Compassion as Foundation

Compassion is under assault in our media, entertainment, and politics. Meanwhile the faceless nature of the internet often encourages even greater levels of meanness and vitriol than would normally occur in human interactions, and this negativity unavoidably spills into other parts of our lives.

Yet, compassion is an essential part of our nature as social animals and moral beings. Thomas Merton wrote that compassion is, “the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things”. Called Rahmah in Islam, compassion is considered a major trait of God, who they call “the merciful and compassionate”. Hinduism has a principle of doing no harm called Ahimsa and their word for compassion is Daya. In Buddhism, you have the notion of wishing a release from suffering in others, called Karuna, and the notion of wishing happiness for others – loving kindness – called Metta. When asked if cultivation of compassion and loving-kindness is part of their practice, the Buddha replied, ‘no… [it is] all of our practice.” The life of Jesus exemplifies the very essence of compassion to Christians. Judaism lists 13 attributes of compassion and leading Rabbi Hillel the Elder in the 1st Century stated that the whole Torah could be summed up as, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow” adding that all the rest is merely commentary on that principle.

This emphasis on compassion as key to a healthy life and happiness is also supported by the latest science in the fields of psychology, sociology, and neurology. Even computer science has discovered the role of forgiveness, empathy, and mercy in its simulation studies of which behavioral rules seem to rise to the top in naturally selective environments. Clearly, compassion is so central to humanity that it has found its way into the great streams of wisdom throughout history and across the globe. All wisdom begins with compassion, all reason requires it, and all healthy discipline serves it. All other principles of natural spirituality – the application of reason, the pursuit of a flourishing life, the function of ethics, and our role in society – spring from this foundation and serve its ends.

Compassion means love, concern, and caring for self, our fellow human beings, and life in general. We recognize that compassion is natural to our healthy development as interconnected social beings. When we nurture our compassion, we live more fulfilled and meaningful lives because we act in accordance with our best nature as human beings.

Compassion includes love and caring for the well-being of everyone, which results in several things. For one, this compassion includes ourselves. When we use compassion it does not imply allowing ourselves to be dominated or abused by others. Caring for everyone also implies that we attempt to have compassion, even for our enemies. Some people who act poorly or heinously may be victims of their own histories and delusions and they suffer greatly for their deeds, even if they do not realize the source of their suffering. When we try to help our enemies improve, we are improved.

Being compassionate means more than speaking the words and simply ‘caring’ within our minds. Compassion is most essentially practiced through action. Good spiritual practice should move individuals to act on their values to a greater degree – whether it is in their interactions with those around them in daily life, or whether this refers to doing good for others.

Many naturalists and their organizations have often focused on reason and rationality as the starting point or foundation. Reason is an important virtue and natural faculty, but it is primarily a tool. The ends for which that tool is used depend on our underlying motivations – and that is where the foundation of a philosophy is to be found. Reason is a means and, alone, cannot establish an ultimate goal or motivation. If compassion is not our motivation for which reason operates, then something else is our motivation, and we must examine this.

Rationality leads to a better understanding of our world, but regardless of what is true or false about reality – the simple fact of our coexistence here and now, and the benefits of compassion here and now, are true. The reason we promote rationality is precisely because of its ability to improve the lives of others and ourselves. This reveals that the true foundation of our philosophy is compassion.

But what is the real nature of compassion? Many ideas about what compassion is may include a kind of pathos – a deep suffering that disturbs our ability to have contentment in life. The aim of a non-attachment practice is to disassociate our sense of happiness from the ups and downs of our material circumstances. While empathy and compassion are central to development of a character that makes this possible, we will be no better off if we are likewise drug into deep despair by the ups and downs of the material circumstances of others. This kind of compassion, rather, is an association of others with ourselves, along with a wish to help others just as we act to help ourselves – but without unhealthy attachments, dependencies, clinging, and the suffering that accompanies them.

Some additional points about the relationship between compassion and practice can be found here:
Why Compassion?


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3 thoughts on “Compassion as Foundation”

  1. If you are an armed policeman called to a school shooting
    you will be expected to shoot the perpetrator. If you wound
    him and he is lying on the ground helpless then it would be
    expected you would be compassionate towards him. But while
    he is a danger to others compassion towards him would be
    inappropriate. Your duty of care to innocent citizens requires
    you to use lethal force. Compassion cannot therefore the sole
    or ultimate value in human life. Sometimes compassion can be
    trumped by other, more important, values.

  2. That sounds like Sophistry to me. You have decided up front that come what may you will hold to the view that compassion is the key virtue and no facts will budge you. What you have to do is test ethical values against real life cases and see if they fit. It’s easy to make broad statements in the abstract. In the case of a soldier or policeman, the last thing we want is someone who goes into battle with love in his heart for the enemy. Soldiers are taught aggression in battle and to hate the enemy. Show me where in military training they teach soldiers to use force compassionately. If you want to argue for pacifism that would be consistent but don’t lets hear about ‘compassionate killing’ in war.


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