Manifestations of Idiot Compassion

“There’s nothing that’s going to make me run away faster than somebody who comes around and wants to be helpful.”

Charlotte Joko Beck Roshi quoted on Ox Herding blog

Idiot compassion is a term first brought to popularity by Chogyam Trungpa.  It speaks especially today to the superficialities that pervade popular culture.  I want to  outline what the term originally meant as well as to go into some of it’s related manifestations and possible psychological causes and finally to suggest a few remedies for it.

Compassion vs Idiot Compassion

Compassion involves being openly engaged with others and a setting aside of the ego. Some time ago, I thought of compassion as: The right action at the right time in response to another’s suffering.  Compassion deals with the essentials of a situation not with the extraneous. Compassion comes from a place of equanimity, a clear place from which necessity can be discerned.

Idiot compassion, on the other hand is a result of self-engagement using another as a prop in our own emotional drama and for our own egoistic fulfillment. 

Idiot compassion is the highly conceptualized idea that you want to do good to somebody. At this point, good is purely related with pleasure. Idiot compassion also stems from not have enough courage to say no.

Chogyam Trungpa quoted in Idiot Compassion blog post

It is interesting that he used the phrase “do good to somebody.” rather than “for somebody”. And Trungpa Rinpoche certainly knew enough about semantics not to have stated it that way by accident. Doing something “to somebody” implies an outside force or an infliction and imposition upon them rather than an alleviation of their situation.

…idiot compassion, which is compassion with neurosis, a slimy way of trying to fulfill your desire secretly. This is your aim, but you give the appearance of being generous and impersonal.

Chogyam Trungpa quoted in Recalling Chögyam Trungpa (p.191)

The neurotic tendencies of idiot compassion are something I want to delineate later on, but for now here is a somewhat lengthier piece on distinguishing between the two.

We need to distinguish true compassion from “idiot compassion”. We sometimes over-react emotionally at the sight of suffering. We can be so distressed that we weep uncontrollably, faint or run away in horror. Our heart may be moved with pity but our emotions are so out-of-control that we can’t do anything to help! In other cases we might do something but because we lack right understanding of the problem or the person experiencing it, our “help” only makes the situation worse. These are examples of idiot compassion. True compassion balances loving-concern with clear wisdom. This wisdom enables us to stay calm and think clearly how best to help, without being carried away by our emotions.

Ven Sangye Khadro  from The Four Immeasurables

Good Intentioned Efforts

Even idiot compassion has some good intentions at it’s core. However the more one gets into it the less these intentions manifest. If we run amok with trying to demonstrate our own good intentions we lose the focus of those intentions and it becomes a highly unskillful and even damaging activity.

One of the Buddha’s most penetrating discoveries is that our intentions are the main factors shaping our lives and that they can be mastered as a skill. If we subject them to the same qualities of mindfulness, persistence, and discernment involved in developing any skill, we can perfect them to the point where they will lead to no regrets or damaging results in any given situation; ultimately, they can lead us to the truest possible happiness. To train our intentions in this way, though, requires a deep level of self-awareness.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu from The Road to Nirvana Is Paved with Skillful Intentions 

Lack of self-awareness is the main reason idiot compassion manifests. We don’t even know why we are doing something so it is nearly impossible to determine what effects it might have on others.


Idiot compassion has a lot more to do with our own expectations, self-image and desires than fulfilling a real need.

It comes from a self-delusion that we are “helping” someone while at the same time we are either doing no good for them or even damaging or destroying them. We are not taking reality feedback but are filtering out that which would demonstrate our ineffectiveness.  We are not aware of ourselves in reality but only in some kind of self-created dream.

There is little time or effort made in understanding a situation before interfering with it.  We start supporting other people’s real or imagined dramas as a way of bolstering our own little heroic drama, without first determining whether lending such advice or energy is appropriate.

One of the features of idiot compassion is that it is accompanied by feelings of disillusionment.  Whatever we do for someone doesn’t seem to “satisfy”. We must do more, continue on the same road, push harder, be completely successful at our person-saving or world-saving endeavor, and this generates even greater expectations. And greater disillusionment and discomfort.

If you look carefully at the reasons for our disillusionment with good intentions, you’ll find that they all come down to delusion: delusion in how we formulate our intentions, delusion in how we perceive our intentions, and delusion in how we attend to their results. As the Buddha tells us, delusion is one of the three main roots for unskillful mental habits, the other two being greed and aversion. These unskillful roots lie entangled with skillful roots — states of mind that are free of greed, aversion, and delusion — in the soil of the untrained heart. If we can’t isolate and dig up the unskillful roots, we can never be fully sure of our intentions. Even when a skillful intention seems foremost in the mind, the unskillful roots can quickly send up shoots that blind us as to what’s actually going on.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu from The Road to Nirvana Is Paved with Skillful Intentions

Confusion of Impetus, Emotion and Reaction

When we come across a situation that invokes an emotional response there is often no time taken to assess the situation.

Situation-emotion-reaction all seem to occur in a blur before we become aware of what is actually happening. Most of that is habitual and caused by our experiencing only the results of other’s reactions to situations. For example when a parent yells at us when we are children we register this as anger. But it is not anger itself. It is a sub-consciously chosen (habitual and conditioned) response to the angry emotion arising within them. And if that anger was provoked by some action on our part that action gets tied into the response. It appears to us to be one big thing-anger. But there are gaps between all three of situation, emotion and response.

When a situation occurs there is a gap that immediately follows. It is a time when conditioned reactions starts to bubble up.  The ego says, “I have to do something about that!” An emotion may then arise within that gap. With the same stimulus there can be numerous emotional arisings such as anger, sadness, relief. These are dependent upon the conditioning of the individual experiencing the situation. [Just check out a number of movie reviews to see what I mean-How could so many people have so many different reactions to the same thing?]

Should anger, for example, arise there is another gap between that and the expression of that anger. A decision is made to perhaps yell, walk away, deny the feeling. Again the options are dependent upon the conditioning of the individual.

