Compassion is often defined as the capacity to ‘feel with’ or ‘the heart that trembles in response to pain.’ Yet it would be a misconception to think of compassion in the Buddhist context as merely a feeling.
It arises in knowing that one is part of a greater whole and is interdependent and connected to that whole. It derives from practiced meditation and requires transcendental wisdom. It is much more a profound intellectual realization than a feeling. It is far removed from grasping, self-seeking emotion. Indeed it may appear to lack passion or even warmth.
It should perhaps then appeal to those of us – such as doctors – who enjoy evidence-based, scientific reasoning. Compassion arises from the transformative realization of others’ suffering and the need to transmogrify it. It is boundless in scope and given without expectation of reciprocity or reward.
The evidence before us is the same as that which confronted the historical Buddha Gautama – suffering fills the world and we require a path of liberation. And the solution was evidence-based.
Buddhism tells us that the worth of the teachings should not be accepted by reading, or even by the words of the wise, or a guru. The worth must be experiential – through our own practice and reflections on our transformation. It is in the transformation of our thinking, acting, motivation, and of our suffering.
Compassion is both the means by which we can seek liberation from suffering for others, and for ourselves. It is the antidote to our own suffering. In that sense it is self-serving, yet not selfish. It helps fulfill our own wish to be happy whilst seeking the same for others. How fortunate that the world is thus!
Our habitual ways of thinking, our conceptual frameworks, our automatic emotional responses – these are all deeply engrained in our way of being. If we seek to change them for the better, that change will not come through desire alone.
No doubt determination and motivation are important, but a real transformation requires effective tools for such change. The Vajrayana lineage of Buddhism in Tibet has specific tools to help bring about such change. It is known as Dzogchen practice.
When I first learnt of these practices, I did wonder to myself how an essentially intellectual process could be used to inculcate compassionate thought in us. Of course it is not merely an intellectual exercise.
After all, one is attempting to alter the deeply ingrained ways of thinking and feeling that have had a short lifetime to take root; the antidote must both break down these mental habits and construct new ways of being. So it seems appropriate that there is an intellectual dimension to such practices.
I remember an awful day in ED when an eighteen year-old girl came in after a car accident. She was horribly injured and, despite everyone’s efforts, she died in surgery. I will never forget seeing her family with the surgeon to give them the news, and seeing the surgeon cry afterwards.
I decided to go to the funeral the following week, for the family’s sake. I had only recently learned of Dzogchen teachings and so brought into my mind the practice at a time when a family was feeling such pain. I saw the father, consumed in grief, and visualised loving kindness pouring out to him and his family.
One Dzogchen meditation asks us to make ourselves equal with others. This practice reminds us that we are all members of the human family, all sentient beings, all seeking happiness and avoiding suffering.
In modern Western psychology, it is called ‘similarity’ and is our mechanism of finding empathy with others. Of course there is nothing magical about this practice but it is intended to make one always mindful of the need to empathise with others’ suffering.
We all engage in similar actions often, but we can forget when we don’t naturally feel a kinship with others, or don’t identify with them by virtue of race or religion or background, when we don’t find that ‘similarity’.
Another meditation involves exchanging oneself with others, and so I exchanged myself with this brave father. The practice doesn’t evoke pity; it is an antidote to pity. For it is not pity we seek when we grieve, it is loving kindness.
Of course, in a way, we all practice a kind of Dzogchen often. Yet there is a practical, straightforward method in Dzogchen which brings to the practitioner a means of cultivating compassion towards anyone, even our enemies.
It is said that we should treasure our enemies for they, more than any others, teach us tolerance and forbearance.
This article was originally published in Mandala, April-May 2008. It is republished with permission. Brett Sutton is an Australian doctor who is the Regional Disease Surveillance Coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, Kenya & Ethiopia.