Wednesday, October 07, 2009


I thought I ought to write a little more about this idea of conscientious selfishness because I think yesterday’s post just muddled the issue. Sorry about that. This is the danger of blogging. I tend to feel that blog postings should be more immediate, unfiltered and un-fussed-over than regular articles. Maybe this idea is one I should have saved for a more well thought-out piece (of which this one you’re reading is also not).

As I said yesterday I think the term I’ve come up with, “conscientious selfishness,” sucks dead donkey’s bollocks. It’s awful. It really doesn’t get at what I’m trying to describe. But it’s a provisional attempt to move the discussion of what Buddhist compassion is into a new area.

I’m not talking about the common garden variety of selfishness where a person tries to get everything for themselves while screwing the other guy. I’m using the word “selfishness” to indicate that what we’re talking about when we use the word compassion in a Buddhist sense isn’t a kind of sacrifice.

Nishijima Roshi used to say that the balanced state in Zazen allows a person to do exactly what they want. Most of us don’t really understand what we actually want. We imagine that we want to get all we can without any regard for anyone else. But that’s not true. We are intimately connected at the very deepest level with everyone and everything we come in contact with. At this level, what we want for ourselves and what we want for others is absolutely identical.

This is what I was trying to get at with my incredibly clumsy metaphor about sex yesterday (sorry again). I’m gonna try once more and hope for the best.

I wasn’t picturing some slob of a guy carelessly banging his wife until he was satisfied and then shuffling off to watch the game on TV. I was picturing times when both (or all) partners involved in the act of sex completely lose any sense of self and other. In those moments each one can do exactly what gives her or him the most pleasure while simultaneously and instinctively doing what pleases her or his partner(s) the most. At these times there isn’t any conscious attempt to please anyone other than her or himself because the very idea of self and other(s) has vanished.

Last night I went and saw Robyn Hitchcock at Spaceland, a club in Los Angeles and I clearly saw real compassion in action. I’m certain that Robyn Hitchcock doesn’t sit around writing songs because he wants to perform some kind of self-sacrificing altruistic act. He doesn’t perform in public for the sake of saving all beings. And yet that’s exactly what he accomplishes for me and for a lot of us who are his fans. But for him, these actions are purely natural, he’s doing exactly what he wants to do in precisely the way he wants to do it. In that sense his actions are utterly selfish, almost narcissistic. Yet somehow this seemingly self-absorbed activity, which he does only because it feels good to him, has helped me and a lot of other people more than he can ever know.

That’s the type of compassion I think Dogen was referring to when he likened it to a hand reaching for a pillow in the night. Real compassion is entirely unlike the idea of compassion.

On the other hand, Joshu Sasaki Roshi said, “Zen is not the way of saints. But sometimes it’s useful to imitate their behavior.” There are times when it’s hard to see what we really want. In those situations it may have some value to imagine what an idealized compassionate person would do and to take that action. Which I know contradicts what I said yesterday. But I think you have to be just as careful with this as you have to be when taking what seems to be the purely selfish course. In fact it may often be even more dangerous to act out of an idea of compassion than to simply do what you want.

If you come across a butterfly struggling to get out of its cocoon, you might imagine what an idealized compassionate person would do and then kindly help the butterfly out by reaching over and opening the cocoon for her. In doing so you’d be condemning that butterfly to a quick death. That struggle to emerge from the cocoon is how butterflies strengthen their wings. Without that struggle they never develop the ability to fly.

So you’ve got to be really, really careful when imitating the acts of your idealized compassionate person. In this case the seemingly “selfish” act of ignoring the butterfly’s struggle would be the most truly compassionate course. This is often the way when dealing with other people. Too much help offered in an inappropriate manner can be incredibly damaging.

This is where Zazen practice can help. By learning to be very, very quiet it sometimes becomes easier to see what you — and by extension everyone and everything in the universe — truly want to do.


K2 said...

WHEW! Gotta say: I like the new and improved blog post.
Slippery slope, ain't it; talking about this stuff?

Josh said...

Agreed; I think I "got" the intent of the first post, but I certainly "felt" this post more. This issue has been at the forefront of my mind; thanks for posting on it.

Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gniz said...

Agreed. Much improved from the last post.

Jakey Madball said...