Equanimity at the point of the incident occurring is what allows real compassion to arise before any conditioned emotion or response. This is experiencing the situation as it actually is before the ego can get involved and taint any reactions.

When we deal only with the response portion of this set we can become very confused about what is happening both emotionally and in reality.  The confusion is between cause and effect.

In the case of idiot compassion we want to believe we are “good people”, “helpful”, “nice”.  So we exhibit these behaviors regardless of the actual situation or underlying emotions. The behavior alone, free floating as it were, in the situation does not make the situation into what we want it to be. For instance deciding to “make nice” does not make a tense situation become nice. All the underlying tension remains but it is packaged up in a pretty way. Again this is a confusion of cause and effect.  This is disconnected from reality.

Confusion of Applications of Principles 

There are numerous things that are idealized on any spiritual path. These include peace, love, compassion, happiness, serenity, joy, generosity, insight, effort, patience, equanimity and many others. In Buddhism they are called perfections (paramitas) and are seen by many as something of an absolute expression.

The problem is that these are culminations of certain virtues. They are ideals. They are something that we cultivate in practice in order to get to know their meaning.  They are not, unless we are supremely enlightened individuals, in their perfect form. They must be learned, examined and through effort cultivated and grown.

All too often though, many of us try to imagine what these perfections mean and attempt to act in the way our imaginations dictate. We try to make a short cut to perfection. And we may also try to convince ourselves and others that we really do embody these perfections absolutely.

If we have to make such an effort at demonstrating these things, then it is another delusion. When a thing is perfected, or nearly perfected it becomes effortless because it has been developed as part of our being. If we are trying to fit an absolute into a still relative and samsaric situation, and the amount of effort will tell if that is the case, then we are not quite there yet.  This is along the same line as those who would say, “I am already Buddha” and not bother with any sort of practice.

The reason this is important regarding idiot compassion is that it is often the excuse given for idiotic behavior. One says “I believe in this or that” as if it justifies any sort of activity.  Just because one believes in Buddhist principles does not make one omniscient with regard to the rest of the world nor does it make one a Bodhisattva or a Buddha.

It does not give one the right to decide things in other people’s lives, to bully people, to force issues, to have one’s own way like a giant child.

We cannot reasonably say “I’m sincerely spiritual” or “I’m following Buddhist doctrine” or “I am practicing compassion” and excuse ridiculous behavior.  These statements are meaningless if behavior contradicts them. That is generally the case with idiot compassion.


Rescuing is doing something for someone when it has not been asked for but is based on our guess at another’s wants or needs.  We surmise, based on our own experience not on the situation at hand, a course of action for someone else. This course of action always includes our continued involvement and importance as rescuer. The main beneficiary of such actions are not those in need but those who come to give rescue. On a big scale a lot of international aid operates in this fashion. On a smaller scale this is like the person who is the uber-volunteer, sits on every committee and becomes involved in every cause, particularly those with a high profile, imaginable. There are a lot of Hollywood celebrities who practice idiot compassion in this way.

Once rescue has been set up the continued role of the donor often becomes one of enabler. There is an inability to let the situation go and a co-dependent cycle is engendered.


Idiot compassion … refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s what’s called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering. Basically, you’re not giving them what they need. You’re trying to get away from your feeling of I can’t bear to see them suffering. In other words, you’re doing it for yourself. You’re not really doing it for them. 

Pema Chodron from IDIOT COMPASSION

Helping and enabling are often confused with each other. Helping is doing something beneficial for a person incapable of doing for themselves. Enabling is doing something that the person could and should be doing for themselves, or assisting them to do something non-beneficial for one’s own purposes. Helping is the manifestation of compassion. Enabling prolongs suffering and leads to co-dependency. Enabling is an insult to another’s capabilities and dignity and is only ego gratification for the need-to-be-needed individual.

Habitual Reactions

The same goes for compassion. As one of the greatest 20 century Tibetan teachers, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, has said, ‘It is better not to have any compassion than to have idiot compassion’. What is idiot compassion? It is when, without thinking, our heart pours out and we become obsessed, so over whelmed by the object of our compassion that we loose our sense of focus. We become completely overwhelmed. So, even when we have compassion, we also have to be present, be aware.

Venerable Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche from Buddhist Meditation and Mental Well-being

Idiot compassion is just going through the motions that appear compassionate without the deep connection to the situation or others involved. We are connected only to our closed loop of an emotional state and use the outside situation to bolster that.

We learn a lot of idiot compassion from those around us. We watch their actions, see them being admired and praised and attempt to do the same without consideration of the deeper aspects of either the situation or our own psychological motivation.

Psychological Defense Mechanisms-Denial and Projection-Expressions of Superiority

Denial and projection are a couple of many psychological defense mechanisms to protect our ego from feeling hurt and to prevent acknowledging the reality of our context as well as messages that can shake up our self-images.

Denial comes in many forms. And when we have confused emotion with emotional response we do not go deeper into a situation. We re-enact the behavior without impetus from the actual situation. Often this becomes a blanket approach to everything we do. In order to avoid conflict, deal with fear, anger or other emotions that we label unpleasant we decide to “make nice” all the time thinking that by doing so the world will become nice and our unpleasant feelings will go away. It doesn’t work and these things will re-appear in different guises.

One of the ways by example is the oft heard dictum “If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all.”  This is a reflection of the original way Trungpa Rinpoche outlined the term idiot compassion. It is an unthinking blanket statement that calls for very little reflection. And it is most often applied to others who would engage with the depth of a situation. It is about the speaker of the phrase attempting to control the dialogue to avoid dealing with their own deep feelings about the matter or about themselves.

This is in particular used as the meaning of Right Speech in Buddhist circles. Some also make the “Shut Up” dictum into a loftier call for “Noble Silence” or “Calm Abiding” in every situation.  This means of social control has been used to keep the silence on more than a few cases of irregular, damaging and even criminal behavior. It is the Omertà of the Buddhist Sangha.

And it is also incorrect. The criteria for Right Speech as outlined in the Pali canon states:

[1] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[2] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[3] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

[4] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[5] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[6] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.”

from Abhaya Sutta at Access to Insight

There are many factors involved in right speech. Truth and  benefit are the two main criteria for speaking. The tone-agreeableness or disagreeableness and the emotional content-endearing or unendearing are subject to proper timing.

Right speech is not some simplistic dictum nor is it a blanket condemnation against any sort of thoughtful critique. It is as considered and measured as any other action.

Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, & right mindfulness — run & circle around right speech.

from Maha-cattarisaka Sutta: The Great Forty translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

In some cases it is not only speech or relatively momentary things that are denied. It can become one’s whole way of being in the world that becomes denied in favor of some gloss of misguided compassion that fits into a pre-packaged self-image.

Consider the stereotype of Nurse Ratched in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as an extreme example. Her image of herself as a caring helping professional was very rigid. She could not acknowledge any harm she might be doing, deeply denied her own sense of feeling superior to everyone,  and even denied her urge to despise the patients. As well she projecting her own wish to do violence onto the motives of the patients. All of which manifested in a cruelty and complete lack of empathy, even though she would have argued otherwise. That is an extreme and fictional example of what pathological idiot compassion can do when it manifests. And yes she is a fictional character. But one of the most memorable in movie history. The reason for that is that in a lot of ways many of us have identified either with her or against her depending upon our experiences in life. Her actions have contained some grain of truth.

I found this definition of compassion on a New Age/Business advice website:

Compassion is the mindfulness that imagines how it would be to exist in somebody else’s shoes. It is the mindfulness that allows us to treat somebody else in the way we would wish to be treated. It is feeling and recognizing one’s self in the other form.

This is projection and one of the significant elements in idiot compassion. The words sound about right but they are all about self-involvement rather than actual involvement with another’s reality. It is all about “me”. While one is engaged in imagining what is required rather than assessing the real situation any opportunity to act in a genuinely compassionate way is lost. What results then is an imaginary recipe for an imaginary situation. Just to note that mindfulness and imagination are very different mental activities. While one is busy imagining it is quite difficult to be mindful of anything beyond the imagination.

In that definition we are simply transplanting our ego into some other situation. We presuppose our wishes to be their wishes. In many circumstances that may not be the case. Another person’s solution to a dilemma may vary markedly from our own. In that case we must investigate their experience without interposing our own as a veneer onto the situation. 

Just by example consider a friend who has just been cheated upon in a relationship. We may know our own feelings about such a circumstance. Can we apply that to the friend as well? Can we advise them to dump their partner because that is what we would do unequivocally? Maybe it is best just to listen to their experience and not draw conclusions for them. We can offer input, reflection and another perspective on an issue but we are not the ones who have to live with the decisions that others need to make.

It is often a gesture of dominance to rush ahead with whatever comes to mind the minute some situation arises. By placing the receiver in a position of enfeeblement rather than empowerment we short-circuit their own decision making power by imposing our own.

This sometimes occurs in situations where a person may need some assistance but it can also occur where assistance is implied by someone else. How many times have you seen people shout at a blind person as if they were deaf as well? Or rather than be patient with another person, how often have we seen someone just take up the task they are involved in with a harumphing sigh, “I’ll just have to do it myself.”? These instances have a subtext which says the receiver is not capable, intelligent or up to the standards of action of the other party. This attitude is at the root of abuse of all kinds. It dehumanizes others and objectifies them to appeal to our own sense of superiority.

Self- and Other Indulgence

As we examine our intentions, we need to learn how to say no to unskillful motives in a way that’s firm enough to keep them in check but not so firm that it drives them underground into subconscious repression. We can learn to see the mind as a committee: the fact that unworthy impulses are proposed by members of the committee doesn’t mean that we are unworthy. We don’t have to assume responsibility for everything that gets brought to the committee floor. Our responsibility lies instead in our power to adopt or veto the motion.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu from The Road to Nirvana Is Paved with Skillful Intentions

Idiot compassion will not often say no to another or to it’s own involvement in an activity. There is an assumption that others cannot get along without some intervention. And the intervention is based on self-indulgence.  And there is often a subtle aggression to idiot compassion that is not evident in actual compassion.

With idiot compassion there is little reasoning involved in whether the activity is beneficial or not. The only criteria is that the doer feels better about themselves, or less distressed momentarily. In this regard it is rather like an addict’s behavior. There is not much sound reasoning nor is there much foresight. And there is little actual regard for others involved. It is all about making the initiator feel better.

As well aggression in others can be maintained or aggravated if we are not able to pull out of the “playing at compassion” game. There are times when real compassion has to firmly say no or walk away from a situation.

Idiot compassion is the highly conceptualized idea that you want to do good….Of course, [according to the mahayana teachings of Buddhism] you should do everything for everybody; there is no selection involved at all. But that doesn’t mean to say that you have to be gentle all the time. Your gentleness should have heart, strength. In order that your compassion doesn’t become idiot compassion, you have to use your intelligence. Otherwise, there could be self-indulgence of thinking that you are creating a compassionate situation when in fact you are feeding the other person’s aggression. If you go to a shop and the shopkeeper cheats you and you go back and let him cheat you again, that doesn’t seem to be a very healthy thing to do for others.

Chogyam Trungpa from Ocean of Dharma website

While behaving in an unreal or inauthentic way to preserve a false sense of order or calm or niceness in our daily doings we are not only short-changing ourselves but others. They cannot seriously rely upon us to make reasonable choices or any choices that are not self-serving. Nobody can rely on someone who is not honest with themselves.

Idiot compassion also stems from not have enough courage to say no.

Chogyam Trungpa quoted in Idiot Compassion blog post


Compassion automatically invites you to relate with people because you no longer regard people as a drain on your energy.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche quoted in blog post Helping Others without Hurting Ourselves.

