19 April, 2024


Sri Lanka’s Empathy Deficit Has Risen To Critically Dangerous Levels

By W.A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A. Wijewardena

Dr. W.A. Wijewardena

Barack Obama: Empathy deficit among Americans is more dangerous than budget deficit

In 2006, Barack Obama, then a Senator of the US Senate, left an important message with the students when he delivered the commencement speech at USA’s Northwestern University. He said that what was more dangerous in USA was not the Federal Budget Deficit but the emerging ‘Empathy Deficit’ among Americans. Then he defined what he meant by empathy deficit by using an aphorism. That was failure to get into the shoes of another person and see the world through his pains (available here ).

In a further elaboration after he became the President, he specifically referred to the feelings of minorities in a majority-run society. Empathy deficit is, according to Obama, inability to feel ‘what it is like to be a woman or an African-American or an impoverished in India’. Many have criticised Obama for having empathy deficit himself after he became the US President because he had apparently failed to feel how others felt it when the US drones attacked innocent civilians in other countries. Yet it was a bold attempt by Obama to use the concept in the context of social and political development of a nation.

Empathy Deficit Disorder: Hating those who are different

Empathy deficit is a term used in psychology to describe a disorder where people fail to feel how others feel. According to Psychologist Douglas LaBier, Empathy Deficit Disorder or EDD is present when “you’re unable to step outside yourself and tune in to what other people experience, especially those who feel, think and believe differently from yourself. That makes it a source of personal conflicts, of communication breakdown in intimate relationships, and of adversarial attitudes – including hatred – towards groups of people who differ in their beliefs, traditions or ways of life from your own” (available here ).

In a world where diversity is the rule rather than the exception, the nationwide prevalence of EDD invariably leads to hatred, conflicts and disharmony among different ethnic groups, religious faiths or races. At personal levels, it leads to the break-down of human relations whether it is in a family or a government department or a private organisation.

Empathy: Key to reduce suffering and create a just society

In a recent book edited by Kathryn Pavlovich and Keiko Krahnke under the title ‘Organizing Through Empathy’ (published under Routledge Studies in Management, Organisations and Society series in 2014), it has been argued, based on evidence from neuroscience and quantum physics, that it is empathy that connects humanity and not their desire for self-interest.

The contributors to the book have challenged the prevailing beliefs in the modern capitalism-based economic organisations that seek after profits and efficiency. For them, empathy is the most important organising mechanism for any society, government, corporation, voluntary associations and of course at the lowest level, the family.

Empathy is analysed in the book from its neurological point and how it helps build leadership, make decisions and apply to practical situations. Empathy is also a useful tool to see the macro picture of any micro incident and analyse its impact on society over time. Thus, according to the two editors who are from too-faraway places in the globe – Pavlovich from the University of Waikato in New Zealand and Krahnke from the University of Northern Colorado in USA – the book has demonstrated using evidence from neuroscience and quantum physics how empathy helps in the reduction of human suffering and creation of a more just society.

The Buddha: Boundless love for all is the first step to empathy

It was the Buddha who talked about empathy long before modern scientists started to explore the subject. The foundation for his empathy comes from the Karaneeya Metta Sutta, canonised in Khuddhaka Statements in Khuddhaka Nikaya and chanted daily over radio and television for the benefit of the Buddhists who desire to have their lives protected from outside evil forces. It has been the practice by many government organisations to start the New Year with a chanting of this Sutta, among others, in the belief that it will protect the organisation and its employees. This objective is far from what the Sutta has conveyed to its listeners, namely, that they should cultivate ‘Boundless Love’ in them to protect themselves as elaborated in another Sutta in Anguttara Nikaya, Mettanisamsa Sutta. This is also one of the Suttas being chanted in pirith ceremonies.