Interesting stuff again from Mr Warner, gives an interesting take on that particular Dogen nugget. Whenever I've thought about the 'hand reaching for the pillow' I've felt that it was about acting naturally without conscious thought - I move my pillow without 'deciding' to do it - just acting from a kind of innate sense of knowing what the right thing to do is. Anyway, something else for me to think about.....or not.

sestscru said...

Dogen's hand/night/pillow image occurs in the chapter of the shobogenzo called Kannon. Kannon is the Japanese name for Avalokiteshvara (regarder of the sounds of the world), the bodhisattva who came to be associated with compassion. Dogen's chapter hardly mentions "compassion" - the word only occurs as part of Kannon's title: "the bodhisattva of great compassion".

Kannon is typically pictured with very many hands and eyes. The pillow analogy is a quote from the oepning koan:

"Great Master Ungan muju asks Great Master Shu-itsu of Dogo-zan mountain, "What does the bodhisattva of great compassion do be using his limitlessly abundant hands and eyes?" Dogo says, "He is like a person in the night reaching back with a hand to grope for a pillow." Dogen proceeds to discuss the (natural/intuitive) function of hands and eyes.

My point? I'm not sure that this chapter, and the koan story that opens it, has anything to do with "compassion". Gudo Nishijima's intro to the chapter says, "But Master Dogen understood Avalokiteshvara as a symbol of a life force that is more fundamental to living beings than compassion".

Using the hand/pillow image to illustrate some aspect of compassion might just confuse things.

Anonymous said...

I liked both blogs but agree this one is more to the point. I think compassion is one of those words many think they understand, but as people have been talking about here, it is more complex. But then again, maybe it's all our thinking that makes it more complex. I "got" the other blog in that for me, I read that you meant that when one forgets all their hang-ups and worrying about performance in sex, just is in the moment of enjoyment, this state of non-worrying or non-thought translates into a better experience for not only the "selfish" person, but also the other.
I really like the butterfly analogy here.
I work in a field where there are so-called compassionate people and the ones that do the most talk about how compassionate they are are the ones who pat themselves on the back the most, would never admit any resentment, selfishness or ambiguity.

Sam said...

A few days back I had an interesting bout with the “idea” of compassion. An “idea” that because I’m a Buddhist I should be compassionate always and act out this vision of compassion I created in my mend. Here is how it played out. While walking home, with my wife, from dinner we were startled by the strange chitterling sound. Curious to find out the source we stopped, listened and looked around for the source of this peculiar sound. While doing this it occurred to me that this was a raccoon. I live in the middle of the city, most of the wildlife we see are birds and squirrels, this was quite exciting. Still looking around on the ground, up in the nearest tree, we found the source of the noise to be a raccoon trapped in a cage next to house where we were standing. It was one of the live catch cages to let and animal in, but they can’t get out. Needless to say this raccoon wanted out really bad. So I asked myself what should a compassionate person do? I wrestled with the idea for a while and finally decided to let the animal out of his cage. Primarily I was afraid of the person who set the trap would do to the animal when they found it. I was going to save this raccoon. The raccoon wasn’t too keen on this whole idea hissing and growling and such, but I was able to get the cage open. I quickly backed away for my own safety and to let the animal know it was safe to come out. After a minute or so of waiting he quietly slinked out of his cage and went right under this house’s back porch. Opps! No I understand where why the trap was there. Now what will the home owner do that live trap idea didn’t work. I may have just escalated the situation. So, I guess the moral to this story is that trying to act compassionately is different that acting with compassion. In this situation I fought myself and tried to act out a vision of myself. And now I regret the action I took.

Anonymous said...

"This is where Zazen practice can help."

I still can't see how zazen does anything for a person. But there is something great about getting up at dawn, assuming the lotus position and sitting quietly.

Anonymous said...

anon at 12:49 I really like your comment.

Jen said...

The Robyn Hitchcock analogy worked really well for me, considering how much I've enjoyed his live shows and his music over the years. A recent loss in my life has me focusing more on the connections we make with those around us, deliberately and otherwise. This is even more to consider; thank you.

Anonymous said...

I really got a lot out of this post. Thank you. Glad to see you not bogged down in Jundo's insanity.

Anonymous said...

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

from Dream Work by Mary Oliver
published by Atlantic Monthly Press
© Mary Oliver

Justin said...

