Compassion I


Tara Brach  Radical Acceptance

Olivia Fox Cabine  The Charisma Myth:  How anyone can master the art and science of personal magnetism

Christopher Germer  The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions

Bhante Gunaratana Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness

Kristin Neff  Self-Compassion  The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself

Thera Nyanaponika The Four Sublime States; Contemplations on Love, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity (

Our agenda for this three-part talk

Compassion in the Dharma

What is compassion?

Compassion for others

Compassion for self

The Way of the Bodhisattva

Compassion in the Dharma

The Buddha mentions compassion in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.   Specifically, in the section, Mindfulness of the Dhammas, the Fourth Noble Truth, The Eightfold Path, the Wisdom step of Right Thought:

And what, is Right Thought?  Thought associated with renunciation, thought associated with absence of ill will, thought associated with absence of cruelty.  This is called Right Thought.  Compassion is thought associated with absence of cruelty.

The Buddha also mentions compassion in the Metta Sutta (SN 46.54) showing how to develop it through the seven factors of awakening.  Compassion is one of the four divine abodes or Brahma Viharas, the three others being loving kindness, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

How does compassion differ from the practice of loving kindness?  Bhikkhu Bodhi notes:  “Compassion supplies the complement to loving-kindness:  whereas loving-kindness has the characteristic of wishing for the happiness and welfare of others, compassion has the characteristics of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings.”

What is compassion?

Compassion is the intention to relieve the suffering of others. It arises with the recognition of the universality of suffering and the realization that all living beings desire happiness.

“Compassion is the melting of the heart at the thought of another’s suffering.”  Bhante G

The dew of compassion is a tear – Byron 

Nyanaponika Thera ( says it very well:

“The world suffers. But most men have their eyes and ears closed. They do not see the unbroken stream of tears flowing through life; they do not hear the cry of distress continually pervading the world. Their own little grief or joy bars their sight, deafens their ears. Bound by selfishness, their hearts turn stiff and narrow. Being stiff and narrow, how should they be able to strive for any higher goal, to realize that only release from selfish craving will effect their own freedom from suffering?

It is compassion that removes the heavy bar, opens the door to freedom, makes the narrow heart as wide as the world. Compassion takes away from the heart the inert weight, the paralyzing heaviness; it gives wings to those who cling to the lowlands of self.

Through compassion, the fact of suffering remains vividly present to our mind, even at times when we personally are free from it. It gives us the rich experience of suffering, thus strengthening us to meet it.

Compassion is not pity.  Pity although defined in some cases as compassion is really feeling sorry for someone from a distance.  This is a separation as we feel that we are a separate self.  This does not allow the full experience of someone else’s suffering.”

Compassion means to be with, feel with, suffer with.    The key word is “with.”  In order to be with ourselves or others, we need to be mindful, paying attention moment to moment to what is. When we do that, we “let ourselves be touched by life, and our hearts naturally become more open and engaged.”  P. 222

“And what is the highest manifestation of compassion?  To show to the world the path leading to the end of suffering, the path pointed out, trodden and realized to perfection by Him, the Exalted One, the Buddha.”  (Nyanaponika Thera)

Barriers to Compassion

Misunderstanding of love

True universal love is not the emotional romantic attachment.  Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj defined love as the refusal to separate, to make distinctions.  We can’t be with others wholly if we let the hindrances such as anger and hate get in our way.  When we pay attention to others, we recognize their vulnerability and suffering. We realize that they want peace and happiness just as we do

The trance of self

When we are in the trance of self, we are totally absorbed in our own world. We shut others out and whatever perception we have of them is unreal.  “Once someone is an unreal other, we lose sight of how they hurt. Because we don’t experience them as feeling beings, we not only ignore them, we can inflict pain on them without compunction. Not seeing that others are real leads to a father disowning his son for being gay, divorced parents using their children as weapons. All the enormous suffering of violence and war comes from our basic failure to see that others are real Tara Brach (Radical Acceptance p. 229).  We withhold our kindness. 

When we practice true compassion, we lose our illusionary concept of self.  We are just being.

Attachment to Group Affiliations

Another barrier arises when we compare our group affiliations to other groups.  In doing so, we lose sight of their suffering.  “We also compare the groups we belong to—Americans, Russians, Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Muslims, and so on—to other groups.  That’s why we tend to wear the mantle of our group affiliations on our sleeves (or our car bumpers).  Our sense of self is imbued with social labels that define us and make us feel safe and accepted within clearly defined boundaries.  Although a sense of belongingness can be found within these group identities, it is still limited.  As long as we’re identifying with subsets of people rather than the entire human race, we’re creating divisions that separate us from our fellows….Sadly these divisions often lead to prejudice and hatred…..Group identity lies at the root of most violent conflicts—whether it’s a scuffle between two local high school football teams or a full-scale international war.”  Kristin Neff, Self Compassion, p. 67-68)

Lack of Empathy

Empathy refers to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person.

Empathy happens when we take a moment to stop and feel what is really going on with another person before we rush on with our own lives.  This is another application of the sacred pause.  “When we stop to attend and see others as real, we uncover the hidden bond that exists between all beings.

In her poem “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes:

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Cultivating Compassion

You cannot generate compassion.  It is solely by experiencing your experience of another’s suffering that leads to the appropriate action.  Otherwise, compassion just remains as a thought or concept.Cultivating Compassion has several steps

  • Connect with others
  • Be mindful of their suffering with empathy
  • Reflect on your own suffering
  • Know that suffering is universal – this creates the connection between you and others
  • Ask how can I be more kind and what do they really need?

We will go further into compassion in the next talk.


  • Reread and reflect on this talk daily.
  • Practice the steps of cultivating compassion.  What do you experience?

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