The etymology of the word compassion in Aramaic is racham, derived from a biblical term that has the meaning of «love, pity, mercy» (Reyes, 2012, p.1). Compassion can be broken down into two elements derived from Latin: Com: (together with) and pathos (suffering) (Neff, 2003b; Reyes, 2012). In the Greco-Latin cultural framework, self-pity is associated with being in tune with suffering, which is confirmed by definitions such as the one offered by the Real Academia Española (2001) that defines compassion as «feeling of commiseration and pity towards those who suffer hardship or misfortune».
From the Buddhist perspective, compassion also implies being in contact with suffering, but also incorporates feeling motivated to alleviate the suffering of others and oneself (Hanh, 2004; Kornfield, 2008; Neff, 2003), thus including the active component of seeking to alleviate suffering and cultivate well-being. According to Triet (2001), one of the characteristics of compassion is its creativity in appropriate means to foster one’s awakening and liberation. In the words of the Dalai Lama (2002), «compassion is of little use if it remains only an idea and does not become an attitude toward others that imprints its imprint on all our thoughts and actions.»
Unlike the traditional Western perspective influenced by modernity, the Buddhist tradition is not marked by the dichotomous separation between self and others (Hanh, 2009; Neff, 2009). Thus, for example, the word for compassion in Tibetan is tsewa, which does not distinguish between compassion for oneself and compassion for others (Neff, 2003).
According to Kornfield (2008) compassion is part of our deeper nature that arises from awareness of our interconnectedness with all things. Kornfield (2008) speaks of the simplicity of compassion, being a quality that emerges naturally when the mind is serene and calm. For his part, Hanh (1994) points out that in the Buddhist tradition compassion derives naturally from understanding; when a person manages to understand another person in a profound way (being able to be oneself that other person) compassion naturally arises. According to the authors (Hanh, 1994; Kornfield, 2008), there are two elements that allow compassion to emerge: interdependent nature and deep understanding.
Hanh (2009) uses the word inter-being in English (in Spanish it could be translated as inter-ser or with the verb ser in the present continuous inter-siendo) to illustrate that a thing is or exists only thanks to the existence of a great variety of other elements that allow it to emerge, a radical interdependence. Taking it to the psychological realm, the Buddhist perspective starts from the basis of a non-dualism between subject and object, and the existence of an intimate relationship between the person and his or her environment. This interdependence gives meaning to compassion and self-compassion, as Kornfield (2008) points out, «in Buddhist psychology, compassion is a circle that embraces all beings, including ourselves» (Kornfield, 2008).
A second aspect that gives meaning to compassion in its Buddhist origin is related to the close link established between compassion and understanding. According to Hanh (2002), in order to have compassion it is first necessary to understand the observed phenomenon. Understanding can be described as the ability to develop a deep and detailed perspective of the phenomenon (Hanh, 2002). The deep understanding that is a prerequisite for compassion emerges from the systematic practice of mindfulness (Hanh, 2002).
Mindfulness, in turn, is one of the eight elements of the noble eightfold path (Hanh, 2000) which refers to the path of practices with which Buddhism seeks to transform suffering. Considering the above, compassion is not a struggle or a sacrifice, but something that emerges naturally and intuitively (Kornfield, 2008). In summary, from the Buddhist perspective, compassion emerges as a natural element after recognizing the interdependent nature of existence and developing a deep understanding.
I invite everyone to read Matias’ post on the topic of the day.