Saturday, October 11, 2008

The spirit of compassion

Whenever ideas are translated from one language to another, or one culture to another, or even one person to another, the difficulty lies in ensuring that the essential meaning survives the transition. So of course, the words themselves are not as important as the notions they carry. In the same manner, the word "compassion" is not important either so much as the idea that it is the wish that others be free from suffering. It is a hope that is not exclusive to any single virtue, but shared with and incorporated into many. A few years ago I was interested in negative consequentialism, the idea that suffering can and should be prevented, with the emphasis on prevention whenever possible. It's an idea that has taken root in some contemporary policies such as the "Precautionary Principle". Though it is desireable to anticipate and prevent problems before they arise, that isn't always possible. Author Sharon Salzberg once wrote that strength arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world, and bearing witness to it without fear, whether it is in ourselves or others. This strength is the ability to act with all the skill at our disposal to address it. There is an established practice called Tonglen that appears to effectively convey the spirit of compassion.

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