compassion that hears the cries of the world

Compassion that hears the cries of the world

Compassion is the mental quality which feels for the suffering of another and wishes that he or she may be free from that suffering or that his or her suffering may be alleviated.

Our hearts are touched and we reach out to comfort and help in whatever way we can. Or, at the very least, we send a thought wishing for the wellbeing of the person.

Compassion may well be an innate quality in us but it still needs to be cultivated. Otherwise, it may be weak or may not even arise at all when encountering a suffering being.

Often times we may be too busy or preoccupied with our life and the many things we have to do that we may not notice another being's suffering. We use the word, 'being', here because we want to include not only human beings but also animals.

Thus, if we wish to practise compassion, we need to be sensitive to the suffering of others. We need to pay attention and notice when someone is suffering. If someone were to come up to us with pain and sorrow in her eyes and express her suffering to us, do we feel her pain and does empathy flow from our heart? Even without us saying a word, a suffering person can sense if we empathize with her or if we are indifferent and untouched. Our eyes and body language reveal our true feelings.

When there is empathy we will find the right words to comfort and allay the pain of another. Even if we do not say anything, the other person can sense our empathy, compassion and understanding. At such times, too, we may respond spontaneously by hugging or stroking the person or showing some form of compassionate gesture.

Some people have a strong compassionate nature; they are quick to notice the suffering of others and to render assistance. Perhaps this may be a trait they have cultivated from a previous life or from young in this life, perhaps again through the influence of kind parents and teachers or observing the compassionate behaviour of others.

But for most of us, I believe, our compassion is not that strong and we need to make an effort to cultivate and strengthen it. If we are in the habit of practising lovingkindness, i.e., metta, wishing for the wellbeing of others and always having goodwill towards them, it will be easier for us to cultivate compassion. Our hearts, being made soft by metta, can then be more sensitive and percipient of the suffering of others.

Also, as we repeat our metta phrases, “May so-and-so be happy….”, people who are suffering will come to our mind and we will then make appropriate wishes for them, such as, "May this person be healed. May she be free from suffering. May her suffering be alleviated."

Without doubt, this world could well do with more compassion. The opposite of compassion is cruelty, which we unfortunately see a lot of in this world. Terrorism, violent killings, suicide bombings, torture, crimes, oppression and exploitation abound. In everyday life, too, people may act cruelly, vindictively, nastily and meanly towards one another.

Imagine a world without cruelty, where no-one has a heart to hurt another, where everyone is compassionate and kind towards each other. Wouldn’t that be wonderful - a paradise? In this kind of world, wouldn’t everyone feel safe and happy?

Thus, the overriding importance of compassion and kindness becomes crystal clear. It is the indispensable quality that promotes happiness and removes suffering in the world.

When practising compassion, it is important not to forget our loved ones. It is ironic how sometimes we can be compassionate towards others but overlook or be indifferent towards the suffering of our own dear ones. Familiarity may make us blind or insensitive to their suffering. We should, therefore, guard against this complacency and be sensitive and compassionate towards the suffering of our loved ones and give them appropriate comfort and support.

In the world we can see people practising compassion in many ways. There are those serving in the war and conflict zones, tending to the sick and wounded, those giving aid to the poor and needy, operating soup kitchens for the homeless and hungry, running hospices for the dying, giving a home to abandoned animals, donating their body organs to save lives, and the list goes on.

Such noble acts of others inspire and motivate us to do our little bit for those around us and the community we live in. In everyday life there are also many little acts of compassion and kindness shown by people to each other which may pass unnoticed or which are soon forgotten. However, as the poet William Wordsworth put it, “these little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love are the best portion of a person’s life.”


While we cultivate a compassionate attitude towards others, there are times too when we need to apply that very same compassion to ourselves. It is strange and ironical how we may sometimes overlook to do this.

Thus, when we are suffering, we can be mindful of our suffering, be it mental or physical. How are we feeling? Sad, miserable, unhappy, depressed, distressed, frustrated, disappointed, despondent, in despair, angry, bitter, lonely, lost, etc? We can name the feeling or mental state present or discern the mixture of various feeling tones and mental factors. Or we can simply be just with the feeling without having to analyse and give it a particular label.