A lot of idiot compassion stems from a desire to stop others from bothering us with their concerns. It saves us time to simply dole out some band-aid and move on with our day and away from any discomfort others may bring up. And at the same time it preserves the sense that we are making some positive contribution in the world. (see my post Right Lifestyle  for a longer discussion of this)

Real compassion is not fearful of what may be brought forward by others. Real compassion engages with that where it is, however it is and does so for as long as is reasonably possible.

The self-serving type of idiot compassion operates on short time limits, immediate results, instant gratification and does not respect the boundaries of others nor does it empower others to do things in their own lives.

Boundary Transgression and Control

When we give lip service to compassion through acts of idiot compassion we do not allow others to actually deal with their own experiences in a meaningful way.  We ask, or rather demand that they follow our prescription.

Idiot compassion takes a lot of energy. We are not only trying to orient ourselves through a fog towards a self-serving goal but are trying to steer others in a similar direction.  It’s more about controlling our own comfort levels than helping.

The slogan “Don’t misinterpret” means don’t impose the wrong notion of what harmony is, what compassion is, what patience is, what generosity is. Don’t misinterpret what these things really are. There is compassion and there is idiot compassion;there is patience and there is idiot patience;there is generosity and there is idiot generosity. For example trying to smooth everything out to avoid confrontation, to not rock the boat, is not what’s meant by compassion or patience. That’s what is meant by control. Then you are not trying to step into the unknown territory, to find yourself more naked with less protection and therefore more in contact with reality. Instead, you use the idiot forms of compassion and so forth just to get ground.

Pema Chodron  from Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion (p.145)

A lot of idiot compassion is about co-dependence and a lot of co-dependence is about control.  The “giver” of the idiot-compassion becomes the controller of the situation with the ability to withdraw their support at any time. This encourages dependence upon the controlling party. The controlling party then encourages further dependence in order to maintain that sense of control. It is a typical co-dependent cycle.

In these scenarios the donor often seeks some acknowledgement of gratitude if not outright publicity for their alleged altruism and kindness. It becomes a constant need to demonstrate this aspect of one’s self. A lot of activists fall into this kind of trap.

When altruism is not compensated by attention and praise, it can bring to the forefront the practices of shame and shaming and even become a process of victimizing those who are already in a vulnerable position.

Shaming of Others or Self-shame

Expectations of gratitude can become shaming behavior when boundaries are too fluid. Phrases like “After all I’ve done for you.” or “They are so ungrateful.” are common complaints of the idiotically compassionate.

Recipients of this kind of abuse can become ashamed of themselves, fearful of upsetting things and further on can begin to practice idiot compassion themselves since they become unsure of boundaries,  intolerant or fearful of confrontation, lose the ability to object and seek validation of their self-worth through indiscriminate caring and tolerance even to the point of enabling outrageous behavior.  All hidden behind a guise of apparent caring and concern.

There is also the possibility of turning the situation into self-pity and then projecting that upon others. This becomes a sort of false empathy because the empathy being felt is for one’s self not for another. This particular form often contains statements such as, “I know exactly how you feel.” about situations that the person has never encountered and dealt with or even investigated or questioned. This is usually followed up by a personal story about some unrelated loss or issue. It can lead again to misapplications of what is actually required in the given situation.

There is a confusion between behaving in a “spiritually correct” fashion and spiritual maturity. Children, for example, get caught in this kind of dilemma a lot. They are expected to meet standards of behavior without understanding them. When you hear phrases, or say such phrases to yourself, such as, “I am trying to be good.” , “I must behave better.”, “I shouldn’t make that kind of mistake.” then it is about correct surface behavior as outlined by others and identifying with that rather than realizing the complete reality of the situation. 

When some or all of these things enter the picture at their root are often fear and anger.

Fear and Anger

Pretending to be kind and act compassionately out of fear of rejection or being judged to be somehow inferior (or to demonstrate superiority which is the same thing in another guise) or because we wish to avoid confrontation or disruptive emotions is avoidance behavior. We are not dealing with the situation as it presents itself either in our lives or within our own beings. We are sneaking around and slipping by it.

Trungpa Rinpoche used the word “slimy” to describe this behavior (in a the third quote in this post) and this is possibly a reference to the Brahmajala Sutta in which Buddha outlines the four grounds of those he calls Eel-Wrigglers:

“There are, monks, some… who are Eel-Wrigglers. When asked about this or that matter, they resort to evasive statements, and they wriggle like eels on four grounds…

“In this case there [one] who does not in truth know whether a thing is good or bad. He thinks : ‘I do not in truth know whether this is good or whether it is bad. Not knowing which is right, I might declare : “That is good”, or “‘That is bad”, and that might be a lie, and that would distress me. And if I were distressed, that would be a hindrance to me.’ Thus fearing to lie, abhorring to lie, he does not declare a thing to be good or bad, but when asked about this or that matter, he resorts to evasive statements and wriggles like an eel : ‘I don’t say this, I don’t say that. I don’t say it is otherwise. I don’t say it is not. I don’t not say it is not.’ This is the first case.”

“What is the second way? Here [one] does not in truth know whether a thing is good or bad. He thinks : “I might declare : ‘That is good’, or ‘That is bad’, and I might feel desire or lust or hatred or aversion. If I felt desire, lust, hatred or aversion, that would be attachment on my part. If I felt attachment, that would distress me, and if I were distressed, that would be a hindrance to me.” Thus, fearing attachment, abhorring attachment, he resorts to evasive statements … This is the second case.”

“What is the third way? Here [one] does not in truth know whether a thing is good or bad. He thinks : “I might declare : ‘That is good’, or ‘That is bad’, but there are [those] who are wise, skilful, practiced debaters, like archers who can split hairs, who go around destroying others’ views with their wisdom, and they might cross-examine me, demanding my reasons and arguing. And I might not be able to reply. Not being able to reply would distress me, and if I were distressed, that would be a hindrance to me.’ Thus, fearing debate, abhorring debate, he resorts to evasive statements. This is the third case.”

