From London to Los Angeles it seems like it’s the age of compassion. I hear it everywhere I go. Politicians are selling it, advertisers are packaging it, gurus are preaching it, and movie stars are wearing it.
Maybe we Buddhists should be happy about this fashion for compassion. After all, it says in the sutras:
Whoever wishes to attain Buddhahood does not need to train in many teachings but needs only to train in one—that of great compassion.
Yet, I wonder if it’s not in fact actually the age of sentimentality. Perhaps genuine compassion, the wish that all beings be free from suffering and its causes, has been confused with its ugly step-sister. Whereas compassion looks outward to others, sentimentality is all about us and our feelings—a seductive force in a culture where we want to feel good about ourselves all the time. Consequently, sentimentality has little regard for the actual well-being of those for whom it pretends to be concerned. It’s like the foolish parent, who, to feel good about herself, indulges every whim of her child with predictably disastrous results.
At the very same time sentimentality craves applause, an applause that comes at no personal cost, nowadays, if you support the currently approved cause, organization, or party. After all, voting ‘compassionate,’ gets you a free pass on your personal behavior, in addition to invitations to all the best parties, where the great humanitarians and philanthropists mingle.
Unfortunately, we modern Buddhists are not free of this confusion between sentimentality and compassion. Forty or more years on from our first encounter with impeccable Asian teachers, much of our Buddhism is a patchwork of unexamined sentiments and fashionable assumptions, mostly, but not all, benign, and lightly ‘dharma-fied’ by terming them ‘compassion.’ Yet it is vital that our understanding of compassion should be consistent with Buddha’s tough and clear-minded teachings on moral discipline, since, as he insisted, unless people live an ethical life, the genuine happiness that we wish for them in this and future lives will be unobtainable.
We can find these teachings in the vows of the Pratimoksha (‘Individual liberation’), which is regarded in Tibetan Buddhism as the ethical code of the so called Hinayana, just as the Bodhisattva and Vidyadhara vows are the codes for the Mahayana and Vajrayana respectively. In the Pratimoksha vows Buddha set out four fundamental ethical trainings for both householders and monastics:
To avoid taking life
To avoid taking that which has not been given
To avoid sexual misconduct
To avoid false speech
Thus, when we wish that others be endowed with the causes of happiness, we must understand that it is only the practice of these moral precepts that constitutes such causes. In other words, the proper fulfilment of the bodhisattva vow, the supreme expression of compassionate engagement with the needs of others, depends upon our reliance on the essence of the preceding vow, the Pratimoksha.
Sometimes I feel that we are looking in the mirror and telling ourselves it’s Buddhism staring back at us, when, beneath the spiritual cosmetics, we’ve got more or less the same face and same values as before—somewhat older but still untouched by the reality of dharma. It’s a reality, which does not map neatly on to our cultural and political preconceptions but requires that we take moral discipline seriously. It’s not without importance that moral discipline is the first of ‘the three trainings’ comprising morality, meditation, and wisdom. It might even be that our own slow progress as dharma practitioners and the difficulties that have occurred in some western Buddhist communities have their roots in our inattention to this fact.
Yet it’s not too late to begin again but this time let’s start at the beginning—with the dharma served straight up, instead of diluted to our sentimental tastes or adjusted until it looks just like our pre-Buddhist self. By making Buddha’s ethical guidance our basis we might even develop a little compassion this time around in place of the watered-down love that we’ve been busy producing in the name of Buddhist compassion.