Compassion confab draws Buddhists, Diné

(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)

Navajo traditional practitioner Johnson Dennison, far right, explains the Navajo concept of compassion at a panel discussion July 8 at a conference in Telluride, Colo., titled "Compassion for a World in Crisis."

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

TELLURIDE, Colo., July 21, 2011

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No one could argue that "Compassion for a World in Crisis" - the title of this year's Ideas Festival in this wealthy mountain enclave - isn't something much needed.

But what is compassion, exactly? Does its definition vary among cultures and languages? And is there, in fact, such a thing as too much compassion?

These are some of the questions that surfaced last weekend as neuroscientists, anthropologists, Buddhist monks and a Navajo medicine man gathered to discuss this most rarified of human virtues.

While Peter Gold, a New Mexico anthropologist who has studied both Eastern and Native American religions, drew several parallels between Buddhist and Navajo tradition, the two spiritualities seemed to diverge on the subject of compassion.

Buddhist monk Jangchub Chophel (formerly a high school history teacher known as John Bruna) described Buddhist teachings on the subject as "very practical," with a precise definition of compassion ("the sincere desire to remove the suffering of others") - and a six-step program to achieve it.

In Diné tradition, the emotion seems much more vague. In fact, traditional practitioner Johnson Dennison of Chinle said he consulted other Navajo medicine people prior to the conference and they had a hard time coming up with a Navajo word equivalent to the English "compassion."

Dennison thinks the closest may be "bá áhwiin't'''i," the state a baby is said to have entered when he first laughs.

"We say that when a baby first laughs, it means he is learning to be generous, kind, compassionate with himself and with the world," Dennison said.

There is also the state of bá hózhó, which can be literally translated as "being present in beauty" but is often translated as kindness, and bilhadlee', which means "able to share," Dennison said.

"K'éndzin," or holding positive relationships in the mind, may be another form of compassion, as might "aháláane'" - an emotional feeling of remembering a person - but all these concepts are more like facets of the English concept of compassion, Dennison said, and don't necessarily appear in the same person all at once.

While many religions consider compassion the highest virtue to strive for, Dennison said the traditional Navajo focuses more on "balance."

"We believe in a balance between negative and positive energy," he explained - and there is such a thing as too much positive.

For instance, he said, the state of being in love is "an extreme of positive energy," and previous generations of Diné were very wary of the romantic love so idealized in Western literature.

"Couples that start out with this overly positive energy, they go on to an extreme negative side when they get divorced," he said.

In a similar vein, the traditional Diné is wary of people who are too eager to help him.

"People see compassion as help," he said, but too much help makes people dependent.

"We (Navajo) were a proud, strong nation at one time," Dennison said, "until the government started taking care of us."

Chophel agreed that compassion must be balanced with reason.

"In the Western world, we often confuse compassion with being a doormat," he said. "I use the analogy of being a parent. Is it compassion to give your child whatever they want, or is that enabling behaviors that are going to continue to harm that individual?"

If religions struggle with the concept of compassion, one can only imagine what scientists are up against. But Emiliana Simon-Thomas, associate director at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, said science is making strides toward understanding the complex emotion.

There are measurable differences in brain activity, for instance, when people are shown a picture of a vulnerable child, or someone suffering.

In scientific circles, however, it's hard to be taken seriously if you use words like "compassion" or "loving kindness," Simon-Thomas said.

"You have to search for the right vocabulary," she said. "Words like 'bonding.'"

CCARE and the Telluride Institute collaborated to put on the conference. More information about the topics and presenters can be found at and

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