The Heart of Compassion
by Swami B.V. Tripurari.
Sweetest tales are those that tell of saddest times. The saddest aspects
of life give rise to compassion in the hearts of those who are self-realized.
Thus compassion is a synthesis of both happiness and distress, for the
compassionate are not unhappy themselves, but are unhappy for others
while satisfied in their own lives. This is the basis of the transcendent
experience, a synthesis of polar opposites -- good/bad, hot/cold, happiness/distress
-- that takes us above duality. Compassion is the heart of transcendence,
and it is in enlightened consciousness that we can find the heart of
The distress of others provides the opportunity to lend a helping hand,
and the joy derived from helping others is unparalleled. But to experience
the highest joy, to get to the heart of compassion, we will have to
know the extent of the suffering in this world and how to stop it. If
we do not know the root cause of another's suffering, we may do that
person more harm than good in attempting to alleviate his or her misery.
If our baby cries because of too much gas in her stomach, but we think
she is crying out of hunger, our good intentions and the best milk will
have the worst effect.
According to the Vedanta, the reasoning of Indian philosophy, all the
visible suffering of this world has an underlying, invisible cause.
The disease of which hunger, epidemics, political oppression, environmental
disaster, and violations of human and animal rights are symptoms, is
called maya, or illusion. This illusion arises out of misidentification.
As individual units of consciousness, chit kana, identify with matter,
the veil of illusion is drawn. Perceiving the world through the medium
of the senses, we gather information and experience. As the senses of
hearing, tasting, smelling, seeing, and touching contact their objects
-- sound, flavor, aroma, shape, and form -- sensations are relayed to
the mind. The mind either accepts or rejects these sensations, categorizing
them as good or bad. Thus whether something tastes good or bad is relative;
that is, it is not true in all instances. The same thing may taste delicious
to you and unpalatable to me. So which is it? "Neither," Vedanta
replies. The very sense of good or bad, happiness or distress, hot or
cold, is illusory. Through the mind and senses, consciousness creates
an illusory world of good and evil. The purpose of spiritual culture
is to take us beyond the purview of the mind and senses to see the true
nature of reality. Thus we are said to be suffering from an identity
crises. The whole of our material experience is likened to be a bad
dream from which we need to awaken. Sri Chaitanya has referred to the
task of awakening the sleeping masses to their spiritual prospect as
para upakara, the best thing we can do for suffering humanity. Short
of this, all measures to improve our present situation do not get to
the root of the problem.
This basic theme can be elaborated upon considerably. The Vedanta makes
a very strong case, one that many Western thinkers have been forced
to reckon with. Yet applying this logic seems almost inhuman. Are we
to neglect the world we live in? How can we be spiritual, filled with
divine love and compassion, and at the same time be insensitive to the
suffering around us, ignoring it while absorbed in "meditation"?
How to harmonize the logic of Vedanta and our own humanness is a problem
that any thoughtful and caring person must deal with. Solving this problem
is tantamount to self-realization. It involves understanding our human
condition as the final stage in our evolution toward enlightenment,
and human compassion as a shadow of the substance of absolute compassion,
a shadow we need to pass through on our way to transcendence. Any approach
to ultimate transcendence that does not deal thoroughly with this dilemma
will keep us tied to mundanity, even while surrounded by spiritual trappings.
There are two basic pitfalls on the spiritual path, two erroneous conceptions
that arise in attempting to deal with this crucial issue. The first
leaves one hard-hearted, the second renders one illogical.
Insensitivity to the plight of others sometimes predominates in those
who have formally adopted a spiritual path. Using the logic of the scriptures
and repeating the words of the rishis can be abused to insulate one
from one's own inner inadequacies in genuinely caring for others on
the human level. This amounts to confusing genuine detachment (a very
high state of consciousness) with indifference to the suffering of others.
The difficulties others face are viewed rather coolly by the first group
as "tough karma.", "People are getting what they deserve,
reaping what they themselves have sown." No doubt this is true;
however, merely adopting the reasoning and language of enlightenment
Living in a monastery atop the Himalayas is often thought of as the
ultimate spiritual cop-out. And it may be for many who are not yet able
to embrace the spiritual path wholeheartedly -- those who are trying
to escape their lack of caring by hiding behind the robes of renunciation.
