Research on Buddhist Conceptions of Compassion: An Annotated Bibliography

By Jennifer Goetz | June 1, 2004 | 0 comments

How do Buddhist and Western notions of compassion differ? Read summaries of research comparing the two traditions.

This bibliography is the result of a desire to expand scientific understanding of compassion to include a broader range of influences. The Buddhist readings reviewed here are far from the traditional academic psychology to which I am accustomed. For that reason, the analysis is bound to be oversimplified and flawed. The readings are full-length books that are dense and often appear circular and contradictory in their reasoning. This is not a critique of the writings; it is rather part of the circular nature of Buddhism and its beliefs, as well as the contradictions inherent in life.

In addition, these are not isolated discussions of compassion. The concept is defined in the context of discussions of Buddhism as a whole. In the interest of pointing readers to the useful information, I provide: 1) a summary table to structure my comparison of Western (oft times scientific) and Buddhist conceptions of compassion, and 2) summaries of the readings which point readers to sections that may be particularly useful.

Compassion as Cold
The more one reads Buddhist writings, the more one realizes that Buddhist compassion is similar to lay conceptions of compassion in name only. While lay concepts of compassion are of warm feelings for particular people in need, Buddhist compassion is not particular, warm, or even a feeling. Perhaps the most succinct and clear mention of this is in the discussions of the Dalai Lama and Jean-Claude Carriere (1996, p. 53). A footnote explains in refreshingly plain language that compassion in the Buddhist sense is not based on what we call "feeling". While Buddhist's do not deny the natural feelings that may arise from seeing another in need, this is not the compassion Buddhism values. Instead, Buddhist compassion is the result of knowing one is part of a greater whole and is interdependent and connected to that whole. It is the result of practiced meditations. Indeed, Buddhist compassion should be without heat or passion - it is objective, cold, constant and universal.

Trungpa (1973) argues true compassion has the potential to appear cruel or ruthless. Compassion requires prajna or transcendental wisdom - an ability to see past shallow appearances and see true suffering and need. For this reason, compassion may involve giving someone what they really need, not what they want. In addition compassion is an open gift, it is generosity without demand. One does not expect or require reciprocity or confirmation of compassion. Indeed, true compassion will often not be appreciated and may be received with anger or hatred. The next section discusses the threat of anger to compassion and the methods for dealing with this.

Anger in Opposition to Compassion
The sixth chapter of Shantideva's Guide to the Way of Life on the Perfection of Patience (also called the Perfection of Forbearance) provides an interesting discussion of anger, compassion, and disturbing emotions. Anger is the main obstacle that causes deterioration to compassion and the awakening mind. However, compassion is not an emotion or feeling, so the two are not opposites in Buddhist conceptions as they are in Western and lay conceptions (see Weiner, 1993). Shantideva's discussion provides the causes of anger as: 1) personal suffering, 2) being disrespected, and 3) being spoken to harshly. One can destroy anger by knowing one's enemy and by realizing that he creates only sorrows. Perhaps surprisingly, the worst way to deal with anger is to suppress it. The remedy for anger is patience. By meditating on the causes of anger, one can feel compassion for one's enemy. For example, someone who speaks harshly to me is not in control and cannot be blamed for his actions. His actions are the result of disturbing emotions like anger - emotions over which he has no control.

Love, Attachment, and Compassion
Although often expressed as loving kindness, it is important to note that Buddhism makes a strict distinction of compassion from what it calls grasping love and attachment. Love, when seen as desire, necessarily leads to suffering. In this way, love is seen as a need to attach oneself to others in order to achieve a sense of security and belonging (Trungpa, 1973). Instead, Buddhism encourages love and compassion in the sense of openness and fearlessness. True compassion and love have no territorial bounds - they are freely offered and received.

Encouraging Compassion
The four noble truths discovered by Siddartha are 1) the world is wretched and full of suffering, 2) this suffering is the result of desires, 3) it is possible to stop desires and end suffering, and 4) there is a specific path for doing this. The most important part of Buddhist path is meditation. Meditation encourages and fosters an awakening mind and compassion. Shantideva's writings in the chapter on the Perfection of Meditation (ch 8) lay out some specific exercises towards this end. They are also clearly presented in S. Rinpoche's (1992) writings.

One meditation is on making ourselves equal with others. In this way we recognize that which is the same in all of us: being human, feeling suffering, and we all want to find happiness and avoid suffering. This exercise seems to be playing on what Western social scientists have identified as similarity. If we can identify with others' situations and we feel similar to them, we are more likely to feel sympathy. Likewise this meditation encourages one to see what is similar in everyone.

