A little ?Compassion? in a crazy world

By V.V. Raman, Science and Theology News, October 27, 2005

The Lost Art of Compassion blends Buddhism and psychology to make the world a better place.

Rochester, NY (USA) -- We live in an age of wonderful scientific breakthroughs and marvelous technological achievements. Pernicious diseases are being cured. Health and longevity keep improving. But ours is also an age of spiritual anguish and moral confusion, 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, using both scientific and spiritual insights on compassion, help restore balance in human interactions.

Though the title and principal theme of the book relate to compassion — the cardinal virtue in the Buddha’s teachings — the author, who is a Buddhist and a trained psychologist, gives his readers many worthy understandings of the human mind and human capacities for good.

The book is spiced with interesting anecdotes and reflections. The connections between Buddhism and current psychology add scientific support to the recommendations in the book. Reminders of eventual death and the ephemeral nature of existence are not original, but can inspire restraining reflections in people on the verge of rash
behavior. There are also analyses of the basic urge for happiness. The author presents a clarification of the notion of happiness that should interest readers.

Raw aggressiveness and self-centered acts of cruelty and exploitation seem to pervade modern societies, and this book aims to transform them to gentler and more civilized modes. However, it is important to remember that our appraisal of the world’s moral status is often derived from the daily news. For most people, this is very different from the world they live in. When calamities arise, not just in our neighborhood but in distant lands, the outpouring of caring, compassion and concrete assistance has been at more than a model level. In other words, the art of compassion is not as lost as the title of the book suggests.

This is not to say that the wisdom and the 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 self-help books. 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 book can have only positive impact on readers, especially those interested in the formation of values.

V.V. Raman is an emeritus professor of physics and humanities at Rochester Institute of Technology.