Compassion is the cornerstone of Judaism and regarded as both the emulation of G-d’s own compassion for His creation and a sacred and righteous responsibility rather than merely a voluntary action. In Scripture (Hebrew Bible), instances of compassion are cited in numerous passages in Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Proverbs, Psalms, etc. referring to neighbors, strangers, enemies, as well as animals. The inability to find joy in one’s own life knowing that others suffer is likewise expressed. However, according to Judaism, it is also vital to act on one’s feelings of compassion and empathy by feeding the poor, clothing the naked, tending to the sick, comforting the bereaved, educating the young, supporting the elderly, and so forth. Specific teaching with regard to animals is noteworthy. For example, one’s pets must be fed first before feeding oneself or one’s human family. There is also a rather strong case for vegetarianism in Judaism although this is a debatable issue. If an animal must be killed for food, however, there are definite ethical guidelines concerning how it is to be done, all in order to inflict the least pain possible (similar to Islamic Law). The Hebrew word for compassion is rachamim (a plural noun), which is thought to be derived from the Hebrew word rechem, meaning womb. There is the concept of motherly love, protection, and comfort associated with compassion.
What you have mentioned above, more closely resembles pity and and a regard for the welfare of others -i.e. charity.
But what I am more after is the idea of “suffering with” because essentially that is what compassion is.
I have been wondering whether the concept and the word is essentially a Christian term that has been confused with other concepts and so something was lost in the translation.
It is interesting that you refer to the Hebrew rachamin. I don’t think we have a word that truly translates this into English, so perhaps we translate it to compassion but it is not essentially the same.
I suppose what I am getting at here is, is there a teaching where one is supposed to suffer with another and not just alleviate the suffering of the other.
Another point, is that the God in the OT I think, cannot truly be said to be compassionate. He is merciful and He pities His people when they get into all sorts of mischief. And being God He responds in mercy and relieves them of their suffering when He deems it beneficial.
But the compassionate God - the God who suffers with His people can be said to be a truly novel Christian idea. In Christ, compassion takes form.
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Benedictus, can you give some examples of where in the New Testament Christ doesn’t act or teach that we should act, as Meltzer suggests as is necessary for a Jew, but in the entymological sense you suggest, apart from his crucifixion.
The Buddha said, “Love others as you love yourself.” - Bhadramayakaravyakarana sutra.
In Buddhism there are four Brahma viharas:
*] Universal love.
*] Universal compassion.
*] Universal sympathetic-joy.
*] Universal equanimity.
The second is defined as, “the wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering.”
I am not saying that Christ does not say that we should not act as Meltzer suggests.
My point is that the idea of compassion and the word compassion itself, is much more than pity or mercy. Yes we should be merciful, yes we should have pity. But to suffer with someone, that is indeed being like Christ. That is why I think the concept of compassion and the word itself is entirely Christian.
Compassion I think, goes beyond just being merciful, it is embodying mercy.
But that is still not compassion. I think before Christianity, the idea of compassion is just not there.
Love certainly is, wishing others well and taking away their suffering certainly is. Mercy yes. But suffering with the other? Enduring someone else’s pain? Walking the extra mile? Turning the other cheek? That I think, is a totally Christian novelty.
As you mentioned above, “the wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering”. But will one still work towards this if it entails suffering for oneself. If the consequence of “wishing” for the freedom from suffering of another means that one must in turn suffer, would one still wish it?
I think what has been translated as compassion when translating ancient texts is in a way a mistranslation. Compassion is more than sympathy.
Compassion takes love from mere feelings and elevates it. It is loving until it hurts and even when it hurts.
Good question Benedictus: There are fundamental differences in views of the nature of reality between Hinduism in particular and Christianity that make such a comparison difficult, except within the context of highlighting the differences. Specifically, a Hindu would share in another person’s suffering because with proper practice of Bhakti, Jnana and Raja Yoga, a person will come to the realization that there is no separate you or me, and therefore once I have attained this level of realization, I will quite naturally share in your suffering. That is phase one. The next phase is to transcend suffering and pleasure alike, and to take them as they come, not avoiding one or seeking the other. To do this, one must see them for what they are, and this would we would say is just the passing drama of Maya. The objective would not to be to wallow in your suffering or someone else’s but to learn how to move through it and transcend it and then to help others do the same. Not to dwell in it, but to realize that you are infinitely more than a smelly food processor that loses it’s hair and teeth over time and eventually rots. That is not you. That is an instrument through which God experiences what He has made. We would say that there is no you, no me or the other guy. There is only God, and the illusion of you and your suffering and your pain are epiphenomenon of our nervous systems, who quite convincingly think that they are somebody. Knowing this, over time you learn to feel for the next person as much as you do for yourself, because they are one in the same.
