Is Wisdom Really Necessary In Order To Generate Compassion?

written by: CLARKE SCOTT 

It seems that my assertion from the article Philosophy as Practice raised some eyebrows among Buddhists.

Here is the section in question:

…without the ability to analyze and use critical thinking, even the compassion spoken of in Buddhism cannot be fully developed. Therefore the wisdom lineage, as in “method and wisdom”, pervades the method lineage.

I was surprised by the doubt raised by this statement, as it seems to me to be quite clear. However, in order to practice what I advocate, that is, doing philosophy, since last Thursday when the doubt was surreptitiously raised during a discussion after class.

I have been investigating whether this statement is in fact true, or simply an unchallenged assumption on my behalf. I consulted the following texts; Tsong Khapa’s Illumination of the Thought a commentary on Candrakīrti’s Supplement to The Middle Way; Tsong Khapa’s Lamrim Chenmo; Geshe Lhundrup Sopa’s commentary on Lamrim Chenmo.

My Argument

First of all, let us revisit the original argument and unpack it into its simplest form.

Premise: Great compassion cannot be developed without first understanding how sentient beings suffer, how suffering is generated and what are its causes.

Conclusion: You must therefore use analysis and reasoning to investigate the nature of conditioned existence and dependent-arising, in order to develop genuine great compassion.

The Contention

However, the doubt that compassion requires wisdom in order to be developed was raised as a question with a slightly altered form. Paraphrasing the question; “Is the wisdom realizing emptiness necessary in order to develop compassion“.

Although this is not what I argued, I think this statement might also be a true statement but we probably should leave that debate for another day. So to make it clear then, I am not arguing that ordinary compassion cannot be developed without wisdom or that one must first realize emptiness directly, before developing compassion.

I am, however, stating that without analyzing how suffering is experienced and its causes, it is impossible to develop great compassion. Ordinary compassion is a precursor to great compassion. Great compassion is the compassion of Bodhisattvas and is therefore the type of compassion we need to develop.

Ordinary Compassion Vs. Great Compassion

So the question could be raised: what is the difference between ordinary compassion and great compassion? While I do not know what the definition of ordinary compassion is, but at a guess, it could perhaps be characterized as; the wish for someone to be free from a manifest pain.

Great compassion, on the other hand, is defined as; the wish for all living beings to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. The difference is not just in how many beings are within the scope of compassion but rather, great compassion wishes for all sentient beings to be free from the causes of all types of suffering.

Great compassion, therefore, is not only concerned with manifest pain but the potential for suffering. This is an important point and one that should not be glossed over lightly. Great compassion has a subjective aspect that wants to eliminate the potential for suffering.

But, how can one wish to eliminate the potential for suffering, if you do not know what the causes of that potential are?

Therefore, if we genuinely want to develop great compassion, we need to understand what it means to suffer. We need to understand how suffering is generated, and most importantly, how to permanently remove these causes. Initially, we begin the process of developing compassion by inferring our own experiences of manifest pain, be it physical or mental pain, onto others.

For example, when I see someone experiencing the pain of a headache, I recall the last time I had a headache, and I remember my wish to be free from that experience. Because I can infer my experience onto this person, the wish for them to be free from that pain will naturally follow.

I contend this is ordinary compassion, not great compassion. Ordinary compassion is an ability to empathize with others. However, this type of compassion is beneficial.

In fact, without empathy, great compassion could not be developed. Therefore, I am not belittling ordinary compassion. I am simply saying it is not the compassion spoken of in Buddhism.

Great compassion on the other hand has additional mental factors concomitant with the subjective aspect of ordinary compassion.
Kamalasila’s Stages of Meditation says:

When you spontaneously feel compassion which has the subjective aspect to completely eliminate (emphasis added) the suffering of all living beings – just like a mother’s wish to remove her dear child’s unhappiness – then your compassion is complete and is therefore called great compassion.

Three Levels of Suffering

So how do sentient beings suffer? Buddhism enumerates suffering in many different ways. One such presentation is the three levels of suffering.

1: The suffering of suffering: manifest pain either in the mind or body.

2: The suffering of change: This is subtler than the first. Put simply, it is the fact that pleasurable experiences carry with them the seeds for dissatisfaction. The bliss experienced from eating chocolate, for instance, will if you eat enough in one session, turn into an unpleasant experience.

Geshe Lhundup Sopa says (Steps On The Path To Enlightenment – P91):

All worldly pleasures are impure because they contain the seed of misery. They are not perfect sources of delight. From the yogi perspective, therefore, because ordinary enjoyment changes it is actually suffering.

3: Pervasive suffering: is the suffering of conditioned existence. It is the most subtle and the most difficult of the three to understand.

Just as it would be difficult for someone born into a prison cell who has never seen the ocean, to understand the depth of an ocean. It is difficult for ordinary people to comprehend the depth of our suffering.

This does not mean, however, we can’t enjoy life. Just as a prisoner can enjoy a cup of tea, so can we. But understand that, just as a prisoner is locked in a cell, we too are locked in the cell of ego-grasping.

By knowing this, we are motivated to do something about our situation and the suffering of others.

What are the Causes of Suffering?

The root cause of suffering is the fundamental ignorance grasping at an inherently-existent self. If we are to generate a wish for all living beings to be free from suffering and its causes, we must understand how we experience these three levels of suffering.

For compassion that is spoken of in Buddhism to be fully developed, one must understand all three levels. We must understand just how the conception of an inherently existent self can be the cause of these sufferings.

And we must understand the process involved in completely eliminating this conception.

Je Tsongkhapa has said ( The Great Treatise and The Stages Of The Path To Enlightenment P45):

After you have thoroughly distinguished the objects of meditation according to the previous explanations – how compassion is the root, how the developments of the spirit of enlightenment is the entrance to the Mahayana, and so forth – you must then analyze these explanations with discerning wisdom and elicit the experience produced after sustaining them in meditation.

You will not achieve anything with the unclear experiences that come when you make a short, concentrated effort without precisely clarifying the topic with your understanding. Know that this is true for other kinds of practices as well.


To completely eliminate suffering, is different than a wish for a living being to be free from particular manifest suffering such as a headache.

In order to completely eliminate suffering one must eliminate the causes of suffering, otherwise, this elimination will remain incomplete as the potential for future suffering is still present.

The fundamental or root cause of suffering is ego-grasping. Therefore, you must understand from within your own experience the suffering related to ego-grasping, in order to infer it from others.

To have the wish that all living beings be free from suffering and its causes means you must know how sentient beings suffer and what the causes of that suffering are.

Without that understanding, your compassion will remain mere empathy.

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