Compassion (karuna) is a word that is used quite frequently in the Buddhist practice, and for very good reason. The Buddha was all about compassion toward all beings.
But today I realized how easily this can be misunderstood, and often mistakenly thought of as empathy.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines compassion as sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. And most of us know that desire is something to be extinguished if we are to eliminate suffering. Yet the Pali word for compassion is Karuna, which means the aspiration to find a way to be truly helpful to oneself and others. And this is one of the Four Sublime States.
“The compassion of the wise man does not render him a victim of suffering. His thoughts, words and deeds are full of pity. But his heart does not waver; unchanged it remains, serene and calm. How else should he be able to help?
May such compassion arise in our hearts! Compassion that is sublime nobility of heart and intellect which knows, understands and is ready to help.
Compassion that is strength and gives strength: this is highest compassion.”
Compassion that is strength and gives strength. What a powerful statement! And I often see that when I feel compassion towards another being, I feel weak and helpless. Demonstrating my lack of understanding and skill regarding compassion. I am suffering because I see suffering that I cannot avert or extinguish. Desire (tanha) becoming the dominant force occupying my thoughts and actions.
If instead, we can develop our wisdom and understanding, then we can offer love and compassion without desire or attachment. To understand that suffering and dissatisfaction are part and parcel to our physical existence. And this is not something that we can separate ourselves from, simply a transitory condition.
Becoming skillful with our compassion is a function of careful observation of both mind and body. Our reactions to the pain, dissatisfaction and unhappiness of others rises and falls many times throughout each day. And then, by asking ourselves if this is mine – and what can be done to alleviate the suffering of this other being. And if you can help, then help them. And if not, simply offering your love and understanding. Most importantly, watching your own thoughts to see if you are attaching to them. And if so, be aware of the suffering you now cause the self. Mindfully, you should quickly become aware that this is not wholesome or beneficial. Not to you or the other being. And understand that all of this is a function of practice. Developing these skills slowly and gently, as this is the beginning of genuine loving-kindness for yourself.
And with genuine and kind love of the self, do we then not offer the best of ourselves toward all others.
May you be well, happy and peaceful.