So it is not something that can be compared directly. It can be said that Hinduism lacks a sense of compassion in it’s scriptures in the same vein in which you could say that woman who lives on the 26th floor of an apartment building in Manhattan lacks a lawn mower. Lawn mowers simply don’t fit in the context of her life. My sense is that in Christianity, there is much emphasis on the suffering aspects of life (Stations of the Cross and the like). This too will eventually transcend suffering. It is not a wrong approach. It is a different approach. It is hard to compare the two one for one. The mindsets are radically different, starting with the idea of separation between things. Separation from God and the person next to you are prerequisites for the idea of sharing someone else’s suffering, because there has to be a someone else and a you to start with. We understand that line of thought, but we do not accept is as a reality. It is in itself the one thing to be avoided.
It is not exactly a novel Christian idea. In the Hebrew Bible, there are several examples in which G-d grieves, both for the righteous and the wicked. One such instance occurs before the advent of the Flood. And in Isaiah, God reveals that He is afflicted with His people. G-d also tells Moses of His grief and suffering. And in the Mishnah, G-d is described as grieving for humanity. May I remind you also that G-d does not change: the G-d of the OT is the same G-d of the NT.
So as such there really is no teaching as regards compassion. I understand that like in Buddhism it is about transcending suffering.
What you have mentioned above about the practice of Bhakti, it is not so much as suffering or choosing to suffer with someone but rather that in being the same being with another you suffer what the other suffers. This however is not the same since there is no other to suffer with in this case.
And yes, it is not something that can be compared because I think it is a totally different concept altogether.
If we regard suffering as a human condition (a result of the fall), then I don’t think that God’s grieving - as described in the OT - can be rightly termed suffering. I am not quite sure if it falls under the label sympathy. Although of course it is hard to describe the Transcendent God in this manner since He is above feelings ( or at least I think He is because feeling is also a human condition).
However, one could say that being all knowing He would know what we feel when we suffer, but does knowing make Him suffer as well? I somehow don’t think so.
Well, I also don’t think G-d suffers in the human sense, or feels any other emotion the way humans do. However, since we are made in the image of G-d, there must be a connection between our feelings of compassion–as well as our other feelings–and those of G-d.
It sounds as if you pretty much have your mind made up about this issue. Are you basically saying that suffering in the human sense is something that only the Person and Passion of Jesus is capable of on such an immense scale? I would then want to know whether you are referring to Jesus as a fully human being or Jesus as G-d Incarnate who suffers, or both, since they are regarded as a hypostatic union? Who actually suffers, dies, and is resurrected for the sins of humanity?
Different religions have different ideas. Buddhism has Buddhist compassion, not Christian compassion. Just as Buddhism lacks Christian compassion, so Christianity lacks Buddhist compassion.
Concepts that are important for one religion are absent, or less relevant, in other religions. Salvation is extremely important in Christianity, but not in Buddhism. Enlightenment is extremely important in Buddhism, but not in Christianity.
You may want to give a concrete example of what you mean by “suffering with the other”, “enduring someone else’s pain”, “walking the extra mile”, since they can mean many things to many different people.
However, “turning the other cheek” is pretty clear. And a good example of that can be found in the Buddhist Suttas, in which a Buddhist monk is about to go spread the Dhamma (the Teachings of the Buddha) into a region of the world (somewhere in India, perhaps, or a neighboring land) that could be very dangerous to Buddhist missionaries. The Buddhist monk, named Punna, addresses the Buddha, as Buddhists do, as “Lord” here:
“Lord, there is a country called Sunaparanta. I am going to live there.”
“Punna, the Sunaparanta people are fierce. They are rough. If they insult and ridicule you, what will you think?”
“If they insult and ridicule me, I will think, ‘These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don’t hit me with their hands.’ That is what I will think, O Blessed One. That is what I will think, O One Well-gone.”
“But if they hit you with their hands, what will you think?”
“…I will think, ‘These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don’t hit me with a clod.’…”
“But if they hit you with a clod…?”
“…I will think, ‘These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don’t hit me with a stick.’…”
“But if they hit you with a stick…?”
