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Pursuing compassion locally

SATURDAY, NOV. 26, 2011

Interest in Buddhism, service at group’s heart

Even after the Dalai Lama turned down an invitation last year to come to Spokane, John Hancock and several others have continued to engage in conversations to promote the Buddhist leader’s call for compassion.

Hancock’s interest in Buddhism began when Venerable Thubten Chodron from the Svarasti Abbey near Newport, Wash., spoke to his Rotary group in 2009.

He was intrigued that Buddhism is both a religion and a philosophy, so it can be practiced by people for whom it’s not a religion. He also found Buddhist philosophy to be similar to the mission of Rotary: “Service above self.”

Along with others seeking to pursue compassion, Hancock helped start Friends of Compassion, organizing gatherings for people of diverse religions, philosophies and points of view so they would become acquainted.

He listed three goals for the group:

One is to develop understanding of what the word “compassion” means and where it’s found in many faiths, philosophies, laws and public policies.

“When we learn to emphasize what we have in common, differences fade and we can work on areas where we agree,” Hancock says. “We can be a diverse group, if we stick to compassion and do not compare doctrines.”

The second is to find which organizations are already acting compassionately.

Friends of Compassion is meeting at various locations such as the Spokane Islamic Center and Radha Yoga. To learn about homelessness, they met at Shalom Ministries at Central United Methodist Church and Volunteers of America.

By introducing members to agencies working with homeless people, Friends of Compassion hopes some may volunteer and expand their awareness of urgent issues in Spokane.

The third goal is to identify local issues for which compassion may offer new solutions.

The three goals were developed as part of the process of inviting the Dalai Lama to Spokane around a focus on indigenous people, educational opportunities, business ethics and the natural environment in this area.

“We asked if the local institutions of education, government, health care and religious bodies can be compassionate, or if only people can be compassionate,” Hancock says.

“The Dalai Lama adopted compassion as the foundation of public policy, education, commerce and diplomacy, seeing it as a public virtue, not just a religious virtue.”

Friends of Compassion, which has a mailing list of about 300 and an average attendance at monthly gatherings of 45, involves Buddhists, Catholics, Lutherans, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, people of other spiritual practices and people with philosophies rather than faith.

“Our goal is to speak in plain English, not the shop talk of one religion or academic philosophical or psychological practice,” says Hancock.

He adds that at Eastern Washington University, the Compassionate Interfaith Society is the largest non-sports and non-Greek organization.

The group’s website ( links to people engaged in compassionate practices and announces activities.

Hancock’s father was a Methodist minister who served in a small town in Iowa. He was a liberal in a conservative place, having gone to theological school at Boston University with Martin Luther King Jr.

“He had a pragmatic view that it did not matter what god one believed in, but what mattered was how we lived our lives,” Hancock says.

Hancock came to Spokane in 1999 as the executive director of the Spokane Symphony. A French horn player, he previously taught at the University of Michigan and at Murray State University in Kentucky.

He earned a master’s in music in 1977 at Boston University and a doctoral degree at the University of Michigan in 1983. In 2002, he attended the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

For the past four years, he has done grant writing and institutional development for nonprofits through his Deep Creek Consulting Company.

Having read the Dalai Lama’s book on Buddhist philosophy, “Ethics for the New Millennium,” hearing him speak in Seattle in the spring of 2009 and then having Thubten Chrodon speak at Rotary started a chain of events for Hancock.

“Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are my two life models and heroes,” he says.

Hancock says Friends of Compassion has been “informed by” the international Charter for Compassion, launched by Karen Armstrong, a former nun; the Universal Compassion Movement, led by Geshe Phelyge, a Buddhist monk who is a visiting professor at Gonzaga University; and by the work of the Dalai Lama.

“We are not sponsored by another organization, but remain affiliated with the Downtown Rotary and Sravasti Abbey,” he explains.

Hancock says the group is “strategically disorganized, with a loose committee of leaders and advisers, a service committee and a communication committee.”

For him, compassion is “the daily practice of being kind and generous.”

As a Boy Scout, Hancock says, he tried to follow the motto to “do a good turn every day.”

“Now I understand being helpful as more than an activity,” he says. “It’s a state of mind, because there are opportunities to love others all around us.

“It becomes a habit, not an activity. That makes me a happier person.”

Condensed and reprinted from the November issue of The Fig Tree, a monthly newspaper that covers faith in action in the Inland Northwest. For more information, call (509) 535-1813 or visit


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