Compassion

Compassion

Just as with her own life a mother shields from hurt her own son, her only child, let all-embracing thoughts for all beings be yours. The Buddha, Metta Sutta [i]

Four of the qualities that counter suffering are known in Buddhism as the four immeasurables or sublime attitudes. They include loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In practicing loving-kindness, Buddhists begin by wishing happiness and the causes of happiness for someone dear to them, and then gradually expand that wish until it embraces all sentient beings throughout the whole of space and time. The other three qualities are practiced with the same all-embracing spirit. In practicing the four immeasurables Buddhists cultivate a good heart, replacing selfish attachments with the wish to benefit others, and in this way they overcome their own suffering and often that of others.

Shakespeare’s characters may not practice loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity with such a vast intention. We do not find them methodically training their minds to expand the scope of their altruistic motivation. And yet, in Shakespeare’s plays we find characters devoting themselves to making others happy (loving-kindness) and to freeing them from suffering and its causes (compassion).

Loving-kindness and compassion are so closely related as to sometimes be almost indistinguishable, since happiness often depends on freedom from suffering. Compassion arises from natural empathy with our fellow beings. For Shakespeare, as for Buddhists, it is the heart that feels another’s pain and longs to relieve it.

At the beginning of The Tempest we see a ship being destroyed in a storm conjured up by the magician, Prospero. This sight brings a spontaneous declaration of compassion from Prospero’s young daughter, Miranda:

O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dash’d all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart. Poor souls, they perish’d.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallow’d and
The fraughting[ii] souls within her. (I.ii.5-13

In these lines Shakespeare gives us the compassion of an innocent girl with little experience of the world. Miranda’s compassion is a beautiful expression of innate human goodness.

Another tempest takes place in King Lear. Lear on the heath suffers from the storm without while he endures an even greater storm of mental suffering within. When he notices a naked beggar also feeling the fury of the elements, a heart that has been entirely taken up with selfish concerns is opened, and he prays:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just. (III.iv.28-36)

While Miranda’s compassion is the compassion of innocence, Lear’s is the compassion of experience. By enduring great suffering he comes to realize that he has been blind to the suffering of others for too long. With the opening of his heart he finds momentary relief from his inner pain.

Compassion is not a limited commodity. The more compassion we feel for the suffering of others the more our compassion grows. As compassion grows it displaces craving and ignorance, thereby relieving our own suffering. Buddhists sometimes describe compassion as a wish-fulfilling jewel that cannot be exhausted, bringing benefits to giver and receiver alike. As Sogyal Rinpoche points out, this quality of compassion is beautifully expressed in The Merchant of Venice when Portia appeals to Shylock to spare the life of the merchant, Antonio[iii]:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: (IV.i.168-171)

For Shakespeare compassion is the spontaneous expression of an innocent child on seeing a shipwreck and the prayer of an old man whose selfish heart has been opened by the suffering of a beggar. It is a transcendent virtue, falling from heaven and raining blessings on the giver and receiver alike.

[i] Candy, Dennis. Peace in the Buddha’s Discourses : A Compilation and Discussion (Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy Sri Lanka, 2008), 87.

[ii] Fraughting means making up the freight.

[iii] Sogyal Rinpoche. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (Harper San Francisco, 2001), 202.