What is Compassion Anyway?

What is Compassion?

Compassion, according to Buddhism, embodies altruistic action that tries to relieve people from suffering and bring them happiness by being an ally, continuing to give someone support and encouragement until they become happy.

George Saunders in his speech Advice to Graduates printed in the New York Times on July 31, 13, tells a story about himself, reflecting on compassion.

A new girl came to his school, who was shy, timid and awkward. Other children were not kind to her. He was not actively unkind but didn’t really support her either. This bothered him for 42 years because it represented a failure of his compassion, his kindness. He reflects on how often we lack a compassionate response even though we feel guilty about it.

So what would be a compassionate response in this case? The girl needed a friend who would stand up for her, someone who had the courage to support her in the face of possible derisive comments from his friends. This is hard to do at any time, but particularly when you are young.

Compassion Isn’t For Cowards

We all know when we have let ourselves down and not been as kind and compassionate as we know we could be. Usually it’s because we have been afraid or don’t know how to step forward.

People often think of compassion as being a mushy and wimpy. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

True compassion means to take on the causes of suffering in this world through action. We see this in Martin Luther King’s, Ghandhi’s, and Mother Theresa’s actions. It requires great courage to take on a repressive establishment. It takes equal courage to face and immerse oneself in the ugliness and suffering of the world every single day.

Can We Develop Courage and Compassion?

Is there a way to develop the courage to be able to take compassionate actions? I believe there is, through Buddhist activities.

In Nichiren Buddhism there are two ways that we can overcome our negative tendencies such as being selfish, hard hearted, or cowardly, first, through practice for ourselves and second through practice for others.

1. Practice for Oneself

Practice for oneself is done by doing a daily chant called Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. This chant allows you to tap into your Enlightened nature, the highest level of life in every person. This Enlightened level, your Buddha Nature, embodies compassion, courage, great vitality and unshakeable happiness. Through chanting daily and bringing out the characteristics of your Buddha Nature, you will find both courage and compassion being expressed more in your life.

2. Practice for Others

Buddhist training in practice for others gives encouragement to each member to support and pray along with people who are dealing with problems, to be willing to commit to give them encouragement until the issue is resolved.

To support another person, a practitioner might chant for the successful resolution to someone else’s problem during their own daily practice. For example if a member was due to have surgery, a practitioner might chant for the best doctors for them and for a successful operation.

Practitioners, as a group, might also go to chant with someone if they are in crisis or dealing with a particularly difficult problem. I have seen people quickly break through difficult obstacles, when given this kind of support.

Practice for others also includes teaching new people to chant and then supporting them as they start to use the practice. This is considered a compassionate action because it gives the newbie tools to embark on the path to happiness themselves. This kind of practice can require the courage to speak up.

Practice for others would also include chanting and then taking actions in the world to confront causes of suffering through social action.

Benefits of Altruistic Action

When you incorporate such compassionate actions into your daily activity, you will find that you become much happier and contented yourself.

You also might become healthier. The authors from the Department of Psychology in Chapel Hill, N.C. and the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the Univ of CA, S.F. have written an article on How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health. They say that perceived positive social connections gives rise to an upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal nerve tone which controls many organs of the body.

Developing more compassion in your life can benefit you in many unexpected ways.

Join the Conversation

Have you have experienced the development of compassion in your own life. If so, how has your your life changed?

  • Cat Selvaggio says:

    I thought that I had experienced most forms of compassion – only to realize a new one in just the past week or so.

    An elderly neighbor slipped and fell down some stairs, was hospitalized, treated and wanting to come home. She was not being treated well. She had not been bathed, had old smelly food in trays that had not been taken away, dirty towels etc.

    Some friends and I brought her home and have been taking turns looking after her while she recovers. Since I am the only female volunteer, I am in charge of her personal grooming. We laugh together while I shower and bathe her. I see to it that she has clean bedding, look after her 3 cats, and do some household chores.

    Somehow I am finding the time to help this awesome woman even though I have a full schedule right now. It is a joy to honor her life. And so I am learning yet another way to be compassionate. I feel my heart growing.

  • Julia Baca says:

    Compassion…we use this word often times but do not always realize the power in the action of compassion. I am the happiest within my heart and inner- being when I put compassion into my daily practices. I recently broke my leg and it has put me in a very vulnerable spot but I have been rescued by wonderful people to help me with my recovery process. I had much anxiety and could feel depression setting in when they offered me their home and to also bring my cat Sebastian. Compassion…to be the person on the receiving side has given me added strength, renewed healing processes and the desire to become a better person on many different levels. It also has given me the opportunity to explore my practice and see it in action before my eyes. Compassion will always be part of my life, but this experience has brought me the true value of compassion and I will continue to improve my actions to other people with compassion.

    • Margaret says:

      I have learned through experience too, although our Buddhist practice has definitely accelerated the growth of compassion in me through taking care of others and encouraging their practice. I think this is one of the great benefits of Buddhism. It grows us into being less concerned with ourselves and opens our hearts. I think this is something we need more of in our country today.

  • >