Still working ineptly on my wife's laptop as I wait for a hoped-for computer fix, but in the meantime I got an email from an Internet friend who suggested in passing that compassion was not, somehow, exactly on the mark as a spiritual practice. Although I have made similar suggestions in the past, still I thought his view felt somehow off the mark. And the thought nags enough to make me willing to use the laptop on the one hand and enter the thorny thicket on the other. Lord knows I am unlikely to hit the nail on the head with words.
"Compassion" is a fifty-cent word in the realm of spiritual endeavor. Everyone 'knows' what it means and to mess with what anyone 'knows' in this way is like messing with their kids or pets -- you do so at your peril.
Taking a presumptuous swing at what is 'known,' "compassion" generally means a kind of super-duper-whooper altruism. It means being attentive and gentle with others in place of what might otherwise be a self-centered set of activities. And there is some attempt not just to be attentive to other people, but also to all things within anyone's personal bomb zone.
OK ... let's not beat around the bush: Life is a hell of a lot nicer when you are nice to me and I am nice to you. "Nasty" sucks; "nice" is nicer. There is nothing wrong with loving kindness: It is, as my father used to say, "better than the blow of a stick" and there are plenty of persuasions that rely on this gentle and giving approach to life ... this "caritas," this "love."
There is nothing wrong with the approach and yet there is the question of whether it is the whole story ... whether it is enough or perhaps right.
In Buddhism (to format life for a moment), true understanding is said to be interwoven with two aspects -- clarity and kindness. But "interwoven" suggests two things, whereas there are not really two things at all: Clarity IS kindness; kindness IS clarity. Intellectually, emotionally and altruistically this makes no sense. But to the extent anyone might wish to find a firm footing, this is an actuality that needs to be realized ... clarity is kindness, kindness is clarity ... that's just the way the daisies grow. Effortless. Plain as the nose on anyone's face. Nothing sexy or revered: It is not intellectual or emotional ... that would be limited ... the kind of limited that infuses kindness towards someone or something else.
No one can hurry up a 'get' such an understanding -- that would be like water 'hurrying up' to get wet. But there is some usefulness to acknowledging the fact that compassion as a super-duper altruism is not entirely the whole story and it is no place, if possible, to get stuck. As the Zen teacher Ta Hui once put it approximately, "I have always had a great vow that I would rather suffer the fires of hell for all eternity than to portray Zen as an emotion." What needs to be realized or actualized is not limited and it is not somehow foreign or different or other.
So maybe the best course is to keep up our best-effort "compassionate" ways while acknowledging that the journey home requires more than mere relief.
OK ... just noodling.