The Relationship Between Wisdom and Compassion

Category: Buddhist Meditation | Buddhist Path | Love & Compassion Meditation

Wisdom and compassion are interrelated and essential to Buddhist practice

The Interrelationship between Wisdom and Compassion in Buddhism

It could be said that the essence of Mahayana Buddhism is the relationship between wisdom and compassion. In Mahayana Buddhism, the goal is not merely to relieve our own pain and suffering, but to transform ourselves into compassionate beings who are capable of healing the pain of everyone, everywhere.

Compassion is among the primary transcendent virtues of Buddhism, as it is for each of the world’s authentic religions. Partnering compassion with wisdom means understanding that our compassion has little value if we only offer loving kindness to those we like, in situations which we might benefit from. Wisdom is understanding that our freedom is dependent on applying compassion equally, to everyone, at all times.

Often described as two wings of a bird, wisdom and compassion must be developed in unison if we are to soar to great heights.

Buddhist Wisdom

Put simply, Buddhist wisdom is the ability to see things as they are, known as prajñāpāramitā in Sanskrit. Typically, we see things as we are or we’re so distracted we don’t see much of anything at all. When we do look around, what we mistake for reality is an illusion, colored by our past experiences, conditioning, personal preferences and emotions.

Through the practice of meditation, we learn to become more aware and discerning. When we can see each moment, just as it is, we also become more accepting. By letting go of attachment and aversion, we become more capable of being present with each moment, just as it is. Thus we develop right view, in that we take responsibility for and accept the laws of karma and its effects.

As wisdom develops, we come to several realizations. Chief among them is the insight that this life entails great suffering. All of us will someday get old and die, everything we get pleasure from will someday change, and it’s our own mind that is at the root of our anguish. All this time, we’ve seen ourselves as separate. Our focus on getting what we need and want, even if it causes harm to others, has only led us further from happiness versus closer to it. This wisdom is the primary teaching of the Buddha’s 4 Noble Truths, and is closely related to seeing the true characteristics of reality, which are known as the 4 Seals of Buddhism.

With wisdom, we develop right view and the understanding that the real cause of happiness is working on ensuring the happiness of others. And so we turn to the practice of compassion. Wisdom is the key to understanding why, and provides us with the awareness we need to stay on track.

Compassion as the Method

The Mahayana term for compassion is karuna, a Sanskrit word that describes the urge to respond to the suffering of others as well as the act of minimizing the suffering of others. To be compassionate, we must be capable of observing, noticing, and empathetically sensing into the pain of another. To do that, we must first become capable of noticing pain and suffering within ourselves. Compassion is a relational process.

Compassion in English comes from the roots ‘passio,’ meaning to suffer, and ‘com,’ meaning with. To have compassion is to suffer alongside others, with the wisdom of understanding that your pain is mine and mine is yours. None of us is truly free unless and until all of us are.

Compassion therefore becomes a source of motivation. In Mahayana Buddhism, compassion is the primary motivation for every effort we make towards personal awakening. In our current state of delusion, our capacity to help free others is limited. We’re motivated to progress along the path because as we grow, we become increasingly capable of helping those around us.

Compassion is also the method by which we awaken. By practicing compassion in thought, word and deed, we open our hearts wherein lies our inner wisdom. This isn’t always easy. The discomfort of compassion arises as we become increasingly aware of the pervasiveness of suffering. Fortunately, wisdom and compassion are there for us to bring ease to this realization.

How To Develop Compassion And Wisdom

Compassion and wisdom aren’t actually developed; we can say that they are discovered. These virtues exist within us and always have. Meditation, however, helps us cultivate greater awareness of these qualities so we may invite them to the forefront of our daily lives, where wisdom and compassion help inform right action.

There are a wealth of contemplative Buddhist practices which meditators have used for thousands of years to better embody the compassion and wisdom at the center of our being. These awareness meditations include compassion meditation, loving-kindness meditation and the four immeasurables. Each serves as a foundation for developing compassion and wisdom. Outside of meditation, ethical behavior is an equally important method of cultivating compassion and wisdom. It is also the end result.

Compassion and wisdom arise simultaneously, and we can work on both, together. Wisdom develops as we become more aware of the truth of this moment and the call of our own hearts. Compassion arises as we realize the certainty of our interconnectedness, that your wellbeing is directly related to mine. With continued practice, we come to see wisdom and compassion as two sides of the same coin. Neither exists without the other, and neither can come first. Joined together they give rise to bodhicitta, the skillful blending of both.

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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