Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Choosing Compassionate Actions

Choosing the most compassionate action can be tricky

First it is tricky because there are so many unknowns. Things about the situation we just don't know. For example, I could give a street person some chocolate, not knowing he is diabetic. Second, most of what we do know is probabilistic. For example, I could give a street person outside McDonalds some money for a hamburger and that's probably what they would spend it on, but there is also a chance they will spend it on crack. Time scale is also tricky, appeasement in the short term reduces immediate suffering but can create longer term suffering. However, using the ends to justify the means is often been used to justify cruel actions. Additionally, there is the problem of none actions. If I choose not to donate to famine relief is that the same as deliberately starving a child? Finally, there is the issue of being compassionate towards yourself. For example, if I give away all of my money to the poor then I will be poor and in need of money

The wisdom to make choices that are more likely to help is known as skillful means in Buddhism. Buddhists also have the opposite concept of idiot compassion. This occurs when a person acts on compassion in an ineffective way. For example, giving a child junk food because they are taking a fit. However, ultimately no one can predict the future. You might save a starving child only for them to grow up and lead a genocide. 


  1. You cannot know the long term consequences of your choices. There is no way to tell if a specific action will ultimately lead to less suffering
  2. Small things matter, maybe more than big things
  3. If you have time you should use contemplation for important decisions. Take three days to abide with the issue and after you act take three days to observe and react to the outcomes (good advice from the I Ching) 
  4. Do not regret, there is no point in this, it will not make things better (also see point 1). Understand and accept your limitations. Sometimes we have to choose quickly. Hopefully your practice will help you to make good spontaneous choices. If you believe you have made a bad choice then humbly acknowledge your limitations, try to learn, and keep going
  5. Worry is not useful but thinking over a problem carefully is itself a compassionate act (i.e., you are using your time in service of compassion)
  6. If you achieve a level where you can feel peace while something bad is happening, do not feel guilty, it's all good as long as you are focused on helping. In fact, the peace can help to create a better internal space for problem solving and you can set an example by not panicking or acting badly

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