Buddhists Don’t Have to Be Nice: Avoiding Idiot Compassion

“Buddhists are supposed to be nice.” How many times have you heard that one? Buddhists are stereotyped as always being pleasant, soft-spoken and calm, and we aren’t always.

Of course, the Buddha taught us to cultivate loving kindness and compassion. The practice of Right Speech requires abstaining from rude and abusive language. Isn’t that the same thing as being nice?

Maybe not. Many Buddhist teachers have said that being compassionate and being “nice” are two different things. Most of the time, “nice” is mere social convention. It says nothing at all about relating to other people except on a superficial level. Even sociopaths can be nice (I have seen this with my own eyes).  Sometimes the guy who is yelling and throwing furniture around is the one who cares

Idiot Compassion

“Idiot compassion” is a term attributed to the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, although he may have borrowed it from the Russian spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff. Idiot compassion can take several forms.

The Rinpoche related it to “doing good” as an act of self-gratification.

“Idiot compassion is the highly conceptualized idea that you want to do good to somebody. At this point, good is purely related with pleasure. Idiot compassion also stems from not have enough courage to say no.”

Trungpa’s student Pema Chodron elaborated,

“It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s whats called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering. Basically, you’re not giving them what they need. You’re trying to get away from your feeling of I can’t bear to see them suffering. In other words, you’re doing it for yourself. You’re not really doing it for them.”

“Nice” is often a strategy to avoid conflict. But isn’t avoiding conflict a good thing? Not always; there are times when engaging in conflict is compassion. Sometimes the urge to be “nice” is about maintaining a polite and pleasant facade over a situation we don’t want to confront.

For example, we’ve had a few situations in western Buddhism in which a teacher was taking sexual advantage of students. And sometimes the situation was allowed to continue for some time, even after it became common knowledge, mostly because the other students thought they shouldn’t be judgmental. But sometimes issues need to be addressed, and saying the “safe” or “socially correct” thing so you can be part of the crowd is very far from Right Speech.

There is a difference between “judgmental-ism” that tears other people down to build ourselves up, and making a qualitative judgment about a situation or behavior. If “Right Speech” means we’re supposed to stand by smiling while someone kicks a dog or endangers a child, you can have it. Fortunately, that isn’t what it means.

However, a lot of us are well conditioned to keep our noses out of other peoples’ activities, and it can be really uncomfortable to speak up. It’s so much easier to shrug things off, avert your eyes, and tell yourself you are not being judgmental.

But those are the times when you really aren’t being judgmental, because it’s not your ego telling you to speak up. If your guts are telling you something needs to be addressed, but you fear doing so because of how other people will react to you, then it’s your ego telling you to stay quiet. If you know something is wrong but have to club your way through an internal wall of conditioning and fear of social censure to speak up, very probably you really need to speak up. And other people need you to speak up, too.

Another example of idiot compassion is responding inappropriately out of ignorance of a situation. For example, after major catastrophes such as tsunamis or hurricanes people naturally want to help. Relief organizations say the help often makes things worse, however. Well-meaning people  send cans of food from their cupboards and leftover shoes and clothes from their closets, and aid workers say sorting and distributing these things is a nightmare and a drain on their own resources. Plus, often what is sent isn’t really what is needed. If you want to help it’s almost always better to find a charity or relief organization you trust and send some money.

In Tibetan Buddhism, Mahakala is a wrathful emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.

Smart Compassion

Genuine compassion is rooted in wisdom. Wisdom in the Buddhist sense is about not clinging to what makes us feel good about ourselves or doing what we think will make people like us. Rather, it is perceiving a situation as-it-is without our own self-interest getting in the way. Wisdom helps us respond appropriately and with a clear mind to a difficult situation.

But now let us wade into day-to-day social situations, which is where most of us are likely to trip up. You find yourself discussing a political or social issue with someone whose opinions you find genuinely heinous. Do you tell him so?

Thich Nhat Hanh provides us of an example of someone who has spoken out on difficult issues without breaking his vows. When he first came West it was to speak out against the U.S. war in Vietnam. He often faced angry people telling him he was wrong, yet he managed to not lose his composure and respond with anger. This venerated teacher advocates mindfulness training to guide our actions. Reminding ourselves that the person we’re talking to is a real human being and not just a gasbag with an opinion helps, too. But responding with compassion to hateful views doesn’t mean we can’t voice firm disagreement.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

25 thoughts on “Buddhists Don’t Have to Be Nice: Avoiding Idiot Compassion

  1. Metta Bhikkhu

    ????People always think what a mindfulness monk or nun is or isn’t. I realized these hardwired perception wide open vision of narcissistic hungry ghost everywhere who’s experience represents endless unfulfillable desires of certainty. I pity for their ignorance and narrow minded reaction. It makes me smile and chuckle while I go into the the mode of upekkha coolheaded compassion bearing witness. The state of bearing witness is a state of love ???? While expressing the truth in a articulated way to keep your stress down.
    Never loose compassion with anybody to stand upright to express your boundary even if it is realistically rude or appears to be angry. Because suppression and repression of healthy truth is a major risk factors of illness. It actually suppresses the immune system. First, the repression of healthy truth leads to autoimmune disease and cancer. Second, when you are raging all the time that increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. Third, there is healthy expression of truth telling, which most of us don’t know how to do it.

