Three Faces of Compassion

Sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church - May 15, 2005

This reading is excerpted from a piece published recently (in AARP Magazine, March & April, 2005) by Karen Armstrong, one of the foremost religious scholars of our time. Her written works and lectures have informed and inspired thousands of seekers after understanding and peace. In "Compassion's Fruit" she writes:

(R)eligiously 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 beings.

Why, then, do supposedly "religious" leaders declare war in God's name? And 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 does not, of course, mean to feel sorry for someone. Like sympathy, it means to feel with others, to enter their point of view and realize that 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 about 500 B.C.E. [Before the Common Era]: "Do not do to others as you would not have done to you." The Buddha [Rabbi Hillel, Jesus, the Koran-all] also taught a version of the golden rule

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 that it worked. They discovered that greed and selfishness were the cause 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 put others there. Perhaps one can explain it this way: we are programmed for self-defense; human beings completed their biological evolution during the Paleolithic Period, when they became hunters. Aggression is thus deeply written into our nature. If we make a consistent habit of countering this aggression, we probably do experience a change of consciousness.

[But] the practice of compassion has to be consistent; it does not work if it is selective. If, as Jesus explained, we simply love those who are well disposed toward us, no effort is involved; we are simply banking up our own egotism and remain trapped in the selfishness that we are supposed to transcend. That, I think, 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 benefit for themselves.

Does that mean that we are supposed to "love" Hitler or Osama bin Laden?

The practice of compassion has nothing to do with feelings. According to the 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, what we call love simply requires that we seek the good of another. If we allow our rage and hatred 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 our own importance.

I have noticed, however, that compassion is not a popular virtue. In my lectures I have sometimes seen members of the audience glaring at me mutinously: where is the fun of religion if you can't disapprove of other people! There are some people, I suspect, who would feel obscurely cheated if, when they finally arrived in heaven, they found everybody else there as well. Heaven would not be heaven unless those who reached it could peer over the celestial parapets and watch other unfortunates roasting below.

The history of each faith tradition represents a ceaseless struggle between our inherent tendency 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 of 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, and we have to learn to reach out in sympathy to people who have different opinions, at home and abroad. We need the compassionate ethic more desperately than ever before.


SERMON: Three Faces of Compassion, by Jaco B. ten Hove

The Golden Rule may just be "the simplest of all principles"-and perhaps one of the oldest. It sounds so easy: just do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As a guiding, if often unobserved ideal, it has pervaded the planet's civilized history, within and beyond religion.

An influential and older contemporary of Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, was once asked by a skeptic to sum up the whole of Jewish teaching while standing on one leg (in other words, briefly). Hillel assumed the position and said only this:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.
That is the Torah; the rest is commentary.

In a similar vein, the Dalai Lama's breath mediation of cherishing self [inhale], cherishing others [exhale] is a reflection of the Buddha's ancient teachings that encouraged followers to send out positive thoughts to all living creatures without exception. And a helpful page in one of our Unitarian Universalist religious education curricula shows how the Golden Rule is expressed in most of the world's religions. (I had that page posted on our old office door.) At an early age we seem to grasp the essential law of the Golden Rule.

But oh, the rigors of a consistently compassionate path! Thomas Aquinas allowed as how such loving practice "has nothing to do with feelings," it "simply requires that we seek the good of another." Sounds reasonable enough, but it's that requirement of consistency-so clearly enunciated by Jesus-that is the real hurdle.

We are not to just seek the good of another when it happens to suit us. No, a truly compassionate ethic suggests that we are to seek the good of ALL others, all the time. That is the enduring spiritual theory and discipline that stands before us still, inviting and challenging us to live out a vision of our species in peace, locally and globally.

And Karen Armstrong reminds us that purely secular efforts have not generally been any more effective at attaining peace. The gift of the Golden Rule is that it transcends any sectarian angle; it is both within and beyond religion, a deeply unifying ethic, bound up in the human heart.

