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14 April 2005



It seems to me that the craving for justice you refer to is in response to precisely the existential reality – that life as experienced is unfair. Notions of the last judgement, when, thank God! the wicked will pay for their sins and all wrongs will be righted, and ideas of the inexorability of karma, with justice executed over many reincarnations, all translate the workings of justice to another time or place where it can be neither questioned nor demonstrated. For within the space of one lifetime, life appears utterly unfair, and justice absent unless exercised by human agency - and even then such justice as occurs is contingent and meted out within the prejudices and whims of the establishment. The idea of a just universe consoles and comforts us, and therefore in some sense distances us from the bittersweet truth: the utter mystery and therefore meaninglessness (in terms of human understanding) of it all. I suppose I am saying that it is presumptuous to assume the ultimate fairness of life. It reduces the mystery to a balance sheet, an exercise in accountancy. Life is immeasurably greater than this!

The acceptance of unfairness is the birth of compassion: if life is fair, why bother righting wrongs, offering help, when all will be taken care of in the fullness of time? Such help then becomes ultimately selfish, a way of boosting our own merit. But if we are thrown unfairly into being, into circumstances and with qualities not of our choosing, both of which strongly condition our lives, we are worthy of compassion – even the very worst of us. In this curious paradoxical way, the unfairness of life, which gives rise to so much suffering, also gives rise to compassion, its greatest virtue.


In my view, justice seems to be figment of the imagination. What is justice to one, may be an injustice to another. As with karma, justice it is not. It is simply a consequence of action. One does good action, good karma may come. One does bad action, bad karma may come. Simply violating the 8-fold path may bring one bad karma.

In Christianity, justice is implemented by way of it’s deity. If one commits a “sin”, one can ask for forgiveness from “the savior” and all may be forgotten. Has justice been served? Take the final judgment, those that have sinned and refuse to accept “the Christ” are judged and punishment is sent forth. Justice is thereby served, correct?

In speaking of fairness, the main idea is that we would seek to make it comfortable for another. Making it fair. That being, we create an atmosphere of acceptance for actions and thoughts. When people are treated fairly, we could view that as justice, yes? If they are then treated unfairly, could that not be characterized as an injustice?

The way I see justice is that everyone gets what they want. In reality, that is not possible. Maybe neither is fairness then, as fairness to one is unfairness to another. In either case, Christianity or Buddhism, fairness and justice are just figments of the mind. They exist solely to give comfort where none really exists.

Compassion on the other hand is a simple concept. It surpasses either figment of justice and fairness. In it’s application, I don’t think we can say that compassion for one is non-compassion for another. Can we? ~Amadeus


Taking the question in the most-straightforward way, I think that clearly life isn't fair. Little girls in Florada are raped, tortured and murdered; CEOs at large corporations retire filthy rich entitling generations in their family that follow to live lives of kick-back, do-nothing leisure. Some people are born with genes that make them handsome; some are born with genes that leave them ugly.

But I don't think that unfairness drives compassion. We ought to still feel compassion for the 911 terrorists, even though it may calculate to a kind of justice that the 19 of them died in their "successful" conspiracy to murder thousands. These terrorists were still "us", humans that had possiblities in their lives and that lost their connection to humanity, generally. I think, too, we can have compassion for George Bush -- even as he is convinced his life is going gangbusters and his ascent to the presidency came by the will of God.

Compassion is possible even if somehow all accounts are brought into balance, eventually. Or, even for someone joyous with their own seeming success and escape from worries.

I think that in both Christianity and Buddhism, compassion is something other than what we first suppose. Strangly, true compassion is really for ourself. Compassion isn't the good deeds that spring from it. A hardhearted person trying to buy off God can fund bountiful deeds that do a bodacious amount of good. Compassion, by itself, is recognition of others in ourself and ourself in others, and nothing else. Compassion feels good, because it is wonderful to realize this vast interconnectedness.

