The Buddha on Compassion: An Existential Approach

This article was originally published by the International Network on Personal Meaning in the USA and Canada.

Chen, Yu-Hsi, Ph.D.
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 Mahayana 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 feeling.

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 differences.

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 speech, 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 the ego-self which we generally regard as something solid and therefore separate from other beings is a  mere delusion, and that on a higher level of consciousness, all beings are one. At that realization, the ego, along with its dualistic cognitive mode of subject-object discrimination, is instantly dissolved, giving way to the liberating wisdom 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 begin with, how can a good harvest be possible? This means that wisdom and love and compassion come in an interactive circle, with one enhancing the other. 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 incomplete without discussing its 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 our physical and mental health. Among other things, hatred can accumulate into a psychological complex, which in turn gives rise to depression and other neurotic disorders.

Mainstream 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 the following 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 (someone who offends or hurts you) 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.

The 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 self-love in the sense of unconditionally accepting 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 worthy of your love 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 “basic 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.

2 ibid.

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