kṛṣṇera saṁsāra koro chāḍi anācāra
jīve dayā kṛṣṇa-nāma-- sarva-dharma-sāra
Compassion is a value that is universally admired as essential to the spiritually evolved human being. Indeed, I doubt that any religion on earth does not in some way make it a center point of its concept of spiritual advancement.
In particular, Mahayana Buddhism has a very developed concept of compassion. I am not an expert on Buddhism, just taking a couple of undergrad courses back in the day, but more and more people -- including a lot of disaffected devotees -- seem to be taking shelter of Buddhism, and one of the points to which they seem to be attracted is the Buddhist idea of universal compassion (bodhi-citta).
Looking at several Buddhist websites (forgive my lack of due diligence), it seems that the consensus definition of compassion there is "a mind that is motivated by cherishing other living beings and wishes to release them from their suffering." On a good site comprehensively summarizing issues related to Buddhism and compassion with numerous quotes from various modern authorities, we find the following:
One can distinguish the three different scopes of motivation to engage in Buddhist practices:There are many good instructions for developing compassion on that site, and I believe that anyone from any serious religious tradition will find them helpful and entirely acceptable.
- With the lowest scope of motivation, one realises the problems one can encounter in the next life, and one is concerned about working to achieve a good rebirth. In fact, this is not even a spiritual goal, as it relates to worldly happiness for oneself alone.
- With the medium scope of motivation, one realises that within cyclic existence there is no real happiness to be found, and one strives for personal liberation or Nirvana.
- With the highest scope of motivation, one realises that all sentient beings are suffering within cyclic existence, and one strives to free all beings from suffering.
Another useful and perhaps higher understanding is the following:
Our compassion is our Buddha seed or Buddha nature, our potential to become a Buddha. It is because all living beings possess this seed that they will all eventually become Buddhas.It is no accident that the attitude of the mother is a frequent point of reference. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes:
If we genuinely want to realize our potential by attaining full enlightenment we need to increase the scope of our compassion until it embraces all living beings without exception, just as a loving mother feels compassion for all her children irrespective of whether they are behaving well or badly. This universal compassion is the heart of Mahayana Buddhism. Unlike our present, limited compassion, which already arises naturally from time to time, universal compassion must first be cultivated through training over a long period of time.This is of course a very limited selection of quotes about Buddhist compassion, and I will not extend this article to any greater excess by analyzing Christian concepts of compassion. The Golden Rule, the Good Samaritan, the fishes and the loaves, the curing of the blind and leprous, etc., as well as a long tradition within Christianity testifies to the ideas of universal compassion and love. Indeed, as an example, the Dalai Lama himself thought of Mother Theresa [and Jesus] as a Bodhisattva (Dalai Lama (2002). An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life. Back Bay Books. p. 23.)
Though it may be argued that Hinduism or Brahminical culture with its emphasis on personal spiritual culture and mental purity has occasionally lost its way in keeping compassion for others central to its ethos, who can deny that the terms related to compassion, either as an attribute of God, the avataras or of the saints, the guru and the religious texts themselves, are ubiquitous? Whether or not it was characteristic of the times and the influence of Christianity criticism and example in the 19th century, there was a recrudescence of the emphasis of the practice of charity and compassion [along with the work ethic] that is best exemplified by Vivekananda. This emphasis also found its counterpart in the Vaishnava world, who took sharing the wisdom of bhakti to the masses as the highest welfare work and the greatest compassion.
Srila Prabhupada was inspired by the example and teachings of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, but can anyone deny that they had resources in their own textual and practical tradition? One of Srila Prabhupada's favorite verses came from the Seventh Canto, spoken by Prahlad to Nrisingha:
prāyeṇa deva munayaḥ sva-vimukti-kāmā
maunaṁ caranti vijane na parārtha-niṣṭhāḥ |
naitān vihāya kṛpaṇān vimumukṣa eko
nānyaṁ tvad asya śaraṇaṁ bhramato'nupaśye ||
The sages who dedicate themselves to self realization nearly always seek their own liberation and so stay clear of worldly company and practice silence. They have no determination to help others. But I will not abandon these miserly materialistic people who wander through the material world, birth after birth, just to find salvation for myself alone, for I see no other shelter for them than you. (7.9.44)And Prabhupada repeated this verse to his disciples often, in order to prevent them from falling into what he saw as the error of nirjana-bhajana. Certainly this recalls the bodhi-sattva ethos. One may say that the Vaishnavas had appropriated it from Buddhism or from Christianity, but what does it matter where an idea comes from once it has been made one's own?
Nevertheless, Prahlada's verse does highlight a problem I mentioned towards the end of another article I posted recently, and we will return to that in a next installment, of which I expect there to be several.