    Doctrine of Anicca (uncertainty or impermanence), Anatta no-self or unpredictability of self, Dukkha stress or suffering gives opportunity to bear witness of disgust, terror, and tragedy to the joys and equanimity of the world including our own sadness of death and dying with unfiltered compassion????

  2. Colin Wright

    Although I am not religious, the old saying “hate the sin, love the sinner” applies here. Criticizing an immoral action is not the same as saying that the actor is a bad person, evil, etc. We need to always speak out against unjust actions with a strong, clear and unequivocal argument while keeping in mind that the person we’re talking to has the capacity for change so we should be as peaceful towards them as we can.

    I’ve written something on this issue here that may be of use to someone:

  3. Ken

    Buddhists seem to always use Thick Nhat Hanh as an example for Buddhist activism. What they fail to tell you is that TNH fought against the US engagement that was meant to stop the spread of Communism in Viet Nam and because of him and people like him the US pulled out of Viet Nam prematurely because the public turned against the effort right before the conflict was won. Once the US pulled out the Communists went in to South Viet Nam and slaughtered millions of innocent Vietnamese and 10’s of thousands of Buddhist Monks (which still continues to this day)- the very thing that the US was trying to prevent. Had TNH actually been compassionate towards the Vietnamese people he would have encouraged the US to finish the conflict and stop the spread of Communism and the murder of millions of innocent Vietnamese people.

    1. David

      Dont be so arrogant to assume someone motivation. Im sure thich nanh hanh’s intention was not to have people slaughtered

    2. Barbara Post author

      Ken — I am old enough to remember the Vietnam conflict very well. It was hardly an altrustic attempt at protecting the Vietnamese people from Communism. Instead, it was about the U.S. propping up corrupt, unpopular and authorittive regimes in South Vietnam for reasons that were mostly about partisan politics in the U.S. If we had not stupidly sent in ground troops because of the phony Gulf of Tonkin crisis, millions of people would not have died.

      1. Vincent

        It was a civil war prior to the US going in. It would have been millions dying if they didn’t because there was a war between north and south.

        Since the US went they shoulda finished the mission (or not have gone , take your pick) instead of pursuing dogshit policy’s and pulling out, maybe then not all of those Vietnamese and American soldier would not have died for no reasons.

        1. Barbara OBrien

          The U.S. presence there just prolonged the civil war and made everything more deadly, and absolutely no U.S. interests were served by our being there. There was no way to achieve any sort of resolution that preserved South Vietnam without resorting to total war and destroying North Vietnam, which risked engaging China. The U.S. should have just stayed out of it. What difference did it ultimately make to U.S. security that the government of the South was crushed? None. And what difference would it have made had it happened ten years sooner? None. If the leaders of South Vietnam hadn’t been a succession of corrupt despots there might have been an argument for defending them, but they weren’t worth defending.

    3. Brian Cope

      Thich Nhat Hanh gives a nice overview of this time in *The Miracle of Mindfulness.* His stance was one of pacifism on behalf of the Vietnamese peasant farmers. It was both noble and courageous to stand up to US’s growing military industrial complex as he did, not to mention the Viet Cong.

  4. Sami Rishi

    My experience shows that there is indeed a stupid compassion & a wise compassion. Ever since i started walking the spiritual path, I was inspired by the likes of Jesus, Krishna & the Buddha who never seemed to react in anger (although now that i mention it Jesus did & Krishna did ask Arjuna to wage war). But at least in the case of the Buddha that has never happened. His approach seems to be consisting of evading, escaping (in the form of walking away from an argument) or staying silent through, which from a psychological pov represents the flight, freeze & fawn responses of our nervous system. In other words, he never fought, not physically nor verbally with anyone after he became a monk. I have tried to uphold myself to those standards but what happened was people around me noticed that & started to take advantage of the situation, & they launched all kinds of verbal attacks & insults on me knowing very well that I won’t react. But deep inside I was fighting overwhelming wars. Other than the war of not reacting, there is the war of self-doubt, the war of suppressed anger, the war of covert passive-aggressive vengefulness & grudges. The list goes on, but my point is we should either find a way to balance out our compassion with self-compassion, which basically annulls most of our compassionate efforts & leaves very little opportunities for being compassionate with others, OR we need to silently accept that the very act of compassion to others entails consequences that are not always desirable, & as compassionate “bodhisattvas” we walk this path accepting that while we are trying to save the metaphorical spider from drowning, he will nonetheless bite us with his venom. Should we not accept such a transaction then I think I can safely say that we should leave compassion aside until we are more mature on the spiritual path where we could take it up again.

