The Buddha on Compassion: An
By Chen Yu-Hsi, Ph.D.
Professor Department of Religious
Studies Fo Guang University, Taiwan
Love and compassion are the two key
components of the Four Noble States of Mind revealed by the Buddha. In their eagerness
to live a moral life, some Buddhists may regard love and compassion as a moral
or ethical norm to live up to, or as a lofty ideal to "advocate." Apparently,
this normative perception stems from the Chinese Buddhist interpretation of love
as "bring happiness to sentient beings" and of compassion as "relieve
sentient beings of sufferings." In other words, love and compassion is assigned
a prescriptive meaning and an altruist mission.
But the Buddha and historical
Buddhist sages were not moralists. Rather, they took an existential approach,
pointing out that love and compassion is a quality - and an inner power -- intrinsic
to our true nature, i.e., the "Buddha-nature." If we know how to connect
with our Buddha-nature, we touch the abundant source of that divine quality. Here
we are talking about depth psychology on a spiritual level, not religious ethics.
The Buddhist perception of "unconditioned love and compassion" is neither
a metaphysical abstraction nor altruist idealism. Indeed, it has an experiential
basis, being experienced as the natural unfolding of an enlightened mind that
transcends the narrow ego identity along with its dualistic mode of thinking and
Insofar as true love and compassion is the result of self-transcendence,
it inevitably includes the selfless virtues of tolerance, forgiveness and sympathetic
understanding (empathy). These virtues, more than anything else, are the acid
test for the power of love as they are present in situations in which the ego
is being offended or threatened. And what else can be more invaluable for a world
fraught with conflicts and differences? Tolerance keeps our minds open to respect
different opinions, ideas and religious faiths. Forgiveness involves surrendering
feelings of animosity and hatred when others step on our toes. Sympathetic understanding
means putting ourselves in others' shoes and considering matters from their positions
in addition to our own when a conflict arises. These virtues help close the gap
between ourselves and others, making peace possible in the face of conflicts and
As far as spiritual practice is concerned, these virtues keep
out mental negativities such as hatred, hostility and the more general feeling
of aversion, so that they pose no hindrances to the mental well-being and spiritual
progress of the practitioners. It is for this reason that the Buddhist metta practice
- the practice of loving kindness - is directed not only towards charity, good
deeds and kind words, but perhaps more importantly, towards the cultivation of
forgiveness, tolerance and acceptance.
Buddhism perceives love and compassion
as going hand in hand with wisdom, as if they were the two wings of a bird. Wisdom
in this context refers to the realization of the truth of life that sets the mind
free of its obsessions, fixations and mental negativities. Ultimately the truth
is revealed in a profound understanding that our ego-consciousness, along with
its sensory functions, is in a state of separation from the true Self, experienced
as one with the unconditioned, non-dual Ultimate Reality, or the great cosmic
Mind as trans-personal psychology prefers to call it. At that realization, the
dualistic ego is instantly dissolved into the egoless true Self, the great Mind,
that embraces all beings in love and compassion.
Paradoxically we cannot hope
to attain that wisdom if we do not have a loving and compassionate heart to start
with. At this point, an analogy may be helpful: A fertile land with propitious
climatic conditions can yield a good crop of corn, but without healthy corn seeds
to start with, how can a good harvest be possible? This means that wisdom and
love and compassion come in an interactive circle. The practice of loving-kindness
(metta practice), which includes first and foremost the practice of forgiveness,
tolerance and sympathetic understanding as mentioned above, is thus of vital importance
to attain spiritual enlightenment.
Buddhism is not unique in expounding the
interrelationship between love and compassion on the one hand and wisdom on the
other. The Indian sage Nisargadatta Maharaj, for example, is well-known for making
the following remarks: "Wisdom tells me I am nothing; love tells me I am
everything. Between the two my life flows." 1 Here "I am nothing"
is equivalent to the Buddhist experience of emptiness and egolessness, which represents
a transformed consciousness unfolding a clear, radiant space within, unimpeded
by the dark clouds of thoughts and emotions. Being "nothing" in this
way, there is nothing, no obstacles whatsoever, to separate us from other beings.
