Compassion is big these days. Amazon boasts more than 8,000 book titles related to the topic. Forbes and the Harvard Business Review have published articles telling CEOs about the benefits of running their companies more compassionately. Secularized compassion meditation programs are being implemented in schools in an effort to stop bullying. Everywhere we look, it seems as though compassion is having a moment. But there is little discussion of what “compassion” actually is.
In Mahayana Buddhist traditions, compassion (karuna) is one of the primary qualities that a practitioner should cultivate. This, along with wisdom, is a necessary requirement for progressing along the bodhisattva path, which seeks to liberate all sentient beings. Many Buddhist teachers have reflected on the effects of compassion, extolling its benefits, and describing the ways in which it can lead to lasting happiness for oneself and others. But compassion, in and of itself, is decidedly not a happy feeling. In fact, if we look at Mahayana texts that describe compassion, we find that it is explicitly and unquestionably uncomfortable.
The Madhyamakavatara, written by the 7th-century Indian teacher Candrakirti, famously begins with praise for compassion:
The sravakas and those who are partway to buddhahood are born from the Buddha,
And buddhas are born from bodhisattvas.
The mind of compassion, non-duality, and enlightenment
Are the causes of bodhisattvas.
Kindness is considered to be the seed of the abundant harvest which is buddhahood
Like water that causes it to grow over a long time
And ripen in a state of joy.
For this reason, I will praise compassion from the outset.
—Candrakirti, Madhyamakavatara, I:1-2
Candrakirti emphasizes compassion over everything else, because it is the fundamental quality that allows for the existence of bodhisattvas, who, in turn, become buddhas. In other words, Candrakirti shows us that more than anything, compassion is worthy of our focus in Mahayana Buddhist practice.
The compassion that Candrakirti invokes is something very specific. It is not simply caring for others or cultivating sympathy for a few select people. It is a universal compassion toward all sentient beings, without exception. In Tibetan Buddhism, this compassion is cultivated through maitri (Pali, metta) or lovingkindness, in which practitioners begin by imagining how they feel toward a loved one, then turning it toward themselves, then family and friends, then strangers, then enemies, and finally toward all beings.
This feeling of compassion is not something that can be generated quickly or halfheartedly. And it is certainly not the kind of compassion that Forbes magazine is urging its CEO-readership to cultivate. Mahayana compassion is supposed to be all-consuming, all of the time.
What often gets left out of this discussion of universal compassion is the inherent recognition of universal suffering. If you are genuinely able to have compassion toward all sentient beings without exception, then this means that you are also able to recognize the suffering of all sentient beings all the time. The 15th-century Tibetan master Gorampa Sonam Senge explains compassion like this:
The extensive and vast mind possessed of compassion for all living beings, like love starting from the present mother and extending to the limits of space, must be cultivated to such a degree that it compares to that of a tearful person who sees or remembers that his or her only child has fallen into a pit of fire.
—Gorampa, The General Meaning of Madhyamaka (dbu ma’i spyi don)
This is, on its face, a terrible feeling to have. Imagine the urgency of a parent forced to watch their child suffer in such a way. In a situation like the one that Gorampa describes, the parent’s desire to save their child—to alleviate their child’s suffering—would be an overwhelming, all-consuming feeling.
Now imagine having this feeling all the time, about everyone. This is the universal compassion of the Mahayana tradition. It is something that is uncomfortable, unsettling, and incredibly difficult to comprehend. It is not a particularly happy or comfortable feeling to have.
But that’s actually the point.
Genuine compassion is uncomfortable. It’s difficult. It’s maybe even a little bit scary. But this is why it is so important, and why it has the potential to be so powerful. Operating from a place of discomfort is more likely to motivate us to act. By recognizing the suffering of others and having a sincere and urgent desire to alleviate that suffering, we can learn to act compassionately in the world. We must try to really see and understand the suffering in the world, and lean into our own discomfort in order to work toward alleviating the suffering of all sentient beings.