The Colour Of Compassion

By David Edwards

The Drive To Action

It’s not rocket science, but we do associate emotions with colours. We talk of ‘seeing red’ when we’re angry. We go ‘green’ with envy. We feel ‘blue’. Our hearts can be ‘black’ with hatred. What about compassion? We assume it is an emotion and feel pretty sure we know where it belongs on the spectrum. Is compassion, then, a version of sadness? Is it blue?

Many of us believe so. Many indeed associate compassion with sadness that can become a kind of depression or ‘compassion fatigue’. Many on the political left see compassion as pacifying and debilitating. They argue that ‘feeling sorry’ for other people is not a lot of use – what we need is action. They believe anger is far more motivating and efficient than sorrowful, navel-gazing pity.

But when we think of compassion as fundamentally ‘blue’, are we looking at compassion itself, or at a mixture of emotions involving compassion? Is something non-emotional perhaps precisely +obscured+ by emotion?

Consider this from Seymour Hersh’s shocking account of the American massacre of up to 500 Vietnamese women, children and old men in the hamlet of My Lai on March 16, 1968. Hersh provided eyewitness testimony from the scene of the atrocity:

“Carter recalled that some GIs were shouting and yelling during the massacre: ‘The boys enjoyed it. When someone laughs and jokes about what they’re doing, they have to be enjoying it.’ A GI said, ‘Hey, I got me another one.’ Another said, ‘Chalk up one for me.’… ‘A woman came out of a hut with a baby in her arms and she was crying,’ Carter told the CID. ‘She was crying because her little boy had been in front of their hut and… someone had killed the child by shooting it.’ When the mother came into view, one of Medina’s men ‘shot her with an M16 and she fell. When she fell, she dropped the baby.’ The GI next ‘opened up on the baby with his M16’. The infant was also killed.

“Carter also saw an officer grab a woman by the hair and shoot her with a .45 calibre pistol. ‘He held her by the hair for a minute and then let go and she fell to the ground. Some enlisted men standing there said, ‘Well, she’ll be in the big rice paddy in the sky.'” (Seymour M. Hersh, the Massacre At My Lai, in John Pilger, ed, Tell Me No Lies, Jonathan Cape, 2004, pp.95-96)

Do we not feel compassion for these defenceless women and children? But do some of us not also feel anger at the actions of the troops? Is compassion, then, red instead of blue? Or, again, are we looking at a combination of emotional factors, a mixture of colours, or of colours and non-colours? Is compassion something other than both blue sadness and red anger?

Geshe Yeshe Thubtop, who has been cultivating compassion through intensive meditation for twenty-three years, provides a surprising answer:

“When you first witness a child who is suffering, your immediate experience is one of sadness. But then this emotion is displaced by the yearning, ‘How can I help? Does the child need food? Shelter? What can be done to alleviate the child’s suffering?’ This is when true compassion arises, and when it is present, the previous sadness vanishes.” (Quoted, Alan Wallace, Genuine Happiness, Wiley, 2005, p.132)

Compassion is something other than the sadness we feel when we witness suffering, and it is certainly not the anger that often also arises in our minds. Compassion, in fact, is simply the urge to relieve suffering. Is it, then, an emotion at all? Writer Alan Wallace dissects the significance of Geshe Thubtop’s comment:

“This gives compassion a broader meaning. It isn’t just a warm, cuddly feeling. It doesn’t mean mere sympathy. In our society, we commonly equate compassion with feeling sorry for others. We feel sorry for AIDS victims and those suffering from genocide, ethnic cleansing, terrorism, poverty, and all the other adversities. But feeling sorry for someone is not compassion. Feeling sorry is just feeling sad, with no drive to action. We don’t go on from there to a heartfelt yearning: ‘May you be free of suffering and the sources of suffering.’ Sorrow alone, then, is a poor facsimile of compassion.” (Ibid, p.133)

This is something of a revolutionary insight, I believe. Compassion is a bright, clear (colourless?), even fierce, yearning that suffering be relieved. In Buddhism, this yearning, called “simple compassion”, is distinguished from “great compassion”, which is described as “the jewel of the mind”.

Between The Guns And The Victims – Great Compassion

Great compassion takes the wish that others be free from suffering one step further. Lobsang Gyatso explains by reference to the story of a child:

“One day the child is playing and falls into a pit of filth. The mother and the friends of the boy see him in the pit; they weep loudly and cry out to him sorrowfully, but they do not go into the pit to rescue him. Then the father of the boy comes to the place and sees that his only son has fallen into a pit. Alarmed and driven only by the thought of rescuing his son, he descends into the filth without any hesitation and pulls him out.” (Gyatso, Bodhicitta, Snow Lion, 1997, p.77)

Rather than merely wishing that suffering be relieved (simple compassion), the father acts out of a sense that it is his personal responsibility to relieve suffering. This is great compassion.

