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The Practice of Compassion

A word that arises in our meditation practice and indeed in all spiritual practice is compassion. In the Buddhist teachings we are told that it is an intrinsic part of our Buddha nature, our authentic selves. As we deepen our meditative practice, compassion comes to us naturally because we can’t help it. At least that is what we hope for!

But what is compassion, and does meditation make us more compassionate? And if so, how? Thomas Aquinas [1225 – 1274] said, “I would rather feel compassion than know the meaning of it”. This is an important understanding since true compassion is felt.

Compassion does not come from an intellectual place; it comes from deep within the heart. It is something that we feel, and trying to rationalise it and tell ourselves we should be compassionate misses the point. However, typically Zen, if we try to do try to rationalise for a moment, perhaps we can comprehend it more clearly. Zen Master Uchiyama says that “Compassion is understanding the connectedness of all things. Each and every encounter is our own life……someone who is unable to find compassion toward others cannot be called a person of zazen who has awakened to the reality of the life of the whole self.”

Compassion is not Pity

So, realisng this connection between all beings is necessary, and from there we can develop true compassion; for if we hurt someone, we are also hurting ourselves. Compassion is very different from pity which can be a beginner meditator’s mistake. Feeling pity for someone can seem like taking the moral high ground, a sense that we look down on another person, a sense that in some way we are better off than them. This is the wrong way to look at another person’s situation; to be genuinely compassionate we need to see that the other person is suffering and we want them to be able to overcome their suffering and be happy. Importantly, we accept that we are struggling with life just like everyone else.

This of course can be difficult to do. We all know of people [often within our own families!] whom we find it hard to feel compassion for. Every day, we encounter stories in the media of people who do awful things – are we supposed to feel compassion for murderers, rapists, thieves and fraudsters? Yes, we are; that is the challenge to our practice. Can we accept that many people do these things out of hatred, greed and ignorance? They too are suffering.

A Compassionate Heart


Another point that Uchiyama makes is that “each and every encounter is our own life”, which is the realisation of non-duality, that we are all connected to everyone and everything. If we accept this, that we are connected to the murderer or the rapist, then refusing to offer compassion to that person is the same as refusing to offer compassion to ourselves. Most people who have had no experience of meditative practice find this idea almost impossible to comprehend – but this is our practice.

Importantly, we need to understand that we are not sympathising with someone who commits a terrible act, we are not saying, “Look I understand you have done something awful, but that’s OK, I’m a Zen practitioner, so I can allow myself to feel sorry for you.” This is not it at all. We neither condone what they have done, nor do we feel sorry for them. What we do offer is compassion; the understanding that this person is suffering, and often acts out of hatred, fear and ignorance, a dark place to be.


So if we can look beyond our initial perceptions, we can develop compassion within ourselves. After all, feelings of anger or even deep hatred towards others are only ever going to cause us harm; it is a poison that far too many people administer to themselves. The Buddha said, “Hatred never cease by hatreds; they cease by non-hatred; this is the primeval law.”

And we do this by practice; by regular sitting and gradually realising that we are all connected, that our true self, our Buddha nature if you like, is one of genuine love and compassion, not just for all humans, but for all living creatures. They too deserve our compassion. The more we practice this, the more it becomes us. In time, we can all become living Bodhisattvas, beings of love, kindness and compassion, who aspire to help others gain enlightenment ahead of our own desires.

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