How does Buddhism understand compassion?

Continuing the discussion from The "Compassionate" God in Exodus 34:

Kathleen, your question prompted me to ask how Buddhism understands compassion.

As I started to research this topic, I was reminded that every major religion has a diversity of expression, and there is no simple answer to this question.

For instance, writing at the Greater Good Science Center, Jennifer Goetz notes:

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.

Here is her summary graphic:

According to Study Buddhism, Compassion is one of four immeasurable attitudes, and only one of two of them that is also limitless. It is defined as:

  • Compassion – the factor that makes the heart quiver when others suffer and is the wish for the removal of their suffering. Its direct enemy is a cruel or harmful attitude (Pali: himsa). Its indirect enemy is grief, being emotionally overwhelmed by their suffering.

However, in the Nichiren tradition of Japanese Buddhism, notice the progression:

Further, immeasurable equanimity is the state of mind that is rid of the attitudes of immeasurable love, compassion, and joy. It is aware of others in such a way that it not only experiences neither happiness nor unhappiness, but is also neither attracted nor repelled by others. Thus, immeasurable equanimity parallels the fourth level of mental stability in that it is free of all feelings of unhappiness, physical and mental happiness, and the quiet joy of mental peace.
In Nichiren, the parallel with the fourth level of mental stability is much closer. There, immeasurable equanimity is a completely tranquil state of mind that is even-minded toward happiness and unhappiness, in all circumstances, such as when meeting friends and enemies. It is the state of mind that is rid of the attitudes of immeasurable love, compassion, and joy.

In the summary section we read,

Immeasurable compassion may include the wish that all limited beings:

  • Be parted from suffering (the three kinds of suffering)
  • Be parted from suffering and the causes for suffering.

This sounds good! However, Buddhists are also developing immeasurable equanimity. This part reads:

Immeasurable equanimity is a state of mind that includes being:

  • Even-tempered toward all limited beings, in the sense of even when helping, not becoming too involved or not being indifferent, since ultimately everyone needs to reach liberation through his or her own efforts
  • Completely tranquil and even-minded toward happiness and unhappiness, pleasure and pain, in all circumstances, such as when meeting friends and enemies, and is rid of the attitudes of immeasurable love, compassion, and joy
  • Extending immeasurable love, compassion, and joy equally to everyone, without consideration of friends, enemies, or strangers
  • Free of attachment, repulsion, and indifference toward others, and without feelings of some being close and others distant
  • With the understanding that all limited beings are equal
  • With the wish that all beings be equally benefited.

My tentative conclusion is that, to the degree that a specific form of Buddhism encourages freedom from attachment to others, this will affect how compassion is experienced as well.

I’m curious what others, with more experience of Buddhism, might say about this question.


Hi, @carson!
Apologies for how long it’s taken me to respond. There’s much to digest in your post! :smile:

My very cursory understanding of Buddhism was as you pointed out above. That is, the goal of compassion (et. al) is to draw near to another in order to assist the other to transcend feeling…suffering…through detachment, yes, but also through participation in union with the One.

What was interesting for me was that for Paul Gilbert, the developer of Compassion Focused Therapy, compassion is a warm voice. CFT uses visualizations and meditations in order to cultivate a “warm” voice that is in opposition to the “cold” voices that can oppress one’s soul.

What’s furthermore interesting to me is that, when looking at your summary graphic of Goetz’s argument, if you didn’t have column headers, I could have labeled the “Buddhist Compassion” column as “Reformed Christian Compassion”. Meaning, if her summary is accurate, then there are Christian expressions that also need addressing!

In Ex. 3, the LORD speaks to Moses out of the burning bush:

“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

The Judeo-Christian God is a divine person who does not remain unmoved. The LORD executes justice as well as extends mercy. The LORD moves towards and covenants with humans. The world is full of suffering, but the LORD, though perhaps hidden in certain respects, is not absent. The compassion of the LORD is seen in JHWH’s non-abandonment…the continual Divine “with-ness”.

This encourages our own exercise of compassion…an empathetic moving towards another in their suffering. I would disagree that it’s opposite (or is opposed to) anger. Anger can be a vital part of the experience of with-ness. I would contend that the opposite would be indifferent aloofness or, as noted above, vengeance/spite. Of course, compassion is not un-boundaried; boundaries are also vital to relational health. Knowledge and wisdom are needed in this way of life!

This is fair, but it would also depend upon the quality of that attachment. Evolutionary psychology (and other fields!) contend that attachment is necessary for human (or, more broadly, mammalian) thriving. But what is it exactly that I need from others? If I need their validation, then that could be a sign of unhealthy attachment…and what we do need, I believe, is freedom from unhealthy attachment. Just go back to the Exodus story. It is about the Israelites becoming detached from their existence/way of life as slaves in Egypt and attached to the LORD, the God of their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Even Buddhism espouses the interdependence of all things. It’s not that one needs to attach (or grasp for), but that one is already attached…a part of a union.