The other day I was out walking my son in his stroller (my now constant occupation) when a homeless woman approached me asking for money. I’d seen her before in the neighborhood many times, including behind our condominium using drugs. I turned down her request and continued walking, to my chagrin, as if the wind had blown a newspaper against my leg and I’d kicked it away without any thought.
I used to get angry at strangers who asked me for money, projecting onto to them a rage I actually felt toward myself for having such a difficult time turning them down. Then I learned to set boundaries comfortably and my anger gave way to inconsistency: I’d sometimes acquiesce to requests for money and sometimes not, the likelihood of one or the other depending randomly on my mood, how much I believed their story or how much it entertained me, or my belief about what it meant to be compassionate at the time.
Given that at least one study has suggested roughly 95% of homeless men suffer from some type of mental disorder (substance abuse being the most common by far) and that numerous other studies have shown similar, if somewhat less dramatic, results depending on study methodology and the city studied, my standard response now is to refuse all requests for money, believing as I now do that money is not the best long-term, or even short-term, solution to help the homeless. Yet each time I’m asked, I wonder again about what it means to be compassionate, and my recent encounter with our neighborhood homeless woman caused me to reflect again how I continue to fail to live up to my aspiration to consistently manifest the compassion of which I’m capable.
WHAT COMPASSION IS NOT
Compassion, in my view, is neither empathy nor sympathy, but requires both. Empathy involves responding to another person’s emotions with emotions that are similar. Sympathy entails feeling regret for another person’s suffering. Compassion, on the other hand, is caring about another person’s happiness as if it were your own. The challenge with this definition, however, is how easily it causes us to mistakenly infer that compassion therefore means:
- Giving people what they want. Which is what I used to think—but only because I would routinely find myself practically incapacitated by the thought of disappointing anyone. And though giving people what they want does make them happy, it does so only transiently and usually leaves them unimproved, denying them the motivation to take on growth producing challenges. Also, people quite often want what isn’t good for them (the child who wants to watch television instead of doing homework, the gambler who wants to bet his life savings, the alcoholic who wants to drink). If our aim is to help others become happy we must apply our own judgment to the actions we’re asked to take on their behalf. As I suggested in an earlier post, Become A Force For Good, compassion without wisdom is dangerous.
- Sacrificing ourselves. Though the size of our compassion is often measured by what we’re willing to sacrifice, we shouldn’t therefore conclude that an act requires sacrifice to qualify as a compassionate one. Acting compassionately may often be inconvenient, but if you find yourself actually sacrificing your own happiness in some significant way you’ve allowed yourself to be deceived into thinking one person’s happiness is more important than another’s—your own. A wise person’s own happiness matters as much to him or her as the happiness of others—no more and no less. In fact, sometimes you may care about another person’s happiness but find that other person not only beyond your help but a serious risk to your own happiness. In such cases, the person toward whom you must turn your compassionate gaze is yourself. Detaching with love means removing yourself from another person’s zone of destruction without ceasing to care about them in your heart. It would be far less compassionate to allow two lives to be ruined when one (yours) could be saved.
- Being constantly gentle. Many believe being compassionate requires you to adopt a passive, non-violent demeanor and express only loving kindness at all times. Though compassion certainly can be all those things, to be effective, compassion must sometimes be harsh, angry, and forceful. You can’t judge the quality or intent of an action only by the envelope in which it’s mailed. With the intent to increase another person’s happiness as your constant thought, you may sometimes find yourself taking action that paradoxically seems on the surface to lack the very compassion that drives it. By some accounts, Mother Teresa was at times a pretty tough son-of-a-bitch.
- Getting a reward. True compassion expects no reward or recognition. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting either, but when they become the predominant motivation for acting compassionately, you risk shifting your focus from increasing the happiness of others to the gratification of your own ego, which then risks behavior that harms instead of helps.
- Liking everyone. There’s no requirement that you like anyone in order to be a compassionate person. You can, in fact, actively dislike someone towards whom you feel great compassion. Being compassionate may mean thinking benevolently about a person despite their flaws, but it doesn’t mean pretending those flaws don’t exist. You don’t have to pretend that people don’t annoy you, nor do you have to open yourself up to establishing personal relationships with people you try to help.
