Thankas in Proportion

-a dispatch from the grief process

[edit:I’ve added a few lines about the TCHRD organization]

The Public Domain Review has an interesting piece on an old book about Tibetan art. They write:

An eighteenth-century pattern book consisting of 36 ink drawings depicting precise iconometric guidelines for depiction of the Buddha and Bodhisattva figures. Written in Newari script with Tibetan numerals, the book was apparently produced in Nepal for use in Tibet. The concept of the ‘ideal image’ of the Buddha emerged during the Golden Age of Sanskrit rule, from the 4th to 6th century. As well as the proportions, other aspects of the depiction – such as number of teeth, colour of eyes, direction of hairs – became very important.

You can see it all here The Tibetan Book of Proportions

When you watch Tibetan students in class learning to make thankas, this is what they learn. It’s complicated and mathematical, not freeform drawing. Also every element that goes into one has a reason for being there and a deep symbolic significance. You can’t learn it in a month of evening courses.

I wrote on Facebook a while back about Tibetan musical scores like these.

Embedded image permalink

In some thankas, like in some temple decoration, mantras and instructions for their chanting (like the notation above) are included. This makes it not only iconographic but gives it the status of a yantra, which is a multi-dimensional and multi-sense encompassing spiritual device or machine to assist in changing consciousness. It takes a lot of knowledge of multiple disciplines to be able to create a good thanka. It takes some research and study to be able to decode the depth of what you are looking at. They are not “just” religious iconography but whole windows into the Tibetan belief system. They are not just “cultural products” for tourists but are integral to the cohesion of communities.

Here’s what I mean by that.

Manoj & I used to live across from both the Tibetan Homes School (run by a charitable organization SOS Children’s Homes ) and the CST (Central School for Tibetans run by the Tibetan Gov. in Exile ) and they teach this art to some of the older students. The children in the SOS Home are orphaned children of refugees. Manoj was very close to people in the Tibetan community after he lost his parents [his mother when he was 6 and his father when he was 13]. His relatives did all they could but they didn’t live in Mussoorie so many Tibetan people helped support him in a lot of ways. His father also had had a lot of friends in the Tibetan community and worked with them sometimes. In communities that are somewhat off the beaten track and where ways of life are communal, people help each other out and hold each other up when their social structure collapses. That is one of the principle purposes of community. People are integrated on all sorts of levels. This is very different from a capitalist based network society. [I’ll have more to say on that in the future]

Once in a while if I was walking by and class was in session I’d go in and sit on the bench in the back & watch the young artists for a while. There is a Buddhist temple, the oldest Tibetan Buddhist temple in India, on the grounds just outside of both of these schools. There are monasteries and institutes of higher learning, like the Sakya Center, and the big Mindrolling Monastery complex about 30 kilometers away in Dehra Dun. All of these things are connected and support the Tibetan refugee community.

Over the years I bought a few of the thankas from these students [from the schools actually as the students don’t sell them individually] as the proceeds help support the schools and got them “framed” at Mindrolling for which one gives a donation. This is all a cooperative effort, as are many things in the Tibetan [and in much of the Indian] community that I am aware of in Mussoorie. [I’m not going to generalize or try to “speak for” the community there. This is only my observation and experience.]The students are not just taught the techniques to make pretty and “exotic” pictures. They have a far larger social context.

As an aside..if you want to give money to a Tibetan cause or any cause that’s doing actual work on the ground the SOS Homes are really working hard with that money. I’ve seen it in person. I’ve met the kids in these schools. So many of these western “consciousness raising” organizations like UNFFT (run by some countess who dabbles in all kinds of charities when she’s not attending galas or yachting) and Free Tibet are bullshit organizations run by white people (check their boards and executive) for other white people to make themselves think they’re actually doing something and also to bring in substantial salaries and/or attention mainly to themselves. They are parasitic organizations that boost their own profiles by exploiting the tragedy in Tibet and Tibetan people’s work in my opinion. These kinds of organizations tag along at marches and demonstrations organized by Students for a Free Tibet (another hard working worthy group run by and for Tibetan people) for example, contribute nothing to organizing or support and congratulate themselves heartily for whatever they think they’re doing. It’s lifestyle activism at it’s worst. [I have so much to say about these things but I’ll save it for another post] They want to work for Tibetan people without actually working FOR or WITH Tibetans in many cases. If you want to join or support an organization to help Tibetan people find one that’s run by Tibetans for Tibetans or at least has a lot of Tibetan people actually working at it and in executive roles, not just as figurehead “advisors” or as in some cases all white people.

