Q: What is compassion? Can it coexist with dispassion? If so, how?
A: Compassion is the very essence of yoga. In India, the worst thing that can happen is that you get reborn. In the West, we probably think it is terrific to get reborn: ‘Next time I’ll get cable TV earlier!’ However, in India, the world is seen as samsara, full of suffering and misery. The spiritual process is to detach from all the traps and hooks of the world, until you are free. And when you are free, you don’t have to be reborn. That is liberation. In certain Buddhist traditions, they talk about bodhisattvas, beings who have gotten off the wheel, who have attained enlightenment, and who nonetheless choose to be reborn. They are reborn to serve others, to help enlighten others, to teach others, to be with others. Normally, we get reborn to fulfil desires that have not been fulfilled. If we haven’t had the perfect relationship, we get reborn to pursue the perfect relationship. Notice, I said ‘to pursue’! Or we might get reborn because we are desperate to be famous. So we get reborn for selfish reasons, but the bodhisattva
gets reborn totally unselfishly.
The essence of compassion is sympathy for another person. It is based on a feeling of closeness. If somebody we love, who is very close, has a calamity or an illness, we have a sympathetic feeling. We usually won’t feel the same for someone who is further away or for an enemy.
Some people read the news and it takes two or three hours to get over it every morning. My father was like that. He was filled with compassion, and he would weep and moan for humanity.
But most of us have been so deadened by hearing all those stories every day that we don’t feel much. Or we feel delighted if something bad happens to someone we dislike.
A great being feels a kinship, a oneness, with everyone in the human family. He feels an inner sympathy with everyone. When your compassion extends to the whole human family, it is true compassion. But it is rare to have such deep compassion. In some forms of practice, particularly in Buddhist practice, they work on compassion. Those techniques soften you and expand your sympathy. They move you out of your ego and make you less hard and separate. That is very good. The more time we spend in self-concern, worrying about ourselves, the more separate and unhappy we become. The more we live unselfishly, the happier we are.
Eknath Maharaj was a great poet-saint of Maharashtra. Once he saw a scorpion drowning. He reached down and saved it. Of course, the scorpion stung him. He dropped the scorpion back in the water and the scorpion began to drown again. Again, he reached in and saved the scorpion. And he got stung again, and again he dropped the scorpion. And so they spent the day. Somebody was sitting there, watching this drama unfold. He said, ‘You tried to save that creature, which is praiseworthy. But that creature was so ungrateful it stung you. Yet again and again, you picked it up and tried to save it. Why did you do that knowing it would only sting you?’
Eknath said, ‘Well, it is the nature of the scorpion to sting. And it is my nature to save a drowning creature’.
Real compassion can coexist with dispassion. It needs dispassion. You see, passion is an ego-involvement, an intensity of ego-centred involvement. When dispassion comes in, the ego becomes detached. Then compassion naturally flows: compassion is our natural state. When the ego is removed and selfishness is removed, then all the barriers that we have covering our heart, hardening our heart, or creating fear in our heart and deadening our heart, are removed. What is under that is something beautiful. As we develop dispassion, we get closer and closer to compassion. Therefore, dispassion and compassion go together.
Some forms of apparent compassion are not real compassion. They are suspect. You have to test this inside yourself by the results and by the feeling within. But sometimes when you watch a movie,you are moved by that movie. Have you had that experience of being moved by a movie occasionally, maybe sometimes, surprisingly? A good work of art or literature touches a place inside. And when it touches that, you feel a certain movement inside, and you say, ‘Oh yes, the mechanism still works’. It makes you feel better about yourself, because you know that you are not too cynical, or hardened, or miserable, to still react to something good. You establish sympathy with the characters, and when something happens, you are moved in a certain way. It shows that the compassion centre is alive within each of us, although sometimes we are cut off from it. That’s a very good question.