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Conceptions of Compassion in Buddhism By Jennifer Goetz
How do Buddhist and Western notions of compassion differ? Read summaries of research comparing the two traditions.

Wise compassion
In Buddhism, compassion is the wish for others to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. It is based on appreciating other people’s feelings, especially when we’ve gone through the same ordeal. Even if we’ve never experienced what they’re going through, we can put ourselves in their shoes and feel how awful it must be. Imagining how much we'd want to be free of it, we strongly yearn for others to be free as well.

This bibliography is the result of a desire to expand scientific understanding of compassion to include a broader range of influences. The Buddhist readings reviewed here are far from the traditional academic psychology to which I am accustomed. For that reason, the analysis is bound to be oversimplified and flawed. The readings are full-length books that are dense and often appear circular and contradictory in their reasoning. This is not a critique of the writings; it is rather part of the circular nature of Buddhism and its beliefs, as well as the contradictions inherent in life.

In addition, these are not isolated discussions of compassion. The concept is defined in the context of discussions of Buddhism as a whole. In the interest of pointing readers to the useful information, I provide: 1) a summary table to structure my comparison of Western (oft times scientific) and Buddhist conceptions of compassion, and 2) summaries of the readings which point readers to sections that may be particularly useful.

Compassion as Cold

The more one reads Buddhist writings, the more one realizes that Buddhist compassion is similar to lay conceptions of compassion in name only. While lay concepts of compassion are of warm feelings for particular people in need, Buddhist compassion is not particular, warm, or even a feeling. Perhaps the most succinct and clear mention of this is in the discussions of the Dalai Lama and Jean-Claude Carriere (1996, p. 53). A footnote explains in refreshingly plain language that compassion in the Buddhist sense is not based on what we call "feeling". While Buddhist's do not deny the natural feelings that may arise from seeing another in need, this is not the compassion Buddhism values. Instead, Buddhist compassion is the result of knowing one is part of a greater whole and is interdependent and connected to that whole. It is the result of practiced meditations. Indeed, Buddhist compassion should be without heat or passion - it is objective, cold, constant and universal.42ca8a656654ae040fc506901d8c60d4.jpg
Trungpa (1973) argues true compassion has the potential to appear cruel or ruthless. Compassion requires prajna or transcendental wisdom - an ability to see past shallow appearances and see true suffering and need. For this reason, compassion may involve giving someone what they really need, not what they want. In addition compassion is an open gift, it is generosity without demand. One does not expect or require reciprocity or confirmation of compassion. Indeed, true compassion will often not be appreciated and may be received with anger or hatred. The next section discusses the threat of anger to compassion and the methods for dealing with this.

Anger in Opposition to Compassion

The sixth chapter of Shantideva's Guide to the Way of Life on the Perfection of Patience (also called the Perfection of Forbearance) provides an interesting discussion of anger, compassion, and disturbing emotions. Anger is the main obstacle that causes deterioration to compassion and the awakening mind. However, compassion is not an emotion or feeling, so the two are not opposites in Buddhist conceptions as they are in Western and lay conceptions (see Weiner, 1993). Shantideva's discussion provides the causes of anger as: 1) personal suffering, 2) being disrespected, and 3) being spoken to harshly. One can destroy anger by knowing one's enemy and by realizing that he creates only sorrows. Perhaps surprisingly, the worst way to deal with anger is to suppress it. The remedy for anger is patience. By meditating on the causes of anger, one can feel compassion for one's enemy. For example, someone who speaks harshly to me is not in control and cannot be blamed for his actions. His actions are the result of disturbing emotions like anger - emotions over which he has no control.

Love, Attachment, and Compassion

Although often expressed as loving kindness, it is important to note that Buddhism makes a strict distinction of compassion from what it calls grasping love and attachment. Love, when seen as desire, necessarily leads to suffering. In this way, love is seen as a need to attach oneself to others in order to achieve a sense of security and belonging (Trungpa, 1973). Instead, Buddhism encourages love and compassion in the sense of openness and fearlessness. True compassion and love have no territorial bounds - they are freely offered and received.

Encouraging Compassion

The four noble truths discovered by Siddartha are 1) the world is wretched and full of suffering, 2) this suffering is the result of desires, 3) it is possible to stop desires and end suffering, and 4) there is a specific path for doing this. The most important part of Buddhist path is meditation. Meditation encourages and fosters an awakening mind and compassion. Shantideva's writings in the chapter on the Perfection of Meditation (ch 8) lay out some specific exercises towards this end. They are also clearly presented in S. Rinpoche's (1992) writings.


One meditation is on making ourselves equal with others. In this way we recognize that which is the same in all of us: being human, feeling suffering, and we all want to find happiness and avoid suffering. This exercise seems to be playing on what Western social scientists have identified as similarity. If we can identify with others' situations and we feel similar to them, we are more likely to feel sympathy. Likewise this meditation encourages one to see what is similar in everyone.

A similar but distinct meditation involves exchanging oneself with others. Again, in social psychological terms this can be thought of as perspective taking. When someone is suffering and we do not know how to help, we should put ourselves in his or her place. This exercise is also a letting-go of the ego and the self. By systematically exchanging oneself with inferior and superior others, one can see life from their perspective and lose pity and jealousy.

Although this bibliography lacks a depth and context of understanding for the broader concepts of Buddhism, it attempts to identify and structure fundamental differences between western and Buddhist conceptions of compassion. I have done this by comparing the western conception of compassion as a warm feeling for a particular individual to Buddhist compassion which may be more like a cognition or knowledge of universal suffering.

It is interesting to note that the Buddhist writings suggest some universality for the emotion of compassion. They take care to mention the difference between the passionless compassion cultivated in meditation to the hot spontaneous occurrence of compassion. This implies that the naturally occurring emotional components of compassion may have universal qualities.

Dalai Lama & Carriere, Jean-Claude (1996). Violence and compassion. New York: Doubleday.
Rinpoche, Sogyal (1992). The Tibetan book of living and dying. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

“Well, then, you must become a samanera,” the Sayadaw replied. “Otherwise Sayadaw U Gandhama, of Yeu village, will not take you as his student.”

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