In the words of Anthony, Ecker, and Wilber in Spiritual Choices, theirs
is "an epistemological sleight-of-hand by claiming an existential
point of view which is not, in fact, authentic for him or her. The follower's
consciousness is still heavily conditioned by pleasure and pain, joy
and sorrow. An honest orientation would involve concern and empathy
for the suffering of others, and, while accepting suffering as a result
of karma, would view karmic determination as a process that one is not
yet able to fully understand or apply to the problem of suffering."
Adopting the dress of a renunciate is not enough; one must become a
truly caring person on all levels.
When fully developed, the transcendentalist will naturally choose to
apply their caring where it will do the most good. At the same time,
a spiritually evolved person cannot shed a tear for the pain others
feel, on the human level. The enlightened souls may not spend their
time opening hospitals, but they genuinely care about the suffering
of others. This is possible for them because of their genuine detachment,
which allows them full involvement in all circumstances without karmic
There are those who are evolved enough to adopt the path of renunciation
and deal with the root cause of suffering directly, few though they
may be. They dwell in the heart of compassion. But we, either as beginners
in the ashrama or persons living in the world, cannot artificially adopt
the view of the fully enlightened and not be culpable of neglecting
our duty to the world and others on the human level. Thus, although
there is a platform of ultimate compassion, there is also imitation,
or mere intellectual adherence to this concept. The latter is a psychological
manoeuvre for coping that will not help us very much, while the former
is the goal of transcendent consciousness. This goal is attained through
the gradual development of the compassionate heart.
One who is not ready for a life of renunciation should not live in a
monastery. But if one wants to reach the heart of compassion, one must
do more than help humanity, for without sensual restraint and stilling
of the mind one will never know the dimension of the soul. This leads
us to the second misconception -rationalizing away one's inability to
adhere to spiritual practices and leaving the ashrama to "help
It is not enough to help others who are suffering in the world. Feeding
and clothing the poor, opening hospitals, and speaking out against political
oppression do not add up to enlightenment. Spiritual practices such
as controlling the senses, yoga, meditation, and activities, when engaged
in under the direction of a self-realized spiritual guide, awaken realized
knowledge of the nature of the self and the world around us. Philantrophy
and altruism cannot replace meditation. They are in fact tinged with
the mud of mundanity. They are extended forms of ego-gratification,
which reach beyond immediate bodily gratification and cater to the subtle
form of our material condition, the mental system. The good feeling
we get from feeding the poor, for example, is often based on our mental
conception of what the world is (as understood through the medium of
the senses), a notion that is sure to be mistaken. It gratifies to our
illusory conception of the self. It is a subtle form of self-centeredness.
Even if we see others' suffering as our own, not admitting to the illusion
of separateness we live in, we experience at best an underdeveloped
spirituality, for in this condition one has yet to gain acquaintance
with his or her spiritual individuality as a servant of Godhead.
The work of God is not to help the poor any more than it is to help
the rich, not to help the sick any more than to help those who are healthy.
In fact the rich and the healthy may be more in need of God's help,
proud as they often are of their pennies and push-ups. Equating philanthropic
works with ultimate spirituality is a common misconception that arises
in dealing with the harmonizing of the head and heart. Living in a monastery
yet unable to practice the discipline or feeling the need to be involved
with the world such that one's practices are constantly disturbed is
certainly justification for leaving the mountain top. Yet it is easy
to rationalize one's material attachments, thinking that by leaving
and, say, working for the blind, one is opening the eyes of others to
the ignorance or misidentification (maya). In fact, one may be facilitating
the prolongation of another's life in illusion. Such persons should
leave the ashrama, yet understand their shortcomings and be careful
not to justify their actions, equating their inadequacies with the work
of the enlightened.
Spiritual life unfolds gradually. We cannot jump to the highest platform,
ignoring the nature and degree of our material conditioning. We cannot
equate spiritual life with fact-gathering; spiritual life must translate
into action. It is indeed a cop-out to espouse the philosophy of Vedanta
but not care for the suffering of others. But it is also a cop-out to
equate our material identification and desire for material interaction
with the work of enlightened consciousness. Those practising spiritual
life who cannot leave the world behind and rationalize their leaving
the monastery or their practice for the sake of doing philanthropic
work are as guilty of pseudo-spirituality as the false renunciates.
