the kicking donkey – why selfless doesn’t mean spineless

Imagine you are lost in a desert. You have been walking for three days without food, you are almost dying because your hunger is so terrible; and you are running out of water. All around, all you can see is sand; and no sign of any town or village. It seems as though all hope is lost.

Then, just as you are about to entirely give up, you see something moving in the distance. At first it just looks like a tiny dot, you can’t make out what it is. You’re not sure if it’s real, or if it’s just another mirage. You don’t dare to hope for anything. 

You move towards it, and it moves closer to you. 

As it moves closer, you begin to see what it is: a donkey, wandering in this desert alone. 

What should you do next?

The answer that everybody will give is quite obvious: You should use the donkey to save yourself. You should catch the rope around the donkey’s neck, climb on his back, and ride on his back in the direction from which he has come, until you reach a town or a village; until you are safe.

It seems almost as though the donkey has come at this moment just for that purpose.

Nobody will disagree with you doing so. Nobody will say that this is not what you should do. Indeed, people would say you were very stupid if you did not do it.

But what if you are the donkey? 

You have some strange person climbing on your back and taking you who-knows-where? Maybe he’ll beat you in his impatience to get where he wants to go. 

What will he do with you after he doesn’t need you any more? 

Can you be sure he’ll let you go?

Why should you allow him to climb on your back and use you for his own purposes, with no questions asked? 

The moral of the story

The man who wants to get on the donkey’s back could stand for many different things. It could be an individual, it could be an organisation, or it could be a system, social, political, religious, cultural. Anything whose slave one can become, anything by whom one is used. They are everywhere. 

As the song goes: Everybody’s looking for something, some of them want to use you; some of them want to get used by you. Some of them want to abuse you; some of them want to be abused.

The moral of the story of the donkey in the desert is this: just as you would never think to ask permission from the donkey to climb on his back, it is useless to expect those who want to take advantage of us to understand that they have no right to do so. It is equally useless to then blame them, feel insulted and victimised, or to carry hatred towards them. It does not mean that we should just shrug and allow them to use us however they want, but rather it is our own responsibility to not allow anyone to rule our lives and to lead us where they will.

Goodness taken as weakness

Good intentions always need to be paired with wisdom in order to be effective. If we work only to be generous and kind but forget the importance of wisdom and foresight, the world will take our goodness as weakness. Those who are lazy will use us to do their work that they don’t want to do. Those who are greedy will borrow without giving back. Those who are full of anger and hatred and want somebody to blame,  will find a way to blame us for their own problems. Those who are clever and selfish will manipulate us to get what they want. We should see that if we behave like docile donkeys, giving everybody the opportunity to climb on our backs, it is normal that there will be those who then do so. 

We should not take this lightly, the need to work on wisdom as well as on kindness. The consequences of not doing so can be severe. If we maintain a kind of blind trust in the goodness of humanity and believe that everyone has good intentions, without testing them, this can cause us a great many problems.

For example, imagine a woman who falls in love with a man one night in a bar, becoming enchanted with his way of talking and flattered by his attention to her: he tells her she is beautiful, and he thinks exactly as she does about everything! If she does not investigate further, and agrees to going home with him, agrees to bringing him into her life, then she does so without knowing who he really is and will have to suffer the consequences of it later on.

He may, indeed, be a good person with a strong sense of morality – or he may not. He may also be alcoholic, or abusive emotionally or physically, or he may secretly work as a drug dealer. And if this turns out to be the case, she should not see it as being the case that the man is to blame for the suffering and problems she will have as a result; for she could have avoided them herself, had she made her decisions based on wisdom instead of purely based on emotion.

It’s surprising how little we might actually know of the lives and character of even those who we consider our close friends. When friends are for talking about superficial subjects, for sharing stories and laughing together, it remains that we don’t really know them. We do not know if they are truly trustworthy, if they will stay with us even when everything goes wrong for us, if they will help us when we are in deep trouble, or if they might turn their backs on us as soon as there is nothing more for them. We do not test their loyalty or their trust, and usually we don’t like the idea of testing them either – why? 

