Compassion is one of the fundamental teachings in Buddhism. It is treated as a commendable and desirable behaviour leading to the high moral standard of the practitioner. As a basic Buddhist virtue, it engulfs a wider range of wholesome emotional concepts expressed by the words such as pity, sympathy, empathy, mercy, kindness, care, pardon, love and forgiveness. The Buddhist concept of compassion is broader and defined as one of the four ‘measureless abiding’ or ‘divine abiding’ – loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. In Buddhism, compassion is considered a necessary complement to insight. While being an essential ingredient to achieve Enlightenment, it serves as the basis of helping those who are in distress. It is also valued as a meritorious, socially beneficial and an excellent virtue to be practised. The moral significance of compassion has been elaborately treated in all schools of Buddhism as the most important morality for the harmony and unity of the social order. It is the means by which one puts his benevolent thoughts in to action. According to one of the Buddhist Schools, it is known as ‘skilful means’, the practice of which, in challenging circumstances, may override all other considerations, for the sake of the welfare of greater number of beings. Compassion and insight are called the two wings with which one flies to the island of enlightenment.
The two Buddhist concepts of ‘loving-kindness’ and ‘compassion’ are the two different aspects of benevolent motivation of wishing and working for the good of others. In the Buddhist Texts, each of these concepts has been described from four perspectives, namely characteristics, function, manifestation and proximate cause.
Loving-kindness is unconditional love towards all beings, whereas compassion is directed to appease mental or physical suffering of beings. Generally, the characteristic of loving-kindness is promoting the aspect of well-being. Its function is to give joy. It is manifested as the removal of annoyance. Its proximate cause is seeing the loveliness in beings. It succeeds when it makes ill will subside, and it fails when it produces selfish affection.
Compassion is characterised as promoting the aspect of allaying suffering. Its function resides in not bearing other’s suffering. It is manifested as non-cruelty. Its proximate cause is seeing the helplessness in those overwhelmed by suffering. It succeeds when it makes cruelty subside, and it fails when it produces sorrow.
When there is suffering, compassion causes one’s heart to be moved. It is also described as a vibrating impulse that arises because of others who are in distress. It motivates one to work towards diminishing and removing others’ suffering. It is extended to those who are suffering by pervasion.
Early Buddhist scriptures abound in instances where the Buddha has shown compassion to numerous personalities. The Buddha showed his compassion not only to those who insulted him to the face, but also those who attempted on his life. Devadatta, being ambitious to become the leader of the Buddhist dispensation, attempted several times on the life of the Buddha. He even employed others to kill the Buddha. The Buddha bestowed his compassion on Devadatta and the archers, who were employed by Devadatta to kill him. There were some personal encounters of insults, when the Buddha treated compassionately. On an occasion when a person verbally abused the Buddha, he said mercifully:
“I do not accept what you have uttered. Just like something given by you is not accepted, you better take your abusive remarks back. May those be with you and considered as yours.”
There are countless instances when the Buddha has shown compassion in various aspects - pity, forgiveness, mercy etc. The Buddha valued human life over everything else. There is an episode in the Buddhist scriptures where the Buddha persuaded two clans in battle array to give up war on practical considerations. Once there was a battle between the two clans living on the either side of the dam constructed across river called Rohini. The two clans cultivated their fields with its waters. When there was a severe drought, a violent quarrel broke out between the two peoples and gradually it turned in to a battle. The Buddha realising the destruction that was to happen, appeared there in the nick of time and convinced both clans of the folly of killing each other for the sake of a little water. The Buddha asked from the two contending clans:
“Why are you clansmen in battle array?”
“For the sake of the waters of Rohini River,” they replied.
“Tell me what is more valuable, water or human lives?”
“Human lives,” they replied.
Thereupon the Buddha asked them whether it is proper to kill each other for water, which is of less value than human lives. Being thoroughly convinced, they finally gave up the battle by sharing the waters of Rohini and established friendly relations once more.
Today we hear news of killing all over the world. Our ‘global village’ has turned into a ‘global battlefield’. Often we hear about conflicts, fighting and confrontations. Nobody seriously values human lives. All the world religions teach us to develop kindness and compassion, but in practice, most of us have neglected those socially beneficial teachings.
According to Buddhism, it is compassion that drives one to serve the needy on altruistic grounds. The compassionate person serves others expecting nothing in return, not even a word of thanks. Many among us deserve our unconditional compassion and there are, of course, people from diverse walks of life in need of our compassionate attention. Paupers and destitute, vicious and undisciplined, sick and handicapped, criminals and law-breakers, the misguided and wrongdoers, and robbers and burglars, all of them need our compassion. And only with compassion we are able to pull them out from their pathetic situations. The Buddha emphasised that there is a latent greatness in everyone. It is a dormant trait, but a potent attribute. However wicked a person may be, as soon as he realises his wickedness and abstains from it, he is considered worthy of our admiration.
Let us together bestow our compassion to all, regardless of race, nationality or religion and make the world a congenial place to live in peacefully and harmoniously without fear and anxiety.