I am somewhat curious, following an answer to a previous question of mine, as to why understanding a person's background might inhibit judging them in a stereotypical way. I perceived this in my practice and I have found it somewhat effective in my own case, but I am unsure why this is so. I feel as if such awareness of background is a bit superfluous, yet then again I feel empathy is less frequent when we don't understand a person's motivations.

Consequently, I wonder:

  1. Why is understanding motivations effective against judging others according to Buddhism?
  2. How can this idea be best applied in meditation? For example, how would meditating on the causes of suffering--to arouse compassion--be achieved?

Thank you

3 Answers 3


The answer to this questions points to an idea that is central for achieving Buddhist Enlightenment. This is the idea that mind has a built-in tendency for reification, stereotyping and overgeneralization; that all our suffering and confusion comes from this tendency; and that liberation from suffering and achieving clarity requires liberation from that.

Mind has this intrinsic function to delineate entities. As it observes the facts, it tries to connect them and create a consistent picture, a story, a model that explains the cohesion behind the facts. I suppose doing so has an evolutionary advantage, because constructing a model gives us a way to predict the model's future behavior.

However, this method has its flip side - which is, we tend to equate our models with reality. Indeed, outside of models there is no experience of the world. So, naturally we tend to assume our models are correct, and as long as they come from experience and have some forecasting power, we tend to attach to them. This gives us a quick way to make decisions about the world. We see something, we recognize it as one of the previous things we have seen, we classify it, and based on that automatically pick the reaction. It's a very efficient mechanism, great timesaver. Imagine if we had to reevaluate everything from scratch every time we saw things.

At the same time, assuming our models are reality gives rise to a sort of perceptual blindness. We end up seeing with our brains, not our eyes. We jump to conclusions. We become stubborn. We are judgmental. We are superficial. We are tone-deaf and blind to nuances.

So getting more details for our models - any details really - increases the chance to get some evidence that will uncover the holes in our model-building. This shows up in your example above, when getting a sense of persons's background, facts from their personal history, can helps us see beyond our mind-made model of them, and into the real person.

Buddhist Enlightenment is to go beyond models. Realization of "Emptiness" is seeing that all our models are mind-made. Buddhist tolerance, total acceptance, humbleness, is the social application of this realization. Buddhist suchness is the emotional state we get when we learn to live in a non-stereotyped inner world, not dragging any models from the past. Buddhist meditation is to see into our modeling process, and learn to go beyond that. Buddhist liberation is to liberate from the oppression of models.


If you judge someone or if someone does something to you we tend to look only that event. We do not see the bigger picture. There must always be a preceding cause for someone to think or act in a certain way. If you consider that we're all in the same boat and all have to face existential problems (the questions I mentioned in your last question) then a sense of empathy arises. This perception needs to be put to the fore via sati (recollection or mindfulness) and with this recollection the perception gets stronger and stronger.

If you are condeming a person there must be a preceding cause for that to arise. Maybe you were angry which resulted in a negative state of mind, which further gets strengthend by indulging in more negative thoughts, or you are telling yourself that you shouldn't think or feel in a certain way because you are a spiritual person etc. Every state of mind (whether wholesome or unwholesome) filters out unfitting information. I hope this makes somewhat sense? Don't believe this, look for yourself next time you feel good or bad and how the subsequent thoughts will be. When you feel positive how is your outlook in regards to life?

To answer your second question: You don't need to do formal meditation to do this, it can always be done via recollection in daily life but in formal sitting it's most effective. You just consider the basic predicaments which every human has to go through. Asking questions is more effective than just telling your mind certain "truths" , "teachings", "drawbacks". Whenever we pose a question our brain is forced to think (remember school?). Just reflect on causes and conditions that weren't developed just now. Every human being has to cultivate skills/behaviours, emotions and mental states. Whether wholesome or unwholesome. If one was raised in a negative environment and had no insight into cause and effect etc he is not to be blamed because he is a fallible human. This is equanimity and compassion.


Why is understanding motivations effective against judging others according to Buddhism?

I think that's human nature ... perhaps it's a truism of human nature ... but is not Buddhist doctrine.

Instead Buddhist doctrine is maybe about understanding or overcoming your own attachments and egocentricity, rather than trying to understand other people's motives. Sorry!

For example, there's a famous saying (in English) that "To understand all is to forgive all" -- that's listed as a Fake Buddha Quote. Usually the author (Bodhipaksa) would give passages from the suttas which are at least similar to the quote ... but he doesn't in this one, saying,

The Buddha doesn’t seem to have talked much about “forgiveness.” He talked much more about letting go of anger ...

Even so perhaps the cause ("why it's effective") is clear if you consider an invented example:

  • Someone steals something from your shop
  • You're angry at the loss, and blame the thief for being greedy and disrespectful
  • If you find they stole because they were hungry, perhaps you are then more inclined to forgive them (perhaps because it's selfless, i.e. their hunger didn't necessarily involve "yourself")

I suppose that "understanding motivation" is a type of, or a cause of, compassion.

And I think that "compassion" is a feature of Buddhism -- not exactly 'doctrine' (e.g. that "you should feel compassion"), more like an 'axiom' (e.g. "do this because of course everyone feels compassion, it's human nature"), some kind of "Golden Rule"-like thinking, for example,

  1. All are afraid of the stick, all fear death. Putting oneself in another's place, one should not beat or kill others.

How can this idea be best applied in meditation? For example, how would meditating on the causes of suffering--to arouse compassion--be achieved?

My personal experience is that it doesn't work like that.

For example if I'm in conflict with someone because we both want something, or want different things, you might hope that my understanding their motive would make me more compassionate.

And in theory, intellectually, understanding the motives of the other person, and understanding our situation, works to some extent, sometimes ... but it's impermanent, not really stable ... because even if I understand or forgive them, I still can't get what I crave ... which fuels conflict ...

... so the more stable cessation of dukkha coincides with a cessation of my own craving, and cessation of fuelling own craving ... possibly replacing that craving with compassion ... but the generation-of-compassion alone (i.e. understanding other people's motives, without considering or reconsidering own motives such as craving) isn't enough.

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