The Size of Compassion

Compassion is a basic teaching of Buddhism and all major religions. However, from a Buddhist perspective, there are different types, or sizes, of compassion. The difference lies in to whom one directs the compassion and the reason for the compassion.

Compassion directed to oneself to overcome personal suffering is small compassion. Meditating, or performing other Buddhist practices, solely to overcome personal suffering is small compassion. Shakyamuni Buddha mastered various forms of practice during the six years prior to his awakening. Yet, he felt he was no closer to the answer he was seeking. Often, those who practice Zen meditation think they can attain their awakening simply by calming their mind. However, this is just the beginning. Only when the mind can focus on the present moment is one able to see life as it is. Moving beyond a self-centered view, the interconnectedness of all life becomes clear.

Compassion directed towards others, but with an expectation of personal reward, is medium compassion. Although others may benefit from the actions taken, the primary motivations are overcoming personal suffering or recognition by others. Examples of people performing charitable, or socially conscious actions, and then becoming upset when they do not receive the appreciation they feel they deserve are abundant. The Buddhadharma has many forms of compassionate action. Often, they are undertaken with the belief that through these actions one will attain enlightenment. One example is the Buddhist principle to refrain from killing any living creature. Many believe that this compels Buddhists to be vegetarians. They follow this lifestyle, at times to the detriment of their health, thinking that this will help them to attain enlightenment. No matter how well intentioned these actions may be, the goal-oriented basis for them makes this medium compassion.

What then is great compassion? The life of Shakyamuni Buddha best exemplifies this ideal. For forty-five years following his awakening, the Buddha traveled throughout India. Even though a community of monks, nuns, and lay followers developed, he never considered himself a teacher. He simply shared his observations of life, suffering and karma. Many in distress benefited from his wise counsel and were grateful for his compassion. The Buddha, however, did not think of his actions as being compassion. He expected no reward either now or in the future. Everything he did had a feeling of naturalness; the action fit the moment. This is great compassion; moving beyond the realm of calculated action. Others may consider the deed an act of compassion, but the doer sees it as naturalness, that which is called for in the moment.

Other religions have examples of those who lived a life of great compassion. Most of us think of ourselves as compassionate beings. We express our concern for those in distress. We donate our time, money and energies helping others. We pray for an end to suffering. The question remains, what is our motivation? What size is our compassion?

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