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Barbara O'Brien

Idiot Compassion (Updated)

By July 21, 2011

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[Update: I have been informed that a person I quoted and identified as a Zen teacher is a fraud, and so this post has been edited from the original. I apologize deeply. -- Barbara]

"Idiot compassion" is a term coined by the late Chogyam Trungpa, who said,

"Idiot compassion is the highly conceptualized idea that you want to do good to somebody. At this point, good is purely related with pleasure. Idiot compassion also stems from not have enough courage to say no."

Trungpa's student Pema Chodron elaborated,

"It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it's whats called enabling. It's the general tendency to give people what they want because you can't bear to see them suffering. Basically, you're not giving them what they need. You're trying to get away from your feeling of I can't bear to see them suffering. In other words, you're doing it for yourself. You're not really doing it for them."

I've said before that merely being "nice" to people isn't the same thing as being compassionate. Most niceness is just social convention; we are "nice" because it is what's expected of us, and we hope others will reciprocate. Behaving in a socially correct manner tends to reinforce our feelings of self-worth.

Most of the time there is nothing wrong with that, but it isn't the same thing as compassion. In fact, sometimes the urge to be "nice" is about maintaining a polite and pleasant facade over a situation we don't want to confront.

For example, we've had a few situations in western Buddhism in which a teacher was taking sexual advantage of students. And sometimes the situation was allowed to continue for some time, even after it became common knowledge, mostly because the other students thought they shouldn't be judgmental.

Here in Buddhist Blog World, people who speak bluntly sometimes are accused of not being compassionate or not practicing Right Speech. But sometimes issues need to be addressed, and saying the "safe" or "socially correct" thing so you can be part of the crowd is very far from Right Speech.

I ran into this awhile back after writing about the scandal-ridden but not yet former Zen teacher Dennis Genpo Merzel. Merzel is living proof that you can receive dharma transmission and still be a jerk. Yes, I said that. After damaging a series of students with his sexual predation and treating the dharma center he leads as his personal cash cow, Merzel struck back at other Zen teachers who called for him to resign.

How? He accused them of "judgmental mudslinging." Classic.

And after I wrote about this, one of Merzel's students accused me of being "vindictive" and "self-righteous" and suggested I "try a little humanity." Speaking plainly about a sexual predator wasn't being "humane," apparently. And if that's not "idiot compassion," I don't know what is.

I could offer several more examples, from this blog and many others, about anti-judgmentalists who got quite nasty and abusive toward the person they were accusing of judgmentalism. It seems to be a syndrome.

There is a difference between "judgmentalism" that tears other people down to build ourselves up, and making a qualitative judgment about a situation or behavior. If "Right Speech" means we're supposed to stand by smiling while someone kicks a dog or endangers a child, you can have it. Fortunately, that isn't what it means.

A lot of us are well conditioned to keep our noses out of other peoples' sexual activities, and it can be really uncomfortable to speak up, especially when the alleged perpetrator is a respected teacher. It's so much easier to shrug things off, avert your eyes, and tell yourself you are not being judgmental.

But those are the times when you really aren't being judgmental, because it's not your ego telling you to speak up. If your guts are telling you to something needs to be addressed, but you fear doing so because of how other people will react, then it's your ego telling you to stay quiet. It's protecting itself.

If you have to club your way through a internal wall of conditioning and fear of social censure to speak up, very probably you really need to speak up. And everyone else needs it, too.

Comments
July 21, 2011 at 3:52 pm
(1) NellaLou says:

“Merzel is living proof that you can receive dharma transmission and still be a jerk.”

Maybe you could add:

Barry Graham is living proof you can fake dharma transmission and still be called “Sensei” even by Barbara O’Brien.

July 21, 2011 at 4:24 pm
(2) Chugai says:

Just because Barry’s teachers all died and the temple he at which he trained as a monk burned down taking all trace of it’s existence and he lost his transmission papers on his move to the USA doesn’t mean he is a thief dressing in Buddha’s robes trying to profit. (LOL)

July 21, 2011 at 4:33 pm
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

[Comment updated] Some people emailed me to fill me in on Graham, whom I had never heard of before. So I have revised the post. When I do screw up, however, it would be really helpful to just explain what I got wrong instead of leaving snarky, cryptic insults. Thanks much.

July 21, 2011 at 8:33 pm
(4) Chugai says:

I’m sorry — truly — I was just being humorous
towards NellaLou and didn’t even think of how it would read to you.

