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Compassion seems to be a central insight in Buddhist thought. When someone truly grasps Buddhist ideas they find themselves de-emphasizing their own ego, and understanding that they're interconnected with the world and everything in it.

I've lived this way for a long time and have become very effective at helping others, serving others, cultivating meaning in the lives of others. However, lately I'm realizing that this compassion is often not reciprocated, and at worst is taken advantage of as others know they can count on me to help them.

So I'm wondering if Buddhist thought has ever touched on this issue? How do we reconcile striving for unconditional compassion toward others, when many of those around us are happy to cheat, steal, and take from us?

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Compassion is an essential quality in Mahayana because it replaces a self-centered mind with a spacious mind without bounds.

Without compassion, you measure everything you encounter relatively to your values, your benefits, your understanding.

With compassion, your mind is open to all other views and perspectives, your awareness at any given moment includes a variety of points of view.

This serves three benefits personally to you:

  1. In terms of your karma, you do not carelessly hurt other people, either objectively or emotionally, because you are aware of how things look from their side. This keeps you protected from the negative consequences of people getting hurt by your actions, such as, for example, holding a grudge or revenge.
  2. Not being self-obsessed makes you proportionally free from judgement and immune to offencive actions by other people. Indeed, the self-centric attitude puts us in opposition to others, whom we see as our adversaries. As Buddhist teachers say, ego is like a giant open wound, extremely sensitive to even a slightest poke. Since our sense of self is a mirror reflection of our attitude to the world, compassion liberates us from feeling hurt when our ego is threatened.
  3. The spacious mind without boundaries that comes from compassion is a baby version of Bodhicitta, the mind of Buddha. By cultivating this mind we cultivate the Enlightenment.

Now, to come to the big picture. Imagine a group of people attending a lecture of Zen Buddhist master. Zen Masters are known for showing the teaching experientially instead of relying on intellectual explanations. The teacher starts his lecture on compassion like so:

I would like every one of you to do what I will say, immediately and without discussions. This will teach you a lesson about compassion. Turn to your neighbor and slap him or her on the face.

Everyone does that and now the room is full of hurt people rubbing their noses.

Now turn to the other side and hug your neighbor, showing your love and compassion.

Suddenly everyone in the room finds him or herself consoled by a stranger.

I hope you understand.

Now, to come to your immediate question. How to remain compassionate in the harsh worlds of samsara. This is when you need to understand that compassion does not equal giving yourself away for others to take advantage of towards their selfish goals.

Buddhist compassion is never stupid and helpless, it is compassion of the strong. Just like a school teacher has compassion for the ignorant students, while still setting the boundaries and even showing them wrath as necessary for their development.

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  • If I set myself to fire, surely that is the limit of compassion. Deleting Information in the matrix 🌈
    – blue_ego
    Jul 19, 2023 at 16:25
  • This is a great answer, thank you.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Aug 1, 2023 at 13:51
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From my own experience, originating from Mahayana understanding, I have come to a conclusion that cultivating compassion itself is kind of a folly. A waste of time.

I am not saying compassion is a mistake, but especially from Mahayana PoV where compassion is seen as a "virtuous mind state" that IS the way to liberation and point of existence (leading to bodhicitta) it seems illogical.

The Buddha explained that compassion is an antidote to ill will, nothing more. He did not explain that compassion is a step towards liberation, he actually states that it leads to a more fortunate rebirth but not specifically to liberation, hence why it is not a part of the eightfold path. Wiki page here of the 4 immeasurables.

This is not to say that compassion is an unwholesome mindstate, it is not a klesha in the conventional terms, a defilement the ruins stillness and peace of mind. If anything compassion bring pleasure and joy to the person experiencing it.

Still my experience with compassion, as well as the logic of anatta has led me to believe it is a waste of time to put effort into cultivating, unless of course you are a hateful person, or have hate for a specific person, again it can be used as an antidote to ill will.
In fact compassion arises naturally anyway while leading a virtuous life.
One only needs to think of another or our own suffering in the past to experience the mindstate naturally.

