Dilatato Corde 1:2
July - December, 2011
A monk prays in front a pile of bags of unclaimed ashes of people who died of AIDS at the temple hospice in Lopburi, Thailand.
A monk prays in front a pile of bags of unclaimed ashes of people who died of AIDS at the temple hospice in Lopburi, Thailand.


Both Buddhism and Christianity stress the importance of compassion. But do these two religions mean the same thing by that word? There are good reasons to think that they do not.

One of the tasks of philologists is to clarify the similarities and the differences of meaning in the bicultural use of a word like compassion. Their findings are obviously very important, but I would like to argue that it is sometimes appropriate to look behind language and cultural conventions to the undifferentiated spiritual life of infancy where basic symbols are given shape. It will then become clear that a purely philological study does not eliminate the risks of misunderstanding. Dictionaries of languages and cultures, religious studies, history, etymology—in the last analysis none of these will be able to help us.

It would be naive to believe that because suffering is a universal reality, all we need do is observe its occurences in order to reconcile different points of view. In fact, it is precisely the observance of actual suffering that put me on guard about a problem that may be caused by homonyms, a problem that, in my opinion, translators, moralists and theologians are insufficiently critical of. We shall therefore begin at the beginning and, if you will, bypass the intellectuals and the scholars as we make our way to a particular battle field where good-willed Buddhists and Christians meet. Later on we can return to semantics and ethics.

The Battlefield
I spent six years in a Thai hospice taking care of terminally ill HIV patients that the medical system of the country had basically abandoned. There were, on  average, one or two death per day. The hospice was also a Theravada Buddhist monastery, whose charismatic abbot, in order to raise money for the hospice (there was no state aid) and for an AIDS prevention program, made his monastery a center for AIDS information and education in Thailand.

Each week, hundreds, even thousands of visitors—soldiers, students, tourists, healers, monks, pilgrims, priests, journalists, members of religious communities and sects—passed through the two wards where I was treating patients.

I was the privileged witness of an exceptional encounter between the agony of the dying and the compassionate reactions of people from different cultures, encounters that were exceptional both because they were so heart wrenching and because they happen so rarely.

All, or almost all these visitors, experienced great discomfort in the presence of the dying, most of whom were young and whose symptoms could occasionally take a very dramatic turn (Cf. Aids Hospiceor "Spouse" on YouTube).

I noticed some recurring differences in the ways visitors reacted to the manifestation of pain. Their cultural and religious origins were clearly indicating something. The difference between the behavior of the Thais and that that of the Westerners was especially remarkable. In short, I would say that Westerners felt that their first duty was one of “mothering” while Thais felt their duty was to be “generous.”

By “mothering” I mean a desire to love and cherish the dying patient and reduce his or her pain. The Westerners were much more concerned than the Thais about such things as  providing presence, nursing, psychology and medicine (analgesics!).

As for “generosity," I use it here in the sense it has in the West: a certain equilibrium between “having” and “sharing,” the opposite of avarice. Thai visitors almost always brought gifts: very good food, flowers, even coffins! They would place a banknote between the fingers of the dying, even those who were already unconscious. It was not uncommon that the poorest visitors would leave half their wages at the hospice.

The Westerners were usually far richer, of course, but it was rare that they would give the overworked staff more than a 20 or 100 Euro bill—with impossibly precise instructions on how it was to be used.

At the time my rather simplistic observation was that the Thais were curiously devoid of compassion, while the Westerners were clearly not very generous. My analysis of the situation was certainly not very nuanced, but at least I was already aware of a clear cultural gap between the ways people responded to the spectacle of anguish and death.

At this point language did not come into play. For various reasons (not the least of which was timidity and worry about contagion), it was not possible for the visitors to engage in conversation with the dying. What I observed were attitudes, not talk.

The abbot of the monastery-hospice was no exception. Once or twice a month he came to visit the wards of the dying. He knew I was chronically short of morphine, but over a period of six years he never provided me with any, even though his stature in Thailand was such that he would be able to get it for free with very little effort. The real problem was not legal or logistic. The simple fact was that this monk did not feel the need to find ways to reduce the suffering of the patients entrusted to his care.

550 deaths per year, and absolutely no morphine. In the West, this would have become a national scandal in less than a week!

The only way I could get morphine to provide some relief for my patients was to rely on especially courageous Westerners who, precisely because they were motivated by compassion, decided to take the huge risk of smuggling morphine into the country in their luggage. They were able to get this morphine from the bedside tables of people who had died in Europe, especially in Holland where, it seems, many still die at home.

The abbot knew all this, of course. He just smiled and attributed it to nothing more than an peculiar obsession of Westerners, who always struck him as becoming too emotional when they were confronted with pain.

The doctors, professors, businessmen and other members of the modern Thai elite who now and then made their way through our wards, with a few rare exceptions, seemed to have the same ethical priorities as the abbot.

