Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Dao and Compassion

Someone asked me about Daoism and compassion a while back and I didn't have any answer to her about the concept. I suspected that it was important, but for some reason I totally drew a blank. I mentioned this to a dear friend and fellow Daoist, and she pointed out chapter 67 of the Laozi and his mention of the "three treasures":

I have always possessed three treasures that I guard and cherish.
The first is compassion,
The second is frugality,
The third is not daring to be ahead of all under heaven.


Because I am compassionate, I can be brave;
Because I am frugal, I can be magnanimous;
Because I do not dare to be ahead of all under heaven, I can be a leader in the completion of affairs.

If, today, I were to

Be courageous while forsaking compassion,
Be magnanimous while forsaking frugality,
Get ahead while forsaking the hindmost,
That would be death!

For compassion,

In war brings victory,
In defense brings invulnerability.

Whomsoever heaven would establish,
I surrounds with a bulwark of compassion.
(trans. Victor H. Mair)

According to our friends at Wikipedia, the actual literal word that Mair is translating as "compassion" is actually "ci" which can be translated as "compassion, tenderness, love, mercy, kindness, gentleness, benevolence". The thought image that the old Chinese word evokes would be that of a mother caring for her child.

So what exactly is compassion? And how does one become a compassionate person?

I think the first thing to consider is that compassion is a form of love.

Of course, there are different types of love and people seem to have different aptitudes for experiencing it. A lot of people have a hard time understanding the difference between sexual desire and love. In addition, many people's experience of love is exclusively familial in nature---the love of a parent that is exclusively directed towards her children. Is this compassion? Probably not if it just extends to a person's immediate family and no one else. I read once about a mobster who had a child killed by a driver who hit him when the boy darted out between two parked cars. The driver was considered totally without fault by the law, yet he disappeared never to be seen again. That mobster may have loved his son, but I don't think his actions were those of a "compassionate" person. History also presents us with many examples of horrid despots who seem to have genuinely "loved" their children yet treated their subjects brutally.

Take a look at this TED lecture by Karen Armstrong. It's about twenty minutes long,
but well worth the time. She talks about a lot of things, but what I want to emphasize is her idea that the core of religion is not belief but rather action. Moreover, the specific action at the core of all religions is that of living a life of compassion. And the way to act out our compassion is by following the so-called "golden rule". That is to say, don't do anything to anyone else that you wouldn't want done to yourself.

According to many religious teachers, such as Karen Armstrong, this is not just one of the key principles of religion, it is the core principle. Moreover, many believe that it is not just core to some religions, it is core to all religions.

The Scarboro Missions have put out a poster that has quotes from the largest religions of the world that supports this point of view. (I have a copy on the wall of my living room. It was given to me by the Scarboro brothers for giving a talk on Daoism for one of their retreats.) (Incidentally, the Daoist quote is: "Regard your neighbour's gain as your own gain and your neighbour's loss as your own loss." Lao Tzu, T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien, 213-218. I believe that this is one the popular Daoist scriptures that circulated amongst the literate lower classes.)

I don't think, however, that compassion should be as if it is a moral imperative, or, something that we should do. I think that this is because to feel compassion is a mixture both of feeling and desire for action. And if someone simply doesn't experience a sense of real compassion, he simply cannot force himself to have it. In contrast, I don't think it is possible to really feel compassion without being driven to actually manifest that feeling directly into action.

And what exactly is that feeling? I think that at its best it is a sense of complete empathy with the "Other". It is a sense of putting that person's value on par with your own. It is a case of directly feeling that the other person is just as important in the grand scheme of things as you are. A corollary is an honest attempt to try and understand the world from her point of view---"feeling in your bones" the completely different life story that she has lived through.

This is not a common way for people to think and feel about others.

Sometimes we see them not as subjects within their own rights, but simply as means to an end. Mostly people understand that this as a bad thing, but even the best of us fall prey to it once in a while. Unfortunately, a great many elements of our society foster, encourage and reward this type of thinking. For example, business people ultimately have to think about how to make money off the work of their employees if they want to be really successful. While sometimes business models are so very innovative or productive that an owner can pay his staff really well and still make a tidy profit, this rarely happens. And when it does, competition usually conspires to drive down profits to the point where labour invariably becomes part of the equation. Finally, even if it were possible to pay workers exceptionally well, this leads to the issue of how much the owners are thinking of the well-being of their customers.

Unfortunately, many business leaders seem to be of the opinion that life is inevitably a "war" of all against all, and that this gives them the "right" to squeeze as much as they possibly can from their employees no matter how profitable their business is. (I had a friend who worked for a big accounting firm which allowed her to have a priviledged insight into the interal finances of some local businesses. She said that there didn't seem to be any correlation at all between how profitable a business is and how it paid its employees. Some made a huge profit and payed the minimum wage---others were barely afloat and paid their people well.)

Most people who do not have economics degrees would agree that greed is a vice. But a lot more people believe in the concept of "justice", which I would suggest is just as damaging to the ideal of compassion.

Justice seems to be based upon two different elements that seem to me to be totally antithetical to the idea of compassion.

