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David Nichtern

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Health Care and the Mandate for Compassion

Posted: 10/29/10 10:34 AM ET

In the midst of my taiji lesson with Sat Hon, we paused (as we sometimes do) and chatted for a moment. In this case, what was on my mind was my ailing mother-in-law and my recent experience with our health care system. Sifu ("teacher" in Chinese) simply said that if a measure of the level of civilization a society has achieved is its ability to care for it those who are less fortunate and more vulnerable, then our society would get a failing grade. I agreed.

Developing compassion for others is emphasized in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, as well as in every other great religious tradition in the world. The Buddhist approach is to begin by developing a base of clarity, strength and well-being within oneself, and then to work hard to extend the benefits toward the welfare of all beings.

Again and again, we hear from the great teachers (like the Dalai Lama) that expanding our compassion and empathy are the main focus of spiritual practice, and also the main source of true happiness for ourselves.

The ongoing conversation about health care in our country strikes right to the core of who we are as a nation. Of course there will be differences of opinion about how to create, support and maintain the best possible health care systems, but you really have to wonder why there would be any discussion at all about the notion of providing the best possible health care to all our citizens without any consideration whatsoever regarding how their circumstances have arisen and what their capacity to care for themselves is.

Compassion simply does not have that kind of filter. Of course there has to be skillful means and practicality mixed in with our compassion. We have an aging population, an increasingly overstretched Medicare and Medicaid system, national dietary and health issues and all the rest of it. But I think we all have to take a good look in the mirror and seriously ask ourselves why, if we can have the most powerful military in the world, we can't we also have the best health care system in the world. We should have that.

I'm not really in a position to debate all the various solutions, proposals and counter-proposals that are out there, nor would I be the best person to ask what the best solution is. I just know that in my heart of hearts, and I think for many of us, the notion that we cannot really compete with many smaller and less developed nations in this area is a source of heartbreak and confusion.

A recent trip to Copenhagen completely blew my mind. There are literally no homeless people there. It is considered the obligation of the larger society to care for all the citizens, and it seemed that most people I talked to had no problem at all with being part of that kind of community.

Call me a socialist if it makes you feel better, but I don't believe that "greed is good," and I do believe that some people getting rich from other people's misfortunes is just not acceptable. If that is the benefit of capitalism, I am over it. We can do better. I think all of us so-called "spiritual" practitioners need to come out of our caves and figure some of these things out.

Your thoughts?

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