Is compassion central to all religions?

June 1st, 2010

There’s been some discussion of a New York Times essay by the Dalai Lama. Some of the contention has come from a broader claim made elsewhere, or the claim implicit in the title “Many Faiths, One Truth”–which, of course, may have just been a headline writer’s misguided summary.

The essay itself doesn’t claim that all faiths believe in the exact same truth. Instead, it argues that four major religions, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism, all have compassion as a “central” or “core” element.

So what do we do with this broad pronouncement? Does this mean that anything presented as a religion, including Scientology, Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, etc., are all equally compassionate? I would hope not. Does this mean that people who are not religious don’t have compassion as a central guiding principle? I would hope not as well.

It’s problematic because of the idea of a “center” or “core.” The Buddha taught that an individual’s center is impossible to define, using the analogy of a cart, which I update to the analogy of a car. Is “the car” the same as the tires? The body? The engine? It isn’t. You can replace those parts and it’s still considered the same car. A person is like that, the Buddha says. We swap out parts of the self and become different people, but there’s still a kind of continuity. What, at its core, is this continuity? In a sense, any name we give to it will be not quite right.

The name “Buddhism” refers to a vast web of stuff. Buddhism includes temples and books, chanting and prostrations, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan, Detroit. One of these many elements included is compassion. If we swapped out all the other stuff and replaced it, would the compassion alone still make it Buddhism?

It actually reminds me of the study of literature. When you read a book for a class, you can expect the question, “What is this book really about?” Your answer comes in the form of an essay, essay meaning “try,” an attempt to pin down a core knowing that an equally intelligent person might say it’s really about something else.

Over time, literary theory developed particular ways of thinking, systems used to point in a direction for the “really about” question. Feminist theory tends to answer, “The story is really about the different perceptions of men and women.” Marxist theory tends to answer, “The story is really about the struggle of the working class.” Perhaps if we follow the Dalai Lama’s advice here, we develop a kind of “compassion theory.” We look at any religious teaching or text and find a method of interpretation so that we can faithfully say, “This story is really about compassion.”

Why this worries me: schools of theory can tend to put us in blinders, paying only selective attention. When we learn about another religion, are we paying attention to what we’d like to think it’s saying, what will confirm what we already hope to believe about it? Are we going to say as soon as we hear the word “compassion,” “Yup, I get it. Say no more. We have compassion in my religion too”?

If you want to study compassion theory and study it well, my advice is to follow the avenue of questioning. Even if compassion is at the core of religions, it’s because the founders of those religions each had something precise to say about compassion. They started religions because they wanted to correct people’s misguided definition of compassion, because what people would like to think about compassion, according to these sages, was incorrect. So if you want to know that Christianity is about compassion, figure out precisely what the Gospels say about compassion, and how it differs from what the Dhammapada says about compassion, what the Quran says about compassion, what Star Trek says about compassion. Don’t be afraid to take a stand and say when something is wrong.

The question “What is compassion?” is too big for one religion to answer. Maybe to accept diversity of religions is to accept that different answers are an essential part of it. We won’t see that if we assume all religions, and all religious people, are all saying the same thing.

2 Responses to “Is compassion central to all religions?”

  1. Shawn says:

    I think, ‘Drew, you may be going to a depth in a direction that’s unnecessary with this. Beings that communicate with one another give labels to things – to categorize items – in order to communicate and survive. Even plants send signals to each other through their root structures or pollen releases that label “intruders”, “attackers”, “enemies”, “harmless”, “nuisances” or other variants in their own form of communication. The point is to know the non-corporeal intentions and non-corporeal location of “the other” – and identify “enemies” and “non-enemies.”

    Call it “compassion”, if you will. Some labels are better than others – no one word will ever be perfect. Just like even the simple plants, those who are looking to find consistencies between religions are trying to find the meta-physical/spiritual location (and hence, intentions) of what’s commonly known as “good” and “evil”.

    This spiritual gradient process is similar in nature to a shift in colors, from white to black. Most of the colors on the commonly thought of spectrum between them are shades of gray, as can scientifically be proven. If you go with a more expansive way of thinking about color, there are many millions of shades and colors between white and black. Yet, when one considers what is actually “white” and actually “black”, the individual identifiable variants and the two endpoints of the spectrum are extremely few.

    Likewise, spirituality, faith, and of course, religions, are all tools that humans use to try to help them categorize actions and events in their lives, and their non-physical location in relation to the universe around them. Each religion’s way of helping a being find their location is like the “grayscale” version of the white/black comparison. But when considering many different religions together, one should look at them as the multi-variant, full-color version of the spectrum.

