The Pathway to Compassion

On and on the rain will fall
like tears from a star,
like tears from a star.
On and on the rain will say
how fragile we are.(1)

Prologue: Before the Beginning

Love, compassion, joy and peace
dwell in us to our increase.

Love, compassion, joy and peace
say to us: release, release.

In the fourfold path to wholeness, we glimpse four mysterious "pointers to the Great Mystery." They are love, compassion, joy, and peace. Four dancers dancing one dance. "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" W. B. Yeats asks.(2) "At the still point, there the dance is . . . and there is only the dance," T. S. Eliot responds."(3) So if we wish to come to life more8 fully in every moment, wisdom suggests we cultivate these four: love and compassion, joy and peace (or equanimity).

Having written already on love, I turn to compassion.(4) Yet I want to hold compassion in the field of the four. At this juncture, I want to remain conscious especially of how the first two, love and compassion, intertwine.

A Doorway to Compassion

We were teaching together, my wife Gregg and I, doing a retreat with young ministers in the North Carolina mountains. Gregg said: "Do you not know you are wounded miracles?"(5) This question, for me, opens the door to what is distinctive about compassion. The fact that we are wounded points to suffering and the release from suffering. The fact that we are miracles provides a larger context. The fact that we are both wounded and miracles bonds us together – with our Source, our deepest self, and with all who companion us on the way.

Two Sides of Life: A Teaching Story

Once upon a time, in a place both far and near, a young prince was born. From the beginning, the marks of greatness were upon him and all realized that he would either become a great ruler or a great sage. The boy’s father wanted his son to follow him as a great ruler, so he devised a plan. "As my son grows," the father thought, "he will desire what young men desire: wine, women, and song." So the father provided his son with such pleasures in full measure: beautiful women, fine food, entertainment fit for a king. One thing alone was forbidden: the son was not allowed to venture outside the vast precincts of the palace.

The prince reached adulthood, married, and had a son. Yet, more and more, the forbidden territory beyond the palace beckoned him. One day a mysterious charioteer appeared and offered to take the prince outside. So it was; out beyond the palace walls they travelled. On the outside, the prince encountered a sick person, an old person, a dead person and, somewhat later, a sage, in monk’s robes.

Now everything changed. The prince confronted two sides of life: Not only health but sickness. Not only youth but age. Not only life but death. How, he asked himself, can I live in awareness of both sides of existence? Perhaps the answer lay along the path of the sage. And so he entered the way of the forest dweller, the way of the ascetic.

In his palace life, the prince experienced the path of self-fulfillment. Eventually, he found it wanting, for it failed to address human suffering. In his life as an ascetic, the prince followed the way of self-denial. Eventually, he found this unsatisfactory as well. He noticed that repressing aspects of life only brought them forth more vividly. At this juncture, the prince vowed to meditate with fierce determination until he could find a middle way between the way of self-fulfillment and the way of self-denial. Coming to a world-shattering realization, the prince -- Gotama Siddhartha by name -- woke up. Since then, he has been called the Buddha, which simply means "the one who woke up."(6)

"I teach two things:" the Buddha said, "there is suffering and there is release from suffering." The second of the four paths to wholeness aids us to face suffering, to understand it, to transform what we can, to bear what we must. We call this second way of dwelling "compassion."(7) Compassion begins with empathy -- the ability to stand with others and see through their eyes the contours of their world. In a fuller sense, compassion shows us how to be in a world that brings us both suffering and also moments beyond suffering, moments of happiness and joy. Let us return to what the future Buddha encountered:

  • a sick person,
  • an old person, and
  • a dead person.

That person is me. I am a person who can and does get sick. I am a person who can age and does age. I am a person who can die and will die. I am a being that can be hurt at many levels. I can suffer sickness of the body, of the mind, of the spirit. I will age and with age find myself struggling with such issues as loneliness, helplessness, and despair. And I will die. So will all of my fellow creatures.

In the Buddha’s time, a young mother watched as her baby son became ill and died. Devastated with grief, she went to the Buddha with her baby’s lifeless body in her arms. She pleaded with him to revive her son. The Buddha said he would revive her son if she could bring him a mustard seed from a house untouched by death.

