By Martin Horan

Buddhism emphasises the importance of developing insight and wisdom.  

In the first noble truth the Buddha taught about the faults of cyclic existence. While we experience cyclic existence, we might have enjoyment and pleasure from time to time, but our lives can never be reliably, sustainably and purely happy.  

And according to the second noble truth, the root cause of this is misconception or ignorance. There is a path to exit cyclic existence and essentially it involves developing the profound and subtle wisdom that overcomes our misconception. 

Image by Ivan Kristof from Pixabay

So, if developing wisdom and correct understanding is so central to the Buddhist path, and misconception is the root of our problems, why does compassion matter?  

We often think there is a big difference between heart and head. And it might seem that with Buddhism the fundamentals are about the head – concentration, analysis and insight, perfected through solitary meditation. 

However, great Buddhist teachers have made it very clear that this is not so. 

Compassion as the essence of Dharma  

In Path to Enlightenment in Tibetan Buddhism* Venerable Geshe Loden says: “If you were to ask what is the essence of Lord Buddha’s teachings the answer must be compassion and great compassion because they are the foundation of all living beings’ happiness and the basis of enlightenment.” [p552] 

The great scholar and master Chandrakirti famously made a similar point in the opening verses to his text Engaging in the Middle Way. According to convention, Dharma texts would begin with praise to the Buddha or the author’s guru. But Chandrakirti’s foremost praise was given to compassion. He explained that all Dharma teachings originate from Buddhas – that Buddhas arise from Bodhisattvas, and that compassion, wisdom and bodhichitta are the causes of Bodhisattvas.   

In the same way, the very first line of Geshe Chekawa’s much loved text on the practice of mahayana thought transformation, Mind Training in Seven Points, pays homage to great compassion. 

The basis of all positive minds 

Compassion is the basis of all positive minds and therefore of actions, speech and attitudes that benefit ourselves and others. The more compassionate we are, the more generous we are, the more inclined we are to have time for others, to listen to others, to empathise with them and support them through difficulties.   

If we have compassion towards another living being, by definition we wish that other living beings could be free of suffering. So, the more compassionate we are, we naturally wish to avoid harming others. We become more mindful and careful about our actions of body, speech and mind.  

With compassion we can become more patient: it is much easier to retain our stability and peace of mind if someone else harms us, because compassion helps us to see the bigger picture.   

Through practising ordinary compassion, step by step we can develop a bodhisattva’s great compassion – the attitude that cares equally and genuinely for the suffering of every living being with no exceptions or limits whatsoever.  

With great compassion we can see beyond the boundaries of the self-cherishing mind. As ordinary beings we may feel compassion for those close and dear to us, and that ordinary compassion is among our most wonderful personal qualities. But Buddhism shows we can work to extend the scope of this wonderful and healing mind of compassion further and further.  

A deep bond with every living being 

Ultimately, the fact that another person happens to be connected to us clearly isn’t a reasonable basis for thinking that their welfare is more important than anyone else’s. Take a moment to think about it: if we could live inside the head of the stranger or enemy for a day, and directly experience their wishes and feelings and understand their personal history from the inside, it would surely be as clear as day to us.  

That person’s fundamental aspirations and wishes are the same as our own, and those of our dearest child, partner, parent or friend. So, the cultivation of great compassion brings its own wisdom – it draws us into the reality that our self-cherishing hides: our deep common bond with every other living being.  

We are all capable 

We might feel at times that our personal compassion reserve is limited, and that we can’t do much about that. We might come across beings such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whose presence simply radiates kindness.  

We might hear accounts of wonderful teachers in the past and marvel at how their compassion sustained them, gave them courage, and made such a remarkable difference to others’ lives. We might feel, looking at our own life, that this is so far beyond our own capabilities it almost hurts to think about it!    

But according to the Buddha, and the great lineage teachers this appearance of incapacity is simply wrong. It’s just another misconception. Compassion and great compassion are dependent arisings. They depend on causes – especially on becoming more mindful of the experience of others. By developing the wisdoms of listening, thinking and meditation as applied to the first two noble truths, the power and scope of our compassion will naturally flourish. As it does, it will transform who we are.  

Compassion as our truest friend 

In The Fundamental Potential for Enlightenment*, Venerable Geshe Loden comments on Maitreya’s great text, Sublime Continuum of the Mahayana. In one verse Maitreya likens compassion to water. After years of drought, the earth is hard and dry. Just as a drought-breaking rain softens the hard earth, transforms the arid ground into a carpet of green, and brings forth a vibrant display of wildflowers, so the practice of compassion softens our self-cherishing mind, and nourishes the seeds of all our positive qualities. These qualities in turn are the foundation for developing a deeply tranquil mind, and the wisdom that overcomes all misconceptions which are the root of cyclic existence. 

It’s therefore no surprise that the great scholar Chandrakirti reminded us that compassion is our truest friend throughout our practice of Dharma. We need it as beginners, to nourish the seeds of our practice; we need it as our practice develops to support our merit, joy and energy. And ultimately it will be the power and force of great compassion that sustains us all the way to enlightenment. 

* For more information about Path to Enlightenment in Tibetan Buddhism and The Fundamental Potential for Enlightenment along with the seven other Tushita Publications titles by the great scholar and meditator, Venerable Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden, click here. 

Enjoyed this article?  See also: Buddhist insights for a challenged world by Jean D’Cruz