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Buddhism: What is compassion?

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Buddhism: What is compassion?

Buddhists committed to the path to enlightenment (nirvana) must equip themselves with wisdom (prajña) and compassion (karuṇā). Wisdom allows the practitioner to see past external appearances and understand the reason behind one's suffering, while compassion helps them empathize with others.

Buddhist monk

For Buddhists, wisdom and compassion are like a pair of eyes that would allow them to look deeper into reality. With just one eye, one would never be able to see the whole picture. In Northern Buddhism, the Mahayana, mastery of these two characteristics is the most important key to enlightenment. In Southern Buddhism, Theravada, compassion is one of the four positive virtues inherent in the human mind, alongside Lovingkindness, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity.

Burmese monks

In Western culture, compassion is a warm feeling we feel for people in need. When we find a chick that has fallen out of its nest, we pity it and desire to return it to its nest. When we look at a homeless man in the streets, we feel sympathy and give him money. This feeling is what we typically see as compassion. Thus, we interpret that helping someone in need is good karma that would set us on the path to enlightenment. However, a natural feeling that arises from seeing another in trouble is not the compassion Buddhism values. Buddhist compassion should not derive from instant passion but from acknowledging the interdependent state of the universe where one is all, and all is one. Buddhist compassion is not cultivating sympathy for a few selected people or responding to a particular situation. It is universal compassion toward all sentient beings, without exception. Such a mental state can only be achieved after years of practiced meditations.


While a disabled beggar is a subject of pity in the West, a disabled beggar is a disabled beggar in Buddhism. Showing compassion doesn't necessarily mean healing his leg, giving him a wheelchair, or bringing him food. In the cycle of suffering (samsara), each of us carries a burden. One may have broken legs, one may have an abusive husband, and the other may have significant debt. These cases are not even the ultimate suffering that one can't escape. The actual suffering is the fact that no matter how great your life is, you will die as long as you are in the cycle. Thus, Buddhist compassion is about accepting the situation as it is and treating all sentient beings equally – from intolerable coronavirus to a man. To treat everyone equally means feeling empathy rather than sympathy. One must accept things as they are without trying to fix them.

Buddhist pilgrimage

If we understand this way of thinking, many phenomena the travelers encounter in East Asia can be easily comprehended. For example, when I was traveling in Asia many years ago, I was appalled by the garbage in the streets. However, when I told this to my Indian acquaintance, he replied that "You can worry about the garbage on your floor, but what happens outside the house is none of your concern." It took me a while to realize that this was not turning a blind eye to the problem but accepting things as they are. This example is a bit extreme, and Asia is much cleaner now, but I think it is an exciting window into the 'compassionate' mindset.

Asian people

Another extreme example is that these days, in the pandemic, the West is debating whether it is right to support its citizens or not. Most East Asian countries, including the developed ones, are not even discussing such issues. It is not because their governments are incapable or unwilling to help, but due to the mentality of accepting the situation as it is. Similarly, the public is not expecting aid or resenting their government for not helping. They aren't demanding their governments to tackle the momentary suffering imposed upon them. They are only asking their leaders to halt a widespread outbreak, equip hospitals, and bring vaccines.

Asian people

This behavior illuminates another significant aspect of Buddhist compassion, often seen as cruel or cold. This compassion is to give people what they need, not what they think they need. Thus, when a Buddhist monk practices compassion, he doesn't try to feed all the homeless people he saw. Instead, he asks people to conquer their ignorance, pride, lust, hatred, and fear. These are the five causes of suffering, which would free us from the cycle of suffering once overcome.


Vietnam and Cambodia are two of the most fascinating countries on the Asian continent, both dramatically affected by recent history. In the mid of the 2nd millennia, both countries were the ground for some of the largest empires South East Asia has ever known. The decline of these empires has marked the beginning of French colonialization, bringing Christianity, modernization, and rapid development, which have forever changed local cultures and traditions.

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