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Buddhists/Compassion and self-protection


Dear Joe,
Hi, it’s me, Jane, again! I previously asked you a question under ‘Zen application of harmlessness in my life’ I reread your answer on how not killing a mosquito carrying the West Nile virus would lead to a person contacting the West Nile virus, so showing compassion to the mosquito by not killing it – is that compassion to the person bitten by that mosquito? Now I am thinking what if it was not a mosquito but a person we are talking about – do we kill criminals? Or perhaps not so severely, do we show ‘compassion’ to a criminal by not reporting them or jailing them (i.e. is it compassionate to give criminals freedom and the chance to change? But then are we compassionate to the victims of repeat offenders?) On a more day-to-day level, can kindness and protecting one’s boundaries by being assertive go together? Zen Buddhism emphasises compassion and some authors go as far as to say there are no boundaries between people, seeing everything as ‘we’ and not as ‘me’ against ‘you’. I wonder what they mean by ‘boundaries’ in this instance. But what about people who repeatedly put down, invalidate, physically hit us – in other words, be abusive to us – because we are ‘kind’ and do not retaliate? Does the Buddha say anything about being assertive and practising self-protection? Or are kindness and assertiveness like everything else – you’ve got to take the middle path? In other words, is it possible to be ‘too kind’? Can it be regarded that assertiveness and self-protection are forms of self-compassion?

Also, some parents believe they have a right to totally control the lives of their teenage children, that this is the compassionate thing to do because they believe they see more clearly than their children and want to protect their children from ‘falling off the cliff’. As a result they do not allow their children to make mistakes and develop their autonomy, resulting in some children remaining perpetual children psychologically. In such cases, what is the compassionate thing for the parents to do?

Hi Jane,
  I’m sorry to take so long to get back to you.  I’ve been very busy with my job lately.  Well you’ve hit the nerve that most religions don’t like touched.  When you really think about and inquire into your belief systems you often come up with problems that are not brushed off with platitudes.

This idea of compassion to the criminal is one that my teacher wrestled with on many levels.  The fellow robs the church and the priest catches him in the act.  Rather than apprehend or punish him he gives him more gold and lets him go.  It sounds nice and implies the robber will somehow be transformed by this. My teacher than posed this; suppose in the next church he not only robs it but rapes or murders someone there, where is the compassion?  Also, where is the compassion to let someone keep doing harmful things to themselves such as being a criminal?  If someone’s self destructive behaviour is not stopped eventually it will destroy them.  Where is the compassion in letting them continue on their path?

Years ago a group wanted me to teach martial arts at a Quaker meeting house because they felt the need to learn how to defend their selves. When they went to the Quaker leaders they were met with a resounding, “No! No forms of violence will be taught here.”  This group asked me to address the leaders over the issue because they really wanted me to teach there.  I went and met with them and posed this line of thought: You are home; someone breaks in to rob you.  They see your wife and daughter and now they want to rape them.  This is not uncommon in these horrific situations.  You have chosen to live a non-violent life and refuse to fight them.  As a result heinous violence is inflicted upon your family and they are scarred for life.  How is your response to violence non-violent?  You could have stopped this but chose not to for some ideal.  Now your family suffers.  Furthermore the criminals go on to perpetrate other crimes.  You could have stopped further violence, why didn’t you?  This did not go over very well and they had no answers for me and dismissed me.

Years ago the Indian guru, Swami Rama, was asked what he would do if while waiting for a bus he saw a women being attacked.  Would he get involved and try to stop the attackers? He replied, “I would be in Samadhi (bliss) and would not see it”.  So his ‘oneness’ with the world excludes the suffering of the ‘one’ woman.  It’s a very selfish and myopic view.  If you see everything as we/I then why don’t you see the suffering?  If my finger were cancerous I would remove it.  It is ‘me’ and yet killing ‘me’ so for the sake of the entire unit it gets removed.  Where does one draw the line on involvement?  There is a certain naivety among the religious when it comes to this.  When asked what he would do if Hitler came to India Gandhi said, “I would lie down before him”.  All that does it make it easier for the corrupt to be corrupt.

On a personal note as one who was strictly raised to turn the other cheek, I went through great grief in trying to maintain this ‘religious’ position.  I went through years of violence because I would not fight back.  Finally, after years of it, I decided to learn martial arts. While studying in Chinatown I had an interesting conversation with one of the other students who was from a very rough area of Philadelphia.  I had made the comment that I could never kill someone if being attacked, that I would rather die instead. This fellow’s name was Russell Jackson and he replied, “So let me get this straight.  You’d let a criminal scumbag who only wants to harm you live, his life is worth more than yours.  Your parents, family and wife will suffer because you let the bad guy live to go on with his treachery. I see this every day in my neighborhood, the bad guy, and you want to let him live over yourself, brother, you are a fool giving up your life and all that is good for him.”   That was over forty years ago and really hits the mark.  

