Compassion and loving-kindness are essential to our happiness and spiritual development. The problems facing our friends and families as well as those affecting our environment and the world at large can all be helped by these qualities.
The wider and deeper our compassion, the greater and more effective its scope. Thus, if it is truly universal, we are able to care for everyone and everything in the right way. Our family lives become more meaningful and useful and, as our own happiness increases, so more and more others become happier also. Continued growth and expansion of compassion will gradually transform the world for the better, leading to less desire and hatred on a personal level; whilst between nations and groups of people there will be less conflict and fewer wars.
At present a measure of compassion exists in everyone. No matter how selfish people are, they are often still able to care for their parents, children, lovers or friends. Even creatures habituated to killing, such as snakes and crocodiles, maintain affection for their own young. However, when compassion is restricted solely to an individual's immediate family or species, it excludes many more beings than it embraces and is very narrow compared with the limitless compassion which we are all capable of generating. Whereas some compassion is better than none, limitless compassion is the best of all.
In the beginning, it is helpful to realise how we all share the awakened state of mind as potential. However, it has become obscured by ignorance and the accumulation of negativity. Misunderstanding and unskilful actions similarly prevent us from seeing and realising that potential. Removing these obscurations and defilements, however, will enable us to go beyond the illusion of separate existence and realise the interdependence of all things. It will become evident that when we harm others we are harming ourselves; and when we take care of others, we are taking care of ourselves. When we are able to see the awakened state of mind as potential in friend and enemy alike we will have equal compassion for everyone.
Essentially everyone wants happiness and the causes of happiness, just as we do. Even those who create suffering for themselves do so out of ignorance for no-one sincerely wants to be unhappy. They just do not realise that it is virtue that creates happiness and a happy state of mind which inspires us to practise virtue.
First, then, it is necessary to distinguish between wholesome and unwholesome activity. Once we have learned what is right and what is wrong we can begin to apply this knowledge skilfully in our daily lives. The chapter on right conduct provides simple guidelines as to wholesome activity, whilst cautioning against the unwholesome kind, and may be summarised thus: doing good things creates happiness and its causes; unwholesome activities only create further suffering. Unless we can understand this distinction as a foundation for the growth of compassion, we will create unhappiness for ourselves and others whether or not we intend to do so.
Although some people apparently enjoy making themselves and others miserable, they are still in suffering. Often, because of ignorance or habit, or both, they cannot help themselves. A snake may not wish to poison a baby who is playing in the grass but nonetheless does so out of fear and ignorance, even though it's neither hungry nor in danger. For a snake, poison is part of its way of life; for human beings this need not be so. If someone annoys us or does something we deplore, we may grow angry, yet to blame or wish to punish them is not being compassionate at all. We have to learn to avoid reacting harmfully or negatively to others and to guard carefully against striking out at them as might an animal or a snake. In this kind of situation compassion, not anger, is the appropriate response.
To be unkind or selfish is easy for most of us; whilst to be considerate and mindful of others is very difficult. In order to increase our compassion and loving-kindness we try to put ourselves in the place of others and see things from their point of view. So we neither harm others nor do things to them that we would not like to have done to us. Instead we should always try to give others the happiness that we wish to have ourselves. Ultimately there will be no difference between the wish for their happiness and our own. In the social context we can come to fit together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Clearly, to accomplish this we must have considerable awareness of how other people feel.
Compassion and loving-kindness can be developed quite straightforwardly, stage by stage, but this will not occur without a great deal of patient effort on our part. The mind has to be thoroughly trained before compassion can become deep and strong enough to remain intact even when things are going against us. Limitless loving-kindness is our aim.
Although it may be possible to imagine such a wholesome state of mind, we are not there yet. At the moment simply to look after ourselves and not cause harm or be a burden to others may require considerable effort; but if we can accomplish this much we have achieved something very worthwhile. Then we have the right foundation for future growth - for unless we have compassion for ourselves it's very difficult to engender it for others.
