Compassion in Mahāyāna Buddhism

by Shaun Terry

“Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.” — Leo Tolstoy, from War and Peace (1869)

            It seems to me appropriate that this week’s readings would focus a good deal on compassion. What I understood from the genesis of the Mahāyāna tradition was that compassion is a central theme as a factor that distinguished Mahāyāna from previous conceptions of Buddhist thought. Even the increased importance on bodhisattvaship and on the pāramitās seemed to lean a good deal on compassion as a motivating force for these divergences from more traditional Buddhisms.

I think it important to try to locate the beginnings of the Mahāyāna movement and what its motivations were. Strong seems to disagree somewhat with Mitchell, as Strong says that the movement began as a mostly lay movement, whereas Mitchell notes that Mahāyānists often “lived in the monasteries of different schools alongside monastics who were not interested in their new form of religiosity.” (Strong p. 134; Mitchell p. 97) Strong helps us to understand some of the reasoning behind Mahāyāna, and how Mahāyānists might claim to have found “hidden texts”: “[T]hink of the Mahāyāna as a movement that had a tendency to take certain elements of early Buddhism and extend them to the limits of their logic.” (Strong p. 135) Of course, it then seems reasonable to figure that there would be some disagreement among Buddhists as to what was intended by the Buddha.

For instance, Mahāyāna gave fresh importance to compassion, so much so that bodhisattvas became privileged over arhats as Strong makes clear in “The Necessity of Compassion.” (p. 161) As such, I found myself questioning the coincidence of bodhisattvaship with arhatship. If compassion is so important, how could one reach enlightenment as an arhat having disregarded the seemingly necessary element of compassion? Should we conclude that nirvaṇa be reserved for bodhisattvas and not for arhats? Further, if everyone is destined for Buddhahood, how could one even be an arhat (Strong p. 161)? The distinction between them seems like it might be a distinction between bodhisattvas and beings that might not actually be: arhats.

This focus on compassion reaches an extreme in another sense: under Mahāyāna, compassion should be extended equally to everyone. Strong quotes Stephan Beyer’s The Buddhist Experience, in which the cultivation of compassion is described as a sort of progression: “One meditates first, then, upon those whom one loves; […] they are all the same as oneself, and one sees no difference among them.” (Strong p. 163) It seems to me worth it to perhaps complicate this for just a moment. Can we say that there is no difference between people? Of course, that is not exactly what Beyer says, here, but it appears clear enough that if people are encouraged to not see a difference between people, then they should not think of people as different from one another. This either implies that people should conceive of one another as literally the same (as in mutually part of something greater, perhaps?) or that they should intentionally delude themselves, which leads to the question of exactly how one intentionally deludes themselves (which would seem to require having a strategy for forgetting something so important to oneself—this would seem to be a challenging task). That said, the point seems perhaps to be aimed at encouraging nonjudgment and that is a point that would resonate with me, not least for the reasons that Strong gets into in this section (as well as those that the Dalai Lama elucidates in his text that we, this week, read).

Beyer continues through the progression: “Then one meditates upon one’s enemies […] they are all the same as oneself is […]And thus gradually one meditates upon all beings in the ten directions: one awakens one’s compassion for all beings equally, that they are as dear as one’s own suffering children…[emphasis mine]” (Strong p. 163) In our reading from the Dalai Lama, he seems to agree to these points. In fact, His Holiness dedicates several pages to describing the implications of, and reasons for, this kind of compassion.

His Holiness describes how anger causes us anxiety and clouds our minds, making our lives more complicated (p. 78). He also makes the point that we contribute to our anger both through our dispositions as well as through our physical presence in a situation by which we are made angry (pp. 77, 79). We can lose sight of our relationships to these unfortunate situations. As the Dalai Lama puts it, “[W]e consider the person—the intermediary agent between the negative emotions and the act—as solely responsible.” (p. 79) In essence, some people’s bodies carry out harmful acts against other people’s bodies, largely due to emotional responses to difficult situations, and yet, we tend to blame others when these situations occur.

