Basic Buddhism
Compassion: An East-West Comparison
Patricia Walsh-Frank
15/06/2012 04:40 (GMT+7)
Font size:  Zoom out Zoom in

Compassion is an emotion that occupies a central position in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy while it is often a neglected subject in contemporary western philosophy. This essay is a comparison between an Eastern view of compassion based upon Mahayana Buddhist perspectives and a western view of the same emotion.


Compassion is an emotion that occupies a central position in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy while it is often a neglected subject in contemporary western philosophy. This essay is a comparison between an Eastern view of compassion based upon Mahayana Buddhist perspectives and a western view of the same emotion. Certain principles found in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy such as the Bodhisattva Ideal, and suffering (dukkha) to name two, are explored for the information they contain about compassion. An essay by Lawrence Blum is taken as representative of a Western view (but not exclusively) and it is analyzed for its shortcomings in light of the Buddhist view. The conclusion briefly describes the value of understanding an eastern view on compassion as a means of filling the void one finds in western medical ethics discourse which focuses so heavily, and redundantly, upon issues such as patient autonomy and paternalism. A Chinese Ch'an Master once said: 'We are all in the path of enlightenment, but the question is, are we on the right track?' [1]

Compassion is an emotion that occupies a central position in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy while it is often neglected in contemporary western philosophy. Comparisons between Eastern and Western views on this emotion are rare if they exist at all. Yet, such a study would prove invaluable to the Western philosophical discipline of medical ethics. A study of this kind would require a much larger text of research than the one presently before you. However, one must begin somewhere and this essay is proposed as the beginning of what is hoped will be a much longer and much broader discourse which evaluates Eastern philosophical perspectives in terms of Western needs in medical ethics. This essay will not attempt any elaboration upon the idea just presented. Rather, it attempts to get at the root of some of the differences and difficulties one uncovers when engaging upon a more or less straight-forward comparative analysis of compassion from two culturally different views. You will find before you first, a short explanation of why emotions have been neglected. This is provided in order to prove the validity of the assertion made in the opening sentence of this essay. It also provides the reader with the insight that his or her own attitude towards emotions may well have a negative bias which results in a less open attitude to the ideas presented here. Having made this point the essay turns to an explanation of certain important principles of Mahayana Buddhism as they relate to compassion. However, the task of extracting information regarding an Eastern view based upon Mahayana Buddhism turns out to be a complex process. Many ideas about emotions are embedded in this philosophy as Padmasiri de Silva points out when he says: Some of the central dimensions of emotions which I have described as presented in the western philosophy of emotions can be accommodated within the Buddhist perspectives on emotions... These observations are found dispersed in the discourses of the Buddha... [2]

From among these discourses, then, concepts such as conventional reality (Samsara), suffering (duhkha), impermanence (anitya), the non-self (anatman) and the doctrine of the Two-fold Truth are discussed. And, the importance of meditation as the vehicle to enlightenment is highlighted. The outcome of this narrower focus is that certain arbitrary decisions have been made regarding what to include here. In my discussion about the nature of suffering as an inherent part of Being [3] I draw upon the Heideggerian model. In addition, considerable time is taken discussing the Bodhisattva Ideal as it applies here. [4,5] This is followed by a brief analysis of Lawrence Blum's essay on compassion which is taken as representative of a Western analytic perspective, but not exclusively. [6] Certain strengths and weaknesses of Blum's analysis are pointed out to show where one must be careful about being too analytical when examining the topic of compassion. Such an approach can result in a lack of depth that is one of the features of Blum's otherwise well-written essay.

In my conclusion, I briefly discuss the value of understanding this Eastern view on compassion since I believe aspects of it will help fill the void one finds in Western medical ethics discourse which focuses so heavily, and redundantly, upon issues such as patient autonomy, paternalism and informed consent. Lastly, although Mahayana Buddhism makes no formal claim to being an ethical theory, one cannot ignore the underlying ethical tone of many of its doctrines. Therefore, although ethics or moral theory is not the primary focus of this essay, in some way this is a discussion about morality.