Initiating  an Analysis
For years the only thing I saw behind the word "compassion" was a charitable act done on behalf of those who suffer. Later, when I became more adept at introspection, I saw compassion as something more complex because I found that it referred to both a feeling I can sense (the discomfort that is passively experienced when pain is observed) and also my reaction to that discomfort.

It is the reaction to the discomfort caused by the spectacle of pain that gives compassion its ethical dimension. Because the ways of constructing moral value can vary considerably according to culture, compassion in its entirety is going to be affected by particular cultural characteristics.

Whereas in one culture the spectacle of pain and the culture’s ethical orientation lead to one way of acting, in another culture, the same spectacle may well lead to other attitudes and actions.

This is exactly what I observed on the battle field!

As my perception of cultural differences improved with time, using the word “compassion” became ever more problematic. At least, in theory, I could already think of situations where the compassionate attitude of one person would be judged uncompassionate by another. In a more general way—that is, in areas not specifically related to compassion—I guessed that misunderstandings of this kind could cause a lot of religious or political squabbles. Without a doubt, one can look for ways to avoid these squabbles by making an effort to understand the other. But that often requires doing the work of analyzing homonyms that are not always very apparent and that surreptitiously corrupt interreligious dialogue.

To return to our consideration of “compassion,” modernity—which is never all that concerned about spiritual differences—seeks to avoid misunderstandings of this kind by removing the specific symbolic content that each culture gives to what it calls “compassion”, leaving nothing more than the common denominator, namely, the particular sensation that makes us shudder when we observe someone else’s suffering.

That, it seems to me, is what everyday language is surreptitiously doing all the time in the West and in the East. Only a few of the faithful are startled by the ethical contradictions between ancient spiritual traditions that are caused by these semantic shifts .

And so, John Doe, who has been following a televised report on a recent disaster, thinks of himself as a “compassionate” person because he is deeply affected by the suffering of the unfortunate people he has just seen on television. However, a wise and experienced Christian would say that John Doe is less compassionate than he thinks because, because, even though he is saddened by the trials these poor people are undergoing, he doesn’t do anything for them.

The media conglomerates make their money by getting their customers to experience such pseudo compassion.

I don't think John Doe remains passive because he knows that his government will be using his tax money to send aid. I think it is because there is nothing he can do. Apart from rare exceptions, John Doe’s excuses do not stand up to analysis, but I will forego such analysis here for fear of revealing my own failings! John Doe does nothing, does not even make an electronic bank transfer, because he usually has very little compassion in the religious sense of the word.

In fact, the kind of pseudo compassion that John Doe feels when he is glued to the televised report is as perverse as that of John Smith who is about to watch—on YouTube or somewhere else—a death sentence being carried out. It is not out of compassion for the victims of the criminal, nor for the criminal himself, that John Smith attends the show! What draws him to the scaffold is not compassion, but a sado-masochistic impulse that he is not sufficiently aware of or does not deal with very well.

All spiritualities endow the word “compassion” with very precise and specific ethical connotations. Good Christians or good Buddhists will never think of themselves as compassionate merely because their emotions are aroused when they see people suffering. Should this put us on guard about the indirectly harmful effect caused by the media’s interpretation of the great spiritual traditions? If the word "compassion" is allowed to remain on the slippery slope of semantic alteration, much greater intellectual effort will be needed to understand these spiritual traditions.

One occurrence does not establish a custom, so on this matter of semantics we need to be somewhat conservative. The mental deconstructions that those involved in interreligious dialogue undertake inevitably draw them into more complex symbolic territories. Their job is to assume (and, as far as possible, to help others to assume) the linguistic ambiguities that this complexity entails.

The compassion of the Buddhist is NOT the same as the compassion of the Christian nor of the Muslim, nor of the Shaman, nor of the Marxist, etc. And yet, with regard to the word "compassion", the scholar who compares religions will discover that the consequences of expressing these differences by means of a homonym are not all that significant. The compassion of Buddhists, for instance, is not totally incompatible with the compassion of Christians, nor with that of secular materialists (who often practice a Christian ethic), nor with those of various kinds of animism, etc.

Everybody will admit that apart from a few very specific questions, such as euthanasia or the use of certain hallucinogenic drugs, different ways of expressing compassion are not mutually exclusive. Thus, in concrete circumstances there will be no or very little controversy (except in the confined world of medical practice).

Moreover, these variations in the meaning of crucial words, a variantion caused by their religious contexts, will be a source of confusion only for those who work on the periphery of their own religious culture and in an area where different religious cultures are in contact with one another. For example, Christians who have been working in a Buddhist environment for only a short time will be more apt to say that the Buddhists are not compassionate and that their use of this word is hypocritical.

Some will say that today different religious cultures are everywhere in contact with one another and that this kind of linguistic ambiguity strikes at the very roots of peaceful coexistence in almost all major metropolitan areas. They will add that while it may be true that the ambiguity of "compassion" probably does not often lead to serious consequences, the same might not be true for words like “universality”, “impurity”, “fidelity”, “fraternity.”

