by Ven. Thubten Gyatso

Compassion, sympathy for the misfortune and suffering of others and the wish to help them, is a virtuous quality admired and advocated by all great religions. It is one of the two foundations of the Buddhist life-style; the other is wisdom understanding the origin of suffering and how to achieve temporary and ultimate relief. As all sentient beings are seen to participate in the Wheel of Life, sometimes born human, sometimes an animal, a denizen of hell, a hungry spirit, or a divine being, and nowhere in this Wheel is there total relief from suffering, all beings throughout the universe are recognized as objects of compassion.

One of my first teachers, Lama Thubten Yeshe, upon observing the bickering, competitiveness, jealousy, anger, and so on among his western students, said, "You people amaze me, it seems that you have more compassion for animals than you have for each other."

I still struggle with this problem: the difficulty in having compassion or concern for the welfare of those who are hostile towards oneself or whose attitudes oppose one's own values. We all have a world view based upon the morality of the society in which we grew up and moulded into shape by our collection of experiences, beliefs, and adopted values. Naturally, we think our own values are best, otherwise we would not have them, but, when combined with our innate self-centredness, the scourge of the universe, we become blinded to other views, our thinking becomes ossified, we turn into conservative bigots, and compassion is left far behind.

As much as I try not to be, in my heart I see that I am a conservative bigot, but maybe not totally ossified, there is still a chance that I can emulate the way of Lama Yeshe who had the ability to observe and learn the attitudes of others and communicate with them at their own level. This may sound like, and could well be, a condescending attitude, but whether it is or is not condescending depends upon the sincerity of one's compassion and its supporting wisdom.
With the sole purpose of helping another, one can play the role of a redneck or whatever colour of the social spectrum one wishes without having to identify with any particular colour as one's own.

This is real freedom from self-centredness, to choose any role that is useful for others, and write our own script. Life can be enjoyed and we can help people without making the mistake of being too serious. Once we have fixed attitudes about right and wrong, we feel obliged to seriously defend our own and attack opposite attitudes. Then we lose our ability to communicate with others. It is not that we should not see things as right or wrong, it is that people are more important than principles, and people can change whereas principles cannot.

The first step in the practice of compassion is to give immediate support of food, shelter, medicines and so on. But that is not enough, we must prevent the root cause of suffering, explained by Buddha to be actions motivated by self-centredness, greed, and anger. To inspire people to abandon habitual self-destructive behaviour we must be able to communicate with them and, to communicate with them, we must meet them at their own level.

As long as we retain awareness that we are actors, we will be free from worrying about loyalty or the fear of betraying our own principles. We do not need principles to be compassionate, many times they are an obstacle to compassion. Compassion supported by wisdom is a complete and pure purpose for living, a universal reality that nobody can deny. Compassion brings relief and happiness to others and, at the same time, the subjective experience of giving love and compassion is sublime happiness and peace.

Now the path is open for compassion but, still, why should we have compassion for very harmful beings? Shouldn't we rejoice in their suffering as being their just reward? The answer is emphatically no. Whether suffering is viewed as God's punishment or the ripening of bad karma, we must have compassion because all beings are exactly the same as ourselves - simply trying to be happy - and, in our confusion about the real causes of happiness and unhappiness, we all make mistakes. Just as we forgive the mistakes of our children and still love them, so we should forgive the mistakes of others and keep on loving them.
Why should we love everybody else? Because in past lives we have had every relationship with every living being many times, they have been infinitely kind to us, and it is only natural because all beings ARE our own family.

I received these words from Lama Yeshe, a consummate practitioner of compassion, and repeat them to you, but still I struggle with my self-centred attitude which imposes restrictions on my practice of compassion. It is clear, however, that bad habits cannot change overnight and so I indulge in a little compassion for myself.



This teaching is by the Venerable Thubten Gyatso (previously Dr Adrian Feldmann), an Australian monk and old friend now working in Mongolia. One of the senior students of Lama Yeshe, Lama Zopa Rinpoche (and also Geshe Roach) he is currently teaching at the FPMT centre in Ulaan Baatar. These teachings originally appeared in his local English language newspaper in Ulaan Baatar and arereproduced with his permission.

Thanks to Diane Olander (, these teachings first appeared on the Internet on the website ( of
The Jangchub Gepel Ling Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies,
6960 Highway 9, Felton, CA 95018, Tel: 01 (831) 335 1217
where you can find many more teachings and other interesting material.

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