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By:Andrew Hain
Date: Thu,06 Jul 2023
Submitter:Andrew Hain

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“In Tibet we say that many illnesses can be cured by the one medicine of love and compassion. These qualities are the ultimate source of human happiness, and need for them lies at the very core of our being. Unfortunately, love and compassion have been omitted from too many spheres of social interaction for too long.” The Dalai Lama
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, compassion is the “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Compassion motivates people to go out of their way to relieve the physical, mental, or emotional pains of others and themselves.
Therein lies the truth of right relationship, of loving understanding, of actively expressed Love. It is the basis of Oneness and the expression of Unconditional Love. This basic truth never changes because it is related to the nature of Creation.

We will look at how compassion fits into the major religions later, so suffice it to say for now that Mahayana Buddhism suggests that enlightenment is cultivated by seeking better integration of our heart centre through seeking more ways to express and develop love in our lives: in other words, to be more compassionate.

Compassion is seen by some as a virtue, one in which the emotional capacities of empathy and sympathy for the suffering of others, are regarded as a part of?love itself and a cornerstone of greater social interconnection, and a foundation to the highest principles in philosophy and society.
Throughout the ages of earth’s evolution many different humanist philosophies have developed, as well as many organized religious traditions. Nearly all of them have emphasized the positive traits of human compassion as a virtue to strive for in daily life. However, when we think about the meaning of the word compassion we generally think of a human characteristic and place a moral or ethical judgment on our perception of it. This judgment tries to define what we as human beings believe is good or bad. Whenever we use the ego to shape our fixed belief system and its inner dialogue, we assign a value to our perception of events.

Compassion clouded by judgment becomes extremely twisted, as it has to fit into what we believe the circumstance really is that actually deserves our compassion. ?From these ego mental distortions, many of which may well be reinforced by religious dogma, our idea of what defines compassion can become muddled within extremely heavy emotions such as guilt, shame or resentment. For example, we may give to charity to make ourselves feel better, so that the inner personal conflict will go away in the belief that we are being compassionate. We may feel that in order to be a good person, a spiritual person, we should be compassionate in order to have empathy and feel others’ suffering, and so our compassion is in danger of being misapplied.

So what is Compassion?

To have compassion is to have understanding. To develop compassion, first you must understand and forgive yourself, knowing that you are doing the best you can within your current belief system and your current capability levels. The more understanding, forgiveness and loving kindness you can give yourself the more genuine compassion you can feel for someone else and the more compassionate you will be.

As noted above, judging only confuses things so it is best if we do not judge ourselves or anyone else. The world is full of teachers, friends as well as enemies. There are only lessons for us, not “good” or “bad” experiences. We are here to grow and evolve spiritually.

At the heart of the Law of Compassion is the fact that every person does the best they can within the limits of their beliefs and capabilities. The Law of Cause and Effect gives us a means to learn from our mistakes and grow to maturity. Even though despicable people exist and need to be separated from society to stop their destructive behaviour, it is better for our own good to treat them with compassion, forgiveness and love, rather than hate. In this way, we are not filling our world with negative energy.

To help us understand ourselves we must become aware of the presence of suffering in our own bodies, emotions, thoughts, and actions, and then take steps to reduce the suffering. Compassion is the natural and spontaneous feeling that arises when we witness suffering, and that triggers our taking action to alleviate the suffering. While it may sound easy, practising compassion for ourselves is difficult.

According to Deepak Chopra, research indicates that cultivating self-compassion can contribute to beneficial physical, emotional, mental, and interpersonal changes, such as:

• Modulates hormonal functioning, especially of oxytocin and cortisol
• Reduces the intensity and frequency of negative and chronic stress reactions
• Copes with difficult emotional experiences
• Moderates depression and anxiety
• Increases emotional well being
• Mitigates negative thinking, including rumination
• Improves interpersonal relationships
• Enhances patience, generosity, gratitude, acceptance, humility, openness, and gentleness


Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a German Lutheran pastor, and one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century said, “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

Scientists have started to map the biological basis of compassion, suggesting it has a deep evolutionary purpose. This research has shown that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, care giving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people.

Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. The critical element in compassion that differentiates it from empathy is its behavioural component. Empathy is thinking and feeling what others are thinking and feeling. Compassion combines the deep awareness of the sufferings of others with a desire that leads, eventually, to an action to relieve the suffering Empathy is an ability to relate to another person's pain as if it's your own. Empathy, like sympathy, is grounded in emotion and feeling, but empathy doesn't have an active component to it. The component of action is what separates compassion from empathy, sympathy, pity, concern, condolence, sensitivity, tenderness, commiseration or any other compassion synonym.

Compassion means getting involved. When others keep their distance from those who are suffering, compassion prompts us to act on their behalf.
Compassion does have its ‘enemies.’ Coldness, hard heartedness, indifference, intolerance, and just plain mean-spiritedness come quickly to mind. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’, “A Christmas Carol,” and you will get an idea of this attitude.

Compassion in Religion
All religious paths advocate compassion. The Supreme is the very embodiment of compassion and being an instrument of compassion is the way to divine realisation. Love and compassion are the very qualities which sustain humanity. Paramahansa Yogananda? says, “If someone is suffering and you reach out with aid and compassion you are moving into the presence of God.”

