Tuesday, October 06, 2009


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.

Which isn't to say that compassion itself is dead or cliche. It's just that once a word gets sent through the ringer of approved pop culture opinion a couple of times all the life is wrung out of it and we're stuck trying to find new ways of expressing the same notion.

In my search for a better way to talk about Buddhist compassion, especially as Dogen describes it, I've come up with the cumbersome and pretentious phrase, "conscientious selfishness." It sucks. I hate it.

But I think it might be a better way to look at that something we've been calling compassion. It seems to me that the way most people approach this idea of compassion is to create an image in their minds of the ideal compassionate person, who usually looks an awful lot like themselves. Then they ask, "What would a compassionate person do?" and make their efforts to mold themselves into the image they've created.

A lot of the time this activity manifests in an attitude of, "I hate doing this, but I'm doing it for your sake!" Anyone who has ever been the recipient of action taken with that kind of an attitude knows how miserable it feels.

But I don't think that's what Dogen was on about when he wrote about compassion. He said that compassionate action was "like a hand reaching back to adjust a pillow during the night." It's a very interesting image that I've written about probably 243,572 times.

A hand reaching back to adjust a pillow sounds kind of like selfish action. It's not what we usually imagine our idealized compassionate spiritual superbeing doing. He's supposed to save the whales, and feed the children, and shelter the homeless. What would he be doing adjusting his pillow just to make sure he slept OK?

But taking care of yourself is where compassion begins. The seemingly "selfish" action of doing zazen every morning and night doesn't seem very heroic. But the effects of regular zazen practice help everyone that practitioner comes in contact with.

In a way it's like sex. I don't know if you've noticed this, but pay attention the next time you're getting hot and heavy with your special someone. The very hottest things your lover can do while you're getting it on are usually the things he or she does to get him/herself off without any specific regard for you.

When you're getting intimate with someone you love, you care deeply about that person. So your selfish actions in that context are always taken with a caring attitude toward the one you're with. And yet it's far more erotic when your lover forgets about you and focuses on him or herself. This is a kind of compassion.

I'm gonna save the rest of this particular tangent for my forthcoming book about Zen and sex (available from New World Library in 2010). But I think this is very valid.

All truly compassionate action comes from this kind of attitude, when you care deeply for others and yet do what feels best for you.

Anyhow, what felt best for me last weekend was a trip out to Vasquez Rocks where the famous battle between Captain Kirk and the Gorn took place. Here are the photos to prove it!


Anonymous said...

The last few paragraphs of this article, next to that pic reminded me of this video.

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

"The very hottest things your lover can do while you're getting it on are usually the things he or she does to get him/herself off without any specific regard for you. "

I read this to my wife and asked if she agreed with the sentiment, and she responded with a laughing "noooo."

The idea that you "forget about your partner" in bed and focus only on yourself is absurd to the nth degree. Horrible idea. Try it at your own risk.

PhillySteveInLA said...

For those of us younger than Old Man Warner here,Vasquez Rocks is also the place the Evil Robot Bill & Ted killed the Good Real Bill & Ted in the aforementioned duo's Bogus Journey. They also gave Death a Melvin there.


Ouch said...

This probably explains a lot about the attitude in Dogen Sangha where Buddhists can threaten other Buddhists with physical harm, then one Buddhist teacher can slug another Buddhist teacher, then lie about it.

They are all just practicing "conscientious selfishness".

Anonymous said...

OK so now were supposed to think that ultimate compassion is taking care of our own needs without regard to others?
Is this like a Zen game where you say the opposite of what you really mean?
Let me see now, which would I rather contend with: a person who begrudgingly does kind things for me in the name of compassion or a selfish A-hole who worries about El Numero Uno?
"Conscientious Selfishness?"
Wow. What's next? "Violent non-agression?", "Unaware Mindfulness?"
Here's a thought: How about instead of acting selfishly you act compassionately and if there is some resistance to that compassionate action you examine the origins of that resistance in YOURSELF before you rationalize your self-absorbed behavior as some sort of retarded Buddhist insight?

