With the rise of self-anointed spirituality and the sudden caché of “Buddhism”, discussion of compassion is all the rage. I have often pondered the possible obligations of “compassion”. I don’t see compassion as mandating the provision of another’s desires. Nor does compassion mandate I interfere in another’s “just desserts”. As I see it:
- wishing is foolish,
- celebrating another’s misfortune is not compassionate, but acknowledging they deserve their present circumstances does not reflect a lack of compassion, and
- the whole karma/dharma thing is religious nonsense.
It is clear that there is a divide of sorts between Buddhist views of compassion and some more “romantic” Western notions. 1 A discussion of compassion by Jenniger Goetz 2 points out the “cold” nature of compassion as viewed by Buddhism.
The more one reads Buddhist writings, the more one realizes that Buddhist compassion is similar to lay conceptions of compassion in name only. While lay concepts of compassion are of warm feelings for particular people in need, Buddhist compassion is not particular, warm, or even a feeling. Perhaps the most succinct and clear mention of this is in the discussions of the Dalai Lama and Jean-Claude Carriere (1996, p. 53). A footnote explains in refreshingly plain language that compassion in the Buddhist sense is not based on what we call “feeling”. While Buddhist’s do not deny the natural feelings that may arise from seeing another in need, this is not the compassion Buddhism values. Instead, Buddhist compassion is the result of knowing one is part of a greater whole and is interdependent and connected to that whole. It is the result of practiced meditations. Indeed, Buddhist compassion should be without heat or passion – it is objective, cold, constant and universal.
Trungpa (1973) argues true compassion has the potential to appear cruel or ruthless. Compassion requires prajna or transcendental wisdom – an ability to see past shallow appearances and see true suffering and need. For this reason, compassion may involve giving someone what they really need, not what they want. In addition compassion is an open gift, it is generosity without demand. One does not expect or require reciprocity or confirmation of compassion. Indeed, true compassion will often not be appreciated and may be received with anger or hatred. The next section discusses the threat of anger to compassion and the methods for dealing with this.
From a Buddhist perspective, Harris notes 3 that,
Viraaga literally means the absence of raaga: the absence of lust, desire, and craving for existence. Hence, it denotes indifference or non-attachment to the usual objects of raaga, such as material goods or sense pleasures. Non-attachment is an important term here if the Pali is to be meaningful to speakers of English. It is far more appropriate than “detachment” because of the negative connotations “detachment” possesses in English.
In fact, at least three strands of meaning in the term “compassion” can be detected in the texts: a prerequisite for a just and harmonious society; an essential attitude for progress along the path towards wisdom; and the liberative action within society of those who have become enlightened or who are sincerely following the path towards it. All these strands need to be looked at if the term is to be understood and if those who accuse Buddhist compassion of being too passive are to be answered correctly.
Bodhi 4 states,
Like a bird in flight borne by its two wings, the practice of Dhamma is sustained by two contrasting qualities whose balanced development is essential to straight and steady progress. These two qualities are renunciation and compassion. As a doctrine of renunciation the Dhamma points out that the path to liberation is a personal course of training that centers on the gradual control and mastery of desire, the root cause of suffering. As a teaching of compassion the Dhamma bids us to avoid harming others, to act for their welfare, and to help realize the Buddha’s own great resolve to offer the world the way to the Deathless.
Considered in isolation, renunciation and compassion have inverse logics that at times seem to point us in opposite directions. The one steers us to greater solitude aimed at personal purification, the other to increased involvement with others issuing in beneficent action. Yet, despite their differences, renunciation and compassion nurture each other in dynamic interplay throughout the practice of the path, from its elementary steps of moral discipline to its culmination in liberating wisdom. The synthesis of the two, their balanced fusion, is expressed most perfectly in the figure of the Fully Enlightened One, who is at once the embodiment of complete renunciation and of all-embracing compassion.
Both renunciation and compassion share a common root in the encounter with suffering. The one represents our response to suffering confronted in our own individual experience, the other our response to suffering witnessed in the lives of others. Our spontaneous reactions, however, are only the seeds of these higher qualities, not their substance. To acquire the capacity to sustain our practice of Dhamma, renunciation and compassion must be methodically cultivated, and this requires an ongoing process of reflection which transmutes our initial stirrings into full-fledged spiritual virtues.
But, you start to whine, isn’t compassion a call to action. Mustn’t one DO something?
The simple answer, of course, is, “Yes!” But while compassion is about helping another find the power to overcome their circumstances, that power truly comes from helping another find detachment5, NOT by way of resolving someone’s difficulties. It’s not about which side of the mushroom to nibble on; it’s about acknowledging one has no need of the mushroom. 6
- The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. “Compassion.” Accessed April 10, 2020. http://ccare.stanford.edu/research/wiki/compassion-definitions/compassion/.
- Goetz, Jennifer. “Research on Buddhist Conceptions of Compassion: An Annotated Bibliography.” Greater Good Magazine, June 1, 2004. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/buddhist_conceptions_of_compassion_an_annotated_bibliography
- Harris, Elizabeth J A. Detachment and Compassion in Early Buddhism. Bodhi Leaves 141. Kandi, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1997. http://www.bps.lk/olib/bl/bl141_Harris_Detachment-and-Compassion-in-Early-Buddhism.pdf.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “The Balanced Way.” Newsletter Winter 1987, no. 8 (1987). http://www.bps.lk/olib/nl/nl008.pdf.
- Soka Gakkai International. “Compassion: Solidarity of the Heart,” 2010. https://www.sgi.org/about-us/buddhist-concepts/compassion-solidarity-of-the-heart.html.
- Carroll, Lewis, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, (1865) London, England: Macmillan Publishing Co.