On Being Wisely Compassionate

Person holding sign saying Last Saturday, my wife Philomena, our son Andrew and my sister Sue were in the theater district of Manhattan. We were squeezed and jostled by the large crowds on a chilly, late December Saturday afternoon. With the sun, low on the horizon and shining in our eyes, we walked up to Central Park and then back down again, taking in the sights.

In the crush, I remember passing two people asking for money. One was an older man who sat on the cold sidewalk near the street shouting like carnival barker, “Spare change? Need a little help here.” I also remember passing a middle aged woman wearing lots of clothes leaning on the icy stone bricks of a building with a small basket of change next to her. She didn’t look at us or say a word as we passed, I couldn’t tell if she was even awake or not.

I could have stopped and said hello to either of these people and offered them some attention and/or some money. I didn’t. Even though we walked past thousands of people on the streets, I’ve only remembered them, and wondered about their situation. Wondered if I should have paused to offer them at least a little compassion?

I think I was a little more sensitive to these two people because I was mulling over the topic for this service. Religion usually lines up strongly on the side of compassion as a religious obligation, especially for the poor. The Great Commandments to Love God and Neighbor are pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. If I were to take Jesus’ counsel found in the Good Samaritan parable, I would gather them both up and take them to an Inn. Jesus spent a lot of time healing and comforting the outcasts.

The Abrahamic faiths all emphasize the compassionate nature of God. Traditionally, Judaism enumerates God’s thirteen attributes of mercy. Some of these qualities, identified in the book of Exodus, are: compassion before and after a person sins, graciousness when in distress, being slow to anger and forgiving of iniquity, transgressions and sins and pardoning the guilty. Allah’s most repeatedly praised quality in Islam is being merciful and compassionate. Every chapter of the Quran except one starts with Bismillah er-rahman er-rahim, in the name of Allah, most merciful and compassionate.

Eastern religions are no less appreciative of compassion. The Buddha’s attendant Ananda asked him, “Would it be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is a part of our practice?” The Buddha replied, “No. It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice.”

Because the world religions value compassion so highly, Karen Armstrong used it as the unifier to bring people around the world together creating a Charter For Compassion that I wrote about in my Windows column for January.

Compassion literally means joining with another person’s suffering. There are moments when we are spontaneously moved to action when we encounter someone in pain. When Sigrin Newell fell right over there a couple of weeks ago, people rushed to her aid. When Jacqui Williams fell outside a month ago, she was surrounded with care. If we had a big crisis and our members needed food and clothing, you know there would be an outpouring of support. I expect if our neighbors on West and Bradford Streets were suddenly in trouble because of some disaster, we’d be there for them.

This kind of immediate, heartfelt, emotional response seems both natural and good to us … but ancient Greek and Roman philosophers would not have been so enthusiastic. They would have wanted us to be guided by our reason in our actions rather than by our feelings.

One danger of our compassion being guided by our emotions is in the area of justice, symbolized by a blindfolded woman holding a scale. In a courtroom, the defendant should be convicted or go free based on the evidence not how we feel about the victim or the accused. The defendant may sway us emotionally toward mercy and compassion yet may be clearly guilty and deserve punishment. On the other side, think of the racial bias that leads to the high level of incarceration of people of African descent. Would we want to condone a father or mother taking revenge against those who have harmed a son or daughter? There are good arguments to moderate our compassion with reason.

I had an opportunity to explore this distinction when I briefly served as a chaplain in a Florida hospital as part of a six month pastoral care training. I found it easy to feel compassion for and offer comfort to the patients I visited. Sometimes though, my rational mind interfered. Visiting a severely obese person with congestive heart failure, a heavy smoker with lung cancer or an alcoholic with cirrhosis of the liver could bring up resistance to feeling compassion. Of course, thin people get heart failure, non-smokers get lung cancer and non-drinkers have liver failure too. What I noticed during my hospital visits was my all too human tendency to judge, interfered with my feelings, limiting my willingness to feel another person’s suffering.

A woman named Mary had a powerful lesson in what opens and closes the heart to compassion. Her teacher was her seven year old son. She writes:

It was a bitter winter in Wiesbaden, a beautiful but rather stuffy city in Germany. Sebastian and I were visiting my mother. On that particular day – just a week before Christmas – darkness had fallen early. I was hurrying through an underpass to catch the bus home. Suddenly I felt Sebastian tug at my coat sleeve. I looked down.

What’s up?”

Mum,” he said, “why didn’t you give that lady any money?”

I looked back and saw a woman sitting on a threadbare blanket, begging.

