Compassion in Crisis: Professor Janet Gyatso on Empathy, Ethics, and New Epistemologies

November 4, 2021
Gautama Buddha
Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermon in Deer Park (Sarnath, India). This sermon contained essential teachings of the Dharma, including the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Illustrations of this first teaching show the Buddha’s peaceful presence, which was so wondrous even the animals were drawn to listen.

Scholar, professor, academic leader, author, animal rights advocate—Janet Gyatso contains multitudes

As Associate Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs here at HDS, Janet Gyatso has helped lead the School through the many challenges of 2020 and 2021 by grounding herself in the practice of compassion. As a professor of Buddhist studies, she has shifted the focus of her classes to explore current issues from new Buddhist perspectives. As a scholar with a fierce appreciation for the welfare of all sentient beings, Gyatso has started working on her next book: an exploration on the connections between animal welfare and empathy.

Gyatso earned her PhD from the University of California in Berkeley, where she focused on Tibetan and South Asian cultural and intellectual history. In addition to serving on a number of University, national, and international committees, she has been deeply involved with developing the Divinity School’s curriculum since she was appointed as the first faculty member to hold the Hershey Chair in Buddhist Studies back in 2001. Pluralism—one of HDS’s defining commitments—had been a part of her life well before she joined the ranks of Harvard faculty.

Gyatso reflects: “I come from an Ashkenazi Jewish family, and I grew up with a sense of being in a marginalized community in the United States with a complicated history. And then, I studied Buddhism, which has been marginalized in academia until very recently.”

When she first came to the Divinity School 20 years ago, the curriculum was centered on Christianity as the normative tradition. Driven by her own pluralistic experience with religion, Gyatso was instrumental in broadening the areas of expertise at HDS: “With the help of others, I had a hand in shifting our curriculum towards a more multireligious perspective.”

Wary of the politics of identity, however, Gyatso is quick to put the idea of self and belonging into a more expansive Buddhist context: “At HDS, our knowledge of the world—our knowledge of history, and literature, and religion, and philosophy—is skewed because we’re too Western-centric. We’re too male-centric. We’re too white-centric. It’s important that we diversify. But no matter who we are, it’s important to know more than just our own, singular identity.”

Buddhist Notions of Compassion
Gyatso’s reminder to be aware beyond the self hints at a core component of Buddhist philosophy—anatta, the concept of no-self.

Gyatso explains: “No-self is not saying we don’t have an identity, but rather that identity, and whatever else we want to say about the self, is constructed, provisional, and not essential. Once we know the self is a mere construct, then we know it can shift. And then we can talk about how the shift away from our obsessive attention to our own ego or identity allows us to perceive the situation of others. Once we discern the suffering of others, we can then feel genuine compassion and a natural aspiration to help alleviate said suffering.”

When we shift our attention from the singular self, we can begin to see the world as more than a collection of people, places, and things to consume. Expanding our worldview allows us to create more meaningful connections. This concept is one of many that inspired Gyatso’s next book on exploring human empathy with animals and the compassion we feel for other sentient beings.

With this book, Gyatso hopes to contribute to people’s awareness of the beings and world around them, which necessitates grappling with factory farming and the connected issues of animal cruelty, environmental destruction, and the climate crisis. “Not to mention,” she is quick to add, “the many dreadful injustices suffered by human groups around the world.”

“I’m using some of the practices of attention, observation, and self-awareness from Buddhist meditative traditions as a way of helping me unpack a phenomenology of animal life. What is the shared life of humans and animals? How do we deepen our awareness of that connection? And how do we translate that into beneficial actions? The latter is really the key question because there are plenty of people who love animals but are completely disconnected from the harm and global suffering caused by consumer choices and production practices.”

Janet Gyatso Shares an Early Look at Her New Book
“My book in progress (yet to be titled) has three chapters. The first reflects on how animals (both wild and domesticated) comport themselves in ways that lead most humans, and especially children, to love and connect with them so much. It focuses on how animals inhabit a ‘thick present’ in which there is time and room for sharing life with others—along with maintaining a highly intelligent interaction with our material environment.

