A Buddhist practitioner friend asked me a few months back what I thought the difference was between compassion as it is taught in Buddhism and love in Christianity.
“There’s not much difference,” I said. And I still basically think that’s true.
Since our conversation though, a few differences have occurred to me.
Compassion is a response to suffering. Since suffering is presented in Buddhism as a core feature of existence, compassion is an appropriate response in almost any circumstance and something we can offer to every single thing that is alive. I think this is beautiful and useful.
At the same time, compassion is only one of what Buddhists know as the Brahma-Virharas or “Four Immeasurables”: compassion, lovingkindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The Brahma-Virharas are traditionally emphasized as wholesome mind-states—skillful places to which you can turn your mind and cultivate wisdom.
Love seems to me to encompasses all four immeasurables, not just compassion. But love also includes aspects like appreciation. We wouldn’t really say we feel compassion for someone when we notice how stunning their eyes look in the sunlight. We appreciate it. We love it.
However, the most fundamental difference is in the area of practice. In Buddhism, a focus on the Brahma-Virharas is certainly part of practice, and it is the main focus for some. Yet the strongest similarity between difference forms of Buddhist practice seems to be some type of paying attention in the present moment. There are all different kinds of teachings on exactly how to pay attention and to what, and how practice can lead to a new way of experiencing the world. But paying attention is how this change occurs. For those of us who relate to Christianity as body of practice rather than a set of beliefs, the core practice is, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, for the atheists who show up to church, “Love reality and love your neighbor as yourself.” Love is the main thing, the main agent of transformation. It is more than instrumental to awareness. Letting love in and sharing love with others is what makes a different way of life possible.
It’s relevant to note that both cultivating compassion and letting in love can often feel like conjuring something out of nothing. This can feel bothersome (What is the source of the compassion? Is the love really real?). Most of the time, I remind myself that these questions are beside the point. Making something out of nothing is a creative act, and if, in that creativity, we are able to connect to more compassionate, loving ways of being and acting in the world, it seems like a good practice to continue.