Thanks for the new clarified post Brad.

There is such a thing as stupid compassion. There was a butterfly flying around inside a sesshin I was at last year. It was very poetic. At the end of the sesshin in I managed to catch it and released it out the window. It dropped immediately and was buried in the newly fallen snow never to be seen again.

Lauren said...

"A hand in the night grabbing a pillow." It meets an immediate, real need. It's essentially unseen or unnoticed even by the person doing it. There is no plot, no goal. Something needed - something done.

I'm walking through the park and see a man passing some trash on the sidewalk. He stops, bends down, picks it up and throws it away. Was this compassion?

Context A - Maybe. Walking along he sees the trash. Tut-tuting to himself that people have no respect for the Earth any more he stops to through it away. He walks on thinking how selfish that guy in front of him is for not throwing it away instead. He rests easy knowing he's done his bit for the world today.

Context B - Probably not. The guy was always berated as a kid to clean his room and pick up for a chronically lazy and cruel parent. He is obsessively compelled to pick up trash, no matter what, where ever he sees it. It tortures him no end.

Context C - I think so, truely "Hand in the Night"... He was just taking a walk. Chatting on the cell phone. Without even thinking, he bent down and put it in the can and walks on continuing his conversation.

I wonder. A la Justin's butterfly. Is it compassion if the outcome is unfortunate? If the hand knocks over a candle while reaching back in the night and burns down the house?

Maybe it's like quantum uncertainty. If we stop to judge the outcome whatever compassion might have actually been in the system is destroyed. E.g., saving Justin's butterfly was compassionate till someone decided to stop and judge "oh, the butterfly is dead in the snow. This is a bad thing".

gniz said...


Very, very interesting point. It can still be compassion and have an unfortunate side effect. I think thats very true--we can be misguided in what we think is helpful. That doesnt mean the act is any less compassionate, but maybe it means we need to have a different understanding of what compassion achieves. WHat its uses are and some of the pitfalls.
Blind or idiot compassion can have negative consequences.
But realizing that all we are doing is trying our best to make a good decision in the moment--thats really all any of us are doing. And although Brad makes a point that if we allow ourselves to be quiet, we may make better decisions overall--its no gaurantee of anything.

This goes back to my earlier point that there is no easy formula to navigate life. We keep searching and searching. The evidence is piling up that zen masters dont navigate life any more efficiently or causing less harm than the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

no eyes
no ears
no nose
no tongue
no body
no mind
no compassion

Anonymous said...

drugs won't change you
and neither will zazen

although MDMA does make one feel
pretty damn empathetic,
if not "compassionate"

mtto said...

The evidence is piling up that zen masters dont navigate life any more efficiently or causing less harm than the rest of us.

So you're keeping score? I didn't realize it was a contest.

gniz said...

Am I keeping score? No. I'm just pointing out the obvious. Report after report and story after story comes to light where some Buddhist teacher acts reprehensibly. They are no different then anyone else and quite likely sometimes a good deal worse thanks to delusions of grandeur and so forth. But you keep doing the hero worship thang and see where it gets you.

Smoggyrob said...

Hi everyone:

A guy I sit with said something interesting. He gave the example of a rat going through a maze. First the rat tries one way, but runs into a dead-end. He tries another way, another dead-end. Finally he tries a third way and finds the food at the end of the maze. Most look at that and say "two failures and one success". But really there is no failure. The first two tries taught the rat that that way didn't lead to food. The two "failures" were just as important to the rat finding the food as the last one. The rat's happy. It's the researcher that marked down two failures.


mtto said...

It sounds like you are keeping score, and I've lost! I'm a hero worshiper! HA! I never would have known if you hadn't told me.

proulx michel said...

p.maestro said...

Ayn Rand's "the virtue of selfishness" is a great book. i understand she draws quite a bit of controversy as she can sound very unforgiving and cruel (but so is nature, no?) i feel there are more than a couple parallels with this conversation topic.

The little I read of Ayn Rand led me to think (mistakenly?) that she advocated some typically extreme right attitude of "letting the weak down and praisng the strong".
The point Brad makes, when he says that "We are intimately connected at the very deepest level with everyone and everything we come in contact with. At this level, what we want for ourselves and what we want for others is absolutely identical. is an extremely important one. When "selfishness" is of the sort that you don't want to live among a sea of sufferers, is it "selfishness" in the usual understanding of the word?

