7. Wisdom And Compassion

QUESTION: I often hear Buddhists talk about wisdom and compassion. What do these two terms mean?

ANSWER: Some religions believe that compassion or love (the two are very similar) is the most important spiritual quality but they fail to give any attention to wisdom. The result is that you can end up being a good-hearted fool, a very kind person but with little or no understanding. Other systems of thought, like science, believe that wisdom can best be developed when all emotions, including compassion, are kept out of the way. The outcome of this is that science has tended to become preoccupied with results and has forgotten that science is to serve humans, not to control and dominate them. How, otherwise, could scientists have lent their skills to develop the nuclear bomb, germ warfare and the like? Buddhism teaches that to be a truly balanced and complete individual, you must develop both wisdom and compassion.

QUESTION: So what, according to Buddhism, is wisdom?

ANSWER: The highest wisdom is seeing that in reality all phenomena are incomplete, impermanent, and not self. This understanding is totally freeing and leads to the great security and happiness which is called Nirvana. However, the Buddha did not speak too much about this level of wisdom. It is not wisdom if we simply believe what we are told. True wisdom is to directly see and understand for ourselves. At this level then, wisdom is to keep an open mind rather than being closed-minded; listening to other points of view rather than being bigoted; to carefully examine facts that contradict our beliefs, rather than burying our heads in the sand; to be objective rather than prejudiced; and to take time about forming opinions and beliefs rather than just accepting the first or most emotional thing that is offered to us. To always be ready to change our beliefs when facts that contradict them are presented to us, that is wisdom. A person who does this is certainly wise and is certain eventually to arrive at true understanding. The path of just believing what you are told is easy. The Buddhist path requires courage, patience, flexibility and intelligence.

QUESTION: I think few people could do this. So what is the point of Buddhism if only a few can practice it?

ANSWER: It is true that not everyone is ready for the truths of Buddhism yet. But if someone were not able to understand the teachings of the Buddha at present then they may be mature enough in the next life. However, there are many who, with just the right words or encouragement, are able to increase their understanding. And it is for this reason that Buddhists gently and quietly strive to share the insights of Buddhism with others. The Buddha taught us out of compassion and we should teach others out of compassion too.

QUESTION: Is there any role for faith in Buddhism?

ANSWER: According to some religions a person is saved by faith. That is, they accept the truth of certain theological ideas, this pleases the supreme being, it creates a relationship with this being and he responds by saving the person. In Buddhism faith (saddha) is understood differently.

Let’s say I’m ill, I mention this to a friend and he recommends me to his doctor. I don’t know whether this doctor is any good but I trust (or if you like, have faith and confidence) in my friend’s judgment. I make an appointment, go to the doctor’s clinic and while in the waiting room examine the certificates on the wall. I see that this doctor did her medical degree in the local university and then went on to higher studies in London. It is possible that these certificates are fake but I take it on trust that they are genuine. I have confidence that the Ministry of Health and the Medical Association make sure that only properly qualified doctors practice. Finally I get to see the doctor. I find her knowledgeable, pleasant and caring and the medicine she prescribes soon gets me back to normal. Previously I had no idea whether this doctor was any good, now my experience gives me confidence in her. Consequently, I consult her the next two times I’m ill and I find her to be just as good. Now I no longer have faith that she is a good doctor, I know she is. But I would never have arrived at this knowledge had I not first had at least some faith; faith in my friends advice, in the genuineness of the certificates and in the regulations of the medical authorities.

This is how Buddhism sees faith, as an openness to a possibility, as a willingness to give something a try. Some faith in the Buddha’s teachings will encourage you to practice them and persist until results come. In time you won’t need faith, it will be replaced by knowledge.

QUESTION: What, according to Buddhism, is compassion?

ANSWER: Just as wisdom covers the intellectual or comprehending side of our nature, compassion covers the emotional or feeling side. Like wisdom, compassion is a uniquely human quality. Compassion is made up of two Latin words, com meaning ‘together’ and passio meaning ‘suffering.’ And this is what compassion is. When we see someone in distress and we feel their pain as if it were our own, and strive to eliminate or lessen their pain, then that is compassion. All the best in human beings, all the Buddha-like qualities like sharing, readiness to give comfort, sympathy, concern and caring – all these things are manifestations of compassion. You will notice also that in the compassionate person, care and love towards others has its origins in care and love for them self. We can best understand others when we really understand ourselves. We will know what’s best for others when we know what’s best for ourselves. We can feel for others when we feel for ourselves. So in Buddhism, one’s spiritual development blossoms quite naturally into concern for the welfare of others. The Buddha’s life illustrates this principle very well. He spent six years struggling for his own welfare after which he was able to be of benefit to the whole of humankind.

QUESTION: So you are saying that we are best able to help others after we have helped ourselves. Isn’t that a bit selfish?

ANSWER: We usually see altruism, concern for others before oneself, as being the opposite of selfishness, concern for oneself before others. Buddhism does not see it as either one or the other but rather as a blending of the two. Genuine self-concern will gradually mature into concern for others as one sees that others are really the same as oneself. This is genuine compassion. Compassion is the most beautiful jewel in the crown of the Buddha’s teachings.

QUESTION: You said before that compassion and love are similar. How do they differ?

ANSWER: Perhaps it might be better to say that they are related. In English the word ‘love’ can be used to describe a wide variety of feelings. We can love our spouse, our parents, our children, our best friend and our neighbor. Clearly, all these types of feelings have certain differences but they have enough elements in common that allows us to use one word, ‘love,’ for all of them. What are these common elements? When we love someone we seek closeness with them, we find them interesting, we are concerned for their welfare, habits or traits they might have that others find irritating don’t bother us, we do not have to make a conscious effort to be considerate towards them, it comes naturally to us. Love is a word for connectedness, kindness, concern and consideration towards another. Usually we feel like this towards those directly related to us. The Buddha said we should try to feel like this towards everyone. He said:

‘Just as a mother would protect her one and only child even at the risk of her own life, even so, one should cultivate immeasurable love towards all beings in the world.’ Sn.149

In Buddhism this ‘immeasurable love’ is called metta.

When we encounter someone suffering or distressed, the concern element of love becomes dominant and manifests itself as compassion. Thus compassion is the loving mind’s way of relating to those who are suffering.

QUESTION: I think that when you are kind and gentle people will walk all over you.

ANSWER: That is quite possible. But this can happen even if you are selfish and aggressive, because there will always be people who are even nastier than you are. There are no guarantees. However, while it is true that some people may take advantage of your goodness, most people will appreciate you and treat you with respect. You will always have more friends and helpers than exploiters. Also, why should you allow yourself to become like the very people you do not like?

An ancient Buddhist text gives this advice;

‘As a mongoose approaches a snake to seize it only after having supplied his own body with a medicine, so to, the meditator, the earnest student of meditation, on approaching the world abounding as it is with anger and malice, plagued with quarrels, strife and contention and hatred, must anoint his mind with the medicine of love.’ Milindapanha 394