In going from house to house, she learned how pervasive is death. She also learned a second lesson: how curiously comforting it is to have our grief acknowledged and shared by others.

Compassion aids us to reduce the suffering we can and to bear the suffering we must.

The Roots of Suffering

Following the Buddha as our guide to compassion, we can go further. For the Buddha traced suffering back to its roots and shared these insights with us in what has come to be called the Four Noble Truths:

1. There is suffering
I distinguish two types of suffering: (a) "necessary suffering" and (b) "unnecessary suffering." Necessary suffering comes with the human condition and is unavoidable. We are vulnerable; we age; we die. Unnecessary suffering (or surplus suffering) is suffering that is caused by humans and can be reduced by humans. Think of wars and exploitation and all the injustices we inflict on one another and the natural world.(8)

2. Suffering has its causes (called the three poisons).
Generically, they are:
(a) greed, (b) hatred, and (c) ignorance,
(a) attachment, (b) aversion, and (c) confusion,
(a) clinging (b) condemning, and (c) identifying (with less than all we are).

3. If we reduce the causes (the three poisons), then we will reduce the suffering.

4. There is a way to do this, a spiral path having
(a) an insight/commitment phase,
(b) a service or ethical phase, and
(c) a stillness or meditative phase.(9)

The crucial teaching here is to put the diagnosis to work. To decrease greed, hate, and ignorance. To increase healing and wholeness in our speaking, acting, and living. To stop, look, and listen in a mindful, meditative spirit. When we do these things consistently, we remove the illusions that obscure our true nature. We allow our true nature -- already healthy and whole -- to shine forth.

Love and Compassion

Love or loving kindness and compassion belong together. In fact, they can be seen as antidotes to the first two of the three poisons, namely, greed and hatred. Zen therapist David Brazier distinguishes between them in this fashion:(10)


Seeking the good of the other,
seeking the growth of the other

Thus, love heals greed,
i.e., wanting to take from the other.


sensitivity to the suffering of the other;
seeking to alleviate the other’s suffering.

Thus, compassion heals hatred,
i.e., wishing that the other suffer.

Both love and compassion require a Copernican Revolution. They require that we give up the illusion that we are at the center of the world and everything revolves around us! They prompt us to reduce our self-concern and enlarge our world. To see that there are many centers -- each person a center of his or her own world -- and yet all held by a common life.

Love is an other-directed power; it takes us out of ourselves and opens us to the good of others. Compassion is an other-directed power; it takes us out of ourselves to appreciate the suffering of others.

When we get out of our own way, we stop relating everything to us. We release some of our egocentricity. Then, in love, we can see more clearly what is the good of the other (as the other helps us see it) and we can respond to that. Then, in compassion, we can see the suffering through the eyes of the other and understand whether and how it may be lessened or must be borne.

Training for love and for compassion directs us first to listen. To get off center stage and allow the spotlight to rest gently on the other. To give the gift of deep listening. Lovingly, we seek the good of the other. Compassionately, we seek to relieve suffering where we can and to bear with suffering where we must.

Relieving the Suffering We Can: the Ethical Steps

Ethical practices help us to notice that what we say and do has consequences to us, to others, and to the relational fields in which we dwell.(11) Thus, an undergirding condition for compassion is to engage in ethical practices. I wish to link ethics with release from suffering. To do this, I offer a simplified version of the five precepts (or mindfulness trainings) from contemporary Buddhism.(12) The general format I am using is this:

Aware of the suffering caused by __________(a gross form of a vice),
I am committed to cultivate ________(a corrective virtue)
and to reduce __________(the subtle roots of the vice) in its many forms.(13)

1. Aware of the suffering caused by destruction of life,
I am committed to cultivate compassion and reverence for life
and to reduce "killing" in its many forms.

2. Aware of the suffering caused by stealing, social injustice, and exploitation,
I am committed to cultivate loving kindness and generosity
and to reduce "taking what is not given" in its many forms.

3. Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct,
I am committed to cultivate sexual responsibility and true intimacy
and to reduce "sexual manipulation" in its many forms.

4. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen,
I am committed to cultivate loving speech and deep listening
to reduce "failure of communications" in its many forms.

5. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption
I am committed to cultivate loving kindness and generosity
and to reduce "taking what is not given" in its many forms.(14)

In acting to reduce unnecessary suffering, we are relieving suffering where we can. When we are unmindful, when we are asleep in our life, we tend to cause all sorts of surplus suffering. When we are awake and alert and mindful of what we are saying and doing, we realize we have a choice – a choice to recognize and reduce unnecessary suffering for ourselves and all our kin. The above reminders call us to remember who we are at our core and what we are about together. These reminders are needed over and over again at the interpersonal, institutional, international, and planetary levels of life.(15)

The great wisdom traditions – East and West – all provide guidance for basic conduct of a humane and liberating sort.(16) They remind us that actions have consequences and people (and other beings) have basic worth and appropriate rights.(17) They aid us to seek what is good for the whole and fair to each participant-part. They help us remember our source, our deep self and all our brothers and sisters in the circle of life. In this way, they provide practices for reducing unnecessary suffering for all. In this way, they provide practices for compassionate living.

Bearing the Suffering We Must: the Contemplative Lessons(18)

Sitting at night with a sick child. Having done what we can, we bear what we must.

Waiting for a loved one to return home and fearing the worst. Having done what we can, we bear what we must.

Learning that someone we love has a life-threatening illness. Having done what we can, we bear what we must.

The first pole of compassion was reducing unnecessary suffering where we could. The second pole of compassion is bearing together what we cannot change. We must now ask, "What do we learn from facing together the suffering we cannot change?"

Recall my wife, Gregg telling the young ministers: "You are wounded miracles." So are we all. This insight, for me, opens a door to compassion. Because we are miracles, the glory lies within and around us. Because we are wounded, we know what it is to be hurt by others and to hurt others. Because we are implicated in the web of suffering, contrition and forgiveness are fitting personal responses. Because we are so deeply intertwined in the web of suffering, we come to see our common humanity, the unity that grounds our community in the circle of life.

A contrite heart. We are humble when we know our own true size – both miraculous and wounded still. We are contrite when we realize that our words and actions are capable of creating heaven or hell in every moment.(19) Forgiveness of ourselves and others arises out of this double awareness – looking deeply and seeing how our actions and those of others can open or close our hearts, especially to the extent we are greedy, hateful, and ignorant.(20) Here forgiveness is akin to seeing ourselves and others in our surface and deep natures and in our ever-unfinished trajectories. I think of such forgiveness in the spirit of words by a Benedictine sister, Mary Lou Kownacki: "Engrave this upon my heart: There isn't anyone you couldn't love once you've heard their story." This is not to engage in justifications. Rather it is to be stripped of justifications and stand as a beautiful, unskilled wholly human one. This is close to what the Japanese mean by the word "bombu" – "a foolish creature of wayward passions."(21) Or even what the Zen master Rinzai called "true humans in the mass of raw flesh – to see them is to love them."

Deeper Learnings

There are deeper learnings. Recall that fourfold way I am exploring. Think again of the verses I provided at the start.

Love, compassion, joy and peace
dwell in us to our increase.
Love, compassion, joy and peace
say to us: release, release.

When we have done what is ours to do, we bear together what we must. We are called to union with our Source and communion with all our kin. From our Source, we begin to notice that there is sufficiency in the graciousness of the Ever-Present Origin.(22) We are enough and have enough -- in ourselves and those who companion us -- to live a worthy life right here and right now. We begin to notice that we are not alone, rather we are "all-one."

We share with our fellow creatures susceptibility to suffering, to sickness, to aging and death. Here we bear with one another. The Roman poet Terrence wrote: "I am a human being and I consider nothing human alien to me."(23)An amazing declaration. In our time we are widening the circle still further -- beyond even the humans. We are recovering what our ancestors never forgot -- that we are members of the Great Web of Life, the Great Family.(24)The entire circle of life is my kin. In this context, we can say:

We do not do the Great Work of love and compassion for ourselves alone.
We do not do the Great Work of love and compassion by ourselves alone.
We do not do the Great Work of love and compassion by our own power alone.

All of these mantras of mine bring us back to the present moment where the source is available and the circle of companions stretches over generations.

In the present
At the still point
Life abundant
Grateful heart.