People who have suffered in life divide into two undequally apportioned categories: those who don't want others to suffer what they had to go through, and those who judge that, if they had to go through that, others ought to do it as well. Demons.

Hell is the result of those who think that others ought to share their sufferings.


Anonymous said...

"But you keep doing the hero worship thang and see where it gets you."

Gniz: Well done.. Your badly aimed hero worship comment was worth plus two troll points. I can only credit you when you don't delete them.

- refer said...

Hey Brad, I enjoy some of your posts, but I do have one concern. Honestly, I feel that you writing a book about sex is kinda like an alcoholic writing a book about liquor. Probably not a good idea. How about some porn addiction recovery work instead? Then you can write about sex from a place of wisdom.

Anonymous said...

sjenkins - I think you are right about this and I kind of feel for Brad here. I don't think he had much experience with two person sex growing up and he is a little overwhelmed now. Even a minor celeb like Brad gets opportunities that he wouldn't have before and he is such a horn-dog in sexual matters now that he should probably just stay away from the subject altogether as material. It gets awkward..

ation said...

If you are a Beatles fan check this out.

Chris Bogart said...

I want to second the previous commenter's linking this with Rand. There's a Rand quote on the wikipedia page for "Rational Egoism":

"There is a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery. The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value; not in the fact that he wants to live, but in the fact that he wants to live on a subhuman level."

Rand is no Buddhist, but I think she was annoyed by the same fakey look-how-much-it-hurts-me compassion that annoys Brad (and annoys me too).

rat said...

Smoggyrob, I like your rat story. Years ago I was complaining to a woman (with more experience than I with zen) that I had wasted so much time going down blind alleys in my zen practice (trying actively to stop all thought for example) and she pointed out the same thing as your story. All the 'blind' alleys eventually led me to better practice and understanding, so I should be grateful.

I think it's the same with all the supposed wrong motivations to practice zazen. We all begin from delusion, not full awakening. If some gaining idea helps to get us to sit and we eventually drop the gaining ideas, there's no reason to complain. Whether it's dreams of becoming a better person or gaining some wonderful experience, the blind alleys end and we find ourselves right here.

Anonymous said...

very astute observations in the above comment rat. but I don't know if the motivations are wrong. I think they are natural motivations and part of it is accepting these motivations as part of it and be willing to see that we, or at least I, have them. And like thoughts they arise and can fall away. For me it's a matter of recognizing the motivations, seeing why I need them, what drives them and learn that what drives them may not be real. Not sure if I'm making sense.

rat said...

Completely agree, Kyla. I was hoping my saying "supposed" wrong motivations made that clear.

BTW, Anyone interested more in 'idiot compassion' ought to read Chogyam Trungpa's take on it. His "Cutting through Spiritual Materialism" goes into the subject pretty well as I recall.

K2 said...

If a person genuinely strives to be compassionate as frequently as their situation allows, so long as it's not done for fame or acknowledgement it's a good thing!

Brad is fond of the pillow quote from Dogen, but here's one from Shobogenzo-Zuimonki that gets right to the point:
"In each situation that you are faced with, just consider carefully; do anything which will bring even a little benefit to the person who is before you, without concern for what people will think of you."

So like the Cub Scouts say: Do your best!
But don't forget that old saw:
"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

mark said...

This 'state' we are all speaking of has been the most difficult for me to get across to my mother, the one who introduced me to Buddhism to start with. I keep using my beloved phrase "Consciously Training Ourselves to Live Unconsciously", I should maybe start using the adjective 'Intuitively'?????

Anonymous said...

I think this (new, clearer) post is a great post.

ReNob said...

finally some real dharma!

p.maestro said...

like when she rubs herself while you're pumping. she's not doing it for you, but you both find it hot. she's taking care of herself, and everyone is merrier for it.

did i make that politically correct enough? i tried not to use any foul language.

i liked the butterfly metaphor

Matt said...

hey guys? for the most part, the comments here are so on-topic and heart-felt I think I'm going to cry!



Anonymous said...

If you are seated next to a child, please put on your own oxygen mask first.

Anonymous said...

Brad, the butterfly metaphor is beautiful and works well in a blog post. I think you may really need a whole book to explain that sex thing properly. :-)

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