Sunday, January 24, 2010

Haiti, Dharma, and Idiot Compassion

Spent part of the morning, post meditation, discussing Haiti with a few sangha friends. The more I read up on the history of the country, and recall some of the events in my own lifetime, especially connected to former President Aristide, I find myself wondering if we're going to witness yet another privatization and neo-colonialist effort.

The immediate support, financially and people power, to care for the injured, clear the damaged buildings, and get things started over is essential, and it's wonderful to see so many groups offering something up to aid in the process.

Carole over at Zen Dot Studio wrote the following:

t reminded me that this arising of compassion is so natural when we see suffering in the world. If we remember not to turn away, if we can step outside our own small worries, we cannot help but feel the tug to help. You can see this as people everywhere watch the news and respond by opening their hearts and wallets. In situations like this people go to amazing and creative places to offer food and supplies, and prayers.

It is interesting to watch because not only does it help those in need and trauma but it brings people together, it knits us into a tighter community with a common cause. We become a giant, slightly rumpled sweater of humanity offering warmth and comfort to those in need. And in our helping, our hearts open, our spirits are lifted and we experience our "Buddha nature". We feel generous and alive and connected to our human family. And as the Dalai Lama points out we experience compassion.

I think Carole is completely right not only about the outpouring of compassion in the face of traumas, but also the shared experiences that help us live interconnected in a more concrete way. Generosity, as I'm noticing in reading the Diamond Sutra for our center's practice period class, is the fluid activity that breaks down all barriers and constructions, mental or otherwise. The first go around I had with the Diamond Sutra looked quite different, much more heady and intellectual. Now, I'm seeing generosity throughout the text - such an interesting development.

If you're still looking for places to donate to that aren't tainted like crazy, like the Red Cross is for example, check out the links in John's current post for more details.

However, I'd like to make a few observations about Carole's comments above, that maybe you'll view as sour grapes, but which I feel need to be made.

1. The feeling of interconnectedness that rises during traumatic experiences like natural disasters seems to be very transient. It's tapping into the great interdependence that is our natural life, but in the end, it's kind of flimsy. The people along the Gulf Coast in the U.S., or in any of the several countries hit by the 2004 Tsunami, know this all too well. For awhile, maybe several months, people pour money, material resources, and people assistance into your place. Media attention is high, and prayers are consistently offered for you and your nation. Some of the rebuilding work occurs, people immediate physical wounds are addressed, and the dead are mostly buried. Then the world shifts to the next big thing.

Now certainly, there are always a small number of people who made deeper connections while helping out during the crisis period, and maybe these people continue to work with those who experienced the trauma for a long time afterward. But the vast majority move on, and the connection that might have had with those people, or that place in crisis, fades off. In fact, sometimes I wonder if some of it was just an imaginary connection made out of a desire to help out, but which in reality doesn't really exist in the real world.

Which brings up idiot compassion. Trungpa Rinpoche, among others, have spoken of a kind of faux compassion that we get tricked by, and which actually is mostly about the small self and what we think someone else needs. I've noticed all sorts of narratives in U.S. media outlets, and coming out of the mouths of world leaders, that imply that "they" know what is best for the people and nation of Haiti. In addition, you have hundreds of thousands of people pouring money into organizations that are known for wastefulness and corruption, like the Red Cross, because these organizations have the money and brand-names to get out the word about themselves to millions and millions of potential donors. In addition, you have people supporting the efforts of companies like Coca Cola, who make donations for disaster relief in places like Haiti, knowing full well that they'll probably profit greatly in the near future from both the positive publicity and the sweetheart deals that occur in the chaos of devastated nations.

Fun stuff, eh? I can recall people telling me how wonderful Wal-Mart was for sending truck after truck of material goods to support people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Never mind that Wal-Mart has a terrible labor record around the world, routinely destroys local businesses, and generally could give a shit about the environmental damage done to the planet in the sweat shops that make the cheap ass products they sell. No, none of this seemed to matter to some people. What was burned into their minds was the convoy of Wal-Mart trucks that
drove into New Orleans not too long after the Hurricane. It was a sad state of affairs, with a federal government giving a half-assed response at best to a major disaster, and a corporate giant like Wal-Mart being one of the first large groups to offer tangible assistance to the area.

All of this makes me wonder what we can do,individually and collectively, to steer the beautifully true activity that Carole wrote about away from idiot compassion and savior narratives. Personal practice is part of the answer, but not the whole answer. Those who say that our job as Buddhists is only to meditate and become liberated are missing something in my opinion.


zendotstudio said...

Hey Nathan, thanks for the press! I guess my only other comment would be, that it is my experience that we awaken in layers. What might seem good to us initially may change vastly as our practice ripens and matures.

I love a Leonard Cohen quote that goes something like : "act the way you want to be and soon you'll be the way you act.

bows to you!

Algernon said...

Why bother with a new colonizing process when the ongoing one is working fine?

Forgive my sad joke. Next to "idiot compassion," we might also posit "imperial compassion."

This report by Peter Hallward fills in the picture.

Nathan said...

Thanks for the great Cohen quote Carole!

"Imperial Compassion" - yes, that sounds about right.

teeny yogini said...

"Personal practice is part of the answer, but not the whole answer."

Thank you for writing this. It's flummoxing to see people write of the Haitian tragedy elsewhere as "fuel" for their practice, as if that is the totality of its meaning. Agreed that "idiot compassion" is a danger, but too often it seems Buddhists of various stripes approach compassion so cautiously as to be wholly abstract. There is a vital element of compassion that is about simply helping another being in front of you.

Nathan said...

Hi Teeny,

I totally agree with you about the excess caution found in Buddhist circles. I think fear of screwing up runs pretty deep, but the practice as I see it is about both moving through that fear and also acting while still having that fear hanging around.

Those "fuel" for one's practice comments are often terribly self-absorbed. Yet, people don't see it. Saying you're going to ramp up your practice seems like having an answer and contributing, when the reality in a situation so vast as in Haiti is that there aren't any clear answers. We're forced, in my opinion, to act when we can, and reflect the rest of the time.

spldbch said...

I think the outpouring of compassion is genuine, albeit shortlived. People have short attention spans and the media covers disasters only briefly before moving on to the next big thing. Without media attention, the victims' suffering is no longer immediately visible. I believe it is seeing the suffering of others that stimulates human compassion. However, being human, once we are no longer able to see the suffering we easily forget that it exists.