Sunday, November 25, 2012

Detachment and Compassion in Buddhism

Elizabeth J. Harris,* Detachment and Compassion in Early Buddhism; Wisdom Quarterly
Wisdom Quarterly: Think detachment and non-clingy compassion go together?
Bodhi leaf hearts (Gabrielgs)
To people looking at Buddhism through the medium of English, the practice of compassion and detachment can appear incompatible, especially for those who consider themselves to be socially and politically engaged. 
In contemporary usage, compassion brings to mind outward-moving concern for others, while detachment suggests aloofness and withdrawal from the world.
Yet Buddhism recommends BOTH as admirable and necessary qualities to be cultivated. This raises questions such as:
  • If compassion means to relieve suffering in a positive way, and detachment to remain aloof from the world, how can the two be practiced together?
  • Does detachment in Buddhism imply lack of concern for humanity?
  • Is the concept of compassion in Buddhism too passive, connected only with the inward-looking eye of meditation, or can it create real change in society?
Kwan Yin (Avalokita), bodhsattva of compassion, Kayosan, Japan (Massimiliano Troiani)
It is certainly possible to draw sentences from Buddhist writers which seem to support a rejection of outward concern for others. For example, [classic Mahayana translator] Edward Conze has written, "The Yogin can only come into contact with the unconditioned when he brushes aside anything which is conditioned" (Buddhist Thought in India, 1960, Ch.5).
Similarly, G.S.P. Misra writes (Development of Buddhist Ethics, p. 44), "In the final analysis, all actions [karma] are to be put to cessation... The Buddha speaks of happiness involved in non-action which he further says is an integral part of the Right Way (samma patipada).
Taken in isolation and out of context, these remarks can give the impression that the path to [Sanskrit nirvana, Pali nibbana] implies developing a lack of concern towards everything in samsara. But is this inference sound? I would argue that it is not.
This is an issue which touches on the whole question of transferring concepts across linguistic barriers, in this case Pali and English. It calls not only for an understanding of how the concepts are used within the framework of the Pali Buddhist texts, but also for an awareness of how the English terms used in translation function and whether they are adequate.
Inevitably, a dialogical approach between two linguistic frameworks is necessary.
Laugh more, stay cool (
Viveka [withdrawal] and viraga [dispassion, cooling] are the two Pali words which have been translated as "detachment." The two, however, are not synonymous. The primary meaning of viveka is separation, aloofness, seclusion. Often physical withdrawal is implied. The later commentarial tradition, however, identifies three forms of viveka: physical withdrawal (kaya-viveka), mental withdrawal (citta-viveka), and withdrawal from the roots of suffering (upadhi-viveka).

Physical withdrawal, as a chosen way of life, was not uncommon during the time of the Buddha. To withdraw from the household life, renounce possessions, and adopt a solitary mendicancy was a recognized path. 
The formation of the Buddhist monastic Order (Sangha) was grounded in the belief that going out from home to homelessness could aid concentrated spiritual effort. 

Yet, to equate the renunciation which the Buddha encouraged with a physical withdrawal, which either punished the body or completely rejected human contact would be a mistake. More
  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Harris studied Buddhism in Sri Lanka from 1986-1993 obtaining a Ph.D. from the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, Univ. of Kelaniya. She is now Secretary for Inter-faith Relations in The Methodist Church in London. Previous BPS publications include Violence and Disruption in Society (Wheel No. 392/393) and Journey into Buddhism (Bodhi Leaves No. 134).

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