Buddhism and the philosophy of compassion

A comparison of the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Shantideva

We all think we know what it is to be compassionate, and when someone claims to be compassioante we think we know what is meant by it. So how would we describe compassion in today’s terms, and how did Schopenhauer and Shantideva interpret the term? The Oxford English Dictionary defines compassion as ‘The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succour’. Within this definition there are several keys terms that these two men discuss, these include – the emotions of the individual acting compassionately, suffering, pity and succour. Nancy Snow brings some clarity into how compassion can be seen from a modern philosophical perspective when she writes ‘the ability to identify with another’s distress makes the other’s suffering real to those who feel compassion, and facilitates benevolent desires for the other’s good’. and that it differs from pity as the individuals feels “with” not “for” the sufferer.

When considering how the views of Shantideva and Schopenhauer differ, it is helpful to see the background, culture and time the two men lived. Shantideva, an 8th Century Indian Buddhist monk, was a follower of Buddhism. Buddhism is a practice and lifestyle that can be said to cross the boundaries of religion and philosophy, and the BBC describes Buddhism on its “Religions” page of it’s website as ‘a tradition that focuses on personal spiritual development. Buddhists strive for a deep insight into the true nature of life and do not worship gods or deities’. This description in itself seems paradoxical as all other major religions have one one or many deities. Buddhism can still be thought of as an “Eastern” religion, only taking root in western civilisation in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Like many religions, such as Christianity, Buddhism has many factions, but the major two types are Theravada (translated as “Teaching of the Elders”) and Mahayana (meaning “The Great Vehicle.”). The former group believe that only Buddhists that explicitly follow the teachings of the Buddha and live as monks can achieve nirvana (a transcendent state of enlightenment free from desire or suffering and the goal of Buddhists), by contrast the Mahayana believe all people can reach nirvana. A feature of Mahayana Buddhism, therefore, is that it has a wider variety beliefs (arguably looser or less strict), and a more comprehensive canon of writings and literature to draw from.

Followers of the Mahayana approach will strive for a lifestyle known as bodhisattva. Suzanne Newcombe describes a bodhisattva as ‘a person who not only strives for individual enlightenment but also commits to continue to be reincarnated through multiple lifetimes in order to bring enlightenment to all beings’ and key to this she continues, is ‘experiencing compassion for everything that suffers’. And herein lies the start of one of the major differences between the compassion of the Western understanding of the term, and the Eastern teaching of this style of Buddhism – compassion in this context is universal (ie to all living creatures, not only fellow man) and the term “experiencing” infers the living and feeling of the emotion of the sufferer, as opposed to just recognition and a feeling of pity. The universality of compassion with particular regards to suffering leads to, and supports the Buddhist construct of “no self” or “anattā” – the view that we are always changing and have no permanence, and do not exist in a hierarchical sense to our fellow beings. Shantideva followed these Buddhist beliefs.

Much of the actual life story of Shantideva is mixed with tales and legends of a mythical quality involving levitation, appearance and disappearance, personal manifestations and performance of miracles. In today’s context these accounts seem sensational, but when put into context of religious texts written in the first millennia CE (Christian and Muslim) this is not unusual. But, importantly, we know of the life of Shantideva because of his major work “The Way of the Bodhisattva” which it is claimed he recited in one sitting. Through these writings we can understand his views on Buddhist ideals and views on compassion.

By way of contrast much more is known about the life of western philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). Schopenhauer was a German philosopher who had multiple published papers, essays and books throughout his lifetime detailing his views on philosophy and compassion. But like Shantideva, it can be problematic looking at Schopenhauer’s life and works through today’s cultural lens, as he is now thought of as anti-Semitic and misogynistic. That said, Schopenhauer did not wish to be remembered for his actions or lifestyle, rather than his words. The connection between Shantideva and Schopenhauer, however, can be established, in so much as we know from Schopenhauer’s writings and possessions about his key interest in Eastern philosophy and religion, in particular Hinduism and Buddhism, eventually self-identifying as a Buddhist. This last point is endorsed in his own published work, noted in the book “The World as Will and Representation” (1818).

A key comparison between the thoughts of Schopenhauer and Shantideva is their thoughts on suffering being universal, inclusive and inescapable. Although a universal Buddhist principal, Shantideva’s beliefs being of the Mahayana stream are aligned to not only the understanding and the relief of suffering, but through compassion, sharing the emotion. Schopenhauer aligned his thoughts on suffering to the first two noble truths of Buddhism – all life is suffering and this suffering is caused by trying to escape from the suffering through distraction and desires (although Schopenhauer puts it in terms of the futility to escape striving). This comparison on universal suffering is also reinforced with the shared Buddhist belief of “no self”. Schopenhauer held the view that further to escaping the futility of striving, if one believes in “self” then they will not escape suffering, because a person will put their individual needs before others leading to the detrimental promotion of ego. Shantideva is very unequivocal on the point of no self, and states there is no difference between his suffering and the suffering of others when he writes ‘Suffering has no “possessor,” therefore, no distinctions can be made in it. Since pain is pain, it is to be dispelled. What use is there in drawing boundaries?’ Hence there is no possible hierarchy between individuals.

