Why and how to approach our ‘enemies’ with compassion?

The title of this article could also have been: how my attitude towards ‘enemies’ – politicians like Netanyahu, Putin, Trump, Erdogan and others, whom I strongly oppose – radically shifted from resistance or resentment to compassion. 

A conversation about politics, reading in Shantideva’s The way of the Bodhisattva and a strange dream made me wonder: is whom I perceive as my ‘enemy’ causing harm because of me? Put differently, should I be angry with ‘them’ or with myself? And how far can compassion reach?

The rise of resentment 
Whether it is reading the news, a message someone send us on our phone or how another person behaved – we all have moments that cause irritation and frustration. We condemn a politician for what he or she said today. Or we become very angry towards someone whom we see as an aggressor. Resentment easily rises in our mind. 

I can easily think of many examples that illustrate such feelings in response to a particular situation and person or group. Though I do not live in Jerusalem at the moment anymore, I still follow news about what is happening in Israel/Palestine and the Middle East in general. Whether it is hearing about the possible annexation of lands in the Westbank by the new Israeli government – despite it being illegal, against international law and causing harm to many Palestinians. Or the stories of Jewish people that fear for their safety, some that experienced personal attacks recently and many who lost people dear to them. Both cause tension in my body and give rise to all kinds of emotions. 

We can point to other regions and issues in the world. Some that many experience as disturbing. From racist attitudes and discrimination of minorities in the United States to the violence used against Rohingya in Bhutan; from driving away native inhabitants of the Amazon (in order to cut trees for economic benefit) to the hunting of elephants and other animals in Africa (especially for trade with several countries in Asia). 

These examples might feel at a distance to you. Yet, anger and hatred can arise just as easily in your own personal life. Whether it is because your partner did not do the dishes, someone in a car whom cuts you of on the road or, more harmful, being personally attacked (e.g. sexual harassment, domestic violence). 

Be less superficial 
We can carry feelings of resentment for hours, days, weeks, months and sometimes even years. We keep pointing towards the other person and condemn him or her for what he or she has done (or might still be doing). Some we consider beyond forgiveness, others we demand to change before we can be kind and compassionate towards this person (or group). 

Though this seems ‘normal’, the legendary buddhist master Śāntideva asks us to be “less superficial”. He considers resentment towards the behaviour of others and become angry with someone foolish. It is these emotions that we should truly resent. And those whom we perceive as our ‘enemies’ should actually be the very object of our compassion. 

This can feel entirely counter-intuitive. “Did you not hear what this politician said? He, or she, is…”. Especially when someone has done us harm directly it seems absurd not to feel hostile towards him or her and not claim that this person is truly an agressor. Yet, that is exactly what Śāntideva is telling us. So, is he crazy? 

Picture of statue of Śāntideva (685 – 763 CE) as found on the cover of the book The way of the Bodhisattva published by Shambhala in 1997

Widening the scope and looking beyond
When we start analyzing a situation and our interactions with others there are at least two things that begin to dawn. First of all, that everything comes from causes & conditions. Because of an interplay between time, people and circumstances we think, feel and act in certain ways. This dynamic constantly shapes our lives. We can find a similar idea in the ancient Japanese Shintō-tradition for example. There they refer to this interconnectedness with the concept musubi – something that is beautifully represented in the movie kimi no na wa (your name). 

To understand this we can contemplate for example our own physical discomfort or illness. If we feel tired or have a headache, we know that this came into being due to causes & conditions. We had a long day, waited too long before eating something, a lot of people were demanding our attention, we already were a bit tired because we did not sleep all too well, and so forth. Our body is out of balance. Do we become angry with our body for this? That does not seem to make sense. 

So what about the behaviour that we experience as hostile of those whom we (thus) perceive as an ‘enemy’? According to Śāntideva this is also the outcome of causes & conditions. And he identifies our afflictive emotions, in buddhist tradition called kleshas, as the root of the problem. It is the emotions like anger and hatred that we should really resent. In other words, if we were attacked by someone directly or saw a person express something that we consider harmful, we need to look at the causes & conditions that brought it about. He or she, in a way, was in the grip of those kleshas. 

In his book Interconnected His Holiness the 17th Karmapa uses the metaphor of having a backstage pass to the emotional world, story and circumstances that were evolving and eventually were expressed ‘on stage’. With this backstage pass, so to speak, he writes, “we see what was going on inside a person, leading them to act as they did.” To add: “We may ultimately find that action inexcusable, but at least we will have understood what was driving it. If we are not prepared to accept a behavior, in ourselves or in others, then we should learn to help change it. To that end, understanding is key, for we can only bring about lasting changes in behavior by recognizing and addressing the inner and outer conditions that lead to it.” 