Brad Warner said...

Aaron (gniz), I guess I didn't explain this clearly enough. I should have emphasized more the attitude of total caring and commitment. I'm not talking about selfishly trying to get yourself off without regard to what your partner feels. That's not hot at all.

But think of the times when your wife is totally absorbed in pleasing herself with your body as the object of desire and pleasure. At that moment there is no you for her, no sense of "other," and yet she is totally absorbed in you and you in her. There is no attempt by her to try to please you because the very idea of self and other has vanished. You can't say that's not hot...

I'll rewrite this extensively before it goes into the book. Sorry.

raded6 said...

When you are happy and mindful, you will be more compassionate towards others. AKA "concientious selfishness"

K2 said...
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RDeWald said...

As soon as you isolate an action as compassion you've gotten lost in delusion. Compassion is a wholesome action, it does not exist as a separate entity. It can't.

Talking about compassion is, forgive the tired cliche', like dancing about architecture. There is compassionate speech, but it rarely contains the word, or any discussion of the concept of compassion. Compassion is an approach the world that recognizes emptiness.

PhillySteveInLA said...

I agree with your greater point, but I don't feel your sex analogy was apt.

What I find to generally be the hottest thing in bed is when one person not only does something that they know the other person enjoys, but loses themselves so much in giving that pleasure that it becomes a pleasure to them...And isn't that also a sign of compassion in action? Losing the thought of self and other to create happiness?

PhillySteveInLA said...

Brad, just read your response to gniz.


Apuleius Platonicus said...

top ten reasons why zen is like sex:

10. it's ok to do it by yourself, but it's even better with others.

9. you can do it anywhere under any circumstances, but beautiful, natural surroundings are ideal.

8. some people insist that there's only one right way to do it. these people should be avoided.

7. the people who talk about it the most tend to know the least.

6. flexibility is a plus.

5. falling asleep is considered very bad form.

4. some people like to dress up and use props - other people think that's ridiculous. don't knock it if you haven't tried it.

3. different people prefer different positions.

2. in the old days there was both a gradual approach and a sudden approach, but these days everyone wants to take the sudden approach.

1. you can read about it all you want, but unless you are doing it you have no idea.

gniz said...

Hey Brad, thanks for responding to probably one of your biggest critics (ie trolls). For what its worth, though i might disagree with much of what you write (and i do think you need to rethink this sex metaphor), I do think you are a very interesting writer.

And I also think that keeping this comments section open to the insanity, the profanity, the postulating, philosophizing--it really works. It shows a lot of character, imo.

gniz said...
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Daniel Emanuel said...

Vasquez rock's are friggin' sweet! I grew up like 30 minutes from that place... Don't forget, Brad, that its also the place where Bill and Ted plummet to their death in their Bogus Journey. Also Fred Flintstone hung out there for awhile while he was pretending to be John Goodman.

Anonymous said...

"The very hottest things your lover can do while you're getting it on are usually the things he or she does to get him/herself off without any specific regard for you. "

I think I agree with this. For me, when my lover is most absorbed in her own pleasure, it is the most exciting for me. It starts snowballing..

Anonymous said...

I thought the quote was
"Compassion is a hand giving you the
reach-around in the middle of night."

PSA: Nobody better sneak up and adjust my pillow, I keep a loaded gun under it and am startled easily!

A book on Zen and SEX? Hmmm. Well you know what those shrinks say, sometimes a cigar isn't just a cigar!

m said...

Hey Brad, good catch there--I was about to say "wow he really hit a foul ball with this one." I'm glad you clarified :)

Anonymous said...

The idea that you "forget about your partner" in bed and focus only on yourself is absurd to the nth degree. Horrible idea. Try it at your own risk.

Could be one reason his wife left.

proulx michel said...

I remember some 15 years ago, I had a fit of a sex problem: everytime I'd have sex, things would go awry, because I had all those thoughts in my head which just sent the thing to its flaccid state...

Until I realised that it was those thoughts that did the thing, and that I needed to stop thinking and only do that.

