The Three Stages of Compassion
Compassion is the essence of our practice. And practicing with compassion is a three-step process, as Chandrakirti explains at the very beginning of his Entering the Middle Way. Understanding this process tells us where to start and guides us as we become more and more capital-B-Bodhisattva-like.
We can all start here, now, by practicing with the first of the three types of compassion, compassion for the suffering of others. As we become more aware, we can move to practicing with the second type of compassion, compassion that arises from the suffering caused by delusion. Finally, when our practice deepens sufficiently, we practice the third type of compassion, compassion that arises from an awareness of emptiness.
Where we are on our path determines the type of compassion we practice, but knowing the direction in which our compassion will grow allows us to aspire toward deeper and deeper levels of compassion and to be open to an ever-increasingly profound practice.
Here is Chandrakirti’s triad:
1. Compassion with reference to beings.
This arises when our practice allows us to clearly perceive the pain and suffering of others. It is the first kind of compassion to arise and it causes us to strive to do what we can to help those who suffer.
This form of compassion is marked by our no longer being able to remain unmoved by the suffering of beings and by aspiring to do everything possible to help alleviate their suffering. It is often random and is not necessarily directed by wisdom. It is where we all begin as we dabble out toe in the stream.
2. Compassion with reference to reality.
This arises when we genuinely perceive how, through ignorance and delusion, beings create their own suffering. This compassion arises when we see deeply how, in striving to alleviate their suffering, beings are in fact causing themselves more suffering. Blinded by their ignorance of how things really are (impermanence and non-self), they continue to deepen their suffering thinking they are working to eliminate it.
Through understanding the illusory nature of reality, genuine perception of this situation brings forth this second type of compassion, which is more intense and profound than the first kind, and in which the delusions underpinnings of the suffering are addressed. Here there is focus and wisdom guiding our compassion. We see this type of compassion, for the most part, that we see in our Sangha.
3. Compassion without reference.
What distinguishes this third type of compassion from the first and second is that this compassion retains no notion of subject-object/self-other, nor of intention. [It is what the Buddha and Subhuti are chatting about in chapter ten of the Diamond Sutra.] It is the ultimate form of a Buddha or Bodhisattva's compassion. It depends on the realization of emptiness.
This third and most profound type of compassion opens naturally and spontaneous from within. It is our default or factory setting. It is simply who we are when we attain one mind. This is the compassion that is manifest in the mostly deeply practiced of our Teachers, those we address as Venerable Masters.
Understanding the three types of compassion, and the order in which they occur, tells us where to start with our practice of compassion, what to expect next, and extends our vision so that we may practice with ever-increasing depth to until we are able to be of benefit to all those touched by suffering, without discriminating and ultimately practicing without any preferences.