The Insufficiency of Discourse on Emotions--Lack of Balance

Despite a common prejudice, reason and emotion are not natural antagonists. [7]

There is a noticeable absence of study about emotions in philosophy which is ascribed to a prejudice against them. They are viewed as being irrational and, therefore, undeserving of attention. In the West [8] such attitudes are routinely expressed in philosophical discourse. They have their foothold in the works of ancient philosophers, such as Aristotle, and they have been consistently reiterated and reinforced by most major Western philosophers through the ages. During the 18th-century European Enlightenment, the tools for analytic philosophy were finely forged with a disproportionate emphasis upon, and valuing of, highly rational dichotomous thinking. The legacy of this history has been a relegation of emotions to the 'back room' of philosophy where they have been left to collect dust. In the meantime Western philosophers have engaged in a centuries-old myopic discussion of the virtues of reason. Over-emphasis upon reason has resulted in the creation of something like a 'straw man' where emotions are concerned. Often their only use has been to emphasise how useless they are.

The result is that many Western philosophers have failed to come to an understanding of the integral role emotions play in human behaviour, particularly moral behaviour. Padmasiri de Silva describes negativism towards emotions saying: ... they are considered antithetical to our cognitive skills, to think, reason, perceive and understand. Emotions have also been considered as states which interfere with the development of good character and as ethically undesirable states which ought to be eliminated. In the realm of human behaviour it is assumed that always emotions interfere with calm, voluntary and rational behaviour. [9]

The above description differs from the balancing of reason and emotions that is found in Mahayana Buddhism during certain period of its development. [10] Dayal indirectly addresses this balance in the Eastern view when he discusses 'The Ten Powers' and the 'Eighteen Avenika-dharmas' of the Buddha. The following quotation tells us that without the use of reason and intellect the Buddha would not have the mental power needed to fulfil his position. Dayal says: A Buddha possesses the knowledge of correct and faulty conclusions. He knows fully and truly the consequences of all actions in the past, present and the future with regard to their causes and circumstances. He is cognizant of the various aspirations and dispositions of different types of persons. [11]

This tells us that the Buddha is able to make sound judgments. He is able to anticipate the outcome of actions on the basis of logical deduction (or induction [12]). He then integrates this knowledge into a cause and effect analysis. All of these processes are the activities of reason. However, when Dayal says that the Buddha is 'cognizant of the various aspirations and dispositions of different types of persons' we interpret this to mean that the Buddha is aware that both aspirations and dispositions are based in emotions. This means that emotions, and knowledge of them, are of great importance to his functioning effectively. In another Dayal discussion about the 'Eighteen Avenika-dharmas', emotions are again emphasised. He says that a Buddha is distinguished from other beings by his deep and great pity, love, mercy and compassion for all beings (karuna). [13] Possession of these emotions is the mark that distinguishes a Buddha from ordinary people.

We see an incorporation of emotions into the Dharma [14] when we consider, for example, discussions of the five aggregates (khandha) which are regarded as comprising personhood. These aggregates are, (1) body (rupa); (2) feelings (vedana); (3) perceptions (sanna); (4) dispositions (sankhara) and (5) consciousness (vinnana). The five aggregates, representing conventional notions of personhood, [15] are then integrated into larger principles until one arrives at a single unified doctrine. A brief review of the Mahayana principles mentioned in the introduction of this essay follows; it will provide us with a clearer understanding of how closely mind (reason) and spirit (in part emotions) co-mingle in this holistic philosophy. The tools of reason such as language and logic are used to describe the significance of these principles in growth of the spirit.

These examples show that while reason is important in Mahayana Buddhism it does not rule disproportionately as it does in the West. In Buddhism, [16] de Silva says, 'an emotion can be described as an interactive complex emerging within a causal network'. This means that emotions like compassion are not normally subjected to Western style reductive analysis, and the devaluation that often accompanies such a process. This is not to say that there are not similarities between Eastern and Western views of compassion.

In both, distinctions are made between good and bad, positive and negative, active and passive emotions. Compassion is regarded as an active, positive emotion with volitional qualities in both cultures.