And yes, I'd tend to agree with Brad on that point as well as with PhillySteveInLA.

But it all amounts to "stop thinking".


Blaaahhhhhhhh!!!!!! said...

Anon 8:31 said -

"I think I agree with this. For me, when my lover is most absorbed in her own pleasure, it is the most exciting for me. It starts snowballing.."

Snowballing?.........oooooo, gross!!!


Anonymous said...

It is very interesting to me. Zen and Sex have been words I have associated with each other since I was 7 years old and starting 2nd grade in elementary school in Hawaii (my dad was stationed there the year Hawaii became a state--yes, that would be 51 - 52 years ago yikes!).
In the bookshelf in their bedroom--on the bottom shelf--one book with something something SEX on it and another with Zen on it.
I was a beginning reader and both these words with letters from all the way from the end of the alphabet were intriguing to me.
I am glad you are putting them together in a book
these are subjects which still intrigue me.


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.

brad, what you're saying about sex makes perfect sense to me. imagine your wife agreeing to marry you, not because she wants to, but because she likes you and doesn't wish to see you displeased. it's the same with any sexual act. she doesn't want you to put on an act. she wants you to want to.

gniz and his wife may not feel the same way, perhaps because their rituals are as perfectly fine-tuned to each other's desires as they are to themselves. unless they reject the idea because of personal insecurities - nobody wants to feel used - but i doubt that is the case here as i doubt anyone would want to feel patronized either.

Sean said...

I think it can be decanted as a matter of attachment to self-fulfilling ideals. In reference to your previous post about egotism, and one of the responses, in fact, then in considering some deeper attachments I've noticed of myself, and presumed of others, one can become so attached to an ideal that it shapes every perception - and this is probably natural. Keeping the discriminating mind at bay, then, I think may be a natural consequence of earnest practice towards kensho. This is how my mouth flaps about it, anyway.

tionsib said...

7.15pm wrote, "Here's a thought: How about instead of acting selfishly you act compassionately...", but failed to address the point. The point is: what does "compassionately" mean; what is a "compassionate" act? Other interesting questions are: What motivates such an act? Do we/can we ever act purely altruistically? Do we/can we ever act other than "selfishly"? Is altruism a necessary component of compassion? Is a compassionate act always perceived as such? Might we mistake a selfish act for a compassionate one? And vice-versa. And so forth.

These are the questions Brad is addressing. That, IMO, is a good thing.

Unaware mindfulness? You may have something there... http://www.dogensangha.org.uk/PDF/onemoon.pdf

Anonymous said...

Good post, though you have to be careful when applying that line of thinking. But Brad, come on, I got this on the margin from Google ads next to your article:

Big Mind TV
Zen Master Genpo Roshi's Free Video Classes Live & On Demand


Anonymous said...

I'm getting a hard on...

Uku said...

Anonymous 4:05 AM wrote:

But Brad, come on, I got this on the margin from Google ads next to your article:

Big Mind TV
Zen Master Genpo Roshi's Free Video Classes Live & On Demand


It's called Google Ad Sense and it's automatic service that picks up ads relating site's contents. So if Brad writes about meditation, zen etc. Google will show that kind of ads like Zen Master Genpo Roshi's Big Mind and Eckhart Tolle's things and Zodiac Horoscope etc (it's not a matter what those gotta do with Zen etc. - they are ads by Google, not by Brad). For example when I wrote about travelling, Ad Sense picked flight agency-ads and so on. So user can't choose what kind of ads Ad Sense will show.

hendrik said...

My guess is it's a lot more work to clarify the meaning of "conscientious selfishness" than "compassion". To me it sounds a lot more dualistic, and I think your sex example bears that out.

My preference is "sincere action", particularly in bed.

Justin said...

An almost Orwellian reinterpretation of the meaning of compassion.

War = peace
Slavery = freedom
Selfishness = compassion

'Reluctant compassion' and 'faked compassion' are not real compassion and they are not the only alternatives to selfishness. This is just cynicism. 'Conscientious selfishness' doesn't sound like real compassion either. There is such a thing as real compassion.