July 21, 2011 at 5:16 pm
(5) Mila says:

Just a tangent, which may be of interest to those who enjoy Ani Pema Chodron’s teaching: she’ll be offering a free tele-conference talk this coming Sunday (July 24th 2011) via Mangala Shri Bhuti’s LINK program.

July 21, 2011 at 5:50 pm
(6) Kevin DeCantillon says:

Well said Barbara. This is an especially relevant discussion for me. In my early practice I struggled with “Idiot compassion” as defined by you, Dogo Sensei and Trungpa Rinpoche. It is insidious misunderstanding of compassion because it is so well received. Working in hospice, where honesty is paramount, idiot compassion does a tremendous disservice to those who trust you with the living moments of their lives. Thank you.

July 21, 2011 at 9:52 pm
(7) Kevin DeCantillon says:

Barbara, thank you for your honesty and due diligence. Oh, an example of compassionate action vs. Idiot compassion! How timely and skillful. Peace.

July 22, 2011 at 12:27 am
(8) Vedapushpa says:

Idiot Compassion – in other words – is nothing but ‘misplaced sympathy’ and it is damaging to the giver and the value per se to begin with and in the ultimate analysis is sure to be ‘spoiling’ the receiver as well.

So it is better to ‘instruct or discipline’ the defaulter rather than wanting ‘not to displease him/her’.

July 22, 2011 at 5:10 am
(9) Joy says:

I found this article extremely interesting and helpful, an answer to prayer. So easy to understand and to meditate on further.

July 22, 2011 at 5:31 am
(10) Tracy says:

As a child and through part of my adult life I participated in Idiot Compassion to protect an abuser. I appreciate you pointing out the difference between the forms of Compassion. I would like to think we learn to be Compassionate, and yet, still diligent towards bringing appropriate justice to those who abuse and harm others, especially under the guise of a trusted religious leader.

July 22, 2011 at 8:10 am
(11) chelsea says:

Right speech comes from a place of honesty -honesty with ourselves and with others. If the honest truth is ugly, then compassion is requires. That’s what I think.

July 22, 2011 at 12:06 pm
(12) BEB says:

If it helps I agreed with you a 100%. But I will say this, it is a fine line to walk. R/S BEB

July 22, 2011 at 12:21 pm
(13) Barbara O'Brien says:

But I will say this, it is a fine line to walk.

Yes, it is. Decisions about when to speak up and when to mind your own business can be agonizingly difficult.

July 22, 2011 at 12:27 pm
(14) Machig says:

Contemplating the “near enemy” and “far enemy” of each of the Four Immeasureables has helped me greatly to be on the lookout for egoic impersonations that are masquerading as the actual qualities I’m hoping to cultivate. Here’s the list as I’ve learned it:

1. Loving-kindness (metta): far enemy = hatred; near enemy = attachment

2. Compassion (karuna): far enemy = cruelty; near enemy = pity (or “idiot compassion”)

3. Sympathetic Joy / Appreciation (mudita): far enemy = envy; near enemy = hypocrisy, insincerity, comparison

4. Equanimity (upekkha): far enemy = anxiety, greed; near enemy = indifference

While the “far enemies” are pretty easy to spot, it’s the “near enemies” that can be tricky ….

July 23, 2011 at 12:45 am
(15) JustAThought says:

There are two basic misunderstandings here.

The first is that there is no such thing as an action that can be assessed in any context other than personal opinion. That is not accurate. This may create uncertainty and may be why people did not respond appropriately.

Whenever there is an imbalance of social power in a relationship, the individual with more social power has the responsibility to refrain from using it to exploit the person with less power. This is a very simple standard. If there is an intrinsic power inequity in the relationship, that is your first clue. then simply ask “is the person with more power using it to exploit the person with less power?” If the answer is “yes,” the behavior is wrong.

The second misunderstanding is that “wrong,” which is a conclusion based on an assessment of the facts against a clear standard, is the same as “bad,” which is a moral judgment. People take wrong action all of the time. When you get a ticket for running a red light, you are reaping the karma for your wrong action. But deciding that you are bad for doing that is a judgment. That is what is not necessary.

This may be a delusory world, but it is not completely insane. There is no reason to descend into utter anarchy and confusion.

