Challenges to Compassion

Our shared suffering over CoVid-19 seems to have finally brought us all together.  Imposed quarantine measures experienced globally have somehow made us sympathetic toward one another.  Everybody is grateful to health workers risking their lives, continuing to care for those who are sick, to those tending to food and grocery shops, drugstores, and other establishments catering to our basic needs, in spite of the enhanced community quarantine in certain places.  We feel for everybody. We know we are not alone. We have never been so connected in our isolation. Everybody is now online, or on the cell, asking about loved ones, finding long lost friends, finally spending time listening to and caring for each other from a distance. People have opened their properties to strangers, providing shelter.  Funds are raised to help those in need. Globally, we seem to be responding to the situation in open and compassionate ways, government flops notwithstanding.

But are we, really?  On the micro-level, was our first response to the quarantine an act of compassion?

Here in Metro Manila, the first reaction was to run to the grocery store and panic-buy, to hoard on the basic necessities, to leave none for others who might need them more.  Some sent the help to the hospital or to do errands, and then when they got sick, left them on their own. Businesses whose employees showed signs of symptoms forced them to keep on working, thereby spreading the virus to others, simply because they are on a “no work, no pay” scheme, and staying at home for self-quarantine was never thought to be incentivized by the companies they work for.  Being kind, having a long view of the situation, unfortunately, is not profitable for business. Those believed to have been exposed to the virus—the health workers—were ostracized and discriminated against. They help save lives, and yet many of them lose their lives in the process. This is the saddest thing CoViD-19 has brought us. We seem to lose the most enlightened among us.

In the academe where my energies have been concentrated during this quarantine period,  students protested against online learning and immediately launched a grievance system through which they could complain—legitimately or not—against faculty members who were trying hard to deal with their respective personal situations while still attending to their students.  If they posted homework online or if they were not able to respond to a students’ query immediately, they were reported as violating given policies. They—we—were looked upon as the enemy, intending our students harm, instead of fellow beings vulnerable to the exact same danger that everybody is facing, and perhaps even suffering more because of our responsibilities as heads of family.  Unable to see the time and effort poured into making sure that everybody’s situation is considered and cared for, these young people thought the worst of us simply because we wanted to be responsible for the learning we owe them, while attending to all that has to be dealt with in our personal lives.  The spirit of the decision-making processes and good will in the decisions made were ignored. Us-versus-them mentality immediately prevailed.  It was heartbreaking.

None of these sound compassionate at all.  And because they were our first responses to the situation, they are most likely our truest intentions.  I keep thinking that the way we behave in times of crisis says a lot about the way we really are. The picture I got was not pleasant.

Modern evolutionary psychology explains this reaction to danger, saying that “our modern skulls house a stone age mind.”1 which is trained to see threats from other humans (like a man with a club, not from inanimate sources), and which are morally outrageous, short-term in nature, and happening suddenly, rather than gradually.2  One could argue about this but somehow, CoVid-19 fits the bill.  Since we can’t see the virus, we have to put a face on it—anyone we see in proximity to us will do, since that is how the caveman assessed his surroundings, watching out for nearby enemies.

But if evolutionary psychology is correct, this also means that the immediate response is to defend ourselves and those belonging to our immediate social group—family and close friends.  From this point of view, all that has happened is understandable. But this also means there are huge obstacles that we have to overcome in order to practice compassion. 

This reminds me of the parable of the burning house in the Lotus Sutra.  A rich man sees his house burning with his children inside, oblivious to the danger they are in because they are so engrossed in the game they are playing.  The father realizes that he would not be able to get them out of the house by going in and wrapping them in blankets or by calling out to them. So he uses their love of toys to lure them out of the house, telling them the different carts they have been wanting are now outside and that they should come and get them.  The children do go out and were all given a large and bejewelled cart each.

