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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Robert Thurman & Karen Armstrong on Compassion

Imagine putting the palm of your hand on a hot stove burner. Probably the idea makes you wince. Well, imagine if doing something — anything — destructive, vindictive (even if it seemed merited), or harmfully selfish evoked the same wince. And suppose that wince made you alter your behavior such that you were only capable of acting compassionately.

This is how Robert Thurman described a world where doing anything hurtful would be/can be/will be unthinkable because you would feel its effect on others. He proposed this definition of compassion during a conversation with prolific author Karen Armstrong (her next book, The Case for God, is due out in September). Thurman is a former Buddhist monk who went on to become a family man (he’s Uma’s dad), the professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, and president of the Tibet House U.S. “Without compassion, you can’t perceive love when it’s right in front of you,” he explained.

Thurman and Armstrong, along with moderator Phil Cousineau, were having this conversation last week at a taping of Link TV’s series, “Global Spirit.” The topic was The Spiritual Quest, and the discussion was lively: Thurman figured he got set on his path when, at his baptism, he kicked over the basin and drenched the priest. Armstrong, in a rebellious move to sort out her “adolescent confusion,” ran away to a nunnery at age 17, only to find the whole experience rather unkind. From there, she fell into a television career (another bastion of compassion). And when that collapsed, she found herself immersed in a silence and receptivity that resulted in the rebirth of her “real self.”

Since their respective abandonment of nun/monk-hood, Armstrong and Thurman have come to believe in an engaged spirituality. But they also prefer their teachers as friends ... or in remote locations ... or dead. Armstrong has spent much of her life reading, and Thurman cautions that gurus and charismatic teachers are often prone to dominating their students and to abusing their power.

But being forced to knock up against people is important, they agreed. “You need someone to puncture you,” said Armstrong.

To this end, Thurman “lives to make the teachings of the Buddha interesting and meaningful to people from all over the world; his newest book is Why the Dalai Lama Matters. And Armstrong is about set into motion her Charter for Compassion, a common ground-building project (funded by TED) based on the idea that the Golden Rule is common to all religions and that a charter, with contributions from people all over the world, can be incarnated through a citizens’ campaign for compassion in cities across the globe.

To see this conversation and other programs in the Global Spirit series, which launches on April 12, check satellite listings or watch free streaming video on Link TV. Called an “internal travel series” by its producers, the program hopes to “bring to light the various practices — spiritual, mental and physical — that help us define who we are as human beings and explore how this affects our relationships to our families, our communities, ourselves, and the world at large.”

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