The second chapter, challenging the assumption that we can never know the mind of another, insists that there is much we can learn from our animal compatriots if we are attentive and quiet enough. This chapter explores the ways that animals think both impulsively and slowly, while building their own senses of the past and the future.

The final chapter explores how humans can adapt both animal ways of knowing and Buddhist contemplative techniques to enrich our appreciation of animals and our commitment to the betterment of all life on our imperiled planet.”

Disembodied Connections: Lessons Learned from a Year of Virtual Reality
Training herself to be more highly attuned to the situations of others helps Gyatso view the world with active compassion. This practice might have given Gyatso an unusual perspective on pandemic teaching.

These last few semesters have been unprecedented and punctuated with uncertainty, Gyatso reflects. With a global pandemic and ongoing structural inequities continuing to threaten wellbeing across the globe, Gyatso shifted her attention to helping students navigate the often-daunting physical, psychological, social, economic, and educational challenges the 2020–21 academic year posed.

It’s no surprise that technology helped many of us stay connected with the rapid shift to teaching, learning, and working online, but Gyatso found that remote technologies offered some benefits that may outlast our need to use them for the sole purpose of social distancing. When talking about her teaching, she shares: “It’s sometimes possible to see class members’ faces better [on Zoom] than what we can see in person. It’s also easier to share documents and online resources directly with students when everyone is tuned into the same station.”

She also observes that both class attendance and event participation were up, thanks to the ease of connecting via virtual platforms: “For academic events, we’ve been able to connect with students and participants from around the world without the need for transportation. We now get hundreds of people to join us for discussions in my small field of Buddhist studies that might normally garner 15 in-person attendees. Our ability to communicate with students, colleagues, and those interested in HDS’s work from across the globe is amazing, and technology made that possible.”

Additionally, Gyatso was impressed by how willing students were to adapt. Not only did they creatively find quiet spaces to study in homes filled with family members or roommates—students also used their sense of urgency to help shape pedagogy.

When identifying lessons learned in a (virtual) Dean’s Leadership Forum discussion earlier this year, Gyatso affirmed: “There’s been a shift in our [HDS] consciousness—and I’m guessing there’s been a parallel shift in other universities around the country—to bring the relevance of the material that we teach into much more obvious connection with the social and global conditions of today.”

One example of this shift in Gyatso’s manner of teaching: A class that previously focused on the textual history of meditation began implementing the practice as part of the course assignments. Gyatso clarifies that practicing meditation was an optional addition to the other assignments, but everyone in the course chose to participate. This update to her syllabus imparted traditional knowledge while also creating moments of mindfulness to help students find quiet in an otherwise turbulent time.

Another shift, notes Gyatso, is that classroom conversations have skewed toward impact, with students asking, “How can knowledge of this subject matter affect the world today?” In her Buddhism and Women course, for instance, the discussion leaned toward current issues, rather than historical context. The #MeToo movement became a central theme of the course, in addition to new issues around female ordination emerging today within Buddhist traditions. Declaring, “We don’t have time anymore to just talk in the abstract,” Gyatso recognizes the heightened sense of urgency students now bring to her classes.

From Abstract to Action: The Real-World Relevance of an HDS Education
When reflecting on the growing urgency to understand the world more expansively, to cultivate compassion, and to do this all not just in theory, but in practice, Gyatso points to the importance of education. She also reminds us that HDS not only educates religious ministers and faith leaders, but also experts from different fields in academia, such as the humanities, medicine, law, industry, and government.

“Any of our classes can be looked at through the lenses of intersectionality and impact. Students are hungry for real-world relevance. They are looking to be leaders who are committed to advancing social justice and bringing a pluralistic view with them into their work beyond HDS.”

This emphasis on real-world relevance stems from a knowledge base, including how we teach and learn, that continues to evolve. Building on her points about expanding curriculum and updating pedagogy, she concludes: “We’re in the process of discovering new epistemologies right now.”

While traditional ministry has informed academics (and vice versa) since Ralph Waldo Emerson’s time at the School in the 1800s, we now see a new focus emerging for much of the current teaching and learning at HDS. This new focus prompts the question: “What kind of knowledge contributes most to flourishing?”

If you ask Janet Gyatso, the answer can be found in the study—and active practice—of compassion.

—by Amie Montemurro