Compassion is a profound human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering. It is often the key component in what manifests in the social context as altruism. Compassion is considered in all the major religious traditions as among the greatest of virtues.
The noted American monk Bhikkhu Bodhi states that compassion supplies the complement to loving-kindness, whereas loving-kindness has the characteristic of wishing for the happiness and welfare of others, compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings. It arises by entering into the subjectivity of others, by sharing their interiority in a deep and total way. It springs up by considering that all beings, like ourselves, wish to be free from suffering, yet despite their wishes continue to be harassed by pain, fear and sorrow.
It is emphasised that in order to manifest effective compassion for others it is first of all necessary to be able to experience and fully appreciate one’s own suffering and to have, as a consequence, compassion for oneself. The Buddha is reported to have said, “It is possible to travel the whole world in search of one who is more worthy of compassion than oneself. No such person can be found.”
Compassion for all life, human and non-human, is central to the Jain tradition. Though all life is considered sacred, human life is deemed the highest form of earthly existence. To kill any person, no matter their crime, is considered unimaginably abhorrent. It is the only substantial religious tradition that requires both monks and laity to be vegetarian. It is suggested that certain strains of the Hindu tradition became vegetarian due to strong Jain influences.
The Jain tradition’s stance on nonviolence, however, goes far beyond vegetarianism. Jains refuse food obtained with unnecessary cruelty. Many practice a lifestyle similar to veganism in response to factory farming. Jains run animal shelters all over India. Jain monks go to inordinate lengths to avoid killing any living creature, sweeping the ground in front of them in order to avoid killing insects, and even wearing a face mask to avoid inhaling the smallest fly.
The life of Jesus embodies for Christians the very essence of compassion. Christ’s example challenges Christians to forsake their own desires and to act compassionately towards others, particularly those in need or distress. In the parable of The Good Samaritan he holds up to his followers the ideal of compassionate conduct. The heritage within Western Christendom of compassion as the principle of charity has resulted in recent times in the growth of remarkable charitable phenomena such as Oxfam and Live Aid, with global reach and budgets of millions of dollars. True Christian compassion, say the Gospels, should extend to all, even to the extent of loving one’s enemies.
The Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”