In regard to why it is unreasonable to be angry with our “enemies,” not only is it the case that anger causes us a great amount of harm and complication, it seems to have no logical basis. It appears that “enemies” behave inimically either due to their nature or due to their circumstances (HHDL pp. 77-8, 80). We can think of this in more contemporary (and more scientific) terms: if someone only misbehaves either because of their genetics or because of some environmental stimulus, for which would it be reasonable to blame them? Is it ever fair to blame a person for the genes that they inherited? Is it ever fair to blame someone for circumstances that they did not create? If we agree to the assumption underlying this line of thinking—that negative behaviors only ever result from nature or nurture, and not by decisions that we freely make (a position that some cognitive science seems to support)—then there seems to be no good reason to ever direct negative thoughts, feelings, or behaviors toward anyone.

Finally, His Holiness points out that people’s untoward behaviors provide us with an opportunity that would not otherwise arise (p. 81). Without someone testing our patience, there is no patience required from us. We cannot develop patience without some object for our patience. Therefore, our “enemy” presents us with the opportunity to accrue merit (HHDL p. 81). Thought of in another way, the Dalai Lama points out, “It is almost as if the perpetrator of the harm sacrifices himself or herself [sic] for the sake of our benefit.” (p. 81) What he seems to be alluding to here is that the negative outcomes that come from anger and negative behaviors are made the “enemy’s” to deal with, while we, if we are mindful and patient, have the opportunity to reach closer toward nirvaṇa. Indeed, seen in this light, perhaps the challenging moments that others thrust upon our lives are actually gifts in disguise. His Holiness says, “[W]e should dedicate our merit to the benefit of that enemy.” (p. 81) And, this gets us back to the centrality of compassion.

Beyer describes this kind of compassion in superlative terms: “Then is one’s compassion made perfect, and it is called great compassion.” (Strong p. 163) It is interesting, and perhaps counterintuitive to some Westerners, to think that we should thank our “enemies” for the opportunity to be our best selves. In fact, the reading from Strong manages to take this even further.

Quoting from the Bodhicaryāvatāra of Śāntideva, the text says, “Let them smite me, constantly mock me, or throw dirt at me. […] Let them do to me whatever pleases them, but let no one suffer any mishap on my account. […] Those who accuse me falsely, others who do me wrong, and still others who deride me—may they attain enlightenment!” (Strong p. 166) Not only are we to not blame those who might harm us; we are to wish that harm upon us is somehow good for these “enemies” and that they “attain enlightenment.” It seems that this could be considered extreme for many in United States audiences.

In fact, it may be that a danger could crop up from this kind of thinking. There is an argument to be made about how the kind of compassion toward our “enemies” such that we stand aside and wish them well might complicate matters, especially in the context of asymmetrical power distributions. For instance, some people may find it objectionable to suggest that underprivileged people should not be resistant to their exploitations. There appears to be at least a superficial tension between social justice movements and Buddhist thought, insofar as social justice movements encourage change such that power is made more diffuse, whereas some Buddhist thought seems to encourage acceptance and tolerance, even of what might in some cases rightly be called injustice. However, I here forbear determination, especially in light of another quotation from the Bodhicaryāvatāra of Śāntideva: “May I be a protector of the unprotected…” (Strong p. 166) It could be the case that these concerns are dealt with in Buddhist texts and/or contemporary dialogue.

Compassion takes on yet another form under Mahāyāna as seen under Strong’s section on the pāramitās. Strong quotes Ārya Śūra’s Pāramitāsamāsa: “However, when the process of falsely discriminating things as being the same, better, or worse ceases completely, that is what those who walk the path of nondualism call the unsurpassed forbearance whose range is inconceivable.” (Strong p. 168) It can be easy to judge people, but I would assert that it takes some willful compassion to hold out judgment.

What seems clearly central to much of the reading assigned for this week is how compassion seems to have played an important role in forming Mahāyāna. Indeed, while it is early yet to say so for certain, I would not be surprised if it were argued that compassion underlies the majority of the distinction between Mahāyāna and Buddhism’s earlier conceptions.