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  • The Understanding and Experience of Compassion:Aquinas and the Dalai Lama
  • Judith Barad

His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama writes that the essence of Mahayana Buddhism is compassion.1 Although most people recognize compassion as one of the most admirable virtues, it is not easy to find discussions of it by Christian theologians. Instead, Christian theologians tend to discuss charity, a virtue infused by God into a person. Some of these theologians, such as Cardinal Henri de Lubac,2 insist that Christian charity and Buddhist compassion are very different from each other. Are they correct? A good source to investigate this claim is in Aquinas's Summa Theologica, which contains a very developed discussion of charity. If we look at Aquinas's text and compare it to what the current Dalai Lama writes about compassion, we will recognize that they are discussing the same virtue. Moreover, by combining the insights from East and West, as expressed by the thoughts of the current Dalai Lama and St. Thomas Aquinas, we can achieve a better grasp of compassion so that we can more easily practice it in our daily lives. Though remarkably similar, the two accounts offer differing perspectives, which can be incorporated for mutual enrichment.

Much of Aquinas's philosophy of compassion derives from his Christian beliefs, just as much of the Dalai Lama's teachings on compassion are based on Tibetan Buddhism. This explains some of the differences in their accounts. Unlike Christians, Buddhists neither believe in a personal God nor in a soul. Yet despite their theological differences, Aquinas and the Dalai Lama generally share a very similar view of compassion. In fact, one could well imagine Aquinas agreeing with the Dalai Lama who, after acknowledging his religious influence, writes that his goal is "to appeal for an approach to ethics based on universal rather than religious principles."3 It is appropriate, therefore, to begin by considering the similarities in their accounts of compassion, starting with their definitions of compassion. [End Page 11]


Etymologically, the word "compassion"—compassio—comes from two Latin words: com means "with" and pati means "suffer." Literally, then, "compassion" means "to suffer with." Aquinas discusses compassion as an interior effect of charity, a theological virtue. It is interior because compassion is felt within the person who has charity. The cause of compassion, charity, Aquinas describes as the friendship between God's children and God Himself. Although Aquinas wrote prolifically on the subject of charity, someone could overlook his writing on compassion because he discusses it under the term "mercy." Diana Fritz Cates, for instance, who draws on an Aristotelian-Thomistic ethical framework to develop a theory of compassion, observes, "Aristotle and Thomas have little to say about compassion: hence, it will not be helpful to begin with their accounts."4 However, Aquinas uses the word misericordia (mercy) as a synonym of compassio (compassion). The synonymous relationship between compassion and mercy is also recognized by the Dalai Lama, who affirms, "Mercy and compassion are the same."5

Aquinas defines mercy as "heartfelt sympathy for another's distress, impelling us to succor him if we can." If we experience this heartfelt sympathy, we're not discouraged if the person we try to help doesn't respond. Explicitly connecting mercy and compassion, Aquinas add that mercy, misericordia, gets its name "from denoting a person's compassionate heart (miserum cor) for another's unhappiness."6 The concept of "another's unhappiness" is important to his discussion. A necessary condition of being happy, in Aquinas's view, is that an individual must obtain what he or she wishes. Conversely, someone is unhappy when he suffers what he doesn't wish to suffer. Aquinas maintains that the suffering produced by one's frustrated desire for what he or she perceives as good is a sufficient condition for evoking mercy. In regard to the merciful response, it shouldn't matter what the suffering person perceives as good. So long as the person is suffering what he doesn't wish to suffer, this person should be treated mercifully. Suppose a teenager suffers from being unpopular with his peers. Although the compassionate person may not value popularity, she should extend compassion to the...


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