“Religions are basically inventions of the human mind… Compassion is fundamental to our nature. To achieve it we do not need to become religious, nor do we need any ideology. All that is necessary is for us to bring forth our basic human qualities.
“The real Avalokiteshvara (the greatest Bodhisattva) is compassion itself… an ideal quality which we must strive to cultivate to a limitless degree.
“My religion is kindness, a compassionate heart… this is both the root and the fulfillment of all spiritual paths… Let others concern themselves with God.”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, quoted in Celestial Gallery, Romio Shrestha
Kindness is the acid that eats through all pretensions to elite entitlement. It recognizes the truth of interdependence requires we meet on a ground of equality. All beings want happiness and to avoid suffering, and all beings’ own life is precious to them. These things make us equal first and foremost; before any segmentation due to status, belief, race, gender, species or anything else which divides us. When we embrace another human being, literally or figuratively, in a fully honest extension of our heartfelt love and kindness, it is an act of celebrating who they are, as they are, without agenda and without conditions. It is an act of embracing them from this ground of being. It can be a powerful experience, perhaps the most powerful awareness is capable of. It can be as if all the energy of a panic attack due to the fear of death were being harnessed, but because there is no fear it’s surge is applied to this moment between us. Yet the stream of compassion is also stately and graceful, full of the patience of a mountain and of a strength on par with a slowly revolving galaxy.
These powerful moments are rare. They are rarely found where we work, sometimes in the home, occasionally between lovers but most often it seems they occur in emergency rooms and funeral homes, our modern cremation grounds.
It would be a mistake to overlook the powerful psychological truth within an act of heartfelt kindness. Before we can talk about what that is though, we will first need to clear away some baggage. As one might expect in a world of violence saturated entertainments we are not particularly well educated on understanding the ins and outs of compassion and kindness. Of late we have gone in for a more Spartan sensibility. I will argue that is sad, that by doing so people alienate themselves from the one thing that can bring healing and happiness to lives in the midst of our troubled times.
One objection to compassion being a well spring of our human nature comes from the school of popularized biology that insists selfish genes cannot make altruistic mammals. We had a chance to look at just how mammals need kindness earlier among the wire and cloth monkey mothers. I’m willing to bet the best interpretation of the evidence is that it is very possible for a social mammal to have honest loving kindness for another. Objections to compassion being actually possible for human beings also abound among the philosophers. Nietzsche famously allowed that compassion is a part of human character but claimed those who extol its virtues to be inspired by no more than the resentment of the poor and powerless against the wealthy and the strong. His acidic assessment of Christian hypocrisy remains a damning indictment but that does not of necessity remove the possibility or value of actual loving kindness.
On the flip side from those who object to compassion being real are those who are sure true compassion is easy for human beings. These are all the good-doers running around thinking they are helping others, all the while hurting people right and left. They think they know what is best for folks and off they go to do right by them. It is often hard for a person kept overly busy chasing virtues on a never ending escalator towards unobtainable purity to slow down long enough to ask themselves if what they are doing is really bringing benefit to other sentient beings. I submit to you that the world is full of more unskillful harmful poisoning than healing from the church dragons among us, that the full depths of compassion are not achieved as easily as the do-gooders in the world believe.
There are many reasons for that last. I want to draw our attention to one built into the very concept of spirituality, almost like a trap. I contend that real compassion is not possible for those who are sure they, or their cult, alone have the truth.
These people have not yet taken what Buddhists would consider the first step on the path of Dharma. Let me explain. The person who espouses a dogma is pretending to a certainty that is not available to the human mind. Dogmatic faith says things like, “I know this is the one true church” or “I know this is the one true god / message / standards / commandments,” or the real bait on the hook, “I know what happens after death (and can sell you fire insurance)!” They do not, in fact, know these things.
These people have not yet obtained intellectual honesty. For any number of psychological reasons, they have yet to find the courage to accept the reality of the cognitive, conceptual and emotional limits of biological earthly human life. Lacking self honesty, there is no further step that will aid them on the path of suchness, the reality of things. They have yet to enter the vehicle by which this path is traveled. Intellectual honesty forces us to admit that we do not know, that we cannot know with certainty. Therefore honesty requires admitting these unfalsifiable claims are in fact our best guess or perhaps more graciously, our most meaningful expression of myth and honored traditions. It is as if hope in the human breast can be home to two types of faith. Fanatic faith is toxic.
Most people who have walked this earth over the long millennia stretching back into deep time have not claimed dogmatic certainty. Monotheistic history is the history those in the West know best but it is not a characteristic sample. More commonly the symbol systems we today consider religious were woven into the daily context of transformation all people in the culture participated in. There was not the separation between church on Sunday and life on Monday we are familiar with. The Navajo and Tibetan people are good examples of such cultures in which a certain shamanistic sensibility guides each person along a path of beauty expressing itself through one’s daily activities. In such a milieu the arts of saying ‘Yes’ and ‘Thank You’ have a chance to refine the energy of compassion, push it and develop it and see just how far it will go. Such cultures say they are giving birth to spiritual warriors: men and women who are heroes due to their tamed minds as opposed to warmongering heroes who dominate the bodies of others.
