Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Power of Language

The impact of language seems to be constantly surrounding me lately. Or maybe I'm just paying even more attention to it lately. The way I viewed the term "stepping down" when it came to John Daido Loori's resignation as head of the Mountains and Rivers Order. Nothing in the term prepared me for the letter a few days later saying he was dying. The way U.S. President Obama speaks of searching for "a middle ground" when it comes to the war in Afghanistan: a war that was entered into out of hatred and revenge, and has gone on for eight years at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, billions of dollars, and unknown costs to the environment.

So, when I came across these opening words in an otherwise rather convoluted post by zen teacher Brad Warner, I paused.

I've been thinking about compassion lately. People keep asking me about it because Buddhist teachers are supposed to talk about compassion all the time. But I hate talking about things I'm supposed to talk about. Whenever some idea starts wending its way through a culture it very quickly turns into a cliche and dies. Compassion died a long while ago.

I've had similar thoughts on occasion. There seems to have been an explosion of books, classes, and conversations that focus around how to be compassionate. In some ways, that's probably a positive thing. However, what does the word mean? What is it that people are talking about when they say "Compassion?"

Sometimes I wonder if talking about compassion is taking the place of actually doing the hard work of embodying compassion. I also get the sense that the popular definition of compassion is something very warm and fuzzy, which isn't really hitting the mark. Sometimes being compassionate requires a soft, warm touch. Other times it's a hard kick in the ass at the right time. Being compassionate requires Right View - that we have spent time with a person and/or situation, and have seen enough of what's going on to act skillfully. How many of you have had someone come into your life when things are down with overbearing advice or help that only makes things worse? My guess is probably all of us have.

When it comes to words, there is both a power built into them, and also a diminishing returns quality that comes from overuse and misuse. The term "Zen" itself has been bastardized enough in popular culture that it's meaning, when used by those of who actually practice it, often has to be expanded upon or redefined all together. This is probably true of compassion now as well. It's overuse and misuse requires us to be more careful, and to clarify what it is that we actually mean when we say it.

This isn't a bad thing. But maybe if we were more careful in the first place when we speak, we wouldn't have to do so much work at the other end to get our point across.


Adam said...

"ego" is another one of those words. Nice post Nathan.

spldbch said...

Language is indeed a very powerful thing -- sometimes, though, silence is more powerful. I've found that sometimes the best way for me to be compassionate towards others is to sit quietly and just listen.

Great post!

Algernon said...

Don't know if the word has died so much as it has been expanded to mean so many different things, no one can be sure they are talking about the same thing when they use the word.

So compassion isn't compassion.

Jennifer Campaniolo said...

Good points, Nathan. I remember Pema Chodron explaining that compassion is not pitying someone or trying to fix them, but simply being there for them. That's hard to do because we've been taught (especially us Americans) to fix people's problems. But often that can be taken by the other person as condescension (and we almost always have an agenda when we give advice!)


Kyle said...

Yes, very good post. I have found language to be a powerful tool, and if used too forcefully loses much of its compassion. This is a lesson I am still learning as you know.


Dayne Gingrich said...

I agree 100% w/ Adam and Melody (spldbch). Ego's a very powerful word... but silence may be even more powerful!

Good post.


Anonymous said...

A friend sent this to me recently: "Avaloketeshvara, bodhisattva of great compassion, has ten thousand hands and ten thousand eyes...which one is the true eye?"

I interpret this to mean that when we embody compassion, there isn't just one set way to respond to someone's needs. There are myriad ways in which compassion can help us see what the most compassionate thing in whatever situation is.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

My thanks as well, Nathan.

As an aspiring philosopher, language often is the currency of my world. And at times it does deliver mindfulness and slice through ignorance. And yet, as Kyle wisely noted on his blog recently, we need both - understanding *and* practice.