Home Bodhicitta Teachings Buddhist Teachings Meditation World Religions About this site

The Four Immeasurables

by Ven Sangye Khadro 

Immeasurable Compassion

May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes

Compassion differs slightly from love. Love wants others to be happy, while compassion wants them to not have pain, problems or unhappiness. Love comes from appreciating othersí kindness, or just respecting them as fellow beings, whereas compassion comes from realizing that they suffer. Our own experiences of suffering are the basis for compassion. We know what itís like to be sick or in pain, to be lonely or have our feelings hurt by an unkind remark, to fear the unknown or mourn the death of a loved one. When we then see or hear of others experiencing these things, our heart opens with a feeling of empathy and a wish to help. This is compassion. We need to distinguish true compassion from "idiot compassion". We sometimes over-react emotionally at the sight of suffering. We can be so distressed that we weep uncontrollably, faint or run away in horror. Our heart may be moved with pity but our emotions are so out-of-control that we canít do anything to help! In other cases we might do something but because we lack right understanding of the problem or the person experiencing it, our "help" only makes the situation worse. These are examples of idiot compassion. True compassion balances loving-concern with clear wisdom. This wisdom enables us to stay calm and think clearly how best to help, without being carried away by our emotions. For example, if someone in our family suddenly becomes ill or has an accident, we need to act swiftly and objectively to relieve that personís suffering and not get caught up by our own fears, anxiety and distress. When it comes to helping someone who is suffering mentally, even greater wisdom and skill are required. Letís say a friend comes over to see us, upset because his girlfriend has just rejected him. With compassion we listen to his outpour of grief and anger, sympathize with what heís going through and offer kind words to console him. But it would not be right to think that we must solve his problem for him, or to become as depressed and angry as he is. Instead, we should use our wisdom and skilful means to help him come to terms with his problem. For example, we can explain to him that itís not helpful to be angry and revengeful, but that these attitudes will only increase his suffering. He can try to work things out with his girlfriend, but if it looks like the break is irreparable, itís best for him to accept what has happened, forgive and forget, and get on with his life. Throughout our talk together we should try to remain calm, show our concern by listening attentively, avoid preaching or giving unwanted advice, and think clearly how best to help him work out his own solution to the problem. If we can balance compassion with wisdom in this way, he will feel better and we will be able to walk away without carrying his problem on our shoulders. It is easier for compassion to arise towards some than towards others, but this is only because we have a limited idea of how beings suffer. For example, it is natural for compassion to arise when we see a beggar or a disabled person, but when we see a well-dressed lady driving a Mercedes, we are more likely to feel envy than compassion. That is because we donít realize that she also has suffering. Physically, she has a body that experiences hunger, thirst, heat, cold and tiredness; that gets sick, ages and will one day die. Mentally, she probably has more suffering than a poor person. She must worry about how to maintain her money, position and glamorous image. She may also have problems with her husband or boyfriend, with parents or other family members. She may have a bad-tempered boss, uncooperative employees and jealous rivals trying to harm her. Is it wise to envy such a person? Moreover, this lady, like all the rest of us, is trapped in the cycle of death and rebirth. Compassion wishes all beings to be free not only from suffering but from its causes as well: karma and disturbing attitudes that keep us in this cycle, or samsara. If we want to envy anyone, why not the buddhas and arhats, who are free of death and rebirth, free of all suffering and its causes? Everyone elseóeven the wealthiest people, even the beings in the highest heavenly realmsóhas problems and therefore deserves our compassion. Compassion stops us from harming others. When we see a cockroach in our kitchen, our first impulse might be to squash it out of existence. But stop and think, "This is a living being, who, because of unfortunate karma, has been born in the body of a cockroach, living in dirty places, eating garbage, trying to avoid being stepped on or doused with bug-spray. It wants to stay alive as much as I do. In fact, I could be like that in my next life!" With this understanding, weíre more likely to let it live. (If we donít want it to live in our kitchen, we can catch it in a container and take it outside.) How can we have compassion towards someone who harms us or our loved ones? Compassion involves understanding the situation of others. It asks us to put ourselves in the other personís shoes. "What is he thinking? How does he feel? What makes him behave like this?" If we do this with an open heart, weíll realize that the other person is not happy, that he is not in control of his own mind but rather that he is under the control of his own delusions, which only cause him suffering. This will help us to understand that it is more appropriate to respond with calm patience than with anger and the wish to retaliate.Being compassionate doesnít mean we have to be passive, weak and say "yes" every time we are asked to give or do something. Itís all right to say "no" if we feel that the request is unreasonable, if we feel we are incapable of fulfilling it, or if the person is simply trying to use us for her own selfish ends. Itís also OK to speak up or take action against harm done to ourselves or others, provided we do so with compassion, not anger and aggression.If we think that an attitude of compassion and non-retaliation is a sign of weakness, some of the great spiritual figures of the past have shown us by their own example that this is not so. For example, Shakyamuni Buddha overcame the negative forces that tried to disturb him on the eve of his enlightenment with the power of his loving-kindness. Jesus Christ compassionately forgave the men who tortured and killed him. Mahatma Gandhi and his followers won Indiaís independence through non-violent activities, even at the risk of death or imprisonment. In this way, they showed us that meeting harm and injustice with compassionate non-violence is far more noble and courageous than fighting back.