The Bodhisattva Ideal

According to Dayal the word 'Bodhisattva' designates an individual who is actively seeking to live a saintly life based upon the Buddha's life and Dharma. Bodhisattva is a Sanskrit word that has 'Bodhi' as its root meaning

'Enlightenment'. [17] 'Sattva' can mean both 'any living or sentient being' and 'a being of (or destined for) Enlightenment'. Taken as a whole this word exemplifies the belief that each person has the seed of Buddhahood within. Some time in the third century after the Buddha's death the ideal of the arhat, as a person who emulated the teaching of the Buddha and was free from worldly contamination, underwent a change. Monks, called arhats, began to ignore important aspects of fundamental Buddhist teachings. They became increasingly self-centred and ceased to be committed to zealous missionary work among the people. To counter this unwelcome change, the whole arhat ideal was challenged by a new one, the Bodhisattva doctrine, which promulgated the ideal of compassionate action. Its history is as follows:... bodhisattva doctrine was promulgated by some Buddhist leaders as a protest against lack of true spiritual fervor and altruism among the monks of that period, The coldness and aloofness of the arhats led to a movement in favor of the old gospel of 'saving all creatures'. The bodhisattva ideal can be understood only against this background of saintly and severe, but inactive and indolent monastic Order... [18]

This statement concludes by saying that it borders on blasphemy to think of a Buddha who is not loving and altruistic. The new Bodhisattva Ideal made the selflessness of compassion a requirement for the Bodhisattva. This requirement dictates that the Bodhisattva must sacrifice entering nirvana himself because to do otherwise would mean abandoning those suffering in samsara whom he must teach. His vow is to 'lead all being to Liberation.... 'staying in samsara'... till the end, even for the sake of one living soul'. [19] Statements such as this reveal the underlying ethics found in Mahayana Buddhism. In the Bodhisattva Ideal one comes to understand that suffering is not necessarily disclosed to those who suffer

yet, nevertheless, exists. Suffering (duhkha) is the ground from which the Being of human beings arises. [20] It is a deeper suffering than the physical or emotional or psychological although these forms of suffering are symptomatic of this deeper affliction. Such suffering is a universal circumstance of all beings. In this essay it is called the primordial [21] nature of suffering as an affliction of all living human beings.

The Doctrines of Non-self and Two-fold Truth

 Virtuous man, since the time without beginning all living beings have been thinking wrongly of the I and of the one loving the I. As they do not know that they are just the rise and fall of consecutive thought,  they give rise to love and hate and indulge in the five desires; (arising from the objects of the five senses).[22]

Compassion is an emotion that is 'other' directed, it involves a concern for the well-being of others rather than our own. Thus, it moves us away from the ego-centric self towards the non-self. In developing compassion one comes to understand and acknowledge the interdependence of things upon each other (pratitya samutpada). We become enlightened to the fact that when we help others we help ourselves. We also recognise that the ego-centric assumptions we make about our own individuality and independence are falsely grounded in our cravings and desires. Gadjin Nagao tells us that:

 It is a matter of course that in Buddhism defilements based upon ego-consciousness are to be removed. The aim of this removal.... is to elucidate... the dependent nature of the 'doer', 'goer' and so forth all of which are wrongly assumed to have independent and absolute existence. The subject that is freed from ego-consciousness and is of the other dependent nature can attain the perfect enlightenment. [23]

In Mahayana Buddhist doctrine we are called upon to free ourselves from the defilements of the samsaric world which arise because of our ego-consciousness. A central notion of the ego-centric person is that he

is, in some way, the centre of the universe and that the things of this world are his. He sees himself as an independent ruler of his life and as a powerful person who has some control over the impermanence (anitya) of all things. Believing in his power he also believes that he has a right to ownership of the things of this world just as he clings to these very beliefs themselves. His attitude is concerned with the satisfaction of one's own desires without consideration, oft-times, of others. Such ego drive carries with it a profound misunderstanding of what it means to have Being in this world. Such is the sense in which we should understand Nagao's statement about how an ego-centric view 'wrongly' assumes that it has an 'independent and absolute existence' that is without attachment to others. In his wisdom the Buddha understands that this ego-centric view of the world is wrong; it is an artificial creation of our imagination which leads us away from the real truth of our interdependent natures. To be freed of these false pretences we must free ourselves of the 'self', the ego and its drives which sway our perspective. [24] Nagao explains:

Through our cognitions, or discriminations, or intellect, we are always projecting some kind of imagination (which is always false imagination from the Buddhist point of view) onto the world that is originally neutral. This projection of false imagination changes or contaminates the world. People become attached to this contaminated world, thinking that it is the real world. This attachment gives rise to all forms of human suffering, discontent, conflict, defilement and so on. [25]

Compassion, because it takes us away from our selves, is intimately linked to the ability to free ourselves from false assumptions and the elements of the samsaric world which we falsely perceive (ditthi [26]) as real.

