What Compassion Is, Redux


Photo: pedrosimoes7

Several years ago, I was out walking my son in his stroller (he was somewhere around six months old) when a homeless woman approached me asking for money. I’d seen her before in the neighborhood many times, including behind our condominium using drugs. So I turned down her request and continued walking as if the wind had blown a newspaper against my leg and I’d kicked it away without any thought.

I used to get angry at strangers who asked me for money, projecting onto to them a rage I actually felt toward myself for having such a difficult time turning them down. Then I learned to set boundaries comfortably and my anger gave way to inconsistency: I’d sometimes acquiesce to requests for money and sometimes not, the likelihood of one or the other depending randomly on my mood, how much I believed their story or how much it entertained me, or my belief about what it meant to be compassionate at the time.

Given that at least one study (done in Munich, Germany) has suggested as many as 95% of homeless men suffer from some type of mental disorder (substance abuse being the most common by far) and that numerous other studies have shown similar, though often far less dramatic, results depending on study methodology and the city studied, my standard response now is to refuse all requests for money, believing as I now do that money is not the best long-term, or even short-term, solution to help the homeless. Yet each time I’m asked, I wonder again about what it means to be compassionate, and my recent encounter with our neighborhood homeless woman caused me to reflect again how I continue to fail to live up to my aspiration to consistently manifest the compassion of which I’m capable.


Compassion, in my view, is neither empathy nor sympathy, but requires both. Empathy involves responding to another person’s emotions with emotions that are similar. Sympathy entails feeling regret for another person’s suffering. Compassion, on the other hand, is caring about another person’s happiness as if it were your own. The challenge with this definition, however, is how easily it causes us to mistakenly infer that compassion therefore means:

  1. Giving people what they want. Which is what I used to think—but only because I would routinely find myself practically incapacitated by the thought of disappointing anyone. And though giving people what they want does make them happy, it does so only transiently and usually leaves them unimproved, denying them the motivation to take on growth producing challenges. Also, people quite often want what isn’t good for them (the child who wants to watch television instead of doing homework, the gambler who wants to bet his life savings, the alcoholic who wants to drink). If our aim is to help others become happy we must apply our own judgment to the actions we’re asked to take on their behalf. As I suggested in an earlier post, Become A Force For Good, compassion without wisdom is dangerous.
  2. Sacrificing ourselves. Though the size of our compassion is often measured by what we’re willing to sacrifice, we shouldn’t therefore conclude that an act requires sacrifice to qualify as a compassionate one. Acting compassionately may often be inconvenient, but if you find yourself actually sacrificing your own happiness in some significant way you’ve allowed yourself to be deceived into thinking one person’s happiness is more important than another’s—your own. A wise person’s own happiness matters as much to him or her as the happiness of others—no more and no less. In fact, sometimes you may care about another person’s happiness but find that other person not only beyond your help but a serious risk to your own happiness. In such cases, the person toward whom you must turn your compassionate gaze is yourself. Detaching with love means removing yourself from another person’s zone of destruction without ceasing to care about them in your heart. It would be far less compassionate to allow two lives to be ruined when one (yours) could be saved.
  3. Being constantly gentle. Many believe being compassionate requires you to adopt a passive, non-violent demeanor and express only loving kindness at all times.  Though compassion certainly can be all those things, to be effective, compassion must sometimes be harsh, angry, and forceful. You can’t judge the quality or intent of an action only by the envelope in which it’s mailed. With the intent to increase another person’s happiness as your constant thought, you may sometimes find yourself taking action that paradoxically seems on the surface to lack the very compassion that drives it. By some accounts, Mother Teresa was at times a pretty tough son-of-a-bitch.
  4. Getting a reward. True compassion expects no reward or recognition. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting either, but when they become the predominant motivation for acting compassionately, you risk shifting your focus from increasing the happiness of others to the gratification of your own ego, which then risks behavior that harms instead of helps.
  5. Liking everyone. There’s no requirement that you like anyone in order to be a compassionate person. You can, in fact, actively dislike someone towards whom you feel great compassion. Being compassionate may mean thinking benevolently about a person despite their flaws, but it doesn’t mean pretending those flaws don’t exist. You don’t have to pretend that people don’t annoy you, nor do you have to open yourself up to establishing personal relationships with people you try to help.

