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Three Kinds of Compassion

My post this week will take a brief look at a traditional Buddhist presentation of the three kinds of compassion. These teachings provide a model of how the trainings in compassion can evolve, take on more and more genuine forms, and work in complementary stages.

The starting-point “definition” of compassion is that it is a “wish for sentient beings to be free from suffering.” As many others have noted, the etymology of the English word compassion points to the meaning “to suffer together with.” Learning to “suffer with” another is a very important preparation for developing the “wish to free” a sentient being from suffering: if we can become willing to let the pain of others really touch our hearts, we will be setting the stage for allowing our compassion’s creativity to come forward. That willingness could be nurtured at first by the basic practice of sitting meditation. When we sit, one of the capacities we are developing is not to let our heart of empathy become buried or unnoticed due to our mental chatter.

The next stage that follows the bravery of “suffering with,” or deeply opening ourselves to the suffering of another being, is strengthening the wish to help them become free from that suffering. Here, we can make both an aspiration that this being will be freed from their pain, and an intention or pledge to take an active role in that process. The instructions that I’ve heard for this stage say that we shouldn’t analyze whether or not it is possible for us to help the being we are thinking of. We should simply take the leap fully with our heart and mind and say: I will do it. I will act so that this being will become free from suffering.

With our willingness fully engaged in this way, we can then take a look, with clear-eyed compassion, and see if there are avenues by which we can offer actual assistance or not. And if we see chances to help, then the contemplations on opening up, aspiring, and pledging that we had done previously will increase the odds that we will seize any opportunity to help that presents itself.

In terms of cultivating the actual desire to help beings become free of suffering, the first type of compassion is known as “compassion for sentient beings.” At this stage, we simply appreciate any type of love or empathy or longing to help that arises in us naturally when we witness the suffering of another person or being. There may be a situation that spontaneously captures our heart, such as seeing or learning of a child in need, or a sick or mistreated animal. Actually, as we well know, there is no shortage of heartbreaking events and situations in the world, situations of suffering so intense that they may strike our hearts open whenever we think of them. Whatever moves us the most, we can work with that experience, recognizing it as a chance to get to know our own potential for love in a deeper way. We try to train in not only bearing witness to the suffering and opening ourselves to it empathically, but also in seeing clearly what causes and conditions underlie the suffering.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll call the second type of compassion “compassion aware of suffering’s deeper causes” (though that’s not a literal translation of the traditional term for this second stage). In this second stage, we bring a deeper appreciation to bear of the pervasive nature of the causes of suffering, rather than only noticing suffering when it manifests in the form of an obvious result. By actively encouraging the curiosity that arises during the first stage of training in compassion, we come to understand that ignorance of the true nature of interdependent reality, in whatever form it takes, can come to trigger an experience of suffering at any moment. That is, when our awareness is out of step with the way things really exist or work in relation to each other, then the moves we make are going to create a bumpy ride sooner or later.

With this second type of compassion, rather than viewing this insight into the relationship between ignorance and suffering with a harsh eye, we allow it to soften our hearts further, appreciating that everyone, ourselves included, is a worthy object of compassion, regardless of whether we are enduring a manifest form of suffering at present or not. We become more willing to brook the notion that even the most selfish people, who seem to always be afflicting suffering upon others, are also simply setting up their own suffering in the long run, as well as ample suffering for others. And that if we can begin to take our own resentment toward them out of the equation, we could be contributing to a saner environment for all. In short, by studying and contemplating the relationships between causes and results, and how ignorance and mental afflictions play a role in our experience all the time, we broaden the circle of our compassion.

The third type of compassion is called “nonreferential compassion,” or compassion free of even the slightest trace of concept. This compassion is taught to only fully reveal itself in the experience of deeply realized, or thoroughly spiritually “processed” individuals, people who have worked very diligently for a long time to the point that they see the way in which interdependent phenomena arise very clearly, and have thoroughly loosened the habit of seeing the world emotionally and cognitively through the lenses of self-centricity. The Buddhist teachings say that when a person’s heart and mind are free to that degree, the love and compassion they feel for any living being are the same as those that a parent feels for their only child. At the same time, that is just a conceptual description of this type of compassion. They say that this compassion thoroughly transcends conceptual descriptions, but is sometimes succinctly labeled as “emptiness with a heart of compassion.”

Ironically, though the third type of compassion is taught to only be fully manifest in the mindstreams of beings who abide in the fruition stage of the path of awakening, it is also taught in many Buddhist schools to be the ultimate nature of our hearts and minds from the very beginning. The compassion that arises at the fruition stage of the path is taught to be one in which we return to our true nature and “know the place for the first time.”


Tyler Dewar is a Mitra, or senior teacher, in the Nalandabodhi Buddhist community. He can be found on Facebook and Twitter, and at his blog, Parijata Press.



Photo credit: The Smithsonian Institution.

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