We get an idea of why great compassion is so highly valued when we read a second account from the My Lai massacre. At the time of the atrocity, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson was piloting an observation helicopter above the hamlet. As the reality of what was unfolding below became clear, Thompson became increasingly determined to intervene. Hersh described what happened next:

“By now Thompson was almost frantic. He landed his helicopter near the ditch [filled with massacred and wounded civilians], and asked a soldier if he could help the people out: ‘He said the only way he could help them was to help them out of their misery.’… He then saw Calley and the first platoon, the same group that had shot the wounded civilians… ‘I asked them if he could get women and kids out of there before they tore it [the bunker] up, and he said the only way he could get them out was to use hand grenades. ‘You just hold your men right there,’ the angry Thompson told the equally angry Calley, and I will get the women and kids out’.

“Before climbing out of his aircraft, Thompson ordered Colburn and his crew chief to stay alert. ‘He told us that if any of the Americans opened up on the Vietnamese, we should open up on the Americans,’ Colburn said. Thompson walked back to the ship and called in two helicopter gunships to rescue the civilians. While waiting for them to land, Colburn said, ‘he stood between our troops and the bunker. He was shielding the people with his body. He just wanted to get those people out of there.'” (Pilger, op. cit, p.101)

The helicopters landed, with Thompson still standing between the GIs and the Vietnamese, and quickly rescued nine people – two old men, two women and five children.

Others undoubtedly felt compassion for the terror-stricken women and children but took no action. Thompson decided it was his personal responsibility to save them, to the extent that he was willing to place his body between them and the guns – his compassion was sufficient to overwhelm concern for his own welfare.

One might say, then, that great compassion is a powerful intention rather than an emotion; one that is often accompanied by sadness or anger, but which is itself distinct from both.

In their article ‘Training the mind: first steps in a cross-cultural collaboration in neuroscientific research,’ Zara Houshmand and co-authors reported the findings of their research on compassion in Buddhist monks:

“Sadness is not a necessary or essential component of compassion; compassion could be experienced with equanimity instead of sadness. In fact the highest realisation of compassion, known technically as ‘uncontrived spontaneous great compassion,’ is a direct and spontaneous reaction to suffering that does not involve sadness as an intermediate stage.” (Richard Davidson and Anne Harrington, eds., Visions Of Compassion, Oxford University Press, 2002, p.15)

The idea that compassion is some kind of emotional indulgence is terribly mistaken. Of course it may sometimes be mixed with indulgent pity for the world, a desire to lock oneself away from painful reality. It can also be accompanied by a desire to make someone pay for their crimes. But these are not examples of authentic compassion.

Compassion, or more properly great compassion, is the urge to take personal responsibility for the relief of suffering. As such, it can focus the mind and its actions in a supremely positive and humane direction. Indeed, it is an exact counter-force to the more common and also extremely powerful urge to bring help, benefit and contentment solely to ourselves.

Great compassion has the power to eliminate the self-centred, egotistical motives that distort so much of our thinking. It has, for example, the power to induce academics and journalists to brush aside concerns for status, wealth and privilege in order to do what seems most likely to be of help to others. Upton Sinclair declared:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Great compassion clears the way to understanding of this kind. I believe that to read the work of, say, Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Howard Zinn and John Pilger, is to witness precisely the results of great compassion in action. If we are looking for the key quality that separates their work from that of their mainstream academic and journalistic peers – if we want to understand why just +they+ are able and willing to perceive and expose the crimes of power where others are not – the answer lies in great compassion.

It could not be clearer that Chomsky, for example, abhors the very idea that one should subordinate the suffering of others to self-interest; that honesty should be compromised in deference to the priorities of career and wealth.

The reason is that Chomsky is motivated by a profound sense that it is +his+ responsibility to relieve suffering. He regards it as his job – regardless of the consequences, regardless of what others are doing, regardless of what others are saying – to do everything he possibly can to help.

Modern activists may seem separated in so many ways from ancient
compassionate contemplatives like Shantideva. And yet, with them, Shantideva says:

“Thus the boundless evils of myself and others –
I alone must bring them all to nothing,
Even though a single of these ills
May take unnumbered ages to exhaust!” (Shantideva, The Way of the
Bodhisattva, Shambhala, 1997, p.102)