Karaneeya Metta Sutta lays down the personal qualities which one should cultivate if he is interested in attaining enlightenment or Nibbana and highlights that ‘just as a mother protects her only child with her life’ he should ‘cultivate boundless love or Metta toward all beings’. Then it specifies how this boundless love should be exercised. It should be toward the entire world – above, below and across – unhindered, without ill-will, without enmity. This boundless love should be practised at all times whilst a person is awake. The Buddha has further elaborated how it should be practised for the benefit of ordinary laymen: it should be developed while standing, walking, sitting or reclining. This Sutta has only 10 stanzas but it lays the foundation for Buddhists to develop an important mindfulness which is beneficial to those living on this earth as well as in other worlds.

Visuddhi Magga: Empathy has four elements

The Metta mindfulness has been developed into ‘Four Divine States’ or ‘Brahmaviharas’ in Buddhist meditation practices drawing on different discourses of the Buddha. They have been synthesised in a single text written in the 5th century CE under the title ‘Visuddhi Magga or The Path of Purification’ by a scholar named Buddhagosha who visited Lanka from India (Translated into English by Bhikku Nanamoli and available here ).

Chapter IX of Visuddhi Magga has laid down these Four Divine States as Metta or Boundless Love, Karuna or Compassion, Mudita or Gladness/Empathy and Upekkha or Equanimity. Thus, in Buddhism, Empathy has four different states of mindfulness and the equivalent of Empathy Deficit referred to by Obama and psychologists has a wider connotation.

Boundless love: Rid hate and cultivate patience

In boundless love, Buddhagosha says that the practitioner should rid himself of hate and cultivate patience. It should be developed first toward the practitioner himself and then extended to all others including those in other planets. The reasoning behind this process is that if one does not have boundless love for him, he cannot share it with others. It also involves, according to Visuddhi Magga, ridding resentment, annoyance and disciplining one in his verbal behaviour. It cultivates in a person the wise art of responding to others in society: “welcome criticisms kindly, be easy to talk with, become congenial or pleasant in behaviour, have friendly facial expressions and develop a sweet voice”.

If hatred toward another person cannot be overcome, one way to do so is to think that he would have been closely related to him in numerous previous births or in future births, a concept widely believed in Buddhism. Thus, the Buddha’s message was that boundless love should be practised until one has developed it for all beings.

Compassion: Be aggrieved with those in grief

Karuna or compassion means that one should have sympathy for the sorrows of others. In other words, one should aggrieve with the sufferings of others that include all beings in this planet as well as in all other worlds. This is what Barack Obama meant when he advised the students of the Northwestern University that they should get into the shoes of others and feel their sufferings.

Visuddhi Magga says that it should be practised for people in the following order: a man in misery, an evil-doer, a near and dear one, an indifferent person and an enemy if there is one. In the case of an enemy, one should not rejoice himself at the miseries that have befallen on him despite that he is an enemy. Instead, one should truly aggrieve with his sorrows and do whatever one should do to rid him of his misery.

Empathy: Be rejoiced over the happiness of others

Mudita or empathy means that one should rejoice oneself at the happiness of others. It is quite natural for many to develop feelings of resentment when they see people who are happy. Psychologists call this envy. Envy is a destructive emotion that destroys the person who harbours envious thoughts rather than the person being envied. People envy others for their economic successes, political successes or personal successes. The man of success gets into a mood of happiness but the man of envy resents his happiness.

Buddhagosha says that this resentful feeling should be fought by people if they desire to attain enlightenment. The fighting the feeling of resentment should be started for a man who is dear to him, then extended to a person who is neutral to him and finally to a person who is hostile to him. It may be difficult to feel happy in the case of a person considered as an enemy. But Buddhagosha has recommended an important behavioural practice, among many others, to overcome the feeling of resentment. That is to think only of the good things about the enemy so that the enemy is placed among those who are dear to him.

Equanimity: Be neutral and see the world from a holistic point

Upeksha or equanimity is the last mental state which a person should develop. Equanimity means that one should neither be happy nor unhappy about what he experiences in the real world and should learn to take them from a neutral point.

