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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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