The heart of compassion ultimately lies in enlightenment. The work of
the enlightened soul is not opening hospitals. It is curing the disease
of misidentification by broadcasting the message of transcendence, while
genuinely caring for the suffering of others. Reaching this goal is
no easy task: it requires that we carefully practice spiritual discipline
while assessing the degree to which we are still under the jurisdiction
of karma, the law of this world. Honest assessment of our condition
will then dictate our responsibility to worldly affairs. Gradually,
with spiritual guidance, we can pass through (not skip over or get stuck
in) human compassion and arrive at the inner heart of compassion. It
is here that real caring takes place based on knowledge of what is worth
caring about and what the ultimate cause of suffering is.
The boy-saint Prahlad of the Bhagavad Purana is an example of the heart
of compassion. Once self-realized, he thought not to leave the world
but to remain and attend to the deliverance of all other living entities
from the mire of illusion. Buddha, Shankara, Christ, Sri Chaitanya,
and many others also stand out as examples in the history of the world.
They cared for the sufferings of others, but their time was principally
spent in their own spiritual cultivation and subsequently disseminating
transcendental knowledge and advocating love of God. Their view was
decidedly that service to God is the highest service to humankind, not
that service to humankind is the last word in service to Godhead.
The element of higher compassion in transcendence is a logical necessity.
If it does not exist, the balance of good and evil that all caring people
seek is not to be found, for as long as we remain within the world of
sense perception, our good will always be an evil for someone else.
Genuine spirituality is not an icy act of world-denying, nor is it a
flaky sentimental embracing of the problems of others without knowledge
of an overall solution to their suffering. It is a caring based on knowledge,
a spiritual emotion, if you will. There is a transcendental status of
neutrality beyond worldly love and hate, a higher synthesis that cancels
out the material duality. And it is this state that we endeavor for
through philanthropic and altruistic efforts, attempting to bring balance
to our world. We seek it, but how close do we come to it by the everyday
means of lending a helping hand? Only as far as we understand that through
such world-serving activity our work is all for naught. That is, it
will never permanently change the world. Thus the value of such work
is not in that it improves a world where death is the norm, but that
it softens the heart, enabling us to pass through material compassion
to transcendental knowledge.
As long as the heart is stonelike and cannot shed a tear for not only
the plight of humanity but all species, there is no question of developing
the pure heart of spiritual compassion. Ram Das has explained it thus:
"There are many levels of heart. And the human heart will break
because it empathizes. The deeper heart -the hridayam, the jivatma,
or the hsin hsin in Chinese- that heart is the one that looks at the
universe just as it is, in a non-reactive way, and says, 'Ah so, yes.'
And it includes your own human heart which is breaking, but your identity
isn't only with your human heart. Your identity is with a deeper intuitive
heart of wisdom which is different."
Self-realized souls are usually not involved in helping others in their
various predicaments in this world because they do not see the suffering
as we do. They are also too busy serving the need of those ready to
hear about the ultimate solution to material suffering.
A few years ago, during a speaking tour I did in Eastern Europe, a young
man from Bulgaria asked me, "Does your mission of meditation and
self-realization do anything for the suffering of the world? What does
it do practically to solve the world's problems?" I replied, "The
difference between you and I is that you think the world has problems,
whereas I think that the 'world', as you see it, is the problem."
For the self-realized soul, everything is moving in accordance with
the will of God. Let well enough alone, and inform others that everything
is all right. The only thing lacking is acquiring the proper angle of
Once one of my godbrothers asked my guide if he could render any service.
To this our mentor replied, "Change your angle of vision; this
is real service." Hunger, for example, is not a stomach problem,
it is a disease of the heart. As long as we insist on viewing the world
through the limited and imperfect instruments of sense perception, we
live in a world we have created, not the kingdom of God. We live where
one living being is food for another, where exploitation is the norm.
We create friends and enemies and perpetuate our suffering.
Just as the suffering of a son after his first childhood heartbreak
is not something to take very seriously, so the suffering of humanity
is not what it is made out to be by those who are presently troubled
by it. One who sees the soul in all circumstances knows that the future
of the struggling living entities is bright. Our human suffering, however
long it endures, is insignificant when compared to eternity. However
many lifetimes it may take to tread the path of eternality amounts to
but a few moments of our real life. It is all a dream soon to be forgotten,
a sad tale that tells, if we look very closely, of sweeter times.