That neutrality helps him to see the world from a holistic point just like a man at the top of a rock sees the entire environs dictated by causes that have led to an effect which in turn becomes the cause for a further effect and so on. He then understands the reality and does not get angered or saddened by the events that are unfolding. This is the essential state of mind that is necessary for a Buddhist to attain the final goal of being a Buddhist – enlightenment.

Buddhagosha has cautioned the practitioner of equanimity that one should seek to attain it only after one has attained the first three mental states fully. Thus, it is like the flow of water in a river. One cannot get clean water from the river at its mouth unless one has assured that the river has been fed with clean water before that. Equanimity, though closely related to the previous three, is completely different from them. Buddhagosha has said that the practitioner should see the danger in the previous three mental states if he is to fully understand this mental state.

That is because equanimity requires one to be neutral whereas the first three requires one to be positive by wishing happiness to everyone. But the danger in that wish is that it might make one angry if that happiness is not delivered to those whom he expects to be happy. It disturbs his own peace of mind. Thus, Buddhagosha has recommended that the practitioner should start practising it by looking at a normally neutral person. Then, the practitioner could look at a person dear to him and hostile to him in that order. The way to practise Equanimity is therefore to look at a person neither beloved nor unloved and then extend it to all others.

Sinhala Buddhist society should necessarily cultivate empathy in a wider sense

Sri Lanka is often referred to as a Sinhalese Buddhist country. In such a country, an important element that should be present and cultivated among everyone is the Four Divine States which are integral to Buddhism. It requires everyone to extend boundless love to others, be a true partner of their sorrows as well as joys and then look at them from a holistic point.

What the Buddha has classified in numerous discourses as four mental states which a practitioner has to attain one after the other in succession has been synthesised by modern psychologists as ‘empathy’. If empathy is present among members of society, such society is a wholesome one. Such a society is peaceful, cohesive and free from conflicts which are the ground requirements for continuous progress and development. If they are not present, the result is the regression of society beyond recovery.

Hambayas and saffron-robes are derogatory terms

An examination of social media practices by Sri Lankans shows that the posters which they have posted on the media are totally inconsistent with what the Buddha has preached.

In the name of protecting the Sinhala Buddhist country, all these posters have derided other faiths and races in the most disparaging terms. Muslims are referred to as ‘hambayas’ though the origin of the term did not have such a derogatory connotation. In fact, the term ‘hambaya’ has come to Sinhala vocabulary from the flat bottomed boat which the Muslims had used to visit old Lanka for trading purposes. This boat has been called in Malay language ‘sampan’ which over the years had got into Tamil as Samman and to Sinhala as Hamban. Those who have come in those Hambans have thus been called ‘Hambankarayas’ which in its derogatory form has now been shortened to ‘hambayas’ (available here ).

Similarly, the unruly Buddhist monks who fight like ordinary hooligans in the street are referred to as ‘Saffron-Robes’ in the opposing posters. Like hambayas which did not have a derogatory meaning originally, Saffron-Robe too was a respectful reference to those pious hermits who wore robes of that hue and sought salvation from suffering through different practices. According to Chulavansa, the second part of the chronicle of Lanka, Mahavansa, King Parakramabahu the First has constructed a Panchasattati House in Polonnaruwa “to receive pirith water and pirith thread” that were offered to him by “saffron-robed ascetics” (Chapter LXXIII-73).

Fear is the root cause of empathy deficit disorder

The way some Buddhists treat those practising other religious faiths and the angry reaction by their victims demonstrate that Sri Lanka is developing an ‘Empathy Deficit” in the words of modern psychologists and a “Deficit in the Four Divine States” according to the Buddha. However, both the psychologists and the Buddha are agreed on the cause of this deficit: That is, being inflicted by the most destructive emotion known as ‘fear’.

