Three kinds of compassion

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Three kinds of compassion (Tib. སྙིང་རྗེ་གསུམ་, nyingjé sum, Wyl. snying rje gsum) —

  1. compassion focused on sentient beings (Tib. སེམས་ཅན་ལ་དམིགས་པའི་སྙིང་རྗེ་; Wyl. sems can la dmigs pa'i snying rje),
  2. compassion focused on phenomena (Tib. ཆོས་ལ་དམིགས་པའི་སྙིང་རྗེ་; Wyl. chos la dmigs pa'i snying rje); and
  3. compassion without focus (Tib. དམིགས་མེད་ལ་དམིགས་པའི་སྙིང་རྗེ་; Wyl. dmigs med la dmigs pa'i snying rje).

Brief Explanation

Khenpo Namdrol explains: “Compassion focused on sentient beings is the wish that beings might be free from their suffering, without any thought as to whether those beings are permanent or impermanent, truly existent or illusory. Then, compassion focused on phenomena is a similar wish that beings might be free from suffering, made in the knowledge that those beings are impermanent. Compassion without focus is the wish that suffering beings might be free from suffering and attain enlightenment, complete with the knowledge that those beings lack any true existence.”

Many great masters such as Mipham Rinpoche agree that these three types of compassion share the same essence, the wish to free beings from suffering. They are distinguished only in terms of their particular object of focus.

Compassion Focused on Sentient Beings

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche explains that the object of the first type of compassion, compassion focusing on sentient beings are all ordinary beings who suffer from the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change, as well as shravakas and pratyekabuddhas still on the path. These are beings who are helplessly reborn in samsara by the power of karma and destructive emotions, rather than by their own free will.

Sogyal Rinpoche explains that this is compassion where the prime focus is the suffering of another sentient being and the wish to see that being free from suffering. This type of compassion focuses on suffering that is more immediately evident and visible such as poverty or sickness.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche explains further that this kind of compassion is often called 'common compassion' because it is common to both Buddhists and non-Buddhists.

Compassion Focused on Phenomena

This type of compassion arises in one who recognizes the impermanence of phenomena and understands that everything compounded is subject to eventual change and disintegration. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche explains that the object of this kind of compassion are all beings who suffer from the all-pervasive suffering of conditioned existence. This includes all beings who are the object of the first kind of compassion, as well as bodhisattvas on all of the ten bhumis in post-meditation and even shravaka and pratyekabuddha arhats.

Sogyal Rinpoche explains that based on a deeper understanding of the nature of sentient being's existence, such as the recognition of the transient nature of his or her life or the recognition of his or her non-substantiality, a feeling of compassion without reason arises even though there is no ‘overt suffering.’ With this kind of compassion you begin to see more globally and understand the general nature of samsara which is suffering.

Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche comments, "Beings are completely impermanent. There is nothing remaining from one moment to the next in terms of the beings' basic nature. However, because beings think that they are permanent and think that there is something there which remains and continues, they suffer. They suffer because they cling to their belief in permanence."

Compassion Without Focus (or Non-referential Compassion)

Compassion without focus arises in one who recognizes the emptiness of all things. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche explains that the objects of this kind of compassion are all beings who have not completely realized emptiness, i.e. anyone who has not reached the level of complete enlightenment. Since it involves understanding both the selflessness of phenomena and the selflessness of the individual it is referred to as 'uncommon'.

Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche says, "Beings are empty of any inherent existence, and yet because they think that things are real, they suffer."

Milarepa said, "Seeing emptiness, have compassion."

Teachings Given to the Rigpa Sangha

  • Khenpo Sönam Tobden, January 8-10, 2010, Rigpa Shedra East
  • Sogyal Rinpoche:
    • New York 21 October 2007
    • Lerab Ling 13 August 2007
    • Haileybury 7 April 2007

References and Further Reading

  • Introduction to the Middle Way, Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara, with commentary by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, 2003 by Khyentse Foundation, pages 41-46 (available online upon request).
  • Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoches commentary on Chandrakirti's The Entrance Into the Middle Way, Shenpen Osel, Issue 13.
  • Introduction to the Middle Way, Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara, with commentary by Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche, pages 146-147
  • Kyabje Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche, The Dharma That Illuminates all Beings Impartially Like the Light of the Sun and the Moon, pages 46-47.
  • The Bodhichitta Mengak Study Pack, published by Rigpa, 'Arousing Bodhichitta, The Heart of the Enlightened Mind', pages 8-9.