Compassion & 8-Fold Path

“Compassion Within The Eightfold Path” by Bhikkhuni Sudhamma

Originally published in Preserving the Dhamma – Writings in Honor of the Eightieth Birthday of Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, published by Bhavana Society Forest Monastery, 2007, p. 165-171.

Compassion is often described as a melting of the heart at the thought of the suffering of another being, with the wish to alleviate that suffering. Although compassion does not encompass the entire path of spiritual development taught by the Buddha, it plays a significant role.

The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is a set of eight directives for how to achieve freedom from suffering, or at least enjoy a happier life. His path combines a wise perspective (pañña) with skillful outer conduct (siila) and training in mental composure (samādhi). The second and the sixth steps imply cultivation of compassion.

The path starts with Right or Skillful Understanding. This is the basic understanding of how the whole big picture of life fits together through cause-and-effect. On a refined level, it means understanding the root of all our mental pain as being any kind of desire or grasping, and that the end of all suffering depends upon the cessation of all desire. (Desire as the root of suffering is a key part of the Four Noble Truths.) More fundamentally, it means understanding that “what comes around goes around, ” or, “what goes up must come down.” In other words, Right Understanding requires a basic grasp of kamma (karma). Whatever you do will come back to you one way or another, sooner or later. 1

Compassion Within Step Two

Knowing even a basic idea of kamma, one becomes well-motivated to embrace Step Two: a skilful or right intention. Do you want others receiving you with a generous, open heart, loving-kindness and compassion? Or, is stingy indifference, aversion, and cruelty just fine, coming at you from every direction, now and also later? What comes around goes around.

The Buddha described three aspects to right intention:

1. Intention of renunciation, in the sense of letting go of any objects of desire. It implies open open-hearted, generous letting-go of all grasping; hence it directly counteracts the root of suffering.

2. Intention of non-ill will.  Ill will is a deepening of suffering caused by desire so intensified as to have become twisted into the seemingly opposite quality of aversion; non-ill will implies loving-kindness.

3. Intention of non-cruelty. Cruelty lies at the furthest, worst end of twisted desire, being the most ugly and brutal manifestation of ill-will. The word cruelty brings up images of the worst and most famous examples human brutality, as in cases of outrageous cruelty during war. Yet cruelty has relatively subtle manifestations, too. Is the word “idiot” not a cruel thing to say to someone? Even mere thoughts can have a tone of cruelty. Non-cruelty implies compassion.

Hence compassionate intention is a significant part of the natural, intelligent response to understanding that “what comes around goes around.” Compassion brings immediate reward, too, as the open-hearted sense of connection feels quite pleasant, soothing the mind and relaxing the body.

No one ever said that the law of “what comes around goes around” applies only to actions towards certain people. When deliberately cultivated to full strength, compassion has the potential to become boundless, extending far beyond one’s usual limited ability to recognize commonality and to empathize. Before cultivating compassion, people begin at varying degrees of separation. The most miserable, shut-down, walled-off people recognize only their own selfish interests. With improvement such people may begin to care also about their own immediate family or clan. With a wider perspective, they find empathy for people of their town or region, yet may still resist those outside of these boundaries; for example, “I like Southerners, but Yankees should go home.” Some people habitually cut off empathy for an entire gender, race, or ethnicity. Some people may watch the news carefully for any word about English-speaking people or Christian people, with ready sympathy for such select groups, but shrug off what happens to the others, feeling only begrudging concern for them.

Some people have their heart as wide as the world for all people, unhindered by the usual excuses for separation – yet remain uncaring, even cruel towards non-human beings. They may help raise money for hunger-relief overseas, yet put out traps or poison to kill the hungry raccoons that enter their backyard in search of food. Many have no regard for animals since they supposedly have no so-called “soul”. Even among those who care about domesticated creatures, few show any concern for small, wild creatures. Far fewer care whatsoever for insects. Yet an expert told me that insects’ bodies are miniaturized, like computer chips, containing everything necessary for sentience, simply smaller in size. Universal compassion wisely does not hesitate to feel a sense of commonality and wish to relieve suffering of all sentient beings – motivating one to move as quickly to pull a drowning fly out of water as one would move to rescue a kitten or child.

If someone suffers obstructive habits such as blame, shame, resentment, despair or aggression, compassionate intention allows spiritual development to take root. For example, if you begin to shut down or become rigidly controlling, you can step back and find compassion for the hurting being — oneself — who suffers so much that he or she needs to think and act this way. Relief is immediate. If you suddenly feel foolish or perceive yourself as a failure, again you may turn to compassion to prevent or overcome the taunting, shaming messages of your own mind (such as, “You always  …!” “You should not have …!” “Stupid!”)  By stopping the internal cruelty, you prevent it from going outwards to others.

