Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Compassion, Judging and Wisdom

Some reflections on Compassion, judging the correctness of actions, and Wisdom - in response to a discussion on a Buddhist list about a particular collective action that had taken place there.

I've been reflecting quite a lot the last few days on these discussions on the list. Two themes which seem to have recurred in these discussions were ...

Was it compassionate to do this particular action?


Did we do the right thing, or act in the best possible way in doing so?

In reflecting on the nature of compassion, and it's application to this event, one thing which struck me this week was that in a sense the issues around this act aren't really just about compassion as such. Trying to judge whether an action was useful or right for someone isn't just about compassion.

Looking and reflecting, it seems to me that compassion is very much a motivation, it's the desire to help, if you like, to respond to someone's suffering. It's not really the choice of action, or how you choose that action as the right one, but actually the motivation behind actions, as it were. In the Thera teachings compassion is described as response of loving kindness (Metta) when it meets the sufferings of a being. It's what is drawn out of you in terms of feeling and motivation, in a sense. You care, you empathise and you wish to help. In that sense, compassion is the desire to act to relieve that suffering.

When we act on the basis of that compassion, that desire to help, then how do we express that .... how do we choose which action to take in order to help?

Well, what struck me this week (and I may be entirely up the garden path with this, as they say in England), what struck me is that the way we choose how to help is through wisdom, not compassion. The working out of how best to help, the sensing of it, the judging of it, this is a function of wisdom, not compassion. To act to help requires that we see things as they are, and then know what is needed .. and these require wisdom. It struck me that all 5 wisdoms - mirror-like wisdom, discriminating wisdom, wisdom of equality etc, all these are needed to truly see things as they are, and to know the best course of action to help that being. In that sense, compassion is the fuel, the desire to help, and wisdom enables us to know what best to do.

Of course, on another level, it's hard to tell where compassion leaves off and wisdom takes over ... as compassion as Bodhicitta ... both relative and absolute is pretty much indistinguishable from wisdom.

And then, how do we know if the action that we did take is the best or correct one? Well, here it struck me that we pretty much don't know, nor ever will know. What vantage point can we take that will enable us to judge? Wherever we stand in the field of conditions will give us a view which is reflective of that particular vantage point. There is no absolute or objective position from which we can judge. The Buddha taught that only another Buddha can fully know karma, and all its intricacies, and only a highly realised being can see the nature of dependent origination in full.

So we think we see a good response somehow to our actions, but at that point things may look good, but later on, that may change. Or vice versa. There's a story in Chinese Buddhism about a man who bought his son a horse ... and he thought that this was really good ... a good action, coz his son loved it. Then, the son fell off his horse, breaking his leg, and was therefore unable to plough the fields of their farm. Oh no, what a bad thing buying the horse was! Then, the emperor’s troops came through the village, and took all able bodied men off into the army to fight. In the battle, everyone was slaughtered. Now the old man thought that buying the horse for his son was a good thing, as it had saved him from going off to battle to be killed. So it was good, then bad, then good, or so it seemed to him from his particular vantage point, from the particular set of conditions from which he could see.

So isn't it like that for all of us, in a particular set of conditions, and able to see things from there, with a limited view of what is, and a limited view of what will come to be. So at what point can we truly judge what was good, and what wasn't?

Of course, things can appear to be a particular way .... someone may seem to respond well to our actions which seemed to be guided by compassion, but I'm just suggesting that we can't *really* know, ultimately know what is good or bad in that sense, so maybe to just hold those judgements very lightly, rather than to be attached to them as 'right' or 'wrong'. It just appears to be so, from our own perspective, at this point in time.

One other rather obvious reflection ... .it's pretty hard to know the rights and wrongs of our actions towards ourselves, let alone towards another person. We perhaps act in our meditation, directly on our mind, perhaps by loosening our concentration. How hard to see the correctness of that action! How much harder to see the correctness of an action towards another being. And when we've never met them in the flesh, so to speak, but only have their words in email ... how much harder still!

All of this is by way of feeling that perhaps what we do is to do our very best, in the moment, with our best possible motivation, as selfless and compassionate as we can muster ... and try our best to act out with wisdom, allowing our wisdom to guide us ... and then .... let go .... let go of attachment to the consequences of our actions, as we have no vantage point from which to judge them in other than an entirely provisional way. Not to say, let go and don't care about the effects of that action, but let go of trying to get an ultimate 'fix' on it, an ultimate judgement on it. And, I guess, let go of judging others' actions, as we can barely judge our own, with direct access to our own minds (and motivations), let alone others!

Well, that's how it seems to me, and that's just a reflection of the particular conditions that pertain right here right now for me .... and of course, they will change, and my sense of how this is will change too ... so lightly held, gently held views, which play out in the mirror of life and mind .....


Anonymous said...

Al said "K - Nice post - "compassion is the fuel, the desire to help, and wisdom enables us to know what best to do"
This is beautiful - it instantly struck true for me - Compassion naturally arising out of Metta - Metta being part of Right Intention (sometimes rendered as Right Thought) Part of the Wisdom aspect of the 8 fold Path.

What also came to mind in terms of determining what action was Clear Comprehension. I believe this falls under right Mindfulness under the contemplation of the Body (1st Foundation)
here is Ayya Khema:

Clear comprehension has four aspects to it. First: "What is my purpose in thinking, talking or doing?" Thought, speech and action are our three doors. Second "Am I using the most skillful means for my purpose?" That needs wisdom and discrimination. Third: "Are these means within the Dhamma?" Knowing the distinction between wholesome and unwholesome. The thought process needs our primary attention, because speech and action will follow from it. Sometimes people think that the end justifies the means. It doesn't. Both means and end have to be within the Dhamma. The fourth step is to check whether our purpose has been accomplished, and if not, why not.

Seems to me like a great the combination of Metta/Compassion followed by a Clear Comprehension of action gets you pointed in the right direction.
As you said you make your best effort then be unattached to the fruits of your actions.
Be well.........Al"

Chodpa said...

Hi Al, I hope you don't mind me asking a biographical question? ... from your comments, it seems like you approach things from a Theravadin angle ... would you mind sharing who your teacher is and where you practice - I'd be really interested to know?


best wishes to you in the Dharma, as always ....

Anonymous said...

Al said "K- It's a long story - so here is the super abridged version - Raised a Roman Catholic - Got "Turned On" through chemicals - Read Ram Dass - and Found Buddhism through that group of American Jews who found Dharma after him - Joe Goldstein, Sharon Saltzberg, Sylvia Boorstein, Jack Kornfield - All Theravedins - been sitting on and off for almost 20 - not attached to a formal Sangha - be well."

Anonymous said...

Al said "...and how could I forget Ayya Khema - escaped form the Nazi's travelled the world - became a householder - later in life becomes a buddhist nun and founds two centers - Her commentaries are some of the clearest explanations of the Dharma that I know.....Al"

Anonymous said...

Meredith said "Dear Karmadungyu,

I have been reading your blog with great interest. Thank you for your lovely insights, for being curious, and for bringing your unique perspective to the page. I sense your heart is full. Many blessings to you, dear one.