“What is the fourth way? Here [one] is dull and stupid. Because of his dullness and stupidity, when he is questioned he resorts to evasive statements and wriggles like an eel : “If you ask me whether there is another world – if I thought so, I would say there is another world. But I don’t say so. And I don’t say otherwise. And I don’t say it is not, and I don’t not say it is not.”…”Both … ?” ‘Neither … ?’  ‘If I thought so, I would say so … I don’t say it is not.’ This is the fourth case.”

abbreviated and adapted from Brahmajala Sutta

Notice in the above piece that fear is a central point. There is fear of lying, fear of attachment, fear of debate all of which would put someone in a position of distress within themselves and particularly with regard to others. The last case, dullness and stupidity, is just beyond the scope of the current discussion.

There is a fake humility and humbleness that comes along with such presentations. In one extreme it is the smarminess of a completely non-committal position to anything and a tendency to go along with any wave that happens by. At another extreme it can become a rigid self-righteous pasted-smile world view that masks or blocks almost every natural reaction and thought which then renders these unavailable to deal with in practice. The person then in effect becomes something of a mannequin with an unchanging expression, attitude and way of relating. Fear has frozen them.

A lot of the fear is that of dealing with anger or the expression of anger.  Idiot compassion is a highly  phobic conditioned response to strong emotion, particularly anger and to deep self-examination due to the fear of what might be “lurking” there.  We are in many ways terrified of ourselves. We go to great lengths to deny this and to hide it from others. And this makes the world an even scarier place because we project those imaginary fears onto others. By practicing idiot compassion (and other idiot things as Pema Chodron mentioned) we don’t have to deal with or confront any of that and can, with a great deal of effort, maintain a serene facade that does all the socially and spiritually correct things. We avoid confronting anything, avoid unpleasantness, avoid any pain that may come from dealing with deep afflictions, avoid anything that threatens a “comfortably numb” existence.

Life becomes then a “Don’t worry, be happy” kind of children’s cartoon world.

Remedies for Idiot Compassion

It is perhaps most important in working with others that we do not develop idiot compassion, which means always trying to be kind. Since this superficial kindness lacks courage and intelligence, it does more harm than good. It is as though a doctor, out of apparent kindness, refuses to treat his patient because the treatment might be painful, or as though a mother cannot bear the discomfort of disciplining her child.

Unlike idiot compassion, real compassion is not based upon a simple-minded avoidance of pain. Real compassion is uncompromising in its allegiance to basic sanity. People who distort the path–that is, people who are working against the development of basic sanity–should be cut through on the spot of need be. That is extremely important. There is no room for idiot compassion. We should try to cut through as much self-deception as possible in order to teach others as well as ourselves. So the final cop-out of a bodhisattva is when, having already achieved everything else, he is unable to go beyond idiot compassion.

Chogyam Trungpa quoted in Recalling Chögyam Trungpa (p.191)

In order to truly benefit others, we must do a great deal of reflection on how best to do it. Many factors need to come together: we benefit others through the practice of the six paramitas, all of which are assisted by wisdom and compassion. We cannot simply benefit others only when it is convenient and easy for us. 

17th Gyalwang Karmapa from Bodhionline

That is the basic openness of compassion:opening without demand. Simply be what you are, be the master of the situation. If you will just ‘be,’ then life flows around and through you. This will lead you into working and communicating with someone, which of course demands tremendous warmth and openness. If you can afford to be what you are, than you do not need the ‘insurance policy’ of trying to be a good person, a pious persona, a compassionate person.

Chogyam Trungpa quoted in Recalling Chögyam Trungpa (p.190)

Dalai Lama DalaiLama True compassion isn’t an emotional response, but a firm commitment founded on reason: it won’t change if others behave negatively.

about 3 hours ago via web

from the verified Twitter account of HH Dalai Lama


Links to Related Posts-these contain a few remedies as well

Can We Love Our Enemies Without Idiot Compassion or Shaming? from Beyond Growth blog [some discussion on how self-serving gurus can use this Idiot Compassion urge to keep followers in line]

Compassion in Reality from Bitterroot Badger’s Bozeman Buddhist Blog [an exemplary post on what constitutes compassion]

Haiti Dharma and Idiot Compassion from the Dangerous Harvests blog [doing what we think is “best for others” may be an insult]

Helping Others without Hurting Ourselves. from elephant journal [taking up the pain of others suffering from depression]

Idiot Compassion from the Karma Yogini Journals blog [deep questioning of the Idiot Compassion concept]

Idiot Compassion and Panhandling from the Beliefnet blog Onecity [is the urge to give based on the need of other’s or one’s own needs?]

The Road to Nirvana is Paved With Skillful Intentions from Thanissaro Bhikkhu at Access to Insight (thanks for the link Richard)

Singing the Dragon Song Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori, Roshi [“Only a person who is fully present can manifest true compassion. Being present is where compassion is born.” -a teisho on relevant topics]

When compassion toward others is empty from My Buddha is Pink blog [the preparation for, committing and aftermath of compassionate actions requires consideration]

36 comments on “Manifestations of Idiot Compassion

  1. I kinda like what Dogen had to say about this too — about the bodhisattva of compassion using his 84,000 arms to reach in the night for a pillow: just to do what has to be done when it has to be done.

    Interesting thoughts, here. I’ll have to re-read this one (too).

  2. Wow, this is a superb post – thank you for the effort you put into it, NellaLou.

    I’m very interested in intentions: how they arise; from where they arise; how they do/don’t result in action; and the consequences.

    Sadly, I don’t have much deep, experiential insight into this – I’m still finding my way through this fundamental “mechanism” of mind.

    I haven’t read Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s book on intentions, but I believe the Zen tradition (at least, the Korean Seon tradition) has a somewhat different view of this, based on ancient, root meaning of “karma” as “intention.”