But have you tried loving your enemies lately? Ever? How much do you feel for people who will never feel affection for you? This is no minor challenge. It might even be the most demanding of all teachings by the revolutionary Jesus. Here it is, in Matthew 5:43+44-

You have heard it said, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy." But I say unto you: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use and persecute you.

This, he says unequivocally, is the route to the holy, the path to oneness, and Karen Armstrong agrees, as do I. I understand and accept-intellectually, at least-how a radical compassion toward all other life could indeed steer one toward great holiness, of any religious flavor. Every time I see the Dalai Lama in action I think I see a living being about as close as possible to the ideal.

This leader of Tibetan Buddhists is truly impressive in his non-materialistic compassion, which certainly stands out whenever he interacts with our culture. (I remember a while back, when a friend and UU colleague of mine near Boston was chosen by his local interfaith group to represent them in welcoming the Dalai Lama to their small town, where there was a Tibetan Buddhist temple. My friend wanted to be hospitable and offer the Dalai Lama a gift, about which a story appeared in a local newspaper, with the title "What Do You Get For the Man Who Has Nothing?")

So alas, most of us are probably not as able as the Dalai Lama to achieve radically consistent compassion. Any of us might struggle to meet the mighty expectation of this ideal. I know I fall short all too regularly. I rise in anger and curse back at aggressive strangers. I have trouble not hating bullies. My instincts are not to turn the other cheek and I barely wish the good for what enemies I have. My ego is often on the throne at the center of my world. I forget to practice compassion, locally and globally.

So allow me to preach to myself here a bit this morning, with a few stories and suggestions that might at least improve the odds for us all stepping in the right direction. This is idealistic material, to be sure. Even the Dalai Lama would say that it takes many lifetimes to get it right, so we are also called to be gently compassionate toward ourselves, to cherish ourselves as we strive for the good. That is what ultimately matters, anyway, I think-the intention, the striving, stepping forward along the ethical path-not necessarily any final destination.

It may seem very unrealistic to practice consistent compassion. It may feel stupid, even, or self-defeating. We are surely not taught to value this path by our competitive, violent, escapist culture-except to throw money at needy causes every now and then (which is nonetheless important, of course).

But Karen Armstrong's reminder persists: "We live in one world," and "need the compassionate ethic more desperately than ever before." Despite the depth of the challenge, anyone can assist this noble evolution at any moment. Like many things, it begins with our immediate interactions locally, and only then projects globally. This very afternoon, we each might make an important contribution to a future of more peace by stepping further along our own path toward more consistent compassion.

But I want to suggest that there is no "one-size-fits-all" for this kind of spiritual work. As our species has evolved to its current social complexity, so has embodying the Golden Rule become more complex, with at least three "faces" of compassion that we might recognize, in ourselves and in others. I give credit here to Episcopal priest and leadership trainer, Robert J. Voyle, who in turn honors the work of Stephen Gilligan for his developing understanding of compassion. But it was Rob Voyle who first enumerated these three helpful distinctions for me, and I draw gratefully from an article he wrote on the subject last year ("Compassion and the Crazy Wisdom of Jesus, or One Person's Way to Transform the World," 2004, Robert J. Voyle, Psy.D. The Clergy Leadership Institute).


The first face of compassion, of course, is the TENDER one-the most common and obvious way compassion is expressed. "Tenderness is grounded in empathy and results in a desire to nurture and care for those in distress" [Voyle, ibid, pg. 3]. I expect we all have the direct experience of wearing this face for someone else or receiving someone else's tender compassion ourselves. It can range from being very visible, heartfelt and personal, to understated or anonymous. It can take the form of emotional support or practical help. Many of us here in our Paint Branch Caring Community know either or both sides of this equation, and it often makes a huge difference in our immediate lives.

Tender compassion also motivates us to respond in some way to crises beyond our neighborhoods, like the recent tsunami disaster in South Asia. Many of us sent needed funds, and some people even went over to assist in person, all no doubt with tender compassion for the unfortunate victims. At some level, we know in our heart of hearts that we are all connected on this fragile planet, so we can be moved to feel compassion even for strangers, near and far.