To begin with, we must realise how all of us, without exception, are suffering in some way. Rich or poor, gifted or otherwise, we all have to endure the sufferings of birth, old-age, sickness and death. Without liberation we are like prisoners awaiting execution in a dungeon; there is nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide from the inevitability of impermanence and death. No-one wants to suffer and yet we all do so in our various ways, equally unable to escape from that suffering, no matter how hard we try.
Rich people still suffer despite their good fortune: they may live in fear of losing their wealth, or be corrupted by it, or it may lead to the destruction of friendship and trust amongst those they care for. The poor may go hungry, lack shelter, or worry constantly about providing for their loved ones. Intelligent people suffer despite their abilities or even because of them; whereas those less able find simple problems beyond them.
Since all beings are in suffering, whether aware of it and able to admit it or not, our aim is to exclude none of them from the range of our compassion. Having fully realised this, the next stage is to cultivate the strong wish that they be freed from the causes of that suffering.
Limitless compassion is difficult to define but it may be compared to the strength and depth of feeling that exists between a mother and her child, being extended equally to all beings everywhere.
When there are lots of children in a family, in the mother's eyes it may tend to diminish the value of each; but if there is only one child, she cares for it and protects it so that it is happy and comes to no harm. Although there are billions of suffering beings in the world, the ultimate aim is to regard each one as our only child.
In Western society, the parent-child relationship is more distant than in the East. The Western ideal is to give children freedom and independence as soon as possible. Babies are often bottle-fed. Young children sleep apart from their mothers and are often given responsibility before they're ready. They may be left alone while the parents go out to work. Sometimes teenagers go out into the world too early and have bad experiences. This searching for freedom too soon is like house-martins jumping out of their nest too early and then crashing to the ground. Such situations are commonplace and are generally accepted as normal, but in many cases children can even end up in institutions simply because they have too much freedom too soon.
In many places in the East, however, families still follow the tradition of working together and sleeping together. Mothers share their milk as well as their food and happiness with their children, and there is a great deal of closeness, of security between them. Although less common in the West, this kind of loving relationship does represent a good example of deep compassion in action. In this context, another way of developing compassion is to consider how we would feel if our own mother were being tortured or harmed in some way. We might feel, "If only she could be liberated from that suffering." The aim is to engender the same depth of feeling in regard to all beings, to wish fervently that they all could be freed from their suffering. So at the beginning, one practises loving-kindness towards those close to one, such as one's mother, lover or close friend, and then the feeling is expanded and extended to include all beings without distinction.
This is not to say that human beings should be the sole objects of our compassion. Animals also endure great suffering. Many are slaughtered unnecessarily, often without even the justification that they are needed to provide food. Blood sports are practised all over the world; everywhere animals are cruelly exploited by humans, hunted by other animals, and yet still they have to find food and shelter for themselves and their young. It is hard to imagine how a fish feels when it's hooked and dragged from the water, or a fox which is hunted to death, but we can be sure that we wouldn't enjoy such experiences. When a single hair is pulled from our head, we complain or cry out, yet sheep are roughly shorn even during very cold weather. Although we cannot greatly influence the way of the world in these respects, we can strive always to be as kind, gentle and caring as possible towards all forms of sentient life.
Reminding ourselves of how others suffer and mentally putting ourselves in their place, will help awaken our compassion and considerably extend its scope.
The next stage in the development of compassion is to work to liberate all beings from their suffering. The starting-point here is our own suffering, for unless we can confront and deal with those situations which give pain and discomfort to ourselves, we can acquire neither the confidence nor skill necessary to be of much use to others.
In this respect it is important to realise that when we perceive the world and our situation within it in terms of violence or discomfort, then this is our creation - a projection of our own inner negativity. Clearly it would be useless to try to run away, with the intention of finding a better world or some kind of heaven elsewhere. With correct understanding, on the other hand, we can achieve a wholesome, positive relationship with the phenomenal world, here and now.
When our mind is pure, that purity illuminates whatever we perceive, just as someone with good eyesight sees everything clearly, as it is. Defective vision, however, makes everything appear vague and imprecise, giving rise to confusion and misunderstanding. It is useless to try and change the object that is seen -it is the eyesight that has to be improved. If we see negativity in other people, we must try to develop compassion for them and, as our compassion and insight increase, we will stop finding fault in them. Correspondingly, their regard for us will improve, mutual respect will develop and enmity will decrease greatly.
