- Excerpt from Ajahn Munindo's new book 'The Gift of Well-Being.'
A Way of 'Feeling with'
Like wisdom, from one perspective compassion is just another word. Some groups hold it up as a banner and claim to have a monopoly on it. But nobody owns compassion. We could talk a lot about compassion, but the mere conceptual understanding of these issues doesn't take us very far. Concepts alone don't serve our true needs. We need to know this quality of compassion for ourselves, not just have ideas about it and teachings that he gave: "All I can do is point the way. I can't become enlightened for you. I can't give it to you." I'm sure he would have also said, "I would if I could but I can't." In approaching this heart-matter of compassion then, let's consider it practically and see if we can move towards realising it for ourselves.
In this consideration, it is essential that we feel for what is being addressed - we need to feel for how compassion functions. We can look at the Latin roots of the word 'compassion' to give us a hint: passion means 'feeling', com means 'with', so 'compassion' suggests 'feeling with'. Compassion means feeling with life, particularly feeling with suffering. "If you want to know what compassion is," the Buddha said, "well you see what's in a mothers eyes when her child is sick." The quality you observe says, "May you be free from suffering." Compassion is a feeling of empathetic relationship in the context of suffering. It means feeling the suffering of others, with no judgement, no barrier.

From one point of view, the capacity to judge is an aspect of intelligence. But sadly, when we judge heedlessly compassion is excluded, and effectively we bring down the shutters: "I don't want to feel what you're feeling, so I'll judge it. You're wrong for suffering." When there is this kind of judgement, empathetic relationship is impossible; all that is left of compassion is the word.
Unitive Intelligence
The function of compassion is to feel with the suffering of beings and it's useful to know how this and wisdom go together. Wisdom is seeing through, and with this wisdom there is an appreciation and use of discriminative intelligence - the capacity to identify and to analyse and compare. With compassion, on the other hand, a mother does not necessarily analyse the child's suffering. She responds. Analysis is not the essence of compassion.
What is the quality of compassion? It's a feeling-appreciation of where the other person is at, with an intelligence that is different from wisdom. It has a distinctly different tone to it; it's a unitive intelligence. Sometimes compassion doesn't understand anything in itself. That's not its function; that's the function of wisdom. Compassion doesn't have to understand. Compassion feels, holds and receives the situation.
We Western Buddhists are good at conceptualising things. Maybe some of you have suffered the misfortune that I have, and may even have perpetrated the same mistake I have. When somebody comes to us in suffering the important thing is that they know they are received. They don't need us telling them how we understand their problem, talking about anicca or something. Coming out with some kind of impressive presentation of paticca-samuppada, (the dependent origination teachings) is probably not what's called for. If all we come up with is a clever interpretation of somebody's suffering, it is doubtful that they will feel as if we have offered them anything at all. We haven't met that person on a level that matters. Surely meeting on such a level is what religion can offer us: if we can't find an enhanced capacity for receiving suffering, our own and others', then what's the point of our religion?
Let's try and be clear then about the particular functions of wisdom and compassion. It is vital to recognise that there is a profound form of intelligence associated with the capacity to receive and empathise with the suffering of living beings. This recognition can bring into focus both the usefulness and the limitations of discriminative understanding, which for many of us is the kind of understanding with which we're more familiar.
I hesitate to use this as an illustration because it's very painful, but I heard a leader of the Christian church here in Scotland speaking on the radio shortly after the Dunblane massacre. The interviewer asked, "How do you explain this massacre? You're a religious leader and many people feel they need an explanation." We all suffer from the painful longing for explanations - it is one of our most immediate tendencies. But the man who was questioned responded profoundly: "To try to explain this event is not the way; this is not the time for trying to understand something of this order." Understanding might emerge; but the way to understanding in this case is to hold the pain with those who have suffered so much. The function of compassion is the holding of the pain. It is that capacity or dimension within ourselves that is able to hold pain without judgement, even without being able to explain anything at all.
The Cultivation of Compassion

