Compassion, Culture, and Belief
Writings | Life

From 1987 to 1989, I served as the Buddhist representative on the AIDS Interfaith Council in Los Angeles. At one meeting I was struck by the way a Christian Fundamentalist minister from a conservative county in California talked to her more liberal Episcopalian and Jewish colleagues.

“Don’t try to teach our people about your beliefs in gay rights and diversity. Don’t set your beliefs against theirs,” she said. “They will just close their doors. Instead, tell them about the suffering people are experiencing with HIV, the pain, the loss, and the heartbreak. They will open their hearts and pour out their support.”

Compassion is the difference between a faith that opens you to what life brings and beliefs that force you to close down to protect what you cannot or will not question. Compassion enables you to accept and appreciate the experience of those with whom you have differences. In difficult situations, it leads you to find a way that meets the vital interests of all concerned when possible and to minimize the pain when that is not possible. Compassion puts you directly in touch with the human condition. It cuts through beliefs. It goes straight to the heart.

Beliefs, however, are inevitable. Shared beliefs are the glue that holds together families, groups, organizations, and countries. Family experience shapes your beliefs about who you are and how the world works. Your culture, where you work, where you live, continue to shape you. You identify with the groups you are part of and with the belief systems that maintain them. That identification becomes a blindfold, making it difficult for you to question who you are, what you are doing or how your group operates. In particular, identification blinds you to the pain and suffering caused by the organizations and cultures in which you participate.

How do you not lose touch with your humanity when you live and interact with organizations in almost every area of your life? This question is one of the principal challenges of our times. From the family to the nation-state, organizations are a necessary part of society as we know it. They rely on systems — policies, processes, security measures, and internal controls — based on the premise that people are to be managed. These systems dehumanize people inside and outside the organization. Some systems appear more benign than others, but that is usually because they are more sophisticated and can handle more contingencies. In system jargon, they are more responsive, but they are still systems.

In The Secret Pilgrim, John Le Carré addresses this challenge by putting these words in the mouth of George Smiley, his central character:

I only ever cared about the man. I never gave a fig for the ideologies, unless they were mad or evil. I never saw institutions as being worthy of their parts, or policies as much other than excuses for not feeling. I believe that almost any political system operated with humanity can work. And the most benign of systems without humanity is vile. The trick I suppose is to find the system that gives the least leeway to the rogues. The guarantee of our virtue is our compassion. And if you allow this institution, or any other, to steal your compassion away, wait, and see what you become. The man is everything. And if your calling is anything, you will always prefer him to the collective because the collective is humanity’s lowest and the collective is most often spoken for by people who are nothing without it.

What is compassion? It is not mere sentiment. It is a clear knowing that frees you from the need to control and enables you to be present with whatever is there. It is the only quality that allows you to see through cultural conditioning, whether from your family, society, an organization, or your country. Through compassion, you can see the harm your culture does to others.

Compassion is intimately related to identity, but in an inverse way. Consider the question, “How do you know who you are?” Most people, consciously or unconsciously, define themselves by what they are not, i.e., by “I am not that.” It may be difficult for you to say who or what you are, but you are usually quite clear about what you are not. You know you are different from those who don’t share your values, or who dress differently, or speak a different language, do things you wouldn’t do, or just think differently. You know who you are by setting in opposition who or what you are not. As James Carse writes in The Religious Case Against Belief:

War presents itself as necessary for self-protection, when in fact it is necessary for self-identification.

When, in your practice, the world drops out from under you, you find yourself in a different place. You are completely open. All sense of opposition is gone.

What happens then? You have no idea who you are. Without the walls a sense of self provides, you know immediately and deeply the suffering, the pain, and the struggles that others experience. You cannot ignore it. How to free them from their confusion and their struggles with life becomes your chief concern, whatever the implications for you.

Oh, for a great mansion of ten thousand rooms

Where all the poor on earth could find welcome shelter
Steady through every storm, secure as a mountain!
Ah, were such a building to spring up before me,
I would freeze to death in my wrecked hut well content.
Tu Fu, My Thatched Hut is Wrecked by the Autumn Wind.

This is exactly the motivation of a bodhisattva.

When you see through the beliefs and the blindness of your own culture and upbringing, everything in your being shifts. It is inconceivable to you that others should suffer because of your beliefs. You see directly how destructive suffering is and how unnecessary so much of it is. When you see that, compassion is not a choice.