If awakened you see the world as yourself or better put, you see yourself and world all as expressions of nature.  You are nature expressing itself.   In this form of nature would you let a vicious animal kill you or would you fight back?   It’s part of we, so why not let it go?  Where in nature does a species let a rogue member get away with harmful activity?  In the ‘we’ the lamb would lie down to be eaten by the lion or the lion would choose to starve to save the lamb.  Clearly none of this is nature.  In the ‘we’, the idea of it’s not me against you it’s us, where is the boundary between my life and yours.  If it’s we than you can come take the food I worked for and not work yourself.  If there are no boundaries then why does the author have to say there are no boundaries; wouldn’t I intrinsically know this?  I do understand the source of why they say this but I think they have a compromised understanding of it.  My teacher once wrote in calligraphy, “between self and other there is no separation, not even the slightest difference”.  The separation of self is the rise of ego consciousness and the beginning of human suffering.  In Lao tzi it’s, ‘the naming of things…” so when there is a self to separate and name things the problem arises.  Lao tzi proclaims, “Heaven, earth and I arise simultaneously”.  We are all manifestations of nature, we are the one formless nature but expressed in the myriad forms.  Here you might say the ‘we’ but it is we and not we at the same time.  We are different expressions of the same thing.  Go to the beach and build a thousand sand sculptures.  Each has its own identity but at its core it’s all sand.  

While abiding by our own true nature we not only take care of ourselves but all nature.  To be overly selfish is damaging while being overly selfless is also damaging.  It you are overly giving then the other person is overly taking. Where is their culpability and compassion in this?  Clearly they are not self sufficient or compassionate to us to use us?  There are lots of people in the world who will gladly drain others and move on.  It’s what parasites do.  You are right where is the self compassion to allow this to happen?  Here I will state one of my favorite Irish expressions, “Tis the willing mule that takes the burden”.  Obviously if we let this happen we have complicity in it.

I generally find that those that are the most idealistic are the ones that have the least to deal with in reality.  The ones who have their acolytes feed and take care of them.  In the Zen tradition, ‘no work, no eat’ is one of the clearest models of self care.

Being the parent of a young adult I can easily relate to your parenting question.  It has been my experience that those parents who did everything for their child and sheltered them end up with very lost adults. No other creature in nature treats its young like this. Because there was no cause and effect in their lives they expect everything to be easy and are completely perplexed when things don’t go their way.  They don’t understand hardship or failure.  Their brains are conditioned in a very unhealthy way and it’s very difficult for them to change.  As a parent you have to let your child figure it out.  You don’t let them go off the cliff but you let them see how scary it is to teeter on the edge.  I fear the world, the developed world anyway, is becoming more and more disconnected from cause and effect, nature.  We don’t see where our food comes from, how it’s grown or slaughtered.  It’s somehow all magic.
Myself, as an avid vegetable gardener, found it quite enlightening to see what a battle it is with nature to grow a sustainable garden.  Over the years my rather large garden has been demolished overnight by deer, woodchucks and rabbits.  Hundreds of hours of work and no food to show for it. One year I grew 28 tomato plants and got 3 tomatoes due to the carnage.  If I had to live exclusively off my garden then what?  Would I show compassion to the animals while my family starved?  There is nothing like living in the heart of nature to realize how much nature does not care for the individual.  Lao Tzi, ‘nature treats man as straw dogs”.  When we realize our part in nature, that while being “I” I am still we then we can affect nature in a positive way.

Zen emphasizes ‘seeing things as they are’ and ‘self actualization’, without actualizing Zen it is not authentic.  From truly seeing things as they are then you realize true compassion from the root and not from a concept that you maintain.  The actualized self will always do what is right because it does not have a self centered nature.  While being a particular self it also sees all as an expression of itself and is compassionate to all.  Being compassionate to the individual while not being compassionate to the group is not true compassion.  Being compassionate to the group without regard for the individual is not true compassion.

Sorry for the long answer.  I hope it helps you.  Take care,

PS- I just found out that I might be coming to Singapore to work in the spring.


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Joe McSorley


I can answer questions dealing with Taoist philosophy and Zen and not the historicity and religion of Buddhism and its different schools. I studied under Dr. Richard DeMartino and Masao Abe of the Kyoto School of Zen.

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