At the moment we try to escape from painful situations, but this achieves nothing. Instead of trying to abandon suffering or pass it on to others, we must recognise its usefulness as a means of developing our fellow-feeling and inner strength.
It is important, however, to remind ourselves that we are not looking for trouble. Quite often people say that suffering is good and that in order to accomplish something worthwhile we should punish ourselves, but this is a mistaken attitude. If our experience presents us with misery or pain then we accept it and use it as a means to develop, but we don't go around actively looking for suffering. The aim is to be flexible and to accept whatever comes our way. Neither should we analyse or dwell too much on the causes of our suffering, for this only magnifies and increases the pain. Simple acceptance is the first step; then we can work with the negative aspects of our experience and transform them into positive ones.
At the same time we have to guard against the notion that because we are practising compassion others must practise it also. We simply get on with the work of developing ourselves and, as our inner happiness and compassion grow, many others will quite naturally become aware of the benefits of what we're trying to achieve, and be inspired, in their own good time, to follow our example.
The aim in developing loving-kindness and compassion is for it to become impartial. We must come to understand that being kind to our friends in preference to our enemies is not the right way. Since a friend of one day can be an enemy the next, and vice versa, we shouldn't take this idea in too solid a way. As far as we can, we treat our enemies as amicably as our friends and see everyone as someone to be kind to.
Of course compassion that is really pure is never a cause of suffering to anyone - like gold, it is immutable and unalloyed. Until we have refined and perfected the practice of compassion, however, we may unintentionally cause a little suffering. Nevertheless we should still go on trying at all times to be helpful.
No matter how many useful things we have learned and taken to heart, the seed of compassion will not grow and become fruitful unless it is exposed to the light of our everyday experience. To study ways of relaxing and to have a broad-minded, caring attitude is of little benefit so long as we're tense and unkind in our daily lives. Were we to buy and feed a 'riding-horse' without ever riding it, the horse could become wild, unhappy and no use to anyone. A horse must be ridden if it is ever to take us where we want to go. Similarly compassion and loving-kindness have to become part of our experience.
Further, the practice of compassion should not be accompanied by any expectation of receiving something in return. To regard one's practice of loving-kindness as some kind of business transaction only reinforces the sense of ego and separate self. Unselfish compassion, however, will expand our horizon beyond the scope afforded by such an isolated, impoverished view of reality and our place in it, so putting us in touch with the essential unity which pervades everything. The right attitude is neither to hope for success nor to fear personal failure but simply, and humbly, to proceed with the liberating effort to care for everyone.
Throughout human history there have been many great saints and masters whose lives were devoted to working hard for the benefit of others. Their achievements were not based on study, the ability to wage war, or on the accumulation of material possessions but on their kindness to all beings. By following their example we too can fulfil the promise of our precious human birth and awaken that limitless compassion in ourselves.
The compassion of the people around us now can also inspire our efforts. There are many honest, sincere and thoughtful people who, for example, send money, food and clothing to families and children in need. When we concern ourselves with the welfare of those less fortunate than ourselves, without pride or desire for fame and recognition, we too will have found the right way. Gradually, as we gain in confidence and strength of purpose, our benevolence can come to include everyone who is suffering - not least those for whom no-one cares and who therefore are most in need of aid and comfort.
This is particularly important in regard to those old and sick people who, in Western society, are so often neglected or put away in homes or institutions. It is quite wrong that the elderly and infirm should be brushed aside like this simply because they are 'in the way' or because they require more care and attention than we feel we can afford. Instead, wherever possible, we should provide that care and support, that security and familiarity which can help them to regard the approach of death as part of the continuity of life - not as something separate, or alien to it.
Of course caring for the old, sick and unlikeable can be very difficult. They often suffer from confusion and irrationality as well as from physical pain and weakness, or they may try to manipulate others in the matter of bequests and legacies. Having enjoyed a greater degree of power and control over their lives than in their old age, it is understandable that they should still wish to influence others by whatever means remain to them.