  5. Howard Gurevich

    It isn’t a matter of being nice, it’s a matter of responding appropriately in at every moment. It takes training. Starting with mindfulness, being aware the response. Real compassion is grounded in generousity. The willingness to give without thought of return. Giving is not only material, it may be support or listening, always grounded in unconditional love. Right speech is being able to speak or not with the essential appropriate response in any situation. Mahakala and the other “wrathful” beings are examples of the underlying energy might look like when a being learns how to allow it to arise and then use it in an appropriate manner.

  6. Ella Guru

    “For example, we’ve had a few situations in western Buddhism in which a teacher was taking sexual advantage […]”.

    The phrase “a few situations” had me rolling on the floor. The laugh is much appreciated; thanks!

  7. David Grebner

    My philosophy is that my joys and sorrows, my pain and pleasure, are neither more nor less important than that of anyone else, I believe that we are, somehow, all connected, and that what happens to any of us in some way affects us all. A metaphor might be imagining us all connected on a giant electrical grid. Like all of us, I am far from perfect, but I try to something each day to brighten someone’s life–if only just a little.

    Humor is important, too. I like to say that I make mistakes like everyone else. For example: Last week I made a mistake–I thought I was wrong. :-)))

  8. David Matta

    There is no idiot or smart compassion in my view, except to mean compassion should be conjoined with wisdom to handle any situation. If compassion is the river, wisdom is the skillful diversion of water at different locations to irrigate nearby lands. We cultivate these together to benefit oneself and others. They have no other purpose.

  9. Colleen

    I occasionally Co-Facilitated Tech meditation groups in Silver City! You have given me a lot of food for thought! Thank you!

  10. Colleen

    ****** I occasionally Co-Facilitated Tech meditation groups in Silver City! You have given me a lot of food for thought! Thank you! ********

  11. Vicky

    It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I have agonised over this lady for months. She crossed my path 3 years ago. She is 86 year old widow & I am 76 and a retired nurse/midwife. We both live in a complex (not a care home) where the residents are expected to be self-supporting & independent. Despite mild arthritis this lady is capable of walking but declines to do her own groceries. cooking etc and seems to have a sense of entitlement; not an endearing trait. She has on-going vascular dementia.
    I remember her from the beginning as someone who is needy, which confronted me with my own neediness. From what she tells me there seems to have been little demonstrative love/ nurturing in her life. I came through the care system with several unsatisfying fosterings which placed me in the same boat, more or less. I found her neediness very tiring/draining.; there were times when I just wanted to run away, but thought it would be seen as a failure of compassion/empathy. I was advised/warned by her mental health practitioner to keep my distance because this lady is entirely unaware of her personal boundaries & likely to be demanding: she was. I am still in the process of building mine. but this lady does not know what boundaries are. She used to contact me daily until I put a stop to it. S. wants a closeness that I am unwilling to give because feels like ‘too much’. I think this lady is a full-on co-dependent; I think I have been but am gradually recovering. I have been on the spiritual path for 25 years so have recourse to my Beloved Bhagavan & a few loving friends. I honestly don’t know how people cope without some kind of spiritual nourishment.
    I relate to Sami Rish’s comments: “deep inside I was fighting overwhelming wars. Other than the war of not reacting, there is the war of self-doubt, the war of suppressed anger, the war of covert passive-aggressive vengefulness & grudges. The list goes on, but my point is we should either find a way to balance out our compassion with self-compassion, …’ this describes the veneer I also apply when ‘threatened’ with negative feedback- usually imagined. Cultivating self-compassion is challenging when there has been virtually no history of ‘other-love’; it is so difficult to convince oneself that I am lovable, but I refuse to give up because the Divine says we are all lovable; my mind believes that wholeheartedly; the heart less so.

  12. phoenix the elder

    This is not Grandfather’s teaching, what you teach here is Grandmother’s teaching and has been taught by Grandmother to women for 10,000 years. Its called Shamanism, Boundaries, Yin and the Feminine teaching by and for women.

    1. Barbara Post author

      This post is grounded in Buddhist teaching, which is for evrybody. Male, female, all variations thereof, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, whatever.

  13. Jan

    You have a quote in the hagakure (book of leaves, a book rooted in Zen Buddhism and Bushido)
    That describes the mindset that is spoken.
    “A monk cannot fulfill the Way if he does not manifest compassion without and persistently store up courage within. And if a warrior does not manifest courage on the outside and hold enough compassion within his heart to burst his chest, he cannot become a samurai. Therefore, the monk pursues courage with the warrior as his model, and the warrior pursues the compassion of the monk.” -Yamamoto Tsunetomo

  14. bria lapoint

    I read through most of this. Ive just noticed that many Buddhists online are judgmental and rude. When you mentioned thich naht hahn that is when i realized people wont change, and i should just let the matter go. Buddhists should have more empathy than they do, and if they do not, that is on them. I will practice Buddhism as I see fit, and if someone else disagrees, ill just have to remember most of society has lost its mind, including people claiming Buddhism.


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