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Romanticizing and Operationalizing Buddhist Compassion

November 1, 2009

Christianity is a religion of love. Buddhism is a religion of compassion. Islam is a religion of peace.

These are romanticizations of religious traditions, and ones that rely upon the first-order discourse religious practitioners use to describe their own tradition.

Unfortunately, there is often a gap between rhetoric an reality. George Bush said he favored peace, but his actions were not peaceful.

This point recently struck home as I was watching a documentary on a Buddhist nunnery in Tibet. The documentary romanticized the nuns in this monastery as being extremely compassionate. At one point they interviewed one nun who claimed to have thoughts of compassion every waking moment.

My question was this: so what is she doing about it?!

In fact, she was doing nothing.

Okay, that’s not quite right: she was sending out prayers of compassion into every square inch of the universe (the rhetoric in the video was pretty much exactly like this).

I’m sorry, but sitting on your ass in a monastery while praying does not count as compassionate in my book.

We need to operationalize compassion rather than romanticize communities that merely claim they are compassionate. This would require us to state, explicitly, what actual behaviors we would count as exemplary of compassion.

This is what researchers have to do. If I’m a psychologist and I’m doing a psychological study on how humans behave when they’re anger, I have to operationalize anger—I have to show what behaviors (rather than internal mental states) I will count as angry, so I can know when subjects are angry and when they are not.

So let’s operationalize compassion—what behaviors count as compassionate and what behaviors do not? While we’re at it, let’s operationalize love and peace.

That way when a group says they stand for compassion, love, of peace, we don’t need to take them at their word.

I recently overheard a debate about gay rights between a conservative Christian homophobe and a lesbian. The Christian said he loved gays and lesbians, although he didn’t support their equal rights. The lesbian said, “to be honest, I’m not feeling the love.”

Right on.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Beelzebub permalink
    November 1, 2009 4:01 pm

    As an assistant professor of Religious Studies, you likely know more about this than I do, but since one of the tenets of Buddhism is that the root of all suffering is desire, might that influence the way Buddhists go about doing their compassionate things? Capitulating to desire doesn’t remove suffering quite so much as the removal of desire (as I understand it). From my standpoint, it seems that religions often have these little things here and there within them that tend to cut their legs right out from under them should they try to improve material conditions in the real world. Like the Christian belief in heaven, for example. Not that this always holds true, but I think a lot of times that belief discourages certain actions, because hey, everything will be better in the afterlife! I think it’s a really big flaw in a lot of religious teaching.

  2. Vidya permalink
    November 1, 2009 4:23 pm

    “I’m sorry, but sitting on your ass in a monastery while praying does not count as compassionate in my book.”

    Except from a Buddhist point of view, it does. Many Buddhists would consider thinking to be an ‘act’ which has definite consequences on the world. As a Hindu, this makes perfect sense to me, as well. In both traditions, our individual minds are considered to be interlinked in a wider network of consciousness, and we believe that those who train their minds can impact others in this way.

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 1, 2009 4:32 pm

    Beelzebub, yes and no: there are some socially active Buddhists who DO act to alleviate impoverished material conditions. But yea, overall, I think that the Buddhist idea of compassion usually amounts to something like “help others renounce desire.”

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 1, 2009 4:41 pm

    Vidya, to my knowledge our job as scholars is not to legitimate by replicating the “points of view” of those we study. A legitimate, workable, scholarly ontology cannot accept the idea that thoughts of individual minds can magically alter the world. Such an ontology should not be taken for granted in an academic context.

    Sexist assholes sometimes marshal an ontology according to which women are naturally inferior to men and therefore need to be taken care of and relegated to a subordinate position. Scholars should absolutely NOT rubber stamp such an ontology by repeating the romanticized version of events given in first-order discourse. I cannot in good conscience say that women benefit from holding a subordinate position. That only makes sense if one accepts the dubious ontology.

    Neither can I in good conscious rubber stamp this Buddhist ontology by repeating the claim that people sitting on their ass in a monastery and “sending good vibes to the whole universe” are actually thereby doing compassionate work.

  5. Vidya permalink
    November 1, 2009 5:58 pm

    “Such an ontology should not be taken for granted in an academic context.”