We can understand how the suffering has arisen and if it is something we have to accept and cannot just push away, we see how we can come to terms with it and be at peace with it. By responding wisely and skilfully we can manage and cope well with the suffering.

Then we can apply compassion to ourselves by gently whispering to ourselves, “May I be healed. May I be kind and gentle to myself. May I feel better. May I recover, May I be strong,” and any other phrases that come to mind. We can repeat these phrases again and again now and then throughout the day so long as the suffering is still there, weighing down on us.

We want to be a friend to ourselves, be kind and gentle to ourselves and not further beat up ourselves by being our own harsh, unforgiving and mean inner critic. We see how we can help ourselves by taking good care of both our body and mind.



Compassion and Wisdom

Compassion needs to be practised with wisdom. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), a fifth century meditation manual, pointed out that while cruelty is the “far enemy” of compassion, grief is its “near enemy”. Falling into grief is counter-productive because while in that state, not only is our mind in an unwholesome space but we may also be rendered helpless and in an unfit condition to be of help to the suffering person. While overwhelmed by grief, we may even need to be comforted and supported by others.

Thus, compassion is more a feeling of empathy and a heartfelt wish for the relief of the suffering person, coupled with an ability to offer words of comfort and physical assistance. Initially, this compassion may be tinged with a feeling of sadness but this is not necessarily unwholesome or unpleasant as it is a noble and healthy expression of our humanity. However, this initial sadness will give way to empathy which is the more prevalent and dominant feeling.

The French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, an adept practitioner of compassion meditation, when shown a film clip of severe burn victims having dead skin painfully stripped from their bodies, reported a sense of “caring and concern, mixed with a not unpleasant strong, poignant sadness.”

Thus, compassion needs to be applied with wisdom and a healthy balance of equanimity or mental composure.

On another note, practising compassion does not mean that we allow others to step all over us, abuse, exploit or take advantage of our kind and compassionate nature. The term, ‘idiot compassion,’ has been coined for compassion that is practised blindly and without wisdom.

Such compassion does no good for both the giver and receiver. Instead, we may be perpetuating a co-dependent, abusive, unskilful, dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship. To avoid this, we should be discerning and circumspect when exercising our compassion, knowing how to protect and take care of ourselves, and being able to be firm and set healthy boundaries.


Compassion in Buddhism

In the Buddha’s teachings, compassion is strongly emphasised as one of the four divine abidings that are to be developed, the other three being lovingkindness, appreciative joy and equanimity.

Furthermore, the first of the five precepts undertaken by Buddhists is not to kill or harm. The Buddha enjoined his disciples not only to live a harmless life but to act for the welfare and happiness of all beings.

In the second factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, Right Intention includes the intention to refrain from cruelty which, to put in a positive way, is to act with compassion.

The Buddha himself exercised compassion by teaching selflessly for 45 years after his enlightenment till his death at the age of 80. His teaching has only one purpose which is to show beings the way out of suffering.

Having attained the goal himself, the Buddha exhorted us to make the necessary effort to liberate ourselves from suffering. “It can be done and you can do it,” was his most encouraging message. But we must be prepared to put in the required effort.

Besides practising restraint and living a virtuous and kind life, the Buddha said meditation was necessary for the uprooting of latent mental defilements in us. Hence, his oft-repeated advice: “What should be done out of compassion by a teacher who seeks the welfare and happiness of his disciples, that I have done for you. There are these roots of trees, these empty huts. Meditate, do not delay, lest you regret it later.”

While Buddha taught (vipassana) insight meditation to remove delusion, he also taught the four divine abidings (brahma-viharas) so that we can strengthen certain important wholesome qualities in us.

Lovingkindness is the antidote to anger; compassion counteracts cruelty; appreciative joy dispels envy and jealousy while equanimity opposes agitation and provides mental stability and balance. We have elsewhere explained the meditations on lovingkindness, appreciative joy and equanimity. Here we will present the meditation on compassion.


The Meditation on Compassion (Karuna-bhavana)

Sit comfortably on the floor or on a chair. For details on the sitting posture, please refer to the vipassana meditation instructions (

Think of someone you know who is suffering, physically or mentally, and wish for this person: “May so and so (insert the name accordingly) be healed. May she/he be healed." You can also address the person directly by name and wish, "May you be healed."

