Monday, September 5, 2011

Defining Compassion

I personally chose this topic during our discussion at the Buddhist Study meeting that I attended this morning between myself and one other study partner who used to be one of my English teachers about nine years ago. We were talking about Right Mindfulness and Right Speech in the book by Thich Nhat Hanh entitled "The Heart of The Buddha's Teaching" and the word compassion came up repeatedly. I had an "Ah Hah!" moment and decided right then that I wanted to write an essay on compassion. So much has been said about the word but compassion is one of those words that one "thinks" that they know the definition of, but when used in a sentence, sometimes you wonder how close your own knowledge of the word truly is. So, I set out to do some research on the word, and I found out every time I read another article just how shallow my actual knowledge about compassion really was. describes compassion as "... a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. ..."
For years I have heard many people talk about compassion and love as if the two were synonymous and also, that Christians use the word "love" while Buddhists and other Eastern religions use the word "compassion". The quality of "being sympathetic to someone who is suffering" is not love, although spiritually fit people should try to love all people. We will never be perfect at it but we can make the effort to try. Also, we can love someone without them being in a state of suffering.
Wikipedia has a really long article on the subject that actually connects the dots on the two. The Wikipedia definition defines compassion as so: "... Compassion is a virtue — one in which the emotional capacities of empathy and sympathy (for the suffering of others) are regarded as a part of love itself, and a cornerstone of greater social interconnection and humanism — foundational to the highest principles in philosophy, society, and personhood.
There is an aspect of compassion which regards a quantitative dimension, such that individual's compassion is often given a property of "depth," "vigour," or "passion." More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another's suffering. It is often, though not inevitably, the key component in what manifests in the social context as altruism. In ethical terms, the various expressions down the ages of the so-called Golden Rule embody by implication the principle of compassion: Do to others what you would have them do to you. ..."