I think you have it the wrong way round Brad. Compassion isn't thinking only of yourself and having the welfare of others as a nice side effect. Compassion is caring for everyone and having your own welfare as a side effect. It's the intention that matters, just as the Buddha taught. Compassion is expansive and breaks down the egotistical barriers that appear to divide us.

BTW: What gets my wife hot is prolonged foreplay that usually bores me after about 2 minutes. Yet afterwards the sex is better. And so is our relationship. And I enjoy giving her pleasure and making her happy.

I don't think "a hand reaching back to adjust a pillow during the night." is about selfishness, it is about the opposite - unselfconsciousness. When we are truly compassionate we are free from the idea of being compassionate.

I agree however that compassion begins with being compassionate with yourself.

Anonymous said...

Justin, for a multitude of reasons, I envy your wife.

Anonymous said...

Your sex analogy seemed accurate to me.
Probably the first time I've ever heard someone describe it so well.
I find it easier to lose my own thinking mind and self consciousness when I can get caught up in my partner's complete absorption in response to my physical 'language' with them.
This (their absorption in their sensation in response--allows me to fine tune further physical 'dialogue' as it were--but like starting one of those push and jump on merry go round thingy's at a playground--this allows me to leave thinking behind as well and just be together in the senses.
I am painfully selfconscious sexually speaking, so it is only when my partner's attention is caught up in this absorption in response/sensation which you describe, and is 'unaware' of me, that I am able to 'leave me behind' as it were and dissolve into currents of sensations.

Compassion as equivalent to reaching to adjust a pillow in the night is an extraordinary image
I especially appreciate this description of an action of such simplicity.
An action of situation/response.
No conscious weighing of the situation or heavy duty thinking (now should I move this pillow, does this neck deserve the extra fluff of pillow--will this neck be dependent on me and need this extra fluff from now on...)

I really like this image of Dogen's very much. I like this explanation of compassion as a simple action:
no fanfare almost reflexive.


Thank you.

Harry said...
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Jinzang said...

I may say more about this later, but, if you peek over the wall of your Zen garden into the Tibetan temple next door, you'll notice that the Tibetan tradition has quite a lot to say about compassion, its benefits, and how to cultivate it.

Harry said...

Hi All,

Master Dogen isn't speaking about any 'philosophy of compassion' in Shobogenzo Kannon. He presents the function of Kannon as a real situation that is occuring everywhere right now. It's a function of nature.

This function (which he never refers to as 'compassion') is not restricted by any human idea as it exists before our ideas and so it's not a matter of 'self' or 'other' or a lack of 'self' or 'other' but is something more real and universal than such a profusity or lack. It's the direct here-and-now instantaneous manifestation of our life, of everything, in other words, which never relies on our thinking something or not thinking something.

Acting in accordance with our real life manifesting is not a philosophy of compassion but is a real situation that we can directly clarify through Buddhist practice. Letting thoughts like 'compassion', 'self', 'other', 'selflessness...' come and go without playing those games is part of the training.

Blindly indulging our own beliefs and notions is contrary to the 'seeing' function of Kannon as is rejecting any aspect of our self or abusing ourselves or neglecting ourselves. Kannon is already being compassionate all the time everywhere in our life, we can act in accordance with this real situation or we can act in accordance with habitual delusion.

We all have that terrible freedom.



Anonymous said...

If I ever found out my lover was bored with the foreplay it would really spoil things for me: I'd be too self conscious about it, abut him, to be able to let myself get caught up and transported by it.
That would be such a shame.

I really hate this self-conscious stuff, it spoils a lot of things.

Stephanie said...

Lordy mercy, this post is damned ridiculous, Brad.

