Compassion Carries a Big Stick

My husband has been studying Buddhism for some time now, and he often reads passages to me from whatever text he’s into at the moment. I take these moments as they come, and absorb what resonated for him about the passage. But I don’t consider myself a Buddhist (he disagrees). I consider myself a Celtic polytheist who may or may not believe the gods are literally separate entities from ourselves.

He asked me if I have love and compassion for all living beings. I said no.

He then followed with a leading question (which irritated me to no end because I knew he was trying to be clever and “gotcha” which is so very much the opposite of Zen): So you wish harm to other people?

Of course not. I don’t wish harm to people, in general. I explained that, and qualified it: if someone is harming me or someone who cannot fight back, I will take steps to stop them, and it will probably cause them harm. I said I have no love for the person trying to kill me or assault little kids or kick puppies. No love at all. But, apparently, this is all right, because you can wish someone enlightenment with the help of a large club if need be and that is considered loving and compassionate. Er, okay then. It doesn’t sound loving to me.

But it was the language of the tradition, I think, that really got my hackles up and still does. Instead of saying our usual “good night, sweet dreams, I love you” before drifting off to sleep, he started saying things like: “I wish to remove your suffering.” “I have love for you and all living things.” “There is no happiness, only the diminishing of suffering.”

If you unpack those statements, there is nothing inherently wrong with them. However, it all sounds a little too “come to Christ” for me, even though I know, logically, that it has nothing at all to do with the Christian tradition. Perhaps my experiences with Evangelicalism have put me on guard for anything remotely resembling proselytizing. So I told him, during the course of our conversation (which he began as we were lying down for bed and I truly dislike when that happens because I’m there to sleep, not be kept up arguing over philosophy) that I do not wish to become a Buddhist. And this seemed to upset him, as if it were a judgement upon him, I suppose. He asked what exactly I do believe in, and I told him (not for the first time) that I have an eclectic spirituality based upon Celtic (small-p) paganism[1]. And then he asked the question I dread, because I am not a good explainer. Not verbally, on the spot without a “backspace” key at my disposal to make sure I lay my thoughts out clearly: He asked what my religion is about, and what it says about this moment[2].

And I tell you honestly, I did not have an answer for him. I didn’t have an answer for him because I am not part of an outlined tradition, and I tend to go on gut feelings more than anything, and I had not thought about that particular question before he asked it. That’s where “eclectic” comes in. Eclecticism “[…]can sometimes seem inelegant or lacking in simplicity, and eclectics are sometimes criticized for lack of consistency in their thinking.”

I am stubborn. I will be the first to admit it. My husband also says I’m “defensive”, which I suppose is a learned behaviour I have used to cope with a childhood filled with unfounded criticism and psychological abuse. Some people respond to such an environment by being submissive. I didn’t. It’s a hard habit to break. I tend to put my claws out first and ask questions later.

It was probably more out of tiredness than true self-control that I did not snap at him defensively when he asked me more and more questions. But instead of submitting and saying, okay, sure I’ll go down this Buddhist path with you, I realized that what needed to happen was more study of my own philosophical background, and a stronger theological base. I dug my heels in and backed away from this “system” that isn’t even a system so much as a malleable philosophy. I seem to have an allergy to “systems” of belief. I don’t like Dogma. Even if it’s as innocuous as “love and compassion for all living beings.”  I tried out Wicca early on in my studies (back when I first found books on the subject when I was about 15 or so), and continued to go back to it from time to time, to see if maybe *now* it seemed to fit. I don’t necessarily “celebrate” the Wheel of the Year. I acknowledge it, in the same way I acknowledge Easter and Christmas. Yet, every time I open up those books again, it still doesn’t fit. It’s still too much a “system.”

So where does that leave me? It leaves me without answers to questions of “what does your religion say about question x or y?” Or it leaves me making it up as I go along. Is it possible I just haven’t encountered the right “system” for me yet? My husband, who grew up Catholic, then eschewed religion altogether, then started finding spirituality when he met me and who has started studying Zen in recent years, he has found a “system” that works for him. He wants me to walk that path with him. And I find myself pulling back and not wanting to do so.

It doesn’t mean I intend *harm* to any living being. Just that I want the love and compassion I have inside me to come from my own personal empathy. Not be dictated by dogma. But is that enough? These are questions I plan to explore more in the coming weeks and months and years. Maybe it’s been far too long since I even considered it.


[1] I’ve not been using the label “Pagan” very much during the past year or so, other than the list of links on the right side of this page. I tend to lean toward “polytheistic” in describing my spiritual self. I don’t know why I made the decision at the time I did, but it has in fact started to fit.

[2] After a bit of back and forth, it became clear that he was referring to the Buddhist teaching / concept of “Being present in the moment” and not spending any energy on past experiences or thoughts of the future.
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