In terms of consciousness raising, here’s the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy 2013 Annual Report and Special Report on Re-education Through Labor. TCHRD is on the front lines of monitoring the situation in Tibet. Many of their publications are available in English and Tibetan. They (along with some other organizations) do the on the ground work and compile many reports and get the news and photos that a lot of the Western “consciousness raising” organizations often republish without credit, or compensation.

On the economics side, there are plenty of thanka knockoffs in the marketplaces of the world. People buy them as tourist souvenirs and they are produced in “thanka factories” (often in Nepal) where artists (not all of whom are Tibetan or Buddhist) are trained to produce them as consumer goods for low wages. The colors tend to be garish and the images cliché. Some of this is due to many Tibetan people’s feelings that the selling of religious artifacts for profit is wrong, so others have stepped in to make it a business. When they are sold in monasteries, or when you get the framing done at a monastery for example, their purpose is religious and communal not merely decorative or for the tourist trade.

Those are some of the many reasons I dislike the “knock offs” and those comic book kind of drawings “inspired by” Tibetan people’s art.

One of the reasons I’m thinking about this recently is that I’m involved in a photo swap with some of Manoj’s friends and family. I’m sorting and sending photos to them and they are doing likewise for me. It’s like trying to weave over the emptiness with memories.

but still it’s like this

seems grief gets worse before it starts to get better…

like a slow motion fracture across the emotional landscape

it’s like these internal earthquakes happen with a memory or thought…

not predictable…

my hands start to shake

Here is Buddha statue at Mindrolling Monastery, Clement Town, Dehra Dun, taken from the upper level of the temple.


Here is one of the signs within the monastery complex.



TORMA The Ancient Art of Tibetan Butter Sculpture is a blog done by film producer Yeshe Wangmo. It chronicles a film project that is underway to document this Tibetan art form that a lot of people are not too aware of.

This film project started several years ago and contains detailed research and explanation about the creation and use of the Torma.

The 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje is the Executive Producer and Director and is actively engaged in bringing the project about. He is a talented designer of Torma particularly for the Kagyu Monlam Chenmo that takes place every year at Bodhgaya India .

From the blog’s about page:

Welcome to the Torma Film blog where I’ll share photos, video clips, and information collected while researching the subject of tormas. In 2005, I had the privilege of watching monks and nuns make exquisitely beautiful tormas for the International Kagyu Monlam (Prayer Festival for World Peace) held annually in Bodhgaya, India. These tormas had been designed by His Holiness, the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, and he oversaw every aspect of their creation.

Since the medium of film is particularly well-suited to conveying both the intricate beauty and multilayered symbolism of these unusual works of art, a torma film project gradually evolved and is currently in progress under His Holiness’s visionary guidance and direction. For more information on the film Torma: The Ancient Art of Tibetan Butter Sculpture, please visit the website:

From the film website-latest news:


The producers of Torma met with His Holiness in Bodhgaya in January, 2010 to discuss the creative direction of the film. His Holiness said that he will take over the editing and artistic aspects of the film from here on out, shaping the material according to his vision as the film’s director. The torma crew then met in Nepal in February to film an important interview with Venerable Tenga Rinpoche, according to His Holiness’s suggestion. Mahakala torma preparations and the Lama Dances with tormas were carefully documented and the new footage was sent to His Holiness in early March.

Gifts for the Gods – the ancient art of Tibetan Butter sculpture is an article by some of the participants in the making of the film. from the Kagyu Monlam -There are some photos of the Torma making in progress.

The film is due out in 2011.


Tormas-a little more information about their significance as well as links to more.

Photo Gallery-Torma Making from the Official Website of Drikung Kagyu Order of Tibetan Buddhism

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]