    No, of course it shouldn’t. But nor should the ontology be taken for granted that this *does not* constitute compassion, as that would be privileging a materialist conception of reality and consciousness over alternate ones. The point is, as scholars we’re not in a position to evaluate whether or not a particular act is “really compassionate,” except insomuch as a particular society deems it to be such — the latter being what we look at when we consider the practice of religion from a social/cultural perspective, anyways.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 1, 2009 6:08 pm

    I’m completely willing to privilege a materialist conception of reality over alternate ones.

    If we do what you suggest, then we’re privileging a relativist view where it’s quite possible women and gays are right to be oppressed (because it makes sense on some essentialist ontology that just might be true). I’m not willing to reproduce that relativism.

  7. November 1, 2009 7:05 pm

    Are you talking about someone being “right” or someone being “compassionate”? Your thoughts strike me as bundling a number of different thoughts together rather indiscriminately. And you seem to play one idea (justice or right) off the other (compassion or love) to make points for which I’m not convinced you’ve so far made a real argument.

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 1, 2009 7:14 pm

    Evan, the point is that any decision about whether or not something is “just” or “compassionate” or whatever will necessarily rely on background assumptions, and often a whole ontology.

    I’m suggesting that I think it is unacceptable for scholars to assume a supernatural ontology or an essentialist ontology.

    Praying might be compassionate on a supernatural ontology, but it’s unlikely to be compassionate on a materialist ontology.

    It might be compassionate to subordinate women to men if we had a gender-essentialist ontology, but subordination is unlikely to be compassionate on a non-essentialist ontology.

    I’m unwilling to accept first-order claims at face value when they depend on dubious ontological assumptions. Second, I reserve the right to criticize such claims as actually wrong, given a materialist perspective. I.e., prayer by itself is, in fact, NOT compassionate, and to claim that it is is to promote a dubious and possibly oppressive ideology.

    Is there something about this that still doesn’t make sense?

  9. November 1, 2009 7:50 pm

    Sure, I get that you have a problem with the perspectives from which these words and actions are coming. And you’re as free to work from materialist assumptions as anyone else; I take it the important thing is to clarify one’s perspective when dialoguing across differing assumptions.

    Even within a materialist framework, though, it doesn’t seem obvious to me that religious devotion to prayer would be judged as not compassionate. A materialist account may say that it is not effective compassion, or that it is compassion based upon troublesome grounds of belief. But is it thus not compassionate?

    Which brings me to the oddest thing about your post. How does employing operationalist ideas prevent one from measuring compassion by means of devotional practice? Surely the sacrifices made in monastic vows or the hours spent in evangelical proselytizing are rather obvious metrics for gauging a subject’s “compassion” towards someone or something? You’re certainly right that we need to separate a scientific investigation from unhelpful metaphysical obstructions, but I think that means abandoning any attempts whatsoever of proving right or wrong the supernatural claims of these people. We need to look at their actions and the way that these actions are interpreted by the actors to get a sense of their compassion.

  10. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 1, 2009 7:53 pm

    Hmmm. I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying. Maybe this would clear it up: I would operationalize compassion by doing things like counting how many people were helped and to what extent. So, for instance, we could count how many people were served in a soup kitchen. To my knowledge, there’s no way to count how many people are helped through prayer.

    Does showing how I would operationalize compassion make it more clear why prayer wouldn’t count?

  11. Vidya permalink
    November 1, 2009 7:55 pm

    The Buddhist (etc.) view of meditation/prayer as a ‘compassionate act’ has always struck me, in fact, as constituting a resistance of sorts against capitalist structures of thought which centre people’s values in their ability to produce quantifiable ‘profit’ of one sort or another. The are many people who, by virtue of health condition or other physical, mental, or social disability, cannot contribute to society in a direct, concrete way, whether compassionate or otherwise. The idea of contributions which transcend one’s ability to mobilize one’s body in conventional forms of labour seems particularly inclusivist and liberatory, even if we can’t measure the effects.