Oh,” I said, shaking my head, “she would most likely use any money I gave her for drugs or alcohol.”

Let me pause here in telling the story to encourage you to turn inward and examine your own response to this situation. How often have you been in the same situation and had those same thoughts. I confess to having that very thought in New York City last weekend. It is a common defense against giving money to people on the street.

In my research this week, I read a challenge to this defense against compassion from white, anti-racist activist Tim Wise. He makes a habit of always giving people money and questions this assumption as a reason not to give. He points out that if an employer suspected that an employee would be getting drunk on the weekend, that employer wouldn’t choose to withhold the employee’s salary to prevent it. He writes:

to suggest that one is withholding money from homeless people or beggars “for their own good” is a dishonest and preposterous conceit. If you feel that the poor don’t deserve your support because of their presumed moral failings, so be it… If they would just take out your garbage, they might be entitled to your dollar in alms, and the hooch that said dollar might help them obtain. But if they merely beg for it, without first performing some labor, then whether or not they have a drug or alcohol problem, you will be free to presume they have both and refuse to aid them.

Mary’s seven year old son didn’t presume so. Her story continues:

Sebastian took my hand and looked up imploringly.

Only someone who is very unhappy would sit in the cold and beg, don’t you think?”

I blushed. Then I walked back and gave her some money.

Now, I don’t want to make this easy. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see the woman. She might be a con artist. Maybe she makes 400 Euros a day sitting there looking miserable. I’ve heard stories about skilled people who do make a lot of money begging and borrowing. And if you don’t believe that, I have a guy from Ethiopia I’d like you to meet who needs help with his ten million dollar inheritance.

While I don’t believe there are simple answers for when and how to be compassionate to another, I do believe wise guidelines for our compassionate response can help. They can help to unite our head and heart when we are moved by another person’s suffering. There are a number of ways our compassion can go wrong and do more harm than good. Those harmful ways are sometimes called “idiot compassion.”

One kind of idiot compassion is rejecting the process of identification with the suffering of another person. In this case, the feeling of compassion arises but makes us uncomfortable and we want to make it go away. My first memory of this kind of feeling was during the Nigerian–Biafran War. Seeing pictures of little dark skinned children with swollen bellies and flies on their faces was very disturbing to look at. I was more identified with the feeling of disgust looking at the picture than feeling connected to the suffering child. My giving of money was less for the food aid and more because I didn’t want to see that picture again.

That same discomfort gets stimulated this time of year when many of us get mailings and see ads featuring children with cleft palates. I don’t know whether the organization promising to fix their birth defect is a good one or not, but it is an example of charity pornography, using images of suffering to stimulate donations. It works to stimulate giving, but often generates more revulsion than compassion.

Another kind of idiot compassion is being moved by the suffering of another and being willing to help, yet offering what isn’t wanted or needed. I remember this from when I cooked breakfast for homeless men sheltered in the Oakland Unitarian Church. Thinking they would like a filling and nutritious breakfast, I made them sausage and eggs. It wasn’t long before we got complaints that the food was too high in saturated fat and we didn’t have any tofu for the vegetarians. This happens at food pantries too. People donate uncommon foods (I might want to donate sardines, for example, to satisfy my idea that they need essential fatty acids) that many clients of the pantry wouldn’t touch. People commonly donate what they want to get rid of rather than what they have learned is needed by these clients.

The last kind of idiot compassion I’ll mention is an unawareness of skillful means of helping. In a sense, awareness itself is the core of wise compassion. When we recognize the object of our compassion, the source of the feeling welling up within us, and use our reason to skillfully choose our response, we are much more likely to be effective in making a positive difference. This is an iterative process that incorporates learning from our mistakes. Just the last couple of days, I have fallen short several times when I could have been more compassionate. My commitment is to witness the results of my actions or inactions and to learn from my successes and failures. In the process, I hope to grow a little wiser and increase my motivation to continually deepen that commitment to being loving and compassionate in word and deed. There isn’t any perfection to be had in wise compassion, but we can become more skillful and more effective.

The Buddha’s First Noble Truth, the troubling presence of a stressful and unsatisfactory component of existence he called dukkha, has always captivated me. Being born sets us up for having sickness, if we’re fortunate, growing old, and certainly dying. Sickness, old age, and death are not desirable. Jesus had his way of saying it, “the poor will always be with you.” We can have moments of freedom from difficulty but there are burdens of being alive that we all must discover how to live with.

And that shared dilemma of dukkha, is itself the deep root that unites us all and serves as the common concern that fuels our compassion. The more we can recognize that common condition and identify feel our shared reactions to it, the deeper will be our capacity for wise compassion.