Schopenhauer parallels the Buddhist’s third and fourth noble truths with a three-fold approach to enlightenment and the cessation of suffering, one of which involves immersing oneself in the pursuit of compassion for others, a promotion of an altruistic lifestyle and being morally aware. But the link and parallel to Shantideva is further exhibited if we study what Schopenhauer was referring to in this approach, in that leading a moral and altruistic life by definition leads to a selfless and charitable life full of the compassion for others – the two things cannot be mutually exclusive. This leads Schopenhauer to a circular or self-supporting argument, in that in order to understand how others act morally through auteurism, we must act altruistically ourselves, and this understanding of ourselves through the understanding of others leads to compassion for others by sharing their suffering. So here the parallel with Shantideva is strengthened – if we share the suffering of others by feeling the sadness and pain they feel, as if it were our own, then compassion will bring us to the point of acting to alleviate their suffering as if it were our own. Compassion can be seen as the trigger for activity (not the passivity of sympathy or pity).

Moreover, we can understand this push towards “active” compassion from both Schopenhauer and Shantideva from a perspective of motive, ie. what is driving the action? In both cases, it is not a rational choice, nor a balanced judgement on the right course of action, rather it comes from an emotional feeling, and this emotion leads to compulsion to act. So Shantideva and Schopenhauer both feel compassion and act compassionately through the desire and need to alleviate the suffering in others, not to make themselves feel good, or simply because it is the right and moral thing to do. But does desire become confused with duty? It could be argued that Shantideva’s compassion is more dutiful as it sits inside a wider religious doctrine rather than a purely autonomous philosophical belief.

However, if the focus is solely on the motive, on the process, on the emotional attachment to the sufferer, on the lack of “self”, and on auteurism that both Shantideva and Schopenhauer both seem to concur, then it may well be possible to miss the outcome of compassion in which they appear to differ. For Schopenhauer the outcome or result of the act of compassion is not a positive experience, as at best it leads to serenity, but for him it highlights or reinforces the futility of the struggle of life itself which many could read as a negative experience. Thus Schopenhauer would describe himself as a pessimist. Shantideva, on the other hand, sees compassion as a positive experience, and through compassion it is possible to escape from sorrow and negativity – ‘Thus for everything that lives, As far as are the limits of the sky, May I be constantly their source of livelihood, Until they pass beyond all sorrow’ (Shantideva Verse 22). But to infer that Shantideva finds this merely a mildly positive experience would be underplaying his true beliefs, as elsewhere in his writings he states the joyfulness that can be gained through compassion – ‘The ocean-like immensity of joy Arising when all beings will be freed, Will this not be enough? Will this not satisfy? The wish for my own freedom, what is that to me?’ (Shantideva Verse 108). This is very different from the thoughts of Schopenhauer who writes ‘The will now turns away from life; it shudders at the pleasures in which it recognizes the affirmation of life’.

The further contrasts between the two sets of beliefs are less apparent. Schopenhauer appears to suggest that compassion is just a step or road marker on a route-map (albeit an important one) to the discovery and attainment of “no self”, whereas Shantideva sees this as the ongoing route to wisdom and nirvana. Indeed it could be said that Schopenhauer only sees that compassion is a transitory life phase as he writes ‘His will turns about; it no longer affirms its own inner nature […] but denies it. The phenomenon by which this becomes manifest is the transition from virtue to asceticism’. Asceticism in this context is a purposeful withdrawal from sensual pleasures and emotions in order to obtain a spiritual calmness, and can often lead to living the life of a monk. The denial of pleasure and emotion necessarily will lead to the cessation of compassion. This leads on to a linked, though supported, argument that Shantideva looks at the universality of cessation of all suffering as a goal in compassion rather than the alleviation of suffering in individuals as a salve for the cessation of suffering in one’s self.

Another crucial difference may be seen in the way the two men describe and view compassion as a virtue isolation. Shantideva can be seen to regard compassion more wholistically, in respect that compassion sits in a suite of other virtues. When commentating on Shantideva, Carolyn Price writes that ‘compassion does not operate on its own, but in cooperation with other virtues: hope, courage, self-confidence and joyfulness’, whereas Schopenhauer writes about compassion very much in isolated and ring-fenced virtuous terms.

As a closing point it is worth noting that the way Schopenhauer and Shantideva lived their lives was very different. The former did not live the compassionate lifestyle that he proposed in his in writings, whereas, the latter certainly did. As already discussed, Schopenhauer did not see any hypocrisy in not living by his words, but one might judge his views on compassion as somewhat more theoretical and untested (certainly by himself), whereas the compassion of Shantideva has been put in practice throughout the centuries by many generations of his followers.

In conclusion the comparisons between the views of Schopenhauer and Shantideva on compassion are centred on the shared experienced of suffering, the desire and duty to relieve suffering, and the promotion of “no self”. They differ in the areas of the purpose and outcome of compassion (in relieving suffering), and in the universality of all suffering with the continual need to pursue a life of compassion, hence inheriting a positive emotional outcome as a product of the deed. The reasons behind their views differing can be put into the context of where and when they lived, their lifestyles and how they lived, how they perceived the purpose of their lives, and fundamentally the schisms, parallels and cross-overs between religion and philosophy.

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