This is why, I think, in both Christianity and Buddhism, one can escape one's evil past in a flash. Realizing the interconnectedness is The All. And the past, being the past, is ashes, anyway. And it is truly the past if our old, bad pattern of being is ended.


If life is unfair (and we are agreed that it is) then it is just as unfair to the 911 terrorist and George Bush as to the victim of terror, as you rightly say. This is the whole point – everyone is worthy of compassion without exception, because we are all the victims of particular circumstances which strongly condition us to act in ways which may be evil or saintly - and if we are to be saintly, the conditions in which we find ourselves through no choice of our own have to be very propitious indeed. I don’t think for a moment that compassion has to be earned or is to be restricted to the victim, except in the sense that we are all victims!

Unfairness gives rise to compassion when we realise that we are all in the same boat – all foolish beings of wayward passion who can hardly stop ourselves doing what we do, driven as we are by habit energies rooted in the messiness and unfairness – and majesty -of life. I recognise this as one aspect of the recognition of others in myself, and myself in others, as you say. My own imperfections and their consequences are only too apparent to me, but even though I fully accept the responsibility and live with the consequences daily, nonetheless I can see how certain decisions and actions were set-up (as it were) by the unfairness of life coupled with my own crucial lack of awareness. If I can fail and do fail, then so can and do others for similar reasons, and if I attempt to extend compassion to myself as I do, then I cannot help extending it to others as well.

I am not sure whether compassion is only the recognition of others in ourselves and nothing else – this seems to me to miss some crucial aspect of it, at least from where I’m sitting (which is woefully unenlightened!). It is easy to feel compassion for someone seen as ‘one of us’ – (and I apologise for the deliberate reduction of the idea of Oneness to tribalism, but you get my point), but compassion for the person we see as unacceptable – for the Other – is the true test of it, I feel. For me, compassion is to do with acceptance of the unacceptable, in Paul Tillich’s wonderful, wonderful phrase.

None of this means that we have to accept life’s unfairness – we can hardly sit and do nothing in an air of saintly compassion alone. But I’ve said enough!


Regarding Amadeus' last point, unfortunately the answer is surely: yes, compassion for one can be non-compassion for another. When a fox kills a rabbit and takes it home for her cubs it is compassion for the cubs, but it is disaster for the baby rabbits left without a mother - they will now starve to death.


Tony's first post appeals to me because it introduces a strong new argument - i.e. that if the world is fair, compassion is unnecessary. I think the argument is false, however, because compassion implies that I wish to rescue this persdon from their suffering - even if they deserve to suffer. So compassion does not become redundant. On the other hand, it does open up the undesirable consequence that if God/karma are ruthlessly bent on justice, then any compassionate action on our part will be undone by God/karma in due course. Is there a way out of this?


Yes. Let me see if I can teasel out my faulty reasoning into something more convincing, or not ...

I said that compassion can arise in an unfair world because it sees the unfairness. I based this compassion on the understanding that we are all deluded, and sin through no fault of our own, being conditioned by an unfair world. In other words, we are to all intents and purposes innocent. But in this case, where is the unacceptability that is to be accepted in compassion? Unacceptability implies proper guilt. Mea culpa!

Let me try a different tack, by proposing that the glory of compassion lies in its transformative power. By accepting our acceptance by a compassionate God or through Amida’s vow, despite our unacceptability, we are transformed, and this is the decisive act on which spiritual salvation (the ‘courage to be’) is predicated, according to Tillich and if I have it right (a big if!), Pureland Buddhists. So, in this model, compassion drives spiritual transformation rather than the carrot-and-stick of karma or justice. In an unfair world, with no self-righting mechanism, the experience of compassion then becomes the only vehicle of transformation, and is essential, since the carrot-and-stick of karma is absent.

But in a fair universe where all wrongs are righted and all suffering assuaged, karma becomes the agent of transformation and compassion, though still possible, is therefore not essential. However, compassion could still work in such a world to transform radically, drastically curtailing sinful behaviour in the one transformed, so reducing the eventual load of punishment or karma.


