Ways Toward Compassion

Singer and songwriter Betsy Rose has been visiting for a few weeks. She is travelling for eight months on a journey that will take her around the world, singing as she goes. Betsy is my sister, so of course it is wonderful to have her here, and in good sisterly fashion she’s given me the opportunity to pick her mind. She is a Buddhist, and I have saved up some questions about compassion.

Betsy Rose
Betsy Rose

The term ‘compassionate conservation’ hit me like electricity when I first heard it. How exciting it is to encounter an alternative to the treadmill of killing that claims that the only way to achieve healthy ecosystems is to kill everything that appears to get in the way of a pretty narrow human vision of what belongs and what does not. Compassionate conservation takes us right away from a suite of practices based on suffering and death, inviting us to think and act differently. The convergence of ecology and compassion is a truly significant direction for major change in our world today, but what is compassion, actually?

Betsy’s mode of engaged Buddhism draws inspiration from the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He teaches a basic message of mindfulness and peace that is becoming more profoundly urgent as our species’ penchant for violence erupts into an accelerated, global, multispecies rampage. From an ecological point of view, Buddhism offers a particularly significant human response to violence because it links individuals into wider networks of living beings and aims for the well-being of all.

Guan Yin detail, Akuppa John Wigham (CC)
Guan Yin detail, Akuppa John Wigham (CC)

Many Buddhist prayers ask that all beings be free from suffering. There is, of course, no way to eliminate suffering from life – the two go hand in hand, just as joy and life go hand in hand. But we human creatures have it within us to change our own behaviour so as not to cause suffering needlessly, and it is possible to work toward more peaceful, less brutal societal relations between humans and other creatures. The emerging field of compassionate conservation aims to accomplish this manner of social change in the domains of ecological management and conservation. And yet …

the Buddhist idea of well-being goes way beyond welfare.

The provocation to western thought is huge! Welfare can be understood as freedom from suffering, whereas well-being implies that beings are actually capable of experiencing the goodness of life. This is so significant that it can be hard to take in. One has to pause for a moment to consider what the experience of well-being implies. In ecological terms, we would say that all beings have their own life-world, and they experience it subjectively. Creatures, whether large or tiny, are not machines, but rather are subjects: they have ways of life, modes of being, forms of action and interaction. Worlds of subjectivity include time, place, mobility, sustenance and much more.

Migrating butterflies, Bruce Tuten (CC)
Migrating butterflies, Bruce Tuten (CC)

One effect of the Buddhist commitment to well-being is that it calls for commitment to ways of life. And in this world of connectivities, commitments keep expanding. For example, commitment to a migratory species must surely include the path of their travel, and commitment to species whose strong site fidelity brings them home to reproduce must involve commitment to those home places. We might think with others in terms of their precious well-being and be reminded of salmon running up their specific streams to spawn; or the lovely synchronicity between flowers, nourishing pollen and pollinators as butterflies migrate from Mexico to Canada and back; or turtles returning to specific beaches to lay their eggs.

Buddhist commitment to well-being apparently involves a lively, unlimited recognition of the connected world in which creatures are capable of experiencing joy in their own well-being. A short section of the Buddhist prayer of universal love reveals this:

May all beings everywhere,
Seen and unseen
Dwelling far off or nearby
Being or waiting to become:
May all be filled with lasting joy.

Visitors at Elephant Nature Park, Christian Haugen (CC)
Visitors at Elephant Nature Park, Christian Haugen (CC)

I did a short interview with Betsy (view here), asking about her travels and her activism. We filmed at home with the relentless rain contributing a little hum in the background. Betsy had encountered a multispecies zone of compassion at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and she offered a vivid description of the thrill of being in an animal-centric place. There, humans are just visitors, and the focus, organisation and management of the place is dedicated to the well-being of the other (non-human) animals. To close the interview, Betsy sang one of the songs she wrote expressing Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist teachings. It is particularly moving to me because it is about breathing. Breath is immensely inclusive: all the myriad creatures (plants, fungi, animals, many bacteria) breathe in one form or another, and the wind is the breath of the world. Wind, breath, life, well-being: it flows through us all.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)


For more about Betsy and her music, visit here. To follow her travels, visit here. Her first posting, from Thailand, tells of how she was honoured with the ‘International Tara Award’. To learn more about the Elephant Nature Reserve, visit here.

The Centre for Compassionate Conservation at UTS has excellent material on this ethical approach to conservation. I  have addressed issues involving compassionate conservation in a number of essays, for example, ‘How to Love a Pest’.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s work and teachings are well documented, for example at the site for Plum Village in France.

The west’s understanding that creatures inhabit their own worlds of meaning owes its recent history to the continental biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944). Brett Buchanan has provided an excellent analysis of Uexküll’s influence in more recent philosophy in his book Onto-Ethologies. Thom van Dooren and I have developed some of this thought in relation to how two types of animals, penguins and flying-foxes, create worlds of meaning that focus on place. Our article is available on the web.

11 thoughts on “Ways Toward Compassion

  1. The way of tolerance is to view the natural wonders of the planet, and that includes human beings, as part of the magic of the whole. Animals, birds reptiles and insects all present and accounted for as we go about the business of life.

    There’s death, and there’s injury, that cannot be avoided, we fall from trees, stand on a snake who mistakes our intent, sit on a jumping ant or stand on a grasshopper as we watch another creature in the tree top.

    It is, we do what we can to avoid injury or death to ourselves and all round us, so we need to be aware as well as awake.

  2. I love the thought behind compassionate conservation, but it also makes me uneasy, because so often “compassion” towards animals is framed in terms of a one-dimensional focus on pain and death that tends to lead adherents towards the idea that humans should withdraw from nature’s web of mutual appropriation. The way you have reframed compassion around wellbeing, animated agency, and particularly “ways of life” is such an improvement.

    I still find the problem of killing for conservation to be highly vexed. How do we weigh up incommensurable transgressions, like extinction of one species vs dogged persecution of another? Arguing for the importance of one value doesn’t serve to take away the negative value of the other. We can look for win-win situations (e.g. predator re-introduction) but can’t expect them necessarily to work out.

    Deborah, have you read Heart and Blood, by Richard Nelson? (I’ve just finished it.) Too much to say for this space, but suffice it to say his respect for animals has its origins in Native American (Koyukon) teachings that are about as extreme as any, in terms of attributing agency and umwelt to nonhumans. He still winds up arguing for lethal control of deer by subsistence hunting, for very good ethical reasons too long to elaborate here. Compassionate conservation has to be about more than avoiding killing. It’s the mode, mindset and motivation for killing that matter. Maybe it’s a bit tricky to harness an honorable individual motivation – nourishment – for the service of less honourable overall goal – control by mass killing – but maybe tricky is a good compromise, given the circumstances we have placed ourselves and our Earthly companions in. (I’m not volunteering to eat foxes and cats, but some aboriginal groups of the Central Desert do.)

    1. Interesting. No I haven’t yet read richard’s book. It sounds fascinating. Tricky is certainly the word for these issues!

  3. Compassionate conservation is a great term

    I will pass on the comments above to Richard Nelson who will be in Australia next month.


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