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Thread: How Compassion Became Empathy

  1. #1

    How Compassion Became Empathy

    Secular Buddhist Doug Smith talks about Compassion and Empathy. (approx.17 minutes)

    "Buddhist compassion practice changed radically over the first few centuries following the Buddha's passing. One way it changed is outlined in a paper by Buddhist scholar Anālayo: compassion practice became more of a practice of empathy. This development coincided with a number of other interesting changes in Buddhist belief and practice that we will outline in this video."

    Link to "How Compassion Became Painful" by Bhikkhu Analayo:


    Link to "Compassion in the Agamas and Nikayas" by Bhikku Analayo:


    Any thoughts about what he says in the video ?

  2. #2
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    Mar 2017
    I'm always interested in why people choose Buddhism rather than accepting it as something you were born into, and the points made here get to a couple of fundamental issues. Are we in it to change ourselves, or to help others by becoming a better person, or to help the world by changing others, or whatever. The two main points are illustrated by the strategy of' reductio ad absurdum' as the extremes of neglecting others until you become enlightened, or neglecting yourself until everyone else does.

    This is happens here to illustrate change in Buddhism, when an extreme example is used to make a point, such as introducing a different aspect of practice to emphasise. Made at the time by those wishing to 'push' one form over another, but also when you try to analyse what has happened in the past. There may have been, and still are, those choosing to practice extreme forms of meditation, only interested in their own development and who remove themselves from involvement with others, but that doesn't seem to describe the early Buddhists. If you practice, you change and things such as compassion naturally arise from the practice; you can't help it.

    On the other hand there may have been those who put off their own development in order to help others. But of course the mere action of helping others brings about changes to the helper, whether they want them or not. And if they were also practicing meditation and the path, they would have no choice about enlightenment. There is no escaping from it if you do such things. They couldn't stop the process without rejecting the path they were on and discontinuing helping others.

    So, as Doug Smith hints at the end, they can be seen as two sides of the same coin, where the positive aspects of the two work together to overcome the negative aspects both might have.

    Incidentally, I practiced my own version of Tonglen for many years, where you breath in black smoke (the suffering of others) and breath out white light (metta), with the black smoke providing the fuel for the process. Eventually you become a conduit for the process rather than taking on board the suffering, and it becomes energising rather than draining.

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by philg

    Incidentally, I practiced my own version of Tonglen for many years, where you breath in black smoke (the suffering of others) and breath out white light (metta), with the black smoke providing the fuel for the process. Eventually you become a conduit for the process rather than taking on board the suffering, and it becomes energising rather than draining.
    Hi Phil, I was under the impression that Tonglen isn't suitable for everyone though, and should ideally be done with guidance from a Tibetan Buddhist teacher and not from books or the internet. This is because people who can get frightened easily unfortunately may start imagining that they're really taking in all the negativities and sufferings of others...and then they can start getting very upset and therefore end up suffering themselves. I've actually had interactions on the internet in the past with people feeling this way . Straightforward Metta practice is much wiser in such circumstances.

    Chod is an even more extreme practice than Tonglen, in which one's whole body is offered to other beings. However, that needs specific empowerments, teachings, and some actual practice instruction in a small group with a reputable lama.

    Anyway, returning to the subject of compassion again, there's an essay by Ajahn Jayararo"Wing of the Eagle" In which he says:

    One basic truth of the human mind that the Buddha pointed to very often is that wisdom and compassion are inseparable. In one of the traditional similes there is the giant bird, the great eagle with two wings, one wing of which is wisdom and the other is compassion. The Buddha pointed out that the more clearly we see the nature of suffering, the more clearly we understand that suffering is conditioned by desire born of ignorance; we see the efficacy of the Eightfold Path in alleviating that suffering, and we begin to see cessation. As our understanding of the Four Noble Truths deepens, we feel more compassion for ourselves and for others – indeed for all sentient beings. So the test, if you like, of the wisdom that we have developed through our practice is the amount of compassion there is, and a test of the compassion in our heart – knowing whether it's true compassion, and not mere pity or sentimentalism – is the wisdom faculty.

    Where there is true wisdom there is compassion, where there is true compassion there is wisdom. But if compassion lacks wisdom it can do more harm than good. There is an old English saying: `The road to hell is paved with good intentions.' Sometimes people try to do good or to help, without understanding their own mind and motivation, and without understanding the people they want to help. They have no sensitivity to time and place or to their own capacity, and so they don't achieve the results that they hope for. Then they can become angry, disillusioned or offended and if there is any criticism, such a person will feel even more hurt. They might think that the action must have been correct because it was based on a good intention, that their hearts were pure in their intention. But purity of intention is not enough, it has to be based on wisdom: understanding the nature of suffering, how it comes into existence and how it is alleviated. It has to be based on the true understanding of suffering.
    Regarding compassion without wisdom, the late Chogyam Trungpa warned about what he called "idiot compassion".

    Here Pema Chodron speaks briefly about it:

    "The third near enemy of compassion is idiot compassion. This is when we avoid conflict and protect our good image by being kind when we should definitely say “no.” Compassion doesn’t only imply trying to be good. When we find ourselves in an aggressive relationship, we need to set clear boundaries. The kindest thing we can do for everyone concerned is to know when to say “enough.” Many people use Buddhist ideals to justify self-debasement. In the name of not shutting our heart we let people walk all over us. It is said that in order not to break our vow of compassion we have to learn when to stop aggression and draw the line. There are times when the only way to bring down barriers is to set boundaries."


    "Idiot compassion is exactly what it sounds like—thinking you are being compassionate, but actually being an idiot and “enabling” harmful behavior in someone else. “It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering.”

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