Dear Tony, Thank you for this wonderful contribution. This is getting really interesting. I have three points in response.
1. One question always generates many others. We are now getting into: "What is the nature of salvation?" Thank you for your proposition: "By accepting our acceptance despite our unacceptability, we are transformed and this is the decisive act". It is fine tuning, but I wonder whether we are transformed or whether acceptance is enough. Perhaps it is a matter of having the courage to be the unacceptable beings that we are, knowing that we are accepted, but only accepted by the all-compassionate theos (God/Amida etc.). This would also constitute Buddha's "cutting across the stream" - the person with the courage to be, always stands against something.
2. A fair world has, I think, to be a zero sum game - it is by definition a closed moral universe. In that sort of world your last paragraph analysis applies: compassion does not actually achieve its end of reducing the suffering that is the karmic result of action already performed but it does itself constitute a new (good) karma that reduces the suffering still to come by reducing sinful behaviour - one's own and that of others. This is an interesting paradox. If somebody helps me by relieving me of a suffering I already have, then their action will backfire in one way because I must be due that suffering, but it will succeed in a completely different way if it inspires me to live a better life myself in future. This is an elegant solution, but it still leaves one with a sense of disappointment in that the compassionate act turns out to only be paradoxically salutory for in terms of its inherent motivation and being, it always fails. So much for the fair world.
3. An unfair world, on the other hand, has, I think, to somehow be an open-ended moral universe. Being open-ended, it could, in theory, one day, become or be made fair, but either such a point would be unstable or it would represent the end of the game. I think that the idea of an open-ended moral universe is an extremely potent idea. It would, however, run completely against many of the currently popular "soft spirituality" ideas like oneness, inter-being, the one-mind, wholeness etc., but then I personally think all those ideas stultifying anyway. The open-ended moral universe, however, is not easy to conceive - it is messy and not conducive to the supremacy of reason - it allows for an unpredictable theos, etc. For all these reasons it appeals to me. The fair world is boring, but the open-ended unfair one is exhileratingly risky.
I am interested to know what you (and others) think about this.


Dear Dharmavidya, Thank you for your encouraging comments. Taking the points in turn:
1 Rather than ask, what is the nature of salvation, one might ask instead, what is its power? Salvation in itself can be seen as an end state – one is saved from some peril, finis. In our case, that peril is the absolute loss of hope, the cry of ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’, the final rejection of the self or of the world. But in this deliverance from despair, a new liberated state is released which possesses great potential. If salvation simply means acceptance, there is a possibility that the potential of its power will not be realized. I am thinking of the Buddha after his enlightenment, keeping the good news of it to himself until the Brahma Sahampati (a personification of compassion?) entreated the Buddha to spread the Dhamma, releasing the potential of the enlightenment. So, yes, one can be saved oneself by acceptance alone: but this salvation is by definition selfish, limited. For me, the authentic flavour of spiritual salvation - its proof, if you will - is in turning from the self to the Other in an act of compassion, which I do see as essentially transformative (in outlook, behaviour etc) and requiring effort. The fuel behind this effort, and the quality which enables the salvation in the act of acceptance, is faith.
2 I think that Christianity (and other faiths?) resolve this crisis by means of the concepts of contrition and vicarious atonement.
Contrition reduces the level of punishment deserved, as is clearly seen in our legal system when pleading ‘guilty’ (at least in the UK), and in the sacrament of penance in the Catholic Church. If the ruthless mechanism of karma/justice promotes good behaviour through a process of learning, we can see that contrition is the understanding behind this mechanism, and it appears to have a retroactive quality. And if by showing compassion to someone they are enabled to be contrite, then the punishment due to them is attenuated, according to this idea (but correspondingly if compassion does not result in contrition, there would be no reduction in negative karma in the uncontrite one).
By vicarious atonement, I refer to the death of Jesus on the Cross for our sins. Here, Christ takes our karma/sins onto himself and pays the debt in a supreme act of self-sacrifice: our unacceptability has been accepted and atoned for personally by Christ. Again, the atonement is conditional, requiring contrition, only in this case the entire store of sin/karma is extinguished. We can see this as an act of sublime compassion. There are parallels here with Amida’s Universal Vow.
Other concepts of punishment attenuation exist of varying respectability: indulgences, prayers on behalf of others, and so on. Clearly, religions do see a need for the remorseless quality of justice to be tempered by mercy.
3 Absolutely! When I look at life, I see a spectacle of overwhelming abundance, beauty and unspeakable cruelty, tragic and glorious, terrifying and exhilarating at one and the same time. All appears to be sacrificed in the headlong rush to expression of being. The vitality of life sweeps all before it. What price fairness in the face of such ruthlessness? What does fairness, or indeed morality, mean in the mind of an oyster, or a killer whale? Fairness and morality are found as motivating ideals in the minds of men and women, enabling the ordering of society, and differing markedly from place to place and over time. They are extended by us to other species as and when convenient, but I don’t see them in the rest of life. Is the Universe itself moral, and what does this mean? And yet, and yet …life is all-embracing, it accepts all without exception, the utterly worthless along with the truly great, side by side. The experience of this embrace is salvific, bringing reconciliation to the terrible beauty and releasing the potential of great compassion. Is this moral? Is this consolation? Perish the thought!


