Medicine or poison? When Buddhist compassion goes too far

In my 20s, I began to practise Tibetan Buddhism. I was still sorting myself out after a tumultuous youth, still healing from sexual assault and other abuse I’d experienced as a teenager. It felt auspicious to stumble into a community of people dedicated to self-cultivation through contemplative practice. I was inspired by a tradition that was centred around a deep and compassionate sense of intimacy with the world. And I remain grateful for the years of practice that helped me grow up and learn to meet the world with genuineness and clarity.

Ten years later, the whole thing blew up. My Buddhist community was torn apart by a series of allegations of widespread, multifaceted abuse across generations. The most devastating of these allegations were against my guru, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, who was credibly accused of sexual and other abuses going back decades. The community of dedicated, broken-hearted practitioners that surrounded my teacher – many of whom were like family to me – became tragically fragmented. Some people left Buddhism altogether in disgust. Some gravitated toward other teachers. A significant number remained loyal to Sakyong Mipham, some for reasons I can understand if not personally avow, and some others fiercely defending him in ways that have troubled me.

I found myself in a kind of limbo. I resisted what felt like an implicit demand to renegotiate my expectations of decent behaviour that would have been required for me to remain a student of Sakyong Mipham. I was equally unable to commit myself with an open heart to a new teacher, while also unwilling to abandon my Buddhist life wholesale, as if it had all been a great error in judgment. What I have found myself doing instead is critically re-evaluating my path as a Buddhist and my understanding of compassion practice, which was at the centre of so much of it, mining my experience for its value while also taking a more honest look at what may have been its unskilful aspects.

A lot of Buddhists – and even the Buddhist I was a few years ago – would interpret what happened with my teacher and my Buddhist community as an aberration, a corruption of what is otherwise an unobjectionable if not laudable set of values and teachings. To an extent that’s true. But after looking more closely at the teachings on compassion that are promulgated in Mahāyāna (‘Great Vehicle’) Buddhism – and specifically in its instantiation in Tibetan Buddhism – there are important subtleties to these teachings that often get missed in their popular transmissions. The flattening of these subtleties ends up muting their potentially radical and transformative impact, and it may even allow these teachings to become part of the architecture that upholds certain forms of social harm.

To get at why this is so, it’s worth exploring the long intellectual history of Buddhist compassion practice. Although it has precursors in early Buddhism, compassion truly takes on its centrality to Buddhist ethics with the emergence of the Mahāyāna around the 1st century BCE. The main ethical obstacle that the Mahāyāna seeks to address is the problem of self-cherishing – the tendency most of us have to see the world through a self-other binary that polarises our experience into ‘us and them’, ‘me vs the world’. Experiencing the world in this way denies the reality of our interdependence with all things and all beings. Thinking of ourselves and the world as bearing inherently real, permanent essences categorisable as good, bad and neutral inspires a reified experience of the world. This polarisation of self and other is at the root of selfishness and indifference to others’ welfare, and in a more subtle way it also interrupts the sense of intimacy and interconnection with the world that would otherwise be possible were it not for the all-consuming dramas that stem from self-cherishing and the ignorance that underwrites it.

The exemplar of the Mahāyāna is the bodhisattva (Sanskrit: ‘awakening being’), who takes up a stance of radical compassion and focuses on the wellbeing of others – even enemies and strangers – before their own. The bodhisattva counteracts self-cherishing by undertaking the work of other-centred altruism as both the method for realising ‘the way things truly are’ – that is, interdependent and void of separate existence – and for expressing that realisation through compassion for others. In that sense, cultivating compassion is tied to the accumulation of wisdom, and together wisdom and compassion are what allow the bodhisattva to behave ethically and experience the world non-dualistically. It is a profoundly tender, richly intimate way of being in the world.

So perilous is the habit of self-cherishing that Mahāyāna teachers devised radical methods for extricating oneself from it. These moral-psychological therapies require that the practitioner take up dramatically counterintuitive attitudes in order to reveal and unravel the depth of their self-cherishing. Among the most celebrated of these teachers is the 8th-century Indian scholar Śāntideva, whose text the Bodhicaryāvatāra is widely admired and studied as the guide to Mahāyāna ethics. There, among his philosophical expositions of the way of life of the bodhisattva, Śāntideva encourages his reader to reflect upon the fundamental equality of all beings and the indefensibility of pursuing one’s own self-interest on the basis of a dubiously reified ‘I’. He also proposes that one can counteract one’s tendency toward selfishness by taking a pointedly critical perspective toward one’s own shortcomings, including negative emotions such as anger. Rather than directing our anger at the people we believe have done us wrong, Śāntideva advises that we should depersonalise the problems that befall us and chalk them up to the inevitable vicissitudes of a complex and interdependent world. In other words: ‘Them’s the breaks.’

