Ordinary Compassion, Immeasurable Compassion and Great Compassion

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Often Buddhist practitioners are puzzled about the differences between ordinary compassion (snying-rje), immeasurable compassion (snying-rje tshad-med) and great compassion (snying-rje chen-po). All three types of compassion share the same definition: the wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering, but yet are distinct from each other. There are many, slightly different explanations of the distinctions among them. But as a start for differentiating them, let us simplify the discussion by outlining their major differences in terms of the audiences at which they are aimed (dmigs-pa) and the aspects (rnam-pa) of suffering they wish to be gone.

Ordinary Compassion

The audience at which ordinary compassion is aimed is usually limited to those we feel sympathy for. We may or may not personally know them and we may be attached or attracted to them, as in the case of loved ones, or even slightly repulsed, as in the case of severely injured people in a car accident. They may include, for instance, sick persons, beggars, the victims of natural disasters and so on. 

The aspect of suffering ordinary compassion wishes to be gone from them is one or more types of the so-called suffering of suffering, such as unhappiness, pain, sickness, hunger, poverty, homelessness and the like. It does not include all forms of this kind of suffering.  

Immeasurable Compassion

There are several presentations of immeasurable compassion as one of the four immeasurable attitudes. Some are within the sphere of the Hinayana teachings, some the Mahayana teachings. For the sake of simplicity, here we’ll explain it in just a general manner acceptable in common by both traditions.

[For fuller detail, see: The Four Immeasurables in Hinayana, Mahayana and Bon]

Immeasurable compassion is aimed at a much wider audience than is ordinary compassion. It is immeasurable in the sense that the individuals in its audience cannot actually be counted; they extend in the ten directions (four cardinal, four intermediary, up and down). Just as the ten directions are immeasurable, so too is the number of beings in those ten directions. This type of compassion is also immeasurable in the sense that the positive force (merit) and benefits from developing it are immeasurable.

The audience at which immeasurable compassion is aimed is gradually expanded from those around us to larger and larger groups of beings. However, even in its fullest scope, it is still limited. Although it now includes all beings in the six realms of samsaric existence, but since immeasurable compassion is developed in common by Hinayana and Mahayana practitioners, the audience it is aimed at does not cover all limited beings (sentient beings). That is because it does not include liberated beings, the arhats ­– those who still have cognitive obscurations preventing omniscience (shes-sgrib). The Hinayana tenet systems do not assert cognitive obscurations. 

Within the audience it covers, immeasurable compassion is free of attraction to some, repulsion from others and indifference to yet others. The aspect of suffering it wishes these beings all equally to be free of includes the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change (that is, ordinary happiness that never lasts and never satisfies), and the all-pervasive suffering of uncontrollably recurring samsaric rebirth. These are the three types of suffering that characterize samsaric existence.

Although there are various practices for developing immeasurable compassion, its actual attainment requires its being held with a special level of mind, one of the states of mental constancy (bsam-gtan, Skt. dhyana). The “dhyanas” are extremely advanced states of concentration, attained after achieving a stilled and settled state of mind of shamatha and more deeply absorbed than with shamatha alone.

Great Compassion

Great compassion is developed exclusively by Mahayana practitioners as a step in the generation of bodhichitta. Thus, the audience it is aimed at is all limited beings, including arhats. Nagarjuna indicates this in the second verse of his Commentary on (the Two) Bodhichittas (Byang-chub sems-kyi ‘grel-ba, Skt. Bodhichittavivarana), often repeated as part of taking the bodhisattva vows:

Just as the Buddhas, Who Have Overcome and Gained All, and the great bodhisattvas have generated a bodhichitta mind, I too – for the sake of liberating those not (fully) liberated, freeing those not yet freed, giving breath to those without a breath and bringing to a nirvana release those not released – from this time forth until I arrive at the heart of enlightenment, shall generate a great mind of bodhichitta.

“Those not liberated” refer to arhats, those who are not yet liberated from the cognitive obscurations preventing omniscience. “Those not freed” refer to those not yet freed from the emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib) of samsara. “Those without a breath” refer to those without a breath of relief in the three worse rebirth states. Thus, the aspects of suffering that great compassion wishes all beings to be free of are not only the three types of suffering of samsaric existence. They include as well as the shortcomings of their minds being limited by the cognitive obscurations. Until freed from these obscurations, limited beings do not have the skillful means that comes with omniscience to know how best to help all others attain liberation and enlightenment.

Great compassion has as its foundation renunciation (nges-‘byung), the determination to be free of all suffering. That determination is aimed just at our own suffering, but once we develop it, we can expand its aim to include all limited beings. Just as it is not enough to be fed up with and feel disgust (yid-‘byung) at our own suffering, the same is the case regarding the suffering of others. We need to be fully convinced that the true stopping (true cessation) of suffering is possible and that the true pathway mind (true path) of non-conceptual cognition of voidness (emptiness) is the way to bring this true stopping about. Great compassion has this same conviction regarding the true stopping of the sufferings of all others.

Immeasurable compassion entails three wishes: “How wonderful it would be if all beings were free of suffering; may they be free of suffering; may I be able to free them from suffering.” Great compassion goes beyond these good wishes and includes taking full responsibility to free all limited beings from all levels of suffering, even if we have to do this all by ourselves.  

Great compassion is the compassion that leads to and induces exceptional resolve (lhag-bsam), sometimes referred to as “universal responsibility.” It is with exceptional resolve that we take the full responsibility to free all beings from all suffering. Our compassion only becomes great compassion when it is conjoined with that exceptional resolve.

The Great Enlightening Compassion of a Buddha

Even greater than the great compassion of a bodhisattva is the great enlightening compassion (thugs-rje chen-po) of a Buddha. Its superiority comes from having as its support the enlightening ability (nus-pa) to lead all beings to liberation and enlightenment, based on omniscient awareness of the skillful means suited individually to each limited being.