By Nancy Thompson
Compassion is the heart of the Buddhist teachings. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, head of one of the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and the face of Buddhism to much of the world, says that the purpose of life is to be happy, and the way to attain that is to develop compassion.
“The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. This helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we 5/have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life,” he says.
Compassion is listed as one of the Brahma Viharas, or Divine Abodes, along with lovingkindness, empathetic joy, and equanimity. While lovingkindness is defined as the wish for all beings—ourselves and others—to be happy, compassion goes a step further, seeing suffering and aspiring to end it.
Looking deeply at others’ suffering 5/sound depressing, but the Dalai Lama says it’s what gives us the ability to face our difficulties without getting swamped:
As long as we live in this world we are bound to encounter problems. If, at such times, we lose hope and become discouraged, we diminish our ability to face difficulties. If, on the other hand, we remember that it is not just ourselves but every one who has to undergo suffering, this more realistic perspective will increase our determination and capacity to overcome troubles. Indeed, with this attitude, each new obstacle can be seen as yet another valuable opportunity to improve our mind!
Thus we can strive gradually to become more compassionate, that is we can develop both genuine sympathy for others’ suffering and the will to help remove their pain. As a result, our own serenity and inner strength will increase.
Compassion develops on three levels: aspiring (we see others’ suffering and wish it could be removed); active (we take action to alleviate the suffering); and absolute (we see no difference between ourselves and others, and every action we take is for the benefit of beings).
How do we develop compassion? We allow our hearts to be touched. Compassion is sometimes described as being tender-hearted—it’s the “aw” we feel watching cat videos on the Internet or looking at pictures of babies; the tears that fall when we hear another’s pain; even the anger at injustice. (Using anger as skillful means is a topic all its own.) There are specific practices in which we imagine exchanging places with another person or taking their suffering into our own hearts and transforming it.
By developing an attitude of compassion—of seeing suffering rather than ignoring or denying it or blaming the person who is suffering—we behave differently in the world. That’s important. That’s world-changing.
The 17th Karmapa, head of another of the Tibetan Buddhist lineages, speaks frequently about the need to act to protect the environment. Intellectual knowledge of the threat to the planet has not produced action because our heartfelt awareness, known as bodhicitta, hasn’t kept pace. We care more for consumer goods than the Earth.
“The weakness of our compassion, and the weakness or outright lack of our bodhicitta has placed this world in grave danger,” he said. “We know this, it is all around us and we are responsible for it. And yet we lack enough compassion to care. We lack enough bodhicitta to do anything about it. We need to work on that.”
Compassion depends on a personal, felt connection. When we act from that deep level, we respect the interdependent web of existence, cherishing all life as much as our own.