And further in Wikipedia under Religious and Spiritual Views it says:
"... Christianity - Compassion in action: an 18th-century Italian depiction of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Christian Bible's Second Epistle to the Corinthians is but one place where God is spoken of as the "Father of compassion" and the "God of all comfort" (1.3). Jesus embodies for Christians, the very essence of compassion and relational care. Christ challenges Christians to forsake their own desires and to act compassionately towards others, particularly those in need or distress. Jesus assures his listeners in the Sermon on the Mount that, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." In the Parable of the Good Samaritan he holds up to his followers the ideal of compassionate conduct. True Christian compassion, say the Gospels, should extend to all, even to the extent of loving one's enemies. ...",
"... Hinduism -
In the various Hindu traditions, compassion is called daya, and, along with charity and self-control, is one of the three central virtues. The importance of compassion in the Hindu traditions reaches as far back as the Vedas, sacred texts composed over a period prior to 1500 B.C. While the early Vedas sometimes glorify war and the worship of the war god, Indra, Indra too is compassionate towards humans & humanity, though he is war god, he is discompassionate towards Asuras - The evil people who cause sufferings to human race, the later Vedas demonstrate a greater sensitivity to the values of compassion. The central concept particularly relevant to compassion in Hindu spirituality is that of ahimsa. The exact definition of ahimsa varies from one tradition to another. Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word which can be translated most directly as "refraining from harmfulness." It is a derivation of himsa which means harmful, or having the intent to cause harm.
The prayers of Vasudeva Datta, for example, a 16th century Vaishnava holy man or sadhu, exemplify compassion within Gaudiya Vaishnavism. He prayed to the Lord Krishna asking him to "deliver all conditioned souls" because his "heart breaks to see the sufferings of all conditioned souls". ...",
"... Buddhism - Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others; thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed. - The Buddha.
Compassion or karuna is at the transcendental and experiential heart of the Buddha's teachings. He was reputedly asked by his personal attendant, Ananda, "Would it be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is a part of our practice?" To which the Buddha replied, "No. It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice."
The first of what in English are called the Four Noble Truths is the truth of suffering or dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or stress). Dukkha is identified as one of the three distinguishing characteristics of all conditioned existence. It arises as a consequence of the failure to adapt to change or anicca (the second characteristic) and the insubstantiality, lack of fixed identity, the horrendous lack of certainty of anatta (the third characteristic) to which all this constant change in turn gives rise. Compassion made possible by observation and accurate perception is the appropriate practical response. The ultimate and earnest wish, manifest in the Buddha, both as archetype and as historical entity, is to relieve the suffering of all living beings everywhere.
The Dalai Lama has said, "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." The American monk Bhikkhu Bodhi states that compassion "supplies the complement to loving-kindness: whereas loving-kindness has the characteristic of wishing for the happiness and welfare of others, compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings. Like metta, compassion arises by entering into the subjectivity of others, by sharing their interiority in a deep and total way. It springs up by considering that all beings, like ourselves, wish to be free from suffering, yet despite their wishes continue to be harassed by pain, fear, sorrow, and other forms of dukkha."
At the same time, it is emphasised that in order to manifest effective compassion for others it is first of all necessary to be able to experience and fully appreciate one's own suffering and to have, as a consequence, compassion for oneself. The Buddha is reported to have said, "It is possible to travel the whole world in search of one who is more worthy of compassion than oneself. No such person can be found."
Compassion is the antidote to the self-chosen poison of anger. ...",
"... Jainism -
Compassion for all life, human and non-human, is central to the Jain tradition. Though all life is considered sacred, human life is deemed the highest form of earthly existence. To kill any person, no matter their crime, is considered unimaginably abhorrent. It is the only substantial religious tradition that requires both monks and laity to be vegetarian. It is suggested that certain strains of the Hindu tradition became vegetarian due to strong Jain influences. The Jain tradition's stance on nonviolence, however, goes far beyond vegetarianism. Jains refuse food obtained with unnecessary cruelty. Many practice veganism. Jains run animal shelters all over India: Delhi has a bird hospital run by Jains; every city and town in Bundelkhand has animal shelters run by Jains. Jain monks go to lengths to avoid killing any living creature, sweeping the ground in front of them in order to avoid killing insects, and even wearing a face mask to avoid inhaling the smallest fly. ..."
"... Judaism -
In the Jewish tradition, God is the Compassionate and is invoked as the Father of Compassion: hence Rahmana or Compassionate becomes the usual designation for His revealed word. (Compare, below, the frequent use of rahman in the Quran).  Sorrow and pity for one in distress, creating a desire to relieve, is a feeling ascribed alike to man and God: in Biblical Hebrew, ("riham," from "rehem," the mother, womb), "to pity" or "to show mercy" in view of the sufferer's helplessness, hence also "to forgive" (Hab. iii. 2); , "to forbear" (Ex. ii. 6; I Sam. xv. 3; Jer. xv. 15, xxi. 7.) The Rabbis speak of the "thirteen attributes of compassion." The Biblical conception of compassion is the feeling of the parent for the child. Hence the prophet's appeal in confirmation of his trust in God invokes the feeling of a mother for her offspring (Isa. xlix. 15).
Lack of compassion, by contrast, marks a people as cruel (Jer. vi. 23). The repeated injunctions of the Law and the Prophets that the widow, the orphan and the stranger should be protected show how deeply, it is argued, the feeling of compassion was rooted in the hearts of the righteous in ancient Israel. Compassion, empathy, altruism, kindness and love are frequently used interchangeably in common usage. When the concept is examined in depth it becomes clear that compassion is more than simply a human emotion. Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, is particularly clear about this. One rabbi has put it this way:
Kindness gives to another. Compassion knows no other.
This idea is greatly expanded by Michael Laitman who says, "Thus if we thoroughly examine Nature's elements, we will see that altruism is the basis of life." Here altruism is the word used but the concept is consistent with an understanding of compassion.
A classic articulation of the Golden Rule (see above) came from the first century Rabbi Hillel the Elder. Renowned in the Jewish tradition as a sage and a scholar, he is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud and, as such, one of the most important figures in Jewish history. Asked for a summary of the Jewish religion in the "while standing on one leg" meaning in the most concise terms, Hillel stated: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah. The rest is the explanation; go and learn." Post 9/11, the words of Rabbi Hillel are frequently quoted in public lectures and interviews around the world by the prominent writer on comparative religion Karen Armstrong.
Islam -
A 1930s photograph of a desert traveler seeking the assistance of God the Merciful, the Compassionate
In the Muslim tradition, foremost among God's attributes are mercy and compassion or, in the canonical language of Arabic, Rahman and Rahim. Each of the 114 chapters of the Quran, with one exception, begins with the verse, "In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful,". The Arabic word for compassion is rahmah. As a cultural influence, its roots abound in the Quran. A good Muslim is to commence each day, each prayer and each significant action by invoking God the Merciful and Compassionate, i.e. by reciting Bism-i-llah a-Rahman-i-Rahim. The womb and family ties are characterized by compassion and named after the exalted attribute of God "Al-Rahim" (The Compassionate).
The Muslim scriptures urge compassion towards captives as well as to widows, orphans and the poor.Zakat, a toll tax to help the poor and needy, is obligatory upon all Muslims (9:60). One of the practical purposes of fasting or sawm during the month of Ramadan is to help one empathize with the hunger pangs of those less fortunate, to enhance sensitivity to the suffering of others and develop compassion for the poor and destitute. The Prophet is referred to by the Quran as the Mercy of the World (21:107); and one of the sayings of the Prophet informs the faithful that, "God is more loving and kinder than a mother to her dear child."
Neuroscience -
In a recent small fMRI experiment, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and colleagues at the Brain and Creativity Institute studied strong feelings of compassion for both social pain in others, and physical pain in others. Both feelings involved an expected change in activity in the anterior insula, anterior cingulate, hypothalamus, and midbrain, but they also found a previously undescribed pattern of cortical[disambiguation needed] activity on the posterior medial surface of each brain hemisphere, a region involved in the default mode of brain function, and implicated in self-related processes. Compassion for social pain in others was associated with strong activation in the interoceptive, inferior/posterior portion of this region, while compassion for physical pain in others involved heightened activity in the exteroceptive, superior/anterior portion. (Compassion for social pain also activated this superior/anterior section, but to a lesser extent.)
Activity in the anterior insula related to compassion for social pain peaked later and endured longer than that associated with compassion for physical pain.

