The Buddhist path isn’t just about the accumulation of wisdom. It equally
requires the development of compassion—an intelligent sympathy for the
suffering of all beings and the heartfelt wish to liberate them. In
Buddhist iconography, this compassion is embodied in the bodhisattva
Kuan Yin, who is said to manifest wherever beings need help. Engendering
such compassion is not only good for others, says Christina Feldman, it
is also good for us. By putting others first, we loosen the bonds of
our self-fixation, and in doing so, inch closer to our own liberation.
is no stranger to any of us: we know what it feels like to be deeply
moved by the pain and suffering of others. All people receive their own
measure of sorrow and struggle in this life. Bodies age, health becomes
fragile, minds can be beset by confusion and obsession, hearts are
broken. We see many people asked to bear the unbearable—starvation,
tragedy, and hardship beyond our imagining. Our loved ones experience
illness, pain, and heartache, and we long to ease their burden.
human story is a story of love, redemption, kindness, and generosity.
It is also a story of violence, division, neglect, and cruelty. Faced
with all of this, we can soften, reach out, and do all we can to ease
suffering. Or we can choose to live with fear and denial—doing all we
can to guard our hearts from being touched, afraid of drowning in this
ocean of sorrow.
Again and again we are asked to learn one of
life’s clearest lessons: that to run from suffering—to harden our
hearts, to turn away from pain—is to deny life and to live in fear. So,
as difficult as it is to open our hearts toward suffering, doing so is
the most direct path to transformation and liberation.
and wisdom are at the heart of the path of the Buddha. In the early
Buddhist stories we find young men and women asking the same questions
we ask today: How can we respond to the suffering that is woven into the
very fabric of life? How can we discover a heart that is truly
liberated from fear, anger, and alienation? Is there a way to discover a
depth of wisdom and compassion that can genuinely make a difference in
this confused and destructive world?
We may be tempted to see
compassion as a feeling, an emotional response we occasionally
experience when we are touched by an encounter with acute pain. In these
moments of openness, the layers of our defenses crumble; intuitively we
feel an immediacy of response and we glimpse the power of
nonseparation. Milarepa, a great Tibetan sage, expressed this when he
said, “Just as I instinctively reach out to touch and heal a wound in my
leg as part of my own body, so too I reach out to touch and heal the
pain in another as part of this body.” Too often these moments of
profound compassion fade, and once more we find ourselves protecting,
defending, and distancing ourselves from pain. Yet they are powerful
glimpses that encourage us to question whether compassion can be
something more than an accident we stumble across.
No matter how
hard we try, we can’t make ourselves feel compassionate. But we can
incline our hearts toward compassion. In one of the stories in the early
Buddhist literature, the ascetic Sumedha reflects on the vast inner
journey required to discover unshakeable wisdom and compassion. He
describes compassion as a tapestry woven of many threads: generosity,
virtue, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness,
determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity. When we embody all of
these in our lives, we develop the kind of compassion that has the power
to heal suffering.
A few years ago, an elderly monk arrived in
India after fleeing from prison in Tibet. Meeting with the Dalai Lama,
he recounted the years he had been imprisoned, the hardship and beatings
he had endured, the hunger and loneliness he had lived with, and the
torture he had faced.
At one point the Dalai Lama asked him, “Was there ever a time you felt your life was truly in danger?”
old monk answered, “In truth, the only time I truly felt at risk was
when I felt in danger of losing compassion for my jailers.”
stories like this, we are often left feeling skeptical and bewildered.
We may be tempted to idealize both those who are compassionate and the
quality of compassion itself. We imagine these people as saints,
possessed of powers inaccessible to us. Yet stories of great suffering
are often stories of ordinary people who have found greatness of heart.
To discover an awakened heart within ourselves, it is crucial not to
idealize or romanticize compassion. Our compassion simply grows out of
our willingness to meet pain rather than to flee from it.
never find ourselves in situations of such peril that our lives are
endangered; yet anguish and pain are undeniable aspects of our lives.
None of us can build walls around our hearts that are invulnerable to
being breached by life. Facing the sorrow we meet in this life, we have a
choice: Our hearts can close, our minds recoil, our bodies contract,
and we can experience the heart that lives in a state of painful
refusal. We can also dive deeply within ourselves to nurture the
courage, balance, patience, and wisdom that enable us to care.
we do so, we will find that compassion is not a state. It is a way of
engaging with the fragile and unpredictable world. Its domain is not
only the world of those you love and care for, but equally the world of
those who threaten us, disturb us, and cause us harm. It is the world of
the countless beings we never meet who are facing an unendurable life.
The ultimate journey of a human being is to discover how much our hearts
can encompass. Our capacity to cause suffering as well as to heal
suffering live side by side within us. If we choose to develop the
capacity to heal, which is the challenge of every human life, we will
find our hearts can encompass a great deal, and we can learn to
heal—rather than increase—the schisms that divide us from one another.
