Almost every Christian, devout or not, would be able to tell you the story that appears in the book of John, chapter 8 verses 1 to 11: the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman accused of adultery to Jesus trying to test him and they asked what should be done to her, since according to the Law she was to be stoned. Jesus’ answer is quite famous by now: ‘Let the one of you that is sinless be the first to throw a stone at her’. They all left one by one and no one condemned her, Jesus included.This Bible story is significant in many ways, as it is a perfect example of compassion.
‘LET THE ONE OF YOU THAT IS SINLESS BE THE FIRST TO THROW A STONE…’
In Zen there are many short useful stories that teach valuable lessons. In Buddhism in general, regardless of the school or the masters, we emphasize compassion in everyday life. One of these zen stories goes like this: ‘When Bankei held his seclusion weeks of meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend. During one of these gatherings a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the culprit be expelled. Bankei ignored the case.
Later the pupil was caught in a similar act, and again Bankei disregarded the matter.
This angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief, stating that otherwise they would leave in a body. When Bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him. “You are wise brothers,” he told them. “You know what is right and what is not right. You may go somewhere else to study if you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave.”
A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the brother who had stolen. All desire to steal had vanished.’ Again, this short story gives a lesson about compassion.
Why is compassion such an important trait in almost every religion and culture? What can we learn from these 2 stories?
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines compassion as ‘sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it’. A consciousness of others’ distress or suffering is the first explanation of what compassion means. I believe we can all relate to that and understand what it means. Many of us don’t want to see others suffer, we suffer along with family members that deal with hardship, we cry when someone dies, we cry at sad events and we even cry at sad movies. All of that is a sign of compassion, which is a trait we are generally born with. The Bible says we were all created in God’s image and resemblance and while many confuse the notion of God’s image and resemblance with physical appearance, it actually means that we are gifted with those traits we call human, such as intelligence, emotion, compassion. In Buddhism we talk about our Buddha nature, which is the same thing as Christianity’s notion of us resembling God and compassion is part of that nature. We’ve all seen videos of babies crying at sad songs, sad images, we’ve all suffered because someone close to us was suffering. We can definitely understand the nature of compassion. We can’t avoid being aware of other people’s suffering. But being conscious of that suffering is not to be confused with actually being compassionate. Let’s look back at the definition of compassion. The second part says ‘…with a desire to alleviate it’.
That changes things quite a lot. Simply recognizing suffering, simply understanding injustice without feeling a desire to change it is not compassion. We all know the difference between right and wrong up to a certain degree, but it doesn’t mean we try or want to change it. It isn’t difficult to see why compassion is beneficial to our society. Imagine every person showing compassion for everyone else. That means that every single one of us would feel the need to alleviate the other’s suffering. Why then is compassion such an uncommon trait?
That consciousness or awareness of injustice and suffering is a two sided blade. As humans we have a tendency to focus on ourselves. We realize our own suffering first and that is the one we aspire to alleviate at all costs. Our own problems are always the most important and they are ‘bigger’ than everyone else’s because they are ours. We are educated from early on to want more, to put ourselves first, to be number one, to win and we are bombarded daily with examples of that selfishness, from our parents’ habits to the corrupt politicians lining their pockets at the expense of the very same people they are supposed to represent and defend.
We measure injustice based on how much it affects us and we expect everyone else to be just as concerned about it as we are. And that’s where problems start.
Let’s look back at the Bible story about that adulterer woman. Needless to say she knew she was guilty by the Law and she was very much aware of the punishment for her deed. She was scared for her life and wishing to be saved. The scribes and Pharisees had the Law on their side and they were acting as defenders of that Law. Stoning that woman would’ve been a ’just’ act. Were they aware of the woman’s suffering? Probably, or maybe they just never stopped to think about it because their focus was on their feelings that the Law had been violated and they saw an unjust act that deserved to be punished. On the other had, their desire to condemn Jesus himself as a heretic was overwhelming so they saw the woman as the perfect tool to use against a man they deemed a sinner.
Now consider Jesus’ response: ‘Let the one of you that is sinless be the first to throw a stone at her’. Jesus was a Jew too. He was expected to abide by the Law given to Moses by Jehovah God. Why would Jesus then not enforce the punishment on that woman? Compassion. What the Pharisees lacked was compassion when applying the Law. Jesus knew very well that the Law had an expiring date and he was there to abolish that Law, instating a new one, based on love and compassion. He was very much aware as he later on stated to his disciples that the 2 most important commandments were to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor.