First of all, Justice is supposed to be totally the same for everyone. This is symbolized on the statues of "Justice" by portraying the woman as being blindfolded. At first blush, this seems like a good idea. We don't want rich and powerful people allowed to get off simply because they are rich and powerful. This ideal is also sometimes described in terms that "justice should fit the crime and not the person". The problem with this is that when this principle is pushed to extremes, it can forbid the justice system from trying to understand the psychology of the individual criminal. And once we really do try to understand people, it becomes a lot less easy to harshly judge some of them.

This came home to me in an article I read in the "New York Times Magazine" about a lawyer who specialized in sentencing hearings. The reporter mentioned a specific case where an armed robber had stolen some money from the cashier, was walking out the door, turned and totally gratuitously fired on the person at the till, killing him. This was all recorded on video camera, so the issue of guilt or innocence was not up for discussion.

As you might imagine, the jury was howling for this guy's blood. The sentencing lawyer brought in evidence of this person's background that totally turned around their opinion. He brought in evidence that this fellow had been horribly, savagely abused during most of his childhood. One thing I remember was that he had literally been kept in a cage in a dank, dark basement by his father for long, long periods of time. This guy was a menace to society, so the jury had to do something about him. But because the sentencing lawyer had forced the jury to understand some of the motivation that went behind the "senseless act of violence", it was able to develop some compassion towards the situation he found himself in.

A second element that creates a clash between Compassion and Justice is that of "punishment". This is represented by the sword that lady Justice carries. In our society the legal concept of punishment has two elements. At its best, the idea is that if people experience a significantly unpleasant result of a behaviour, they will stop the behaviour. It is also hoped that others watching the punishment will learn a vicarious lesson and avoid copying the convicted criminal's behaviour in order to avoid suffering his fate as well. (My understanding is that both of these justifications are demonstrably false, most criminals are people with bad impulse control who never think that they are going to get caught---so deterrance simply doesn't work. And incarcerating people with signficant internal anger problems only adds fuel to their fire.)

At its worst, however, punishment becomes a public ritual where both the victims of this particular criminal's crime, others who have been subjected to similar crimes, and others who feel outrage at the existence of all crime, are able to give vent to their anger. It used to be that the actual execution used to be public. Now, however, the only venue that people are allowed to give vent to these sorts of violent emotions tend to be the trial itself, pages of newspapers and political debates. I suspect that one of the latest versions of this type of emtional spectacle has been the trial of Omar Khadr.

On the face of it, it seems cruelly absurd that this young man, who was raised in a crazy, pro-Al-Qaeda household and who was captured during a horrific fire-fight with special forces at the age of fifteen, would be convicted as a war criminal and sentenced to 40 years in prison. (The argument was that he is a war criminal because he was out of uniform---under that reasoning one would think that every single Taliban fighter in Afganistan would also be considered such. It appears that the real sentence will be eight years in Canada due to a deal negotiated earlier in exchange for a guilty plea.)

In contrast to these notions of retributive justice, there are alternative models of "restorative justice", that try to step beyond issues of "right" and "wrong", and instead consider how to heal the dislocations that crime creates in society. Similarly, models of "rehabilitation" try to use the best knowledge gained from psychology and sociology to try and understand why people commit crime and help the criminal work out ways of becoming a more productive member of society. As I see it, these systems of "justice" could be made to be compatible with compassion, but the fact of the matter is that it seems that they are becoming unpopular with our current popular opinion, which seems wedded to a retributive model based on venting strong emotions and punishing offenders.

I've put considerable amounts of space in this post to the criminal justice system not because I have any very cogent argument on the subject, but rather in an attempt to try and give people a chance to "walk through" the emotions involved in trying to understand compassion. As I it seems to me, compassion is a specific type of love that builds bridges between you and another person. In contrast, when we label someone as "evil" or "hated", we are building a wall between us. And I think that if Karen Armstrong and the Scarboro Missions are right (which I think they are), then when we call someone else "evil" and start to hate them we are walling ourselves off from the "divine" (I choose to call this "the Dao", but others will call it "God".)

There is a teaching story that talks about a man who is trapped on a cliff. Above him is a ravening tiger, below a pack of wolves. He can't climb up, he can't climb down. But right in front of his face there is a trickle of honey from a bee hive farther up. He sticks out his tongue and tastes the honey---nothing ever tasted so sweet.

When I was younger I thought that the "moral" of the story was that we face signficant problems in life and instead of dealing with them, we distract ourselves. As I've grown older, I realize instead that the story is about the fact that we face problems with no solutions at all. So all we can do is reach out and taste what sweetness that life does offer us.

The sense of peace and love that comes from honestly feeling compassion towards another human being is that sweet taste of honey that is the consolation of life. It is what people have called "God" or the "Dao". And the honey gets sweeter and deeper the more we expand our circle of compassion so it includes not just our family, or our friends, or the people on "our side", but also the dirty, the smelly, the angry, the wicked and our enemies. It even extends beyond the human race to all the creatures of the earth. Maybe in future generations our compassion will be stretched to include creatures from other planets.

But if it does, the honey of life will become that much sweeter.

Another long, rambling mess of a post. But if you wade through it, I think there are at least one or two things of value.

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