We live in an extraordinary age of wonderful scientific breakthroughs and marvelous technological achievements. Possibilities for cure of pernicious diseases and for health and longevity keep increasing. But ours is also an age of spiritual anguish and moral confusions, of promiscuous sex and savage violence. Crudeness, combativeness, and religious intolerance seem to be on the rise. In this context, it is refreshing to read a book that brings us wholesome worldviews that could help restore some balance in human interactions, based on both scientific and spiritual insights on compassion.
Though the title and principal theme of the book relate to compassion – the cardinal virtue in Gautama Buddha’s teachings – the author, who is a trained psychologist and practitioner of Buddhism, gives his readers many worthy understandings of the human mind and human capacities for good. Here is a healthy blend of religion and science, of ethics and reasoned thought.
The book is spiced with interesting anecdotes which make it interesting and thoughtful reflections which make it worth reading. The connections between Buddhist tenets and findings of current psychology add scientific support to the recommendations in the book. Perhaps one can find scientific support for the virtues prescribed in other religions also: such as love and caring, tolerance and humility. Reminders of eventual death and the ephemeral nature of existence may not be original thoughts: after all, they are the most ancient themes for poets and philosophers. But in the context of preaching ethics, they can inspire restraining attituides on people on the verge of rash or harsh behavior. There are also intelligent analyses of the basic urge for happiness in the book. The author presents a clarification of the notion of happiness which should be useful to readers.
There is no question but that raw aggressiveness and self-centered acts of cruelty and exploitation seem to pervade modern societies, but we don’t have enough data on the misbehavior of past generations to fault only people of the modern age. In any case, the book is meant to transform them to gentler and more civilized modes. This in itself is commendable.
However, it is important to remember that our appraisal of the world’s moral status is often derived from the daily news. This view of the world is, for many, very different from the world in which most people normally live during their waking hours. In everyday life and day to day interactions most people in most societies are carting and kind and decent. When calamities arise, not just in our neighborhood but in distant lands too, the outpouring of compassion and concrete assistance has generally been at more than a modest level. In the so-called richer countries, millions of people donate generously for the poor and the needy in distant lands. In other words, the art of compassion is not as lost as the title of the book suggests.
Then again, it is not clear that even among peoples where Buddhism is the principal faith, there is the kind of universal compassion that one would romantically imagine in that framework. When one reads about the Sermon on the Mount or the Ten Commandments in Tibet, the reader should not assume that all the people in Judeo-Christian societies put those nuggets of ethical wisdom into daily practice. We are all, after all, human beings capable of the best and also of the worst that the human animal is capable of.
This is not to say that the wisdom and perspectives spelled out in this book are not relevant or significant. Irrespective of one’s religious affiliation or absence thereof, one can benefit enormously by following the recipes for Compassion Practices given in the last sections of the book, à la Dale Carnegie. These instructions are meaningful, enriching, and practical. If only all were to make honest attempts to live up to them the world would surely be a better place.
This is the kind of book that can have only positive impact on readers, especially on those who are in the early stages of value-formation.
March 7, 2011