    In this view, “bad” intention produces “bad” karma. And “good” (or “skillful”) intention produces “good” karma. But any karma is a problem, one that produces ripples that span kalpas.

    So the question is how to act without making karma. Zen Master Seung Sahn always responded to this kind of question by saying, “Just do it!” (in the pre-Nike days).

    By this he meant that if we try to “manage” our karma by “fabricating” good intentions (my quotes), we’re gonna make a mess of things. We can’t be liberated and fabricate anything.

    But – sadly – I’m speaking way beyond my experience here.

  3. Rarely do I comment in the blogosphere…. Nevertheless, THIS is an exceptional piece worthy of comment!

    法 座下

    Hoo za gee, Dharma seat beneath….


    Kyu Hai, Nine Bows.

  4. Fabulous post.. i liked very much the quote : …idiot compassion, which is compassion with neurosis, a slimy way of trying to fulfill your desire secretly. This is your aim, but you give the appearance of being generous and impersonal.

    Chogyam Trungpa quoted in Recalling Chögyam Trungpa (p.191)

    This post is like a delicious meal to be savoured.. i will re-read it many times. Thank you!

  5. My one quibble is that calling it ‘idiot compassion’ is perjorative.

    Many of us are not stupid, we are reactive. We are reactively compassionate, because in many cases, thats the only kind of compassion we see being modelled for us. So it is unfair to call it idiot compassion.

    But due to being socialized in a very reactive culture, even intelligent, kindly intentioned persons learn only those forms of compassion that are rooted in shenpa/afflictive emotion and do not know any other way to respond.

    Id prefer calling it reactive compassion.

    Two, a lot of profit can be made by advertising and sales tactics aimed at pushing peoples /reactivity buttons.

    I suggest that instead of idiot compassion, call it shenpa driven compassion or reactive compassion.

    Now it gets complex because threads of good intention can co-exist with afflictive emotion and acts of compassion can thus engender very complex outcomes.

    I remember a relative who suffered due to being attached to the results of his actions.

    During World War II several of ‘relatives who in Nazi occuppied Europe waited too long to obtain exit visas. The only place they could go to escape the Nazis and do so without visas was to take refuge in Shanghai.

    During the war years, Bob, who was 4F and who worked full time in New York as a musician, sent money he saved to his relatives in Shanghai. He told me he would bus or metro fare, and walk many blocks to and from work, carrying his violin, just so he could save, bit by bit the sums of money to aid his relatives. Bob was physically fragile, which is why he was excused from military service, so all this extra effort really cost him something.

    But, there was a very sad result. Bob was attached to outcomes. He wanted to send that money so his relatives would not suffer physical hardship. He wanted them to be able to buy good food, be able to afford sufficent housing and clothing. So Bob had assumed and expected his relatives would use that money to feed and care for themselves. Instead, the relatives preferred psychological security to physical comfort. Instead of spending that money he sent them, on food, on shelter they hoarded it under a mattress.Bob was enraged and felt his efforts had been for nothing because they had not used the money as he expected them to.

    For years, Bob spoke with fury and resentment and as a sad result, he
    lost the fruits of his efforts.

    He was not stupid in any conventional sense, and it would have added to his anguish to have been told he was practicing idiot compassion.

    But…it is pretty common to be taught to be attached to the outcomes of ones action. Bob may never in his life have observed a person who was capable of non attachment to outcomes.

    So, instead of idiot compassion, I prefer to call it shenpa compassion.

    And..Ive been in the same trap (attachment to outcomes) as Bob.

    Finally, chains of cause and effect are very complex and can be hidden from us, no matter how intelligent we are.

    Many years ago, I worked at a homeless shelter.

    One evening, I arrived on night shift. I was feeling guilty/shame
    ridden, because earlier that night I walked by some homeless guys
    panhandling for money and I did not want to give them anything and then ran a head trip on myself.

    So…I was full of shenpa and at that time I did not know how to practice.

    At midnight one of the women at our shelter came in, crying, her face swollen up and in pain from an acute toothache. I wanted to do something to offset my walking past the pandhandlers, so attached to the outcome and genuinely wanting to help her, I phoned around, found an emergency room with a short waiting list, and then called a taxicab. I made sure to give the fare directly to the driver and told him to go to X hospitals emergency room.

    I remember feeling happy I’d been able to do something effective and let myself take satisfaction in what I imagined was 1) helpful for the woman and 2) proved I was not an uncaring hunk of shit.

    The outcome was very unexpected.

    Yes, the girl had a toothache. Yes, she needed follow up dental care.
    Our social worker scheduled her an appointment with a free dental clinic–hard to arrange in our city.

    But…the girl did not go to that appointment. In pain, she went to all our social workers telling each one she had a toothache.

    Each worker reacted to the crisis by giving her a different dentists appointment which the girl did not go to.

    Only when we had a team meeting and compared notes did we realize that this woman had a special kind of suffering due to her own early
    life–she was so very desperate for one on one caregiving, that she preferred the horrible pain of her toothache to going to a dentist and having that tooth fixed. As long as she had the unfixed tooth, she
    got a flurry of attention from our social workers and would not go to the dentist.

    So…we had to show her very skilled compassion. Her toothache meant she had an infection that could, if untreated by a dentist, kill her.
    So long as she refused to go to the dentist because she preferred
    the attention of our social workers, she would risk an infection that would kill her or infect her heart.

    So the only way to make her go to the dentist and get the emergency health care she needed was to tell her, ‘You have one more dental appointment. If you fail to go to this dental appointment, you will not be able to stay at our shelter and you will be cut off from all services from our social work department.’

    All this sounds cruel.

    But it was the response needed to make her go and get the care she needed, rather than the care she preferred–fix the infected tooth.

    So I would prefer the term shenpa compassion or reactive compassion, rather than Trunpa’s term, idiot compassion.

    And, remember, our entire advertising industry works because reactive compassion is commonplace in this culture.

