copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 3

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The constraint of compassion

This chapter argues that though the Buddhist tradition can be praised for its gradualist and practical approach to the cultivation of love and compassion, the development of compassion in Buddhism is also constrained by over-idealisation and by the continuing influence of dualistic metaphysics.

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a) The cultivation of love

Love is treated appropriately in Buddhism as a human emotion, and Buddhist meditation practices emphasise the gradual transformation of our emotions towards greater universality. The recognition of self-love as a positive foundation for loving others is also recognised. All this fits ordinary human experience and is of great benefit to the world.

b) The constraint of the ideal

However, the practical value of Buddhist practices to cultivate love is undermined by its over-idealisation. Love is often symbolised not as a gradual transformation of human emotion but as an absolutely universal and self-denying ideal. This idealisation gives a misleading idea of how compassion can actually be cultivated, and produces alienation.

c) The division of love

The cultivation of love in Buddhism is also undermined by the division of love into nirvanic and karmic (or monastic and lay) types. Ordinary attached human emotions are treated as second-class, whilst the universal emotions of nirvana are far beyond human experience. A more useful model would maintain a continuity between ideals and ordinary experience of love so as to actually support the transformation of ordinary experience.

d) Self and ego

The division of love in Buddhism also gets unhelpfully associated with the division between "selfishness" and "unselfishness" in much popular Western moral thought. It is argued here that all talk of "selfishness" is best abandoned, and that we should think of the cultivation of love as a loosening and extending of the ego's identifications, whether these involve identification with oneself as an individual or with others.


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