This objection is valid, but the argument is not enough strong to induce us to abandon the semantic “conservatism" already referred to. Confusion must be clarified, but not in the surreptitious way the media go about it. We must demystify the directions for making the transition from one culture to  another. The solution must not be a semantic impoverishment.

It is common knowledge that all spiritual traditions give special importance to the spiritual commentaries of the ancient masters ("Tradition" with a capital "T”). In all these spiritual traditions, there were some who attained the highest levels of spiritual refinement, of humanism and of merit by riding on the shoulders of their predecessors who themselves already rode on the shoulders of their predecessors. What shall become of such a pyramid if in the course of ascending ever higher a word like  "compassion," which they both used and misused, changes its meaning? In the Christian world, for example, in order not to compromise the substance of the Gospel, would we not be obliged to change the words of Christ, and then those of Paul, and then those of Augustine? To start all over from ground zero? What battles will we choose to get involved in when we already have so much work to do in order to deconstruct all the other pernicious effects of history in our search for the original meaning of texts?

Anyone who has become closely involved with other cultures knows that when it comes to spiritual differences, the symbolic tiling on which language dances is more than the language itself. For a Christian, understanding Buddhism is not a matter of being able to read the Lord Buddha by making good use of a Pali or Sanskrit dictionary. Nor does the mastery of modern languages provide much help. I am willing to wager that the most eminent philologists will continue to translate the word "compassion" by "compassion" for a very long time to come. There is probably no better option!

In spite of what I have written above, it is not pemitted to translate the word "compassion"  as “generosity” when the word appears in Theravada Buddhism. There are many reasons for this, the main one being that "generosity" does not necessarily imply the discomfort one feels when confronted with someone’s suffering. For reasons that are even more obvious, we are not permitted to substitute the word “mothering” for "compassion"  in the Christian realm.

To understand the Buddha or the Christ, philology must give way to hermeneutics. Interreligious dialogue must be rooted in something deeper than linguistic studies. Even if we all spoke the same language, we would still have to work to throw light on our differences.

It is clear that Buddhism has not divided up the spiritual world in the same way we have in the West; the basic realities that are the referents of their words are not exactly the same as those referred to by our languages. Without a hermeneutical approach (which I am convinced considerably increases the complexity of things) there is no way of getting beyond the ambiguities transmitted by those important and homonymous words.

To make the point more clearly, let us take another word. What the Buddhists call "forgiveness," for example, is an array of  basic realities that do not correspond (and never will correspond) to what the Christians designate by the same word. Hermeneutics will show us, in no uncertain terms, that they are irreconcilable. (I could make the same point with words like "desire," "will,” etc.)

The law of karma has no room for Christian forgiveness. In Christianity, the cause/effect sequence “A+B+C” can become “A+C” by the pure miracle of the supra-temporal intervention of a good God.  But in realm of karma, where nothing can be wiped away, if one is to obtain more or less the same merit, it will be necessary to pass from “A+B+C” to “A+B+C+D,” where “D” is an obligatory new act that more or less equals “-B” and that the Buddhist must perform. For Christians, however, the grace of Redemption is given freely; it is not a reward for a human act. Christian love is not affected by time, whereas for the Buddhist, there is no way to erase one’s history. Science will probably feel at ease with the “dependent origination” of the Buddha (Cf. the "Paticcasamuppada"), but there is no place for grace; everything depends on whether or not good deeds outweigh the bad. The spiritual raw material that is necessary to depict a divine Redeemer or Christian forgiveness is already being made use of elsewhere in the Buddhist world. This means that in the best of cases, Christian ethics only vaguely resembles Buddhist ethics. On the battle field, the difference is obvious! Karma gives a cultural coloring to pain and death that at times can leave the Christian speechless.

If we are to understand religious difference, the first thing we will have to do is clearly distinguish the linguistic stratum from the symbolic stratum. Words function differently from the symbols that gave rise to these words. Lapalisse would have told us the same, but Lapalisse would not have focused his attention, as we should, on the possibility or impossibility of breaking the symbols up into smaller elementary symbols that can serve as new variables in shedding light on the most delicate of cultural nuances. 

For example, it was necessary to make a mental distinction between compassion in a passive sense (the discomfort initially felt) and compassion in an active sense (the ethically shaped reaction) in order to be able to find a trustworthy bridge between Christian compassion and Buddhist compassion that might be of service to interreligious dialogue.

The work on what I have here called "symbol", unlike the work of the philologist, is not directed to linguistic conventions, even if it is slightly influenced by the cultural environment and dabbling in the sciences.

The downside of such an enterprise of deconstruction and reconstruction—both of which are necessary in interreligious dialogue and the comparative history of religions—is that we can only express ourselves through language, which is essentially a set of conventions.

It is not possible to develop this topic in an article of this length, but you can find out more about it by consulting the section dedicated to Christian-Buddhist dialogue on the website Stylite (in French), which is in constant development.

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