Fumblings about Compassion

“One with compassion is kind even when angry

one without compassion will kill as he smiles.”

Shabkar – Tibetan poet

I went to Krakow, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau. It was surprising how un-horrifying it was. Birkenau was certainly bleak but its very hard to picture in my my mind the terror of the victims, even as you walk along the same path they do to the gas chamber.

What stuck in my mind was the Nazi doctors and in particular Josef Mengele who would smile and whistle whilst they went about selecting people for the gas chamber. This was not to make me think about I hate them, but to view them as humans who had no compassion at all towards the Jews and the other victims in the camp.

Rather than look at whether people are good or bad, I think that we can look at humans along a spectrum of how much compassion they show. Even this gets harder to judge because Hitler was a supporter of animal welfare (assuming it wasn’t all Nazi propaganda) and was very fond of dogs, so he certainly had compassion but none for the Jews. So compassion alone is not enough, selective compassion can be just as bad.

Perhaps a better way to look at it is having compassion for things we hate or don’t care for. This becomes a clearer way of separating ourselves and our future selves from those who try to kill under the idea of some ‘just’ cause.

Taking this as far as I can imagine matches the Buddhist criteria for having compassion for all things that can suffer. To prevent the future horrors of another version of the Nazis, our compassion has to include all humans whatever they have done. Whatever our feelings are for others we must have compassion for them.

This is where I see a difference between the Christian “Love thy neighbour” against the Buddhist “remove suffering for all that can suffer”. Love is more powerful than compassion and I appreciate that part of Christianity more and more. But I want to prevent future wars and “Love thy neighbour” is too open to cynicism and misinterpretation. Christianity is too often twisted to fuel wars. Buddhism appears to be a more humble attempt to get people to change the way they think.

So I see space for having a Buddhist focus of compassion for all living creatures (or all that can suffer) and then keep moving towards the Christian ideal of love.

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