Compassion (Sanskrit: karuṇā) is at the heart of all Buddhist traditions. A dictionary definition of compassion would be, “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” However, from a Buddhist point of view, compassion – this aspiration or state of mind that wants to deliver others from suffering – is understood to be an empathetic and active altruism, rather than just a passive feeling of sympathy.
In fact, it was a deep sense of compassion that set Prince Siddhartha on his spiritual quest to find a way out of the suffering that we all face in life. This sorrow or pain, from which we can’t find lasting release, includes: the suffering (Sanskrit: duhkha) resulting from our insatiable feeling of desire and craving (Sanskrit: tṛ́ṣṇā); coping with change and the impermanent nature of everything in this world; our fear of or actual sickness; and the inescapable facts of eventual old age and death.
After his awakening, thereafter being the “Buddha” or enlightened one, Prince Siddhartha also taught out of great compassion, sharing profound insights that can lead us to ultimate liberation from suffering, and the attainment of true happiness.
“The Buddha’s loving-kindness and compassion led Him to act with deep sincerity. With compassion and earnestness, He opened and revealed the Buddha’s understanding and views. He opened and revealed the true principles so we can awaken to and enter pure True Suchness [Sanskrit: tathatā – denoting the essential nature of “reality” which is ineffable]. He guides all sentient beings to enter the state of Buddhahood.”
Following the example set by Prince Siddhartha, practitioners strive to awaken their innate Buddha Nature, cultivating and exercising compassion along the spiritual path. Compassion is one of the Four Immeasurables, which are sublime qualities or virtues that Buddhists develop and aim to practice – the others being loving-kindness, joy and equanimity.
The goal is to cultivate compassion towards all sentient beings without exception, and to act on it. Although it’s easy to feel compassion towards family, friends and people we like, the teachings lead us to cherish all human beings equally, including strangers, those we find unpleasant, and enemies. We’re all equal in our hope for happiness and fear of suffering, in seeking joy and wanting to avoid misery, and in being protective of and attached to life. This holds true for all living beings, including animals and so on, so our compassion should reach beyond human beings too.
The Buddhist ideal of compassion is best expressed in the notion of and activity of bodhisattvas who vow to liberate all sentient beings and act accordingly. There is one in particular that stands out, as Master Cheng Yen explains:
In Buddhism, there is a bodhisattva who embodies the spirit of compassion. This bodhisattva, named Avalokitesvara, is so full of love that she can’t bear for people to suffer. When she sees or hears people in distress or difficulty, she goes to them very quickly to offer aid and relief.
Exercising wisdom and compassion, she not only helps them out of their material difficulties, but guides them with the Dharma so they may gain the insight to liberate themselves from their suffering and attain true happiness.
The name Avalokiteshvara is Sanskrit and has been translated as, “The One Who Hears the Cries of the World.” The bodhisattva is also known as Guanyin in Chinese, and is then pictured as female. In the Lotus Sutra it is said that the bodhisattva can manifest in whatever form is most appropriate for the circumstances. We ourselves can represent her compassion and activity, as Master Cheng Yen points out:
Actually, all of us can be Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. Deep in our hearts, we have the same great compassion. Why have we not been able to tap into this compassion? It is because it has been buried away beneath our afflictions and delusions. Once we clean away this layer of afflictions and delusions, we’ll discover our true heart, full of love, compassion, and understanding.
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva isn’t just a figure in Buddhism we hear about—in fact, we are Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is us. There is a lot of suffering in the world. Seeing the suffering of others, we can do as Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva does and go to people to help them out of their plight.
[This is] the heart of Tzu Chi’s spirit and practice. In Tzu Chi, we learn to feel for others’ suffering. Through our efforts to understand our own suffering and afflictions, we gain the insight and understanding to help others. With this, we can better relate to others and help them out of their difficulties. Doing this, we bring to life the spirit of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva.
As we cultivate compassion, the Buddha also taught that one must develop wisdom (Sanskrit: prajña) in concert. It is the union of compassion and wisdom that will allow us to reach the ultimate goal of full awakening.
The section in italics contains excerpts of material compiled into English by the Jing Si Abode English Editorial Team, based on Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s talks in Chinese.