Altruism In Conflict

Photo Courtesy of Riccardo Cuppini
Photo Courtesy of Riccardo Cuppini

I struggle with the concept of altruism. As I understand it from Buddhist literature, the practice of altruism is striving for the happiness and well being of every sentient being. Recently, Matthieu Ricard published a whole book about this subject. It is on my to read list. Matthieu Ricard is one of my favorite authors.

In society however, people have conflicting interests. If I strive for the happiness of the one, often this means the misfortune of the other.

Parable of the Island
An elderly man and his two adult sons are on summer vacation on a beautiful island. They enjoyed their time together and on the last day, their plane back home will depart on 11 AM. The eldest son wants to go fishing with his dad. The youngest son wants to take his father to another part of the island, to visit a village with a old church. There is no time to do both. How can the old man be altruistic? When he endorses the one, he disappoints the other.

Altruism means that you should never decide based on your own interest, but on that of the other (altero). Is altruism still possible when there are two or more opposing others, in a situation of conflict?

At the end of the day, everyone’s friend is no one’s friend.
(Italian proverb)

A solution to overcome the problem of conflicting interests, is to focus on a synthesis, a cause that transcends the opposing parties.

This brings me to the work of Bernie Glassman of the Zen Peacemakers Sangha, who teaches a method of being present in a situation or area of conflict, concentrating (meditating) and then as if by divine inspiration, the synthesis or higher cause reveales itself to you.

Photo of Bernie Glassman

Photo courtesy of Joan Halifax

Some thoughts of Roshi Bernard Glassman:

We bear witness to the joy and suffering that we encounter. Rather than observing the situation, we become the situation. We became intimate with whatever it is – disease, war, poverty, death. When you bear witness you’re simply there, you don’t flee.

My opinion of Loving Actions are those actions that arise naturally when one enters a situation in the state of not-knowing and then bears witness to that situation. It has nothing to do with the one’s opinions or other’s opinions as to whether it is loving actions or not.

My conclusion: the Buddhist practitioner who follows the altruistic ideal, should meditate on how he lives, chooses and acts in the midst of war, chaos and conflict. Altruism is never easy or simple.

TED talk by Matthieu Ricard