    • I was looking for some calming buddhist wisdom to explain why I feel so torn from others judgement of me for Being pollitically incorrect about the recent Europe refugee crisis. I saw everyone jumping in to host them, to do something, critisizing everyone, our culture, blaming ourselves, others …….like a tsunami!
      I checked the facts, keept calm, analyze the situation, research about it, but also looked at what I know. I have suffer for years and years seeing migrant people dying drowned in the mediterranean…..Europeans could not care less. Is your problem (countries on the med) suddenly an explosion of goodness, solidarity, bring them here!
      not thinking for one second the dreadful consequences of such idiot compassion.
      the amazing thing is what I have learned. When I tried to expose my point of view on facebook, by posting examples that ilustrate my concern, I was regarded as xenophobic, islamofobic, full of hatred, dis-compassionated, spreading propaganda…..very few found my rational acceptable. Funny enough; most of those who understood were muslims, or army soldiers, or Buddhist. seems like people cannot accept what it means for 51 million refugees of the world seeing a Welcome post from Europe….expect thousands of drawnings and deaths to come, big mafias smuggling people, migrants moving up in big numbers. What it means have no control over who is let in to share our life with ( yihadist, economic inmigrants, deserters from armies, men who have no respect for women, muslim radicals, ex-convicts). Official demographics show that only 13% are women and 15% children. So mostly single young men who do not actually need our support. The media just shows children and women suffering but digging in a bit you can find videos showing that they are quite violent large groups of men. And of course there will be good men too. No one thinks that the quota of refugees to be allowed in will be fulfill by these men instead of who really needs our help. Widows, orfans, injured, families, young girls ( who are raped and sold to sex slavery) christians who are been killed even in the refugee camps! etc.
      No one wants to hear about this problems and what might happen in the future, the consequences to others ( collateral damage)
      the feeling Ive got from this criticism was enough for me to delete most of the posts and consider not to post anything about it anymore….just be a slimy wigler, and keep up with the political correctedness of silence. But this didnt feel right either. I question myself: do you want to be the world hero who sees he truth and needs to open evryones eyes? but what if is your idiot ego? then I questioned my response, my attitude, my conditioning….and felt really lost! no clue. But Im worried about the EU response to it and the consequences of it, so I keep reasearching and worrying. Ive also got from someone the ‘dont worry be happy’ slap in the face ‘ life is good hey?’
      so I searched for google help and found this post, and I am so thankful for the insight into what is idiot compassion, I didnt knew the term before, but is perfect.
      political correctness is idiot compassion too, because it fits egos agenda (im good rigth here and now and have a photo of it) regardless of the consecuences for them (in need) and others ( collateral and/or more needed than the first).
      I am not saying that my ego have not found some fulfillment, I am fully aware of my great ignorance. But i understand now better and now I feel free to carry on, ( trying to be more aware of rigth speech)
      Will read on more and hope to find a good post like this about political correctness.
      truly thank you, I will follow your posts.

      • Speaking of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, he fled Tibet when it was invaded by the communists, who were killing many monks in monasteries. And he immigrated to India. What if Indians rejected him at the border on the ground that the travel through the Himalayans is too dangerous and letting immigrants in would encourage other people to take the same risk ? They would say “oh, why don’t you stay in Tibet, you will be much safer than crossing the Himalayans, stay with the communists trying to kill you, this is much better for you. Trust me, I am doing that for your own good”. Don’t you think he was aware it would be difficult and he would risk his life and the life of many others to do that ?
        To me, true compassion is about trying to act in a way that will reduce suffering on the long term, and not necessarily make my own good. It is about acting in a way that has the highest chance of producing consequences that will reduce suffering in general. I don’t see what consequence of welcoming immigrants would be worse than them being tortured and killed. This is the true question. What could be the consequences, who would be harmed and to what extent. If immigrants risking their lives to reach Europe was the only problem people really worried about, then it would be simple to send ships there and get them ourselves to Europe safely. So what are the other problems ? And who is going to be harmed ?

  6. An absolutely wonderful post, thanks for inspiring me all over again, and timeously reminding me to reduce the idiot component in my compassion :)

  7. Yikes. A looong post. But one which resonates. Being chronically ill I have a lot of first hand experience of “idiot compassion” and I hate it. Any statement with starts: “have you tried…” should be strangled at birth”, possibly along with the person saying it (in a compassionate way of course).

    I like the idea of near and far enemies. The far enemy is cruelty. The near enemies are horrified anxiety (our discomfort at others suffering makes us freeze or panic) and sentimental pity (feeling sorry for people, over effusive but insincere sympathy). Both are ways at holding at bay the feelings evoked by witnessing suffering. I think there terms come from Buddhaghosa but I know them from Kamalaśila’s book on Meditation.

  8. Jayarava, years ago, I had went to school with a man who had been injured in a camping accident. D incurred a broken neck and used a wheelchair and hydrolift van. He did need the services of an attendant to get into and out of bed morning and evening, but beyond that, he was able to do pretty much anything, including drive from California, through Mexico to Belize and back, for summer vacation. (This was in the Eighties).

    Once, he told us, ‘One thing about being in a wheelchair is that at lot of people treat me like I’m some sort of guru on the mountain. or they think the only appropriate way to relate is to be serious and engage me in profound discussions, making me some kind of wisdom figure.

    ‘Well, a lot of times, I am not in the mood for that. I’d like nothing better than to just be one of the guys, share a beer and talk about women.’

    During his Mexican vacation, D sent us a postcard, signed, ‘Having a great time. Send lawyers, guns and money.’

    I once offered to hold doors open for another friend who used a wheelchair,and he turned the offer down.

    ‘Lots of people want to hold doors open for me. And I appreciate their generosity. But I have to open my own doors as often as possible, because that keeps my arm muscles strong. If I let people open doors for me, I wont get the upper body exercise I need, my arms will weaken and then when at home, I will be too weak to fend for myself.’

  9. This comment has been moved because I am making a blog post with it.

    It was about some idea to make a Draw Mohammed Day on May 20th.