If compassion is none of those things, though, then what is it? I would argue the following:

  1. Unconditional acceptance. Compassion focuses itself only on the potential all people have for good, ignoring everything else. Which isn’t to say compassion deludes itself into thinking all people are good. Just that the capacity to become good can never be destroyed by a thousand evil acts and must therefore always be sought. Which requires—
  2. Endurance. The people for whom you care may refuse to stop suffering. They may rail against you for your efforts and treat you even more shabbily than others who don’t care about them at all. Having true compassion for them is refusing to be defeated by such transient concerns. Even if, as discussed above, you eventually must detach with love, never stop loving them, even when they try to destroy themselves or others.
  3. Action. Another person’s happiness may feel important to you, but if you have the opportunity to take compassionate action yet don’t, your feeling was only ever theoretical.
  4. Courage. The second president of the SGI once said that if we don’t have enough compassion, we should substitute courage. The action that arises from courage is invariably equivalent to action that arises from compassion. We also require courage to withstand the criticism that often results when you take compassionate action.

In the Lotus Sutra (the highest teaching of the original Buddha, Shakyamuni), luminous beings known as the Bodhisattvas of the Earth make a great vow to help all people attain enlightenment. In Nichiren Buddhism, a bodhisattva is anyone who manifests the life-condition of compassion.

This, then, is the ultimate goal to which I aspire: to expand my capacity for compassion and become a bodhisattva. The reason is simple: the feeling of genuine compassion for another person is, in my view, one of the most joyful experiences available to human beings. Further, only in the life state of the bodhisattva does it become clear how making the happiness of others the ultimate goal of one’s life entails no personal sacrifice at all. Finally, I don’t believe that indestructible happiness is possible to attain in isolation. How can anyone be truly happy while everyone—or anyone—else around them continues to suffer?

One other random fact: compassion cures all social awkwardness. It’s hard to feel awkward in a room full of strangers whom you genuinely want to be as happy as possible. But to establish a life-condition in which you actually feel that way—ah, there’s the rub.

So compassion remains my goal, but one I’m able to reach far less often than I want. When asked for money by strangers, my typical response is a rapid-fire, “Don’t-have-any-money-on-me-sorry.” But this is often not even true. I’m certain the reason I lie ultimately comes down to cowardice, though why I’m afraid to tell them the truth is not yet entirely clear to me.

It’s not that I lack compassion for the homeless—just that my compassion for them remains only a feeling, only theoretical. I say this not because I refuse to give them money. As I said before, I don’t believe giving them money represents the most compassionate action I could take (though I certainly recognize it may be yours—no judgment intended). I say this because the most compassionate action I could take would be to introduce them to Buddhism, a practice I genuinely believe has the power to help anyone in any circumstance become happy, but I don’t do that either.

There are several reasons I don’t, all of which I’m sure will sound reasonable: I’m reluctant to proselytize; I don’t want to become embroiled in a stranger’s life; I don’t want to take the time. And I’m sure many would argue I’m expecting more from myself than I should. But I’m not just writing about homelessness here (and I don’t pretend to have the answer to that complex and difficult problem). I’m writing about the part of me that believes enlightenment is possible and that an enlightened person would be overflowing with compassion I feel only rarely—a compassion that makes all men feel like brothers and all women like sisters. I’m writing about the part of me that keeps asking if there really is any greater value we can produce as human beings than to help another person to become happier. Because every time I turn down a homeless person’s request for money what I think to myself (other than somewhere out there must be someone worried about them) isn’t that I should have given them what they wanted, but rather that a Buddha would have given them something they need.

Next Week: How To Become Mindful

20 comments to What Compassion Is, Redux

  • Cris Bennett

    As a slight aside, homelessness may well be a “complex and difficult” problem, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely intractable.

    Homelessness rates vary dramatically between countries, with those at the most extreme dog-eat-dog end of the spectrum (like the US) having *far* higher rates than more mature polities (Germany, Sweden, even decreasingly-egalitarian Australia).

    We don’t know how to make every individual a self-actuated Buddhist. But we do know how to ensure that nearly all non-Buddhists can have homes. Some problems are inherently social in nature, a fact that Buddhism in general (notwithstanding small “engaged” variants) seems to have some trouble coming to terms with.

  • joanwinnek

    You make important distinctions between what compassion is and is not, which I find very helpful.

  • John

    (Unconditional) compassion then seems to be:

    1) a uniquely human practice
    2) extremely difficult to practice consistently
    3) not a very good idea, especially the “unconditional” criterion

    It’s not that I don’t value compassion toward most, but wanting horrible people to be happy (other than as roundabout way of stopping their evil acts) is not a path I want anyone to follow. I would rather allocate limited time and resources to making good people happy.

  • Fantastic insights, thank you, Alex. And a searingly honest assessment of the tortuous feelings many people have when confronted with the homeless and with other people who are suffering.

    When you write so eloquently about “a compassion that makes all men feel like brothers and all women like sisters,” this I think is the greatest challenge of Buddhist practice. I know, for example, that I spent many years gaining great benefits from chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and then made a futile (subconscious) attempt to “ring-fence” my little parcel of happiness.