Those 2 commandments by themselves contained all the Law given to Moses. Understanding those commandments was the difficult part.Love itself is not a measurable thing. Love generates compassion and compassion leads to complete fulfillment of that Law. Loving God above anything else means knowing him, understanding him, understanding his thinking, understanding his reasoning; it means respecting him and his creation which includes humanity. Loving God implicitly means loving humanity and loving humanity means being compassionate towards everyone regardless of their nature and behavior.
Jesus looked at that woman and didn’t see just a sinner. He used his compassion to see a human being on a wrong path, whose circumstances led her to live a life she herself might not have been happy with. He understood her suffering and didn’t feel a desire to correct her wrong behavior by punishing her. Him telling the scribes and pharisees to go ahead and condemn her if they considered themselves free from blame opened the door to self examination by those men. A simple phrase led them to understand compassion by applying it to themselves. What if they had to be judged for all their sins with the same strict measure they were applying in that woman’s case? How many of them would have had to be stoned to death? Jesus helped them realize there was more to be taken in consideration when applying the Law than what they perceived on the surface.
The Buddhist story about Bankei’s student is even closer to any situation we could all encounter these days. A man is caught stealing among a group of people that trust him and that allegedly share the same values. Their demand to cast him away is not at all unreasonable right? Stealing is an act we all condemn and we deem unjust. It affects us and we have a desire to punish it. The master’s attitude though was completely different. He understood that person’s situation. He probably didn’t know how to correct his behavior, he didn’t know better but the master was moved by his compassion to want to alleviate that man’s distress, not his own, and realized that turning his back on him would simply allow him to go his own way, continuing to behave in that manner. The monks failed to feel compassion and the master’s lesson was useful for them to understand their error.
Can we learn from these stories something to help us be a better society? Of course. Apply these two stories to situations we deal with everyday. How often do we focus on alleviating another person’s distress? How often do we care more about applying ‘laws’ than about helping someone that’s done something we consider unjust?
These days in countries such as the US or the UK there is much talk about illegal immigrants, terrorists, radical Muslims and there is a general distress because of what we feel is a dangerous situation. Many demand laws to be applied, but fail to understand that applying the law in its pure form has far bigger consequences than we would like to admit. Not feeling compassion for others means we are willing to watch a mother, that’s been an illegal immigrant for over 20 years, being forcefully taken away from her home, her child, her friends and
family, while her young son is laying on top of her trying with all his might to stop the police. But we say: it’s the law, she’s an illegal and deserves to be deported.Feeling compassion means understanding that maybe 20 years ago when she immigrated illegally it was her only chance at a decent life. It means understanding that she’s been a part of your society for 2 decades, she’s probably served you food at a restaurant, or catered at your wedding, she’s probably cared for your child at kindergarten, she smiled at you walking on the street and she lent you sugar when you knocked at her door. Feeling compassion means considering she might have no life anywhere else outside of the home she’s built with hard wok during years. Our desire to apply the law will create distress for many more people in the process. It will tear a family apart, it will leave a child motherless, it will take a wife away from her husband, a valuable employee from a company and a friend from people who love her. So, how just is that punishment then? Does it show our compassion? Absolutely not.
So how important is compassion then? If compassion means wanting to alleviate someone else’s suffering then it is one of the most powerful motivating forces. Feeling compassion does not depend upon us reacting to a kind action done to us, it means us being the first to perform a loving act in spite of not receiving anything in return. Compassion means calling a friend after a long time without waiting for them to call first, compassion means forgiving someone even if they’ve done nothing to deserve that forgiveness, compassion means protecting someone even if they are complete strangers, compassion means loving someone and letting them go if they don’t love you back.
Compassion means so many things and none of them are negative.So how do we fix our broken society? By educating ourselves and others to understand compassion. By teaching our young ones to show kindness first. We’ll fix our world when we allow ourselves to be the first to show kindness. The moment we put someone else’s wellbeing first we take a huge step towards a better future, a future where we don’t kill each other in wars over money, territory or ideas. A world where we protect each other and support each other. A world where we cherish our home planet and work relentlessly to protect it. A world where we are a true family of humans.
Compassion is not an unattainable idea. It’s not a utopian notion. Compassion is within all of us and we just need to tap into it, awaken it and let it move us. Each act of kindness born out of compassion might be as small as a drop of water, but millions of drops together create an ocean.
Written by Jake Boncutiu