Compassion not only cuts off cruel tendencies, it leaves a sense of balance and gentle uplift. It brings an overflowing kindness for others that feels almost like water welling up in the heart and flowing outward to those who need sympathy. Once someone begins to practice compassion, many others will come to rely on his or her kindness, calling him or her words such as “sweet” and “nice,” and never guessing how foreign such kindness was to him or her before beginning this practice.

The Eightfold Path does not end with the skillful and beautiful intentions of Step Two, but continues with the rest of the eight directives. Compassion has a role in another of these. To explain requires a brief explanation of the rest of the steps. They are, in full: (1) Right Understanding, (2) Right Intention, (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Action, (5) Right Livelihood, (6) Right Effort, (7) Right Mindfulness, and (8) Right Concentration.

Given the understanding that what comes around goes around, along with skillful intentions — the open-hearted gesture of letting go, loving-kindness and compassion – you become well-motivated to modify your speech and behavior to be more beautiful, harmonious and kind. Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood cover the modification and purification of  speech and behavior. Right Livelihood is essentially the reminder that kamma still applies to one’s behavior even on the job, and to the way one earns one’s living. Thus the Buddha covered most of our possible actions of speech and body.

Yet, there are not just these two, but three kinds of actions that anyone can do; the third is  actions of the mind. All three — actions of the body, speech and mind — can be modified, uplifted, and made more perfectly skillful. The remaining steps of right effort, mindfulness and concentration, get down to the business of directly training the mind. With these last three steps you begin to modify your mental actions.

Compassion Within Step Six

Right Effort has to do with choosing wholesome mental states over unwholesome mental states every waking moment. It is the skillful effort to let the mind become beautiful. Right Mindfulness essentially encourages us to remain mindful of all actions of body and mind, as in “be here now,” and noting deeper reality as it continually manifests. The last step of Right Concentration has to do with sitting in meditation, enjoying the uplifted, beautiful states that lead into deeper and deeper concentration. This makes the mind extremely focused and powerful. With these deeper levels of concentration, the mind can become like a microscope, and, if wedded to right mindfulness, it gets to where one sees the present moment completely clearly, bringing no more doubt about reality.

Returning to Right Effort, the Buddha described it as a sequence of efforts, of preventing and overcoming unwholesome states of mind, and developing and making a continuing habit of wholesome states of mind. Compassion plays a role in this step, so we need to take a closer look.

First, let us separate wholesome from unwholesome states of mind. Anger, obviously, is unwholesome. Grasping, impatience, resentment, rage, fear, laziness, stinginess and pride, among others, belong on the same list. Opposite qualities such as loving-kindness, compassion, letting-go, energy, generosity, gratitude, caring, humbleness, honesty, faith and patience, among others, belong on the wholesome list. Even children can easily sort out most wholesome states from the unwholesome ones.

The Buddha offered an underlying logic to these two divisions: unwholesome states arise out of deeper roots of greed, aversion, and delusion; wholesome states arise out of deeper roots of non-greed, non-aversion, and clarity.

If any unwholesome state enters your heart, all other unwholesome states remain near at hand. Jealousy, for example, can easily lead to anger and other unwholesome states, can it not? Anger can lead to resentment, ingratitude, hard-heartedness, or any other miserable quality on the sorrowful, regrettable, unwholesome list. Imagine that in a village lives a group of mean brothers in a one-room house; on entering the mean home to talk to one brother, the other brothers hang around nearby, listening, and may enter the conversation. The most minor unwholesome state, such as a mild irritability or self-pity, may quickly flare into worse states that bring harmful speech and evil actions. On the other hand, allowing into your heart any one of the wholesome states, such as serenity, easily leads to other lovely states, such as gladness, generosity, or compassion; all good qualities remain near at hand, also like a clan of brothers.

A funny thing about the wholesome states and unwholesome states: you cannot have both qualities at the same time. The mind has one experience after another, and, for ordinary beings, mental experience must have either a wholesome flavor or an unwholesome flavor. The mind visits either the wholesome camp or the unwholesome camp at any given instant (although it goes back and forth so rapidly that you cannot easily say which quality predominates). Hence a moment of a wholesome state such as compassion guards against an unwholesome state during that moment.

Compassion, like other wholesome states, brings you close to all the other delightful states of mind that let you feel like life is worth living, even a joy to live. When one’s heart softens and melts, feeling open to whatever comes towards oneself or others, pliant and strong, accepting and kind, the unwholesome state hides away (at least temporarily). The heart becomes full and overflowing.

Heaven On Earth

Many wholesome mental states exist, yet the Buddha repeatedly recommended four as particularly powerful for raising up the mind: loving-friendliness (mettā), compassion (karu.nā), altruistic joy (muditā), and equanimity (upekkhā). He called them “Brahmavihāra.” Brahma means a high god and vihāra means a dwelling place. In this sense Brahmavihāra means “heavenly dwelling.” In other words, with your heart steeped in loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy or equanimity, you experience a kind of heaven-on-earth.