Now the term "healing" has a wide connotation. It can refer to both physical and mental healing. A person may be suffering from an illness or having some mental suffering such as depression, sorrow, fear, worry and anxiety.

As you repeat the phrase, you can feel your earnest wish for the person to be healed and be free from suffering. However, as you continue to repeat, your feeling may become more one of calm while the wish for the person's healing and wellbeing is still being aroused, expressed and maintained through the phrase that you keep repeating.

In addition to the phrase, "May she be healed," you can make other relevant phrases, such as:

"May she be able to bear up, endure, tolerate."

"May her suffering be alleviated."

"May she be free from suffering."

"May she be strong, calm, peaceful and cheerful."

"May she be helped."

"May she get the best treatment."

"May he be free from depression," i.e., in the case of a person suffering from depression.

"May he recover."

"May he feel better."

"May he be strong."

The above phrases are just some suggestions. Naturally, you will also find your own words that are appropriate and fitting for the person concerned.

However, to keep the repetition simple, easy and smooth, you may eventually fall back to repeating a short phrase such as, "May she be healed," over and over again.

Then you may think of another person who you know is suffering and again wish for that person to be healed and be free from suffering. In this way you can wish for several or more persons, one after another, moving back and forth among these persons, staying a longer or shorter time with each person as you like. You can also stay for a long time with one person, even for a whole meditation session of say 30 minutes to an hour.

In the case of a person suffering from a serious illness which is regarded as terminal, the phrase "may be healed" is still pertinent as in some cases we cannot rule out an unexpected or so-called miraculous recovery. And even if a cure is not possible, the word, 'healing', can also mean to be healed mentally in the sense of being able to accept the situation and to be at peace with it.

In the case of person who is dying, we can wish that the person may have a peaceful passing with minimal pain and suffering. Depending on our religious beliefs or world views, we may, if we are Buddhists or believers in rebirth, wish that the person will get a good rebirth while a Christian will wish that the person may go to heaven and be with God.

A question may be asked whether our wishes or prayers will have any effect on the person we are wishing for. We think there is a positive effect as we believe in the power of prayer, of words and intention. We reckon there is some positive mental energy or vibrations that are being transmitted to the person concerned and that will uplift or support the person in some way.

However, while there are many anecdotal claims of positive, even miraculous, results, controlled scientific studies on the efficacy of prayer have so far proven inconclusive with some doubts being levied on earlier studies which reported speedier recovery from various medical conditions together with fewer complications. It would seem that more thorough studies need to be carried out before a clearer conclusion can be reached as far as science is concerned.

Be that as it may, I am of the view that there must be some good in wholesome mental vibes being directed to beings, even if these effects cannot, understandably, be measured or quantified. Furthermore, there is benefit, meaning and purpose in our sending out compassionate thoughts, for we are:

1. Keeping our mind in a wholesome state by thinking compassionate thoughts. When a wholesome thought is present, it means an unwholesome thought is absent at that time.

2. Bringing to mind someone who is suffering, even several or many times a day, and wishing them healing and wellness. It is, in fact, a wonderful thing that we keep in mind and do not forget our dear ones, friends, and others who are suffering.

3. Cultivating a heart of compassion which will naturally lead to kind and compassionate speech and action. The mind is the source of all good and evil. The seeds of compassion that we plant in our mind will germinate and blossom into kind words and deeds.

As a formal meditation practice, the concentration we develop while repeating the compassion phrases will lead to mental absorption (jhana) which is a unique and pleasant state of mind that is different from our normal everyday mind state. The Buddha described jhana as a kind of spiritual happiness that should be strongly developed.

However, it is important not to confine our compassion practice to only formal sitting sessions but also throughout the day to, now and then, bring to mind suffering ones and wish them healing and wellness. Also, we can make it a habit to repeat the phrase, "May all beings be free from suffering."

Naturally, in formal practice, too, we can wish for all beings to be free from suffering. Thus, we can alternate between sending to individuals and to all beings in general. Theoretically, it is easier to enter jhana by staying with one object for some time, that is, with one person or with all beings. 