The healing wisdom traditions of our inherited stories and myths encapsulate centuries of lessons about how and how not to live as social beings. These are one and all rooted in a humble attitude as their basic foundation, the ground from which they offer succor. The ground recognizes that we are not free to say what is real and not, but we are free to try and learn from it. The ground includes reverence before the wonder and preciousness of life as we experience it within the ever enveloping environment of the earth and sky. It is just this humble attitude that is lacking in the dogmatic individual.
The human being naturally wants to say ‘Thank You’ and ‘Yes’ to the experience of living. This is the fundamental response, the root of our psychology coming directly from the organic health of the bodymind – the thrill that it exists at all, a finite point in a sea of infinities.
In the dogmatic believer fear clouds this basic ground of goodness, obscuring it behind a fog of conditions; covenants and contractual obligations full of gods granting magical powers and virtues rewarded with wealth. Each time thoughts naturally turn to ‘Yes’ and ‘Thank You’ the fears instilled by their dogmatic faith get triggered and instead of finding comfort just resting in that awareness of the sacred, they suffer from the mind running circles around it, trying desperately and hopelessly to capture the essence of the experience in words; the holy books of all kinds. As every terrorist act is designed to shout: We value doctrine above persons! They are living upside-down.
The dogmatist has, as we say, a chip on their shoulder. They try to convince themselves and others that they have a mainline to the capital-T truth the rest of the world lacks. To the degree that they remain with their dogmatic insistence they are incapable of true compassion. Though they might act kind and always strive after virtue as it is defined by their creeds, at the end of the day this elitism makes a meeting of hearts between equals impossible.
The start of compassion is said to be the recognition that all sentient beings want the same thing you want, namely, happiness. It is also the recognition that all sentient beings are just like you in that they suffer. It is from this ground of equality that empathy is born. The elite might have pity, a real type of sorrow for all the poor smucks who just don’t get it. But this is not the fellow-feeling from which insight into the truth of interdependence can arise.
The spiritual elite add one other ingredient to their witch’s brew of dark curses, one which is having its day right now all across the globe; the dogmatist who just knows what is really going on is, in their own mind, unquestionably an elite human being and so naturally they are entitled to act in ways others are not. This sense of entitlement is what makes a discussion with such people such an unnerving experience. They deny your moral right to exist. Technically they fit the definition laid out in Aaron James’ Assholes; A Theory:
“In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:
1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically
2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.”
This sense of entitlement is haunting the house of the abused child, inspiring the bully in the pulpit, and echoing darkly through the heartless environments dripping wealth in our financial centers. This sense of entitlement is not just a problem with religious fundamentalists. It is a problem inherent in belief itself when it is allowed to claim logical closure.
What this means is that any system of thought that retains intellectual integrity will be an open system, one that recognizes the acquisition of knowledge is an ongoing activity. Its honest pursuit will provide an individual with powerful intuitions and strong emotional commitments but these will not be elevated to the level of dogma. Logically, open systems compliment compassion by granting that each individual has their own unique dream and integrity. Cultures that encourage open systems allow each generation of minds to explore their own experiences as being as true, real and legitimate as any that have gone before.
A closed system by contrast insists that all that is of real importance, or all that human beings really need to know, has already been revealed and what the existing generation needs to do is accept its authority and learn to live by its lights. Thought that retains intellectual integrity does not allow for such closed systems, ones in which circular logic seemingly succeeds in containing the one truth for all people in all times under all circumstances, like some sort of ideational perpetual motion machine. We insist intellectual integrity does not allow for closed systems not because we free thinking heretics are cussed. It is because a closed system necessarily depends on claims that cannot be falsified and thought stopping circular logic and in these things we recognize ways by which the human mind can be mislead, deceived and controlled. Karl Popper taught well the distinctions between open and closed systems of thought and their social and political implications in The Open Society and Its Enemies. It was also his work that first clearly teaches us how and why we need to ask if claims are falsifiable. But wait, there’s more. Closed systems suffer from another inherent weakness, for as Douglas Hofstadter was at pains to point out in his masterpiece Gödel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Braid, it is a characteristic limit in conceptuality itself that any system complex enough to be interesting that is capable of proving some things true, cannot itself be proven true by any conceivable means from within that same system. Gödel’s Theorem is a coffin nail on all such fevered, Faustian dreams.
The dogmatic believer is threatened by openess. It is too exposed. It is too vulnerable. It is too raw and real. They fear space. Earlier I mentioned that the basic truth of our experience, ground-floor truth, is the thrill of existing at all. It is also true that all things in universe (used intentionally as a verb) are impermanent, which means space will take away what you have come to love. Love will still exist, it is as indestructible as the Queen of Space herself. Truth be told, what you find most precious in love is love itself, so what you find most precious is indestructible. That should comfort you but it is your choice. It becomes a question of what you value more: “the magic in a young girl’s heart” or your magic, yours alone.
Only one of these believers in magic, as far as I can tell, carries the balm of compassion wisely.