This is a practice that strikes right at the logic that inspires self-cherishing. The thinking goes: if I weren’t so heavily invested in my own selfhood as something intrinsically real, with discrete interests to defend, then I would not experience others’ slights with such a personal charge. This is not to say that I wouldn’t experience them at all – that they wouldn’t be happening or that I wouldn’t notice them – but rather that I would be able to let those misbehaviours slide off me, simply regarding them as the product of innumerable, impersonal causes and conditions rather than targeted attacks on me and my ability to have things always go my way. When someone does this, Śāntideva argues, they become invincible to suffering not by changing others’ behaviour but by cultivating the mental fortitude to withstand life’s provocations with forbearance. Śāntideva suggests a contemplative practice for inculcating this radically diminished sense of self known as ‘exchanging self and other’, in which the practitioner imaginatively ‘exchanges’ their own happiness for others’ suffering. Being willing to give up happiness and take on pain enacts the kind of unbiased, boundless altruism that is the hallmark of the bodhisattva.

The meditator visualises the suffering of others as a dark cloud, which they draw into themselves as they inhale

This approach to ethical self-cultivation is extremely demanding. As the Buddhist studies scholar Julia Stenzel points out, Śāntideva frames these instructions on equalising and exchanging self and other as the purview of advanced practitioners. It may be surprising, then, that this view – and particularly the practice of exchange meditation – was later popularised in the mind-training tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, presented not as an advanced practice but as a preliminary practice appropriate for beginners.

The resemblance between mind training and Śāntideva’s ethics is apparent. Mind training pursues the same objectives as the bodhisattva practice. It demands a radical reversal of conventional attitudes toward oneself and one’s interests as an antidote to self-cherishing. This includes challenging how one interprets conflict, misfortune and daily irritations. In The Seven-Point Mind Training, the 11th-century Indian sage and storied lineage figure of mind training Atiśa advises: ‘Banish all blames to the single source.’ By ‘single source’, Atiśa means self-cherishing, the true cause of suffering. In his commentary on this point, the 12th-century Tibetan scholar Śe Chilbu explains: ‘Whatever calamities befall you, without blaming others, you should think, “This is due to my own self-grasping.”’

This unconventional attitude toward embracing what we ordinarily would try to repel is on display in the contemplative practice of tonglen, an innovation of the practice of exchanging self and other. In tonglen, which means ‘sending and taking’ in Tibetan, the meditator visualises the suffering of others as a dark cloud, which they draw into themselves as they inhale. On the exhale, they offer their own happiness and wellbeing, visualised as brilliant, clear light. Like Śāntideva’s exchange meditation, this is a practice for disrupting the habitual attitude that stems from self-cherishing.

In the development of mind training and especially the practice of tonglen, what was for Śāntideva a practice with a high bar for entry became a practice appropriate even for people at the preliminary stages of their Buddhist path. Effectively, tonglen evinces a kind of faith on the part of its exponents that the practice can function well enough as an ethical training for everyday life, with or without realising the totality of the wisdom that portends a full grasp of the ‘way things truly are’.

As the 20th-century Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (who, incidentally, was my own teacher’s father) said in stark and playful terms:

Even though somebody else has made a terrible boo-boo and blamed it on you, you should take the blame yourself … You can absorb the poison – then the rest of the situation becomes medicine.

Experimenting with reversing habitual responses like defensiveness or selfishness is profound. Relaxing our territoriality and letting go of our need to always be ‘right’ (or at least our need to make sure others know when they are wrong) can have a salutary effect on how we engage with others. But there are also profound problems with this approach.

Some time ago, a friend who works with survivors of sexual violence put a challenging but tactful question to me: what about her clients, whose trauma so often shows itself through self-blame? The majority of sexual assaults occur between people who know each other, often through methods of coercion that falsely lead victims to conclude that they ‘let it happen’ or are in some other respect to blame for the abuse. In cases like these, it is incredibly important to be able to say (and be heard in saying): ‘They were in the wrong. This was not my fault.’

A similar pattern holds, I suspect, for many people who have experienced abuse and certain forms of oppression. The fact is that there is a lot of explicit and implicit social encouragement not to be hard on others, to be accommodating, to get over it – in other words, to internalise the costs of the harm that has been done to them rather than force the awkwardness of asserting a boundary. In cases like these, ‘banishing all blames into the single source’ becomes the emotional labour of ‘taking one for the team’.