Thus the wisdom of nothingness enables us to embrace other people in love and
compassion. As meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg aptly explains, both the clear,
open space of "nothing" and the interconnectedness of "everything"
awaken us to our true nature.2 Any discussion of love and compassion is not complete
without discussing their implications for psychotherapy. The Buddha speaks of
love and compassion as the unique power within us that overcomes fear and hatred,
and that heals a wounded soul. As he observes, "Hatred can never be ceased
by hatred; it is ceased by love alone." He also advises people to "conquer
anger by love." These remarks are interpreted as addressing interpersonal
relationships jarred by hatred and animosity. True, we can give numerous examples
to show how a dose of good will, tolerance or forgiveness can help bring reconciliation
to interpersonal conflicts. But we should not overlook another important aspect
of the issue, that is, love and compassion is also an effective antidote to hatred,
anger, animosity, etc. within ourselves. It is known that these mental negativities
can produce toxic endocrinal secretions to damage physical as well as mental health.
Among other things, hatred can accumulate into a psychological complex, which
in turn gives rise to depression and other neurotic disorders.
psychotherapy offers all sorts of cures based on rational egoism, only to ignore
the most efficacious method that makes use of the patient's inner resource of
love and compassion. The absurdity and irrationality of the supposedly rational
therapeutic approaches is illustrated by this analogy: Why do you bother to remove
ice and snow with a shovel when sunshine can easily do the job? There is radiant
sunshine deep down in the heart of every one of us. And as existential psychology
suggests, we have complete freedom to choose to evoke that inner radiance to heal
others as well as ourselves.
So, next time you are caught up in anger and hatred,
just stop to do a little contemplation and introspection before going to a psychotherapist.
Are these negativities really necessary? Do I not have the inner strength to conquer
them? Please note that the practice of forgiveness can be constructively motivated
by self-interest. You forgive your enemy not to fulfill any religious or moral
norm, but simply to benefit yourself. For you do not want the harmful emotions
to continue working havoc to your mental well-being. With this understanding in
mind, the practice of forgiveness and tolerance can yield amazingly positive results.
inner strength we can utilize for this purpose is related to an important topic
in the discussion of love and compassion: self-love. The Buddha and many Western
thinkers concur that loving ourselves is the foundation of love and compassion
for others. As the Buddha observes, "You can travel around the world to search
for someone more lovable than yourself, and yet that person is never to be found."
Self-love, however, should not be confused with narcissism and ego-centeredness.
It comes from a process of healthy personal growth in which the actualization
of our personal potentials, especially in the service of others, brings us joy
and happiness, and enhances our self-worth rather than self-conceit. To love ourselves
is to be continuously in touch with this source of joy and happiness, and to learn
to appreciate the goodness we have in us. Self-love in this sense is eroded by
all egoist and narcissistic tendencies, including self-aggrandizement and self-abasement.
Conversely it is enriched by our willingness to open our hearts and minds to accept
all situations and all people, to touch our pain and sorrow with tenderness, and
to reach out to others in need of help. Out of self-love the power of love and
compassion grows. It is a power so warm as to heal, so strong as to overcome,
and so radiant as to illuminate. The potentials of that power are indeed within
all of us - a precious inner resource that we all can and should learn to develop,
and to benefit from.
1 Quoted in Sharon Salzberg, Loving-kindness: The Revolutionary
Art of Happiness, Boston: Shambhala, 1997, p.15.
Dr. Chen Yu-Hsi
was chairperson of the Department of Religious Studies, Fo Guang University, Taiwan,
from 2000 to 2003. He is currently a full professor teaching religious psychology
and psychotherapy at that Department. He has published many articles and papers
on spirituality and religious psychology