1. The power of salvation - I like it. Brahma Sahampati was a power beyond the Buddha. As you know I very much like the fact that the sutras show that the Buddha's first major decision after enlightenment turned out to be wrong. Perhaps the enlightenment lay in the fact that he might now be willing to listen to such a source of wisdom where previously he had been completely self-willed (to the detriment of his family, friends, teachers, etc.). Perhaps the power of salvation meant that he did not have to be right about everything any more.
2. Atonement etc change the rules of the game and so introduce the open-endedness without which religion cannot be much more than deism (where god creates the mechanism and then retires). But is the atonement only a one-off? We have been a pretty bad lot since then. We don't just need a second coming - we need a weekly visit.
3. I think we are on the same tack.
Namo Amida Bu - and may your God go with you.


I'd like to tease out some substrata issues relating to Fairness being a zero-sum game and whether unfairness is related to greater risk [and thus adventure] in life.

I'm one of those fellows who likes to use the extreme example to bring out contrast such that confusing [but, yeah, often vital] greys disappear ... so you have been warned: A viscious Florida pediphile drives down the road and randomly selects one of two thirteen year olds to invite into his car. [By the way, this is similar to the beginning of Mystic River, a novel/film closely related to the issues in this thread.] The girl that gets into the car is shortly thereafter raped and murdered and found by the roadside.

I think the example above demonstrates that Fairness is not zero-sum in several ways, which can easily be imagined. Let us, though, look at the amalgam of Good and Bad from all points of view: The only good thing that happened, from the pediphile's POV solely, is that he 'got off.' For the dead girl, for the legal system, for the taxpayers of Florida, it was all bad news. And one little girl -- which we might call 'lucky,' but doesn't know she was lucky -- had an uneventful morning walking to school.

I think that Fairness then does not involve a victor and a victim in the story above, nor does it ever, truly. As Roshi Abraham Lincoln said "No one should be a master since no one should be a slave. And no one should be a slave since no one should be a master." A failure of relative fairness is always an amalgam loss.

Would a world where the laws of the universe dictate absolute fairness be a drag? I think not. So long as randomness governs, adventure [and risk] will be there to add spiciness! Life would still be much more than Oliver Twist's drab lump-of-porridge meals, and adventure needn't be picking others' pockets.

Loss-Loss scenerios play out in the world [as in the example of the pediphile], but so, too, do Win-Win scenerios. The people who are writing in this thread are enjoying themselves as are the readers of this thread: Why, it is Win-Win!!