    Anyways, as far as personal beliefs are concerned, I certainly believe in the effects of such spiritual compassion, because I have had the privilege to know people capable of this, and have experienced the effects. It would seem that an academic stance which denied this as a possibility (distinct from accepting it as a confirmed reality, of course) would be very marginalizing to a huge segment of the extremely diverse Canadian student population which finds its way to my classroom — and for little reason, as we can’t disprove this particular belief anymore than we can prove it. It’s perfectly legitimate to point out that this is inconsistent with a materialist ontology, but also that it’s consistent with a Buddhist ontology, and not just a weird thing that a bunch of odd people randomly do; i.e., it’s perfectly understandable according to a particular, culturally specific rationality. (Your example of gender-essentialist ontologies holds here as well; while I would not disguise my own gender-equity orientation, itself a consequence of my own worldview, if we are trying to understand — and teach others to understand — cultural settings of which gender inequality is a feature, then making sense of its place and support within those specific worldviews is a must. In the end, it’s up to each student/person to decide what to accept as ontologically and ethically legitimate.)

  12. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 1, 2009 8:07 pm

    Vidya, here are a few, unsystematic comments:

    1) Why the use of words like “inclusive” and “marginalize”? We’re always including and marginalizing. Every time I advocate for the big bang I marginalize the young earth theories. So what?

    2) People have done tests to figure out the power of prayer. They haven’t done very well.

    3) You suggest we need to understand claims in their particular context. No doubt. I completely agree with you there. But we don’t need to stop there. We can go far beyond first-order discourse in explanation and understanding.

    4) Your last comment seems to suggest you’re in favor of the liberal idea of a value-neutral education, but this has been completely outdated since the rise of so-called postmodern philosophy. The fact/value distinction has been thoroughly debunked in both recent continental and analytical philosophy. Just a few names: Derrida, Foucault, Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam …

  13. November 1, 2009 8:33 pm

    Hmmm. I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying. Maybe this would clear it up: I would operationalize compassion by doing things like counting how many people were helped and to what extent. So, for instance, we could count how many people were served in a soup kitchen. To my knowledge, there’s no way to count how many people are helped through prayer.

    Does showing how I would operationalize compassion make it more clear why prayer wouldn’t count?

    But if you’re trying to measure “compassion” through operational indicators that reliably identify “how many people are helped”, then it seems that you’re interested in measuring “helpfulness” rather than “compassion”. The whole point of an operationalist approach is to identify useful indicators of the phenomenon you’re trying to study, and again, I don’t see why “hours in prayer” or “hours proselytizing” couldn’t conceivably get this methodological job done, and done in a way that focuses more on the person’s subjective compassion rather than objective measures of help that others receive.

    I don’t see why an operationalist approach requires quantifiable outcomes of the sort that you seem to insist is necessary. It’s not clear to me why this is the best way to examine something like compassion, which is not usually understood in such consequentialist terms.

  14. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 1, 2009 8:46 pm

    Oh, I see what you’re saying. Basically, my response is that I insist that compassion should be understood in consequentialist terms, rather than as a subjective state. And I bet these Buddhists would too. When they say this nun is compassionate, I think they mean that she is producing real-world consequences.

    I could be wrong about that—in which case we’re using the word compassion differently.

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions (or compassionate intentions), so that’s not the sort of compassion I care for …

  15. November 1, 2009 9:18 pm

    As I see it, then, some problems still remain. First, you’ll have to offer a convincing reason why compassion has consequentialist implications in the first place, because for lots of reasonable people I think that’s not at all obvious. Second, it seems that even for those who agree with you that compassion needs to do something, you’ll have to face the possible Buddhist-consequentialist response that the effect of the nun’s compassion simply isn’t scientifically observable. Which, I take it, is a completely reasonably claim to make. At this point would you argue that only claims of compassion with quantitative and observable outcomes should be understood as truly compassionate? Or that some sorts of compassion are possibly outside of the realm of critical inquiry?

  16. Vidya permalink
    November 1, 2009 10:13 pm

    “When they say this nun is compassionate, I think they mean that she is producing real-world consequences.”

    While I don’t think that producing direct consequences *for other people* is a necessary assumption in Buddhist thought — i.e., if cultivating compassion leads to greater enlightenment, then one is in a better position to help others in both concrete and transcendent ways — I also don’t think the distinction really holds for Buddhist thought, for reasons I’ve alluded to above. If, as some Mahayana traditions (in particular) maintain, consciousness is a unitary phenomenon uniting all beings, then there’s no self-other distinction on an ‘ultimate’ level, and helping oneself and helping another is not really different.