A similar but distinct meditation involves exchanging oneself with others. Again, in social psychological terms this can be thought of as perspective taking. When someone is suffering and we do not know how to help, we should put ourselves in his or her place. This exercise is also a letting-go of the ego and the self. By systematically exchanging oneself with inferior and superior others, one can see life from their perspective and lose pity and jealousy.

Although this bibliography lacks a depth and context of understanding for the broader concepts of Buddhism, it attempts to identify and structure fundamental differences between western and Buddhist conceptions of compassion. I have done this by comparing the western conception of compassion as a warm feeling for a particular individual to Buddhist compassion which may be more like a cognition or knowledge of universal suffering.

It is interesting to note that the Buddhist writings suggest some universality for the emotion of compassion. They take care to mention the difference between the passionless compassion cultivated in meditation to the hot spontaneous occurrence of compassion. This implies that the naturally occurring emotional components of compassion may have universal qualities.

Conceptions of Compassion
Western Compassion & Sympathy Buddhist Compassion
Spontaneous emotion, feeling Result of long meditations - immovable
Hot, subjective Cold, passionless, objective
Directed towards an individual Directed towards all sentient beings
Arises from feeling concern for another individual's suffering Arises from knowledge of common suffering
Appraisal - other not responsible for suffering (agency) Always see others as not in control - they are ruled by desires & emotions
Opposite of Anger In opposition to anger
Compassion is the expression of caring concern. Anyone can feel it. True compassion requires knowledge & wisdom (prajna), otherwise it is harmful.
Compassion as kind Compassion as cruel
Differentiation from Love & Attachment
Compassion can be felt for strangers Love as grasping
More likely for those we love? No Expectations - no reciprocity
Encouraging Compassion
Socialization The Four Noble Truths
Similarity Make ourselves equal with others
Perspective-Taking "Exchanging oneself for the other"


Dalai Lama & Carriere, Jean-Claude (1996). Violence and compassion. New York: Doubleday.

This book is the result of a series of discussions between Jean-Claude Carriere and the Dalai Lama. These discussions center on applying Buddhist perspectives to contemporary issues such as population explosion, development in the third world, and violence and war. For those who are not familiar with Buddhism and its teachings, this discussion provides an amazingly understandable discussion. While the book is best read and digested in its entirety, special attention to compassion comes up in the discussion of education and contamination, pp. 27-63.

Rinpoche, Sogyal (1992). The Tibetan book of living and dying. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

This more recent book is written by a learned Tibetan monk who has also spent a great part of his life in the west. This writing is his attempt at bringing these two together in understanding life and death. Death is a profound time for Buddhists also signifying rebirth. This book provides guidance for gaining peace and compassion in life to facilitate rebirth in a higher realm. Of particular interest is the twelfth chapter, Compassion: the wish-fulfilling jewel. In this chapter, the author gives a clear and concise explanation of compassion, of how to encourage it in yourself, and the practice of Tonglen. Tonglen is the practice of giving and receiving: giving away one's happiness and love and receiving another's suffering and unhappiness.

Rinpoche, Thrangu (2002). A guide to the Bodhisattva's way of life of Shantideva: A commentary. Delhi, India: Sri Satguru Publications.

This book is an interpretation of one of the foremost texts of the Mahayana tradition: the teachings of Shantideva on the Bodhisattva's Way of Life (Bodhisattvacaryavatara). In the Mahayana tradition, a Bodhisattva is the Buddhist practitioner who has such incredible compassion for sentient beings that he has decided to forego nirvana and help the rest of sentient beings reach enlightenment before himself. This text is one of the most respected commentaries on how to engage in the Mahayana path. The central theme of the text is the arousal and maintenance of the awakening mind. The text is divided up into chapters. The first three define the awakening mind and discuss how it can be aroused, the next three discuss how the awakening mind can be maintained and protected from deterioration. The final three discuss how to develop and increase the awakening mind. Of special interest to compassion are the chapters on the Perfection of Patience (Ch 6) and the Perfection of Meditation (Ch 8).

Trungpa, Chogyam (1973). Cutting through spiritual materialism. Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc.

This book is the result of a series of talks given in Boulder, Colorado in 1970 and 1971 by Chogyam Trungpa at the Karma Dzong meditation center in Boulder. The talks were meant to clear up confusion about the Buddhism path and help those not familiar with it to understand. It covers most of the classic Buddhist topics, but perhaps in a way that is more accessible to westerners. It is often humorous and playful. There is a particular chapter on Prajna and Compassion, which lays out the nature of compassion, and how it relies on the intelligence of prajna. Even when one has good intentions, without prajna compassion can be harmful. This chapter lays particular emphasis on the ruthless nature of true compassion and the distinction of compassion from love.

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