Loving-friendliness and compassion often receive mention almost interchangeably, but they do differ. With loving-friendliness one emanates well-wishing for other beings. A typical phrase of loving-friendliness is, “May they be well, happy and peaceful.” Loving-friendliness has a lighter, brighter, more cheerful and uplifted quality than the sober compassion, that full-hearted response to the depth of pain and loss in the world.

Altruistic joy means the opposite of jealousy: gladness, a sense of uplift at the thought of good things happening for other people.

Equanimity refers to a vibrant, balanced state of mind unshaken by life’s vicissitudes. One who strongly cultivates equanimity does not become depressed or elated, no matter how rough or comfortable one’s conditions. He or she simply continues on mindfully. (It is said that enlightened ones “walk evenly over the uneven.” (SN Ch 1 No. 8 [S i 4]). At its greatest strength, equanimity, supported by other factors of wisdom,1 opens into full enlightenment. Yet even a little bit of equanimous attitude goes a long way towards helping us let go of unwholesome states and habitual patterns of thinking that threaten to destroy our peace of mind.

Many times the Buddha suggested using the Brahmavihāra as the focus of meditation. He said to start by well-wishing feelings of loving-friendliness into every direction. (He offered various methods for filling every direction.)2 Next, do the same with compassion, then altruistic joy, then equanimity.

These four go together well not only in sitting meditation; they also support each other in one’s ongoing, daily mental development. Any one Brahmavihāra by itself, in anyone not yet enlightened, has certain pitfalls, but when cultivated together, each of the four guards the others from their specific possible downsides.3

A Brahmavihāra offers a quick remedy against its opposite quality, called its “far enemy.” Yet for each Brahmavihāra there is another unwholesome counterpart, called the “near enemy.” This is not a clear opposite, but rather seems so close to the wholesome quality the two can be mistaken for each other. People sometimes fall into this pitfall when attempting to cultivate these wholesome states. Compassion helps to overcome the near enemies of other Brahmavihāras.

The practice of loving-friendliness overcomes its far enemy of anger/aversion. Yet, someone making effort to open the heart with loving-friendliness may carelessly slip into its near enemy, attachment. Attachment, unlike universal loving-kindness, is rooted in underlying greed. It can manifest in several ways. What began as simple well-wishing can turn into excessive involvement in the lives of others, and one may get swept up in their dramas. Becoming overly focused on certain people, one also may practice favoritism, wishing well for some while excluding others from the reach of one’s kindness (particularly people who oppose the more favored peoples’ interests). Such attachments, though easily mistaken for loving-kindness, may serve as a base for heavier unwholesome states of mind, such as resentment, and mislead one into unwholesome speech and actions, bringing deep suffering and perhaps resulting in the worst evil deeds.

Compassion balances against the excessive involvement, favoritism and narrowness of an imperfect loving-kindness, for compassion embraces every being. Let’s say that I feel loving-kindness for my friends but despise the thieves who recently robbed them. Compassion that is very big, broad, and open would remind me, “Thieves suffer too.” They suffer from what they do, they suffer from their confusion, maybe they suffer from past circumstances that turned them in wrong directions, and they will suffer in future lives too. Doing evil hurts. With great compassion, if one sees a victim and the perpetrator both standing nearby, both looking stunned, then one does not prefer the victim over the perpetrator, for they both suffer.

Lust is another way attachment may manifest. A meditator sending someone loving-kindness that slips into attachment may suddenly start to think, “I’ve gotta have this person!” This is a disaster in some circumstances, especially for a celibate. A monk once told an audience that when he was newly ordained, each of his first five monk-teachers fell in love, disrobed, and ran away to be married. He eventually realized that those five monks had practiced loving-kindness as a focused meditation and carelessly directed it intensely towards individuals of the other gender. (This is why many meditation teachers warn against directing lingering thoughts of loving-kindness towards an individual to whom one may become attracted.) Compassion for everyone affected will definitely prevent harmful sexual behavior. On a higher level, compassion, if strong enough, brings such an uplifted regard for all beings that selfish sexual urges naturally fall away.

Altruistic joy overcomes the far enemy of jealousy. The near enemy of altruistic joy is excessive exuberance over someone’s good fortune. Mental agitation arises, based on others’ good fortune, rooted in greed. (An alternative teaching holds that mudita’s near enemy is a pretense of shared shared happiness for the purpose of flattery and manipulation). For example, someone wins the Lottery and her neighbor begins jumping up and down, screaming and crying out, “Oh how wonderful!” Compassion brings down the giddiness with the steady understanding that no matter how good things may get for some people, there remains unimaginable suffering for others. It also brings the sobering reminder that peoples’ present joy may yield to future suffering. One needs to maintain a balance between this present, momentary joy and the bigger picture that includes impermanence and suffering.