Clarence Hamilton [27] describes how loss of ego-centredness into selfless compassion is an integral part of the Bodhisattva Ideal. He says of Bodhisattvas:

They do not become enervated by prosperity, and do not lose composure in adversity... They are unwearying in clothing the nakedness of others... they acquire the roots of virtue by keeping themselves aloof from passion, hatred and folly... They are skilled in bringing solace to those in trouble and misfortune. They do not hesitate to enter all kinds of service... They are free from sin... they love their enemies... [28]

The Doctrine of the Two-fold Truth is inextricably linked to the doctrine of the Non-self (anatman). This doctrine provides a way of explaining the relationship between samsara and nirvana, but it should not be taken simply as a literary device. Samsara is the material world of the everyday, it is the world into which we are born and then leave in death. [29] Samsara is filled with ignorance and suffering because our ego-centric view prevails in it. Its falsity is even expressed in words which, by their nature, set limits to our experience. Words describe our erroneous beliefs and, thus, perpetuate our ignorance of the true nature of Being. Nirvana, on the other hand, is the ideal world of enlightenment. It is free of ignorance and suffering. Yet, it is not a material world as samsara is. Rather, it is 'the ultimate goal of Buddhist striving, a suprapersonal and non-dual experience of voidness which is the end of all duhkha and the highest happiness. [30] If samsara is ruled by ignorance, nirvana is the home of perfect wisdom. Nagao explains the equation between wisdom and nirvana; through wisdom nirvana is met. [31] The limits of language make it difficult to explain nirvana because it is unexplainable. To reduce nirvana to linguistic formulations objectifies it, yet, it is not an object but an extraordinary experience. Language places limits, yet, nirvana is unlimitable. Thus, in a sense, language puts an end to nirvana's existence. In silence alone nirvana is.

Nagao says that the Two-fold Truth opens a channel in which "Language recovers itself in spite of its falsehood and ignorance". As the 'silence' of nirvana is true wisdom (prajna), logic which was recovered and moulded in the form of language, represents the 'great Compassion' (maha-karuna) of the Buddha toward the illusory world. Logic and language are the means by which suffering humans in the samsaric world are taught that there is a way out of their situation. [32] The compassion of the Buddha is so great that he provides a means of explaining the unexplainable in order to draw others towards nirvana. Thus, his message of salvation's way can be transmitted to all who are reached through the Bodhisattva's missionary zeal. The doctrine of the Two-fold Truth allows us to speak the unspeakable for purposes of explaining the difference between samsara and nirvana.

Wisdom, Meditation and Compassion uiring great wisdom one advances to nirvana or enlightenment. Although wisdom and nirvana are not the same we cannot have one without the other. When we speak of 'wisdom' we are not speaking of ordinary wisdom but that which transcends the mundane to a profound understanding of the true nature of Being as arising from the ground of universal primordial suffering. Meditation is the vehicle of this profound insight. It brings one to the necessary conclusion that one must become detached from the cravings and desires of this world if one is to be free of the suffering originating in our primordial nature. In meditation one enters the realm of the non-self and, thus, one becomes purified of the self-centred defilements of this world. Our cravings and desires to which we have clung are of no importance any longer. In wisdom we understand m a most profound way that these defilements are the ground of all human suffering. It is how we perceive the world that makes the difference. Meditation of the profound nature recommended in Mahayana Buddhism is the vehicle for changing our perspective.

Achievement of the nirvanic state is primarily a mental process. Although we may be completely unaware of our physical bodies when in nirvana, we are not (strictly speaking) physically transported beyond the samsaric word.

Thus, a samsaric state of mind and nirvanic state of mind might be best described as two different, non-simultaneous states of consciousness in the same individual whose physical body is in the samsaric world. A scriptural passage that comes to mind to describe this state of being is, 'He (Jesus) was in this world but not of it'. The enlightened live in this world beside the unenlightened. But, in wisdom they:... are free of all false imagination and attachment, for them, the world is no longer imagined and contaminated; it is pure and consummated. The world in which they live their lives differs in no way from our own. [33]

"Compassion" by Lawrence Blum

Discussions about compassion are dispersed in Western philosophical discourse and focused primarily under the categories of moral theory, emotions or theories of emotion. And, while compassion is a central notion in Mahayana Buddhism, it is more of a peripheral topic in the West. Lawrence Blum's essay on compassion provides us with an analysis of this emotion that will be the basis of the discussion about to be undertaken. His remarks are taken as representative, although not exclusively, of an analytic perspective in Western philosophy.