    Luckily I then lost the high-powered job around which I had built my fragile success. Even more fortunately, I had a severe bout of depression 5 years ago and I now find it much easier to chant for other people. In fact, the term “other people” does not help; by definition it separates us from the rest of humanity (indeed I think this illusion of separateness was the root cause of my ultimately lovely depression…)

    So now, as much as possible, I chant for all of Life to be fulfilled, this Life that flows through me and through you, through the people I love, the people I dislike, the strangers I haven’t yet met and yes, the homeless guy in the neighborhood.

    Best, David

  • Cris Bennett

    @David: you’d probably do more for the homeless guy in the neighborhood by organizing to make wherever you live a fairer society. Prevalent (and increasing) homelessness isn’t some form of individual/God-or-nature-given blight. It’s a choice that the powerful have made for their own benefit. Chanting, if not accompanied by action, merely allows injustice freer sway. The super-rich aren’t scared of chanters. They’re scared of doers in their many varieties (voters, rioters, journalists, etc.).

  • SV

    Love this post, Alex…lot of food for thought.

  • Murali

    I too do not give money to the homeless sometimes, as I feel it will be used for alcohol or drugs, but would not dare to stand and preach to them about Buddhism or anything (like a Jehovah’s witness) as I fear my ears would be burnt with their curses and I might get an eyeful of spit. I sometimes feel that in some cases it best to feel “I am not my brothers keeper” and walk away.

  • @Cris. Yes you are right, chanting without action is just self-obsessed navel-gazing. I should have made that clearer in my post.

    As Shakyamuni Buddha said: “If you know but do not do, you do not know” which is why, over the years, I’ve done lots to help “others” including support for people living in squalor and have done my best to encourage them to rediscover the inherent dignity of their lives.

    The whole spirit of Nichiren Buddhism is against the notion of “God-given” (there is no God in this belief system) and Nichiren himself was a radical rebel who fought against the injustices perpetrated by the government of his time in order to build the fairer society of which you speak.

  • Melissa

    Thanks, Alex,

    I think this is great. I’ve sent it on to many people in my circle.



  • Many years ago I resolved this issue of compassion for myself by carrying protein/energy bars (called Pemmican by Bear Valley) with me wherever I went so that should I be approached I would be able to offer food. For those who stand at traffic intersections holding up signs, if I determine I wouldn’t be impeding traffic, then I roll down my car window and offer the Pemmican bar. Not once has my offer of food been rejected—rather my gesture has always prompted a smile, thanks or a simple nod. The fruit/nut bars only cost $1.35 a piece and are a 400 calorie meal-replacement.

    Giselle Massi


  • Diane

    I work at not overthinking this issue. If something is easily within reach to give, I give it for the pleasure of sharing. I have meditated on the idea of sharing as opposed to giving. I share because I can and want to share. Some is kept for myself. So much freedom and lightness is lost when I make critical judgments about giving to the mentally ill and the homeless. If I give you something you ask for does that mean that I never have it again? It’s lost to me forever? But, if I share a little of what I have with you now, maybe on this day, you won’t be so hungry. The end.

  • Cris Bennett

    @David. Fair enough. I should have phrased my post so as not to imply an either/or, nor to suggest that you personally don’t act.

    There is (I think) a bit of an unholy alliance between Buddhism (in general, I know nothing of Nichiren specifically), and US hyper-individualism. It’s easy to elide genuine differences between societies (i.e., miss that some just do things better than others!), and sink into individualistic hopelessness. I think many Americans fail to realize how very dysfunctional their society is compared to mainstream developed nations, assume that social problems are intractable, and that therefore it’s all down to the individual. Into that motivational vacuum rushes Buddhism.

  • Way too long to read for your original problem. Last year a young lady asked me for money and I turned her down too. I walked around the corner and there was my truck with a flat tire. Several hours later in the mountains my horse got loose and disappeared into the wilderness on the Cascade Crest trail for a day. It is simple. Bad Karma.

  • @Cris. I think u have a point here. Nichiren Buddhism is sometimes misinterpreted by practitioners and others as self-centered and individualistic and indeed I have fallen short of being compassionate on many occasions. But we have a concept of “small self” versus “big self” and the latter is a state where prayer (and action!) include other people. I think it takes time, faith and practice to achieve this state, but I am getting there… D

  • Michelle

    I can’t agree that, in the context of a momentary encounter with a stranger, the most compassionate action you could take would be to introduce them to Buddhism. I suppose there might exist a few of the hungry and homeless whose lives were changed by an alms-refuser saying, “Hey, try chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo!” and then walking on … but not many. Giving food instead of money or giving money but to the nearby church that runs a soup kitchen or similar organization that serves the hungry and homeless in the immediate area seem more compassionate actions to take. In the same situation, I also make it a habit not to lie or apologize (“sorry, no money on me”), but to acknowledge the person’s humanity as I would any other stranger (not shrinking away with gaze averted but looking at the person directly and smiling).