In short, both The Karmapa and Śāntideva ask us not to focus strongly on short-term events and specific actions, but try to widen scope and look at the underlying patterns behind developments in the world and behaviour of individuals. In which we can try to change the causes & conditions in such a way that they lead to benefit and not harm. Specifically, we need to see that it is the afflicted emotions that is at the root of our suffering and of others. 

A bodhisattva turns the tables
Trying to understand why someone acts the way he or she does is an important first step. At least this can lead us to condemn the behaviour and not the person. In addition, this understanding can help us see what we need to work on to counteract harmful actions non-violently and shift the dynamic.  

There is a second and crucial element for this change to happen, which might feel very uncomfortable. Our current world, including the behaviour of people towards ourselves, is directly related to our own inner world and actions. This is true for bigger events happening, like conflicts in the Middle East or damage to nature and harm done to other sentient beings. It is equally true for the behaviour of politicians in our own country and, closer to home, how individuals act towards ourselves. 

The reason for this is also because of musubi or, to use the buddhist term, interdependence. All relationships go in two ways. Our own inner world and outer conditions are intertwined, just as the inner world of others are tied to the world that we share. 

Let’s take the example of feeling tired or having a headache. We might feel a little tensed and extra sensitive in those situations. If someone in such moments does even a very small thing that we dislike or says something we disapprove, we easily become irritated and frustrated with that person – if not simply very angry. That person, who just came out of a long and heavy conversation or meeting, starts saying very ugly things in response. Before we realise it, a conflict is born. In the worst case scenario, leading to physical harm. 

We can clearly understand the connection between us and the person whom, even if for a short moment, we consider our ‘enemy’. And we can see that, though our behaviour might be condemned, there is no reason to condemn myself or the other as a human being. Our true issue is with our emotions that, in a way, took over. 

This is true on an individual level. The Karmapa, however, points out this is also true on a collective level. When a group of people think, feel and act in similar ways, the impact of that is amplified. This is something that we can easily see expressed on the level of politics, or the social and economic dynamics in the world. Not without reason the philosopher Joseph de Maistre wrote in 1811 that “every nation gets the government it deserves.”

It might still be tempting to point towards others, but this is where Śāntideva says we need to turn the tables. Not only is it incorrect to say that my ‘enemy’ is nothing but an idiot, agressor, or what have you, for the reasons given above. It is in fact my way of thinking, feeling and acting that contributes to his or her behaviour.

Śāntideva goes even further. Increasing our discomfort. He approaches the issue from the aspiration to end situations of conflict and wish to end suffering for all sentient beings. Something that is called bodhicitta in buddhist tradition. This is the aspiration of someone that wants to be free from suffering – liberated from samsara – to help all sentient beings to be liberated too. A buddhist practitioner who vowed to pursue this path is called a bodhisattva. Hence the name of Śāntideva his book the way of a bodhisattva. 

The main antidote to resentment or anger, according to buddhist traditions, is patience. Something that is supportive for dealing with all kleshas. Considering the fact that our ‘enemies’ challenge our patience and can help it grow, Śāntideva comes to a paradoxical conclusion: “Therefore I am their tormentor! Therefore is it they who bring me benefit.” 

Moreover, considering the way of a bodhisattva, an enemy points us to our own afflictions, let go of our attachments and all causes & conditions that give rise to suffering. Thus, what seemed to be en ‘enemy’ is actually our best friend, since no ‘ordinary’ friend or someone dear to us can do this. Therefore, as Śāntideva puts it in his beautiful writing: 

“They, like Buddha’s very blessing, 
Bar my way, determined as I am, 
To plunge myself headlong in sorrow – 
How could I be angry with them?” 

A change of heart through a dream
The aspiration of benefiting others, or at least not causing harm, is one that is at the heart of my own life. Many friends might tell you that I do not easily show a form of anger. Including towards those I strongly oppose, especially in the sphere of politics. I am not sure whether this is true. In any case, the feeling of resistance is not strange to me. And what Śāntideva is asking me to do, feel true compassion for those whom I perceive as an ‘enemy’, is often beyond me capacity. However, a dream in the night before I am writing this has shifted something inside me. A change of heart?

Though I never really understand why people need to respond harshly toward any politician – is that not only feeding a negative cycle? –  I do understand why they can get on your nerves. Some who are currently prime-minister or president in this world, mentioned in the beginning, do so with me at least. 

In Europe and North-America there is a lot of attention for the President of the United States, Donald Trump. Especially now that I live in the United States for a little while, I have a lot of conversations about him and politics in the US. This was also the case before I went to sleep last night. Whereas for a good friend of mine he mainly symbolises problems on the level of social injustice (harmful attitudes towards women and minority especially), I perceive him and his administration as devastating for the situation in the Middle-East. Notice by the way that we can clearly see an interdependence between our inner world and outer world – a personal connection this friend of mine and I have with particular topics. 