Blum complains that emotions, and compassion in particular, have received insufficient attention in philosophy. It is his belief that compassion is 'central to morality'. [34] The goal of his essay is 'to bring out compassion's particular moral value, as well as some of its limitations'. From the beginning of his discussion it is evident that Blum engages in the prevailing Western philosophical tradition of dichotomous thinking. For example, he claims that compassion is an object-orientated emotion. This subject-object dichotomy creates a distance between those needing compassion and those offering it that is virtually unbridgeable. In the end this distance is maintained in such a way that it is clear that Blum does not have in mind a discussion of compassion of the depth found in Mahayana Buddhism. His analysis never arrives at a discussion of the universal nature of suffering as a primordial condition of human existence. He tends to deal mostly in surfaces such as the observation of adverse conditions in a person's life which arouse compassion in the observer. For this reason, his analysis is regarded as superficial although, perhaps, not in the most usual understanding of this word. That is, his remarks are not totally without depth such as when he speaks of the psychology of a 'creative imagination' that allows the observer to put himself in the place of victim for whom compassion is felt.

The notion of distancing oneself from the object of our compassion comes through strongly in Blum in a number of ways. For example, he says 'compassion does not require that its subject have experienced the sort of suffering that occasions it'. [35] He says that we can feel compassion for someone who has lost a child even though we may be childless. This is true, of course. But, such a statement reveals how very different Blum's focus is than the Mahayana Buddhist. In Mahayana it is not so much the loss of the-child that is the cause of suffering as it is our clinging to the child whom we desire to be still alive and our clinging to memories of the child. We suffer because we cling. This interpretation provides a depth of focus that is not found in Blum. According to Mahayana thought, Blum is expressing the faulty view that we feel compassion for another because of a particular circumstance in his life rather than having the understanding that the suffering the parent experiences over the loss of a child is symptomatic of a deeper problem that is universal and primordial in nature.

Since his view is on the particular it allows the observer to sustain a distance from the object of compassion because he (the observer) does not always share in the object's experience. Blum says that compassion may be "part of a complex attitude (of a subject) towards its object". By this, he means that one may feel compassion for another because of something in that person's life which brings out this feeling. Yet, his focus remains upon the symptoms, i.e. death, hunger, and the like, rather than upon the deeper primordial disorder. In fact, his analysis takes us further away from compassionate identification since there are those we can observe as having nothing in common with us. Such dislocation of self-identification with others risks taking us further away from compassionate identification which motivates us to act in behalf of others.

One observes in Blum an almost continual distance between subject and object, the observer and observed, It is as if the latter suffers but the former does not. This attitude is apparent when Blum discusses the origin of the word compassion as involving a 'feeling with' another person. He says:

 In one sense this means that the subject and the object have the same feeling-type: distress, sorrow,... But in a more important sense the feelings are not the same: for the relation between their subjects and their objects are different. The focus of my neighbor's distress is his own homelessness; the focus of my distress in having compassion for him is my neighbor's homelessness. [36]

Here Blum points out that differences between the subject and object are more important than any shared experience. He continues by saying that when I suffer with my neighbour it is not the same as his suffering, I suffer less than he. Suffering is a matter of degree. This idea is troublesome in this comparison of views because on the Eastern perspective compassion is not discussed as a matter of degree. The fact that a Bodhisattva volunteers to give up entering nirvana until all are saved strongly suggests that he has suffered at least equally; his first hand knowledge of suffering is one of the main motivating forces for his compassionate behaviour. The fact that he has known the same suffering as his fellow human beings forms a bond of unity between he and them. In Mahayana this bond is expressed as

gotra or family in what is regarded here in the purest sense of the word; one with others.

Another way that Blum distances us from identification with others is by introducing analysis that serves to distract us from a discussion about compassion. He claims that one may also have other feelings towards a person which may or may not over-ride compassion. For example, one may feel compassion for the blind person because of his blindness but feel over-riding admiration for this person because he has become the successful president of his own business. Blum's point is that sometimes we must sort out our feelings of compassion from other feelings to determine which is more appropriate. In a sense, he is recommending that we reason through our compassion to another emotion. Such an idea moves us further from any core notions about the universality of suffering and compartmentalises our thinking on the topic. Analysis of this kind takes us away from not only an intuitive response to the suffering of others by rationalising but may well move us into a position where we feel no compassion at all. If we decide we admire someone more than we feel compassion for them then we risk rationalising our feelings and so may find an excuse not to act compassionately when it truly is the appropriate response. This particular part of Blum's analysis discloses the Western tendency to intellectualise our emotions by ranking reason over emotions. [37] For him the 'objects.'

