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.
  • 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 lovely their eyes look in the sunlight. We appreciate it; we love it.
  • Love also of course has some interesting relationships to sex, though of course not necessarily. More on sex in a future post.
  • The Brahma-Virharas are traditionally emphasized as wholesome mind-states—skillful places to which you can turn your mind and avoid creating negative karma. In Christianity, love is not usually taught as something that you cultivate within and offer out, but rather something that you let in and are thus able to share.

 

But regardless of directionality, cultivating compassion or letting in love can often feel like conjuring something out of nothing. This can feel bothersome (e.g., what is the source of the compassion? is the love really real?). Most of the time, I remind myself that these questions are a bit beside the point. Making something out of nothing is a creative act, and if, in that creativity, more compassion and more love come into our lives and communities, it seems like a good practice to continue.

 

When I want something a bit more to wrestle with, my mind has been turning lately to this from Thomas Merton:

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.

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