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Compassion is Not an Emotion?

January 18, 2012

I ran across an interesting thought today.  We watched a documentary by James Zito called Compassion and Wisdom: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (2004).  It featured several different Buddhist teachers from the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions speaking about the meaning of the bodhisattva.  About two-thirds of the way through, the documentary advanced an interesting idea, which I paraphrase here.

The experience of emptiness is the catalyst for compassionate activity towards all sentient beings.  Compassion is not an emotion – it is unwavering, indiscriminate, and limitless.  We should not mistake the transitory, contingent emotions of pity, empathy, sympathy, or even love and attachment for true compassion.

I find this thought very interesting and compelling.  After all, how often do we refer to the “feeling” of compassion?  Upon doing some preliminary digging, many Buddhist teachers, from Thanissaro Bhikkhu to Sakyong Mipham, refer to compassion directly as an emotion, although a beneficial one.

Yet it seems right to me to say that compassion is not an emotion, in an ultimate sense.  There is some suggestion that emotions arise from ego, but even ego-less buddhas manifest compassion.  Perhaps we, in our unenlightened state, can only manifest compassion in a limited, temporary way.  As we continue in our practice to cultivate even greater and greater compassion it moves beyond our feeble attempts into a true state of being, something we “have” or “are” rather than “feel.”  I am coming to believe that often we do mistake pity, empathy, and sympathy for compassion.  These emotions are selective, which allows us to feel for those similar to or more unfortunate than ourselves, but compassion excludes no-one, not our enemies or even the wealthy “one-percent.”  Compassion includes the one-hundred percent.

I may do some more digging on this idea is the future.  For now, it’s just an interesting thought.

Protest sign from Occupy Toronto (photo uncredited) via


Protest sign from Occupy Toronoto photo by woodrow walden via


One Comment leave one →
  1. Eric Blaydes permalink
    January 18, 2012 10:37 pm

    The God I believe in doesn’t need a thesaurus.

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