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A Buddhist Perspective on Compassion

Buddha taught that none of his students should worship him, or anyone else -- nor any god or gods or anything else under the sun or beyond it. For Buddhists, the ultimate goal of spiritual practice is to awaken to ones own true nature, which is the nature of a fully enlightened Buddha.

Buddhism offers many different types of mental and physical and spiritual exercises to help individuals move toward this goal of awakening. One form of practice, highly respected by Tibetan Buddhists, is connecting with the qualities of an enlightened being, one who is already awake, as an example and inspiration.

Various awakened beings are seen as manifesting various superlative qualities of awakened mind. Among the best known are three bodhisattvas, or Buddhas of the future -- Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani. Manjushri manifests supreme intelligence, insight, and wisdom; Vajrapani represents the power aspect of complete enlightenment; and Avalokiteshvara embodies unlimited loving kindness and compassion. Chenrezig is what the Tibetans call Avalokiteshvara.

"The importance of love and compassion is not an idea that is particular to Buddhism. Everyone throughout the world talks about the importance of love and compassion. There's no one who says love and compassion are bad and we should try and get rid of them. However, there is an uncommon element in the method or approach which is taken to these by Buddhism. In general, when we think of compassion, we think of a natural or spontaneous sympathy or empathy which we experience when we perceive the suffering of someone else. And we generally think of compassion as being a state of pain, of sadness, because you see the suffering of someone else and you see what's causing that suffering and you know you can't do anything to remove the cause of that suffering and therefore the suffering itself. So, whereas before you generated compassion, one person was miserable, and after you generate compassion, two people are miserable. And this actually happens."

"However, the approach [that the Buddhist tradition takes] to compassion is a little bit different, because it's founded on the recognition that, whether or not you can benefit that being or that person in their immediate situation and circumstances, you can generate the basis for their ultimate benefit. And the confidence in that removes the frustration or the misery which otherwise somehow afflicts ordinary compassion. So, when compassion is cultivated in that way, it is experienced as delightful rather than miserable."

"The way that we cultivate compassion is called immeasurable compassion. And, in fact, to be precise, there are four aspects of what we would, in general, call compassion, that are called, therefore, the four immeasurable. Now, normally, when we think of something that's called immeasurable, we mean immeasurably vast. Here, the primary connotation of the term is not vastness but impartiality. And the point of saying immeasurable compassion is compassion that is not going to help one person at the expense of hurting another. It is a compassion that is felt equally for all beings."

"The basis of the generation of such an impartial compassion is the recognition of the fact that all beings without exception really want and don't want the same things. All beings, without exception, want to be happy and want to avoid suffering. There is no being anywhere who really wants to suffer. And if you understand that, and to the extent that you understand that, you will have the intense wish that all beings be free from suffering. And there is no being anywhere who does not want to be happy; and if you understand that, and to the extent that you understand that, you will have the intense wish that all beings actually achieve the happiness that they wish to achieve. Now, because the experience of happiness and freedom from suffering depend upon the generation of the causes of these, then the actual form your aspiration takes is that all beings possess not only happiness but the causes of happiness, that they not only be free of suffering but of the causes of suffering."

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