Barbara O'Brien, the Buddhism guide at, wrote, "...There are two Sanskrit words frequently used by Buddhists that are translated as "compassion." One is karuna, which means compassion, active sympathy, gentle affection and a willingness to bear the pain of others. The other word, metta, means loving kindness; a benevolence toward all beings free of selfish attachment. ..." and "... The Buddha taught that to realize enlightenment, a person must develop two qualities: wisdom and compassion. Wisdom and compassion are sometimes compared to two wings that work together to enable flying, or two eyes that work together to see deeply.
In the West, we're taught to think of "wisdom" as something that is primarily intellectual and "compassion" as something that is primarily emotional, and that these two things are separate and even incompatible. We're led to believe that fuzzy, sappy emotion gets in the way of clear, logical wisdom. But this is not a Buddhist understanding.  ...", "...The practice of compassion is essential to Buddhism, and the practice of compassion begins with the cultivation of compassion within. The Buddha taught his monks to arouse four states of mind, called the "Brahma-vihara" or "four divine states of dwelling." These four states are sometimes called the "Four Immeasurables" or the "Four Perfect Virtues."
The four states are metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy) and upekkha (equanimity), and in many Buddhist traditions they are cultivated through meditation. These four states inter-relate and support each other. ... "

So, as is written in everything I read about the subject, there are many components to compassion. The two primary qualities of compassion are A) that the person who demonstrates compassion does so by caring about helping someone other that themself and B) that the person who is being helped is suffering in some way that they cannot relieve on their own. The basis of Buddhist practice, dating back to the four noble truths and the eightfold path are based on relief of or cessation of suffering. That was Gautama Buddha's main impetus in creating Buddhist practice.

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