July 24, 2011 at 1:21 pm
(16) JustAThought says:

Wanted to add that this approach is based on the concept of relative truth, not absolute truth. The lack of understanding that these are both necessary is another source of confusion for spiritual seekers.

Often spiritual speakers are trying to live from a truth that transcends mind, body, intellect and understanding, without actually “knowing” that truth (“being” is a better word, but I don’t think a lot of people understand that).

When the ego is trying to be transcendent truth, all kinds of confusion arises.

It is better to consciously acknowledge that you, as the ego, cannot possibly “know” the truth, that unless we are fully awake we are in various stages of ignorance and delusion.

If this is acknowledged, we realize we cannot rely on our egos to tell us what is right and wrong action, and we are more open to living from guidance that comes from absolute truth but is expressed as relative truth. That is why something like the Eightfold Path is offered to spiritual seekers.

An example of relative truth is clock time. This is just an agreed upon convenience that is helpful in conducting our everyday affairs. It is not “real” in that it is not the absolute truth, but it does reflect a relative truth. So even enlightened masters take advantage of the concept.

July 23, 2011 at 7:58 am
(17) cenac says:

I love the way the ancient languages break down things: right speech has four parts in the Pali definition- just lovely, and logical.

We must avoid enmity or else right speech is diminshed; and we must seek undestanding or else right speech is meaningless.

If this don’t do, then the weak shoud remember scripture:’The Truth will set you free’ and ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.

August 1, 2011 at 12:04 pm
(18) scottmd says:

That doesnt make the concept wrong in principle. “Fraud” is a strong judgment to call a practicing buddhist, christian, jew or muslim. Says more about the critic than anyone else. Right now America is beset with the unintended consequences of “idiot compassion”. This is a working planet and nobody gets a “rest life” or a pass till we die. In nature as it should be in humankind, charity is a gift of grace not a government entitlement.

August 1, 2011 at 2:14 pm
(19) Barbara O'Brien says:

“Fraud” is a strong judgment to call a practicing buddhist, christian, jew or muslim. Says more about the critic than anyone else.

It was not the individual’s personal religion that was called fraudulent but his credentials as a teacher, which were fabricated. You don’t get to call yourself a “Zen master” by shaving your head and having some business cards printed.

Right now America is beset with the unintended consequences of “idiot compassion”. This is a working planet and nobody gets a “rest life” or a pass till we die. In nature as it should be in humankind, charity is a gift of grace not a government entitlement.

I see you suffer from a bad case of “idiot individualism,” or the refusal to see how much we all depend on each other.

August 15, 2011 at 11:42 am
(20) Razen says:

Dear Barbara o’brien,

I wanted to comment on assaulted nun but the comments were closed for that post so instead I chose this comment box.
In fact those self nominated custodians of Buddhism in Nepal are themselves distracted from the Dhamma that Buddha left for us. Otherwise they wouldnt have decided to expel an innocent nun who became a victim of rape assault. They should have rather protected her genuinely raising the voice for her than just as mentioned in this post idiot compassion by just asking for giving her the treatment it only sounds they are fulfilling their facade obligation.
If ever these self nominated custodians had developed a capability to learn by broadening their mind from how Buddha gave sanctuaries to Amrapali, a town entertainer for men who later realized was not the right path for her to lead a life and Pattachara who walked the town with body totally unconcealed after she went through a traumatic incident, a very disdainful image to earn in those contemporary society, one should admit the Buddhism in Nepal might have come one step closure to real Dhamma. 99% of the practice performed in Nepal are just meaningless rights and rituals of their own respective community.

One another important reason why women are treated so miserably in most societies when it comes to sexual offence no matter if a woman is a victim herself is the mens cowardly and narrow vision towards womens sexuality though men are the ones lurking for the opportunity.

August 15, 2011 at 11:42 am
(21) Razen says:

Dear Barbara o’brien,

I wanted to comment on assaulted nun but the comments were closed for that post so instead I chose this comment box.
In fact those self nominated custodians of Buddhism in Nepal are themselves distracted from the Dhamma that Buddha left for us. Otherwise they wouldnt have decided to expel an innocent nun who became a victim of rape assault. They should have rather protected her genuinely raising the voice for her than just as mentioned in this post idiot compassion by just asking for giving her the treatment it only sounds they are fulfilling their facade obligation.
If ever these self nominated custodians had developed a capability to learn by broadening their mind from how Buddha gave sanctuaries to Amrapali, a town entertainer for men who later realized was not the right path for her to lead a life and Pattachara who walked the town with body totally unconcealed after she went through a traumatic incident, a very disdainful image to earn in those contemporary society, one should admit the Buddhism in Nepal might have come one step closure to real Dhamma. 99% of the practice performed in Nepal are just meaningless rights and rituals of their own respective community.