Ah, I know my posts seem/are simplistic compared to you other guys', but I want to quickly make a case for my arguments [and not for me], though it may be an ego-thing.

By getting into a salvation discussion, it goes into the realm of victor-victim, and that is what I reject, philosophically.

For Jesus, being on the cross is the Great Koan. He physically hurts like hell. His 'mistake' is to think he has to have a POV about it all. Should he be angry? Should he be superior to others crucified around him? Should he feel his victimization? His 'mistake' is to insist in his mind that he *must* have a point of view. Nothing works.


Dear Tom, thanks for your comment. I suspect that you are taking the term "zero-sum" in a quite different sense from that in which I introduced it so the two rguments do not meet. The theories of karma (buddhism) and judgement (christianity) seem to imply that the paedophile will suffer in the future for what he did and that such moral cosmi recompense is inexorable so that if at some future date he is suffering in hell and some other compassionate soul tries to fish him out, the compassionate one wll have one a good act, but it will not suceed in reducing the suffering of the hell being. Anyway - you are making a different point, which is fine.


Dear Tom

When you say “By getting into a salvation discussion, it goes into the realm of victor-victim, and that is what I reject, philosophically” do you mean winner-loser? I know the difference is subtle, but one can be a victim without being seen as a loser, whereas to be seen as a loser is to be an object of almost universal scorn these days. And I must say I am on the side of the loser, and your comment cuts me to the quick. If I am saved, does that make me a winner/victor (and there’s a man who walks down Oxford Street every day with a megaphone saying, ‘Be a winner, not a sinner’); and if I am not saved does that make me a loser/victim?

I wonder if there’s a way around this. The successful, whether in conventional or in spiritual terms, however one defines these, have a structure in place on which to base positive self-regard, whatever heights of Zen-like states of non-self they have reached. Attainment of non-self is just that, an attainment. How can one avoid self-satisfaction, even self-aggrandisement in these circumstances? These protect people from seeing themselves as worthless, from existential dread. I like to think that salvation, if it comes, enables people to see clearly their own worthlessness – to see that they are in fact, losers, and, crucially, will remain so. If salvation results in self-aggrandisement – or the feeling of victory - , then it has failed, in my view. The experience of being accepted by the Power of Being/God/Amida despite being a loser does not reduce the impact of being a loser – but it does give the courage to continue living with such a self-image, and enables great compassion for other losers ie the rest of us ….
So what about self-identified losers who are not saved? I think these people are utter heroes, worthy of the highest admiration. They somehow find the strength to carry on in the face of despair, in the full knowledge of their failure, day after day. Not for them the consolations of status, wealth, fame, success etc etc etc! Their very weakness is their strength.



Do not let me distract from the excellent discussion already going on in this tread.

BUT, while I did make a bad example, perhaps, my overarching point still holds, it is not a zero-sum game for a little girl to be savaged and then the pedophile to be punished in heaven or in a future life. There is no justice possible.

If anything, compassion distances one from the karmic justice / God's revenge scoring system.

I do not somehow sleep better nights thinking that the 911 terrorists are roasting over a spit in a Christian or Buddhist hell rather than boinking virgins in Osama's moslem heaven.

Tony, I certainly think that Christians must face the problem that winners and losers are most definately determined. I accept you distinction between winners/losers victors/victims, but on Judgment Day, the distinction evaporates. If eternity is the sentence, then there are no shades of gray in the judgment as there are in each and everyone's life. Thus, the judgment is of necessity inexact.

Indeed, unless one believes in a fancy flavor of cosmic karma, karma is devilishly cruel and should be cited as such by Amnesty International! Common karma supposes that we are punished and rewarded for things we have no memory of. It adds to unfairness; it doesn't do any magical bookkeeping to balance the ethical debits and credits in the universe.

