The Ethos That Is Compassionate

Leonardo Boff, August 15, 2003

The ethos, to be fully human, needs to incorporate compassion. There is too much suffering in history, too much blood in our paths, endless loneliness in millions and millions of persons, who carry in their hearts the lonely cross of misunderstanding, bitterness and injustice. Such is the human condition of beings who are the convergence of contradictions. The ethos which is compassionate wants to include all in the human “ethos,” this is, in the human household, where there is hospitality and where tears can be shed without shame, or can be lovingly wiped from the cheeks.

But first, we need to make a linguistic modification, a language therapy, because in common understanding compassion has pejorative connotations. Thus, to have compassion is understood to mean to have pity on the other, who is seen as helpless, without the inner strength to stand up. It presupposes the attitude of one who sees from top to bottom. That understanding of compassion humiliates the other.

In the Christianity of the early days, however, com-passion was synonymous with mercy, that generous attitude that wants to share with the other passion; the attitude that does not want to leave the other alone and in pain. That is not the hand-out, the “charity” Argentinean poet and singer Atahualpa Yupanqui criticizes: “I detest charity for the shame it carries. I am like the mountain lion: I live and die in solitude.”

In Buddhism compassion is considered the Buddha’s personal virtue. This is why it is central and is linked to the question that created Buddhism as a spiritual path: “Which is the best way to liberate us from suffering?” The Buddha’s reply was: “Compassion. Infinite compassion.” The Dalai Lama, as we have already written, actualizes that ancestral reply, saying: “Help the others when you can and if you cannot, never hurt them.”

Two virtues generate compassion: detachment and caring. When we detach ourselves, we renounce the ownership of things and respect their otherness. When we care, we look out for their well being and are present to help ease their suffering.

Compassion is perhaps the main spiritual and ethical contribution the Orient has given to world culture. What makes suffering painful is not just suffering itself, but to suffer alone. Buddhism, and also Christianity, call us to create a communion in the suffering so that no one helplessly endures pain alone.

Like love and caring, compassion has a boundless field of action. It is not restricted just to human beings alone, but encompasses all living beings and the universe. The Buddhist ideal of compassion teaches us how to relate well to the living community: first to respect its otherness, then to learn how to live with, take good care of and especially help regenerate those beings who suffer or are threatened with extinction. Then, and only then, should we benefit from their gifts, in a just measure and with responsibility, thinking of what we need to take; enough to live simply and decently.

Leonardo Boff

Free English translation from the Spanish,, in honor of the
Venerable Nichidatsu Fujii, of holy memory,
who succeded in returning the Buddha from
Japan, back home, to India.
October 5, 2003

“Other News” is a personal initiative seeking to provide information that should be in the media but is not, because of commercial criteria. It welcomes contributions from everybody. Work areas include information on global issues, north-sutrh relations, gobernability of globalization. The “Other News” motto is a phrase which appeared on the wall of Barcelona’s old Customs Office, at the beginning of 2003:�?What walls utter, media keeps silent�?. Roberto Savio


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