Compassion versus Love

Filed under Prose

I have been contemplating a difficulty with ‘compassion’ versus ‘love’ in Buddhism. There are, of course, many uses of the word “love” with just as many meanings–“I love ice cream!” and “I love you!” being two extremes. I like the ancient Greek distinctions between Agape, Eros, Philia, and Storge. “Compassion” is an emotion, unlike “Agape,” thus I feel that compassion can be just as misleading and evanescent as the rest of our restless emotions. And I notice that while ‘compassion’ is central to all that Buddhism is, even in mind-training, it seems less so in actual Buddhist life (as practiced), and is more ‘distant’ (i.e. separated from) in perspective–e.g. ‘my’ compassion for the ‘other’–than the Agape of ancient Greece, which is ‘selfless’ love, matching that in the Christian idea of “God’s love for us.”

At the root of this quandary, for it is one for me, is the idea that the central value in a (new) way of life should be ‘immaculate’, e.g. non-tarnished by ignorance arising from any false understandings of reality–that of separation and any kind of sustained ‘self’ being the biggest. I find ‘compassion’ to be tarnished by a kind of arrogance of self (“Oh, thank god!, I’m better off than he/she/it… I should help!” and “Oh, a little piece of meat won’t hurt anyone!”) Whereas agape is a much more difficult standard to meet for us mere mortals; but it is clean of the implication and/or contamination of your ‘self’ and it’s self-concerns! But shouldn’t that be the kind of trait that we most want to instill in ourselves–something that takes effort to attain; and something that takes us beyond our normal mundane self-concern? Especially since, as I have experienced it, this entire song (uni-verse) is a Love Song… hahaha.

When I read the story of Avalokiteshvara, who is the manifestation of Compassion in Buddhism (including in his/her ‘Tara’ manifestations), I don’t read about someone who feels sorry for someone else. I read about someone who is self-less in giving of his/her ‘self’ for the benefit of others–and that is the ideal of the Bodhisattva in Buddhism! But this is agape, not compassion…

Perhaps this is all just a translation decision/mistake (all translation is treason to the original meaning). After all, I can ‘love’ ice cream; but I don’t feel compassion for it! The cows and their suffering, however, are a different story…

6 Responses to “Compassion versus Love”

  1. Louise Burnet, Munoz says:

    Hi James, glad to read your words this morning. Makes me wonder though, it seems as some of what you’re saying as a common misunderstanding of compassion as simple pity. You didn’t hear that word in your teachings? And if it takes perhaps a mere conscious moment to see the blatent difference between the two, it takes a little more reflection to pick up the more subtle differences before we want to speak or act. And if we want to truly strive for Tchenrezi type compassion, yes, it will take great effort to purify, if you will, our compassion. So I guess we have to keep striving for it. All the best, Louise

    • James says:

      Hi Louise! The issue for me is that “compassion” is used within buddhism (in English) as the desire to relieve someone’s suffering. Compassion starts as a feeling of pity or sympathy for the other. It literally means “to sympathize with the suffering of another” (compassus–sympathize + pati–suffer), and it is here that I find the stain of a misunderstanding of reality–there is no ‘other’ because we are not separated. I understand the need to speak in terms that are understandable to everyone; but when your highest value is sympathy for the suffering of another, even with the desire to relieve that suffering which is how Buddhists mean it, it leaves it in the realm of desire… an ‘outflow’ in Buddhist terms; whereas agape is “selfless love.” It’s not a desire and it wants nothing in return, thus it is not an outflow, but rather a state of spiritual love that is not optional (or to pick up on how you put it, not needing some ‘purification’), and it can become the foundation for all of our acts. That ‘foundation’–selfless love–doesn’t require reflection or questioning–“should I?”–one just always acts immediately from that basis, while, perhaps, pushing away the natural doubts raised by our self-interest (this is the standard for true heroism). I see agape as the foundation of the bodhisattva way, not “compassion.” But again, this is just my issue with the word used. The word that Buddha used may very well be closer to agape in meaning than the word early English translators of Tibetan and Indian texts decided to use, which we are now stuck with. But isn’t it better to see all suffering as a universal challenge rather than an individual’s misfortune? I think so… Hey, thank you for responding to this Louise!

      • James says:

        I just finished reading a book by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and noted that he always used the phrase “love and compassion” in the book. I guess a lot of us do feel the need to add something to the idea of ‘compassion’. I see the formula as: Love minus Desire and minus the expectation of reciprocity plus Compassion equals Agape.

        I feel that to hold such an ideal in one’s heart will guide us more clearly to the result we wish to have, whether a world with less suffering, or to follow the path of a Bodhisattva.

        • Louise says:

          Hi again James, havent forgotten you,just been up to my ears with family visits.

          I very much like the notion of agape, though I won’t much comment on it here. Fabrice Midal has done some excellent writing on the subject if you haven’t read any of his work, I do suggest it.

          Getting back to our discussion of the use of the word compassion, a multi-facted succinct and abridged version of Tibetan, sanskrit or pali terms for the notion. Yes, the translation into English or French, uses the blanket term of “compassion” to cover what seems to me numerous different shades of the notion, so we would be well-advised to refine our own notions so that we do not lean towards something that is less noble.

          The first way I see compassion defined, is in related to the four immeasurables. And there, there is no “versus” between the compassion and love. They each simply stand on equal footing right along side joy (or rejoicing in the well-being of others) and equanimity. We try to allow our compassion to grow through equanimity, bringing us in my mind closer to more of a full-focus universal picture of which we ourselves are included. I think that by cultivating these four thoughts, it seems that it is clearly in line with the notion of agape.

          Another way of understanding compassion in Tibetan terms is that it is synonymous with “clarity”. I don’t have further comment on that right now, I’d have to think about that a little longer. But I do know that there are a range of different terms which get translated by “compassion”.

          The only way “sympathy” can be useful I think is to lessen the barriers between people. Anything less would tend towards “pity” which is simply not useful at all. But we live in France where we hear the word “sympathie” a lot which can be easily a “faux-ami”.

          I also mentioned the word purify in my comment above; I need to clarify that. When I use the word “purify”, I mean putting down all of our own baggage. It is nothing more or less than a constant refining of our own awareness of the state of things, that we may eventually arrive at a state of purity where there is only self-less love, compassion, etc.

          So I’ve tried to explain myself a bit here, I’m no expert at describing all these terms, but it’s certainly good for me to give it a go!
          A très bientôt

    • James says:

      I found this very succinct explanation during my morning reading: “It is said that a fully enlightened being is automatically impelled to work for the benefit of others. But how does this come about? It is said that a buddha has overcome all dualistic notions, such as the distinction between the object of compassion and the agent who practices compassion, yet if he or she sees sentient beings as objects of compassion, is he not still subjected to dualistic notions? There really is no contradiction here, because although the buddha is aware of sentient beings as objects of compassion, this awareness does not give rise to conceptual proliferation, and therefore compassion is not generated from dualistic thoughts.” (

      • Don Salmon says:

        it would seem that a truly non dual compassionate action would be one that emerges spontaneously without any thought “I am acting to relieve “your” suffering.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: