The Future of Compassion

Reflections on Dr Thupten Jinpa’s June 18th talk for the DLCC.

It was with great pleasure that the Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion hosted Dr Thupten Jinpa last month to speak about his most recent book A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to be Compassionate can Transform our Lives. Addressing a large and lively ninth-week crowd – an otherwise unusual sight in Oxford – Dr Jinpa spoke at length about the meaning of compassion, its pertinence to contemporary ethics, and the prospects for a renewal of compassion in modern life. Drawing freely from the themes that compose the body of A Fearless Heart, he argued that our understanding of fundamental human values is undergoing an important revolution. He added that the DLCC, with its commitment to a comprehensive multi-disciplinary research programme, has the real potential to open new horizons in the conversation on compassion.

Dr Jinpa began by reflecting on his childhood as a refugee in India finding, as he searched his first memories, that compassion was a luminous presence to him as early as the age of six. The school in which he was enrolled, for instance, was sponsored by Save the Children, a fund which drew on the goodwill of the citizens from a state on the other side of the world. Listening to Dr Jinpa relate how the charity of others had determined the course of his life, I found myself thinking of that line from the first epistle to the Corinthians where St Paul declares that no man is ‘his own’. These stark words tend to startle those who are habituated to the image of possessive individualism, suggesting as they do that the human person is essentially a dependent creature. Yet all one need do is try to rehearse the story of one’s own life, excluding all episodes of dependence, reliance, or need, to see the truth in what Paul says. It seems to me that one of the ways compassion – practiced and contemplatedcan transform our lives, is precisely by challenging the idea of man as ‘his own’

Years later, when Dr Jinpa studied philosophy at Cambridge, he found himself unable to understand the prevalence of that same image presented as the theory of “psychological egoism”. For one to whom compassion, felt and exercised, is an obvious, commonplace reality, the proposition that man is a self-sprung atom, apt to flourish when removed from others, is hardly comprehensible. Thankfully, the vogue for ‘psychological egoism’ has now expired. One would now struggle to find an unreconstructed proponent of egoistic ethics (a phrase which seems an oxymoron) in most major universities in Britain. One reason for this is that, if comprehensive egoism is presupposed, a certain class of acts – those proceeding from altruistic care – become completely inscrutable. As Dr Jinpa discovered, a dogmatic egoist simply has no answer to the transparent self-less-ness of true charity. When confronted with the figure of Mother Teresa of Calcutta it simply will not do to say, as he heard a student at Cambridge remark, that there ‘must have been something in it for her.’ The almost supernatural compassion of Mother Teresa – or the still more astonishing case of the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades – are data that the theory of psychological egoism cannot easily digest. Despite the great success of books like ‘The Selfish Gene’ it seems that the world is in need of an ethical vision more like that described in Ethics for the New Millennium – a vision in which humans are seen as creature who, of their nature, are ‘not only non-violent but actually disposed toward love and compassion, kindness, gentleness, affection…’ (Ethics for the New Millenium, 71)

This leads us to the main thesis of Dr Jinpa’s talk. Developments in modern science – in particular, the most recent findings of neuroscience and the nascent study of non-human primates – suggest that this optimistic view of man is nearer the truth than that of the egoists and the Darwinian naturalists. Collecting the findings of a number of prominent studies, conducted over recent decades, Dr Jinpa mounted a powerful defense of humans as essentially compassionate creatures. While this is no place to assess the cumulative force of those studies, I found Dr Jinpa’s case against the less sophisticated forms of Darwinism to be profoundly compelling. If compassion is not the most fundamental motivating instinct within the human person it is at least as integral as the will-to-power or self-preservation.

To admit as much is to introduce chaos into the systems of doctrinaire Darwinists which hang on the assumption that the history of our species has been shaped exclusively by the selfish concern of each individual to propagate her particular stock of genes, securing a sort of dubious immortality in the onward rush of humankind. Human history so-understood is, as T S Eliot once put it, an immense panorama of anarchy and futility. Thankfully, as Jinpa showed, we have little reason to assent to this narrative. Indeed, as an admirer of the work of C S Peirce I could not help but think of his own account of evolution as the systematic and progressive disclosure of creative love – what he called ‘Agapism’. If Dr Jinpa is correct, it may be that Peirce’s speculations – and those of Henri Bergson, for that matter – are in need of a re-evaluation

Altogether, Dr Jinpa’s talk was profoundly encouraging for those of us who are involved in the work of the DLCC. As I reflect on A Fearless Heart it seems to me that the times are propitious for the Centre and its mission. One further remark. Alex Norman, who chaired the event, mentioned in his introduction to Dr Jinpa’s talk that Tibetan Buddhism is characterised by a certain ‘earthiness’ and sanguinity which distinguishes it from, for example, Zen or Ch’an. Listening to Dr Jinpa reminded me of that other specific trait so typical of Buddhism in Tibet, and exemplified by His Holiness; mirth. And so it seems fit to conclude with the words of that other great philosopher of mirth, G K Chesterton, who saw more clearly than any other just how special the creature that can laugh must be:

The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth… Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself. (The Everlasting Man)

 Nikolas Prassas