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The Role of Compassion in Buddhism

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    The Role of Compassion in Buddhism

    Buddhism as a way of life calls for people to leave the “ordinary” and become extraordinary” persons promoting and working towards a state of enlightenment or nirvana. Compassion is a virtue that differentiates each human being from the other with a demonstrated awareness of suffering. This is the reason why Buddhism has designated compassion as the first and most challenging step towards an enlightened and extraordinary existence.

    This paper will look into the ways compassion is defined, interpreted and practiced in Buddhism as well as present the possible hindrances and challenges to the expression and feeling of compassion as defined by Buddhist principle.

    There is a common misconception among non-Buddhists that “Buddha” is a name of a single person. What most people do not understand is that “Buddha” is a state or personality that is the product of spiritual qualities and virtues reflecting perfect humanity and concern for his fellow man and other living beings (Morgan 3). Since Gautama Buddha, there have been many others who have managed to achieve “Buddha” status (Seager 13).

    Buddhism is not a religion founded by Buddha but more of a lifestyle guided by the traditions that were based on Gautama Buddha’s teachings (Seager 13). There have since been two branches that formed since Buddhism was first established.

    The Hinayana Buddhists allow for its followers to interpret the Buddhist texts and teachings in a more individual way and are considered to be more “traditional.” The Mahayana Buddhists are more broad in their views and involved with other living things besides themselves in their approach and interpretation of the tenets and principles of Buddhism (“Buddhism”).

    Despite their many other differences, one thing that is common with both branches is the significance and value they put in compassion particularly in the Mahayana sect in the journey towards enlightenment (Wuthnow 122).

    The Hinayana Buddhists need to practice sincere compassion in order for them to reach individual liberation. The Mahayana Buddhists use the compassion they feel to act as “vehicles of intervention” to alleviate their fellow men’s suffering (Alarid, and Wang 231).

    True compassion does not take into account any other thing except for the awareness of suffering by another person. Young or old, good or evil, compassion for all living creatures is not pre-empted by any other factor. It is in fact believed that the more wicked and “burdened with sin” a person is, the more he or she is deserving of compassion (Baker).

    The basis of Buddhism, Siddharta Gautama began his journey to enlightenment after renouncing comfort and wealth and going out into the world trying to find the answer to end human suffering that he observed in his environment (Seager 12).

                There is a story that relates how before Gautama the Buddha came to be, he was an ascetic called Sumedha. Sumedha’s transformation into Buddha was brought about by the freedom he achieved from personal suffering by practicing compassion and sacrificing himself for the welfare of others. (Morgan 4)

    The road to Buddha status and enlightenment is not traveled for one’s own benefit or glory. The purpose of searching for enlightenment is to benefit others and alleviate their suffering. The Bodhittsava differentiates enlightened beings as those that act and practice their way of life solely for the benefit of others. This separates them from “ordinary beings” whose actions, thoughts and way of life are geared towards personal happiness and fulfillment. (Powers 2)

    Is compassion merely feeling sorry for others? The definition of compassion is not so simple. There are some that feel compassion for fellow men’s sufferings with personal feelings of gladness that such suffering is not happening to them. There is also a separate definition where compassion where people do not stop at simply lending a helping hand but demonstrate affiliation and the willingness to share other people’s sufferings (Berlant 16). The latter definition is the one that applies to Buddhists.

    According to Buddhist tenets, it is much more than mere pity. The Bodhicharyavata (The Way of the Bodhittsava) states the way to truly achieve compassion is to first recognize and “meditate upon the sameness” between one’s self and others. It is only then when a person is prepared to do for others what he or she would do for himself/herself will there be a true demonstration of compassion (Reilly). The Indian pandit Atisha Dipamkara gives the example of how to achieve this:

    First, you visualize your mother (or most dear guardian) and all the ways she has loved you, cared for and sacrificed for you; meditate this way until you appreciate her more than anything else, until your heart opens to her with love and joy. If you meditate in this way long enough, and with sufficient concentration, you will spontaneously give birth to a sense of compassion toward her as great as that that felt by parents who witness their only child being tortured in a pit of fire (Reilly)

    Compassion in Buddhism therefore goes beyond usual pity and calls for a personal identification with all sentient beings and to wholeheartedly actively wish to relieve their suffering through more proactive and empathic means.

