Fierce Compassion

Earlier this week I posted an installment of my American in Italy During Covid-19 story on and it was titled Fierce Compassion.

Today I thought I would talk more specifically about what I think Fierce Compassion is and how it relates to home.

In my substack posting, I refer to two stories.

One is from Tsultrim Allione and found in her book Wisdom Rising: A Journey into the Mandala of the Empowered Feminine.  Here is the story in her words:

“I was at a lunch with the Dalai Lama and five Buddhist teachers at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. We were sitting in a charming room with white carpets and many windows. The food was a delightful, fragrant, vegetarian Indian meal. There were lovely flower arrangements on the table.

“We were discussing sexual misconduct among Western Buddhist teachers. A woman Buddhist from California brought up someone who was using his students for his own sexual needs. One woman said, ‘We are working with him with compassion, trying to get him to understand his motives for exploiting female students and to help him change his actions.’

“The Dalai Lama slammed his fist on the table, saying loudly, ‘Compassion is fine, but it has to stop! And those doing it should be exposed!’ All the serving plates on the table jumped, the water glasses tipped precariously, and I almost choked on the bite of saffron rice in my mouth.

“Suddenly I saw him as a fierce manifestation of compassion and realized that this clarity did not mean that the Dalai Lama had moved away from compassion. Rather, he was bringing compassion and manifesting it as decisive fierceness. His magnetism was glowing like a fire.

“I will always remember that day, because it was such a good teaching on compassion and precision. Compassion is not a wishy-washy ‘anything goes’ approach. Compassion can say a fierce no!“

Here I must give credit to Tsultrim Allione for the term “Fierce Compassion”.

When I hear this story of the Dalai Lama being so clear and immediate in his response, I am reminded of the importance of boundaries. Boundaries are absolutely critical. We need boundaries.

Now, I say this as someone who embraces the Buddhist idea that there is no “other” and there is no “self” – we are all one. I see myself and everyone else as divine manifestations of God, yet trapped in human bodies and human minds.

That being said, for years, my spirituality was deeply rooted in a Christian understanding of forgiveness. Forgiveness that recognized we are all flawed, we each make mistakes. We all do bad things. Goodness knows, I mess up all the time. I thought compassion meant that if I accept that I, myself, am faulty, then I needed, by extension, to accept the faults of others. Consequently, I allowed incredibly inappropriate behavior because I could see the “log in my own eye while seeing the speck in a friend’s.” I would turn the other cheek.  (Both ideas, as you may know, come from the book of Matthew in the Bible.)

But compassion and forgiveness are more than acceptance.

It has taken me a long time to understand on a deeper level that if we ignore bad behavior, if we too easily “forgive” without holding people accountable, without imposing consequences, then we do harm to ourselves and to everyone else as well.

Compassion is loving ourselves AND loving others. There is no separateness. Therefore, that same love and compassion demands we call each other out on bad behavior, because what is done to another is done to ourselves.

And this is the importance of boundaries. Clear lines that say NO, this is not acceptable. When this line is crossed, there are consequences, you will be held responsible.

The #MeToo  and Black Lives Matter movements are examples of Fierce Compassion in action. People must be held accountable for bad behavior.

My other story in my post titled Fierce Compassion was from last spring when Covid-19 had become a pandemic and Americans were dying almost exponentially. Yet, our President at that time was saying Covid would go away by the summer, and it wasn’t any worse than the flu. He had even begun pushing Hydroxychloroquine as a cure. Every single day the President of the United States was saying something that was irresponsible, dismissive, and dangerous.

It was at this time that a cousin attacked me on Facebook and accused me of being “blinded by hate.” She later admitted that she “lashed out.” But she never apologized. She never recanted.

I really struggled with this. I understood that she was frustrated and on edge – all of us were. The whole world was spinning in confusion and despair. But lashing out at me was not acceptable.

Now, it is worth noting that her comment had been in response to a posted prayer that the President would do better, that his administration would respond better, and that the deaths and suffering would stop.

It is for this post – this prayer – that my cousin called me “blinded by hate.”

I reached out to her on Facebook and through email. I knew she and I had opposing views on the President and still, I tried to find a common ground. I had not insulted the president – I am always careful not to call people names. I don’t wish anyone ill.

And in this case in particular, IT WAS A PRAYER!! Seriously.

So what I kept coming back to was pretty simple: we were family and she knew me. She knew I wasn’t a hateful person, right? I mean, she knew I was loving. We had a loving relationship, didn’t we? We were friends. We respected each other. We spent time together, we ate together, we laughed together. How could she call me hateful?

I felt determined to heal the misunderstanding. If I couldn’t maintain peace within my own family – if we couldn’t respect and love each other and honor our differing points of view – then what hope was there for our country? Really, this thought was devastating to me.

Unfortunately, my cousin refused to meet me halfway. She continued to spin like a top, bringing politics into her defense and never recanting her words. This went on for quite awhile until I finally realized I had to say no more – enough is enough. She had crossed the line of acceptable behavior.

My response had been similar to the woman in the first story: I was doing my best to work with her with compassion, trying to get her to understand her motives for lashing out and to help her change her actions. But in the end, I needed to respond as the Dalai Lama did. With decisive action and fierce compassion. I ended all communication with her.

How was this response was compassionate?

My cousin was hurting me. If I allowed the communication to continue as it was, she would continue to hurt me. And if I did this, I would not be practicing compassion for myself.

When we speak of compassion, we often think of it in terms of something we have for others. But compassion is more than understanding and acceptance. It is the opposite of sacrifice.

We forget that compassion is necessary for ourselves as well.

If there is no “self” and no “other”  then bad behavior hurts ALL OF US. As John Donne wrote, no man is an island unto himself. What hurts another hurts me.

Compassion demands care for all sentient beings.  Compassion also demands justice. Compassion holds boundaries to keep the world in balance.

When we manifest decisive fierceness in the face of wrongdoing, we bring compassion to the world.

Not only is our home part of this world, home is in us.

When we have compassion for ourselves by saying NO to bad behavior, we recognize God within us.

And that, my friends, is the true coming home.

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