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Who Are We Mad At?

Sometimes it's harder to be compassionate with people we love and admire.

Charlie Martin


January 12, 2014 - 2:00 pm
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Galagoda Atte Gnanasara

So this is how I heard it. On the night before Siddhartha Awakened, as he contemplated the problem of suffering that had caused him to leave home, he became aware of his innumerable past lives. He saw himself as predator, and as prey; he saw himself as deer hunter, and as the hunted deer; he saw himself as the rape victim and the rapist; as the adulterer and as the cuckold; as eater and as the one being eaten. He saw that in every case, actions and their consequences had led to each event, and that consequences had inevitably followed. He saw the suffering in everything, and he felt pity and compassion for every being because he saw in himself the potential for every failing he had seen in others.

In Sanskrit, this is called karuna; you can translate it as empathy, or compassion, or even tenderness.

I’ve got Buddhist friends in many traditions. Some of them were discussing a recent story about Bodu Bala Sema — “Buddhist Power Force”, which really sounds like it ought to be a live-action Saturday morning kid’s show — rallying the Buddhists of Sri Lanka against the Muslim Tamils. This follows the Sri Lankan civil war, which followed the collapse of a cease-fire agreement with the Tamil Tigers in 2002, which followed an insurgency of 20-odd years, which followed anti-Tamil discrimination, which followed … and followed … and followed … on into the past.

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As a Christian, I sympathize deeply with your point about compassion. The doors of the church are open to all, and Jesus sat with tax collectors and prostitutes and Samaritans.

The question here is not us, it's not Gnanasara. It's the other.

What are we, Bhuddist and Christian, to do, when the other comes, with anger and violence, as Islam can?

Do we defend ourselves? If so, is the best defence a good offence?

My minister preached a sermon last month on exactly your point, and I asked him the same question. He didn't have an answer.

It's 1914. You're France. The Kaiser's armies are coming across the border. You didn't ask for it, you didn't want it, but they're here, they're angry, and they're heavily armed. This is a fact. What is the moral response?

I have compassion for Gnanasara and what he faces. What would you do?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It is difficult, sometimes, to reconcile the intellectual act of pondering and trying to apply in life the teachings (I'm being intentionally vague here because I think this also applies to teachings other than soteriological), and the simple reality of emotions.

Even the kind of detachment that can be achieved through meditation, where (at least as I have experienced it) one seems to be somewhat separated from one's feelings enough to look at them dispassionately and identify them, their causes etc, isn't the same as confronting yourself when in the grip of those feelings. I helped out my parents the past 2 years, lost one in '12 and the other in '13, and am constantly amazed at how subtle and amorphous the emotional fall out can be.

I'm not certain what empathy for one's self means in this context--

For instance, perhaps in a post-meditative state you retain some of that detachment and react appropriately to a situation where an overly emotional response would create negativity. Then, over time, you are pushed out of that state and do not react appropriately, and this could range from a parent exasperated for multiple reasons, snapping at his child when his child had not done anything that justified a sharp response to something on the level of what Eli Wiesel described in Night. Then you meditate again, or get out of the camp and looking back realize what you've done, why you did it and what effect it had on the other. Should you forgive yourself? Is this how human guilt works? I suspect the idea is that if you follow your practices or teachings enough, you pre-position yourself to not act that way in the first place, perhaps not even realize the negative alternative was there to be chosen. It's an interesting question. In my own experience, it seems I haven't become aware of a problem, perhaps emotional state until after it had passed or been resolved through meditation or time.

On the other hand, clinging to past mistakes and the negative associated within could very well interfere with the ability to successfully "pre-position" yourself to avoid future mistakes, and thus self forgiveness, or empathy could be justified as a practical matter. Is this what you're getting at, Charlie?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well, you might think about another translation of karuna, "compassion". This would all be easier if the Buddha had had the foresight to write everything down in English. Or perhaps "sympathy".

Remember that karuna is one of the four virtues, paired with maitri, "good will": or look back to last week and read about "always doing your best."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I have no expectations of others aside from those they set for themselves. Lacking that information I become a mirror: kindness for kindness, forearm shiver for forearm shiver. Empathy follows out of empathy or fear. I don't bother myself with what people do in a mirror or why. Balance and karma are maintained. Don't crash parties, and don't let others crash yours.
1 year ago
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