On my own journey, I have always been eager to physically help others nearby in small ways-which I used to perceive as a weakness, actually. I had come to the conclusion that I was low on self-esteem and just wanted other people to like me, so I would often help out in any way I could, anywhere I was-doing extra dishes, picking up things people dropped, opening doors for people, volunteering to take on things no on else would. In moments of reflection afterward, I'd beat myself up for this shallow inadequacy of intention. But at the next opportunity, there I was again, quickly jumping in or reaching out to do little things or big things as called for.

It really wasn't very long ago that I reframed this self-perception to see that my inclination to actively assist others is instead an abiding expression of compassion for our fundamental oneness. My kindnesses just unify us a bit more tangibly. Karen Armstrong has also helped me, with her statement there at the top of your Order of Service: Our differences define us, but our common humanity can redeem us. We just have to open our hearts. So a big part of my path is to self-define better while resting in the truth of our common humanity and keeping my heart open. "Roots hold me close, wings set me free," tenderly.


A second, less obvious face of compassion is FIERCE, especially in the cause of justice. Holding compassion for both those who behave unjustly and their victims does not mean that we just roll over and meekly acquiesce. (I interpret "turning the other cheek" as a strategy, not an absolute.) Witness the active nonviolence preached and demonstrated by Gandhi and Dr. King, who each fiercely expressed with their very lives a compellingly compassionate vision for human equality.

Sometimes the good of the whole calls one to step forth and articulate a larger benefit that challenges a temporary power. And some situations can be complex enough to exhibit what I might call a hierarchy of compassions, when one is called to prioritize the protection of innocents, for instance. This can be accomplished compassionately, but with clarity of purpose as well. "It is this quality of fierceness that we see in the prophets of the Old Testament in their cries for justice and an end to the oppression of the poor" [Voyle, ibid, pg. 4].

I would never pretend that fierce compassion is easy. It requires courage and a steady mindfulness about how one's ego can gain hold of one's vocal chords-which may be why some practitioners spend so much time in meditation, to gain ever greater inner clarity, to be ready to discern authentically at any moment.

One Buddhist story tells of a young female disciple dedicated to her meditations, filling her heart with loving-kindness toward all beings. When she would venture out to the bazaar, however, she would find her practice sorely tested by a particular shopkeeper who subjected her to unwanted caresses. One day she finally she could stand no more and she loudly chased the man away with her raised and threatening umbrella.

She suddenly realized her teacher was standing nearby and had noticed the altercation. Feeling shame and remorse, she went to him expecting to be rebuked for her anger and actions. He received her with this advice: "What you should do is to fill your heart with loving-kindness, and with as much mindfulness as you can muster, hit this unruly fellow over the head with your umbrella." [Adapted from Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart, edited by Christina Feldman and Jack Kornfield, 1991, Harper SF, pg. 297.]

I believe there are times to fill one's heart with loving-kindness and, with as much mindfulness as possible, to act or speak decisively, with fierce compassion. At other times, in more intimate relationship, say, one might care enough to not accept superficial responses. A friend can bring fierce compassion to bear, for instance, when their compatriot is wallowing in self-pity, or during an intervention to save someone from their own self-destructive habits.


"But," as Rob Voyle cautions, "if we [imagine] compassion as having only tenderness or fierceness, we will probably [burn] out with all the seriousness of life. We will also findtimes when tenderness in the face of evil is inappropriate, yet being fierce in some of these circumstances also seems to aggravate the situation So we need another facet to our understanding of compassion" [Voyle, ibid, pg. 5].


Which is the third face- a MISCHIEVOUS or playful one. This was initially quite a leap for me to make-"mischievous compassion"-and it may be for you, too, but stay with me here. "Mischievous" can be defined rather negatively, but think of it as playfully disturbing the status quo, or paradoxically shifting energy-in this case with an open heart, compassionately.

