If you had to choose the single quality most closely associated with Tibetan Buddhism, it would probably be compassion.
In the words of my precious teacher, Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden: ‘If you were to ask: “What is the essence of the Buddha’s teachings?” the answer must be great compassion, because that is the foundation of all living beings’ happiness and the basis of enlightenment.’
When discussing this subject, I am sometimes asked just how compassionate we’re supposed to be, exactly? If we define compassion as ‘the wish to free others from suffering,’ it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the ocean of suffering in which we find ourselves.
Every day via social media, email and snail mail I am on the receiving end of pleas to help out with this very worthy cause, or that urgent rescue or some other dire mission. Family, friends and acquaintances all experience suffering and have a variety of ongoing concerns requiring time, effort and money. I’m sure it’s the same for you, too. How do we choose which needs to respond to – or should we attempt to take on them all?
And what about those people asking for help who may simply be taking advantage of our good nature? While some of us may be trying to live to our highest purpose, we’re not so naïve as to believe that everyone else is: should we show compassion even when we suspect we’re being exploited?
Tibetan Buddhism offers some helpful direction on how to deal with these questions. The direction is represented in the image shown below.
The main picture is of Lama Tsongkhapa, one of the greatest lineage masters in our tradition, who is usually portrayed wearing a yellow hat. Tsongkhapa, who lived in the early fifteenth century, was believed to embody the qualities of three Buddhas, who are also shown on this image. They are, from the top, Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion, Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom and Vajrapani, the Buddha of Power.
What this tells us is that for compassion to be effective, it must be combined with wisdom and power. Compassion with wisdom, but no power, is ineffectual – we don’t have the capacity to take the actions that are needed.
Compassion with power but no wisdom is sometimes referred to as ‘idiot compassion.’ To give an example, in some Asian countries, market traders trap wild birds to be kept as pets. Buying such a bird, to release it back to freedom, is considered an act of compassion. But this practice has become so widespread that large numbers of birds are trapped by market traders, often suffering for days in cruel nets, before being taken to markets in tiny cages, to be sold to devout Buddhists to release as acts of compassion.
What may once have been a spontaneous act of kindness is now a practice which perpetuates the very opposite of what is desired in an appalling cycle of cruelty – hence the term, ‘idiot compassion.’
It is easy to see in this example, but thinking through the consequences of what we intend as compassion, closer to home, is something we all need to do. For example, we should be astute about what charities we donate our money to – if you’re looking for guidance on this, Peter Singer’s excellent book, The Life You Can Save, offers great advice, revealing the ethical considerations of practising compassion.
We need to be considered in how we spend our time helping others. Time is the only resource that is truly finite. Whatever we spend our time doing is, by definition, not being spent doing something else that could be more beneficial.
Being aware of the trade-offs we make and the consequences of our actions are all part of the wisdom that is to accompany our practice of compassion.
So, no, there’s no way we should ever be considered to be doormats!
(Photo credit: thank you Daniel Lincoln on unsplash.com)
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