Because we don’t want to risk losing them. If we really were certain that we could count on them, why would we fear putting them to the test? 

Being a “kicking donkey” does not mean to kick automatically at anyone that comes our way out of fear or rage.  It is about being wise, choosing ourselves what we do instead of being led into doing things by others, knowing the importance of testing those around us to find out who are truly our friends, and being careful to calculate beyond going for whatever we like and distrusting whatever we dislike. 

Compassion and common sense

There is a rather common misunderstanding that compassion for others and self-defence against abuse are somehow opposed to one another.

It’s thought that if we are perfectly compassionate and selfless, it means that we will end up being like a good donkey for others to use, letting anyone take advantage of us in whatever way they want.

However, it is not out of goodness and compassion that we let others climb on our backs and take advantage of us. At root, in fact, it is usually driven by fear of being disliked, or of making others unhappy with us – not true goodness.

For example, a mother might think that she is being “compassionate” for her children by always doing everything for them, allowing them whatever toys they want to play with, and never letting them see what hardship is or what criticism is. Is it going to help them in their life? Is it going to help them to be better, or to be happier? Not at all.

In the same way, making oneself into a docile donkey for others to use for their own self-interested purposes, only permits them to strengthen this very selfishness in themselves, weakening any potential for goodness they might have.

This contributes neither to their well-being or happiness; nor our own; quite the opposite. Then how could we call it compassion or kindness?

Compassion for others and compassion for oneself are never opposed to one another, as long as one has the right understanding of what compassion really means.

It also seems to be a misunderstanding that in general, it’s not a good idea to have too much compassion or patience, in case you are attacked and you need to defend yourself. As though patience and lack of anger will cause us to say “indeed, come in, steal whatever you want, rape and kill whoever you want, here we are Doormat Buddhists.” 

This is also wrong, and based on a misunderstanding of what compassion is. When we see rightly, according to the law of Dhamma, our compassion for those who do wrong, including even those who might attack us or bear ill-will towards us – comes from the understanding that these wrong intentions are what will cause much future harm and suffering for that person. It is therefore not at all compassionate to allow them to continue down that destructive and wrong path unchecked.

An automatic mind is easily cheated

A closely-related point is this: some people are also afraid that giving up anger and the defensiveness of their ego will leave them too vulnerable, make it too easy to “walk all over them.” It is a big mistake to think in this way, for two main reasons.

Firstly, it is important to see are not required to have anger, hatred and the desire for revenge in order to defend ourselves properly when necessary. Indeed, it is quite the opposite: the more we hang on to our self-interest and feel the need to automatically defend everything we identify with ourselves, the less we are capable of doing so effectively.

This is because we are driven by fear and anger in our need to defend, and these emotions do not see clearly. Driven by them, we cannot judge easily what is the best way to act, what is the wise thing to do, how should we behave to best protect ourselves and prevent harm being done to us or to others.

Secondly, when we are defending our ego, we are run by our automatic mind driven by whatever emotion or idea appears – “I’lll do this, I’ll do that, I’m angry, I’m afraid.” We don’t question these ideas or emotions, we are not observing them. Removing the selfishness in ourselves involves observing and disciplining our own mind, and working to not be driven by its automatic reactions, its automatic habits of thought and emotion. 

As long as we are not watching our mind or working to discipline it, our mind is always driven by two great masters: Like and Dislike. Running for what we like; running from what we dislike; this is the story of our lives. When we are driven automatically by Like and Dislike, we can easily be taken advantage of, no matter how much we are afraid to be vulnerable and determined to defend our ego. 

This is because our reaction of defensiveness is often not in accordance with what causes a real threat to our safety. For example, a young woman might be very affronted and file a complaint with her university against a teacher who gives her unfairly low marks for her English Literature Essay, but at the same time she can be perfectly ready to get into a car alone with a man who she barely knows, who has given her a compliment on her beauty. Those who wish to use us, to cheat us or to take advantage of us, will never do so by a direct attack. Rather, they will use against us our automatic tendency not to question whatever we like. 