“…I will think, ‘These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don’t hit me with a knife.’…”
“But if they hit you with a knife…?”
“…I will think, ‘These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don’t take my life with a sharp knife.’…”
“But if they take your life with a sharp knife…?”
“If they take my life with a sharp knife, I will think, ‘There are disciples of the Blessed One who…have sought for an assassin [that is, they mistakenly actively sought to become martyrs for Buddhism], but here I have met my assassin without searching for him.’ That is what I will think, O Blessed One. That is what I will think, O One Well-gone.”
“Good, Punna, very good. Possessing such calm and self-control you are fit to dwell among the Sunaparantans. Now it is time to do as you see fit.”
There’s a story from the Mahabharata, a key Hindu sacred text. The story is about King Yudhisthira who is offered Heaven by Shakra, the Lord of Deities. Yudhisthira sees that his brother have died in battle, and he tells Shakra that he will not enter Heaven without his siblings. Shakra (who is also called “Indra”) agrees, and tells him that his brothers are already in Heaven. Then Yudhisthira, who is also called “Bharata”, brings up his dog, who has been faithful to him throughout life. He wants his canine friend to join him in Heaven:
"Yudhishthira said, ‘This dog, O Lord of the Past and the Present (that is, Shakra), is exceedingly devoted to me. He should go with me. My heart is full of compassion for him.’
"Shakra said, ‘Immortality and a condition equal to mine, O king, prosperity extending in all directions, and high success, and all the felicities of Heaven, thou hast won today. Do thou cast off this dog. In this there will be no cruelty.’
"Yudhishthira said, ‘O Thou of a 1,000 Eyes. O Thou that art of righteous behaviour, it is exceedingly difficult for one that is of righteous behaviour to perpetrate an act that is unrighteous. I do not desire that union with prosperity for which I shall have to cast off one that is devoted to me.’
"Indra said, ‘There is no place in Heaven for persons with dogs. Besides, the (deities called) Krodhavasas take away all the merits of such persons. Reflecting on this, act, O king Yudhishthira the Just. Do thou abandon this dog. There is no cruelty in this.’
"Yudhishthira said, ‘It has been said that the abandonment of one that is devoted is infinitely sinful. It is equal to the sin that one incurs by slaying a Brahmana. Hence, O great Indra, I shall not abandon this dog today from desire of my happiness. Even this is my vow steadily pursued, that I never give up a person that is terrified, nor one that is devoted to me, nor one that seeks my protection, saying that he is destitute, nor one that is afflicted, nor one that has come to me, nor one that is weak in protecting oneself, nor one that is solicitous of life. I shall never give up such a one till my own life is at an end.’
"Hearing these words of king Yudhishthira the Just, the Deity of Righteousness, who, well pleased, said these words unto him in a sweet voice fraught with praise.
“Dharma, the Deity of Righteousness, said: ‘Thou art well born, O king of kings, and possessed of the intelligence and the good conduct of Pandu. Thou hast compassion for all creatures, O Bharata, of which this is a bright example…On the present occasion, thinking the dog to be devoted to thee, thou hast renounced the very state of the celestials instead of renouncing him. Hence. O king, there is no one in Heaven that is equal to thee. Hence, O Bharata, regions of inexhaustible felicity are thine. Thou hast won them, O chief of the Bharatas, and thine is a celestial and high goal.’”
Yudhisthira was willing to suffer life without Heaven, without his family, for the sake of the happiness of his dog.
I think what Buddhists have is a teaching somewhat similar to compassion but it is not compassion. I think what happens is that in translating these concepts into English we pick words that only approximate the term because there is no corresponding word.
As Meltzer said, the word in Jewish terminology is akin to “womb” and we do not have such a term in English so we use the word compassion.
But compassion is very specific in it’s etymolgy. It is a suffering with.
We see that very much in Christian doctrine and it is brought to its zenith when God suffered with and for His people. Literally.
Technically speaking then, there is no such thing as Buddhist compassion because there is no such idea or word in Buddhism.
Buddhism seeks to escape suffering not join someone in his/her suffering.
I think it is existent in Islamic teaching though. They fast during the Ramadan so that they can be one and feel the pain of those who do not eat.
One of my staff is Muslim and she said to me that if she alleviated her hunger then it would be pointless because for them that is the whole point of the fast - to suffer with those who hunger. It seems to me incomplete though because compassion must take both courses: one must suffer with the afflicted and at the same time work towards relieving that affliction.