At some point last night I became aware I was dreaming. It was more chaotic and not in the words I will present it here, but it went something like this: I am part of a small group leading a rebellion against Trump from within. We are somewhere that looks like a palace from the Roman empire, though quite different than the White House. In any case, as Trump is trying to fight of the rebellion, for whatever reason he perceives me not as part of it. 

One of the next scenes is me spending time in the palace where diplomats from all kinds of countries complain about Trump and his administration – not dealing with the questions they wish to discuss. I, however, share more time with the president and his family in personal settings. Slowly I am getting to know him. I see how he acts kindly to those close to him and how he feels as if people are constantly beating him. I recognize my own mean attitude of mind – the thoughts that I carry with me – and feel bad about it. 

In another scene people enter, without me having a role in that, to inform him that his game will end here. The rebellion won. I draw close to Trump, and embrace him as a friend. He takes his tie of, and tells me he is tired of wearing it. He gives up, letting me know he did his best. I start to cry. With the warm-hearted feeling that is usually behind tears – the dream ends. I slowly wake up, as I try to stay with that feeling a bit longer. 

The use of compassion
I suddenly understood and felt the key point behind Śāntideva his words: every being, including our ‘enemies’, seek happiness and do not wish to suffer. In fact, they wish the same happiness to others as well. 

Śāntideva writes that it is important to see those who express values contrary to a peaceful world, “like children”. He does so in a way not to stimulate resentment – “Trump is like a baby” – but to nourish feelings of concern and care as a mother does for her child. On the surface things might look different, and people might lack the skillful means, but we can sense how everyone – including our ‘enemies’ – really wish the best for others too.

I don’t even have to believe that, to recognize that my own heart – my own attitude of mind, speech and actions – is directly tied to that of Trump and all other sentient beings. Musubi. Interdependence. If I carry resentment – hatred or anger – with me, then that will contribute to precisely more of that in the world. If not directly, than over the course of time. 

Wishing others to be happy is the very basis of bodhicitta, says another great buddhist master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910 – 1991). We should wish others to be happy rather than ourselves. Especially, he adds, “we should […] wish happiness for those whom we perceive as enemies and those who tread us badly. Otherwise, what is the use of compassion?” [italics are mine]. 

Every time I read those words my heart opens in silence. Similar to the feeling after this dream. I recognize I can not escape this message. Which, however, is not to say I will also act upon this and that this feeling of compassion is stable. In fact, Śāntideva himself wrote his text not so much for others. He wrote it mainly for himself. 

The destructive power of our emotions and the suffering we are facing are used as reminders, like tools, to educate his own mind – something that is common in buddhist tradition. Seeing how we ourselves contribute to our own suffering and that of others, he summons himself to get rid of superficial views & attitudes and let the aspiration of bodhicitta grow and flourish. 

Training our mind in compassion
Śāntideva speaks in his text about two specific practices we can do – both powerful and in a way unique. In a nutshell, he first reminds himself that he (or ‘the self’) is equal to every sentient being (or ‘the other’). This also points to the selflessness of our true nature, something that keeps returning (and I will not discuss further here). This practice is called ‘equalizing self and other’. Secondly, he summons himself in various ways to place himself in the position of others. This is to appreciate the inner world of others, why they act the way they do, and how he (that is, Śāntideva) appears in their eyes. This practice is called ‘Exchanging Self and Other’. 

Śāntideva is clear that the training of our own mind is far from easy. Yet with these practices, that follow from the reasonings presented above, we can train ourselves in compassion. Not even but especially for those whom we perceive as our enemies. This is how change can come into being. Śāntideva adds that “[…] if compassion does not rise in us, we can at least refrain from being angry.” 

Though Śāntideva his text is written as a personal meditation, he offered it for those who might be interested. It is in the same manner that I am writing these words. I am first and foremost summoning myself to grow my compassion. Especially towards my ‘enemies’. By touching upon sensitive issues like politics and those who harm us directly, and sharing a very personal experience, I feel vulnerable. Yet I also sense that is precisely where I need to work with. It is the only way to understand myself and strengthen my bodhicitta. I wish this approach and words are helpful to you as well. If so, wonderful! If not, just forget about them. 

Though our own mind is at the root of our problems, the good news is that our mind can be trained. Thus, I wish to finish with a final optimistic note from this great master Śāntideva: 

“If, with mindfulness’ rope, 
The elephant of the mind is tethered all around, 
Our fears will come to nothing, 
Every virtue drop into our hands.” 

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