As for a more conventional look at compassion, in society I have experienced that compassion is often seen as a weakness. This will depend on each of our own personal social circumstances but for my own PoV being a man and living in a lower class life in a western society, compassion is not often seen as a virtue to others. This will obviously differ depending on other circumstances. Say a female in a nursing profession having compassion for a patient will be seen as virtuous, as an example.

Lastly you can keep in mind that you can have compassion for others but actually not show others that you have compassion for them. Compassion is an inner mental factor, it is not an external action, or word. There is often no need to show others compassion and in some cases showing compassion can harm others as they feel you pity them. It is actually a difficult mindstate to express emotionally or even with words.

Ultimately you can perfect compassion and have what is known as universal (great) compassion by the mahayana yet nobody other than you will ever know, as there is no way to show this "attainment" to others.

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From the Theravada perspective, four brahmaviharas (sublime states or sublime abodes) are virtuous mental states or virtuous mental attitudes that are cultivated, to counter negative mind states.

  • Compassion is used to counter contempt. This is how you deal with the suffering of people worse off than you.
  • Empathetic joy is used to counter envy and jealousy. This is how you deal with others being better off than you.
  • Loving kindness is used to counter ill will. This is how you prepare your mind to treat others.
  • Equanimity is used to counter aversion and passion towards blame and praise, ill will and kindness. This is how you deal with how others treat you.

They are used to brighten and uplift the mind, as well as guide the way we relate to people and society around us.

If your grandmother who has senile dementia lashes out at you in anger or doesn't behave like normal people do, would you be judgemental or contemptuous against her? No. You would be compassionate towards her, because you understand that she has senile dementia.

Similarly, you can generate compassion by trying to understand that other people are suffering and there may be genuine underlying reasons for their suffering and condition. It could be their life situation (e.g. poverty or undergoing divorce) or even mental states (e.g. ignorance, or clouded by anger or other negative emotions).

When it comes to compassion, the Buddha taught to show it also to those who are not virtuous:

“And what kind of person, bhikkhus, is not to be associated with, followed, and served? Here, some person is inferior to oneself in virtuous behavior, concentration, and wisdom. Such a person is not to be associated with, followed, and served except out of sympathy and compassion.
AN 3.26

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I think 'compassion' is a word over used in Western Buddhism.

My impression of compassion is it is the intention/wish to end suffering.

Therefore, more often in everyday life, our helping of others with a generosity of spirit comes under the sphere of 'generosity' rather than 'compassion'.

With 'generosity', it is generally something more sparing & selective.

Where as 'compassion' is something more urgent & necessary.

If we are not compassionate, this means we are cruel.

But if we decide to not exercise our generosity, this is not so blameworthy.

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    This is true. Even more troublesome from my perspective is that in western society we often conflate compassion with empathy when they are very different things and one can often impede the other.
    – user13375
    Jul 11, 2023 at 2:00
  • My personal experience is that I have a 'deep awareness of the suffering of others and the wish to relieve it', most of the time. IMO, after a deep understanding of Buddhism this mindset can become a common, everyday thing. But the quandary is that others don't share this experience. At some point we hit on the problem that, while we want to relieve others suffering, others typically don't care about our suffering.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Jul 11, 2023 at 14:33
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True central insight into Buddhist thought are the three marks of existence, namely: all conditioned things are ever-changing/transitory (anicca), all conditioned things produce suffering/dissatisfaction (dukkha) and all things have an impersonal nature (anatta).

So firstly, when someone truly grasps Buddhist ideas, they understand that suffering (dukkha) is the same for everyone, hence the term com-passion, or pain is common. Even more so, that all pain has a common origin (dukkha samudaya), which is craving. So the limit would be the complete annihilation of suffering (dukkha nirodha).

Secondly, the concept of an ego is to be seen as an illusory convention in order to escape it, so there are no interconnected entities, but only transient phenomena. Abandoning the cravings of one's so called ego in order to fulfill the cravings of another ego is deceitful compassion. That effort would be praise worthy only if while striving inwardly, one also encourages others outwardly too to progress on the path that methodically leads to the complete annihilation of suffering (dukkha nirodha gamini patipada).

Without the desire for reciprocity, that is the only true help that a person can give another.

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