In fact, the use of mischievous compassion in this spirit requires that one cherish and delight in whoever is being tweaked. Otherwise, an unethical arrogance can take over, with one's controlling ego back on the throne. Two examples may prove the best illustration of this third, mischievous face of compassion.

A Zen teacher named Bankei would hold secluded weeks of meditation, attended by pupils from all over Japan. During one such gathering, a student was caught stealing, which was reported to Bankei, but he ignored the case. This happened again, involving the same student, and again Bankei chose to disregard the crime.

This upset the other pupils who petitioned for the dismissal of the thief, threatening that otherwise they themselves would leave as a group. After reading the petition, Bankei called together all the students. "You are wise brothers," he told them. "You know what is right and what is wrong. You may go somewhere else to study if you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave.

A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the guilty brother. All desire to steal had vanished. [Adapted from Feldman and Kornfield, ibid, pg. 228.]

This teacher took a very unexpected, even risky angle, but it was heartfelt and it probably accomplished more than being tenderly or fiercely compassionate.

Meanwhile, Episcopal priest Rob Voyle tells a story from his parish ministry experience, in which he is called in to sit with distraught elder and longtime volunteer caregiver Muriel, who is now herself sidelined by a head injury resulting in some paralysis. This has "radically impaired [both] her ability to care for others and her underlying sense of herself and her worth. As a result she had begun to experience increasing episodes of depression.

Her husband, Albert-a delightful, soft hearted, caring man-[said] to her with great tenderness that for 50 years she had cared for him and now it was time for him to care for her. Rather than bringing comfort, his words brought forth shrieks of lament and tears, because they reinforced Muriel's view that she was [now] incapable of caring for others, consequently worthless, and just taking up space on the earth.

"It was clear by [this]that [more] tenderness would be an inappropriate [approach] to her suffering. She was in great distress, so a fierce response challenging her sense of reality would also have been inappropriate." So Voyle slowly hatched a plan of mischievous compassion, remembering [to himself] that there had recently been some high profile crimes involving uzi machine pistols in the area, which also included a convalescent-retirement home called Oak Manor.

"My response to Muriel," he goes on, "was ... to help her find a new way of viewing herself so that she could live with renewed meaning and hope despite her limitations. I did not know what that view would be but I [said to her], 'I imagine that if I were in your situation I would feel the same way, that if I felt really useless and incapable of helping and caring for others I would also just want to die.

'But here is the thing, Muriel: before you die I think you and I need to get some uzis and go down to Oak Manor and just clean the place out. There are people down there that are so useless they can't even care for themselves They are justtaking up space and requiring other people to waste their time by caring for them. So before you die, I think you and I need to go down there with some uzis and clean the place out.'

"By this time Muriel had stopped crying, [and] was now angry that I could think that she was capable of such a callous act upon defenseless people who need our caring and not such cruelty. Then she stopped and I could see the light go on in her mind. I didn't need to say another thing or explain what I was saying,her perception of herself as worthless was transformed.

"Several days later she was back in church with her husband and she was clearly back to caring for him even if it was not as robust as she had done in the past. She was, however, content in her abilities and in herself. She outlived Albert by quite a few years" [Voyle, ibid, pg. 13-14].

We are facing a shortage of compassionate responses to the issues of our time, locally and globally, but we can increase our repertoire of ways to make peace and be peace. In our own lives, we can "be tender in the face of pain, fierce in the face of injustice, and mischievous in the face of resistance or immobility" [Voyle, ibid, pg. 8-9].

Compassion and the Golden Rule breed peace. That much is simple and hopefully easy to remember, even if the challenges to truly embody such an ethic are demanding. But compassion can be transformative, especially if consistent. It's a tall order, but each step on that path begins by simply breathing in to cherish self; breathing out to cherish others.

And with each life-giving cycle, we spiritually connect with all else that breathes, since the Latin word spiritus means breath. "We just have to open our hearts." The rest is commentary.

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