The Buddha in the Dajagga Sutta, canonised in Samyutta Nikaya, has said that even God Sakra, Head of Four Heavens, also known as Indra, has not rid himself of Loba (greed), Dosa (hatred) and Moha (delusion) and therefore is inflicted with fear and prone to flee. Only those who have cultivated Aloba (non-greed), Adosa (non-hatred) and Amoha (non-delusion) are free from fear and do not flee in the face of it. Dajagga Sutta is one of the suttas chanted in Pirith Ceremonies and also telecast by some television channels in their morning Pirith chanting telecasts to invoke blessings on the viewers. But the true blessing comes from following the message of the Master and not just by listening to or viewing the chanting.

The implication of the message conveyed in the Dajagga Sutta by the Buddha is that Buddhists living in fear of other religions or followers of other faiths living in fear of Buddhists have not rid themselves of greed, hatred and delusion like God Sakra. It is a disorder – Empathy Deficit Disorder – which needs urgent treatment since it breeds hatred, conflicts, disharmony and costly social and political disorder impeding Sri Lanka’s continued progress.

Hence, all those who wish well and a better future for Sri Lanka cannot ignore this need anymore.

*W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Dr Wijewardena, there are hardly any Buddhists in Sri Lanka.

    Lankaenews wrote: Medamulana MaRa notorious for receiving and giving bribes had given tax free 22 car permits to the Malwatte Mahanayake Thero and 37 tax free car permits to the Asgiriya Mahanayake Thero. Apart from this , he had also distributed 250 car permits among all temples in the central province. There is also an amusing cartoon on that page. [Edited out]

    A pious Buddhist woman went to her local temple to invite the priest for a dana. She returned home with the instruction “Hondata mas uyala thiyanna”.

    The so-called Sinhala Buddhist Army massacred surrendering troops, and helpless Tamil civilians in their thousands.

    The Government is raping the hill country rainforest, and illegally selling off elephants and their cubs.

    The Country is being mortgaged to the Chinese, ostensibly to finance “development”, but to bolster the wealth of the ruling family through commission from contractors.

    The list goes on.

    • 2

      By W.A Wijewardena –

      Dear Dr. W.A. Wijewardena

      RE: Barack Obama: Empathy deficit among Americans is more dangerous than budget deficit

      “In 2006, Barack Obama, then a Senator of the US Senate, left an important message with the students when he delivered the commencement speech at USA’s Northwestern University. He said that what was more dangerous in USA was not the Federal Budget Deficit but the emerging ‘Empathy Deficit’ among Americans. Then he defined what he meant by empathy deficit by using an aphorism. That was failure to get into the shoes of another person and see the world through his pains (available here ).”

      Despite its history, America is more Egalitarian and has better empathy than the so called “Buddhist” Sri Lanka. It is more accurate to say Sri Lanka is a “Mara” country, and follows the Mara Dhamma.

      The Monks want to keep this Mara Dhamma and perpetuate their Hegemony.

      Read the Para-Monk Mahanama and his imaginations in the Mahawamsa.

  • 0

    LEN is not a trusted news journal. It’s a bias lie machine that twist the truth and pump out lies to attack its foes indiscriminately. And this Indra fellow is shooting lies better than LEN: “[Edited out].”

  • 1

    Dear Dr. W.A. Wijewardena,

    How right you are. It is not only about only the lack of empathy for other communities, it starts from lack of empathy for its own communities. How else could :

    1) Comfortably settled Tamil Expats with assured future for their children send other people’s children wearing cyanide pills to war ?
    2) How could a community ship the bulk of their working women population to serve the rich and abusive middle eastern and live off it happily ?

    We have not evolved sufficiently. We fantasize our selves to be nations. We are nothing but a bunch of murderous peasants providing murderous entertainment on global TV.

    to be a

  • 0

    This is an excellent academic analysis for reflection by all SriLankans who have the capacity to do so!


  • 0

    Hatred against the ‘other’ has been fed through school textbooks over several decades – that must be rectified:

    Peacebuilding in Sri Lanka Needs UNESCO to Supervise Revision of School Textbooks

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