Two very human qualities that are highly regarded in Buddhism are Compassion and Loving-kindness. Together with two other mental qualities, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity, they are know as the Four Divine Abidings.
The Buddha recommended that we develop these qualities. These attitudes are said to be excellent or sublime because they are the right or ideal way of conduct towards living beings. They provide the answer to all situations arising from social contact. They are the great removers of tension, the great peace-makers in social conflict, and the great healers of wounds suffered in the struggle of existence. They level social barriers, build harmonious communities, revive joy and promote human brotherhood.
They are incompatible with a hating state of mind, and when developed by the individual, by conduct and meditation, bestows upon him divine qualities. If they become the dominant influence in his mind, he will be reborn in congenial worlds, the realms of the highest gods.
They are called Abidings because they should become the mind’s constant dwelling-places where we feel “at home” they should not remain merely places of rare and short visits, soon forgotten. In other words, our minds should become thoroughly saturated by them. They should become our inseparable companions, and we should be mindful of them in all our common activities.
Compassion is about recognizing the suffering of others and wishing for that suffering to be alleviated. This suffering can be seen in individuals who we associate with on a daily basis and on a global level. We feel compassion for associates, friends and relatives who are going through a particularly hard time. We identify with their suffering, imagine what they are going through and hope that this suffering will come to an end. We also see the world as it comes through our newspapers, radios and television screens, appalled by the tremendous suffering that is out there resulting from famines, natural disasters, terrorism, war and so on.
Compassion is based on a love and respect for others, irrespective of their beliefs, gender, race, religion, or nationality. We can feel compassion for others even if we disagree profoundly with their beliefs or actions. Compassion is simply a recognition and a loving response to the perception of suffering.
The Buddha, shortly after his Enlightenment, decided to share his teachings with the world, even though he initially thought that what he had discovered might be too difficult for anyone to understand. He knew that beings were trapped in the cycle of birth and death and the suffering that comes with that. The Buddha’s teachings, therefore, have their source in the his feeling of compassion.
“All tremble at the rod. Life is dear to all. Comparing others with oneself, one should neither strike nor cause to strike. ~ Dhammapada 130”
Loving kindness is also a prominent feature of the Buddhist way of life. Extending good will, care and consideration to all beings is something to be developed. Such good will has its immediate expression when it is directed towards friends and relatives. Buddhism goes much further than this, however. Loving kindness is something that should be extend to all beings, without exception. This would include people who we may consider “neutral” but also those who do us harm. This aspect of Buddhism is very challenging as it is often quite natural for us to dislike or feel angry towards those that do us harm. There is no doubt that loving kindness is something that we have to work on continually.
Loving-kindness makes one a pure font of well-being and safety for others. To promote one’s own interest is a primordial motivation of human nature. When this urge is transformed into the desire to promote the interest and happiness of others, not only is the basic urge of self-seeking overcome, but the mind becomes universal by identifying its own interest with the interest of all. By making this change one also promotes one’s own well-being in the best possible manner. Loving-kindness is also the attitude of a friend who wants to give one the best to further one’s well-being.
Apart from its higher implications, today loving-kindness is a pragmatic necessity. In a world menaced by all kinds of destructiveness, loving-kindness in deed, word and thought is the only constructive means to bring concord, peace and mutual understanding. Indeed, it is the supreme means, for it forms the fundamental tenet of all the higher religions as well as the basis for all benevolent activities intended to promote human well-being.
“Whatever living creatures there be, Without exception, weak or strong,
Long, huge or middle-sized, Or short, minute or bulky,
Whether visible or invisible, And those living far or near,
The born and those seeking birth, May all beings be happy! ~ Metta Sutta”
Development of the Divine Abidings
Buddhists aim to have these qualities underpinning all our thoughts and actions. It is in this way that we develop a proper attitude to others and the world around us. In Buddhism, the development of these qualities is not something to be merely wished or prayed for. On the contrary, the Buddha gave detailed instructions on how these qualities may be developed by ourselves. They include prescribed reflections and detailed meditation instructions. Evidently, these techniques do work as Buddhists are renown for their kindness, their compassion and gentleness.