Essentially, what my kind critic was telling me was that this ideal of viewing all of our problems and struggles as stemming from self-cherishing was actually a great way for victims of abuse never to be able to heal. Sometimes expressing and holding a boundary – a boundary between self and other, between one’s own needs and theirs, between the workable give and take of harmonious social discourse and occasions that require a hard ‘no’ – can be necessary and even therapeutic. Especially for someone who is already well practised in the habit of taking on the burden of other people’s wrongdoing, the instruction to ‘banish all blames to the single source’ may come all too naturally, re-inscribing their existing trauma rather than helping them heal and grow through it.

First you must heal the self by restoring emotional wellbeing, and only then can you explode the self

Although I had heard variations of this objection in a philosophical context before, I admit that it hits different when your Buddhist community has just collapsed under the weight of a devastating abuse scandal, a scandal that in my case rang at the same frequency as some of my own past trauma. Did compassion practice resonate precisely because there was still an unprocessed part of me that was all too familiar with and all too ready to re-enact the perverse drama of showing my resilience by needlessly shouldering other people’s bullshit? The problem this raises pertains to the possible pitfalls of an ethical project of problematising self-cherishing as the pathway not only for cultivating compassion but also as a foundational principle of ethical life and even spiritual liberation more generally. I fear that there are many people – myself included – for whom this medicine may actually be poison, deepening patterns of harm rather than liberating them.

In thinking through this problem, my intention is not to torpedo centuries-old teachings from the standpoint of modern psychology or conceptions of justice that they were never formulated to address, nor to use my grief at the loss of my Buddhist path as a cudgel against all of Buddhist ethics. It’s also important to note that there are Tibetan Buddhist teachings that validate the possibility of transmuting emotions such as anger into wisdom, albeit as a more advanced practice than the introductory mind-training teachings. But I do think that this difficulty with the popular transmission of compassion teachings gets at something subtle and important about what Buddhist practice, and especially compassion practice, is meant to do to and for us. What, actually, is the source of their effectiveness in ethical self-cultivation, and what about them might be at risk of being mobilised to uphold the very confusion and suffering they’re meant to dispel?

The issue I’m describing here sits at the intersection of debates about Buddhist modernism and, in particular, the relationship between Western psychology and Buddhism. The scholar of American Buddhism Ann Gleig describes Buddhist modernism as ‘a historically unprecedented form of Buddhism that arose out of the encounter between traditional Buddhism and Western modernity under colonialism.’ This novel form of Buddhism characterised the tradition as a ‘rational’, ‘scientific’, ‘universal’ philosophy, selectively emphasising features such as individual meditation practice and de-emphasising seemingly ‘archaic’ elements such as ritual. By these modernist lights, the true essence of Buddhism – reflected in the majority of the convert lineages in North America and Europe today, and actively propagated by leading Buddhist exponents such as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama – rests upon its function as a ‘science of the mind’. This development led the way to the adoption of Buddhist contemplative practice in Western psychotherapy, and from there to the secularisation of Buddhist practice in protocols like Stanford University’s Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). The cottage industry of contemplative self-help and psychological therapies that borrow from and adapt Buddhist practice, which has resulted from the so-called ‘psychologisation’ of Buddhism, has been a prominent area of the psychotherapeutic field for decades.

The marriage of psychology, science and Buddhism inevitably produces tensions, especially when it comes to the view of the self and the ultimate goals of psychotherapy and Buddhist soteriology. Should the objective of a therapeutic ‘science of the mind’ be self-actualisation, or liberation from the illusion of the self? That is, how does the focus in Western psychology on restoring a healthy sense of self square with Buddhist principles like no-self and emptiness? The humanistic psychologist Jack Engler attempted to reconcile this mismatch in soteriological trajectories by viewing the relationship between psychotherapy and contemplative practice as a matter of developmental stages, summarised by his quip: ‘You have to be somebody before you can be nobody.’ On this model, first you must heal the self by restoring emotional wellbeing, and only then can you explode the self by introducing teachings like no-self and emptiness.

But the challenges that attend to the pairing of psychotherapy and Buddhist practice extend beyond conflicting metaphysics of the subject. The transpersonal psychologist John Welwood defined the concept of ‘spiritual bypassing’ as the use of spiritual practices like meditation to sidestep necessary emotional or psychological development. There is a real danger, in other words, that spiritual practice might actually paper over the need for personal, psychological development. Spiritual bypassing allows a practitioner to deploy spiritual principles or practices to avoid dealing directly with their issues. One stereotypical manifestation of spiritual bypassing would be with a person who uses meditation to ‘bliss out’ rather than feeling and addressing negative emotions. But spiritual bypassing can also come into play interpersonally in ways that speak to the problems that arise from compassion practice that I am outlining here.

