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The Compassion Problem: Why Do Some Religious People Fail to Live Up to Religious Teachings?

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February 19th, 2021

By Steve Taylor, Ph.D.

Guest writer for Wake Up World

The teachings of religious leaders such as Jesus and the Buddha set a high bar for human behavior that their followers have often struggled to meet. It’s not easy to love your enemy; it’s not easy to turn the other cheek when someone insults or injures you. It’s not easy to refrain from lying or harming other living beings (as the Buddha advised).

Nevertheless, it is puzzling that many people who call themselves religious act in ways that are contrary to the basic teachings of their faiths.

The essence of both Jesus’s and the Buddha’s teachings is empathy and compassion. At a time when the Romans were oppressing and murdering his people, Jesus advocated his followers to “do good to those who hate you” and “if your enemy is hungry, feed him.”

At a time when human life was full of brutality and war, Jesus stated that “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and advised soldiers to “Put your sword back into its place; for those who live by the sword, die by the sword.”

In a similar way, in the Vimalakirti Sutra, Buddha says that in times of war one should ‘give rise in yourself to the mind of compassion, helping living beings. Abandon the will to fight.’ In one of the most beautiful Buddhist texts, The Metta Sutta, the Buddha advises that “Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.”

And yet, the actions of many modern religious people are difficult to understand in light of these teachings. Why are some Christians and Buddhists (in Myanmar, for example) suspicious and hostile towards marginalized groups, rather than being charitable? Why do some Christians advocate conflict and aggression towards other countries rather than pursuing peace?

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