of compassion are people "capable of feeling or being harmed". One might conclude from this that everyone qualifies to be the object of compassion. However, Blum maintains a clear distinction, hence distance, between the 'object' of this emotion and subject or observer. The people he has in mind live in compassion arousing circumstances 'suffering some harm, difficulty,' or 'danger' which is 'past, present, or future'. [38] Blum refers to these conditions as 'negative' and says there are many of them but not all such conditions are "possible objects of compassion". [39] For him, compassion involves a selection process, that is, we decide who we feel compassion for on the basis of our evaluation of their condition. He describes a negative condition as follows: The negative condition must be relatively central to a person's life and well-being, describable as pain, misery, hardship, suffering, affliction, and the like. Although it is the person and not merely the negative condition that is the object of compassion, the focus of compassion is the condition. [40]

Such an analysis implies that some are exempt from compassion because they do not have the condition which draws upon this emotion. The difficulty with this view is that it tends, once again, to focus upon the surface or observable characteristics of suffering (symptoms) rather than the disease. According to Blum we feel compassion when we observe a 'negative condition' in another such as blindness or hunger. He says, too, that compassion is not always focused upon specific individuals, it also may be directed towards classes of people such as starving communities. Here again, he relies upon our observations of the plight of others, which by its nature deals with surfaces. In Mahayana Buddhism, deep meditation which sees surface conditions as illusory, brings with it profound knowledge of the very origins of human suffering. Compassion arises within the Bodhisattva because he recognises that he and all other humans are one in their shared primordial suffering. From this knowledge, compassion is extended outward to all humans and until all are saved the Bodhisattva will not enter into nirvana.

Blum's idea of a 'negative condition' being 'relatively central to a person's life' tells us that he misses the mark where his understanding of compassion and the conditions which arouse it are concerned. Much of his discussion sets in place boundaries for compassion as to who its recipients should be. By maintaining the subject-object perspective, he not only distances one person from another, but he tends to dilute the importance of compassion as the above discussion has shown.

While Blum says that compassion "involves a sense of shared humanity" his understanding of what it is we share is considerably different than what we find in the Mahayana. The 'could' in the following quotation shows this.... compassion involves a sense of shared humanity, of regarding the other as a fellow human being. That means that the other person's suffering (though not necessarily their particular afflicting condition) is seen as the kind of thing that could happen to anyone, including oneself insofar as one is a human being. [41]

The 'could' is understood to suggest that the suffering Blum is discussing is not common to all. 'Could' implies that something might happen but not universally. By extension, the 'could' sets limits upon the dimension of compassion; not everyone qualifies for it since he does not identify the negative conditions which are the basis for arousing compassion as universal. Surely, without intending it, Blum is denying that suffering exists on the level explained in the eastern view. Such denial sets limits upon the very nature of compassion as a deeply felt, volitional emotion that all should experience both as givers and receivers which is how the Eastern view is taken. There is no indication from Blum's text that suffering arises because of false views and ignorance.

Distance between subject and object and dilution of the importance of compassion are two unfortunate features of Blum's essay. it is not that his analysis is not thorough because in a number of ways it is very careful and well-explained. The problem for this reader is that he fails to place the origins of compassionate feelings in the right location. The result is less depth of discussion. There are a number of ideas in Blum's essay that might be added to this comparison but such an effort would extend the length of this essay beyond reasonable length.


This essay has been an attempt to come to a better understanding of compassion by identifying some of its characteristics as found in both an Eastern and Western view. In Eastern philosophy, represented here by Mahayana Buddhism, compassion is central to its doctrinal teachings. However, Blum's essay, as representative of a Western view dichotomises and compartmentalises this emotion into categories of lesser emotions such as 'feeling sorry for' and, in the process of such analysis, reduces compassion's importance as a motivator for ethical behaviour. His analysis provides us with a restrictive sense of its use since it relies heavily upon our observing a 'negative condition' in others.

In the course of this comparison some of the weaknesses of Western analytic tradition are visible. Such weaknesses include over-analysis which moves us away from a discussion centred on compassion with a disproportionate emphasis upon reason above emotions and perpetuation of a dichotomous perspective that tends to stereotype thinking into inflexible categories of ideas which contribute to both staleness and redundancy not only in mainstream Western philosophical discourse but in medical ethics as well.

