BoTree House

Compassion in ‘Viku and the Elephant’

By Debu Majumdar

Last Thursday at the Whinery, two good friends and I were discussing compassion in Buddhism. What does compassion mean when your partner, companion, or friend does something that hurts you? You wish to punch him and throw him out of your life. What would the Dalai Lama advise us here?

I thought of my book, Viku and the Elephant, which embodies ideas from Buddhism. In the story the zoo guards were ready to shoot an old elephant, but against the cautions and shouts of the people, Viku boldly walked toward the supposedly-rogue elephant. He could see that the elephant was not mad; he was only distraught for some reason. He talked with him in his special sign language that only elephants understand, calmed him down and saved him. This was Viku’s compassion. Others were only willing to let the elephant be killed to solve a problem – without understanding it. We often do the same thing in our daily life, with our family and friends, and in politics. We lack compassion.

Viku did what Gautama Buddha had preached. Viku was compassionate on two levels: he simply didn’t go to the elephant to be compassionate and stand before him to protect him so the police will have to kill him first; he understood that there is a deeper cause for the elephant’s behavior. To understand compassion we have to walk in the other person’s shoes. Compassion is not simply doing something to make one happy or ignoring bad behavior or actions, or offering your other cheek; it has an intellectual part to it. Only when you understand the reasons and the situation of the other individual, can you truly be compassionate. Superficial, emotional actions may arise from compassion, but that may not solve a problem.

So when your friend hurts you, be bold and have a chat with him, tell him your feelings and if he remains the same, you may need to move on to grow in your own life. It will be painful and that way you are also taking on his suffering, but this will be compassion.

The Dalai Lama wrote In “The Essence of the Heart Sutra”:

“According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive – it’s not empathy alone – but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and loving kindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is loving kindness).”

12 July 2011