uh2.jpgAs in all the great religious disciplines, Buddhism teaches that compassion can be cultivated by way of formal meditation; accordingly there are techniques for holding in mind images which bring about its direct personal experience. I won't go into these here, because there are so many possibilities, but an important point I'd like to make is that it is possible to cultivate compassion, as with attention and insight.
Sometimes we can think, yes, compassion is a wonderful thing and I should have more of it. But then, watching the news on TV, maybe we think, "But how do I handle this?" Some of you young people are probably at the stage in life where you can feel yourselves starting to cut off, because it's too much, it's too awful. I can remember at times finding that the news was too painful. I didn't want to know about it. I was sometimes quite dishonest about not wanting to know about it, and I would distract myself in heedless ways, as maybe some of you are doing. But if we're really honest, we can come back and ask, "What are we not wanting to know about?" Then we may find that it's not actually the pain of life that we are avoiding, but that we are afraid of not being able to handle our reaction to the pain.
We need to acknowledge for ourselves our blind and habitual rejection of fear, because it's fear we're really afraid of, not the pain of the world. We already know that pain is a part of life. None of us is now naive enough to think that we're going to totally avoid pain; we all know pain is part of this package. What we're actually afraid of, and what we're turning away from, is our sense of a lack of capacity to receive it, to bear with pain in a sane way. In his Middle Way the Buddha discovered that pain just is, and pleasure just is. Pleasure and pain are not right or wrong. But while we don't usually have a problem with pleasure, except that we sometimes forget ourselves with it, we do have a big problem with pain. It motivates us to do all sorts of things that become addictions or other avoidance strategies, which are very wasteful of energy, both inwardly and outwardly.
So the point to register is that compassion can be cultivated. It isn't helpful to approach compassion or any of these heart-matters, with the idea of having or not-having it; compassion is a potential in all of us. But it needs to be cultivated, and there are techniques, suggestions and encouragement's for this.
One of the best encouragement's, I suggest, is to intentionally witness compassionate beings. One of the most inspiring people around at the moment is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Here is a man who has every reason to be indignant, every reason to be upset, and every reason to try and avoid his responsibilities. And yet he doesn't avoid responsibility. He meets it. Over and over again, everywhere he goes on the planet, he meets it. Even with the troubles inside his own tradition, he meets his responsibilities. And he does so with a particular quality of heart, which, if you witness it, you can't help but be touched. One way, then, to cultivate compassion would be to find a way of observing the Dalai Lama as often as we are able and to become aware of what impresses us. These days one doesn't have to go to India or Tibet to do this. With the advantage of current technology we can have the opportunity to view people like His Holiness on video or television and if we apply mindfulness to our viewing this can be a great blessing.
Inner Co-operation
Just as our individual characters are unique, so our pathways into realisation of these heart-qualities will vary. For some it may be the case that the heart-quality of compassion leads to insight, or wisdom; whilst for others a mature understanding can be the gateway into an experience of selfless compassion.

A couple of weeks ago I was speaking to a gathering of people who came to our monastery for a practice day. One of the questions that was asked at the end was: "It seems to me that compassionate people are just taken advantage of or dismissed, so what's the point of cultivating it?" When I heard this question, I thought, "This person has never seen a truly compassionate being." If you've witnessed a truly compassionate being you've also seen a truly wise being and a wise being isn't going to be taken advantage of. Wisdom and compassion are the qualities which command authentic respect.
Wisdom and compassion are like the front and the back of a hand: they go together. When we have an accurate, non-judgemental sensitivity to the suffering of living beings, we also have an understanding of the actuality of life - that this is not my suffering, this is just suffering. This is life - not mine, not yours. When we meet and share in this life together truly, we experience the benefit of wisdom functioning as it penetratrates into what Buddhists call the non-self nature of existence.
This is utterly extraordinary, and this uniting of wisdom and compassion is not something one can fake. On an abstract level we can get an impression of the Buddha's Teachings; we can be impressed by them. An impression is made, and perhaps an alteration occurs, but that's only the first stage and not yet real transformation. We can be altered momentarily - just as taking drugs alters something - but we aren't transformed. The transformation occurs when wisdom and compassion come together in direct experience, when the discriminative and the unitive intelligence are both functioning together.