Compassion – Zen Master Dogen and the Pope take on the world

Zen Master Dogen (writing in Japan, in the 13th century) has been a favourite of mine since I first came across him, maybe ten years ago. Discussing compassion he writes:

Even when you are clearly correct and others are mistaken, it is harmful to try and argue and defeat them. On the other hand if you admit fault when you are right then you are a coward. It is best to step back, neither trying to correct others nor conceding to mistaken views. If you don’t react competitively and let go of the conflict , others will also let go of it without harbouring ill will. 

Don’t act competitively – that may seem hard, but the benefits can be extraordinary.

You make the community’s heart your heart and their thought your way of thought. You make the parental heart your heart and the heart of children your heart. If you practise in this way you will be like a boat with a rudder on a wide river, or like rain in a time of drought.  

There are countless other contributions on the subject down the centuries. In recent years there’s been Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Non-violent Communication, and the worldwide movement that it’s inspired. And Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion – which I’ve signed up to.

And as of today – there’s the Pope’s comment about the wall that Trump would build along the Mexican border: “a person who thinks only about building walls… and not of building bridges, is not Christian.” And one Republican response, one Jerry Fulwell Jnr: “Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run a country.”

From that we deduce that compassion isn’t easy. In our private lives we may find that compassion can indeed be like a boat with a rudder on a wide river. But in public – the Pope’s is a simple statement, and the only comment a Christian could make. Build bridges don’t put up walls. (Israel has not understood this – to its long-term cost.)

Religious leaders do best to keep out of politics – but when there are egregious failures of morality at a high level – when the ordinary norms are behaviour are compromised – they have to speak out, and this is such a time.

‘Make America great again,” is Trump’s lunatic war cry. America was great and can still be great if it realises that it won its previous greatness by working with and supporting countries and communities and being part of alliances round the world. Not by waving a big stick.

This is a vast subject, and best to leave it here for now. But there’s a danger that populism can shift a country dangerously right, or indeed left. And ‘stepping back’, or ‘turning the other cheek’, won’t always be the right action.

As indeed Zen Master Dogen recognises. “…if you admit fault when you are right then you are a coward.” Or if you stay silent.

The Pope and the Emperor

This subject is a bit of a minefield, and I may tread on toes as well as mines…

The title of this post sounds like the old Investiture Contest revisited, with medieval Pope pitched against medieval Emperor. But before that, in 800AD, in Rome, the Pope crowned Charlemagne Emperor, and now  – a kind of role reversal – the city of Aachen, Charlemagne’s capital (all of 1200 years ago), has awarded this year’s Charlemagne Prize (given for contributions to European understanding) to the current occupant of the Holy See, Pope Francis.

One problem of course is that for many the papacy is a tainted source. Polly Toynbee (Guardian columnist in case you didn’t know!) for one: she took exception to the Pope’s comment that someone insulting his mother could expect a punch, in the context of freedom of speech and cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed, all in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. ‘Every religion has its dignity… In freedom of expression there are limits,’ had been the Pope’s response to a journalist asking him about the cartoons. ‘Punch’ may have been the best choice of word. But I wouldn’t expect the Pope to do other than argue for the dignity of his religion. Nor would I expect for a moment that dignity to be in any way enshrined in law, or even in convention. We need, on this as in so many things, to find a middle way between apparent opposites.

For good measure there’s this, going back 400 years, from Shakespeare’s King John (Toynbee keeps good company):

‘Thou canst not, Cardinal, devise a name/so slight, unworthy and ridiculous/To charge me to an answer, as the Pope.’

Vituperation against the Papacy would fill many volumes.

On the other hand… Pope Francis has been a powerful advocate for compassion at the heart of the Christian message, and has broken ranks with the old hierarchies in a remarkable way. There’s much I may not support or agree with, but I’m on his side.

I was reminded of his work in the slums of Buenos Aires, when archbishop there, while watching David Beckham’s TV documentary, For the Love of the Game, which follow Beckham round the world playing a football match on every continent. In Buenos Aires it’s a priest who works with disadvantaged youth who helps Beckham set up the match. There’s a remarkable and radical worker-priest tradition with the Catholic Church, especially in South America.

Back to the Charlemagne Prize. The citizens of Aachen would have had in mind the Pope’s address to the European Parliament just over a year ago, when he encouraged MEPs

‘…. to return to the firm conviction of the founders of the European Union, who envisioned a future based on the capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent. At the heart of this ambitious political project was confidence in man, not so much as a citizen or an economic agent, but in man, in men and women as persons endowed with transcendent dignity.’  (Source: The Economist.)

And also the Pope on the European refugee crisis: ‘Who has wept for the deaths of these brothers and sisters? The globalisation of indifference has taken from us the capacity to weep.’

The Economist reminded the Pope that creating strong job-creating economies has also to be a part of the European project. I’d agree – jobs and wealth creation at an individual and national level are an integral part of man’s dignity. We shouldn’t disparage man as an economic agent.

But the Pope’s vision, for man and for Europe, is one I’d share.

I’ve tried to tread lightly through this minefield, where politics, hierarchies, dogma, personal faith and experience, and much more, are all confounded – more maybe a battleground than a minefield, where everyone has an opinion, and some opinions are held with a partisan passion. And I’ve probably failed.