Compassion’s Fruit


Psychologist Carl Jung once said that a great deal of institutional religion seems designed to prevent the faithful from having a spiritual experience. Instead of teaching people how to live in peace, religious leaders often concentrate on marginal issues: Can women or gay people be ordained as priests or rabbis? Is contraception permissible? Is evolution compatible with the first chapter of Genesis? Instead of bringing people together, these distracting preoccupations actually encourage policies of exclusion, since they tend to draw attention to the differences between us and them.

These policies of exclusion can have dramatic consequences. Most notably they have given rise to the militant piety that we call fundamentalism, which erupted in every major world religion during the 20th century. Every fundamentalist movement, whether in Judaism, Christianity or Islam, is convinced that the modern secular establishment wants to destroy it. Fundamentalism is not inherently violent. Most fundamentalists simply want to live what they regard as a good religious life in a world that seems increasingly hostile to faith.

But when a conflict has become entrenched in a region (as in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Chechnya, religious fundamentalists have gotten sucked into the escalating violence and become part of the problem. Even in the United States, members of the Christian Right believe that their faith is in jeopardy and that they have a sacred duty to protect it by attacking their liberal opponents. When people feel that their backs are to the wall, they often lash out aggressively. Hence the hatred that continues to cause so much turmoil around the world.

Yet such religiously inspired hatred represents a major defeat for religion. That's because at their core all the great world faiths : including Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam : agree on the supreme importance of compassion. The early sages and prophets all taught their followers to cultivate a habit of empathy for all living things.

Why then do supposedly religious leaders declare war in God's name? Why do some people use God to give a sacred seal of approval to their own opinions? I would argue that these people have forgotten what it means to practice compassion. The word compassion of course does not mean to feel sorry for someone. Like sympathy, it means to feel with others, to enter their point of view and realize they have the same fears and sorrows as yourself.

The essential dynamic of compassion is summed up in the Golden Rule, first enunciated by Confucius in the year 500 BC: "Do not do unto others as you would not have done to you." Confucius taught his disciples to get into the habit of shu: "likening to oneself." They had to look into their own hearts, discover what gave them pain and then rigorously refrain from inflicting this suffering upon other people.

The Buddhists also taught a version of the Golden Rule. He used to advise his monks and lay followers to undertake meditative exercises called The Immeasurables. They had to send out positive thoughts of compassion, benevolence and sympathy to the four corners of the earth, not omitting a single creature (even a mosquito) from this radius of concern. They would thus find that once they had gone beyond the limiting confines of egotism and self-interest, their humanity had been enhanced. They would even have intimations of infinity.

Rabbi Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus, taught the Golden Rule in a particularly emphatic way. One day a heathen asked him to sum up the whole of Jewish teaching while standing on one leg. Hillel stood on one leg and replied, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it." This is an extraordinary statement. Hillel did not mention any of the doctrines that seemed so essential to Judaism : such as belief in one God, the Exodus from Egypt, and adherence to the complexities of the Law of Moses.

Jesus taught the Golden Rule in this way: he told his followers to love even their enemies and never to judge or retaliate. If someone struck them on the face, they must turn the other cheek. In his parable of the "last day," when the King comes to judge the world, those who enter the kingdom do not do so because they have adopted orthodox theology or observed the correct sexual mores, but because they have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty and visited the sick and the criminals in prison. St. Paul agreed: Christians could have a faith that moved mountains; but if the people lacked charity, it was worth nothing.

Islam is also committed to the compassionate ethic. The bedrock message of the Koran is an insistence that it is wrong to build up a private fortune, and good to share your wealth fairly in order to create a just and decent society where poor and vulnerable people are treated with respect. On the last day, the one question that God will ask Muslims is whether they have looked after the widows, the orphans and the oppressed. If they have not, they cannot enter Paradise.

Why was there such unanimous agreement on the primacy of compassion? Truly religious people are pragmatic. The early prophets and sages did not preach the discipline of empathy because it sounded edifying, but because experience showed it worked. They discovered that greed and selfishness were the causes of our personal misery. When we gave them up, we were happier. Egotism imprisoned us in an inferior version of ourselves and impeded our enlightenment. The safest way of combating ego was to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and replace us with others.

Human beings by nature seek ecstasy. If we do not find ecstasy in religion, we turn to art, music, dance, sports, sex, even drugs. But such rapture can only be temporary. Religious leaders claim that the practice of the Golden Rule can give us an experience of ecstasy that is deeper and more permanent. If every time we are tempted to speak unkindly of an annoying colleague, a sibling or an enemy country, we asked ourselves how we would like such a thing said of ourselves and as a result of this reflection, desisted, in that moment we would transcend our ego. Living in this way day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, we would enjoy a constant slow-burning ecstasy that leaves the self behind. The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once remarked that when we put ourselves at the opposite pole to ego, we are in the place where God is.

The practice of compassion has to be consistent. It does not work if we make it selective. As Jesus explained, if we simply love those who are well disposed to us, no effort is involved; we are simply banking up our own egotism and remain trapped in the selfishness we are called to transcend. That is why Jesus demanded that his followers love their enemies. They were required to feel with people who would never feel affection for them, and extend their sympathy without expecting any return benefit for themselves.

Does that mean we're supposed to "love" Hitler or Osama Bin Laden? The practice of compassion has nothing to do with feelings. According to 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas, what we call love simply requires that we seek the good of another human being. If we allow our hatred and rage to fester, this would not hurt our enemies : it would probably gratify them! : but we ourselves would be diminished. Anger is what the Buddha called an "unskillful emotion." Feelings of rage are natural. But if they are indulged they are unhelpful since they often proceed from an inflated sense of self-importance.

I have noticed that compassion is not a popular virtue. Where is the fun of religion if you can't disapprove of other people? I suspect there are some people who would feel obscurely cheated if, when they finally arrive in heaven, they found everybody else there as well! Heaven would not be heaven unless those who reached it could peer over their celestial parapets and watch other unfortunates roasting below! We need training in compassion because it does not come to us naturally.... The history of each faith tradition represents a ceaseless struggle between our inherent tendencv to aggression and the mitigating virtue of compassion. Religiously inspired hatred has caused unimaginable suffering around the world, but secularism has had its failures too. Auschwitz, the Gulag, and the regime o Saddam Hussein show the fearful cruelty to which humanity is prone when all sense of the sacred has been lost.

None of these atrocities could have taken place if people were properly educated in the simplest of all principles, the Golden Rule. We live in one world. We have to learn to reach out in sympathy to people who have different opinions, at home and abroad. We need the ethic of compassion more desperately than ever before.

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