Ultimately, we don’t have control of the outcome of our compassionate acts. We do have some control however over refining the intention that motivates them. By being wisely compassionate, we can strengthen the social fabric of our worldwide community and connect across boundaries of gender, race, culture, class and ability.

May wise compassion be a vehicle for the holy in me to meet the holy in you. And in that meeting, may our inherent worth and dignity find affirmation in our unity embodying the Spirit of Life that brings us into being.

Shramadana

“We build the road and the road builds us.” – Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement Slogan

I’m dedicated to Buddhist mindfulness meditation and social justice work to address the ills of society. I’d like to be happy and peaceful and I want others to be happy and peaceful too.

Sometimes people think of Buddhists, however, as navel gazers who want to escape the world rather than helping save it. In Southeast Asia, it is common to see monks who like to stay in their temples, accept donations and appear not to be doing much for others. They meditate a lot with the goal of becoming enlightened and escaping being reborn again in this world.

One of the positive aspects of the contact between Buddhism and the West is a movement called Socially Engaged Buddhism. Preeminent in that movement is an organization called Sarvodaya Shramadana in Sri Lanka.

Given my interests, I’m embarrassed to say, I hadn’t noticed them before listening in May to a podcast by an American Buddhist activist named Joanna Macy. In 1980, she spent a year in Sri Lanka studying Sarvodaya and then returned home and wrote a book about them. Between what she said in the podcast and reading her book, I felt strongly attracted to this movement.

My goal for this service is to excite your interest in this organization that has been transforming village life in Sri Lanka for over fifty years. I think they have some great lessons for us that we may find enlightening as we join together this morning in the celebration of life.

Spoken Meditation

An adapted translation of a traditional Metta Meditation from the Buddha

The embodiment of loving-kindness
begins with the practice of morality.
It requires uprightness and being straightforward
being gentle in speech,
being humble and not conceited or demanding.
Being contented and easily satisfied.
Be not burdened with duties but
Be peaceful and calm,
Be wise and skillful.
Be careful in action and above reproach.
To embody loving-kindness,
May your intention be
with a feeling of gladness and security

May all beings be at ease.

Whatever livings beings there may be
Those who are weak or strong
omitting none.
Those who are great or mighty,
non-distinctive, short or tall,
Those seen and those unseen,
Those living near and far away
Those born and yet to be born
May all beings be at ease.

Let none deceive another,
nor despise any being in any state.
Let none, through anger or ill-will,
wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;

Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upward to the skies,
and downward to the depths;
Outward and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking,
seated or lying down,
Free from drowsiness,
Let us remember and sustain this beautiful intention.

Reading

From: Collected Works of A.T. Ariyaratne, Volume III, pages 55-56

The type of human being we need for the world today is one which has the courage to reject [the] dreadful systems of organized evil which have made us decivilized; we need the type of leadership which will strive to re-build a new person who has the strength of character to harness the good that is in all of us. This new person in turn shall re-build our human society and a new human civilization on more abiding values.

The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement (USA branch) is determined to build a new person and a new society. In Sri Lanka we started this process by enabling human beings to come together to share their time, thought and energy for the awakening of a process of sharing which is called Shramadana.

We selected several of the poorest of the poor villages in Sri Lanka and while living and working with the villagers, together we evolved a series of concepts and a methodology to improve their quality of life by their own efforts. Self Reliance, Community Participation and a Planned Program to satisfy their basic human and community needs were three important ingredients in this self-development process.

Sarvodaya defines development as an awakening process. An ever increasing accumulation of goods and services created to feed greed in man is not development. On the contrary development is an awakening process taking place within individuals, families and communities in which their needs are first satisfied without polluting the mind, poisoning the body, destroying the ecological balance, violating the cultural boundaries, widening prevailing disparities or demeaning human nature.

Development in a true sense should enrich people both materially and spiritually so qualities of sharing, brotherhood and peace ennoble all people.

Sermon

Unitarian Universalists value the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. As we well know, that value isn’t universally embraced around the globe. It isn’t embraced right here in Albany for that matter. This becomes abundantly clear by spending some time on the North side of Central Avenue, east of Henry Johnson Boulevard and south of Delaware Avenue. As someone who has done faith based community organizing in these areas, I have some awareness of how difficult making a positive difference can be. So, discovering an organization that has had significant success at this kind of transformation in 15,000 villages in Sri Lanka for over 50 years got my attention.

