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Why we do what we do: The second of the four immeasurable thoughts, tshemed bzhi (ཚད་མེད་བཞི་), is compassion. Compassion or nyingje (སྙིང་རྗེ་) in its broad sense refers to all caring and benevolent thoughts. In this context, it is often called the expedient method and paired with wisdom. Wisdom (ཤེས་རབ་) and compassion (ཐབས་) in Mahāyāna Buddhism are compared to the two wings of a bird to fly to enlightenment. The Great Compassion (སྙིང་རྗེ་ཆེན་པོ་) of the Buddha is the culmination of such benevolence. In its narrow sense, however, nyingje refers to the specific wish or intention to free sentient beings from suffering and the causes of suffering. This is how compassion should be understood in the context of the four immeasurable thoughts.

While loving kindness is a wish for sentient beings to attain happiness and the causes of happiness, compassion is a wish for sentient beings to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. In order to realise the goal of loving kindness, it is necessary to realise the goal of compassion because without being free from suffering, it is not possible to experience true happiness. In actual practice, loving kindness can make a practitioner elated and blissful with the thought of happiness. Compassion helps balance this by reminding the practitioner of the suffering in the world. In the same way, practice of compassion can lead to empathetic distress and make the practitioner depressed. In such cases, Buddhist masters recommend the practitioner to alternate the practice of four immeasurable thoughts.

In practicing compassion, the practitioner wishes sentient beings to be free from suffering and what causes suffering just as a mother would wish her single child to be free from suffering and causes of suffering such as an illness, hunger, etc. Thus, the practice of compassion is intricately linked with the Buddhist perception of the ordinary existence as being dissatisfactory and eventually leading to disappointment and suffering. Sentient existence is seen as an ocean of suffering and the practitioner of compassion wishes to take all sentient beings out of such ocean of suffering to the state of freedom from suffering.

Like loving kindness, compassion can be also cultivated in numerous ways. One can start generating compassion towards a beloved one such as one’s mother and think about the many problems she faces and wish her to be free from them. One can then gradually extend such thought to one’s family, friends, village, country, humanity and all other sentient beings. To avoid the practice becoming biased, one can generate compassion first towards one’s enemy or a person one dislikes. Similarly, one can visualise sentient beings by moving from region to region or from one direction to another. One can also practice it with one’s breath. As one breathes in, one can visualise that the suffering of all other sentient beings in the form of a dark smoky substance flow into oneself and the sentient beings are freed from suffering.

Feeling intense compassion for the sentient beings by feeling their pain and wishing them to be free from suffering is the basic practice of compassion. It assumes the existence of sentient beings, who are objects of compassion, the person who is cultivating compassion, and of the act of showing compassion. This is known as compassion with apprehension of sentient beings (སེམས་ཅན་ལ་དམིགས་པའི་སྙིང་རྗེ་). Compassion accompanied by the full awareness of the impermanent nature of things is compassion with insight into the truth or reality of existence. (ཆོས་ལ་དམིགས་པའི་སྙིང་རྗེ་). The experience of fleeting nature of things, contrary to our assumptions and expectations of things to last, makes compassion all the more earnest. When a person feels compassion having thoroughly realised the illusory and dream-like nature of life, and does not conceive a real person who generates compassion, real sentient beings who are objects of compassion and a real act of generating it, such compassion with the awareness of the illusory and empty nature of all phenomena is known as the compassion without apprehension (དམིགས་པ་མེད་པའི་སྙིང་རྗེ་). The more one realises the empty and illusory nature of things, and witness the sheer attachment with which sentient beings cling onto things as real, the practitioner is said to give rise to more intensive and unconditional compassion.

Nyingje, literally the king of hearts, is the most benevolent and noble state of the mind. It is the central component of the Mahāyāna morality and the path to Buddhahood. Bhutanese normally cultivate compassion by chanting this prayer:

མ་ནམ་མཁའ་དང་མཉམ་པའི་སེམས་ཅན་ཐམས་ཅད་སྡུག་བསྔལ་དང་སྡུག་བསྔལ་གྱི་རྒྱུ་དང་འབྲལ་བར་གྱུར་ཅིག

May all mother sentient beings as vast as space be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.

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