    Bet you can guess what I think about that!

    If not the blog post will be up shortly.

  10. My understanding of justice is the bringing into balance a level playing field in which people who have been harmed can restore an inner sense of profound value and proceed without continued outward affliction.

    Inside that sentence, there may be a better phrase or Buddhist term for “inner sense of profound value”. It is both a something and a non-something. It is still and it is active. It is a sense of deep “self” (another tricky word here) while also being in deep connection to that same essence within all other life. It is irrepressible and indestructible. This place doesn’t come from a teacher or grand Roshi although I would like to believe that the more well integrated and self-aware ones can be fine guides toward that place. It can’t be manufactured or manipulated and the more profound experience of it comes and goes seemingly of its own accord. But of all the descriptions above, irrepressible/indestructible is the one most cherished by me.

    Whatever that place is called, it can wisely inform all other actions and any practice worth doing is one that begins off the cushion as much as on it.

    If all of the above makes any sense to you despite my lack of correct terminology, then I am genuinely interested in discussing what real changes could bring a level playing field to the most recent (and this one decades old) disaster within a Zen monastery. I believe you call it here the “Big E”. If this is better done as another topic or more general approach, I’ll leave that to the moderator.

    As a woman who had to leave that monastery for all the reasons described, I’m aware that the profound and concrete changes needed there are not be possible as long as they hold on to the mentalities that created the long and vast array of trouble. (Thank you, Barry, love the trouble word and your blog – very helpful). There are advantages to loosing everything, although hopefully not required.

    Having just revealed that, I’ll give an idiot compassion warning that the first person who suggests “see a therapist” will receive the same response as Jayarava to “have you tried this”…..

    And, whatever that place is, it does like to come out and dance around a bit.


  11. Ok – I’ll start

    1 – remove Shimano as Abbot, not just from the board while remaining Abbot and seeing old students until the year 2012. How can this be accomplished?

    2 – Then and only then does it make sense for those of us affected to engage in thoughtful and constructive conversation about restorative justice, reconciliation, forgiveness and other such terms that have been used on the Aitken-Shimano blog.

    The existing history, both past and present is enough. Each time a category 4 Shimano-hurricane hits again, it is also on the backs of those of the many many many of us who were deeply harmed in the past and not heard. You know who the silent eye of this hurricane is. That is why this entire blog started – with Aitken’s wisdom to call out Shimano from his hole in the hurricane around which all this distress circulates.

    3 – Can it be accomplished with a positive future outcome for Dharma heirs and long time students who have stayed with Shimano?

    For example, the potential for great opportunity to look honestly and clearly at the reasons for 40 years of toxic consequences in a quest to become models of truly integrated Zen work are rich and waiting. It would clearly require humble requests for help and the addition of insightful and seasonsed Zen/Buddhist teachers and thinkers to offer direction on issues of clergy abuse and it’s ongoing healing. Or, any organizations that have successfully cleared the way for new wine in new skins or emptying the glass full of defenses and just repeating the same old same old.

    4 – Then there’s the land. It’s beautiful there. The lake, the moss along the paths, trees actually growing out of the cracks in boulders, the Jizo looking down across the lake. That’s why I personally tried to stay. I was hooked on the sound of the rain on the roof, the bell in the distance, and opportunity to cook for my Sangha. I was their tenzo. And,then, “the color of everythihg”.

    In it’s way the land also speaks. How about freeing this as well and seeing the creative potentials as being done by “The Order of Mountains and Rivers” at former John Daido Loori’s monastery. Off the cushion and finding the immense life in such relationship could be part of the transition and healing – how to treat life and relationship with each oter.

    “How to treat life” – a story I’ll tell later.


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  17. idiot compassion is like fishing in an empty toilet bowl with the wind howling through the pipes that you mistake for a grandmother you never had.

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  20. November 19 2012 Just from listening to live stream of Rick Hanson interview Jean Houston from Sounds True series of interviews regarding Compassion: what is it, neural correlates, how to cultivate it…and in discussion, ideas on fierce compassion were brought forward leading me to send quick email response relative to Chogyam’s perspectives on Idiot compassion, and then off to find links to lead people to full understanding and found this blog…beautiful–linked you in so others can learn…can find my short blurb on it at all best, diane

  21. Eek. I’m a few years late reading this. Thank you, O Mighty Internets Gods, for not letting the electrons rot away before I showed up. And, thank you Nella Louise for letting your brain direct your fingers in the writing of this ‘post.

    I am trying to corral all manner of things relating to “compassion” and this post has been a big help, filling a whole box in my gray-matter attic.

  22. In a world where there is a lack of compassion, I’d take well meaning compassion rather than selfish indifference every single time. I agree that ‘pure’ love and compassion is unattached to personal gain; but I find the concept of idiot compassion strangely superior and cynical, if compassion is coming from ‘right intention’ and perhaps clumsily delivered, we should be more understanding. I am not a believer in attaining complete emotional detachment, just treating others in a loving way and helping those who want my help. That’s all.

  23. I hear your point, Scarlet. But I would say that compassion isn’t just measured by one’s own exuberant exercise in conveying it. It is a transaction with others that requires that we not romanticize them. It is in the whole of the transaction that net good gets measured. Us being “taken advantage of” is only damaging, all around.

    I know a lot of homeless guys. I want the world and the stars for them, but I know that many have been takers the entirety of their lives. I switched from giving to them to loaning to them, and now I have learned they are not responsible at repaying me, either.

    It feels to great extent that I am acting as an accountant, first, and compassionate a distant second. But I see myself now as just a player in a universal exercise at improving the lot of us and things, now, are less weirdly “all about me,”

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  25. Thank you for a great and inspiring post. I will keep coming back to post, there is so much info summarized in one place. This is a great reference site in moments of confusion. I hope you keep adding to this subject.

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  27. To whom it may concern:
    Not going to publish your Islamophobic rant. Save it for the Trump or Geert Wilders rally or whatever fascist clan you follow.

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