The backbone of Sri Lanka is small, rural villages; about 23,000 of them. With lush vegetation and fertile land, carefully cultivated with an intricate water storage and irrigation system developed over a thousand years ago, the country has a proud heritage as being the the breadbasket of the region. Buddhism came to the island 2300 years ago and today is the religion of 90% of the population. They preserved many of the earliest Buddhist texts and have a proud heritage of being a light of the Dhamma in Asia.

That proud identity and heritage suffered greatly under four hundred years of colonial domination, first by the Portuguese, then by the Dutch and finally by the British. That domination had a devastating impact on those villages. The tea and coconut plantation system took away their control of their land. Their culture, traditions and religion were diminished by the Europeans in comparison with their culture. Over the years, that oppression turned into a self-destructive, downward spiral of disease, stagnation, poverty, harsh speech and conflict in the villages. That social disease infected the villager’s spirit with the negative spiral of ill-will, disunity, ignorance, possessiveness, competition and egoism.

In the glow of independence from Britain in 1948, a new generation of leaders sought to address this damage. The misery in the villages was much on the mind of a young science teacher, named A.T. Ariyaratne, or Dr. Ari as he is commonly referred to today. In the 1950’s, he and others were wondering how to restore the pre-colonial greatness to their country.

One of his inspirations was a prominent follower of Gandhi in India named Vinoba Bhave. Vinoba is known today for starting a land reform movement called Bhoodan. It encouraged plantation owners in the early 1950’s to share, without rent, a little of their land with landless peasants for them to grow their own food. How Vinoba started this program is worth retelling because in the story are the seeds of Dr. Ari’s later work.

In 1951, Vinoba, already a respected figure committed to non-violence, stayed overnight in a small village in an area of communist military activity. Two thirds of the villagers were landless, many of the untouchable caste. He asked a group of them why they had taken up arms. They told him the communists promised them land. He asked if they would lay down their arms if they could get land non-violently by asking for it and farming it cooperatively. They agreed. He wanted to go to the government with this request but the villagers urged him to make the request at a local meeting that included landowners especially a man who was known to be a generous fellow. At that meeting, “to everyone’s surprise, that landlord, Ram Chandra Reddy, got up and said in an excited voice: ‘I will give you 100 acres for these people.’”

In this story, I believe Dr. Ari became aware of two very important truths that have guided his work. First, the people already knew what their problems were and what they needed. Second, the people collectively had wisdom about how those needs could be met. What was needed was getting people to talk to each other and work together for the good of all.

But how to translate these ideas and methods from India to Sri Lanka? Dr. Ari looked within Buddhism for the principles that paralleled the Gandhian ideas that Vinoba used. Attracted to Gandhi’s “uplift for all” movement he titled Sarvodaya, he realized that another way to translate that word could be “awakening for all.” The Buddhist goal of enlightenment could join social welfare with spiritual development.

A friend of Dr. Ari’s had participated in post-World War Two work camps sponsored by the Quakers. Dr. Ari borrowed the work camp idea for his first attempt to make a difference in a village in 1958. A group of 16 and 17 year old students from his high school spent two weeks in a poor rural village working side by side on projects that the villagers guided them to do.

Sarvodaya’s first Shramadana was born.

Shrama or labor and dana or donation, together name the engine that powers the Sarvodaya train. The very first step for organizing one is to bring villagers together for what they call, a “family gathering.” These gatherings always begin with prayers from the villager’s religious tradition, multiple prayers if more than one faith is represented so everyone feels included. They also include silent meditation to establish that universal spiritual practice to join people together. Then the conversations begin about the problems and the needs of the village. The ideas for work projects come from the villagers themselves rather than from the Sarvodaya leaders. They use familial address calling each other brother and sister, mother and father, to counter any inequality of social status, so all voices are valued equally.

A common initial project that people can get behind who are unfamiliar with working cooperatively is cleaning and making improvements to a temple or church. This is an attractive project in a Buddhist community because of their understanding of dana. Every Buddhist knows that they can individually get a lot of merit for a better rebirth by giving to monks. Monks eat based on the generosity of the villagers who offer them food every morning. What they may not know is the joy of a group of people coming together for a joint work project. Other common projects are building access roads, cleaning irrigation canals, digging latrines and building schools.

The next step is to canvass the community for resources for the project. Typically, food and materials are donated for the camp. The goal is to get as many people involved in the project as possible.

Once the resources have been promised and pooled, the shramadana can begin. The work is structured so people of all ages can participate either in the work itself or in meal preparation and other kinds of support. Family gatherings start the work camp with chants, prayers and ritual. Communal meals are served morning, noon and night where the discussions continue. A celebratory atmosphere is encouraged, particularly in the evenings when there may be singing and dancing. A work camp could be a single day or go on for a week or more.