In the first century in northern India, probably in what is now part of Afghanistan, the Lotus Sutra
was composed. One of the most powerful texts in the Buddhist tradition,
it is a celebration of the liberated heart expressing itself in a
powerful and boundless compassion, pervading all corners of the
universe, relieving suffering wherever it finds it.
When the Lotus Sutra
was translated into Chinese, Kuan Yin, the “one who hears the cries of
the world,” emerged as an embodiment of compassion that has occupied a
central place in Buddhist teaching and practice ever since. Over the
centuries Kuan Yin has been portrayed in a variety of forms. At times
she is depicted as a feminine presence, face serene, arms outstretched,
and eyes open. At times she holds a willow branch, symbolizing her
resilience—able to bend in the face of the most fierce storms without
being broken. At other times she is portrayed with a thousand arms and
hands, each with an open eye in its center, depicting her constant
awareness of anguish and her all-embracing responsiveness. Sometimes she
takes the form of a warrior armed with a multitude of weapons,
embodying the fierce aspect of compassion committed to uprooting the
causes of suffering. A protector and guardian, she is fully engaged with
To cultivate the willingness to listen deeply to sorrow
wherever we meet it is to take the first step on the journey of
compassion. Our capacity to listen follows on the heels of this
willingness. We may make heroic efforts in our lives to shield ourselves
from the anguish that can surround us and live within us, but in truth a
life of avoidance and defense is one of anxiety and painful separation.
True compassion is not forged at a distance from pain but
in its fires. We do not always have a solution for suffering. We cannot
always fix pain. However, we can find the commitment to stay connected
and to listen deeply. Compassion does not always demand heroic acts or
great words. In the times of darkest distress, what is most deeply
needed is the fearless presence of a person who can be wholeheartedly
It can seem to us that being aware and opening our
hearts to sorrow makes us suffer more. It is true that awareness brings
with it an increased sensitivity to our inner and outer worlds.
Awareness opens our hearts and minds to a world of pain and distress
that previously only glanced off the surface of consciousness, like a
stone skipping across water. But awareness also teaches us to read
between the lines and to see beneath the world of appearances. We begin
to sense the loneliness, need, and fear in others that was previously
invisible. Beneath words of anger, blame, and agitation we hear the
fragility of another person’s heart. Awareness deepens because we hear
more acutely the cries of the world. Each of those cries has written
within it the plea to be received.
Awareness is born of intimacy.
We can only fear and hate what we do not understand and what we
perceive from a distance. We can only find compassion and freedom in
intimacy. We can be afraid of intimacy with pain because we are afraid
of helplessness; we fear that we don’t have the inner balance to embrace
suffering without being overwhelmed. Yet each time we find the
willingness to meet affliction, we discover we are not powerless.
Awareness rescues us from helplessness, teaching us to be helpful
through our kindness, patience, resilience, and courage. Awareness is
the forerunner of understanding, and understanding is the prerequisite
to bringing suffering to an end.
Shantideva, a deeply
compassionate master who taught in India in the eighth century, said,
“Whatever you are doing, be aware of the state of your mind. Accomplish
good; this is the path of compassion.” How would our life be if we
carried this commitment into all of our encounters? What if we asked
ourselves what it is we are dedicated to when we meet a homeless person
on the street, a child in tears, a person we have long struggled with,
or someone who disappoints us? We cannot always change the heart or the
life of another person, but we can always take care of the state of our
own mind. Can we let go of our resistance, judgments, and fear? Can we
listen wholeheartedly to understand another person’s world? Can we find
the courage to remain present when we want to flee? Can we equally find
the compassion to forgive our wish to disconnect? Compassion is a
journey. Every step, every moment of cultivation, is a gesture of deep
Living in Asia for several years, I encountered an
endless stream of people begging in the streets. Faced with a forlorn,
gaunt child I would find myself judging a society that couldn’t care for
its deprived children. Sometimes I would feel irritated, perhaps
dropping a few coins into the child’s hand while ensuring I kept my
distance from him. I would debate with myself whether I was just
perpetuating the culture of begging by responding to the child’s pleas.
It took me a long time to understand that, as much as the coins may have
been appreciated, they were secondary to the fact that I rarely
connected to the child.
As the etymology of the word indicates,
“compassion” is the ability to “feel with,” and that involves a leap of
empathy and a willingness to go beyond the borders of our own experience
and judgments. What would it mean to place myself in the heart of that
begging child? What would it be like to never know if I will eat today,
depending entirely on the handouts of strangers? Journeying beyond our
familiar borders, our hearts can tremble; then, we have the possibility
of accomplishing good.
