Is Compassion Failing or Just Ailing – A Summary of Proceedings

An away weekend?

Where can you go to listen to a Tibetan lama, a Jesuit priest, a Sufi Muslim activist, a Quaker and a social anthropologist in a single weekend? Answer: the Quaker Universalist Group Conference, held on July 8-10th at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and attended by 70 Quaker and non-Quaker Ffriends .  The conference addressed the problem of why, given that all the major religions and secular philosophies teach the importance of the practice of compassion, this compassion appears to be failing to bring about a peaceful and just society.

Only by living a compassionate life can we improve the world
Frances Deegan, a Quaker and member of QUG, began the proceedings with a thoughtful consideration of the conference title. Compassion means to suffer with, to share the feelings of another. All the major religions rate compassion highly and most share the Golden Rule – do to others as you would have them do to you. There are many departures from this ideal, widespread use of torture and hostility to other ethnic groups, to name but two.  Since the Enlightenment we have been encouraged to regard self-interest and greed as the underlying drivers of all action. However people such as Mother Theresa, Jesus, Ghandi, the Dalai Lama contradict this view. The Quaker tenet that there is that of God in everyone leads us to see all as equals. ‘When we feel we are all equal we can be open to the faith of others. When I worship with other faiths I feel we are all worshipping the same thing. The same sense of unity emerges from all forms of worship.’  The speaker concluded that despite so much turmoil one could still find signs of hope and only by living a compassionate life can we improve the world.

Don’t join the suffering club; guilt does not do you any good!
The first speaker on Saturday morning was Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, abbot of the Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Samye-Ling in the Scottish Borders. His talk was entitled The Essence of Enlightenment – Unconditional Compassion. The Lama made a colourful, indeed exotic, figure in his red and orange robes and orange silk embroidered shirt and his talk was equally inspiring. He was born in Tibet in 1941 and fled to India in 1959 to escape the Chinese invasion and later moved to UK. From childhood he was taught that loving and kindness towards others was all important. However, training the mind is not easy. Lama Yeshe spent 12 years in solitary retreat and today spends two hours in meditation every morning.

His theme was suffering and how to find happiness through following the path of forgiveness. We all want to be happy but we are inconsistent. For example, we want a long life but we do not want to grow old, and so we suffer.  The Lama helps young people give up their painful attachment to drugs and alcohol. Wallowing in guilt is not helpful. Suffice to avoid repeating the same mistake. And it is important to forgive others their mistakes. A forgiving person is less likely to have mental problems. ‘I have suffered more than any of you’ (when he was escaping from Tibet). ‘What has happened is over, let go of the past and stop worrying about tomorrow’. ‘First learn to forgive ourselves, then we will have the facility to help other people.’

The Genetic Lottery
Our next talk was Spirituality, Humanity and the Nature of Compassion by Hannah Gilbert, a social anthropologist interested in religion and in compassionate training for health professionals.  Humans are a species which have evolved as part of the flow of life. People are shaped both by their genes and by the social situation into which they are born. What we are is not our fault.  Humans have larger brains than other animals and have consequently developed the capacity for self criticism and fearful imagination. We ruminate and this leads to suffering. Because we have imagination we can appreciate the feelings of others and there is good evidence that even in Neanderthal times we were not exclusively selfish. Compassion is the sensitivity to the suffering of others and a commitment to relieve and alleviate it.  However a threatened, fearful mind can block compassion (as in the migrant crisis). We need a new spirituality in which we accept that we have been formed by evolution but we nevertheless agree to act responsibly.  We need to confront the tribal response and find a sense of connectedness.  We can cultivate a compassionate outlook and find the wisdom to help each other.

The Essence of Compassion – Corporate social responsibility 
Our next talk was the most political of the weekend. Qamar Bhatti Khan, a Sufi Muslim with a life-long involvement in interfaith work, gave us a lively presentation urging action. As a teenager he was present at the Handsworth riots which were followed by an intensive effort to rebuild community across all faiths. ‘My interfaith background brings me here today’. Compassion for the suffering of others should lead to political action to help the underprivileged. He condemned the failure of capitalism as exemplified in the financial crash of 2008 and told us that that we should hold those responsible to account. We need to involve the next generation and to teach our children the importance of corporate social responsibility and the need to care for each other.

Divine Pathos and Human Compassion, or learning to be patient with each other
On Sunday morning our speaker was Michael Barnes, a Jesuit priest and dean of research students (theology) at Heythrop College, London University. He began his talk with reference to the book of Jonah as an illustration of the way compassion – the mystery of the compassion of God – reaches beyond justice and anger. God is moved by the suffering of humanity and there are limits to what pure reason can explain. As a student of comparative theology Michael Barnes noted intriguing similarities in the writings of different religions which he illustrated with reference to Saint Augustine and ancient Buddhist texts.  He also reflected on the connection between compassion and joy.   In theatrical productions the audience is often expected to identify with the suffering of the protagonists. If the viewer is deeply involved he shares the suffering of the actors but in the end, if his feelings are deeply touched, he sheds tears of joy; this joy springs from his understanding of the reality of things as they are. The relevance of compassion is widely recognised. The Dalai Lama said: ‘There are no absolutes in Mahayana Buddhism but if there were one it would be compassion’.

The conference included a workshop on compassionate mind training and a Q&A session with the panel of speakers, as well as small group discussions and an evening of music, poetry and story-telling. Our thanks go to the staff of Woodbrooke, to the QUG committee and especially to Frances Deegan, the conference organiser, who worked tirelessly all winter to develop the programme. This article cannot begin to do justice to the richness of the material we encountered.

Three of the five talks are published in a QUG pamphlet obtainable from Tony Philpott, 2 Willow Rise, Haddenham, Aylesbury, HP 17 8JR, ( price £4. The remaining two will appear in a later issue of Universalist

Dorothy Buglass