    If someone asks me for money, I don’t stop, go into my bag, pull out my wallet in front of anyone, just out of common sense, as I’ve seen people snatch money from others that way. BUT, if I have easy access to money in my pocket, I give it. I don’t care if it’s used for food, bus fare, drugs, alcohol, whether I’m being lied to or played, etc. That’s between the person asking and their god or their conscious and not for me to decide. Me on the other hand, I did what I immediately could for a person in apparent need when posed with the request.

    I find it’s less about whether or not to be compassionate and more about whether or not we are honest with ourselves about our judgements of others. Compassion feels like a higher calling in a way, but I think when we are debating whether we are compassionate and what it means to be compassionate, I think what we’re really talking about is our judgements and perceptions and whether we can overcome them. When I remove my judgement of the person asking me for money from the equation, then for me, there’s no conundrum. It becomes very easy to know what to do.

  • Lori

    I love your definition and explanation of compassion. I’m not a practicing Buddhist, but I was able to feel the type of compassion you describe, at least for a few weeks! It was right after the birth of my first child. Everywhere I went, I started trying to imagine the people around me as they were as infants—the crusty old homeless people included. I pictured each of them as a clean, sweet-smelling innocent baby with a loving parent gazing down on them. At first, I was just marveling at how different adults become from the babies they started out as. But after a while, it made me start seeing each person as being just as special and worthy of love to someone, as my own baby is to me.

    The experience gave me one of those flashes of clarity—let me really feel and internalize the idea that we are brothers and sisters in a global family, and we at least all start out the same. No matter how much life changes us, those raw ingredients of humanity are still there.

    Although the intensity of the feeling has faded as I got sucked back into the routine of regular life, I still think that motherhood has made me a more compassionate person overall. Has anyone else had this experience?

    Lori: I had the exact same thing happen to me after the birth of my son.


  • Mark Lester

    Wow. Once again, Alex, you hit one out of the park. Your compassion vs. non-compassion piece breaks things down so sincerely and eloquently. So was I slightly let down by your closing about the homeless? Yes and no. Certainly I am guilty of the same judgements and resulting actions when approached by the homeless, most times when I’m on the way to our SGI Keikan in Chicago. I, like Alex, am a Nichiren Buddhist and chant Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo. And I—I’m sure as many Buddhists—have avoided or refused requests for money from the homeless. Generally it’s because I’m in the car and don’t have easy access to money or a candy bar (which is a great idea). But I DO often keep a stack of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo cards in my dashboard compartment and find it’s relatively easy to hand them one, with the preface along the lines of “I’m sorry I can’t give you what you are asking, but I can give you something even BETTER”—and give a quick explanation of what it is while I’m handing it to them. (And I’m not normally a proselytizer!) I don’t do it as often as I’d like—it’s easy for doubt to creep in as they approach—but almost every time they are receptive and thankful! Most are happy with just some encouragement, and that a stranger is acknowledging them, not ignoring them like they are all wandering vagrants. After all, at one time or another, the homeless were not homeless. And although, ultimately, it is our actions that create the karma to be homeless, that doesn’t mean that drugs or crime led us there, or that they didn’t try, or that the current platform of greed that our economy is currently thriving on didn’t also have something to do with it. Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is for everyone, whether they know it or not, and I know that if I can just share it and even say it with them once, I have planted the seeds of Buddhahood in their life. I have been to several SGI meetings where I have heard about a guest coming because they remember hearing it 20 years ago, or someone who has been practicing for a long time who is so tremendously thankful for the person who introduced them, for today they might be in an even worse situation or even dead. That empowers me to use courage as compassion when sharing it in these situations, and know that in doing so, I am a step closer to the enlightenment of all of us as “brothers” or “sisters.”

  • Yip Wai Fong

    I would argue that compassion is also wisdom—to know that it is not self-sacrifice, and so not feeling that way when one went extraordinary miles in order to help someone, despite all the credit one might get. To know that it doesn’t matter if you don’t like the person you are helping, and I think most important of all to know (instead of to think) that everyone, regardless of his/her conditions and character, is inherently capable of good and enlightenment.

  • teresa

    Practical help is the answer. Money is NOT. I had to ask for help from people on the street. But I have never been homeless, I’ve been 4 days from that state and had the fear and hopelessness of looking into that abyss. But fortune smiled and after a lot of tramping the streets I finally found a place I could actually afford.

    If someone had said to me “I won’t give you money, how about a job?” I would have been thrilled. I was working but making near minimum. A chance at a job where I could actually pay the bills or just a few hours to earn a little more money was only a dream in those days. Help, yes, but ONLY practically and follow through with any promises.

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