    The importance in identifying similarities between differing religions isn’t the difference between the “grayscale” version of the black/white comparison, and the multi-variant, full-color version. It’s that all the different measurement tools use compatible versions of “good”and “evil” along their respective spectrums. Call it black/white, good/evil, whatever.

    Why humans want so badly to see the comparisons is to simply know – intellectually and spiritually – that they can get “there” (where the “other” person is) from “here” (where they are), and vice-versa.

    It’s a way of identifying the spiritual and metaphysical “location” of others along the spectrum – and oftentimes an attempt to know how to communicate (or block communication) from that point to this.

    At it’s core, it’s a need to know who is “the enemy” in order to survive.

    The one truth is that – because of our corporeal nature – there ARE those two endpoints, however one chooses to label them. Which means that ALL religions are, at some of their most important key anchor points, the same. One can – and in fact, SHOULD – accept that a diversity of religions and paths to spirituality are essential to understanding one’s own “location” in respect to not just one’s own religion, but to the metaphysical/spiritual “locations” of others. All religions are trying to help those they speak to, to find their own “locations”. So in the most generalized form, they ARE all trying to accomplish similar tasks – and could therefore be said to be saying the same things.

    “What is compassion” IS too big a question for just one religion.

    Knowing that each religion is trying to identify something that can be called “compassion” – and that definition can be roughly compared to a similar definition within the “language” of the other – is something small enough most people overlook it.

    We are all trying to survive and find our way through the universe. Given that we are limited in our methods and abilities, to a greater or lesser degree, by our physical bodies and our ties to them, and that everyone – and everything – that is also trapped within the same strictures would find similar methods of identification, categorization, and labeling is not only highly logical. It’s also logical that humans would identify common “endpoints” along the spectrum. According to developing science, it’s a further logical extension that as more beings with differing perspectives but similar natures agree upon similar definitions of those things, that those things, are – in fact – what the collective experience says they are. Yet each individual will experience the whole in their own way.

    Call it compassion, call the endpoints “good” & “evil”, if you must.
    But there ARE commonalities and “endpoints”. And we are all within THIS form of experiential reference.
    Those are “core” facts that cannot be gotten away from.

    How each of us define our cosmic/metaphysical/spiritual “location”, in reference to those points, and to each other?
    That’s up to each of us.

    That doesn’t change the core.

    My retake on the Dalai Lama’s essay is just that: all major religions are attempting to help their proponents define their place in the universe along a line drawn between those two common endpoints. We like to think religions and belief systems as positive, and often attempt to couch them in positive ways – so labeling that defining role as a positive way to find one’s self – compassion – is not out of line.

    If one only holds to one, small, semi-myopic version of what “compassion” means, along their own defining access, then they’ll never truly know what compassion is. At it’s core, it’s simply a way to help define one’s cosmic position, with a positive spin.

    NBD. [No Big Deal]
    Blinders aren’t a concern, if you acknowledge that each individual point along each line is, unto itself, it’s own fully-valid omni-directional perspective of our shared reality, and that unless you experience each point along that line (an impossibility), one cannot, with totality, define compassion for all others, along all lines, at all points. That doesn’t prevent one from acknowledging that all religions and all religious people are saying similar things.

    The problem isn’t the acceptance of the construct.
    It’s that most of the beings within the construct don’t communicate in wholly compatible – or even partially compatible – ways.

    So we’re each different, with vaguely similar goals, including survival and improvement. OK.

    In other news, water is wet, and fire is hot.

    Have a smile and a sandwich. 😀

    My $3 worth. And change.

  2. Bija Andrew Wright says:

    Interesting points, Shawn, but I still feel like there are some tough questions that haven’t been answered. On some level, maybe I’m arguing with a kind of discourse on the level of “Tomorrow” from Little Orphan Annie. I mean, I can’t argue with Annie’s claim that tomorrow is only a day away, because that is by definition true. I could argue with her point that one should bet one’s bottom dollar that tomorrow, there will be sun–but the point isn’t whether or not it’s true, but whether it’s an attitude conducive to well-being. So maybe the Dalai Lama’s claim isn’t a testable one, isn’t one that we should discern with evidence, but one that we should meditate on. Maybe it’s philosophy and not an editorial. That’s a problem when it’s published on the editorial page, though.

    If I take it as an editorial, I still have questions. When a statement is made about “all religions,” does that mean every phenomenon ever called a “religion,” or just the ten or so that dominate the demographics? Does a statement about “all religions” include atheism, the faith of no faith?

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