the intention to legitimize and ensure the individual’s freedom to pursue his or her own interests.

Consequently, justice can mean different things to the family of the victim and the family of the perpetrator. According to Sallie King’s Buddhist critique of popular conceptions of justice, justice is often associated with these four common forms of politics that perpetuate conflict instead of ending it:

1. Identity politics: The sense of victimhood nourishes suffering and keeps it going generation to generation.
2. Righteous indignation: The angry sense that we are justified and the others wrong.
3. Justice: The insistence on finding justice before there can be peace.
4. Revenge: In particular the concept of justice based on retribution perpetuates conflict.

Bishop Desmund Tutu stirs us to confront injustice with this, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I believe this requires skillful means and consideration for the long term out of compassion, rather than a strident attitude of “anti-injustice”.

It is said that to generate genuine compassion, one needs to realize that one is suffering, that an end to suffering is possible, and that others want to be free from suffering too. Furthermore, as Sharon Salzberg explains, “Sometimes we think that to develop an open heart, to be truly loving and compassionate, means that we need to be passive, to allow others to abuse us, to smile and let anyone do what they want with us. Yet this is not what is meant by compassion. Quite the contrary. Compassion is not at all weak. It is the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal. To develop this mind state of compassion…is to learn to live, as the Buddha put it, with sympathy for all living beings, without exception.”

For instance, a Buddhist woman was harassed, cursed and spit upon with vituperation by a gangster on the street. The hoodlum only succeeded in frightening the woman in the end, but she was quite upset by the incident. When the woman reached her teacher to ask what she should have done, “What would have been the appropriate, Buddhist response?”

The teacher said very simply, “You should have very mindfully and with great compassion whacked the attacker over the head with your umbrella.”

I do not think justice as a virtue can be or should be done away with for the society at large; but when I perceive injustice, I accept it as my karma. The law of cause and effect has time and again proven to me that I am responsible for what I experience. When I perceive others experiencing injustice though, I try to mindfully act from any or all of the following bases:

1. The law of cause and effect. I determine my future karma depending on whether I alleviate, exacerbate or remain indifferent to the pain of any and all parties involved. It is not to be used as a concept to ridicule others or worse, intensify their difficulty.

2. Common humanity. Compassion is not reserved for only those who are compassionate to us or any specific sector of individuals, but all beings. All beings wish to leave suffering and attain happiness. Most fundamentally to Buddhists, all beings have the potential to realize awakening. “All sentient beings have the Buddha nature, no different than the Buddha himself.” (Avatamsaka Sutra)

3. Interbeing. We are all intimately connected in some way or another, “Our natures interpenetrate and interconnect in infinite intersections.” (Avatamsaka Sutra)

Reflecting on those who have experienced grave injustice acknowledged by all — Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and others — they never asked for justice avenged; instead, they ask for compassion even for those perpetrators against them and their people. So too, in the well-known conversation the young Buddha had with his cousin, the Buddha held the swan Devadatta shot down and cared for it because, “A life belongs to one who tries to save it, not one who tries to take it.”

What is noteworthy from the Buddhist perspective too is that compassion requires a big heart that is not particularly sticky with a person or issue. This non-attachment allows us to access a pause before we respond to a challenging situation. Action or non-action from that objective state of mind prevents further aggravation and aggression. I know when I ask for compassion for myself, it is hardly about standing up and fight for myself. Compassion for myself is about the ceasing of anger, guilt and resentment — it is about forgiveness. Along that line, I only wish compassion for all, may all suffer no more and may peace make their hearts full.

One thought on “Without Compassion, What Hope?

  1. One time I was attacked by a Christian in Long Beach. He started preaching to me about Jesus and then all of a sudden he grabbed the Amitabha pendant from my neck and ran off with it.
    I screamed that he was an . My Vietnamese Buddhist teacher gave me that, it was really precious to me.
    It's really sad people are so hateful and racist. It's really wrong. I am a caucasian American but my Vietnamese Dharma Master gave me that pendant when it was near my birthday in Long Beach. It was like so heartbreaking to lose it. I cried really hard. Sometimes it's wrong to be angry, and sometimes you just have to give people a whack on the head.

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