The Sanskrit word for “compassion” is karuna. It comes from the root (Sk) kara, “to do” or “to make.” It does not have the association with weeping and wailing and sadness that the English word compassion has. In its Sanskrit origins, compassion is about doing an action to alleviate suffering.
The Buddha’s teaching lists 4 boundless practices (“the Brahma Viharas”) —love (“metta”), compassion (“karuna”), sympathetic joy (“mudita”), and equanimity (“upekkha”).
Compassion is stronger than the other three.
Let me prove this to you; I can do it with one word:
Imagine that you are walking down a country road and you hear a voice off to your right, and it shouts, “Help!”
What happens to you?
What do you do?
What happens to your physiology?
Adrenalin kicks in, you turn your head, you seek out the source of the voice, the evaluative mental function kicks in: where are they, what went wrong, what do they need, how can I help?
And all this happens fast fast fast. All these questions zoom through the mind.
And. You. Act.
This is important. Action, swift action to alleviate suffering is our work.
The Bodhisattva Vow states: “I aspire to awaken speedily for the sake of all sentient beings.”
The key word is speedily.
And what is the key to “speedily”?
Think about it.
You hear a cry for help: you don’t go into reflection, you don’t “be with” or merely sympathize (the English etymology of “compassion”)—you do something. In this case (as is often the case) the Sanskrit is more helpful than English.
Compassion means To do. To act.
If you hear a cry for help—adrenalin kicks in—why is that?
So that you can meditate?
So that you can sympathize?
No, so that your body, your physical form can do something to lessen another person’s pain or suffering.
Dharma teacher Cecilie Kwiat used to tell us that if you’re an activist you have to be in good shape, physically fit, connected to your body—because compassion is rooted in the body. Compassion means ya gotta be able to do stuff.
My teacher, Namgyal Rinpoche started every class with these 3 words: “Compassion, Awareness, Wisdom.”
Why did he put the word compassion first?
Because compassion is the crowbar of the teaching. It is the strongest Brahma Vihara.
Contrast compassion with the other three boundless states. Imagine you are back on that country road walking and you hear joyous laughter and you feel mudita–“sympathetic joy”, What happens to you? How do you react? what do you do? how do you feel?
Or if you see a friend and feel metta–“friendliness”, What then?
These are beautiful feelings all—but none have that catalytic spring into action of compassion. (Perhaps this is why the ‘news’ focuses so much on ‘bad’ news and suffering, these things have the capacity to move us more, they get our attention, and we seem to be hard-wired this way.)
Compassion is the ‘heavy-lifter’, the bulldozer, it gets things moving.
Compassion is also the key ingredient that makes your human birth so precious.
How many other species respond to a cry for help of one of their own, if it isn’t their direct offspring?
Monkeys? Birds? Elephants? Dolphins?
I dunno. Maybe a few, but it’s not many.
Human beings are the only species that consistently moves to help other non-blood related members of their own kind.
What about helping other species? How many animals will consistently help other species?
None. Human beings are the only species that will move to help suffering members of another species (of many other species!).
That’s why your human birth is so precious. Its betttttter (ooh, i know: it bugs some of us to think this way, but it’s true); it’s better that you were born as a human being and not as a bird. I know some days it might not feel that way, but it is better. You can empathize more, be curious more, and help more.
When someone shouts out “Who knows how to help?”
You can answer “I do” (kara).
The Bodhisattva vow is the true wedding vow, the vow that weds you to all humanity, animality, plantity—totality. Everythingity.
In sickness, health, forever, I do.
Why is it better to be born as a human rather than as a dolphin?
Because humans can help.
Because you can act compassionately—because you are spurred to do—it is built in.
That’s all it takes.
I rest my case.