An imperfect altruistic joy also tends towards partiality, favoring the happiness of these over the happiness of those. Compassion does not allow that, either.

Equanimity overcomes its far enemy of agitation. What do you suppose the near enemy of equanimity would be? Cold indifference. This is not wholesome detachment. Rather, it is the shutting down of the heart, motivated by aversion. Indifference, when mistakenly cultivated instead of equanimity, may mislead people into thinking they are making spiritual progress as they lose both positive and negative reactivity to the world around them. The unwholesomeness of this shut-down mental state becomes clear when you consider that it is often a factor in suicide. Compassion, however, does not allow indifference for even a heart-beat. Compassion breaks down the barriers, letting life and love and all good states come streaming in. Guarded by compassion, equanimity can be safely developed towards full perfection without getting lost in the near enemy.

Compassion, too, has a near enemy: pity (in the negative sense of the word). The shallow, sentimental dismay of pity covers aversive resistance to another’s suffering. Pity lacks a sense of connection; one cannot connect with others’ painful feelings – or one’s own. “I’m so glad I’m not like those poor people over there. Keep them over there, I’m not really like them.” The heart is closed. One looks down on them, thinking of them as separate, perhaps feeling twinges of sorrow, guilt, or other unwholesome states rooted in aversion. I have seen people express pity for a starving, lost pet, but when the desperate creature comes closer to beg for assistance these people cruelly stomp their feet or threaten the animal with a broom. “Poor thing,” they say with a sigh as the animal scurries away.

The Brahmavihāra of loving-friendliness quickly reveals to oneself the shortcomings of shallow pity. Loving-friendliness does not allow a sense of separation. It soothes and brightens the heart, taking away aversion. If well-developed, loving-kindness does not allow unwholesome pity to even get a foothold.

While we try to perfect compassion, another obstacle may arise. We can notice so much suffering that we become overwhelmed. We may feel melancholy, depressed, despairing, burned out, or even bitter. The uplift of altruistic joy comes to the rescue! Hearing of happy things happening to someone, we gain renewed sense of uplift and hope for all these suffering beings to find relief. Altruistic joy can tempt someone back out of his or her shell, saying, “Come on! There’s a lot of good happening, not just pain. Come out, be alive, rejoin the world!” Thus altruistic joy brings balance. Most particularly uplifting is news of someone turning his or her efforts to spiritual endeavors and making good progress in wisdom.

Equanimity also comes to compassion’s rescue when aversive pity has developed. Equanimity reminds us that no beings receive random bad luck, but all are the owners of their kamma, reaping the pleasurable and painful experiences they have sown these many lifetimes. Furthermore, every being’s internal nightmare in response to painful conditions comes entirely from his or her own mass of ignorance; no matter how hard the circumstances, an enlightened being cannot suffer. The most profound equanimity based upon insight into “non-self” (anattā), which is wisdom into the true nature of all beings, including oneself. This purifies compassion completely from any downsides.

However, do not imagine that the teachings of the Buddha conclude with heavenly states of mind. We do not seek merely uplifted states of being to let ourselves enjoy a happier Samsara and go to heaven. All states of being continue to harbor unsatisfactoriness, if there remains any subtle, underlying clinging. We need to develop wholesome actions of body, speech and mind without sight of the real goal: complete freedom. The Buddha said that the teaching of all buddhas is, “Do no evil, do good, and purify the mind.” (Ovāda Pātimokkha Dh 183.) First, we must escape hellish states! Few people could effectively leap from the midst of painful, confused actions into a process of refined letting-go. Having put evil actions and mental states such as greed, anger and cruelty far behind us, we  thoroughly cultivate wholesome states such as the Brahmavihāras. Once heavenly states of compassion and the rest are achieved and steadied, then the soothed, uplifted mind can settle into the transformative training of letting-go of even desire for those lovely states of being.

  1. For the seven factors of wisdom (bojjhanga or “factors of enlightment”) see MN 118.
  2. For examples: 1) Imagine the universe divided into four quarters and pervade each, in turn, with the well-wishing feelings of loving-kindness, sending it “above, below, around and everywhere, and to all as to myself.” 2) Pour loving-kindness into the ten directions, starting with the northern direction, then northeastern direction and so forth, finishing with the directions above and below. 3) Most simply, in a text on loving-kindness alone, the Buddha said to spread it “upward to the skies, and downward to the depths; outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will.”
  3. For this section I am indebted Ven. Nyanaponika Thera’s “The Four Sublime States,” Wheel Pub. No. 6, by BPS. See this brochure for more analysis of the mutually supportive Brahmavihāra.

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