Buddhist Compassion

Most of us can admit to being selfcentered at times—thinking first of ourselves and only then of others. Self-concern, of course, is an important part of living—we need to feed, clothe and obtain shelter for ourselves, and be attentive to our long-term welfare. But when self-interest becomes the dominant force in our lives, it can cause us to act insensitively and even harmfully toward others. Buddhism in particular highlights the intrinsic connection between our personal well-being and that of others.

Many of us have experienced a sense of fulfillment from going out of our way to help another person. Doing so lets us step beyond what may be our usual self-centeredness, and this, it turns out, allows positive feelings and qualities to arise within us. This is why compassionate acts form an essential part of Buddhist practice.

In Chinese and Japanese Buddhist texts, including The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, the word for compassion comprises two Chinese characters, pronounced jihi in Japanese. The first character, ji, corresponds to the Sanskrit word maitri, meaning “to give happiness.” The second, hi, corresponds to the Sanskrit karuna, meaning “to remove suffering.” Taken together they describe the function of relieving living beings of suffering and giving them happiness.

In Nichiren Buddhism, we practice both for our own happiness and for the happiness of others, and in the process develop faith in our own and all people’s potential to attain enlightenment. Our actions to help others realize this potential is true Buddhist compassion.

Our Buddhist practice allows us to go beyond simply observing others’ suffering and feeling sorry for them. Compassion is not merely offering sympathy and a helping hand. From the perspective of Nichiren Buddhism, true compassion has the power to root out the cause of misery in people’s lives and direct them to the cause for happiness. Such compassion by its very nature requires courage and strength. Almost anyone can feel kindness toward a person who shows them kindness. However, in letters he wrote, Nichiren urges his disciples to compassionately embrace all people as their own children and to cultivate a state of life that enables them to do so.

But how can we muster compassion, especially when we just aren’t feeling it? For us, the prayers and actions we take in the course of our Buddhist practice, in our activities as SGI members, cause genuine compassion to awaken within us.

Second Soka Gakkai president Josei Toda once said: “The essence of Buddhism is compassion. We, too, need to have compassion but, being ordinary mortals, the reality is that it is quite difficult for us. Courage substitutes for compassion. I am speaking of the courage to save others from suffering. To practice Buddhism with courage translates into compassion” ( Buddhism Day by Day, p. 57).

This is why introducing others to Buddhism can be seen as the primary practical means for awakening and giving expression to true compassion. Because it enables people to attain a state of indestructible happiness, it is an act that in itself embodies great compassion.

When we actively take part in SGI activities— encouraging others through sharing our own experiences of breaking through our problems through faith, visiting fellow members to chant and study together, and offering our heartfelt support—we are also taking courageous action based on Buddhist compassion. We find ourselves breaking through our lesser, self-centered selves and developing a vast, boundless life state and a broad, generous heart. We naturally find ourselves working earnestly for the happiness of others, to better society, and to protect and propagate the Mystic Law.

To favor certain people over others is a natural human tendency, and having compassion does not require that we like everyone equally. A Buddha, however, holds no preferences when it comes to saving others. Because compassion arises from our innate Buddha nature, it in itself is impartial. By chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon, we can find the wisdom to recognize the positive qualities in others—even those we may dislike.

While it is easy to identify others’ weak points, it is harder to see and appreciate their strong points. But if we focus on the strong points, we will naturally come to appreciate, feel closer to and respect others. Compassion includes the ability to recognize in others strengths and capacities that we ourselves may be lacking, as well as our wish to learn from those qualities. As a result, we may find ourselves thinking of others more often and feeling concerned about their well-being.

SGI President Ikeda states: “Compassion is the very soul of Buddhism. To pray for others, making their problems and anguish our own; to embrace those who are suffering, becoming their greatest ally; to continue giving them our support and encouragement until they become truly happy—the Daishonin’s Buddhism lives and breathes in such humanistic actions” ( My Dear Friends in America, third edition, pp. 198–99).

We practice Buddhism for our own happiness and that of others. These two aims of faith cannot be separated. When our thoughts for others’ fulfillment and well-being become part of our daily prayer, we transcend the innate impulse to be concerned only with ourselves and thereby illuminate our innate Buddhahood.

[Courtesy July 2012 Living Buddhism.]

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