But moving on to Tony's middle paragraph in the post above this one: There is a curious internal irony in your argument. If a person comes to see himself as worthless, then the stucture of his superiority/inferiority judging is still in place. There is something distastefully sactimonious in finding one's worthlessness, don't you see? So the structure of thinking is still fully victor-victim.


Dear Tom

I have a slightly unpleasant feeling that the sanctimoniousness is more to do with my style of writing than what I actually have to say …. I really must try to stop preaching, but my twin is a RC priest and my sister leads a born-again Christian church, so it runs in the family – we are a bunch of soap-boxers, and family get-togethers can be a real pain! Half the time I’m just trying to convince myself, aware that I’m skating on very thin ice ….

But no, I don’t think that a heartfelt experience of worthlessness is sanctimonious. Can I recommend a book to you about depression, ‘The Noonday Demon’ by Andrew Solomon? It tells it how it is. I do see what you mean – there can be a sanctimoniousness in false modesty – but the experience I refer to (and have been in and sometimes find myself in again) is marked by despair with absolutely nothing left to hold on to in terms of self-respect. There is no pride in it whatsoever – if only! It is one of the stories I try to tell myself in brighter moods that this state has a meaning and a use (is that sanctimonious?) but I really wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
For me, the winner/loser state is ‘transcended’ (sortof), by realising my worthlessness at the same time as accepting my acceptance by Life. It is more of a dynamic balance, shifting from day-to-day depending on how I feel. Some days I’m inspired, others I just feel like shit. I’m still working at it! Full enlightenment it ain’t. Ce la vie!


I guess my bottomline is that whether is all comes out alright at the end or not, it is next to impossible to make it fair for anybody at the end. We can try to compensate for unfairness, but it cannot be rectified.

I would argue that the worthless/vulnerable/open feeling that we can all come to have [not just Christians at a point of conversion or keen commitment] is a curious tool for transformation, but it not a real insight. None of us are really shitbags just as none of us are magical stars. The true insight might be that we are all kind of, well, bland -- but that doesn't come to us with trumpets. You don't see anyone drop down to his knees and scream to the cosmos "I'm Bland! I understand it all now! I'm midling!" No. We recover from our meglomania, which we begin to suffer from at the age of 2, by getting to the other pole of our ego's bypolar disease.

But true insight [I think; I'm guessing] comes when we overcome being "ego bypolar" altogether and transcend looking at the world as victors/victims. And most particularly, we must overcome looking at ourself as a victor/victim OR that we can transform our life from being a victim into being a victor.

Is this contrary to Christian doctrine? Probably. Is this contrary to what many say is orthodox Buddhism? Probably. Am I full of shit? Hmmm, possibly.


Whoops. My error. The last sentences in my post should have been "Am I full of shit? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I'm midling."


I live in Leicester. It's not the biggest town and it's not the smallest. It's not in the north or the south. It's not an ancient town and it's not a new town. It's not poverty striken and it's not rich. It's not mountainous and it's not flat. It's not by the sea, but it's not too far away. I like it here - kind of suits me. These parts are called the midlands. I think there was a guy call Sid Gotama who talked about middle something or other - way, wasn't it? Oh, and that chap Aristotle, too. Oh, well. Love to you all.


Ah, you're above it all, Dharmavidya. Must be lonely at the top.


Or the middle or bottom as the case may be - thanks Tom - but I am less lonely as a result of all this wonderful activity on this weblog


After these little asides I feel I should reintate the original topic of this thread:
given the buddhist doctrine of karma and the christian one of divine judgement the question is whether justice should be a human concern - is justice not adequately taken care of by God/karma - is it not an arrogance (hubris) for humans to think they can do God's work for Him/Her/It by trying to "make the world more just" when according to doctrine it is divinely just already? Do we think we can or need to do a better job than God?

As for the question of salvation, I have promoted it to a full posting so that we can pursue that line of discussion separately. Best wishes - Dh.

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