The classical Buddhist commentaries hold that before one can meditate on compassion, one first has to master the meditation on loving-kindness. However, I consider this position too stern. I have found that when you are able to stabilize a warm feeling of sincere loving-kindness for sentient beings, you can begin to cultivate the meditation on compassion. Even though the feeling may not be powerful, you will be creating a positive disposition towards compassion. As you continue your practice, your compassion will gradually become stronger. Practice, growth, and fulfillment are the three watchwords of Buddhist meditation.
Compassion has a different characteristic from loving-kindness, a different “flavor” or “felt tone.” When one practices both, one can distinctly feel this difference. The two are as different as vanilla and almond ice cream: these two kinds of ice cream look the same but their taste is quite different. Specifically, compassion means the feeling of empathy with those afflicted by suffering. Therefore, to develop compassion as an exercise in meditation, one has to focus on those undergoing suffering.
In the meditation on compassion, the recipients are thus people afflicted with suffering. The initial recipient does not have to be a person one knows well; it may even be better not to choose a close friend or relative, for this may give rise to stress and anxiety. Because one has previously practiced loving-kindness meditation, one already has generated a wish for the welfare and happiness of all beings. Thus one can take even a complete stranger who is undergoing suffering. I personally recommend taking a child living under unfortunate circumstances. Thus, to develop compassion, I often reflect on a report I read about a mother in Sri Lanka who lost both her children in the tsunami that struck the island at the end of 2004. The mother was in the house, the children were playing in front of the house. The waves came and swept the children away, leaving the mother struck with grief. Alternatively, you might think of a child in Africa who has lost both parents to AIDS, now in the care of his or her grandparents. Or an abandoned street child in India or Brazil, begging for food, with no chance to go to school, no home, no warm family relations. Feel the child as one’s own, share that child’s suffering, and generate a strong wish for that child to be free from suffering.
As a formula, you can use the simple phrase: “May this person be free from suffering, may this person be free from affliction!” Focus on the suffering this person is experiencing, identify deeply with the person, and generate a sincere wish for that suffering to end. Do this over and over, until the compassion makes your heart shake and tremble. When we dare to look directly into the suffering of the world, without flinching, without anxiously turning away, often our heart breaks open. If this happens, let it happen. Just sit back and relax into it, as the compassion swells up and suffuses your heart. As you become familiar with this feeling, your mind will gradually settle down, and you will be able to balance compassion and calmness simultaneously.
To Extend The Feeling Of Compassion, choose next a few people undergoing different types of suffering. You might choose people from events you have witnessed, or from reports you have read, or from news that you have heard. Initially, however, you shouldn’t take groups of people; instead, you should choose four or five individuals. For example, you might think of the peasant in Afghanistan who lost his wife and daughter in an attack by a Predator drone; of the teenager in Cambodia whose legs were blown off by a landmine and who has to beg for food every day; of a mother in Sichuan province in China who lost her children when their school was destroyed by an earthquake; of a woman in Sierra Leone who was raped and gave birth to the child of her rapist; of the woman in Niger whose children are mere skin and bones.
In each case, develop a deep sense of identity with these people, feeling them as being the same as yourself. Go through them in a cycle, from the first to the last, then back to the first, over and over, until the compassion shakes your heart. If you find it hard to arouse compassion, think of the person as your relative. Thus if you choose an older person, think of that person as your mother or father. If you choose a person your own age, think of them as your brother or sister. If you choose a much younger person, think of them as your son or daughter.
When the compassion flows smoothly, continue to strengthen it. Then you can expand it, just as you did with loving-kindness. You can take whole continents: briefly radiate compassion over all the people in one continent, until you distinctly feel the radiation; then move on to the next continent. Then take the different realms of existence, thinking of how beings in every realm are afflicted with their own distinctive suffering: the deities are blind to the fact that they might fall to lower realms; human beings suffer from hunger, war, poverty, exploitation, anxiety, and depression; animals suffer from fear, hunger, and violence; the unhappy spirits suffer from insatiable hunger and thirst; and the hell beings suffer the torments of hell. All must undergo old age and death. Finally, extend compassion to all sentient beings in all realms, and throughout the entire universe of the ten directions.
Putting Compassion Into Action
One of the strong points of Buddhism is its powerful meditative methods of developing loving-kindness and compassion. While all great world religions praise love and compassion, Buddhism stands out in offering precise, step by step techniques for awakening and cultivating these sublime virtues. It is perhaps because of this valuation of love and compassion that so many people who have visited traditional Buddhist countries have found their citizens warm, kind, and friendly.
At the same time, however, I believe that traditional Buddhism has a critical weak spot. This is an insufficient emphasis on expressing love and compassion in concrete action aimed at promoting a more just and equitable social order. We Buddhists tend to treat love and compassion as exalted mental states, which we value because they help us overcome negative personal qualities like anger, hatred, ill will, and spite. In my opinion, which some might find provocative, traditional Buddhism does not sufficiently stress the need to mobilize love and compassion as motives for pursuing social justice and a more harmonious world. While Christians have shown a keen interest in learning from Buddhism how to live a contemplative life, I feel that Buddhism has much to learn from Christianity about how to express love in action.
If our meditative practice of love truly plants in our hearts a genuine concern for others, we should do something positive to promote their welfare. If we truly have compassion for beings, we should work to relieve their suffering. Suppose we were to come home one day and see that our house had caught fire. Knowing that our children are inside, we would not merely stand outside, thinking, “May my children escape from this burning house!” Rather, we would do whatever is necessary to save them, and we would not desist until we were sure that our children had been rescued. Similarly, we should think of all humanity as our own children, beset by various sufferings, and do our best to bring them relief.
The ideal Buddhist practice, in my opinion, is one that unites inner meditative development with external action in the world. When we cultivate love and compassion as a meditative practice, we create in our hearts a powerful force that can be unleashed and effect momentous transformations, bringing benefits to many. But the love and compassion in our hearts have to find channels to flow out in the form of concrete action. How we express love cannot be left to chance or to the whims of raw emotion. For love to be an effective agent of change, we need to examine the opportunities available to us to help others. Then we have to select a movement or a worthy cause that awakens our passion and inspires our wish to be of service.
What exactly should one choose? The choice we make will vary from person to person. To find a suitable way to be of service, we should carefully consider the problems the world faces today, our own capacities, and the opportunities available to us to make use of these capacities. Such problems that call for our attention and concern include: global warming and the need to develop a sustainable economic model; poverty and economic inequality; hunger and chronic malnutrition; war and militarism; social oppression and the denial of basic human rights; cruelty and other forms of unethical behavior towards animals.
In this present age, so full of danger and confusion, spirituality and social engagement cannot remain separate domains each sealed off by rigid boundaries. The major social upheavals of our age have an internal origin. They all stem from a deep crisis at the core of the human soul. To heal the maladies that afflict humanity calls for something far more potent than international treaties and technological innovation. A more stable solution must be ethical and spiritual. The only solution that can truly work must begin at the foundations, within the depths of human consciousness. Most of all we need a global awakening of the wisdom that embodies timeless standards of justice, and a boundless love and compassion that extends to all living beings. But to heal the crisis of our age, love and compassion must serve as more than lofty spiritual ideals. They must become spurs to action, moving us to work indefatigably to eliminate the suffering of others and to promote their long-term welfare and happiness.
Bhikkhu Bodhi was born in New York City and, after finishing a BA and a PhD in philosophy, received full ordination in Sri Lanka in 1973. In 1988, he was appointed editor of the Buddhist Publication Society in Sri Lanka and has written, edited, and translated a number of Buddhist texts.
Reprinted by permission from Parabola magazine.