It’s quite possible that being capable of tolerating harmful behaviours from others in the name of overcoming self-cherishing may amount to bypassing the necessary give and take of healthy relationships. Responding skilfully to the ethical demands of social life and close relationships may not always be best answered with self-martyrdom. To my mind, what’s especially tragic about this form of spiritual bypassing is the way that it reiterates the script of past traumas, deepening a person’s habituation to an interpersonal dynamic from which they have already suffered more than enough.

This kind of spiritual bypassing allows the practitioner to enact an otherwise noble ethical intention like putting others’ needs before oneself instead of developing the necessary personal skill of holding others accountable. This leaves undeveloped an important tool for social life but, even beyond this, it may also undermine the very spiritual progress that they are trying to pursue by way of ‘banishing all blames to the single source’. As trauma researchers such as Bessel van der Kolk have emphasised, traumatic experience stays with us, finding expression in our embodiment, often without our conscious awareness. If the physiological stress of trauma is not adequately discharged, that person’s body and nervous system will find other ways to manage that energy, often through overwhelmingly activated states or states of dissociation. This experience of finding oneself energetically locked up in this way enacts a painful enclosure of the self. Under these conditions, re-enacting a traumatic script through a practice of taking on the blame of others or displacing one’s own needs may seem spiritually elevated – and a person with trauma may even find themselves eerily competent at this – but it may also end up further isolating rather than reconnecting them.

What does it look like to assert a boundary without trading in a self-other dualism?

This isn’t to say that compassion practice is fundamentally wrong-headed and that we would all do better to just charge through the world unrepentantly indifferent to others’ wellbeing. But I do think that, especially as compassion is gaining status as an ‘evidence-based’ protocol for personal growth, we should investigate more carefully what it means to be in compassionate relationship with others and with the world. The goal of Buddhist practice is to extirpate from ourselves the ignorance that keeps us ensconced in suffering. That ignorance – the result of a basic misapprehension of our ineluctable interdependence with other beings and with the world – is what shows itself as self-cherishing and encloses us in a fortress of self-regard. From within that fortress, the phenomenal abundance of our interdependence with the world gets replaced by an affective landscape drawn according to the distortions of a reified self. Although the ethical failures that follow from self-cherishing are a problem, the ethical issue underwriting this state of affairs is the need to restore our felt sense of genuine contact with others and with the world. This loss is a tragic abdication of that most profound possibility of human life: the realisation of our tender intimacy with the world, including with other people, nonhuman animals, and the natural environment.

This is ultimately what compassion practice at its best can accomplish, and for that reason I still remain heartily in its favour, even in a secularised format. There surely are many people for whom an increased sense of moral obligation, up to and including a willingness to take on the suffering of others, is a much-needed rejoinder to a global culture that uncritically celebrates and rewards self-aggrandisement and greed. Instructions as dramatic as those from Śāntideva and the mind-training tradition administer a moral-psychological jolt to the practitioner, highlighting the ways in which they live within a painfully normalised disconnection from the world. But for whom is such a shock most useful? Perhaps this is an instruction best suited to those instances in which the moral hazard of selfishness stands to be morally and socially catastrophic, or for those who are least likely to doubt their own importance. For this class of moral learning, taking seriously the needs of others and being willing to displace one’s own interests can be a valuable way to undermine the creep toward self-absorption.

As an ethical training, radical self-abnegation is not an end in itself but a means toward deeper connection. If its practice deepens confusion, re-enacts traumatic scripts or exacerbates self-enclosure, then that practice is not the right one for this moment. Caring for and healing oneself is not the same thing as unduly reifying the self, and asserting a boundary is not the same thing as self-cherishing. This is something that we would do well to investigate for ourselves. What does it look like – or feel like – to assert a boundary without trading in a self-other dualism? How can one hold someone accountable not from a place of imperious anger but as an expression of unbiased care for social wellbeing overall, which can include one’s own welfare and happiness?

What is medicine for some of us may be poison for others. Whatever it takes to get us there, the work of compassion is ultimately about restoring our felt sense of interdependence and intimate connection with others and with the world. From that comes all manner of ethical attunement and skilful action. This thicker understanding of what is at stake in the compassion movement can help us approach that ethos with critical intelligence. It can help us keep in mind that compassion is a profound intimacy with the world, which can be cultivated using more than one method.

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