In knowing ourselves in the light of compassion, we know ourselves as wounded miracles. We return to the source, return to ourselves, return to all who companion us. We live and grow in the context of "interbeing."(25) Hence, love and compassion are a call to walk out of our house – our self-enclosure -- and realize that we belong to the whole. In that sense, we are already home. Gratitude wells up. Humility and a contrite heart follow. Forgiveness also. Consider the much-loved poem of Edwin Markum:

He drew a circle to keep me out
Rebel, heretic, a thing to flout.
Love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took him in.(26)

In compassion, we are ever drawing wider circles, until all beings are our brothers and sisters and all things our companions.(27)



1 From the song “Fragile” – words and music by Sting. See A&M label, CD Nothing Like the Sun © 1987. In the liner notes, Sting pays tribute to the 27-year-old American engineer Ben Linder who was killed by the US-supported Contras in Nicaragua. Fourteen years later, on September 11, 2001, the day of the attack on the World Trade Center and  the Pentagon, Sting was preparing to do an evening webcast concert from Tuscany, Italy. Instead of cancelling the concert, he told his fans: “We are performing the song 'Fragile' as a prayer and a mark of respect for the people who have died or are suffering as a result of this morning’s tragedy. We are shutting down the webcast after this song.”

2 See W. B. Yeats, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1956), last lines of “Among School Children,” p. 214.

3 See T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958), The Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton,” p.119.

4 For the essay on love, see 10Win.htm

5 My wife is Gregg Winn Sullivan. Her first name is her mother’s maiden name. She and I presented a workshop: "Be Still and Know: Walking with Mystery," as part of First Parish Project VI at Hinton Rural Life Center, Hayesville, NC, November 10 and 12, 2009. The two-day workshop on spirituality was designed for 16 young ministers from all over the U.S. This was the first time I heard her use the term “wounded miracles.”

6  The story of Gotama Siddhartha is covered in many works introducing the life and teaching of the Buddha. See, for example, Samuel Bercholz and Sherab Chödzin Kohn (editors), Entering the Stream: An Introduction to The Buddha and His Teachings (Boston: Shambhala, 1993.-1962), ed. George J. Firmage (New York: Liveright, 1991), p. 453. This poem originally appeared in e. e. cummings, No Thanks, p. 68.

7  The English word “compassion” is made up of the verb whose root (passio/pati) means “to suffer” and the prefix (com) meaning “with. From the Buddhist tradition, the term we translate as compassion is “karuna".  Thich Nhat Hanh also uses the English term compassion; however he is not entirely comfortable with it. He notes that a doctor can be compassionate without actually suffering the disease she is treating. See Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (New York: Broadway Books, 1998), pp. 169-175.

8  For more on this distinction between necessary and unnecessary suffering, see my Living Large: Transformative Work at the Intersection of Ethics and Spirituality (Laurel, MD: Tai Sophia Press, 2004). For an alternate approach which looks at the six realms of suffering, see Martin Lowenthal and Lar Short, Opening the Heart of Compassion (Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1993), p. 256.

9 The path is called the Eightfold Path. A. It begins with an insight/ commitment phase -- (i) right insight and (ii) right resolve. B. It continues with an ethical component: (iii) right speaking, (iv) right acting and (v) right vocation. C. It completes each turn of the cycle with a meditative component -- (vi) steady, (vii) mindful, (viii) concentration. All of this produces more insight and more compassionate resolve and round and round we go – walking the spiral path of the ethical component and the meditative component for still fuller insight (becoming great wisdom) and commitment (becoming great compassion).

10 See David Brazier, Zen Therapy (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1995), p. 93.

11 I have written elsewhere about the need to undergird spiritual practice with ethical practice. See my Living Large, chapters 1-4, pp.27-83.

12 A traditional Formulation might be 1) Don’t kill. 2) Don’t steal. 3) Don’t engage in sexual misconduct. 4) Don’t use false speech. 5) Don’t use (or perhaps abuse) intoxicants. I am modifying a version used by Thich Nhat Hanh. Some years ago, he stopped calling them “precepts” and began referring to them as “mindfulness trainings.” For the fuller version I am modifying, see his Teachings on Love (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1998), chapter 11, especially, pp. 123-125. For an even more recent version of the Five Mindfulness Trainings with accent on interbeing and our global situation, see http://bluecliffmonastery.org/community/documents/the-five-mindfulness-trainings/vieww.

