Blindly trying to help without understanding a given situation causes more harm than good.
Compassion is sensitivity to the suffering of others, and the desire to relieve that suffering. It is one of the two wings of enlightenment, the other being wisdom. Enlightened wisdom keeps us from psychological confusion and pain, and enlightened compassion keeps us from dwelling in enlightenment and ignoring the plight of others. In other words, enlightenment does not simply enjoy itself in some idyllic dimension; it also engages compassionately with the everyday world. When wisdom and compassion unite, the bird of enlightenment flies
We will have to progress considerably on the Buddhist path before we fully manifest compassion. The pivotal breakthrough in this process is the experience of emptiness (shunyata in Sanskrit). This experience reveals that no central entity or self guides us, and that the phenomenal world lacks any inherent existence or reality—insights that free us from the powerful basic attachments that have preoccupied and frustrated us for lifetimes. Released from them, we become filled with joy and relief, and turn naturally to helping others who still suffer from a lack of insight.
However, because experiencing emptiness is not easy, and attaining enlightenment often takes lifetimes, methods have been devised for us to help others “while we wait.” These approaches comprise part of the Mahayana (Sanskrit, “great vehicle”): the second yana (vehicle to enlightenment) of the Buddhist path. The basic tenet of the Mahayana is that we must view others’ welfare as more important than our own. Mahayana practitioners employ various means, including slogans, to develop that perspective. Two of these slogans are: “Gain and victory to others, loss and defeat to myself,” and “Contemplate the great kindness of everyone.” Reflecting on bankers or lawyers living the first slogan—or ourselves living the second after getting cut off in traffic—reveals the magnitude of the Mahayana commitment.
Living with a Mahayana sensibility in the modern world requires caution. Blindly trying to help without understanding a given situation causes more harm than good. My teacher used the term “idiot compassion” to describe misconceived attempts to help others, and I have a story that exemplifies it. While doing “medcaps” (short for “medical civilian aid programs”) in a Vietnamese village during the war, I had an idea. We had excess food at our Marine base, and I thought it would benefit the village if we took our leftovers to them. All went well for several weeks—with the exception of a diarrheal outbreak caused by spaghetti—when I got a call from a Marine higher up ordering me to stop supplying the food. He informed me that the villagers we were feeding had begun underselling their rice at the regional market, damaging the economies of many other villages in the area. My compassion was helping one village, but threatening the livelihoods of many others—an eventuality I had never considered. It was a clear lesson in the need to augment compassion with caution and wisdom.
Mahayana practitioners who dedicate their lives to the welfare of others are known as bodhisattvas (Sanskrit, “awakened beings”). I had never heard of bodhisattvas when I entered medical school at age twenty-one, although I would soon become one. In my third year in school, I started seeing patients, and came to understand that my wants were subservient to theirs. A long career of 3 a.m. calls thereafter reinforced this understanding. Admittedly, it took time to abandon my self-centeredness and turn to the service of others, but this conversion accelerated when I began caring for indigent patients in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In medical school, there had always been experienced doctors looking over my shoulder, but in my internship and residency in Pittsburgh, I was often on my own assisting my patients. When I understood their helplessness, and that they often didn’t know why they were sick or what to do about it, my heart awakened. I was all they had, so I had to help them, no matter what the cost to me.
When the Dharma begins to bring insights about mind and the world (which, incidentally, are the same), one’s heart responds as it did in my medical training. We see people’s innocence and their vulnerability as they struggle to navigate life without access to insight, and our heart goes out to them. We want to use the knowledge we have acquired to assist them, much as a physician would.
Fortunately, in the Dharma, we also have wisdom to assist our compassion. Most physicians have no formal training in wisdom, as their heightened susceptibility to mental illness, drugs, alcohol, and suicide attests. This lack of training also manifests in their expectations that they will be rewarded for their help with gratitude, appreciation, and wealth—expectations that reveal that ego is contaminating their helping process. This contamination is a big problem, since helping others never fully satisfies self’s ambitions, and self’s limited view never learns to unconditionally accept all those it helps. It’s easy to see how the conflicting dictates of ego and compassion stretch physicians to the point of burnout, with all its unfortunate consequences.
As the immensity of people’s caring for one another across the world attests, the human heart may be the most magnificent of nature’s creations. (This is debatable: perhaps the greatest is mind; or perhaps the Tibetans are correct in making no distinction between the two.) To progress on the Buddhist path, we must take a leap and start helping others—and we must develop the wisdom to do so without harming them. We will make mistakes, unavoidably, but now is the time to start trying, until one day we discover that compassion is what we are and always have been, and our caring becomes wise.