And, lastly, it relegates emotions to the 'back room' of philosophy resulting in a long-standing neglect of the important impact emotions have upon ethical behaviour. A study of both views on this emotion enables us to understand some of the advantages as well as limitations inherent in both. The Eastern view opens us to a considerably broader perspective on this emotion but suffers from being too idealistic. It calls for certain behavioural changes that must be made in order to experience compassion in the fullest sense as an enlightened person. This includes engaging in meditation, giving up egocentric ways and seeing oneself in the continuum of existence, or co-dependent origination (pratitya samutpada), rather than taking the view of being an isolated individual with only oneself to be concerned about.

All of these Eastern ideals go largely against the grain of Western (American) society which cherishes the ideal of individualism and speedy high-tech thinking. Perhaps, one of the most important insights arising from the Buddhist view is the idea of suffering (duhkha) as universal and primordial. It is important because from this idea arises the even more important notion that since suffering is universal those who understand its source are virtually mandated to help others.

Now, you may be wondering how this comparison between Blum's essay and Mahayana Buddhism might be beneficial to Western philosophical discussions in medical ethics. There are a number of ways. First, it reintroduces the topic of virtuous behaviour (virtue theory) into a discussion laden with repetitious discussion of ethical theories such as utilitarianism and Kant's deontological ethics which have very limited applicability in the

medical setting. Second, utilitarian theory risks imposing the tyranny of the majority upon minority populations and always raises the question, 'Who decides what is best?' Third, Kant's deontology is regularly criticised for being content-less in part because it speaks from an idealised view that is difficult to apply in specific cases. When Kant and utilitarian theory are presented as options to the same problem they bring us to contradictory conclusions. Thus, decision making involving medical ethics problems becomes confusing if not seriously hampered.

The reintroduction of virtue-based ethics, such as recommending expansion of the discourse on compassion, offers the hope of arriving at a more generally acceptable approach to the pedagogy and problem solving of medical ethics. When we add to this discussion principles of Mahayana Buddhism such as suffering (duhkha), the doctrine of the non-self (anatman), clinging, and the idea of on-going change we arrive at a conversation in medical ethics that advocates kindness, giving, sacrificing self-interest, acceptance (particularly of death as part of the life cycle) and the renewed awareness that we live in a world community of humans who are very much related to one another. If health care personnel are taught these Eastern views then there is the hope of introducing these ideas to society at large since these are the people workers in the health care field deal with on a daily basis. In Eastern cultures where Mahayana Buddhism flourishes, what is of fered in this essay is not particularly new information. But, in the secular West, suffering from spiritual collapse in many quarters, the lessons to be learned from our Eastern relatives offer the hope of renewal not only in the field of medical ethics but in our daily lives as well.


[1] INADA, KENNETH K. (1995) Preface to Philosophy 555 (Buffalo, SUNY).

[2] DE SILVA, PADMASIRI (1991) Twin Peaks, Compassion and Insight: Emotions and the Self in Buddhist and Western Thought (Singapore: Buddhist Research Society) p. 44.

[3] Being is capitalized here to distinguish it as the Being of being human from ordinary use of the word. This idea follows from Heidigger. For a discussion of this use of the word Being see: HEIDEGGER, MARTIN (1962)

Being and Time, JOHN MACQUARRIE and EDWARD ROBINSON, (Trans.) (New York, Harper and Row) pp. 21-32.

[4] Regrettably, I am not a Buddhist scholar of the first order although I have studied this philosophy in translation over the last several years. Therefore, I have had to rely upon translated texts from the original Sanskrit such as the Dayal text which was recommended to me by Dr Kenneth


[5] DAYAL, HAR (1991) The Bodhisattva Doctrine In Buddhist Sanskrit Literature (Singapore, Buddhist Research Society).

[6] BLUM, LAWRENCE (1980) Compassion, in: Examining Emotions, AMELIE RORTV

(Ed.) (Berkeley, University of California Press) pp. 507--517.

[7] DE SOUSA, RONALD (1990) The Rationality of Emotion (Cambridge, MIT Press) p. xv.

[8] The word "West" and "Western" are used essentially in the same way and will also be used to describe Blum's ideas as they represent a Western view vs an Eastern or Mahayana Buddhist view.

