The Source of Compassion
Love, kindness, and compassion are the very foundations of Buddhism. From a general perspective, these virtues correspond to similar values held in many other religious traditions and spiritual practices. However, in Buddhism, genuine love and compassion arise from a penetrating insight into the true nature of our own existence, and are thereby more firmly grounded in a practitioner's experience. We can understand this from two perspectives.
First, from the perspective of interdependence, we see that no phenomenon in the world, whether material or mental, exists independently of other phenomena. All beings and things are intimately related to one another. All of the activities engaged in by a seemingly independent entity are actually connected to, and affected by, the activities of other entities in an intricate, infinite network. Everything that exists relies on innumerable, apparently external factors for their existence. Separation from this vast system of connections between all things would make existence impossible. This is the profound reality of the nature of the world we live in, and of course, it is also the reality of our own individual lives as we live them. We are all connected to each other and to all living things, both sentient and insentient.
On a human scale, we can see the truth of interdependence in the fact that no person can live entirely apart from society. We depend on the assistance of other human beings for everything we have: from the basic necessities of life such as food, clothing, and shelters, on up to the various forms of knowledge and skills that acquire, and to the sense of satisfaction and fulfillment we derive from our work. If we are fortunate to live in a relatively stable society, we should know that much of the order and stability in our daily lives depends on the structure of our society and on the work of other people in all sorts of public institutions. Similarly, global interrelationships and the mutual influences between different nations and cultures are often demonstrated in fields like economics, political science, and cultural studies.
On a large scale, countless other forms of life, both sentient and insentient, have either direct or indirect influences on our well-being. Also from the viewpoint of the Buddhist belief in innumerable past lives and future rebirths, each of us must have, in countless previous live, once lived in very close, direct connection to every other sentient being. All these "other beings" have been the cause of our happiness. With this sort of outlook, how can we not have sympathy and concern for all beings? We can only feel a deep sense of responsibility for and gratitude to them. Such gratitude in turn engenders genuine caring and love that goes beyond an individual's love for his or her own family, race, or nation. This sort of love, extended to all beings everywhere, springs from the very knowledge that we are truly all one family.
Second, from the perspective of equality of all conditions, all of these infinitely varied sorts of interrelations and connections among sentient and insentient beings give rise to a multitude of individual traits and distinctions. However, since these seemingly unique and distinct entities are all contingent upon one another, not one of them can be said to exist autonomously and permanently in and of itself. This is the nature of emptiness. As we penetrate the depths of this conditionality through contemplation and the cultivation of genuine compassion, we can understand personally and directly that all phenomena are empty of any inherent, separate nature of their own. This essence, or empty nature, of all things reveals their likeness, their profound similarity. With the realization of this non-dual, equal nature of existence-which is the experience of wisdom-an unbounded desire to help and benefit all beings indiscriminately will then help in our hearts.
In the Mahayana tradition, all sentient beings are identical in nature to Buddhas. All sentient beings have the potential to realize full enlightenment and to manifest Buddhahood. A person walking the path to full Buddhahood must cultivate deep compassion for all beings as if they were of one body with himself or herself. This is not wishful thinking, but rather a sincere motivation that inspires our actions and compels us to live humanely in the world. When other sentient beings suffer in the depts. Of confusion, it is as if we ourselves are suffering too, but lack the wisdom to help either ourselves or others. This genuine concern and selfless love do not come from anyone or anything external, but rather from our insight into the nature of our own existence. Such insight is the ethical impulse of an enlightened being. It is both the motivation and the source of inner strength of a bodhisattva.