A powerful parallel teaching in compassion in both the Buddhist and Christian traditions is found when examining the stories of Sujata and the Good Samaritan.
Years of rigorous ascetic practice led Siddhartha [the future Buddha] to the point of eating a single grain of rice a day.
A peasant girl (Sujata) was on her way to the forest temple to make an offering of rice pudding to the gods, but she handed it to him instead.In accepting it, Siddhartha realized the inefficacy of asceticism, and consequently adopted the path that would lead him to enlightenment (the Middle Way). Sujata wasn’t motivated by doctrines, metaphysical ideas, or the desire to appease deities, but rather by the simple desire to help another being in need. The gesture, perhaps as much as the milk itself, was a teaching that propelled Siddhartha toward enlightenment.
The Gospel of Luke recounts the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a traveler lies beaten on the side of a road between Jericho and Jerusalem. A priest and a Levite both cross to the other side to avoid this man. A Samaritan (part of a group at odds with Jews) comes to his aid. One interpretation for why the priest and Levite the road from Jericho is that they were on their way to the temple, and that contact with blood or death would make them ritually unclean. Seen this way, the priest and the Levite assumed that the performance of ritual and adherence to the law was more important than helping another in need. By contrast, the Samaritan (like Sujata) performed a virtuous act without calculative or instrumental reflection, as a spontaneous reaction to the reality of suffering.
The parable is actually a response to a question a lawyer poses to Jesus: what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
Well fancy that: to inherit ‘eternal life’, we need only occupy ourselves with the needs of our fellow man!
Dostoyevsky offers similar advice in a parable of his own, where a woman who has lost her faith in God is instructed simply to love those around her.
The path to salvation (or heaven, or enlightenment if you prefer) is paved not with doctrines and rituals, but with compassionate responses to those in need.
Again, we should remember that this needn’t entail running off to Africa to help starving children (though it might). It could be as simple as listening to a friend in need, or trying to understand where someone’s anger is coming from.
This is the powerful lesson of the Buddhist image of the “bird of awakening:” for the bird to fly, it needs two equally strong wings: compassion (karuna) and wisdom (prajna, which can also be translated as discernment or insight). Without each one, the bird is imbalanced. Compassion without wisdom is blind, but wisdom without compassion is numb. Compassion and wisdom go hand in hand; they are mutually supportive and informing.
The clearer you become with yourself and your motivations, the more possibilities for compassionate action you’ll become aware of (including going into retreat to sharpen your wisdom). And the more you respond to your own and other’s desire for liberation, the more aware and sensitive you’ll be to the reality of suffering in the world.
This is why they say that we cannot hope to help another: we can only help ourselves. If you really want to benefit yourself and others, dive deep into your own mind, learn to spot your illusions and your true motivations, and become truly honest with yourself. Have in mind the basic truth that all beings want to be happy and avoid suffering, and become samurai-like, ready to move in any direction that would lead to the acting (or not acting!) most aligned with this.
Meditation: Has this investigation into compassion changed your perspective on it? If so, how?