[9] DE SILVA, op. cit., note 2, p. x.

[10] Dayal tells us that Mahayana Buddhism underwent a series of changes over the centuries of its development where reason and emotions were alternately upheld then set aside.

[11] DAYAL, op. cit., note 5, p. 20.

[12] The word "induction" is used here according to a definition of this process found in: HOWARD KAHANE and PAUL TIDMAN (1995) Logic & Philosophy: A Modern Introduction (Wadsworth, Belmont.) p. 5, which says: "The basic idea behind inductive reasoning is that of learning from experience. We notice patterns, resemblances, or other kinds of regular/ties in our experiences, some quite simple,... some very complicated... and project them onto other cases".

[13] Dayal's citation indicates that this information was obtained from several Sanskrit sources including: LEVI, S. (1907) (Ed./Trans.) Mahayana-sutralankara (Paris). GHOSA, P. (1902-13) led.) Sata-sahasrika

Prajna-paramita (Calcutta). COWELL, E.B. & NEIL, R.A. (1886) Divyavadana (Cambridge). NANJIO, B. (1923) (Ed.) Lankayatara-sutra (Kyoto). For a complete copy of this citation, see Dayal, p. 327.

[14] Phra Khantipalo's definition of Dharma is being used here. He says: "Dharma--When used... with a capital D it always refers to the Teaching or Law of Buddha". See KHANTIPAL, PHRA (1964) Tolerance: A Study Front Buddhist Sources (London, Rider) p. 160.

[15] In reviewing this remark, Dr Kenneth Inada made the following observation: "Five khandhas represent only the conventional notion of self or personhood, but they depict the organic (genetic) way in which the conventional self functions".

[16] De Silva's remarks are of a general nature regarding Buddhism but his remark applies here.

[17] Dayal, op. cit., note 5, p. 18 from the following primary source: MINAYOFF, I.P. (Ed.) (1989) Sanatideva's Bodi-cary-avatara, (Zapiski) vol. iv, pp. 155-225; vii, 18.

[18] Dayal, op. cit., note 5, p. 3.

[19] Ibid., p. 17.

[20] Being with a capitol 'B' is used here to denote the Being of human beings much in the same sense that Heidigger uses this word.

[21] Primordial is used here in somewhat of the Heideggerian sense. It denotes a quality of human existence that is fundamental to our Being that goes before all other experiences. It is the ground out of which we arise. It precedes all experience and, in a sense, shapes it. It goes before us and follows after us. It is only removed upon full Enlightenment.

[22] KHANTIPALO, PHRA (1964) Tolerance: A Study from Buddhist Sources (London, Rider) p. 93. Original Sanskrit source cited: Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, Section 6.

[23] NAGAO, GADJIM M. (1991) Madhyamika and Yogacara, LESLIE S. KAWAMURA (Trans.) (Albany, State University of New York Press) p. 11.

[24] A discussion similar to this occurs in: TACHIBANA, S. (1975) The Ethics of Buddhism (London, Curzon Press), p; 180:

[25] Nagao, op. cit., note 23, p. 63.

[26] The word 'ditthi' is from the Pali while 'ditti' (an equivalent word) occurs in Sanskrit.

[27] HAMILTON, CLARENCE H. (Ed.) (1952) Buddhism: A Religion of Infinite Compassion (New York, The Liberal Arts Press).

[28] Hamilton, Ibid., pp. 107-108.

[29] Khantipalo, op. cit, note 22, p. 163.

[30] Ibid, p. 162.

[31] Nagao, op. cit., note 23, p. 32.

[32] Ibid, p. 64.

[33] Ibid, p. 64.

[34] BLUM, LAWRENCE(1980) Compassion, in: AMELIE RORTY, (Ed.) Explaining Emotions, (Berkeley, University of California Press) pp. 507-517.

[35] Blum, Ibid., p. 510.

[36] Ibid, p. 510.

[37] For an entire text that deals with this idea see: DESOUSA, RONALD Reason And Morality.

[38] Ibid, p. 508.

[39] Ibid, p. 511.

[40] Ibid, p. 511.

[41] Ibid, p. 513.

Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6 No. 1 Mar.1996, Pp.5-16
Copyright by Asian Philosophy

 Go back      Go top        Print view       Send to frinend        Send opinion
» Audio
» Photo gallery
» Buddhism Dictionary
» Lunar calendar