– Olof Axelsson, BA student from Sweden
In a recent transmission of Nagarjuna’s Root Verses of the Middle Way, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche remarked that there are two ways to come to the realization of mahāmudrā. One is through generating unbearable compassion, and the other through generating unbearable devotion. Of the two, unbearable compassion is said to be the easier one. In the same vein, Avalokiteśvara said the following in the Dharmasaṃgītisūtra:
“Oh Bhagavan, a bodhisattva should not study many dharmas. If a bodhisattva holds a single dharma, and understands it well, then all of the dharmas of a buddha will be there in the palm of their hand. Now if you ask what is that one dharma, it is mahākaruṇā. Bhagavan, by means of mahākaruṇā all the dharmas of a buddha are there in the palm of a bodhisattva’s hand.”
From this we can see that mahākaruṇā is a totally indispensable practice for bodhisattvayāna practitioners as well as those aspiring to follow the secret mantra.
However, in the modern world the English word “compassion” is not always looked at so favorably. During recent times new terms emphasizing the risks and negative aspects of compassion have been coined. One such expression is “compassion fatigue”. It was first used to describe the phenomenon of nurses and other workers in service and care-oriented professions being exposed to so much suffering that they simply burn out. Instead of being able to respond with adequate care to patients the nurses reported feeling overwhelmed at the sight of suffering, to the point where their mental well-being was seriously compromised. The expression compassion fatigue suggests that compassion is harmful – dangerous even – to our mental health. In a world where many seek out Buddhist practices such as mindfulness and compassion in order to help alleviate their mental pain it seems crucial to be able to clearly delineate how compassion ought to be practiced in order to achieve one’s desired goal, whether that goal be more mental well-being or the realization of mahāmudrā.
In the course of research on the effect of compassion in the brain, Matthieu Ricard and Tanya Singer came to the conclusion that it is empathy alone that leads to burnout, and not compassion. They define empathy as simply resonating with or feeling another’s suffering. Matthieu Ricard reports that after being instructed to focus on passive empathy for two hours he was totally exhausted – in other words burnt out. On the other hand, while practicing compassion he was able to see the other’s pain, but at the same time generate the wholesome wish to alleviate the suffering. In this way his own subjective experience was not painful, and the MRI scanner also didn’t show activity in the areas commonly associated with pain and difficulty.
This also seems to accord with classical Buddhist descriptions of compassion. In Sanskrit and Pāli the most ubiquitous word for compassion is karuṇā (Tib: snying rje). Karuṇā is most likely derived from the root kṛ, which means “to do”, among many other things. Understood in this way, it is that which motivates action upon seeing someone’s suffering. According to one Pāli commentator, karuṇā is: “the desire to remove woe and sufering” (ahitadukkhāpanayakāmatā). The Abhidharma commentator Sthiramati who was a direct student of Vasubandhu gives an alternative derivation: kaṃ ruṇaddhīti karuṇā – ka here means ease or pleasure and rudh means to to prevent. Therefore, Karuṇā is that which prevents one from remaining at ease when seeing another’s suffering. Remaining at ease suggests a certain inactivity, so this definition is only marginally different from the standard one of karuṇā being derived from kṛ. This makes it clear that karuṇā does not carry the sense of depression or passivity at all. Karuṇā does involve pain, but according to the Ābhidharmika Vasubandhu, it is in its highest form free from ātmamoha, the delusion of self. This means that the suffering inherent in perceiving another suffer is not taken to be real, or to pertain to any real person. Looking at yet higher forms of compassion, anālambanakaruṇā takes as its object sentient beings in their emptiness. Sentient beings do not exist, and neither does their suffering. Yet they believe they exist, and therefore they suffer. The bodhisattva sees this, and is moved to action. Here compassion is understood to be illusory, as is the suffering and the sufferer. Therefore it is explained that it is in fact extremely blissful for bodhisattvas on the bhūmis when they encounter destitute beggars asking for money. This may not be the case for those in the stages of training that precede the first bhūmi, but it still demonstrates that practiced correctly, compassion is not a burden to the practitioner.
Another common term, especially in the Pāli Canon, is anukampā. Its components are the verbal prefix anu and the root kamp. Anu can be translated as after, or with while kamp means to move or tremble. In Tibetan it was rendered as རྗེས་སུ་བརྩེ། or སྙིང་བརྩེ།. Anukampā literally translates as “to move with”, and according to commentators anukampā does not carry the sense of being afflicted by the others’ suffering, but rather to be moved to action. Indeed, the Buddha is often described as teaching out of his deep anukampā toward the world, and since the Buddha is beyond suffering it follows that a Buddha’s anukampā does not involve suffering.
In Tibetan karuṇā was translated as སྙིང་རྗེ། or ཐུགས་རྗེ། in the honorific register. Literally translated it means “lord of hearts”. The Tibetan-Tibetan dictionary bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo says:
ཚངས་པའི་གནས་པ་བཞིའི་ནང་གསེས། ནད་སོགས་སྡུག་བསྔལ་གྱིས་མནར་བའི་སེམས་ཅན་དེ་དག་སྡུག་བསྔལ་དང་བྲལ་ན་ཅི་མ་རུང་སྙམ་པ་སྟེ། རྣམ་པར་འཚེ་བའི་སེམས་ཀྱི་གཉེན་པོའོ།
“It is one of the subdivisions of the four brahmavihāras; it is to think “may they be free from suffering” upon seeing sentient beings afflicted with suffering such as sickness; it is the antidote to the mind of harmfulness.”
One can note how this definition does not just stop at equating compassion to passively observing suffering, but actually includes the active wish “may they be free from suffering”. This active wish to remove suffering, coupled with the insight into the nature of reality, are the crucial ingredients that make Buddhist compassion into what it is. In other words, these two aspects put the mahā in mahākaruṇā.
Matthieu Ricard on the difference between empathy and compassion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebJTV5kTIU0