This is because our mind need not move from one person to another which may entail some thinking or searching as regards who to wish for next. However, our purpose need not be for the attainment of jhana but just the sending of well wishes to those we know are suffering. We feel happy to do this as we know it is a fitting, appropriate, meaningful and compassionate thing to do.  And there will still be a certain modicum of concentration which, with familiarity and practice, can still lead to jhanic absorption.

Furthermore, it may not be easy initially to arouse compassion by sending to all beings in general as the idea "all beings" is kind of abstract and the mind is more likely to lose interest and wander away. On the other hand, we can feel a stronger sense of connection and empathy when sending to individual beings whom we know and the compassion thus aroused can then be directed to all beings.

Sending to just one person for a long time is fine and may well lead to jhanic absorption. However, as mentioned, our purpose is not just absorption but to send compassionate wishes to those we know who are suffering. The bottom line is we want to develop compassion for one and all. Thus, we want to develop flexibility, being able to send to one, several, many, and all beings.

When sending to individuals, our wish can be tailored to their needs. Some may have relationship problems, others financial and work issues. A student may have anxiety facing exams. A person may still be struggling to recover from an early childhood trauma. A pregnant woman can well do with our well wishes for the safe delivery of her child. In fact, there are all kinds of scenarios and possibilities. Accordingly, we can make wishes or phrases that are appropriate for the situation. We can also, eventually, fall back on certain phrases that are short and easy to repeat, such as "May (so and so) be healed." "May she be free from suffering."


Radiating to groups

You can also send compassionate thoughts to specific groups of people who are suffering in the world. Think of those in war and conflict zones living in danger, scarcity and fear; those who are tortured and oppressed; those who are poor and struggling for survival, hungry and malnourished, having no access to education and medical care; those who are exploited and earning wages which can barely keep them alive; those who are jobless, homeless, sick, aged; those who are struggling with disability and handicaps; those who are imprisoned; those who are in mental asylums or suffering from mental illness; those who are fearful, depressed, unhappy, miserable, etc. You can compose your own well-wishing phrases and also use the standard, "May they be free from suffering."

Now, of course, we know that it is not only human beings who are suffering but animals, too. Again you can think of the suffering undergone by those animals and pets who are abused by human beings; and animals that are reared under cruel conditions and slaughtered for human consumption. And you wish, "May they be free from suffering."

Radiating to all

"May all beings be free from suffering. May they be free from suffering," may be repeated again and again when radiating to all.

Compassion for oneself

When we are suffering we can direct compassion to ourselves. We can wish for ourselves, "May I be healed. May I feel better. May I recover. May I be strong. May I be at peace," and so on. We should be kind and gentle and be a good friend to ourselves. Imagine how, if your best friend is suffering, you would comfort her or him. Similarly, you can talk to yourself, comfort and shore up yourself as you would your friend. At such times, when you are hurting, you should take good care of your mind and body. You can also reflect wisely to help you understand and come to terms with the suffering, to be at peace with it, and to see how you can respond skilfully and intelligently to free yourself of this suffering or to alleviate it.

May we all grow in compassion, spread happiness, and alleviate suffering in the world.


"I am no longer as inspired by expertise as I once was. Perhaps the worth of any lifetime is measured more in kindness than in competency."

- Dr Rachel Naomi Remen

“Carve your name not on marble but on hearts, for long after forget-me-nots have withered, the fragrance of your kind deeds will still live in the hearts of those you have touched.” - Adapted from Charles H. Spurgeon

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

- Leo F. Buscaglia

“Life is so hard. How can we be anything but kind?” - Jack Kornfield

"A kind word can keep you warm for three winters," - Japanese proverb

"That best portion of a good man's life,

His little, nameless, unremembered

Acts of kindness and of love.”

- William Wordsworth

"All beings tremble before violence.

All fear death. Life is dear to all.

Putting yourself in the place of others,

You should not kill or harm another."

- Buddha, Dhammapada 129-130

"Speak not harshly to anyone.

Those, thus addressed, will retort.

Angry speech is, indeed, painful.

Blows in exchange may bruise you. 

"But if, like a cracked gong,

you keep your peace,

you have already attained Nibbana,

for no vindictiveness is found in you."

- Buddha, Dhammapada 133-134