Charter for Compassion

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Perspective on Compassion

I have been thinking a lot about compassion lately; how it gets played out, what it means, why it is important. I really see it as key for our society right now. I was very happy to see Karen Armstrong, a prize winning author on world religions and God emphasize it. Ms. Armstrong has called for religious people from all over the world to create a Charter for Compassion. Religious leaders including the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu support it. It is to be unveiled this week, November 12, 2009.

Compassion is really very simple, it comes down to feeling each others pain, seeking each others happiness and doing something to make for happiness and avoid suffering. Doing unto others as we would have them do to us, and what is not pleasing, don't do to others, this is the core. In Judaism, the Torah says, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." Rabbi Hillel, said, "What is not pleasing to yourself, do not do to others..." It is a simple concept contained in all the major religions. It is our world heritage, a strength that we have moved away from in our attempts to more clearly define ourselves. You can hardly find people who would consciously say no to it, yet we don't always carry it out. Rather than defining ourselves away from each other, we should be building a greater unity, and compassion is the key. Our world requires it of us.

In my view, the world and especially the United States is over full of bureaucracy and prisons. Do you realize we have more prisoners than the Chinese?! I, for one, am not willing to set China up as a role model. But actually, China is a place to look at when we think about where we have gone wrong. China's first dynasty, the Qin, the one responsible for a unified written Chinese language, the unification of the Great Wall, the standardization of weights and measures, the Terracotta Soldiers, and a lot more, took rules and regulations, rewards and punishments to the extreme. The Qin way of going about the unification of language was to burn books that didn't meet the standard. When Confucians didn't follow the standard philosophy, they were slaughtered. The Qin were so good at punishing, that you could count on being killed if you were a conscript laborer and didn't get to the designated meeting place on time. (That's how so much got done in the Qin) In fact, that is how the dynasty came to an end: A large group of conscripted workers were delayed by a rainstorm. Rather than show up late and be killed, they decided to revolt, and there were many others who joined them. Bureacracy, prisons, the death penalty, the Qin, were good at it. Sustainability, they were not. The dynasty lasted less than 20 years.

If someone is doing wrong, make a rule for it, and designate the punishment. It seems that this is the trap we have fallen into. (I know, we are not so severe as the Qin, but...) I look at my work as a teacher, and what is overwhelming is the bureaucracy. The education code has become a massive tome, (that's one letter away from tomb). All of the regulations for how to handle students, teachers, principals, situations... its untenable. I certainly don't know all the rules. No one could possibly know all those rules. I look at all the paper work I am responsible to fill out, it is overwhelming. As many teachers complain, it is cutting in to our ability to teach the students. The requirements by the state on the school districts are also overwhelming, hence the tendency toward increased staffing at the district offices. In the current economic crises, this can not all be maintained. Looking around at society, I don't think I am so unique, bureaucratic forms seem to be necessary for so much. Then I look at the prison system here in California, it is also becoming untenable. More and more we have built. It certainly doesn't seem to be stopping crime. Some argue that it perpetuates it as a training ground and communication network. I see it competing with education for funds and worry. There is still not enough, prisoners are being released into society due to the shortage of funds. More rules, less schools, more prisons seems like the direction we have been heading for too long. Why do we have to have all of these rules? To keep us on the right path, but obviously it is not working.

Many have argued that we need a new mythological framework from which to unite the greater populace of the world, but it is clear there is no myth that holds all of us together. I have thought about this a long time. People aren't ready to give up their religion, or their atheism, and it really isn't the democratic way to give up your religion, or atheism, nor does it respect diversity. But compassion, this key component of all religions and yes, science has had a lot to say for it too, can play an important role in bringing us together. By bringing about a resurgence in compassionate action, everyone trying to do the right thing, everyone talking about how compassion works in our houses of worship, our schools, and our workplaces, we can make a difference. It may be the glue that brings society together. A society working on compassion would need a lot fewer rules and prisons. Compassion means concretely figuring out how to help each child learn, how to help people stop engaging in crime and ultimately how to build the human endeavor. It means, getting our priorities straight. I think we can go much deeper in our practice of compassion.

I look forward to the unveiling of the Charter for Compassion on November 12th with great hope. I hope you do too. We need a change in direction, and putting compassionate action at the fore has great potential. For more information and perspectives, please see the Charter for Compassion web site at:


  1. Compassion - feel 4 others. Y would we have compassion ? Is it human nature ? Is it learned via religion or guided by higher ethnical standards ?

    Yes, the world will be a better place if we're all compassionate, there will be more love, less war. How do we achieve that ?

    The compassionate behaviour that u talk abt has to be engrained in early childhood for it to be MOST effective. I always believe in early childhood education, fr. family, fr. school, fr. religion maybe. It's the "value" to treasure compassion that contribute towards a harmonous society.

    BTW, the Qin dynasty, burned books & killed ppl who do not meet standard, the standard referred to the "Iron Fist" Rule of Law, utilized to suppress opposing ideas which the Emperor felt as "potential threat". The end result, as u pointed out, led to its rapid downfall. Democracy repect freedom of speech/religion/ideas, hence, if a nation is comprised of majority with no compassion, that nation will not treasure Democracy. In your example, unfortunately, China is still in that category...sad.

  2. Hi Todd,
    Awesome post. Extremely thoughtful. If we all focused on compassion the world would be a better place. Please consider adding the Charter widget as a follow up post now that the Charter has launched. It allows people to read and affirm the Charter directly and you can find it at
    Will (helping to get the word out)