Compassion For Those Who Cause Harm



So reincarnation has always been a bit of a sticking point between me and Buddhism.

Not that I know that much about it, but whenever it comes up I’ve always felt a bit…skeptical?

So mostly I’ve just kind of ignored it.

I mean one of the most resonant things about Buddhism for me is that it is unconcerned with doubt, it encourages critical thought and it expects to be rigorously challenged. So my uncertainty about reincarnation was unimportant and provided my with no hindrance to my explorations into other areas of the Buddhist philosophy.

Then the other night at meditation the concepts of karma and reincarnation were broached. And I had my usual gut reaction.

As the speaker talked about people suffering in this life because of transgressions in lives past I railed. As usual my mind raced with the terrible suffering that occurs around the world. Innocent people living in terror, with violence, without food – the suffering of the multitudes is incomprehensible and a humbling reminder of just how good I’ve got it.

And it just seems wrong to view these innocent people as being punished for something, because that implies that they somehow deserve it. And that is just…well I just cannot accept that. Especially because that leads to a tacit conclusion that those who suffer less are somehow being rewarded and therefore are somehow better than.

And when you understand the world to be random and unfair, when you understand that nice guys can finish last and jerks often get ahead well that is hard enough to come to terms with, without adding to that the notion that a past life retribution is taking place.

But then the speaker said something that resonated. She said “This does not mean that we do not need to have compassion.”

Now compassion – there’s a Buddhist concept that I am happy to explore. I love the way compassion is essentially the basis of all Buddhist teachings. And as much as reincarnation confounded me, compassion drew me in. I’ve long wanted to understand more about the Buddhist theories of compassion and it’s cultivation.

And in one simple moment, as these complex realisations often do, it struck me. Indeed if terrible suffering is experienced because of some ill-deed in a life prior to ones own, a life (much like this one) that is out of our control then that is cause for even deeper compassion, is it not?

The way I see innocence and the way Buddhism sees it is in fact the same. Those that suffer are innocent – not responsible for whatever karmic burden they are carrying with them. And if that thought does not inspire compassion, then what does?

And the interesting thing about Buddhism and it’s theory of reincarnation is that it not only cultivates compassion for those who are suffering, but it cultivates compassion for those who cause suffering.

People who do terrible things in this lifetime deserve our compassion too – because they will suffer greatly in future lives. They will carry a heavy karmic load into their future lives that will see them endure great suffering.

And this I can get my head around. Not because of some latent, cultural, need for reprisal (or maybe?). But because it compounds what I know to be true about Buddhism. That it all comes back to compassion. We just need love and compassion for all our fellow beings, no matter where they are on the path. And of course (and maybe the hardest to grasp) compassion for ourselves as we navigate all this the best we can.

So reincarnation sits a bit better with me now. Not that I claim to understand it, but now I feel like I have an entry into understanding it. I no longer have to reject the idea of it.

That’s exciting because now I can swim around in it a bit more. And use it to further my exploration of compassion.

Could you cultivate compassion for someone who caused great suffering?


  • John James

    I’m not sure compassion is the right word – but I do try and have some understanding of people who cause harm – some understanding of their background and why they became that way, and what might have caused them to be harmful…

    Not that I’m looking for an excuse in someone’s behaviour – but I don’t like to demonise people just to satisfy some emotional need for revenge… we all have dark sides to our personalities, and when we do harm other people I think we’re victims of our own dark natures as well… even if that is something as simple as “being a dick”, or something as horrific as being physically violent to someone.

    Of course, sadly, some people are simply sociopaths with no sense of empathy or morality… there’s nothing you can do with people like that, but I can still feel some compassion towards them, I guess, because it’s not their fault they were born that way…

    • One Small LIfe

      Thanks for the comment JJ. We did an interesting visualisation at meditation last night where we pictured a good friend, a stranger and an “enemy” (someone you would cross the street to avoid). The purpose of which was to recognise that we need to value each of these people equally (and with compassion). This seems difficult. But when you imagine at any given moment someone might be visualising *you* as their treasured friend, a stranger or their enemy it’s easy to see that we contain all these multitudes – and so does everyone else. As you say, we all have various sides.

      So interesting.

  • Carly Findlay

    People are glorifying Chopper Read – perhaps because how he was portrayed in the film, or maybe because free jail, he did normal larrikin things like do a comedy tour. Lots of people have compassion for him.

    I’ve loved the wrong boys, the ones who have treated me badly, the ones who aren’t so nice. That last one, he was quite bad yet the good in him shone so brightly due to the darkness surrounding him. I had a great deal of compassion for him.

    • John James

      Glorifying Chopper is totally unacceptable in my book… but I’d really like to understand what made him the person he was… how do you get to a point where killing someone is just something you do?

      I’m not going to feel compassion for him though… people who go all fan-boy over Chopper are just seeing the “celebrity”, not the awful dark reality…

    • One Small LIfe

      Hi Carly,

      So glad to hear from you (I’m a fan!)

      I think there is a real difference between having compassion and glorifying. I actually met Mark “Chopper” Read through work once and there was a real sadness to the man. It wasn’t hard to see that he was in large part a product of circumstance and while I was no fan of his media persona or criminal past, it wasn’t hard to feel compassionate towards him.

      In regards to the “wrong boys” I think the same is true and yet one of the things I struggle with most in terms of compassion and Buddhism is this notion of feeling loving kindness towards everyone, and yet not allowing damaged people or their behaviours to damage me (if that makes sense). Still working on that one!