WHAT COMPASSION IS
If compassion is none of those things, though, then what is it? I would argue the following:
- Unconditional acceptance. Compassion focuses itself only on the potential all people have for good, ignoring everything else. Which isn’t to say compassion deludes itself into thinking all people are good. Just that the capacity to become good can never be destroyed by a thousand evil acts and must therefore always be sought. Which requires—
- Endurance. The people for whom you care may refuse to stop suffering. They may rail against you for your efforts and treat you even more shabbily than others who don’t care about them at all. Having true compassion for them is refusing to be defeated by such transient concerns. Even if, as discussed above, you eventually must detach with love, never stop loving them, even when they try to destroy themselves or others.
- Action. Another person’s happiness may feel important to you, but if you have the opportunity to take compassionate action yet don’t, your feeling was only ever theoretical.
- Courage. Josei Toda, the second president of the SGI, once said that if we don’t have enough compassion, we should substitute courage. The action that arises from courage is invariably equivalent to action that arises from compassion. We also require courage to withstand the criticism that often results when you take compassionate action.
HOW HAVING COMPASSION FOR OTHERS BENEFITS YOU
In the Lotus Sutra (the highest teaching of the original Buddha, Shakyamuni), luminous beings known as the Bodhisattvas of the Earth make a great vow to help all people attain enlightenment. In Nichiren Buddhism, a bodhisattva is anyone who manifests the life-condition of compassion.
This, then, is the ultimate goal to which I aspire: to expand my capacity for compassion and become a bodhisattva. The reason is simple: the feeling of genuine compassion for another person is, in my view, one of the most joyful experiences available to human beings. Further, only in the life state of the bodhisattva does it become clear how making the happiness of others the ultimate goal of one’s life entails no personal sacrifice at all. Finally, I don’t believe that indestructible happiness is possible to attain in isolation. How can anyone be truly happy while everyone—or anyone—else around them continues to suffer?
One other random fact: compassion cures all social awkwardness. It’s hard to feel awkward in a room full of strangers whom you genuinely want to be as happy as possible. But to establish a life-condition in which you actually feel that way—ah, there’s the rub.
So compassion remains my goal, but one I constantly to fail to reach. When asked for money by strangers, my typical response is a rapid-fire, “Don’t-have-any-money-on-me-sorry.” But this is often not even true. I’m certain the reason I lie ultimately comes down to cowardice, though why I’m afraid to tell them the truth is not yet entirely clear to me.
It’s not that I lack compassion for the homeless—just that my compassion for them remains only a feeling, only theoretical. I say this not because I refuse to give them money. As I said before, I don’t believe giving them money represents the most compassionate action I could take (though I certainly recognize it may be yours—no judgment intended). I say this because the most compassionate action I could take would be to introduce them to Buddhism, a practice I genuinely believe has the power to help anyone in any circumstance become happy, but I don’t do that either.
There are several reasons I don’t, all of which I’m sure will sound reasonable: I’m reluctant to proselytize; I don’t want to become embroiled in a stranger’s life; I don’t want to take the time. And I’m sure many would argue I’m expecting more from myself than I should. But I’m not just writing about homelessness here (and don’t pretend to have the answer to that complex and difficult problem). I’m writing about the part of me that believes enlightenment is possible and that an enlightened person would be overflowing with compassion I feel only rarely—a compassion that makes all men feel like brothers and all women like sisters. I’m writing about the part of me that keeps asking if there really is any greater value we can produce as human beings than to help another person to become happier. Because every time I turn down a homeless person’s request for money what I think to myself (other than somewhere out there must be someone worried about them) isn’t that I should have given them what they wanted, but rather that a Buddha would have given them something they need.
NEXT WEEK: The Good Guy Contract
By Jayaram V
Compassion means having kindness, feeling other people's pain and suffering, and avoiding hurting or harming others for one's own ends. Compassion thrives in a person who rises above his selfishness and egoism and who finds enough virtue in others to appreciate them and understand them. He radiates compassion like the sun radiates light. He is never separate from it and never unmindful of it.
Even when he is inadvertent, his compassion shows throw. A compassionate person has great sensitivity to the problems and feelings of others. He does not take advantage of their weakness. He does not criticize them. He does not give them a reason to feel guilty or ashamed of themselves. He is well aware of the evil and the darkness that clouds the humanity and their helplessness in dealing with it. Thereby, with an exemplary understanding, he shows extreme kindness and forgiveness to everyone who lives upon earth, without exception.
