The Buddhist notion of Idiot Compassion.

The Elephant Ecosystem

Every time you read, share, comment or heart you help an article improve its Rating—which helps Readers see important issues & writers win $$$ from Elephant. Learn more.

Views 10
Shares 10
Hearts 1.0
Comments 4.1
Editor's Pick 0.0
Total Ecosystem Rating 0.0
15 Do you love this article? Show the author your support by hearting.

“To love without knowing how to love, wounds the person we love.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh 

Helping others isn’t always helpful, for ourselves or them. On avoiding “Idiot Compassion”, via Trungpa Rinpoche & Pema Chodron.



Thinking of Others First is all very well, but what if He/She is Harming or Taking Advantage of our “Idiot Compassion”?

I shared up this article (by my mother, not me).

I then got a message from an acquaintance:


Re: your post about “driving all blames into one”—can you recommend any readings re: narcissists and how to approach tonglen with those who repeatedly cause harm to others (and one’s children)

With gratitude—


I responded:

I don’t know of anything specific, but I’d advise reading up on “idiot compassion” and avoiding falling into the trap that we all do

Harm to yourself and children is a no-go, obviously. Block them out of your life if you can?

That didn’t seem like enough of a helpful response, so I googled “idiot compassion,” a term Trungpa Rinpoche coined back in the 70s and 80s in describing that tendency in all of us to help others in unhelpful ways—enabling them to perpetuate their neurosis, often at the expense of others, and their own well-being. Could be as “harmless” as allowing your 45 year old child to live at home, or as harmful as forgiving someone who hasn’t changed, just because we think it’s nicer to do so, and it feels easier.

And I found this brief Q&A, via Pema Chodron, a great sweet Buddhist teacher, and Shambhala International, and, as Dharma, and Pema, so often are, it was spot on.

So, lo:



Student: I’m interested in the idea of idiot compassion that was in Ken McLeod’s book [Wake Up To Your Life]“, and wishing compassion for someone who’s doing harm to you or that you need to remove yourself from. How do you differentiate the feeling of compassion and the need to remove yourself from a damaging situation?

Pema: Idiot compassion is a great expression, which was actually coined by Trungpa Rinpoche. It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s whats called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering.

Basically, you’re not giving them what they need. You’re trying to get away from your feeling of I can’t bear to see them suffering.

In other words, you’re doing it for yourself. You’re not really doing it for them.

When you get clear on this kind of thing, setting good boundaries and so forth, you know that if someone is violent, for instance, and is being violent towards you—to use that as the example—it’s not the compassionate thing to keep allowing that to happen, allowing someone to keep being able to feed their violence and their aggression. So of course, they’re going to freak out and be extremely upset. And it will be quite difficult for you to go through the process of actually leaving the situation.

But that’s the compassionate thing to do.

It’s the compassionate thing to do for yourself, because you’re part of that dynamic, and before you always stayed. So now you’re going to do something frightening, groundless, and quite different. But it’s the compassionate thing to do for yourself, rather than stay in a demeaning, destructive, abusive relationship.

And it’s the most compassionate thing you can do for them too.

They will certainly not thank you for it, and they will certainly not be glad. They’ll go through a lot. But if there’s any chance for them to wake up or start to work on their side of the problem, their abusive behavior or whatever it might be, that’s the only chance, is for you to actually draw the line and get out of there.

We all know a lot of stories of people who had to hit that kind of bottom, where the people that they loved stopped giving them the wrong kind of compassion and just walked out.

Then sometimes that wakes a person up and they start to do what they need to do.



And, from the man himself:

“Idiot compassion is the highly conceptualized idea that you want to do good….Of course, [according to the Mahayana teachings of Buddhism] you should do everything for everybody; there is no selection involved at all.

But that doesn’t mean to say that you have to be gentle all the time.

Your gentleness should have heart, strength. In order that your compassion doesn’t become idiot compassion, you have to use your intelligence. Otherwise, there could be self-indulgence of thinking that you are creating a compassionate situation when in fact you are feeding the other person’s aggression. If you go to a shop and the shopkeeper cheats  you and you go back and let him cheat you again, that doesn’t seem to be a very healthy thing to do for others.” ~ Chogyam Trungpa



for more: No Giver, no Gift, no Receiver.