Although this kind of manipulation is undignified, we should not think ill of those who practise it. In this, as in all things regarding others, we try to put ourselves in their place, to imagine how they must feel, neither condemning nor passing any other kind of judgement. All the time we strive to bring our own minds to maturity, learning from others' mistakes as well as our own, always guided by that limitless compassion which is not only the aim but also the path and the goal.
Unless we understand the right motivation, the practice of kindness and generosity to others could create obstacles. The important thing to remember here is that whatever we are able to give should be given freely, however much or little we have. Reluctance to share one's happiness or possessions is to misunderstand the meaning of compassion. A baby or young child clings to a toy, fearful of losing it. We are like that when we can only think about how to protect a possession and keep it to ourselves. With this attitude, we devalue the possession and no longer find it a source of joy. What we do need to protect at all times is our compassionate motivation. The more we give of ourselves, the stronger and more dependable this will become.
The practice of compassion requires a great deal of skill. For example, to give strong drink to an alcoholic, even if they ask for it, is not being kind at all. Nor should we try to force our help on others or interfere in situations where we can do no good. If we see two people quarrelling, we may think it compassionate to step between them and try to stop the fight. But if this would make them angry with us and we become angry too, then the confusion would only spread and increase. Unless our compassion is deep enough so that we remain in control of our own emotions, even in the midst of anger and conflict, it would be better not to get involved at all.
Therefore whilst always striving to be as helpful as possible, we must guard against going beyond our stage of development. It is no use giving away too much too soon and having regrets and attachments afterwards; instead we are mindful only to give as and when we're ready. Thus the growth of compassion should be steady and gradual. Employing patience, discretion, discrimination and common sense we are able to relate carefully to each situation as it arises, making sure that whatever we do, say or think will cause no harm to anyone and will always be beneficial.
So far we have considered the benefits of loving-kindness and compassion, the way to develop them and how best to practise them. It must be stressed, however, that although the stages of development and practice require patience and careful application, it is never wise to delay the actual awakening of one's compassion and the taming of one's mind.
Generally people wish to enjoy life and be happy, preferring never to think about dying. If we could find worldly enjoyment that would last until the time of our death, there would seem little cause to reconsider this attitude. However, that kind of enjoyment more often lasts only for a short time - a matter of years at the most. Money we accumulate or invest can melt away like ice cream in the sun; pleasure derived from food or clothing, or from other people's ways of talking or acting, all of these things we cherish are subject to change, so that today's joy and happiness so easily become tomorrow's sorrow and sense of loss. Even during the passage of a single day, a source of pleasure can turn to one of unhappiness.
While there is nothing wrong with enjoying our lives, we should never forget that everything is impermanent, including ourselves, and that our time is far too precious to waste. Although we can be sure that death will come, the time and place of its occurrence is very uncertain. Since we can be sure that at the time of death we would certainly give everything we own for just one more day of life, we should not put off for one moment the awakening of compassion. For when we have to leave all else behind, it is the good we have done that will give us the greatest peace and comfort.
So wherever and whenever we can, we should develop compassion at once. If we leave it until tomorrow then we'll no longer be able to relate so directly to the situation which has inspired that compassion. We don't neglect our hunger and thirst for twenty-four hours, we act immediately to satisfy them. The practice of loving-kindness should be treated with similar urgency, as a natural, spontaneous part of our lives.
Remembering that we are going to die does not suggest that we should live in fear and terror of death, for to become hopeless and afraid would be of no use, and would prevent us from enjoying life. Rather we should be inspired by the inevitability of death to make the most of each precious moment in order to cultivate our inner strength, loving-kindness and compassion. Then, no matter when we are to die, we will have done our best to make of our lives something valuable and useful both for ourselves and for others.
There is no way that we can give up death, but with sufficient effort and the right motivation we can certainly give up suffering. As long as our determination is strong enough and our confidence does not fail, we have the means and the power to neutralise the causes of suffering, to cut them off at source. And if ever we doubt the value of our efforts, we have only to look at our own experience and that of those around us to realise just how worthwhile it is for everyone that compassion should develop and flourish in the world.