Idiot Compassion

David Peers, Guest Writer
Waking Times

My life is organised and aligned with Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Zen. I teach Yoga. With the wisdom of one and the mindfulness of the other, my life becomes simpler.

I realised, some time ago, that we spend most of our time comparing our own life against that of another. This duality seems to cause nothing but pain, so why do we do it? We live in a world of them and us, winners and losers, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, yet we never ask why, we just go along with it. This duality is the cause of wars, arguments and un-necessary competition. It hurts. Luckily for us, Buddhism has been studying for thousands of years what we in the West are only discovering today. Would you like to know what it is? It’s all about compassion.

When we stop the perspective of dualism and look at the world as a one, singular ‘we’, then real compassion for others can be used instead of that of a ‘senseless idiot’.

The term “idiot compassion” was coined by a very famous Tibetan Lama – Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He defines an idiot as ‘senseless’ – one who does not think – and this is not meant to be offensive, just an accurate description. It is used to illustrate the knee-jerk, reactionary compassion that is expressed by the many. It is the compassion of the ego – it allows us to show our emotions and ‘heart-felt concern’ when in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

When you know the difference between the idiot compassion and real compassion, invite yourself to watch out for the compassion of the ego – you will see and hear it everywhere. You will hear people say “Oh, how awful!” when some over-sensationalised ‘star’ falls from grace, like it really matters. Because all of a sudden, these ‘idiots’ care for them. Likewise, people will send money to an obscure charity that is saving someone, somewhere, and it is all designed to make their ego feel good.


  • If we do reject someone’s idiot compassion, then we become the target of their hatred. “After all I’ve done for you” is always a favourite along with “Well up yours then if you don’t want it, honestly, I don’t know why I ever bothered…”  There is a relationship of rescue and enabling, manipulation and control, and you are even realizing it. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said:

    “Idiot compassion is the highly conceptualized idea that you want to do good to somebody. Idiot compassion also stems from not having enough courage to say no.”

    Notice that he said “do good to somebody” instead of “for somebody”. Rinpoche’s command of the English language was good enough to write poetry so he knew what he was saying. This is no mistake. Doing something to somebody implies that there are at least two parties involved and that one is entering the world of the other, largely un-invited and without permission. By our actions, our idiot compassion makes us feel like we are helping someone when we are not. Our true intention is to change them when we should be understanding them.

    What’s really happening is that we observe their suffering, and the ego takes it for itself. We pick up their problems, their baggage, we make their suffering our own, and this is for the ego’s vanity. It’s not your suffering – it is theirs. What business is it of yours? None.

    Mathematically, on average, 108 people die on this planet every minute. And that number garners no response from the ego. But if 108 or 216 or 324 people die in a plane crash, and it is glorified on the news, then our ego jumps into life, and this is “Idiot Compassion”.  This new sense of grief does nothing to help them, it is just our ego. It doesn’t help them at all, does it? The media thrives on this condition, and as long as we keep on buying it, then they will keep selling it to us.

    So why is it good for you to know this? It doesn’t matter what we do for (or to!) someone because it never seems to satisfy our ego, does it? All it achieves is the illusion that we are a good person because we care. No, you don’t. You can’t learn something for someone else. You can’t eat to satisfy someone else’s hunger, and you can’t drink to quench anyone else’s thirst. It would be foolish to think that we could, and that is Idiot Compassion. You need to know this because if you could control it in yourself then you would stop imposing it upon others. And that’s a good thing.

    If there was one word that summed up the purpose of idiot compassion then it would be “rescuing”. When we see another’s plight, their awkward predicament, we don’t see the real person but only the results of their life. It is like looking at the surface of a pond – we don’t know where the water has been or what it has been up to – we only see the results of its passage. The pond (the other person) we see could be calm and serene – not a ripple to disturb the surface – or it could be covered in ducks, swans and other wildlife, which makes it a place of beauty. We could also see a place of despair and destruction. Either way, it is the result of someone’s life – their real life lies beneath and we don’t know what that is. No-one can know what goes on under the surface of someone else’s life, can they? To presume that one can is idiot compassion. Suffering lives deep down within us, where most people are scared to look. To actually go inside would be the capitulation of the ego – it would be easier to to denounce one’s religion.

    Not surprisingly, the ego is scared to death of what it might find deep down inside because the ego is a vain coward. The ego is more concerned with being seen and looking wonderful. Rarely do we have the courage to go within.

    We observe events and lives without considering that they are only the results of something else. Our idiot compassion then demands that we interfere with this other person; it all happens with the blink of an eye. We are doing it only for our own ego, and we do it with scant regard for the other person. We impose our rules, beliefs and boundaries onto this other person, and when it doesn’t go the way we wanted it to, we get upset!

    To presume that we actually know what the other person wants – from our own immaculate point of view – and then impose it upon them is ridiculous. To then become angry and upset, because it is rejected, is madness.

    Some people do this all the time. It is habitual. Their nature becomes of one who thinks that the world needs to be rescued. The only beneficiary of such actions is the rescuer and not the rescuee. Have you ever met the ultra volunteer? They sit on every committee; they try to run everything they get involved in. What they don’t understand is that their idiot compassion stops other people from learning through experience. And they try to interfere in your life too. When you see this for what it is, you will see that the idiot creates more damage than they will ever know. Their chaos doesn’t surround them – it surrounds you!

    These people have confused ‘helping’ with ‘rescuing’. Helping is doing something for someone who can’t do it for themselves, rescuing is doing something for someone who should be doing it for themselves. So our ‘idiot compassion’ isn’t helping at all, is it?

    The next time you react to a situation and express sorrow over the death of someone you never knew, become aware of your actions and act accordingly. Your life would be better for the lack idiot compassion. And, so will theirs.

    The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa said:

    “If you can afford to be who you are then you do not need the ‘insurance policy’ of trying to be a good person.”

    About the Author

    David Peers is a 46 year old Yoga teacher and student of Zen Buddhism who lives in Dorset, England.  He has been practising and teaching Yoga for the last 20 years or so in this lifetime. He is a qualified athletics coach and a Master Practitioner of NLP who gave up on computers and commuting a long time ago. David’s view that you can’t fight against war wit h aggression – it’s what the aggressor wants you to do. We’ve been living this way for far too long and the human species needs to evolve because if we don’t, we’ll die out. So treat the aggressor like a child and walk away from his sandpit. You can check out his site at www.theyogi.co.uk.

    This article is offered under Creative Commons license. It’s okay to republish it anywhere as long as attribution bio is included and all links remain intact.

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