                To overcome one’s personal self, desires and thoughts is perhaps the biggest stumbling block most people including Buddhists will encounter in achieving true compassion and thus, a higher self. Buddhism teaches that all people “are fundamentally good” and this therefore allows them to achieve enlightenment. The problem however is that a personal and active choice must first be made by the individual followed by a conscious dedication to this choice in order to be enlightened. (Alarid, and Wang 231)

    This is perhaps the biggest challenge to Buddhists and followers of Buddhist teaching. Human nature includes emotions that can occur involuntarily such as anger, envy and negativity. Buddha appeals to people to be true to their highest and purest nature or dharma in order to achieve compassion and the desire to selflessly help others in their suffering (Morgan 67). There is a question though as to how followers of Buddha may feel compassion for a person who has done them and others wrong?

    Buddha teaches that the student is tasked with the responsibility of learning, living and spreading what they have learned. Compassion in Buddhist belief is a given that comes with the essential good nature of human beings. This is where the choice comes in for people who have to decide if they should be truthful to their dharma and lay aside whatever discriminations they may have against others in order to fulfill their purpose of helping their fellow men (Morgan 19).

    “You yourselves must exert; for the Tathagatas [the Perfect Ones] but point out the Way.” ( Dhammapada 276.) “If you travel on this Path you will put an end to all suffering; this Path have I shown ever since I knew the arrow of suffering.” ( Dhammapada275.) (Morgan 19)


    In the course of the research, the researcher observes that compassion particularly in the Buddhist understanding is a complex challenge and not an emotion. Some people may think that just because they feel sorry for people in pain or suffering qualifies them as “compassionate.” The researcher finds it difficult to agree that it is simply a matter of choice for them to achieve true humanity and compassion.

    According to Kornfield, compassion is neither just pity neither nor grief at the suffering of others (83). Compassion as demanded by the Buddhist faith requires a conscious choice and determination to share completely in another person’s pain in order to achieve enlightenment. It is only when there is a complete immersion in other people’s pain and fully understand the anguish suffered by others may one be able to say that they are completely compassionate and have the heartfelt desire to help and alleviate suffering.

    Pity and grief just acts as a boundary. It fosters a division that can best be described as “them” and “us.” Compassion according to Buddha’s teachings and tenets is a literal interpretation of the oft-repeated phrase “I understand what you are going through” that people so usually mouth in commiseration.

    One might almost say that it is just another way of stating the “Golden Rule” albeit in a reversed form.  The Golden Rule dictates that people “do unto others what they’d like others to do unto them.” Buddha teaches that in order to know and understand what it is that is needed to help people, one must first immerse him or herself in the other person’s place. It is only then that they can achieve enlightenment.

    This is probably one of the reasons why not all Buddhists get to achieve “enlightened” or Buddha status.  It is after all a true challenge to both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.

    Works Cited

    Alarid, Leanne Fiftal, and Hsiao-Ming Wang. “Mercy and Punishment: Buddhism and the Death Penalty.” Social Justice 28.1 (2001): 231. Questia. 23 Nov. 2007 <>.

    Baker, Sharon. “The Three Minds and Faith, Hope and Love in Pure Land Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies (2005): 49+. Questia. 23 Nov. 2007 <>.

    Berlant, Lauren, ed. Compassion:  The Culture and Politics of an Emotion.  New York: Routledge, 2004. Questia. 23 Nov. 2007 <>.

    “Buddhism.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2004. Questia. 23 Nov. 2007 <>.

    Kornfield, Jack. “The Buddhist Path and Social Responsibility.” Re-vision 16.2 (1993): 83-86. Questia. 23 Nov. 2007 <>.

    Morgan, Kenneth W., ed. The Path of the Buddha Buddhism Interpreted by Buddhists.  New York: Ronald Press, 1956. Questia. 23 Nov. 2007 <>.

    Reilly, Richard. “Compassion as Justice.” Buddhist-Christian Studies (2006): 13+. Questia. 23 Nov. 2007 <>.

    Seager, Richard Hughes. Buddhism in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Questia. 23 Nov. 2007 <>.

    Wuthnow, Robert. Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991. Questia. 23 Nov. 2007 <>.


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