Love & Compassion Towards Difficult People: It’s Not Easy But It’s Worth It.

There was time when I felt somewhat proud of myself for having good relationships with people around me. I was truly happy for those doing well and not feeling jealousy or envy. For those who were not doing well or making mistakes, I was able to feel their pain and wished them happiness. I thought I made great progress in developing love and compassion. One day my friend asked me “You know what? It seems like you keep only ‘good people’ around you; people whom you like and who like you. Maybe that’s why your relationships are going well. What do you think?” At first I was skeptical, but it didn’t take long for me to admit that she was right. I kept myself in a comfort zone only with my favorable people thinking that my love and compassion had grown stronger. My love, joy and compassion were genuine and abundant for those I like but not for the others. Then, I recalled Sotaesan’s words: “Who wouldn’t love a good person? To love a hateful person is the practice of what we call great loving-kindness and great compassion.” (The Scriptures of Won Buddhism, p. 392)

I think it's fair to say that we want to be with people around whom we feel comfortable and safe. However, when it comes to ‘spiritual practice’, as Sotaesan pointed out, we need to take one step further to cultivate love and compassion not only for our loved ones but also for those we find difficult and even hateful. It has to be done by embracing, not by dividing people around us. This reflection was a clear call for me to challenge myself with ‘real’ practice of love and compassion toward those I find difficult.

Dealing with difficult people is an inevitable part of our lives. No matter what we do and where we are, we can always find someone or a group of people we hate and blame for problems. We are often divided by gender, race, sexual orientation, political, and/or religious affiliation. Unfortunately, as a consequence, many individuals and communities suffer from frictions caused by intolerance of those visible differences. Recent FBI statistics show that hate crimes in the United States increased last year. This is an alarming increase and we need to do something about it.

As a Buddhist, I find an answer from Buddha’s words: “Hatred does not cease through hatred at any time. Hatred ceases through love. This is an ancient truth.” (Dhammapada #5) With that said, in Buddhism we see love and compassion as an antidote to hatred. Yet, this is the universal wisdom from many awakened individuals and religions. Religious scholar, Karen Armstrong also points out that the practice of compassion is central to all world religions, in the form of the golden rule.

“Hatred ceases through love.” “Love your enemies.” It’s easier said than done. In order to put this into my practice, I had to ask myself why I should cultivate love and compassion even for those who deceive others and cause more harm. I thought they don’t deserve such love and compassion and it’s almost against to the law of cause and effect. So when someone treated me disrespectfully, my response was to give the same disrespect if not more. When I saw people causing harm, I literally wished them to suffer as a result of their own actions.

But over the years of my reflection, I realized that ‘an eye for an eye’ attitude tends to perpetuate the cycle of hatred, rather than solve the underlying, fundamental problems. And it was never a good or right feeling to treat someone with hate or disrespect. In this regard, I strongly agree with Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he wrote, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” So I made a commitment to stand by the golden rule: love and compassion. Setting my intention to the practice of love and compassion put my mind at ease. Wising others to be happy and free from suffering feels much better than wishing others to suffer. It just feels right. But it doesn’t mean easy. That’s why it’s called practice.

In the practice of love and compassion especially towards difficult people, one thing I find very important to remember is that unskillful and harmful behaviors come from a place of suffering and ignorance. When we are at peace with a sense of security and content, there is no room for hate, jealousy or resentment. In this regard, if we try hard to look deep into people who carry destructive actions, we can see their inner chaos and suffering. And people behave according to their own understanding of right and wrong. I’ve done things that I believed would bring happiness, but ended up causing more problems. Now I see it was my self-centered view and ignorance that fueled unskillful actions. I think we can all relate to this: our own suffering and ignorance lead us to destructive actions causing so much harm for ourselves and others. This simple recognition of where our behaviors originate from helps to open our heart and embrace difficult people. Embracing difficult people doesn’t mean we agree with their harmful actions, but it means that we create inner space to wish them happiness and wisdom, which will ultimately bring greater peace to all of us.

One last note I’d like to share with you is dharma words from Sotaesan. It’s a helpful reminder:

A wholesome person teaches the world through his wholesomeness, but the unwholesome person awakens the world through his unwholesomeness. The service of teaching and awakening the world is the same, but a wholesome person does his work for the world while gaining blessings for himself and unwholesome person does his while creating transgression for himself. Thus, we should pity the unwholesome person rather than hating him. (The Scriptures of Won Buddhism, p. 363)

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