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Compassion and Idiot Compassion

When is helping actually hurting?

by
Charlie Martin

Bio

August 25, 2013 - 10:00 am

shutterstock_72377758

Compassion, though, has its own dark and selfish side, which Trungpa Rinpoche called “idiot compassion” (lifting a phrase from Gurdjieff.)

To understand idiot compassion, think about a family member who is an alcoholic. This family member hasn’t had a drink, and is completely broke, homeless; after you find them, curled up in a doorway, you pick them up and take them home, give them a shower and a cup of soup. They sip the soup with trembling hands, and then look at you and ask for a drink, because they need one, and need one badly.

Do you give them a drink? They’re suffering, right? That’s what they want to ease their suffering; and you, with compassion, can see how badly they want the drink, how bad they feel. They start to complain, to cry, to scream; they are in agony, they are seeing snakes, and finally you give in and give them the bottle, and in a few minutes they are calmer and more comfortable, and in a few more minutes, they’re drunk, and passed out on your couch.

This is idiot compassion: you know they’re suffering from the lack of a drink, so you give them one, knowing that it is just putting off the problem. But by giving them a drink, you ease their suffering for the moment, and more importantly you ease your own suffering, because you no longer have to bear their agony through your own compassion.

Now, back during the 2008 Presidential campaign, the McClatchy papers called me up for an interview because I was basically the only white Republican Buddhist they could find in all of America. They seemed a little astounded that I could both believe in compassion and, as a Republican, not think that “free” health care and income redistribution was the “right” thing to do. If I’d have known the phrase “idiot compassion” at the time, I could have explained it more clearly, but my feeling, then and now, is that government giveaway programs are not a very effective way of reducing suffering, and often are just a way of hiding the problems. They aren’t about real solutions, they are simply a way to feel like you’ve tried with good intentions to do something, and now you don’t see the suffering any more.

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Top Rated Comments   
"... especially Boulder Buddhists..."

That cracks me up. I haven't heard anybody else use that term. Boulder Buddhists are about the most self centered lot I've ever met.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (10)
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What a beautiful cat. It was time to go and you were there, she loves you still.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
That's a stock photo of a lilac-point kitten, not Vashti, but it definitely looks like her when she was a kitten.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
"... especially Boulder Buddhists..."

That cracks me up. I haven't heard anybody else use that term. Boulder Buddhists are about the most self centered lot I've ever met.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
And yet some of them turn out pretty well. My old acquaintance Deidre -- now more widely known as Acharya Pema Chödron -- writes excellent stuff and has helped many students.

Although I will say I kind of enjoy watching them twitch when I refer to Sakham Mipham Rinpoche as "Trungpa's kid".
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
Hi Charlie,

I think the real question is...How can a Buddhist be a Democrat? The answer is they can't, and some of the reasons are:

A country's true wealth comes from the merit of the people and too many of our citizens seem to be involved in that which destroys their merit and by association, that of the country.

Start with abortion....killing a human being is considered among the worst karma and killing one's child, is even worse.

Voting oneself other people's money is stealing......

Class warfare and dividing the country against itself.....more bad karma...

Lying........

Drugs....destroys oneself and others.....

Sexual perversions.....

Generosity is essential for wealth and merit to increase, when a culture of dependency is created, it robs the dependents of an opportunity to be generous, they are taking, not giving, and they exhaust their store of merit....the traditional example being the god realm where they live off their merit till it is used up, then they fall to lower realms.

A lot of new age Buddhist threw karma out the window......as they are too sophisticated to believe it. And without karma, the Dharma doesn't make sense.

Zopa

48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mmmph. I see what you're thinking but I think you may be going a little overboard. To start with, you're using "bad karma" as if it means "sin" and that's not correct. Karma is just volitional action, and all volitional actions have consequences. Not good, not bad, just causes have effects. This goes for abortion too: there's no special magic about killing a human except that sometimes the consequences can be more severe -- like having the human's family come gunning for you. Similarly, the precepts say "don't misuse sex" and "don't misuse intoxicants" -- but the whole notion of "sexual perversion" doesn't come into it. How do you know you're misusing sex? If the consequences lead to suffering.

At the same time, I agree with you on a lot of these points: I end up being pretty firmly libertarian just precisely because forcing other people to behave according to what *I* think they should do leads to suffering.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
What I really meant to say was that the dharma has been "baby boomed"
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
Oh yeah. A column title in my notes waiting for a column is "Hipster Buddhism, Boulder Buddhism, and Buddhism"
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
There are many things that can modify ones actions, and I was trying to be general. Precepts are the guidelines, we are making our own future and it is best to be careful. When we drive a car, it is good to use the breaks once and awhile.

Lets see.."sexual perversion".....send pics on u-tube then you can run for mayor of NY.......it would seem to be far better to be mindful, careful and aware....

48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah, we're on the same page. Weiner strikes me as the nerdy obnoxious kid who got picked last for every team, finding himself now attractive because of his political standing, and looking for safe validation.

That should be "safe", I suppose.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
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