Being a kicking donkey

If we can learn to observe our mind, to understand how our own faults and emotions are born, to see how we are able to cheat ourselves; then it is much harder for others to cheat us. Just as it’s much easier to see a stain on somebody else’s shirt collar compared to one on our own, it’s much easier to see through the pretences of others once we have already seen through our own. 

As we learn to choose our actions based on calculation of cause and effect, rather than on simply being driven by this automatic running for like and running away from dislike, we are much less easily led into being the donkey of others. 

At the most basic level, this can translate into really quite simple, practical precautions: for example, always asking somebody to count the money we have given them in front of us to avoid any possibility of later confusion or conflict; always making a written agreement whenever there is a monetary deal being made; making every detail of a transaction clear beforehand and not trusting to the good will of the other to be “fair” or “reasonable”; not getting into cars with strangers; not walking alone in the city at night. 

We might be reluctant to implement these kind of things, either because we are afraid people will think we are distrustful or paranoid, or because we are lazy and think “it’ll be fine, no problem.” But especially for someone who wants his mind clear for meditation, the extra effort is well worth the peace of mind one buys by not putting oneself in any situation that could give rise to problems, worry, anxiety or regret. 

In closing, we will tell the story of Baba the Cobra, which is a story from India. 

The Story of Baba the Cobra 

There once was a giant cobra who was terrorizing a small village. Everybody there had run away, because he had bitten and eaten so many of the villagers. (“And they get big, these snakes,” said Ajan, when he told this story: “I have seen – enormous they can be. But you know the babies are much more dangerous than the giants.”)

One morning, a wandering monk arrived at the village, and wanted to enter it to look for some food. As he approached the village, everybody he met warned him not to go near there, that there was a snake who was attacking everybody, “Don’t go, don’t go sir! You will get killed!” 

“No problem!” said the monk. “I know how to charm snakes, I will not be killed.” So he arrived at the village, and was met there by the giant cobra, who reared up and hissed in the most terrifying manner, and prepared to strike. The monk chanted some special phrases, and the cobra instantly fell down before the monk, docile as a sheep, and listened to the monk as the monk began to teach him. The monk explained to the snake that it was wrong to kill, to hurt and harm others as he was doing, that he would surely end up in a bad place afterwards, and he should stop biting and killing the villagers. The snake was very impressed with the teaching of the monk, and he promised to follow what he had told. 

“All right,” said the monk, “I will leave you, but I will come back in a year to see what has happened with you.”

So the monk went on his way, and a year passed by. And after the passing of the year, the monk returned the same way in the direction of the village. Now as he approached the village, there was nobody telling him to avoid it or to turn back; rather he heard the sounds of life there from far off; yet when he reached the village he searched everywhere and found no sign of the snake.

“Where is my friend the cobra?” he asked of the people in the street. After asking this of two people without success, finally the third, a young boy replied, “Ah sir! I am afraid he is dead – we killed him in our game just two days ago. We swung him round our heads by his tail and threw him into the forest, and he has not been seen since.” 

“Ah, said the monk, “Thank you, I will go and look for him – I know my friend is still alive.” And he set off into the forest, and called for the snake. 

After a few long moments, the monk heard the rustling of leaves on the forest floor. He looked intently, but at first he could see nothing. Then he caught the movement of the snake on the ground, but was shocked to see that the snake had shrunk to one tenth of his original size. (“It’s an anorexic snake now!” said Ajan, telling the story.) 

“What happened to you, my old friend?” the monk asked the snake. “Why are you so thin?” 

“Sir,” replied the snake, “You told me it was wrong to kill, so I have become vegetarian. Instead of eating mice I am living on grass.”

“And why were you almost killed two days ago, what happened?”

“Sir, you told me not to bite, not to hurt and harm. So when the village boys wanted to pick me up and use me in their game, what could I do? They spun me round their heads and threw me far away and I was hurt.” 

The monk shook his head in dismay. “My old friend, this is terrible! It is not what I meant at all. You know, I told you not to kill and not to bite – but I didn’t tell you not to hiss!” 

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