Timely Compassion

In the aftermath of the terrible explosions at the Boston Marathon we’ve seen an outpouring of compassion from those wishing to help the victims, their families and friends. Many are citing this response from the public as evidence that even in the darkest times, the light of human nature shines bright. It is true that following these occasions of sadness and turmoil, communities and nations often come together. People put aside past differences to bring a sense of normalcy back to those directly, and indirectly, impacted. After Hurricane Sandy trampled the East Coast people traveled hundreds of miles to aid in recovery efforts. I remember similar reactions to Hurricane Katrina, when my high school sent supplies and nonperishable food to schools in New Orleans. Perhaps the greatest recent example of this rise in compassion happened in the days, weeks, and months after the September 11th attacks when our nation truly became United States. I am all for the show of compassion succeeding the Boston Marathon explosions, or any other tragic instance that garners support from the public. However, I cannot help but wonder what it would be like if a majority of people (worldwide) employed a sort of proactive compassion, rather than the reactive compassion that pops up in times of woe.

According to the 14th Dalai Lama “True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason. Therefore, a truly compassionate attitude towards others does not change even if they behave negatively.” If we take His Holiness of Tibet at his word, then we are faced with a seemingly counterintuitive notion. How are we supposed to have compassion for the suspected bombers Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev?Does the Dalai Lama really expect us to put aside our anger, grief, and overall confusion for a compassionate attitude toward two young men who strategically placed explosives in an area where they would achieve maximum carnage–killing 3 and wounding scores more? Simply, yes. This notion is difficult to grasp because I lacked compassion toward the Boston bombers prior to their horrific act of terror. I’d never even met them. I know nothing about them, aside from their actions of murder and mayhem. So, why should I (or anyone) employ compassion now?

Let’s assume, for a moment, that we live in a world where the Dalai Lama’s teachings are widely accepted as absolute truth (I wish). In this world everyone employs a compassionate attitude toward other beings. This attitude is founded on reason rather than emotion. To clarify, compassion here can be understood as genuine sympathy for others’ suffering and the will to help remove their pain. This is an entirely selfless way of thinking, dependent on a high level of awareness. In this hypothetical world, we must be aware of the suffering of others at all times. Though, it is not enough to simply be aware of the suffering, we must also have the will to help end their suffering. With this understanding I begin to see the merits in an unchanging compassionate attitude, even towards those who behave negatively.

Those who behave negatively are often the ones suffering the most. From a young age we are taught the schoolyard bully is really just a sensitive kid dealing with personal problems in a destructive way, rather than a truly bad person. Crime riddled, impoverished areas feeding our prison systems are full of suffering people, yet we easily sweep them into the margins by labeling them bad. It takes much more energy and effort to realize the suffering that leads people to behave negatively. I cannot imagine the personal suffering that would lead a person to commit an act of terror inline with the Boston explosions. I am not aware of that sort of suffering.

Perhaps that is the problem. Too often, we are unaware of others’ suffering until it is too late to ease their pain. We are unaware of the mental illness or personal demons infecting a person until they bring an assault rifle to a movie theater or school. We see negative behavior at the surface and punish that behavior without diving deeper to find the root, the suffering that caused the negative behavior. In no way am I attempting to justify negative behavior, mass killings, or acts of terror. Instead I am attempting to justify a compassionate attitude towards anyone who behaves negatively at any scale, large or small.

In this time of uncertainty many are asking “Why is the world so crazy?” “How can all these terrible things happen to innocent people?” These are questions that I cannot answer. I do know this; business as usual is not going to change anything. If we continue with the sort of reactive compassion, saved only for those with tangible suffering then we will continue to live in a world where a minority of people can behave negatively and create chaos for the majority.

There is an old Buddhist legend about a student who retreats high into the mountains where he meditates in hopes of achieving enlightenment and meeting the Buddha. After twelve years of seclusion the student gives up, realizing he will never meet the Buddha or achieve enlightenment. Journeying down the mountain he happens on a village road. In the middle of the road there is a starving rabid dog, with its hind legs severely wounded and covered in maggots. The dog drags its hind legs as it snaps its teeth at passersby, making passage on the road very difficult. The student is overcome with compassion towards this suffering animal, and rips off a piece of his own flesh for the dog to eat. While the dog eats, the student tries to clean the maggot infested wound. Afraid he will kill the maggots by removing them with his fingers, the student decides to lick them away with his tongue. As he leans in toward the wound the dog miraculously  disappears and the Buddha appears in front of the student. The student realizes that after twelve years of attempting to fulfill his own desires, it was this one act of ultimate compassion that led him to enlightenment.

This legend myth story is an extreme example of compassion, retold to make a point. It highlights the notion of true compassion as understood by the Dalai Lama. When we put aside our own desires we are able to see others’ suffering. When we see others’ suffering we are able to develop the will to ease their pain. This is exactly what happens in the wake of terrible events like the Boston explosions. We saw hundreds of people suffering. We set aside our seemingly meaningless daily routines to offer well-wishes, prayers, aid money, donate blood, or volunteer to ease the suffering. What if we acted this way every day, all of the time? Would we still live in a world at war, where terrorism is fostered in all corners and pervasive violence subjugates masses of people daily?

I tend to think not. Now, as these moments of compassion are present and relevant, let us extend this compassionate attitude beyond Boston. Let us extend it to every city, town and person in America. Let us extend it days, weeks, months, and years into the future. Let us extend it to the unrest in Syria and any other place experiencing conflict. Let us extend it to the training camps where young men are being indoctrinated with the false accomplishments of terrorism. Let us extend it to the soldiers who fight for either side. Let us extend it to our enemies and our rivals so that one day we may call them our friends and brothers.

You may read this and think I’m being an idealist, not based in reality. Perhaps this is true. However, as evidenced by the current attitude toward the people of Boston, we are certainly capable of grand compassion. So, why wait for something terrible to happen before we express that compassion? I challenge myself, and I challenge you, to employ unchanging compassion toward all. We might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

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