Self-conscious "compassion" in which one makes sure those receiving the help know how lucky they are and how generous the helpers are isn't compassion. But that doesn't mean it's not possible, as Justin pointed out, for agenda-free generosity of spirit to arise. It happens all the time, inside and outside of Buddhist circles. Most people naturally do compassionate acts on a regular basis, it's just that when we don't cultivate compassion we spend more time being selfish (conscientiously or not) than practicing compassion. Anyone who thinks they're a messiah figure because they do compassionate things is deluding themselves; people are fundamentally compassionate, it's just that fear, hatred, and ignorance conspire to push us into behavior that is against our fundamental inclination to compassion.

They've done interesting research about 'mirror neurons'--that a big aspect of human mental functioning is our ability to feel subjectively the same reaction to witnessing someone else do or experience something that we do when we do or experience it. That's what compassion is--when the mental boundary between self and other is dropped such that another's joy is our joy; another's fear is our fear; etc. Maybe this is what you were getting at with your sex analogy?

Captcha: 'inghten.' As in, 'This post was inghtenant.'

Kathy said...

I guess I get this. It has been my experience re both sex and life. When I first started zazen I had decided to try it for six weeks and see what happened. At the end of six weeks I stopped doing it, having decided that I wasn't accomplishing anything.

Slowly, over the next few weeks I noticed thoughts like "why is my boss bothering me, she hasn't bothered me like this in a long time," or "why are my employees being so dense, they were all getting it a few weeks ago," "how did I lose my compassion?"

In an effort to solve these problems I'd wonder "what's changed, what's changed?"

Come to find out, it was me, it was zazen, it was the one moon of zazen separating into two moons. (thanks tionsib for the reference: http://www.dogensangha.org.uk/PDF/onemoon.pdf ) I'm a slow learner and I went through this same experience - zazen for a while, deciding it was a waste of time, why are things so fucked up? - until I caught on. Just sit.

The difference is zazen, and I don't care how its effects are explained, zazen tunes me in to the part of me that acts, rather than the part that reacts, or the part that analyzes.

So, just as you can intellectually learn all about the "right" things to do in bed or in life, if you're reacting (when A happens I'll do B) you're out of sync with the action; when you're analyzing (what do I want? What does other want? What's expected now. What is right?) its as if you're seeking to control so you can perform admirably. You're still out of sync.

The action is happening now, and we are the action of our own lives - we get the most satisfaction - in bed or in life - by neither controlling nor following, but by being what is happening now, right this moment.

Anonymous said...

compassion is motivation to help another who is suffering motivated by one's own experience of suffering.

"Wow that person is really struggling. I have strugged and I definitely know how sucky that can be. Even though that person has just insulted me, and it hurts, I can see that they are struggling with their own demons and would not act this way if they were not in pain."

gniz said...

You know, it seems like part of the issue here is just overly simplistic thinking.

To talk as if we are either acting "with full compassion" or we are acting out of "fake, obligatory compassion" is completely out of sync with reality, which is messy and complex.

Most of the time, in my experience, my own motivations are complex, and anything but simple. If someone close to me gets ill and i have to care for them in some way, i may feel worried, concerned, annoyed, resentful, panicked, willing to do almost anything to help them but also terrified at how this all effects me....

And my actions will still flow from these motivations, but also what i believe to be the "right" thing to do.

The idea that compassionate action is all one thing or the other is absurd. Even during sex, sometimes i am totally into it, sometimes thoughts come in, maybe just fleeting, its all jumbled up together.

It seems like (as usual) people are looking for formulas, answers, things to make things easier and less complicated. Where is my list of rules to live by--who can tell me what to do next? When can i achieve perfect action and perfect knowledge?

Life is messy. Buddhism, in my opinion, should help us to embrace the messiness and the confusion and not convince us that we can make sense of everything and place it in neat little boxes and explain it all away.

gniz said...

And interestingly enough, part of what helps me see that messiness is this funny, quirky little comments section--who'd a thunk it?

Justin said...

Kannon, the Bodhisattva of compassion has 1000 arms.

John Daido Loori Roshi broke down on the highway on a dark and rainy night. A stranger (a mechanic) stopped and repaired his car for him, refusing to allow him to help. Daido Roshi said that the arms of Kannon are nothing other than the millions of selfless acts like this going on around the world all the time.

