Monday Morning Greetings 2023 #24 – The Challenge in Living an Ethically Tuned Life: Part I

June 12th, 2023

A message from Krishna Ksetra Swami:


“On another note, I thought you may find this article interesting (maybe food for thought leading to a Monday Morning Greetings).”[1]


I did.


The article he sent me was called “Reckoning with Compassion”. It was written by Jessica Locke, a follower of prominent Buddhist guru/leader Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche who was credibly accused of sexual and other abuses going back decades. She was devastated but faced a dilemma. She could neither follow her teacher and redefine her personal standards of basic moral behavior, nor deny how the teachings helped her to see the world around her more perceptively and with greater compassion. I found her resolution intriguing. Rather than reject what she received, she validated her positive experiences embracing Buddhism while also critically examining her tradition by questioning what she saw as some of the “unskilled aspects” within its lineage. What I would like to do in this post is just give a short summary of her analysis, which I found astute, as a template for how a tradition is susceptible to the unskilled application of its principles, and then discuss how a spiritual tradition, using the path of bhakti as an example, attempts to keep its teachings from being misapplied.


The main point in her article was to philosophically and historically address how her Buddhistic lineage dealt in an unskilled way with the problem of what they call “self-cherishing”: “the tendency most of us have to see the world through a self-other binary that polarizes our experience into ‘us and them’, ‘me vs the world’.”


The method taught in her tradition to accomplish this was to uproot what they see as the illusory conception of the self[2] based on this us/them duality by what they call “radical compassion”, a mindset that exclusively focuses on the well-being of others, even enemies and strangers, before their own. In other words, the most powerful way to counteract the illusory conception of the self and one’s consequent tendency towards selfishness and a lack of compassion is to not blame others, but to own the problem by thinking, “This is due to my own self-cherishing, my investment in my own selfhood as intrinsically real.” Sounds good on the surface. A doubt, however, arose in her when observing how some of her colleagues, due to their training in radical compassion, wouldn’t even acknowledge their guru’s faults. That anomaly awakened in her a past discussion she had with a friend who forewarned her of the misapplication of such a philosophy, especially in the modern world.


The problem her friend, who was a therapist, saw was that while radical compassion trained one to own the problem and never hold others accountable, the trauma of those who survived sexual violence is often manifest in self-blame, and to overcome that trauma they must acknowledge exactly the opposite and say, “They were wrong. This was not my fault.”[3] In other words, in radical compassion she saw the problem of “spiritual bypassing”, [4] the misapplication of valid spiritual practices to sidestep necessary emotional or psychological development.


This post has already far exceeded my desired word count for a Monday Morning Greetings post. I will finish the article in Part II, where I will specifically discuss how the path of bhakti is meant to deal with these issues. I thus finish here today with a template for what will be further discussed by just briefly outlining how spiritual and philosophical traditions couch this issue:


The problem: True morality or ethics is not just a list of moral virtues or rules. It’s the skilled application in applying those rules. Without such wisdom, moral rules often lead to folly such as the philosophy of radical compassion, a virtue which within itself is noble, but poisonous when improperly applied.


Solution: Legitimate spiritual traditions point to the sages of the past who have already carefully and skillfully negotiated the application of moral rules and thus can guide their adherents in not just knowledge, but practical wisdom. The path of bhakti has a specific recommendation to do this which will be discussed in the next post.


Stay tuned for Part II next week.


[1] https://aeon.co/essays/medicine-or-poison-when-buddhist-compassion-goes-too-far

[2] My tradition does not see the self as illusory, only its self-identification with the body as illusion.

[3] This doesn’t discount the power of forgiveness, just the harm of artificially and often pathologically assuming self-blame when one is abused.

[4] The author referred to a concept deemed by transpersonal psychologist John Welwood https://www.atpweb.org/jtparchive/trps-16-84-01-063.pdf

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