“May we with all beings realize the emptiness of the three wheels, giver, receiver, and gift.”

Love is Love is Love and Love conquers All sounds nice!

But of course giving without any expectation and any giver…there are Buddhist teachings on this, and a practice–it’s not a theory, so much as a practice that we have to be quite mindful and stubborn about.
The notion of Idiot Compassion is powerful. It’s not a limitation on love but the notion that often, when we give love, it is not empty, ie it is full of our pre-conceptions and pre-judices and pre-conditions, and it’s not good for whomever we’re giving it to, and not good for ourself.

Loving someone no matter what sounds nice and all, but remember all love is not love.

The Elephant Ecosystem

Every time you read, share, comment or heart you help an article improve its Rating—which helps Readers see important issues & writers win $$$ from Elephant. Learn more.

Views 10
Shares 10
Hearts 1.0
Comments 4.1
Editor's Pick 0.0
Total Ecosystem Rating 0.0
15 Do you love this article? Show the author your support by hearting.

You must be logged in to post a comment. Create an account.

anonymous Apr 6, 2014 7:57am

I've been reading elepant for awhile now and never posted… but this hit way way too close to home-mark. Wow. THANK YOU

anonymous Jan 10, 2014 11:42pm

You are a fool. Trungpa is NOT the Be and End all! He is part of the whole!

anonymous Jul 12, 2013 9:36am

I'm about a week and a half out from leaving an abusive spouse. This really helped me put where I am in perspective. Thanks.

    anonymous Oct 29, 2013 2:01am

    As a fellow survivor, I also found this article particularly moving and necessarily honest. I hope you continue to find strength and support in all areas you need them as you continue on your path. Thank you for courageously sharing how this article impacted you.

anonymous Apr 12, 2013 10:34pm

I LOVE this!!!

anonymous Apr 12, 2013 3:45pm

using the word "idiot" and compassion in the same sentence isn't an author who understands compassion. Compassion has NOTHING to do with judgment and calling someone and idiot is a judgment and its hypocritical.

    anonymous Jul 13, 2013 9:20pm

    The author, to me, is not judging or calling any person an 'idiot'. They are calling the kind of 'compassion' idiotic because it does no one any favours. The coin was coined by a person from a culture other than white western culture, who may even have another take on the word, 'idiot', different to the way you are hearing it.

anonymous Apr 12, 2013 2:48pm

Makes sense to me. I’ve seen this enabling behavior, & I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. Thanks for publishing great articles! And being a source for fine journalism that speaks to truths…

anonymous Mar 11, 2013 7:29pm

Great reading, thanks! Some time ago I visited a blog – it is great blog like this one – I recommend it!!

anonymous Feb 25, 2013 5:28am

[…] I call him an idiot. […]

anonymous Jan 26, 2013 6:33am

[…] Idiot Compassion. […]

anonymous Jan 18, 2013 5:55am

[…] mindful though, that this does not devolve into idiot compassion. A sweet disposition is not equivalent to […]

anonymous Dec 31, 2012 4:49pm

thank you EJ. i needed this. and its very comforting to know that others share my pain.

anonymous Dec 31, 2012 6:07am

[…] One line comes to mind, “I am not your doormat!” […]

anonymous Dec 30, 2012 5:23pm

thank you for this. i have come to understand that accountability is a gift. that is, among other things, the reason why i appreciate you calling out michael bennet on his support of unfettered surveilence of americans. we need to hold one another accountable in order to remind ourselves that our lives depend on one another.

Read The Best Articles of March
You voted with your hearts, comments, views, and shares.

Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of Elephant Journal & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat.” Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword’s Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by “Greatist”, Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: “the mindful life” beyond the choir & to all those who didn’t know they gave a care. | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, touches on modern relationships from a Buddhist point of view. His dream of 9 years, the Elephant “Ecosystem” will find a way to pay 1,000s of writers a month, helping reverse the tide of low-quality, unpaid writing & reading for free online.