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"compassion and the Individual" Within Buddhism and Christianity

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Compassion is perhaps the most valuable and important ethical principle. The dictionary defines compassion as "deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it." Living compassionately means putting the needs and concerns of others ahead of yours. Both Buddhism and Christianity emphasize compassion; this paper will attempt to determine the context in which each ethical system places compassion, and how each system believes the compassionate individual should behave.


Buddhism places the utmost value upon compassion. Buddhism teaches the purpose of each individual's life is to experience happiness. All happiness and suffering is either mental or physical; the mental is the most important kind, for it affects us the most. If we are able to develop compassionate behaviour, we will experience more inner peace and happiness, both mentally and physically. The Dalai Lama says that

Ultimately, the reason why love and compassion bring the greatest happiness is simply that our nature cherishes them above all else. The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence. (par. 8)

The Dalai Lama presents compassion in a bit of a paradox: it is in the giving of compassion that we actually receive the most inner peace and happiness. By tending to the needs of others and being concerned for their wellbeing, we achieve a sense of tranquility not afforded by any other means.

The Dalai Lama teaches it is possible, indeed imperative, to develop this encompassing attitude of compassion; however, he posits that it can be difficult. "True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason." (par. 31) Despite how the people act, whether they are negative, polite, angry, or spiteful, it is important to act compassionately all the time. The Dalai Lama realizes that this is a difficult place to come to.

Let me emphasize that it is within our power, given patience and time, to develop this kind of compassion. Of course, our self-centeredness, our distinctive attachment to the feeling of an independent, self-existent "I" works fundamentally to inhibit our compassion. Indeed, true compassion can be experienced only when this type of self-grasping is eliminated. But this does not mean that we cannot start and make progress now. (par. 34)

Where does this leave the individual? In this ethical system, the individual disappears. The individual is no longer focusing on self and personal concerns; he has replaced independence with interdependence; that is, the individual is no longer an "island unto himself," but a compassionate link in the circle of life. Paradoxically, in sacrificing individuality for the compassion of others, the individual has truly found himself.


Jesus has much to say about compassion. Christ lived His life according to incredibly compassionate ethics, teaching all His followers to do the same. He made the ultimate sacrifice, giving up His life in a true example of compassion. Consider the following ethical statements from Jesus regarding compassion:

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." (Matthew 5:7)

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." (5:9)

"You have heard that it was said, Ð''Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven." (5:43-45)

Truly this must have been considered shockingly new to many of His listeners, as Old Testament Law sets for much more strict rules which show little compassion. Jesus was calling for a new ethic of compassion, a break from the old Judaic way of behaviour. No longer would there be "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." Jesus set forth ethical statements of self-sacrifice and compassion for those who act reprehensibly, to be compassionate to all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Nowhere is this new ethic of compassion seen more clearly that in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded



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