Compassion, A Way of Being in the World (Karuna: The Second of the Four Brahma Viharas)


Holi festival (festival of colors), Rajasthan; 1996 -- an image from the book CREDIT: © Steve McCurry

Throughout human history, the world's great spiritual teachers have all been living examples of compassion. In fact, Compassion has been the transcending characteristic of outstanding men and woman from all religious traditions. Through their teaching and primarily through their examples they have taught us without question that to be a compassionate human being is to be a spiritual human being - a complete human being. It would make good sense then that the sincere spiritual practitioner of today would seek to understand the true meaning of compassion in their lives. Through meditative investigation we would be wise to ask ourselves these questions, "What does it mean to be a compassionate person? How do I acquire and express true feelings of compassion in my life? Is compassion simply an innate part of who I am as a human being, or is it a learned behavior?"

The Chambers Dictionary defines the word compassion as “to feel sorrow for the suffering of others”. I would like to expand and enlarge that definition to include feelings of sorrow for the suffering we see in the world holistically. I would suggest that true compassion is not limited only to other human beings, but can be felt for all creatures great and small and for the entire biosphere. Although the world's many different philosophies and religious traditions may articulate slightly differing views on just what true compassion is, they all invariably come down to the same principle, that of loving others as one's self; valuing the rights of others to be free from suffering, and deserving of the opportunity to experience love, peace and happiness in this life. After much study and research, I find it most encouraging to see that even when certain philosophies do not include a belief in God, they still encourage the active expression of compassion in this larger definition.

The fact that this quality of compassion is historically longstanding and cross-cultural is evidence that it is an innate human quality. His Holiness The Dalai Lama pointed out in his book The Power Of Compassion that all children, by nature, are compassionate and that hatred and discrimination are learned behaviors. Human history also teaches us that compassion is a quality that is often overlooked or disregarded and is at times, much to our dismay, repressed. This means that we as human beings need to be mindful in realizing compassion within ourselves, making sincere efforts to cultivate it in our lives. We must always recognize that a healthy sense of compassion has no prejudice, it is expressed freely and without bias.

True compassion is based on reason. It seeks to heal the suffering of the world rather than be a cause for it. It takes reasonable measures to reduce the suffering of others. It cultivates the pure intention of alleviating one's own suffering first, and than extending one's compassionate feelings out to others. First, to those in our immediate circle of friends, family and coworkers, and then to the world at large.

Meditation always directs us to see beneath the surface of things, to see the heart and soul of what surrounds us. This depth of perception is the path to understanding compassion, because true compassion is born from understanding. It is no wonder then that compassion has been a leading trait of spiritual practitioners throughout human history. This is because Compassion is Love in action. It is more than a concept, it is a way of being in the world. It is more than a practice. It must be a consistent part of our life. Unity among human kind begins and ends with Compassion. It is the ability to see yourself in others. To see their struggles as your own, to see their suffering as your suffering.

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Sangha Without Borders is currently physically located in London, UK