    “People have done tests to figure out the power of prayer. They haven’t done very well.”

    What I’ve seen of these ‘tests’ all look like attempts to apply the scientific method to prayer, with the assumption that such a method is a universally applicable evaluative tool for all phenomena, rather than a historically and culturally situated practice which may be limited in its potential field of usefulness.

    Re: value-neutral education. As a Foucauldian, I’m under no illusion about the (im)possibility of such a thing, although I maintain there is some value in holding it as something of an ideal, at least as a heuristic device at a certain level of education. The students I see in my intro-level tutorials, I believe, need to learn how to think through social and cultural phenomena with a certain degree of ‘distance’ in order to be able to clearly analyze the world without being blinded by their provincial concerns and preconceptions. (Too many of them see anxious to condemn the rest of the world for systemic prejudices and discriminatory practices which they themselves partake in, in different forms, within our own society.) Of course, the end result of a good education is the creation of a human being who is anything but neutral in his/her values, but who can critically dialogue with others while rooted in — and aware of — his/her own stance and its broader implications, as well as thoroughly understanding the positions of those with whom he/she engages.

  17. isabel permalink
    November 2, 2009 1:07 am

    Right on.

  18. isabel permalink
    November 2, 2009 1:08 am

    Also, the entirety of science is based on privileging a materialist view of the universe over other views. The material, natural world is the only one we can measure, and thus, the only one we can study in a scientific manner.

  19. fuzzytheory permalink
    November 4, 2009 9:10 am

    Hmmm… I’ve had similar thoughts. Have you looked at Carrette and Kings’ _Selling Spirituality_? I think Zizek’s _On Belief_ makes a similar point: that is, the romanticization of Buddhism and “Eastern” religions in Western contexts serves as a balm to sooth the alienation experienced from capitalism (with the yoga, and the meditation, and the feel-good-ness) in order to make more productive, placated labor. So, similarly, “compassion” in a North American context, might actually have the opposite intended affect–it might dissuade people from actively working towards social justice because they are “self-actualizing” or whatever it is that night-stand Buddhists think.

    One thing I’ve been thinking about for a while is the gap in Buddhist analysis of duhkha between the personal expiation of duhkha and the universal expiation of duhkha. There needs to be some cognizance of how duhkha plays out in between the personal and universal: i.e. how structures, systemic discourses, institutions, etc., in the post-War period are the major source of duhkha, from a social justice standpoint. It is a very easy leap to make when connected with co-dependent origination, but I don’t see anyone really making those connections.

  20. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 4, 2009 2:15 pm

    Yes, I love Carrette and King’s book! Thanks for your comment.

  21. A P permalink
    November 20, 2009 11:11 pm

    I’d like to echo Evan’s suggestion that compassion need not be operationalized in a results-oriented manner. Other possibilities — drawn from research on empathy — include using psychophysiological measures of out-group aversion or general “willingness to help” upon witnessing suffering (and actually, even the ability to recognize suffering).

    While “helpfulness” may be a more useful indicator, by that metric Bill Gates may be incredibly more compassionate than anyone else who’s ever lived. But there are effective ways of training affective empathy, and as of yet no good ones for training how-to-be-the-richest-man-alive, which is why I find the previously listed measures more interesting.

  22. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 21, 2009 11:16 am

    But wouldn’t helpfulness be a results-oriented thing? I.e., someone would probably be categorized as helpful because of effects they produced in the world, rather than because of some inner emotional state without any practical consequences.

  23. A P permalink
    November 21, 2009 2:28 pm

    > But wouldn’t helpfulness be a results-oriented thing?

    Yes, but I thought the goal was to operationalize “compassion,” not “helpfulness.” In my view, that’s something more like the willingness to put others’ needs before one’s own, care about their pain, wish to remedy it, and be actively willing to do so. Then you could criticize the nuns as having “useless compassion” rather than being “uncompassionate.”

    It’s of course not quite that simple — you could say the nuns are clearly not “actively willing” to relieve pain, or that they must care about their own needs above others’. But as in measures of affective empathy, it may be easier to start by measuring responses when subjects are actively confronted with those in need (or videos of them, as is usual).

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