Milarepa once said, “Long accustomed to
contemplating compassion, I have forgotten all difference between self
and other.” Genuine compassion is without boundaries or hierarchies. The
smallest sorrow is as worthy of compassion as the greatest anguish. The
heartache we experience in the face of betrayal asks as much for
compassion as a person caught in the midst of tragedy. Those we love and
those we disdain ask for compassion; those who are blameless and those
who cause suffering are all enfolded in the tapestry of compassion. An
old Zen monk once proclaimed, “O, that my monk’s robes were wide enough
to gather up all of the suffering in this floating world.” Compassion is
the liberated heart’s response to pain wherever it is met.
we see those we love in pain, our compassion is instinctive. Our heart
can be broken. It can also be broken open. We are most sorely tested
when we are faced with a loved one’s pain that we cannot fix. We reach
out to shield those we love from harm, but life continues to teach us
that our power has limits. Wisdom tells us that to insist that
impermanence and frailty should not touch those we love is to fall into
the near enemy of compassion, which is attachment to result and the
insistence that life must be other than it actually is.
means offering a refuge to those who have no refuge. The refuge is born
of our willingness to bear what at times feels unbearable—to see a
loved one suffer. The letting go of our insistence that those we love
should not suffer is not a relinquishment of love but a release of
illusion—the illusion that love can protect anyone from life’s natural
rhythms. In the face of a loved one’s pain, we are asked to understand
what it means to be steadfast and patient in the midst of our own fear.
In our most intimate relationships, love and fear grow simultaneously. A
compassionate heart knows this to be true and does not demand that fear
disappear. It knows that only in the midst of fear can we begin to
discover the fearlessness of compassion.
Some people, carrying
long histories of a lack of self-worth or denial, find it most difficult
to extend compassion toward themselves. Aware of the vastness of
suffering in the world, they may feel it is self-indulgent to care for
their aching body, their broken heart, or their confused mind. Yet this
too is suffering, and genuine compassion makes no distinction between
self and other. If we do not know how to embrace our own frailties and
imperfections, how do we imagine we could find room in our heart for
The Buddha once said that you could search the whole
world and not find anyone more deserving of your love and compassion
than yourself. Instead, too many people find themselves directing levels
of harshness, demand, and judgment inward that they would never dream
of directing toward another person, knowing the harm that would be
incurred. They are willing to do to themselves what they would not do to
In the pursuit of an idealized compassion, many people
can neglect themselves. Compassion “listens to the cries of the world,”
and we are part of that world. The path of compassion does not ask us to
abandon ourselves on the altar of an idealized state of perfection. A
path of healing makes no distinctions: within the sorrow of our own
frustrations, disappointments, fears, and bitterness, we learn the
lessons of patience, acceptance, generosity, and ultimately, compassion.
deepest compassion is nurtured in the midst of the deepest suffering.
Faced with the struggle of those we love or those who are blameless in
this world, compassion arises instinctively. Faced with people who
inflict pain upon others, we must dive deep within ourselves to find the
steadfastness and understanding that enables us to remain open.
Connecting with those who perpetrate harm is hard practice, yet
compassion is somewhat shallow if it turns away those who—lost in
ignorance, rage, and fear—harm others. The mountain of suffering in the
world can never be lessened by adding yet more bitterness, resentment,
rage, and blame to it.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the beloved Vietnamese
teacher, said, “Anger and hatred are the materials from which hell is
made.” It is not that the compassionate heart will never feel anger.
Faced with the terrible injustice, oppression, and violence in our
world, our hearts tremble not only with compassion but also with anger. A
person without anger may be a person who has not been deeply touched by
harmful acts that scar the lives of too many people. Anger can be the
beginning of abandonment or the beginning of commitment to helping
We can be startled into wakefulness by exposure to
suffering, and this wakefulness can become part of the fabric of our own
rage, or part of the fabric of wise and compassionate action. If we
align ourselves with hatred, we equally align ourselves with the
perpetrators of harm. We can also align ourselves with a commitment to
bringing to an end the causes of suffering. It is easy to forget the
portrayal of Kuan Yin as an armed warrior, profoundly dedicated to
protecting all beings, fearless and resolved to bring suffering to an
Rarely are words and acts of healing and reconciliation
born of an agitated heart. One of the great arts in the cultivation of
compassion is to ask if we can embrace anger without blame. Blame
agitates our hearts, keeps them contracted, and ultimately leads to
despair. To surrender blame is to maintain the discriminating wisdom
that knows clearly what suffering is and what causes it. To surrender
blame is to surrender the separation that makes compassion impossible.
is not a magical device that can instantly dispel all suffering. The
path of compassion is altruistic but not idealistic. Walking this path
we are not asked to lay down our life, find a solution for all of the
struggles in this world, or immediately rescue all beings. We are asked
to explore how we may transform our own hearts and minds in the moment.
Can we understand the transparency of division and separation? Can we
liberate our hearts from ill will, fear, and cruelty? Can we find the
steadfastness, patience, generosity, and commitment not to abandon
anyone or anything in this world? Can we learn how to listen deeply and
discover the heart that trembles in the face of suffering?
path of compassion is cultivated one step and one moment at a time. Each
of those steps lessens the mountain of sorrow in the world.
Christina Feldman is the author of Compassion: Listening to the Cries of the World. She is cofounder and a guiding teacher at Gaia House, a
Buddhist meditation center in Devon, England, and a senior teacher at
the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.