Compassion isn’t for wimps. Opening your heart to the
suffering of others is a dangerous, high-risk business.
It could cost you your peace of mind, damage your
reputation, and confuse not-so-innocent bystanders. It
might even cost you your life.
Compassion isn’t soft and fuzzy—it’s bold and tough.
It’s the conviction to love no matter what the cost.
Compassion sets self-interest aflame, burns down the ego,
and sows seeds in the tear-soaked ashes.
Compassion threatens institutional power, official
explanations, hallowed doctrines, and traditional
ideologies. Compassion might even threaten our
conventional notions of law, morality, and ethics.
Compassion threatens all systems because love is not a
system, it’s not a thought, it’s not a concept, and it sure
isn’t a doctrine—it’s a living, breathing embodiment of
the eternal, formless, sacred here in the realm of temporal
forms. It eludes our grasp, while simultaneously forming
the mere fabric of our being. We cannot understand
compassion, we can only be compassion. In fact, we must.
The world’s wisdom teachers and traditions have
been singing this song since the beginning. The fourth-century BCE Chinese philosopher Mencius argued that
compassion was one of the “four sprouts,” along with
righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. These four virtues
are innate potentials, not a fait accompli. The sprout
metaphor is a lively one—like young, tender shoots our
virtues must be nurtured, cultivated, and strengthened
But even in the least practiced among us, the four
sprouts are present. “Who among us,” Mencius asked,
“when seeing a child fall into a well, would not rush
to save them? Not to gain favor from their parents, or
to bolster our standing in the community, or for any
other extrinsic motive, but because it is in our nature
to feel deeply the suffering of others and to act on
Still, compassion is a tendency, not an inevitability.
As Mencius taught, human beings tend toward
goodness the way water tends to run downhill. Just
as water can be blocked or diverted, our benevolent
nature does not prevent human beings from choosing
indifference or worse.
In Buddhism, compassion is the natural consequence
of enlightenment. Awakening from the dream of
separateness, moving beyond the limits of conditioned
consciousness characterized by craving and fear, the
boundaries between all forms become insubstantial.
Everything bleeds into one. The suffering of others is
finally seen for what it is—our suffering.
When Jesus counsels us to love our enemies and forgive
them (for they know not what they do), he is calling us to
our compassion—to learn how to see the secret heart of
our enemies and find our common humanity there. This
is a tall order, but it’s possible, if we allow our inner light
to shine brighter than the darkness of our egotism. Agape,
the Greek word the Gospels use for “love,” is more an act
of will than a feeling. We have to choose love, especially
when we don’t feel it.
So which is it? Is compassion spontaneous or an act of
will? The mind gets caught up in the whirlwind between
such paradoxes. The answer is never either/or but always
both/and. Compassion is an inclination, not destiny.
We must first feel it, then choose it, again and again and
again. Through this practice we strengthen our capacity
to feel the suffering of others, thereby tempering the
metal of our fiercely loving hearts.
Spirituality, philosophy, and mythology from the world’s wisdom traditions
PETER BOLLAND, CHAIR OF THE
HUMANITIES DEPARTMENT AT
SOUTHWESTERN COLLEGE IN CHULA VISTA,
CALIFORNIA, ATTENDS THE UNITY CENTER
IN SAN DIEGO, WHERE HE TEACHES
CLASSES ON WORLD SPIRITUALITY. VISIT
A TO ZEN