In traveling the spiritual path these past ten years I’ve noticed that my favorite teachers consistently place compassion at the top of the pyramid of human behaviors. Everything they teach seems to culminate with showing compassion for others.
Who are these teachers?
The Dalai Lama
Probably the most influential spiritual leader in the world for the past fifty years, the Dalai Lama places compassion at the center of his teachings. He has famously said:
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
“The topic of compassion is not at all religious business; it is important to know it is human business, it is a question of human survival.”
How does he describe compassion? He says it is “love, affection, kindness, gentleness, generosity of spirit and warm-heartedness.”
People with these traits don’t go into a personal encounter seeking something for themselves. They go in with the intention of serving that person in some way, especially if that person is suffering.
Thich Nhat Hanh
The other Buddhist teacher who has made a lasting spiritual mark since the 1960s is Thich Nhat Hanh. Here again, in the many interviews and talks I’ve heard him give, Thich Nhat Hanh consistently mentions the importance of compassion over everything else. Here are my two favorites:
“I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
“Look at flowers, butterflies, trees, and children with the eyes of compassion. Compassion will change your life and make it wonderful.”
While Eckhart doesn’t often use the word compassion, his central teachings are synonymous with it. He teaches that we are not our thoughts but the consciousness that can only be present in the absence of thinking. He states that only when we are conscious like this can we be there for and with another human. In other words, the purpose of presence is to exhibit compassion toward others.
Mickey also doesn’t use the word compassion, but he too teaches concepts that describe the same thing. He teaches that we all have a beautiful, loving energy inside us that is blocked by the emotional scars (samskaras) we’ve trapped inside ourselves. Remove those scars and the energy will flow. He describes that energy as pure love for others, i.e., compassion.
While I’m not a practicing Christian, I do subscribe to the basic thrust of Christ’s teachings: Be good to others, especially the less fortunate. I don’t think you need to be the Pope, a minister or a theologian to conclude that compassion for others towers over Christ’s other teachings.
Fine, so the central teaching of these master spiritual beings was for we humans to show compassion toward one another. What can we derive from that?
That the endpoint of the spiritual path is not our own self-realization or some blissful state of nirvana. The endpoint is what we do with that self-realized bliss, namely showing compassion for others.
Personally, the very best I feel in life isn’t when I’ve won some athletic contest or achieved professional advancement. Those satisfy my ego but, by definition, there is no authentically good feeling that comes from doing that.
The best I ever feel has always come from showing compassion to another person. Could be a stranger you help carry their groceries. Or talking a friend down from the ledge. Or calming my three year old daughter when she’s having a meltdown.
Those things actually make me feel good. And I don’t think I’m alone. I think it’s universal that people feel their best when they’ve shown compassion to another.
Why is this so? Is it some Darwinian, evolutionary dynamic where we have some inner, genetic impulse to help each other because that will perpetuate the human species?
I don’t know. And I don’t think it matters.
What does matter? In this time of Covid-19, political insanity and racial unrest, I think it would behoove all of us to remember the aforementioned great masters who teach us that compassion is the answer.