July 27, 2011

Navajo and Buddhist discuss compassion

Compassion confab draws Buddhists, Diné

By Cindy YurthNo one could argue that "Compassion for a World in Crisis"-- the title of this year's Ideas Festival in this wealthy mountain enclave--isn't something much needed.

But what is compassion, exactly? Does its definition vary among cultures and languages? And is there, in fact, such a thing as too much compassion?

These are some of the questions that surfaced last weekend as neuroscientists, anthropologists, Buddhist monks and a Navajo medicine man gathered to discuss this most rarified of human virtues.

While Peter Gold, a New Mexico anthropologist who has studied both Eastern and Native American religions, drew several parallels between Buddhist and Navajo tradition, the two spiritualities seemed to diverge on the subject of compassion.

Buddhist monk Jangchub Chophel (formerly a high school history teacher known as John Bruna) described Buddhist teachings on the subject as "very practical," with a precise definition of compassion ("the sincere desire to remove the suffering of others") - and a six-step program to achieve it.

In Diné tradition, the emotion seems much more vague. In fact, traditional practitioner Johnson Dennison of Chinle said he consulted other Navajo medicine people prior to the conference and they had a hard time coming up with a Navajo word equivalent to the English "compassion."
Dennison explains why too much compassion may be counterproductive:"We believe in a balance between negative and positive energy," he explained--and there is such a thing as too much positive.

For instance, he said, the state of being in love is "an extreme of positive energy," and previous generations of Diné were very wary of the romantic love so idealized in Western literature.

"Couples that start out with this overly positive energy, they go on to an extreme negative side when they get divorced," he said.

In a similar vein, the traditional Diné is wary of people who are too eager to help him.

"People see compassion as help," he said, but too much help makes people dependent.

"We (Navajo) were a proud, strong nation at one time," Dennison said, "until the government started taking care of us."
Comment:  For more on Indians and Buddhism, see Yoga and Native Teachings Combined and Indians and Buddhists Make Peace.

Below:  "Navajo traditional practitioner Johnson Dennison, far right, explains the Navajo concept of compassion at a panel discussion July 8 at a conference in Telluride, Colo., titled 'Compassion for a World in Crisis.'" (Cindy Yurth)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember when I first met a woman from Mongolia. She described traditional, pre-communist methods of slaughtering animals and hunting, and the sheer humanity reminded me of a lot of North American cultures.