One another important reason why women are treated so miserably in most societies when it comes to sexual offence no matter if a woman is a victim herself is the mens cowardly and narrow vision towards womens sexuality though men are the ones lurking for the opportunity.

August 25, 2011 at 11:52 am
(22) U says:

As someone who has attended his fair share of Buddhist discussion meetings, during which people have said some pretty asinine things, I can attest to the fact that “idiot compassion” only leads to idiots controlling the conversation. There’s certainly a right way and a wrong way to call an idiot an idiot, but saying nothing merely perpetuates the idiocy.

February 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm
(23) Yuho says:

I offer this ambiguous example of a ‘self-ordained’ priest and Roshi. His authentic ordination appears to be only for the layperson’s Precepts (ie, Jukai, not Tokudo), and he identifies himself on his website as a “Soto Zen Meditation Roshi” (highest priest/ teacher rank in Zen) without citing his current lineage, teacher, or Dharma Transmission preceptor. Rather like a Catholic advertising himself as a Cardinal, having received the rite of Confirmation only. And he appears to have a large appreciative following . . .

http://zendoctor.com/Home/frameindex.html
The integration of zazen meditation into my professional practice, education and training is deeply influenced by the teachings of Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi, a Soto Zen Master, Buddhist priest and founding teacher of San Francisco Zen Center. From 1976 to 1987, I studied, trained, and practiced at Genjo-ji Temple under the guidance of Jakusho Kwong-Roshi, a Soto Zen priest in the lineage of Suzuki Roshi. During my practice at Genjo-ji, I was ordained as a lay-monastic practitioner in the Buddha Way.

In 1988, I left Genjo-ji and founded Jotoku-Ji Zen Training Temple in Rohnert Park, CA. There I officiated my formal Tokudo ordination ceremony as a Zen Buddhist priest which was intimately witnessed and supported by my immediate family. At Jotoku-Ji, I have educated, trained and counseled beginners and veteran practitioners in the Way of zazen-only for over twenty years. I am currently the founder and Zen teacher for active Jotoku-ji Zen dojos in Long Beach, CA, Santa Rosa, CA, Sonoma CA, and Kamuela, HI.

May 10, 2012 at 2:46 am
(24) Marilyn says:

I agree completely with this basic concept. And I first want to say that I came upon this from someone else and I am only somewhat knowledgeable about Buddhism so I am just coming from my own beliefs and life lessons learned. As a parent, I have participated in this ‘idiot compassion’ at times but I would defend some situations that were actual compassion while others disagreed. So is the world. But what I really want to address here is that, if this is a Western Buddhism Zen blog, I don’t understand comments such as ‘Merzel is living proof that you can receive dharma transmission and still be a jerk.’ It sounds like people needed to speak out on what he was doing that was unethical and possibly be illegal, depending on the age of these students. But one can speak out about such things happening in an attempt to stop it without calling him a ‘jerk’. I’m sorry but that is ego talking and this is not about an attempt to be ‘nice and polite’ because we’re supposed to, but because you can speak up about things that you believe are wrong without getting nasty. Even the term ‘idiot compassionism’ – take out the word idiot and replace it with something else so you have kept true compassion alive for all of us. I apologize as it is late that I didn’t read all comments and hope I didn’t just say the same thing that someone else might have and also apologize if I am not knowledgeable enough of your beliefs to comment but did feel rubbed a little the wrong way and felt like I would like to speak up instead of practice ‘ignorant compassion’ – my name for it (as good as I could get as I am really trying to get to bed) since I didn’t like ‘idiot’. And I know that ‘idiot compassion’ was coined by someone else and you were quoting but still felt like speaking out about it.

May 10, 2012 at 6:44 am
(25) Barbara O'Brien says:

Marilyn: Actually, “jerk” doesn’t go far enough. He’s a twisted SOB who is hurting people.

And no, I’m not saying that because it props up my ego; I’m saying it because it is true. “Ego” is someone coming by here and telling me that nice people don’t call other people “jerks.” Honesty is more important than politeness.

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