I often hear Buddhists talk about wisdom and compassion.
What do these two terms mean?
Some religions believe that compassion or love (the two
are very similar) is the most important spiritual quality but
they fail to develop any wisdom. The result is that you end up
being a good-hearted fool, a very kind person but with little
or no understanding. Other systems of thought, like science, believe
that wisdom can best be developed when all emotions, including
compassion, are kept out of the way. The outcome of this is that
science has tended to become preoccupied with results and has
forgotten that science is to serve man not to control and dominate
him. How, otherwise could scientists have lent their skills to
develop the nuclear bomb, germ warfare, and the like. Religion
has always seen reason and wisdom as the enemy of emotions like
love and faith. Science has always seen emotions like love and
faith as being enemies of reason and objectivity. And of course,
as science progresses, religion declines. Buddhism, on the other
hand, teaches that to be a truly balanced and complete individual,
you must develop both wisdom and compassion. And because it is
not dogmatic but based on experience, Buddhism has nothing to
fear from science.
So what, according to Buddhism, is wisdom?
The highest wisdom is seeing that in reality all phenomena
are incomplete, impermanent, and not self. This understanding
is totally freeing and leads to the great security and happiness
which is called Nirvana. However, the Buddha doesn't speak too
much about this level of wisdom. It is not wisdom if we simply
believe what we are told. True wisdom is to directly see and understand
for ourselves. At this level then, wisdom is to keep an open mind
rather than being closed-minded, listening to other points of
view rather than being bigoted; to carefully examine facts that
contradict our beliefs, rather than burying our heads in the sand;
to be objective rather than prejudiced and partisan; to take time
about forming our opinions and beliefs rather than just accepting
the first or most emotional thing that is offered to us; and to
always be ready to change our beliefs when facts that contradict
them are presented to us. A person who does this is certainly
wise and is certain to eventually arrive at true understanding.
The path of just believing what you are told is easy. The Buddhist
path requires courage, patience, flexibility and intelligence.
I think few people could do this. So what is the point
of Buddhism if only a few can practice it?
It is true that not everyone is ready for Buddhism yet.
But to say that therefore we should teach a religion that is false
but easily understandable just so that everyone can practice it
is ridiculous. Buddhism aims at the truth and if not everyone
has the capacity to understand it yet, they perhaps will be ready
for it in their next life. However, there are many who, with just
the right words or encouragement, are able to increase their understanding.
And it is for this reason that Buddhists gently and quietly strive
to share the insights of Buddhism with others. The Buddha taught
us out of compassion and we teach others out of compassion.
So we arrive at compassion. What, according to Buddhism,
Just as wisdom covers the intellectual or comprehending
side of our nature, compassion covers the emotional or feeling
side of our nature. Like wisdom, compassion is a uniquely human
quality. Compassion is made up of two words, 'co' meaning together
and 'passion' meaning a strong feeling. And this is what compassion
is. When we see someone in distress and we feel their pain as
if it were our own, and strive to eliminate or lessen their pain,
then this is compassion. So all the best in human beings, all
the Buddha-like qualities like sharing, readiness to give comfort,
sympathy, concern and caring - all are manifestations of compassion.
You will notice also that in the compassionate person, care and
love towards others has its origins in care and love for oneself.
We can really understand others when we really understand ourselves.
We will know what's best for others when we know what's best for
ourselves. We can feel for others when we feel for ourselves.
So in Buddhism, one's own spiritual development blossoms quite
naturally into concern for the welfare of others. The Buddha's
life illustrates this very well. He spent six years struggling
for his own welfare, after which, he was able to be of benefit
to the whole of mankind.
So you are saying that we are best able to help others
after we have helped ourselves. Isn't that a bit selfish?
We usually see altruism, concern for others before oneself, as
being the opposite of selfishness, concern for oneself before
others. Buddhism does not see it as either one or the other but
rather as a blending of the two. Genuine self-concern will gradually
mature into concern for others as one sees that others are really
the same as oneself. This is genuine compassion and it is the
most beautiful jewel in the crown of the Buddha's teaching.