The Practice of Compassion


The attainment of enlightenment in Buddhism is often characterized as a flying bird. In order to fly the bird must have two wings; so it is for the achievement of full enlightenment: one must have perfected both wisdom and compassion. Often we think of these two characteristics as being different. But in actuality, they are merely two aspects of the same attainment.

Compassion is the active form of wisdom. For if one has attained wisdom, one sees the innate unsatisfactoriness of things. One sees how suffering and unhappiness arise and how sentient beings are caught in this web of samsara, the continuous round of the arising, maturing and ceasing of existence. And when one sees others caught in duhkha, in suffering, in unsatisfactory conditions, one's compassion arises, for one has experienced this duhkha also, and knows the source of it. The understanding of the existence of suffering causes the arising of compassion, and the understanding of its source is the wisdom that must underlie compassionate action.

Wisdom is cultivated through the practice of meditation and ethical conduct. Compassion is cultivated with the practice of the six perfections: dana, selfless giving; ksanti, patience; and virya, spiritual effort; as well as sila, ethical conduct; dhyana, meditation; and prajna, intuitive wisdom. The cultivation of wisdom is the cultivation of compassion, and the cultivation of compassion is the cultivation of wisdom.

Dana, selfless giving, is the base of all Buddhist practice and the base of compassion. One can give material goods. One can give time and energy. One can give security, emotional refuge, or spiritual guidance. But one must give from a place of no self, as easily and as naturally as a mother gives milk to her infant. If the giver thinks, "I am giving to this poor wretch," that is poor giving. If one thinks, "I will attain merit from this giving," that is no giving at all. Dana is giving which has no giver, no given and no receiver. It is an action that arises with no separation of subject and object. This non-separation of giver and receiver is not a metaphor. It is reality, for Buddhism does not see separate, innate beings of any kind. Rather, all beings are one and ultimately cannot be separated into individual personalities or separate existences.

Compassion is all embracing and non-discriminatory. It is given freely to all beings, just as the rain does not discriminate as to which plants and beings deserve its benefits. It just falls and nourishes all life. So, too, compassion arises without any ego thoughts, without any concepts, to all beings: human, animal, vegetable. All life forms benefit from it.

Compassion is not sentimental, nor particularly emotional. Since compassion necessitates an understanding of the source of suffering and the relief of suffering, wisdom must underlie and give impetus to any compassionate act. If compassion does not grow from wisdom, then the action taken may cause much harm. Since compassion must help to end suffering, the compassionate being cannot be swayed by pity or by emotional appeals to give the sufferer something that does not ultimately help to relieve suffering. A compassionate act does not enable the sufferer to continue behavior which will only brings more suffering. Therefore, the wise person sees where the suffering arises, does what he can to help alleviate the suffering, and does not become morose or feel guilty when he cannot help.

In Mahayana Buddhism, compassion became idealized and embodied in the great spiritual heroes: the Bodhisattvas. These Bodhisattvas are greatly revered, for they exemplify total compassion. Although fully enlightened, and able to enter into the final Paranirvana, they remain in the world of samsara, in the realms of suffering, to help all beings, until all beings attain Nirvana. At the same time, while the Bodhisattvas work to liberate all living beings, they do not perceive of themselves as saviours. Their compassionate acts flow freely from them, without reservation, without discrimination, for their very nature is compassion. It is this compassion that the sincere Buddhist tries to cultivate.