There is so much more to the story, of course, but it illustrates the idea of using “skillful means”—ways that are suitable to the situation, in order to achieve the goal.  But what means are suitable to our situation? How can we be shaken out of our preoccupation with our own selves? Right now, only the wise know. The Lotus Sutra says:

With wisdom as bright as the sun and the moon, and timely use of skillful means, they make the enterprise of the Great Vehicle prosper and grow, and lead many to attain supreme awakening quickly. Always living in the blessedness of a reality that is fine and wonderful, with immeasurable great compassion, they save the living from suffering.3

This brings another parable to mind.  “An Arm for a Life,”4 narrates that while walking through the forest one day, the Buddha witnessed an eagle swoop down from the sky to catch a dove.  The dove, fortunately, was able to flee to the Buddha for protection. Unable to get to the dove, the eagle then argued for his case saying that by saving the dove, the Buddha was actually causing him, the eagle, starvation.

The Buddha then took out a knife and cut a piece of his flesh from his arm and gave it to the eagle to eat.  The eagle still complained that he would have gotten more meat from the dove, so the Buddha cut more flesh from his arm and fed the eagle some more, until his bone was exposed.  Then, taunted by the eagle for only trying to appear good, the Buddha said, “If my words are the sincere truth, may my arm grow back as good as new.” And it did. Whereupon the eagle revealed himself to be the Emperor of Heaven, bowed to the Buddha, and flew away while singing praises to the Buddha for the compassion he showed.

The ability to suffer with and for others, does “save the living from suffering.” But, again, how do we get there, to be whole-heartedly compassionate?  In the Lotus Sutra, it is written,

To enter the room of the Tathagata is to have great compassion for all living beings. To wear the robe of the Tathagata is to be gentle and patient. To sit on the seat of the Tathagata is to contemplate the emptiness of all things. One should dwell in peace with all three and then, never becoming lazy or careless, teach this Dharma Flower Sutra everywhere to bodhisattvas…5

Compassion for all, gentleness and patience, contemplation of emptiness.  Such tall orders for us who are apparently given to the strong pull of our primitive psychology.  But of the three, I believe that the last, contemplation on emptiness, is key to the practice of the other two.  Unfortunately, it is also the most difficult to achieve. Understanding emptiness requires letting go of our sense of self that is separate from others.  It requires understanding that it is because the self is empty that we are interconnected with all that there is. For if we are empty, there’s room for everyone and everything else. 

The process of emptying, however, is not easy.  How do we fight against centuries and centuries of reinforced selfishness?  Baby steps, I guess? We practice, little by little, one day at a time. It is such a challenge to do so, I have to admit, but changes have to be made, or none of us will survive the virus.  We are in a burning house and we need to get out. Perhaps we can start with our language, change it from a language of hatred (disguised fear) and confrontation into a language of care. Turn “grievance” to “needing help,” for instance, or defensive speech to a speech of understanding.   Then, if we can follow through, start expanding ourselves to see just how it goes. In time and enough practice, perhaps we can turn ourselves inside out and realize there is nothing there after all to hold on to.  Then we’ll have space for everything and everyone else, and see the magic in the Buddha’s sacrifice of his arm for a life.  It will be a struggle, and a difficult one, too. But if we get there, it will all be worth it.   

In the meantime, as the prayer goes, “May we all be safe, and free from fear.”

1 Cosmides, Leda and John Tooby, Evolutionary Psychology: a Primer,
2 Conan, Neal and Daniel Gilbert, “Humans wired to respond to short-term problems,”
3 Reeves, Gene, The Lotus Sutra:  a contemporary translation of a Buddhist Classic,  (Wisdom Publications, 2008).
4 Talovich, G. B. Trans.The love of life. (Taipei, Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 2002).
5 Reeves, Gene, The Lotus Sutra:  a contemporary translation of a Buddhist Classic,  (Wisdom Publications, 2008).

Leni Garcia, MA, PhD works as a professor of Philosophy but lives as an artist-advocate for creativity, gender- and religious-inclusivity, pluralism, and environment care.  When not trying to form deep connections with gentle, sentient beings, she pushes paint on paper, dances, and recycles odds and ends that can be recycled.  Her favorite term-break activity is marathon-watching movie- and cartoon-series with her daughter.