I have been thinking a lot lately about the aspect of compassion in our daily lives, it’s a benefit to ourselves as individuals, and also the benefit of compassion as a greater good to the greater world community.
The problem that I have been analysing and contemplating is how compassion fits in with those of us who teach and use physical force for the protection of others and ourselves.
The general perception of compassion that most people have would be linked to a passive and non-violent action (such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr).
My Question is, Can The Use of Force Ever Be Considered An Act of Compassion?
For example, if someone was physically assaulting another person could another person use physical force to stop them, and if so, could this be seen as an act of compassion?
From my own personal perspective, there has to be an active element of compassion. Otherwise, I feel that we would be far from compassionate by standing back and letting someone become harmed if we had the capability and means to stop it.
Yet how does this fit with the bigger view of compassion?
For example, the Buddhists (who are the Olympic athletes of compassion), sometimes are possibly seen to be using compassion in a fairly passive way, if for example, we consider the Chinese domination of Tibet.
In this situation, many Buddhist monks who have suffered extreme hardship in Chinese prisons have not actively resisted or fought back when they have suffered torture at the hands of their captors.
They instead focussed their minds single-pointedly on compassion.
In one interview recalled by the Dalai Lama, he talks openly about how he once had the opportunity to speak to a Buddhist Monk who had spent many years in a Chinese prison.
During the conversation the monk was asked by the Dalai Lama if he was ever scared, to which his reply was:
“Yes. I was scared of losing my compassion towards the Chinese”.
Now, this is a remarkable feat of compassion, but does this ideal of Buddhist compassion have any bearing in the average person’s day-to-day life, especially those of us who are not Buddhists?
Could being more compassionate help us to better manage what we do, especially for those of us who teach or are expected to use physical force.
Interestingly Prince Charles has recently spoken about the need for NHS staff to be more compassionate.
He has called for a service that accounts for “the core human elements of mind, body and spirit” as well as disease and he urged medical professionals to develop a “healing empathy” to help patients find their own path to health.
The NHS has also issued a ‘Quality statement’ stating that:
“Patients are treated with dignity, kindness, compassion, courtesy, respect, understanding and honesty”.
However, with regard to the NHS, it is reasonable to consider that people, especially patients, should be treated with compassion.
That makes logical thinking as they are probably suffering already.
But What About Someone Committing An Act of Violence?
How do we apply compassion to that type of situation?
In his new book ‘The Good Heart’ the Dalia Lama states that:
“It is definitely the case that there is an active element to compassion, and the possibility is open to the use of force, if it is deemed really necessary”.
In explaining this from a Buddhist perspective he tells the story of the Buddha, who (in a previous life as a merchant) when on a ferry crossing a river, found himself in a difficult situation.
It transpired that the ferryman was a murderer and was planning to kill all 499 passengers in the night on the ferry.
There was no other way that the Buddha could deal with the situation other than getting rid of the murderer.
The Buddha took the responsibility on himself to do that and in doing so not only saved the lives of 499 people, but he also saved the murderer from facing the negative consequences of killing so many people.
From a Buddhist perspective, the sacrifice was to take upon himself the negative act of killing a person and to face the consequences of that act.
This was an act of compassion.
The Dalai Lama does go onto state that it is always better to avoid a situation that would require violent means, and this exactly the same principle of what good risk management in our civilised society requires today – the elimination or reduction of the risk of engaging in a violent act.
However, he goes on to say:
“Nevertheless, if you find yourself in a situation in which you must clearly act in a forceful way in defence, then you must make the appropriate response. In this context, it is important to understand that tolerance and patience do not imply submission or giving in to injustice. Tolerance, in the true meaning of the word, becomes a deliberate response on your part to a situation that would normally give rise to a strong negative emotional response, like anger or hatred. This can be seen in the Tibetan term for patience, soap, which literally means “able to withstand”. This is especially the case with the tolerance of being indifferent to harms that are inflicted upon one”,
and this is what I was referring to earlier in relation to the story about the monk in prison.
The Dalai Lama also goes on to say:
“One might misinterpret this to mean that we should give in or submit ourselves to whatever harm someone else might inflict on us – one might think it means that we should just say, “Go right ahead and hurt me!” But this is not what this kind of tolerance is. Rather it is a courageous state of mind that prevents us from being adversely affected by that incident; it helps to keep us from experiencing mental suffering when we encounter harm. It does not mean that we just give up.”
In short, what the Dalai Lama is conveying is that acting forcefully, even to the point of taking a life, can be seen as compassionate, provided that it is not motivated by anger or hatred. This is also true of the basic principles of law in relation to the use of reasonable force too.
Today we have staff sent on ‘conflict management’, ‘equality and diversity’ and ‘equal opportunity’ courses, all designed to help them monitor and regulate their own behaviour when faced with difficult situations or people of a different ethical or cultural background. In many self-defence and use of force courses techniques are taught within a context of defending against a violent or aggressive individual. So in all cases, the person on whom our attention is focused on is different.
The Buddhist context is to see all people as if we are all the same.
This sameness makes it easier for compassion to come to the fore, and, in my opinion, it would be more valuable and more sustainable then simple sending staff on courses to ‘learn’ a few ‘skills’.
I’d be interested in your comments.