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\Compassion\ (karuṇā) is the ability to feel the distress or pain of others as if it were one’s own. The English word compassion has exactly the same meaning and comes from the Latin com meaning ‘with’ and passio meaning ‘suffering.’ Sometimes in Buddhist psychology, compassion is also refered to as empathy (anuddyatā), commiseration (dayā), fellow feeling (anuggaha) or sympathy (anukampā). The most noticeable feature of the Buddha’s personality was his compassion and this compassion was not just something he felt for others or that they felt in his presence, it was also the motive for much of what he said and did. He said: ‘What should be done out of compassion for his disciples by a teacher who cares about their welfare and out of compassion for them, I have done for you.’ (M.I,46). The Buddha visited and comforted the sick ‘out of compassion’ (A.III,378), he taught the Dhamma ‘out of compassion’ (A.III,167). Once, he went into the forest looking for a serial killer because he had compassion for his potential victims and also for the murderer himself (M.II,980). The Buddha’s compassion seems to have transcended even the bounds of time. He is described sometimes as doing or refraining from doing certain things ‘out of compassion for coming generations’ (M.I,23). Once he said that his very reason for being was ‘for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the good and the happiness of gods and humans.’ (A.II,146).
Compassion is the very essence of a spiritual life and the main practice of those who have devoted their lives to attaining enlightenment. It is the root of the Three Jewels – Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
It is the root of Buddha because all Buddhas are born from compassion. It is the root of Dharma because Buddhas give Dharma teachings motivated solely by compassion for others. It is the root of Sangha because it is by listening to and practicing Dharma teachings given out of compassion that we become Sangha, or Superior beings.
What exactly is compassion? Compassion is a mind that is motivated by cherishing other living beings and wishes to release them from their suffering.
Sometimes out of selfish intention we can wish for another person to be free from their suffering; this is quite common in relationships that are based principally on attachment. If our friend is ill or depressed, for example, we may wish him to recover quickly so that we can enjoy his company again; but this wish is basically self-centred and is not true compassion. True compassion is necessarily based on cherishing others.
Although we already have some degree of compassion, at present it is very biased and limited. When our family and friends are suffering, we easily develop compassion for them, but we find it far more difficult to feel sympathy for people we find unpleasant or for strangers.
Furthermore, we feel compassion for those who are experiencing manifest pain, but not for those who are enjoying good conditions, and especially not for those who are engaging in harmful actions.
If we genuinely want to realize our potential by attaining full enlightenment we need to increase the scope of our compassion until it embraces all living beings without exception, just as a loving mother feels compassion for all her children irrespective of whether they are behaving well or badly.
This universal compassion is the heart of Mahayana Buddhism. Unlike our present, limited compassion, which already arises naturally from time to time, universal compassion must first be cultivated through training over a long period of time.
The Buddha encouraged his disciples to sometimes sit in silence, arouse thoughts and feelings of compassion, and then mentally radiate them to the whole world. Someone who did this, he said, could be called ‘compassion-imbued’ (karuṇādhimutta). ‘This means one abides suffusing one quarter of the world with a mind filled with compassion, then a second, a third and a fourth. Thus one abides suffusing the whole world, up, down, across, everywhere and all around, with a mind filled with an abundant and exalted compassion that is freed from anger and ill-will.’ (D.II,243).
Compassion is the second of the four Brahma Vihāras and was more highly praised by the Buddha than any other virtue because it is the root of so many other virtues.
The Jātakamālā says: ‘Compassion gives birth to all the other virtues just as cooling rain makes the crops grow. When a person is compassionate he has no desire to harm his neighbour, his body, speech and mind are purified, concern for his neighbour’s welfare increases and states like kindness, patience, happiness and good reputation grow. Being calm, the compassionate person does not arouse fear in the minds of others, he is trusted like a kinsman, he is not agitated by the passions, and quenched by the waters of compassion, the fire of hatred does not blaze in his heart .... Remembering this, strive to develop compassion towards others, as if they were yourself or your offspring.’
If, in return for not the slightest wrong of mine,
Someone were to cut off even my very head,
Through the power of compassion to take all his negative actions
Upon myself is the practice of a Spiritual Hero.
-Tokme Zangpo, 37 Practices