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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Compassion Based on Biology and Reason

Compassion Based on Biology
and Reason

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Prague, Czech Republic, 11 October 2006
transcribed and lightly edited by Alexander Berzin

The result of any action depends on the motivation. Depending on whether there is a disturbing emotion or a positive emotion behind it, the same action brings about different results. Even when the same general emotion, such as compassion, motivates an action, the mental and emotional supports of that emotion also affect the outcome.

Look at compassion, for example. There are three types:

  • The first is directed toward relatives and loved ones. But, being based on attachment, it is limited in scope. At the slightest circumstance, it can quickly change to anger and even hatred.

  • The second type of compassion is directed toward suffering beings, based on pity for them. With this type of compassion, we look down on them and feel better than they are. These two types of compassion arise due to disturbing emotions and, because of that, they lead to trouble.

  • The third type of compassion is unbiased. It is based on understanding and respect. With it, we realize that others are the same as we are: they have the same right to be happy and not to suffer as we have. Because of that understanding, we feel love, compassion, and affection toward them. This third type of compassion is the stable kind. It is developed by training, education, and reason. The more stable the compassion, the more beneficial it will be.

These three types of compassion fall into two general categories. The first two types are emotions that arise spontaneously based on something neurotic. The third is an emotion that arises based on reason.

Compassion that is based on reason and which is without any bias is reinforced by nature. At birth, whether a human, a mammal, or a bird – I don’t know about sea turtles and butterflies – we all automatically feel unbiased love toward our mother, although we don’t know her. We all feel a natural attraction, closeness, and affection toward her. The mother, as well, automatically feels a natural closeness and affection for her newborn child. Because of that, she takes care and nurses the infant. This affectionate care is the basis for the healthy development of the child.

From this we can see that biologically based closeness and affection are the seeds of compassion. They are the greatest gifts that we ever receive and they come from our mothers. When we nurture these seeds with reason and education, they grow into real compassion – unbiased and directed equally toward everyone, based on understanding the equality of us all.

For the baby, affection is not based on religion, laws, or police enforcement. It just comes naturally. So although the compassion taught by religions is good, the real seed, the real basis for compassion is biological. It is the basis for what I call “secular ethics.” Religion should just reinforce this seed.

Some think that moral ethics must be based exclusively on religious faith. Others think that a sense of ethics can be developed through training. Some think that “secular” means a rejection of religion. Others think that “secular” implies having respect for all religions, without bias, including respect for nonbelievers, as in the constitution of India. This later type of ethics, and especially compassion as its basis, are rooted in instinct. As in the case of mother and newborn child, they arise automatically because of the necessity of survival. Because of that biological basis, they are more stable.

When children play, they don’t think of religion, race, politics, or family background. They appreciate a smile from their playmates, no matter who they are, and, in response, are nice to them. Their minds and hearts are open. Adults, on the other hand, usually emphasize these other factors – racial and political differences, and so on. Because of that, their minds and hearts are narrower.

Look at the differences between the two. When we are more compassionate, our minds and hearts are more open and we communicate much more easily. When we are self-centered, our minds and hearts are closed and it is difficult for us to communicate with others. Anger weakens the immune system, while compassion and a kind heart improve our immune system. With anger and fear, we can’t sleep and even if we fall asleep, we have nightmares. If our minds are calm, we sleep well. We don’t need any tranquilizers – our energy is balanced. With tension, our energy is rushing around and we feel nervous.

To see and understand clearly, we need a calm mind. If we are agitated, we can’t see reality. Therefore, most troubles, even on a global level, are man-made troubles. They arise because we handle situations poorly, from not seeing reality. Our actions are based on fear, anger, and tension. There is too much stress. We are not objective because our minds are deluded. These negative emotions lead to narrow-mindedness and that leads to creating trouble, which never brings satisfactory results.

Compassion, on the other hand, brings an open mind, a calm mind. With it, we see reality and what the methods are for ending what no one wants and bringing about what everyone wants. This is an important point and a great benefit of compassion based on reason. Therefore, to promote human values based on biology and supported by reason, mothers and the instinctive love and affection between mother and child play a vital role.