I hear John Daido Loori Roshi is currently on his deathbed.

Harry said...

Hi Gniz,

"Life is messy. Buddhism, in my opinion, should help us to embrace the messiness and the confusion and not convince us that we can make sense of everything and place it in neat little boxes and explain it all away."

Yes, I think what Buddhism offers is more than just another way to consider things. At it's best it offers us an opportunity to jump free of the mess for a time and see it directly for what it is and where it arises. Then we can embrace it/ engage it for what it is.

Also, via Buddhist practice, we can accept that it's only we ourselves as individuals who are directly responsible for the mess.

This is quite unusual in religion/philosophy (and, unfortunately, it seems quite rare in 'Buddhism' too these days) because people often approach religion/philosophy with a view to giving over their responsibility to some higher power or other. Religion in return for comfort, obedience for absolution, beleif in return for a sense of belonging etc etc...

Even 'loathing the power from above' is an inverted control tactic that we employ in order to avoid the truth of our very own responsibility.

It's a powerful myth, an attractive religion.



Kathy said...

I agree, gniz, I love this "funny, quirky little comments section" too.

Dan_Brodribb said...

I know more about sex than I do about Buddhism, and while I think Brad's post and its correction are true, I think it's only part of the picture.

The big thing I've noticed about sex is at any given moment, you have to decide whether at this moment you are giving pleasure or receiving pleasure.

Either is fine. Both of them are wonderful.

But if you try and do both at the same time, it's less satisfying for both you and your partner. If you want to experience both, you have to take turns.

I don't know beans about compassion, but I think a lot of things in life are similar. You have to decide if you're giving or receiving in the moment and give yourself to it fully.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, but this Brad Warner guy. Do we really want him participating in our comment section? I guess we could always expel him if he gets out of line.

Kathy said...

Anon 9:06 - If we banned Brad, then we'd most likely end up with Existential Detectives. I don't think we're ready for that.

K2 said...

Total selfless giving is an ideal. The parable of the guy who throws himself off a cliff to feed a hungry tigress and her cubs, for example. If that's how you define compassion then you'll be throwing your life away at the soonest opportunity. On the other hand, proselytizing selfishness isn't really (I hope) what Brad is suggesting. The problem here is that where you draw the line at selfishness/selflessness is a koan. How selfish you ought to be or how selfless you ought to be is subjective and situational.
In any case, it's pretty polarizing because no matter what you suggest, you'll be wrong from someone's point of view.
PS: The Gorn rule, but Kirk's homemade mortar was the bomb.

Anonymous said...

"Like a hand reaching back to adjust a pillow during the night"
Whose hand? Whose pillow?

When I read that phrase, I immediately think of the nurse who adjusted my pillow as I lay in a hospital bed ....... an act whose implications are quite different from me adjusting my own pillow. Why do YOU believe that the quote refers to someone adjusting his own pillow? Is that fact "lost in translation" or merely assumed by you?

Two interpretations ...... two acts with very different implications.

Anonymous said...

I think the important thing to remember about the pillow analogy is Dogen describes the individual being asleep while doing it. In that sense, there's not SOOO much of a difference between a nurse adjusting and me doing it in my sleep though a nurse doing it might be sexier if you are into that sort of thing. In any case, I wouldn't know the difference, since I'm sleeping.

We're all one dudes.

Erin L Pullum said...

Just goes to show you Star Trek IS Zen!

Michael said...
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Michael said...

I'd like to think a person can come out here, write some things down, workout a couple ideas maybe just give a quick, "Hey, this is what I was thinking about today." "How you doing'?" Not with you lot though. Having had my own struggles with practicing. I've come to one very solid fact, Nothing is perfect. And if by some chance it is, it doesn't stay that way. You might catch a whiff if some of you would stop analyzing every little detail and stopped being self-important, self absorbed buddhist nerds. You might realize he's talking about some us.

Sunami said...

In reading these posts, I feel as though we are watching the Planet of the Apes at the very end when they are on the beach..but instead of the Statue of Liberty being found buried it is a part of a Buddha statue....