In parallel with the project, sub-groups will be organized. Youth and young adults, mothers, elders, farmers, and other sub-groups find common interests for continuing shared labor. One very common project is to build a preschool. The government will pay for a teacher but not to build a classroom. Economic development through micro-loans are another common project to support the development of the village using appropriate technology.

The foundation of their shramadana methods are spiritual, the awakening, the liberation of all from suffering, stress, dissatisfaction and misery of every kind. While this goal comes from Buddhism, it resonates with Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, the other predominant religions in Sri Lanka. Sarvodaya is intentionally interfaith and non-partisan. Their focus is on bettering the lives of people rather than promoting a religion or political party. Their constructive activity supported by sharing and cooperation, lead to pleasant speech, equality, love and selflessness. The resulting unity leads to organizational development, greater health, and spiritual and cultural development which supports education and economic development.

The first awakening that Sarvodaya encourages is to interdependence. Together people can do what it would be difficult for anyone to do by themselves. The disunity and downward spiral of oppression is reversed through cooperation. Mutual care for each other is encouraged through the cultivation of qualities of heart described in Buddhism as the four heavenly abodes, loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and an equanimity to the ups and downs of life. Shramadana gives participants, a direct experience of those four abodes through the skillful organization and execution of the work project.

Both interdependence and self-reliance are developed using shramadana. Again rooted in Buddhism, one’s progress toward liberation comes through one’s own efforts. The value of each person’s individual involvement in the common work is stressed from the very beginning. This means speaking up with one’s ideas in the family gatherings. Each person’s contribution to the joint effort is honored and appreciated. Each person’s ethical practices, such as gentle speech, generosity, social equality, and constructive work build both self-reliance and interdependence.

Sarvodaya believes what they are doing is more than village transforming and awakening. It is nation and world transforming as well. It envisions the goal of development very differently than the predominant corporate globalized vision of increasing material prosperity through endless growth in consumption. Sarvodaya presents us with a model of sustainability that puts human happiness and the well-being of all life as its central purpose. They build a new order from the bottom up rather than the top down. Interdependence and self-reliance are the methods that lead to the awakening of all.

I’m bringing you a little taste of this organization that most people have never heard of because they are one of the most extensive and successful efforts to date in socially engaged Buddhism that I believe could also have much value for Unitarian Universalism.

This weekend is a fine example of our own version of a Shramadana project, the Holiday Bazaar! People have come together numerous times to create items for sale. There was a gathering to make dry soup mixes. There was a gathering to make holiday pies. There was a gathering to set up Emerson Community Hall. Randy’s kitchen is another joint effort. And beyond this weekend, there are the gardening work parties to care for our grounds. People coming together to cook for the homeless shelter. Volunteering at Sheridan prep to read to students. Some will remember our joint work to build a Habitat for Humanity house. I remember our gathering to hit the streets to register people to vote in our neighborhood. These are just a few of the joint ventures we do regularly … but probably could learn to do more skillfully by studying Sarvodaya.

Our congregation is, in one way of looking at it, a virtual village. We pool our resources of time, talent and treasure to create this community. We network with other congregations to build a world-wide movement to support and promote our values. The values and methods of Sarvodaya have a lot of overlap with our principles. The core Sarvodaya interfaith spirituality that is self-reliant and interdependent parallels our evolving Unitarian Universalist religious development. Both serve to reverse racism and oppression while creating a sustainable world community that meets everyone’s basic needs while striving for peace, liberty and justice.

With a new mayor in Albany, there are some great opportunities for systemic change in our distressed neighborhoods. What we can learn from Sarvodaya might be very helpful in that process. The dysfunction in some Albany neighborhoods parallel Sri Lankan village dysfunction that may be transformed through their bottom up methods.

For these reasons, I’ll be traveling to Sri Lanka January 13 to immerse myself in Sarvodaya for three weeks, participate in a shramadana, and see for myself if Sarvodaya is as good as they appear to be from my research and from my conversations. By turning the tables and going to the developing world and bringing home their ideas for our use, perhaps we can help restore some balance to this world so far out of balance.

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has articulated and is practicing a compelling vision of how to bring awakening to villages that could be of great value in the developed world too. May we benefit from their wisdom and adapt their methods to support our common work of building community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

Benediction

I close with these wise and generous intentions offered by former Sarvodayan regional director Dr. Herat Gunaratne:

May all beings be well and happy.
May no harm fall on anybody
May we look only at the good of others
May nobody suffer because of my actions.