The Bible defines compassion by showing us what it looks like and what is involved with being compassionate.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:8-9

“Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” 1 John 3:18
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” 1 Peter 4:10
“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’” Zechariah 7:9-10

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” Philippians 2:1-2

“Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). “Be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ” Ephesians 4:32.
In Hinduism, spiritual aspirants are advised to overcome their selfish desires, cultivate detachment, and renounce worldly pleasures. The presence of compassion is indicative of the person's spiritual growth, inner awakening and discriminating intelligence. Hinduism advocates compassion for all, as part of its universal message that all life forms are part of one large universal family. Since, everyone and everything in the universe is a manifestation of God, who is also present in us as our inner Self, it becomes necessary that we see God’s universal presence and extend the same feelings of love and devotion which we feel for him to all.

The noble quality of treating others as oneself is expressed through acts of compassion, charity and selfless service. Compassion clears the hurdles, and leads one on the path to the immortal world of Brahman.

Similar ideas are found in Jainism, in which the practice of non-violence is central. In Jainism killing any living being is considered a great sin which produces bad karma and binds the beings to the cycle of births and deaths.
The idea of compassion is an important aspect of Buddhist ethics and monastic discipline, and is deeply embedded in the essential doctrine of the Buddhist Dharma, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Buddha practised it and encouraged its practice for building the nobility of the character and to cultivate loving kindness. Buddhism identifies it as one of the highest virtues which one has to cultivate on the path to Nirvana.
The Buddhist monks have to abide in compassion, loving kindness and universal friendliness to minimize the suffering they may cause to themselves and others through their thoughts words and actions. By cultivating right thinking, right views, right perceptions, right actions, one abides in the practice of non-violence and compassion which leads to happiness and wellbeing.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the virtue of compassion is taken to a new height by the practice of transferring one's own good karma to the suffering as an ultimate sacrifice. The virtue of compassion is also an important part of healing, praying and service in many Buddhist traditions.
As mentioned earlier, the idea of compassion is given its greatest expression in the Mahayana Buddhism, in the conduct of the Bodhisattvas, who sacrifice and postpone their own salvation out of compassion to help the suffering humanity. The practice of mindfulness is an important adjunct to cultivate compassion. It is by mindfully observing the suffering one goes through that one develops the tender feelings (compassion) and the urgency of finding a permanent solution.

Compassion represents the true spirit of Islam and compassion is far more vital to Islamic teachings than anything else. In fact, compassion in Islam, after the concepts of unity of God and the messengership of Muhammad, is as central to Islam as it is to Buddhism.

The Muslim who truly understands the teachings of Islam is compassionate and merciful, for he understands that the compassion of people on earth will cause the mercy of heaven to be showered upon them. Al-tabarani, a renowned Muslim scholar advises, “Have compassion on those who are on earth so that the One Who is in heaven will have mercy on you.”
“Whoever does not show compassion to people, Allah will not have mercy on him.”

The true Muslim does not limit his compassion only to his family, children, relatives and friends, but he extends it to include all people. This is in accordance with the teachings of the Prophet: “You will not believe until you have compassion towards one another.”

This is a comprehensive, all-embracing compassion, extending to all people, that Islam has awoken in the Muslim, so that the Muslim community may become a source of mutual compassion filled with deep love, compassion and sincerity.

In Jewish teaching compassion is among the highest of virtues, as its opposite, cruelty, is among the worst of vices. The prophet Jeremiah speaks of the people from the north country who “lay hold on bow and spear, they are cruel, and have no compassion” (Jeremiah 6:21). Compassion is to be extended to animals as well as to humans. It is strictly forbidden to cause unnecessary pain to animals. There is a Talmudic rule, still followed by pious Jews, that before sitting down to a meal one must first see that the domestic animals are fed.

The Zohar?(iii. 92b) says: “Thus if a man does kindness on earth, he awakens loving-kindness above, and it rests upon that day which is crowned therewith through him. Similarly, if he performs a deed of mercy, he crowns that day with mercy and it becomes his protector in the hour of need. So, too, if he performs a cruel action, he has a corresponding effect on that day and impairs it, so that subsequently it becomes cruel to him and tries to destroy him, giving him measure for measure.”

However, for many people, the function of religion is to strengthen the self, bringing a sense of certainty, superiority and group identity. Feeling that you possess ‘the truth’ and that everyone else who has different beliefs is wrong, provides a very strong sense of identity, which is bolstered by the feeling of belonging to a group.

A strong sense of ego or self often equates with a low level of empathy and compassion. As our beliefs become stronger, the boundaries of our self become stronger, and we find it more difficult to connect with other human beings. We become hemmed in by the strong structures of our identity, and as many studies have shown, religious people find it easy to empathize with, and be altruistic to members of their group, but are much less empathic and altruistic towards members of other groups and herein lies the problem.
Compassion is inherent in the human makeup. However, too often too many of us suppress it, or restrict it. We must learn to express our compassion more freely. Let me conclude this article with a couple of quotations that adequately sum up what compassion is and why we need to express it more frequently.

“Love and Compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek.” The Dalai Lama

“Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” Albert Schweitzer (Nobel Peace Prize winner 1952)
“For as long as man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals they will kill each other.” Pythagoras
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