Buddhist Compassion, explained

1000 arm Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva

As mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading an interesting Japanese manga about the life of Prince Shotoku, a famous semi-legendary figure in early Japanese history. Although the language is difficult (the dialogue uses ancient Japanese, not modern Japanese), I still enjoy reading the book. Anyhow, in one section, Prince Shotoku meets a monk from the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo (高句麗 kōkuri in Japanese) named Eji (慧慈 에지, died in 623) and Prince Shotoku asks Eji what is the most important thing for building a new nation.

Eji than asks Prince Shotoku if he knows the story called 捨身飼虎, which is pronounced shashinshiko in Japanese or sashinsahodo (사신사호도) in Korean.

This is a famous story that comes from the Jataka Tales, a collection of stories about Shakyamuni Buddha in his previous lives before he became enlightened. In the story, a prince was walking through a forest and saw a mother tiger and her cubs down below. They were starving and the mother almost ate her cubs. To save the cubs, the prince threw his body over a cliff to the tiger below and was eaten.

Does this mean that Buddhists are martyrs? Why would the monk Eji remind Prince Shotoku of this story?

As Buddhism teachings, there’s regular compassion and “true” compassion. Rev. Tagawa in his book Living Yogacara explains:

When we first begin to practice donation, all of our offerings are contaminated by this quality [self-centeredness] (pg. 65)

The reason is because people are selfish, even when we help others. We get annoyed if the person doesn’t say ‘thank you’, or we get annoyed if we don’t get credit. It’s still important to help others anyway, but it’s also important to be aware of this selfish tendency.

But a person of true compassion will do what is necessary for the welfare of others, even if they have to give up their life. This kind of true, unconditional compassion is the high-ideal in Buddhism. It is a kind of pure “altruism”, but it’s not something that regular people are expected to do. Through many years of practice and cultivation, one’s sense of goodwill extends to all beings, while selfishness diminishes. One slowly becomes more and more prepared to help others in both big and small ways, as appropriate.

The photo above was recently taken during a visit to a Vietnamese Buddhist temple and shows famous image of the 1000-armed bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The 1,000 arms symbolizes the bodhisattva’s efforts to help all beings while the 11 heads show Avalokitesvara watching over the world.

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva also serves as a good ideal of compassion in a Buddhist context. 🙂


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “Buddhist Compassion, explained”

    1. Hi Jeff. I think it’s more of an acknoledgement that since the body is temporary and subject to decline, there’s not much use in holding onto it when it can be used for a greater good.

      This is not a teaching of self-neglect of course, because it’s something only to be done when called for in a specific situation.

      It’s about putting others before ourselves. These are just exemplary examples of that teaching. 🙂


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