13 I am thinking here of the older tradition of virtues and vices. Virtues are constructive habits of mind and heart, of attitude and behavior. Vices are destructive habits of mind and heart, of attitude and behavior.

14 The five focuses of the mindfulness trainings – (i) life, (ii) resources, (iii) sexuality, (iv) speech and (v) consumption – are all enduring human concerns. And we can relate to each in smaller or larger mind. A small-minded way of responding increases unnecessary suffering and decreases creative possibility for our common life. A larger-minded way of responding does the opposite; it reduces surplus suffering and promotes creative possibility for our common life. For more on the notions of smaller and larger ways of relating, see my Living Large.

15 See Thich Nhat Hanh, For a Future to be Possible: Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1993) for further discussion of the application of the precepts on all the levels of life.

16 David Brazier makes the point that in the Zen tradition, ethics are seen as mirroring our deep nature, rather than seen as restraints needed, because at base we are unruly and selfish. See David Brazier, Zen Therapy, pp. 36-39. Developmental level is also in play. See my Three Houses of Ethics in my Living Large, pp. 68-70.

17 The most succinct version of Western ethics I know is the Rotary Club’s “The Four-Way Test of the Things We Think, Say or Do.” The “test” consists of the following four questions: (1) Is it the truth? (2) Is it fair to all concerned? (3) Will it build good will and better friendship? (4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

18 Buddhism teaches – as a kind of summary – Five Remembrances:
  (1) There is sickness and no way to escape this.
  (2) There is aging and no way to escape this.
  (3) There is death and no way to escape this.
  (4) All we know and love will change and there is no way to escape this.
  (5) All we do will persist and there is no way to escape this.
The wording here is mine, based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s rendering in his more advanced treatise, Understanding Our Mind (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2006). See p. 218 and following.

19 A famous Zen story has a towering Samurai command a monk to teach him about heaven and hell. The monk insults the warrior. The warrior draws his sword to kill the insolent monk. A split second before the Samurai strikes, the monk, Hakuin, says: “That is Hell!” Amazed that the monk has gone to the brink of death to teach him, the Samurai opens his heart, experiences deep gratitude, and sheathes his sword. At this point, Hakuin says: “That is Heaven!” The teaching is that, if we are awake and alert, we have a choice in each moment of creating a bit more heaven or a bit more hell.

20 Recall that Buddhism speaks of the three poisons: (a) greed, (b) hatred, and (c) ignorance, or (a) attachment, (b) aversion, and (c) confusion, or, yet again, (a) clinging, (b) condemning, and (c) identifying with less than all we truly are. Recall also that, on Brazier’s view, love and compassion are remedies to the first two poisons.

21 See David J. Brazier (aka Dharmavidya), Who Loves Dies Well: On the Brink of Buddha’s Pure Land (Winchester, UK: O Books Division of John Hunt Publishing Ltd, 2007), p. 12.

22 I take the phrase from Jean Gebser. See his book The Ever-Present Origin, trans.by Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunas (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985).

23 I quote the Roman playwright Terence (c. 185-159 BCE) “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” The quote is from his play Heauton Timorumenos.

24 The phrase the Great Family is from Gary Snyder, and by this he means all the realms: human, animal, vegetable, and mineral.. See his poem “Prayer for the Great Family” in Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (New York: New Directions, 1974), p. 24.

25 See Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step, p.95, where he writes: “If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; without trees, we cannot make paper. . . . So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. 'Interbeing' is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix 'inter-' with the verb 'to be,' we have a new verb, inter-be.”

26 The poem is called “Outwitted.” See Edwin Markham, The Shoes of Happiness and Other Poems (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1915).

27 I am recalling the West Wall Inscription from the office of Chang Tsai, an eleventh-century administrator in China: “Heaven is my father and earth is my mother and even such a small creature as I find an intimate place in its midst. That which extends throughout the universe I regard as my body. That which directs the universe I regard as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters and all things are my companions.” See William De Bary, Wing-Tsit Chan and Burton Watson, eds. Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume I (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 469.