Get PJ Media on your Apple

PJM Lifestyle

Compassion and Idiot Compassion

When is helping actually hurting?

by
Charlie Martin

Bio

August 25, 2013 - 10:00 am

Sally LPF 110908

About eight years ago, I had to take my 18 year old Siamese, Vashti, to the vet for what I knew was her last time. She had lymphoma, and I’d been taking care of her as she failed slowly, until finally I was feeding her baby food with an irrigation syringe. Still, she’d always seemed grateful; she purred, however faintly, when I petted her, and she woulld sleep for hours on her special sheepskin rug, which I kept in my lap. But one morning I looked at her, and I heard her say, as clearly as if she’d spoken in words, that she was ready. So we went to the vet, and I held her, and as the vet was putting the needle into her vein, she died peacefully, before the vet even gave the injection.

Afterward, there were people who scolded me for waiting so long; and there were people, New Age hipsters, who said that as a Buddhist I should not have taken her to the vet, shouldn’t have participated in killing another sentient being. And I wondered myself if I’d waited too long, out of selfishness — but Vashti wasn’t just my cat, she was like my familiar, and you could make a good case that she’d been the only really successful relationship with a female of any species I’d ever had.

In any case, I was no longer uncertain after she’d died, because I was sure that I’d done as Vashti had wanted.

So last week we talked about metta, “good will” or “lovingkindness”, one of the virtues exhibited by the Buddha that we try to learn to recognize in ourselves through metta practice. If you’ll remember, in metta practice, you try to invoke that feeling of metta in yourself, and then direct it toward yourself and toward others, even people toward whom you feel hatred and anger.

Metta has another virtue, karuna or “compassion”, with which it is paired. Metta is wishing good to others; karuna is understanding the suffering of others. Buddha, when he was Enlightened, could have chosen simply to reside in nirvana, but because of his feelings of metta and karuna chose to teach the Way of Liberation instead. The two things together are really the basis of Buddhist notions of morals: your good will to others goes along with your recognition that the other person is really, at heart, another person like yourself, and so you try to avoid causing suffering and try to help them also avoid suffering.

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.

Bear-Feed

If you’re around Buddhist circles very much, especially Boulder Buddhists, or hipster Buddhists, or the people who tell you they’re spiritual but not religious and they really like a lot about Buddhism, you’ll hear a lot of the usual politically convenient talk about redistribution, and mercy, and how the Occupy people have good ideas, and how it’s never right to kill and how George Zimmerman couldn’t have been justified. Or you hear how Obama should do something about the horrible things happening in Libya or Syria or the Sudan or for the Palestinians — but not, of course, using the military, he should make the UN do something or have a conference or a peace process.

And I remember Vashti, and I remember that sometimes the thing that makes you feel better isn’t the thing that does the most to reduce suffering.

Charlie Martin writes on science, health, culture and technology for PJ Media. Follow his 13 week diet and exercise experiment on Facebook and at PJ Lifestyle

Comments are closed.

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.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (10)
All Comments   (10)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
What a beautiful cat. It was time to go and you were there, she loves you still.
47 weeks ago
47 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.
47 weeks ago
47 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.
47 weeks ago
47 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".
47 weeks ago
47 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

47 weeks ago
47 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.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
What I really meant to say was that the dharma has been "baby boomed"
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Oh yeah. A column title in my notes waiting for a column is "Hipster Buddhism, Boulder Buddhism, and Buddhism"
47 weeks ago
47 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....

47 weeks ago
47 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.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
View All