I read in Buddhist books that I should have compassion for all people, even ones that do horrible, evil things to others, including their family. I have a real hard time with that. How can one have compassion for people who purposefully do such harmful things?
Compassion for Some, Not All
Dear Compassion for Some, Not All,
To answer your question, I need to go back to some basics. We all, every person on this Earth whether rich or poor, suffer from samsara. We all are the product of learned experiences from our family, our peers, or the wider culture that create our own particular samsara, our own neuroses. What we think about ourselves and the world around us is mostly formed by that experience.
But although each person’s samsara may be slightly different, they are all based on two elements ... fear and insecurity. Now you may think that people with huge egos, power, and wealth have no fear or insecurity but quite the opposite is usually the case. People with huge egos have been shown to be at bottom very insecure people; their ego is a facade. And they certainly suffer, even while they make others suffer.
And so we come to an awareness of our, in a very basic sense, limited control over our lives when we may have thought we were quite in control of things. We are products of our environment and upbringing, and the way we are programmed by those factors limits in a very practical way the choices our thinking mind can make.
Our awareness of the truths of samsara opens the door to feeling compassion for ourselves. For the first time in our lives, we realize that although we are responsible for what we do, at a deeper level we understand that until we break out of the cycle of samsara by following the path, our ability to choose or reject and to see clearly is a limited one. Free will in reality doesn’t exist. And so we come to have the awareness that allows us to have compassion for ourselves, to love ourselves unconditionally.
For people brought up in a societal and religious atmosphere that preaches that we all have free will and that if we don’t exercise it properly it is our fault ... that it’s a character flaw, a lack of moral fibre ... this concept is hard to accept, even towards ourselves. If we have done something that we feel remorse or regret for, it’s hard to accept that those were things that were really not within our control to do much otherwise. So foreign is this to our learned experience.
Recently while meditating I saw everyone in the world as a marionette, with the strings pulling them this way and that controlled by their ego, their thinking mind. They have realistically no control over their actions.
And so, just as all people are born with the true Buddha nature inside them, all mankind in every corner of the earth, regardless how poor or how rich, regardless whether civilized or not, suffers from samsara. The experience of samsara is universal.
The awareness of the oneness of all humanity in both its essential purity and its suffering opens the door to having compassion for all people. Even the Rwandan who wielded a machete or the Nazi SS guard who sent thousands to their death or the Charles Mansons of the world ... all of these individuals are deserving of compassion because they are victims of their own samsara. Regarding all one can truly say, “there but for the grace of God go I.”
Compassion for all people lies at the heart of Buddhism. It is the rock on which the Five Precepts rest. To promote the development of compassion within myself, I do several things in my daily practice:
Every day when I prostrate myself, I invoke the Bodhisattva of Compassion with the Korean words, “Gwanseum bosal,” and thereby commit myself to cultivating a compassionate heart towards myself and all others.
When I meditate, I pray for “those who have hate in their hearts and who harm others. May their hearts be filled with love and may they cease harming others.”
I practice tonglen towards all. “Breathing in, I breath in the pain and suffering of the world. Breathing out, I send the world love, compassion, understand, faith, and strength. May the hearts of all be filled with love and compassion for themselves and all others. May they be freed from the past, releasing all attachment, unskillful desires, and fears and thus have the serenity to experience peace, happiness, hope, self-confidence, and security in the present that lifts frustration and oppression from their hearts and mind. May they be one with their unborn Buddha mind, free of anger, anxiety, and fear. May they know that if they live each moment well the future will take care of itself.”
And at the end of my meditation, I recite, “I dedicate this practice to the enlightenment of others. May it be as a drop on the ocean of activity of all bodhisatvas who work to liberate and bring enlightenment to all.”