Monday, January 10, 2011

Teaching compassion

A friend of mine has invited me to go with her to Karen Armstrong’s talk on Thursday. A renowned British writer for her books on religious philosophy, will talk about her recent book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. I haven’t read the book yet, but the idea of compassion has always fascinated me with many questions: simple questions like are we born with compassion or do we learn it from life? Is compassion a remarkably human thing? How far can our compassion be extended? In ancient China, the great Confucius thinker Mencius wrote four virtues of men, which starts with compassion: “The heart of compassion is the sprout of benevolence...” Can compassion be taught without being so didactic? Can compassion be a pure pleasure? Are children more compassionate than adults?

I was reading Brian Wildsmith’s Hunter and His Dog (I am re-reading Wildsmith’s books as much as I can before his birthday. Yeah! January 20th is the day. It’s my own private celebration of his birthday. I don’t think he knows, but that’s totally okay!)
A hunter was training his new puppy as his new hunting partner, and one day, he took him on a real hunt. He shot a wild duck, the duck fell to the ground. The hunter told the dog to bring the duck as he trained him to fetch sticks and eggs. But when the dog went to fetch the duck, he could not bear to retrieve the wounded duck. Instead, the dog brought sticks back to the hunter and took the wounded duck to a little island. Each time when they went hunting, the dog took wounded ducks to a little island where they could heal, and every night he brought a loaf of bread to the ducks. Then one night, the hunter followed the dog.....

Hunter and His Dog is a story of compassion. The tender-hearted dog shows remarkable compassion towards wounded ducks, the helpless, the weak, and acts on their behalf, despite it being against the authority. Brian assures us that compassion is not just a human thing. When asked why he chooses to paint and write about animals, Wildsmith says,
“We once had a blind dog that was mothered by a neighborhood dog. I was quite impressed by this and learned that animals show a great deal of compassion for one another. When I paint animals, I imagine them as a child would. I want children to make personal connections to the animals in my books.”

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