You can literarily trace every problem that we have today to lack of compassion. Whether, it is increasing crime, domestic or street violence, divorce, terrorism, wars, environmental destruction, greed, hatred, enmity, cruelty, economic and social disparity, drug trafficking, women trafficking, police brutality, road accidents, child abuse, rape, abortion, racism, casteism, these and many other problems exist and vex our lives because of lack of compassion among people and authorities alike. Compassion is what makes a human being human, a father a father and a mother a mother, what gives them humanity, what prevents them from being too selfish and animal like to ignore the value of life and liberty.
You do not have to see God in everything if you lack conviction. But if you can see in everything with compassion the agony of the soul and treat everything with gentle and unassuming compassion, that is the greatest solace you can provide to others without they even knowing it. Sometimes gentle and soothing words may hurt others, but the silent compassion of a tender heart never. Compassion is extolled in all religions. It is one of the striking qualities of enlightened people. The Christ holding a lamb in his hands is a powerful symbol of compassion. Lord Vishnu rushing to rescue an elephant in distress was an act of extreme kindness. No one can ever be spiritual or realize their highest truth without being compassionate. None can ever achieve enlightenment without being compassionate. A person with a lot of wealth may manage to pass through the gates of heaven, but not a person without compassion. Whether you remember Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln, it is because they had compassion and they personified this noble quality in their thoughts and actions. A world without compassion would be a brutal place to live. None can ever live in peace in that world. The world becomes heaven or hell to the extent people practice compassion. If you have compassion but no wealth, you are blessed. If you have a lot of wealth but no compassion, you are cursed.
It is better to stay away from people who lack compassion, even if they are wealthy and powerful. If you want to marry, ask yourself, does he or she have compassion? If you want to be friendly with someone, ask, does he or she have compassion? You can trust anyone who has compassion because his compassion will protect you even from yourself. You can vote for anyone who has compassion because you can be sure that he or she will be interested in your welfare and progress more that his or her own. If you have compassion you will hold all life sacred. You will be in harmony with Nature and the world. Your actions will not cause pain and destruction but peace and happiness. You will protect the weak and the helpless. Your will protect the environment. You will treat everyone and everything with gentle care. You will be so gentle that even the earth under your feet would not be hurt. If you have children, if you love them deeply and want to see them become good human beings, help them to cultivate a compassionate heart by treating them compassionately. That is the most valuable inheritence you can bequeath to your children.
We all show compassion at one time or the other. But our compassion is mostly conditional and limited. We feel compassion for those whom we love, whom we like or to whom we feel related. True compassion is free from these conditions and attachments. It extends and touches everyone universally, independent of the people and their nature and independent of circumstances.
Like the light of the sun or the rain from the heavens, it falls upon everyone and everything equally and gently, giving them hope to live, reason to believe in themselves and feel safe the world. If you have compassion in your heart, know that you are an ancient and advanced soul ready for liberation. If you have compassion, feel assured that you have already cleansed your heart.
If you are not sure whether you have compassion or not, you can make an effort to cultivate compassion in one or more of the following ways, not necessarily in the same order.
- by restraining your speech and using kind words
- by restraining your hurtful and negative thoughts
- by contemplating upon suffering
- by understanding suffering
- by understanding how every living being is subject to suffering upon earth
- by knowing how much people and other life forms need our love and attention
- by withholding judgment
- by rising above our selfishness and self-centeredness
- by practicing friendliness
- by cultivating a loving heart
- by avoiding negative talk and calumny
- by appreciating ourselves and not criticizing ourselves with negative self-talk
- by learning to forgive
- by seeking forgiveness
- by giving charity
- by opening our heart to the love of the universe
- by being thoughtful and gentle
- by seeing oneself in others
- by knowing that an individual is caught in the phenomenal world and helplessly driven by his desires and ignorance
- by contemplation and meditation
- by ridding the mind of the impurities of selfishness, egoism, cruelty, greed, pride and passion
- by practicing compassion towards those you love
- by practicing compassion towards those you dislike or hate
- by practicing compassion towards those you do not know
- by practicing compassion towards plants and animals
- by practicing compassion towards those who harmed your ill-treated you
- by practicing compassion towards yourself
You do not have to express your compassion in words. You may speak kind and healing to others, but it should be done without any personal motive. Your compassion should radiate itself without you making any conscious effort. You may wonder how you may accomplish that. You radiate what you have. If a flower has fragrance, it radiates. If you have compassion in your heart, if you are filled with the thoughts of compassion, you will radiate compassion even when you are silent and detached. Your compassion should speak for itself and it should rightly so.