The Eastern principle of compassion is spiritually more mature than the Western principles of love and forgiveness in terms of social interaction. In short, in order to love and forgive you must believe that you and I are separate and that I can judge you. For example, I feel superior to you because I love and forgive you whether you deserve it or not. In Buddhism, however, there is no place for judgment. In order to feel compassion, you must recognize that there is no separation between you and the person you are interacting with, which requires a higher level of spiritual maturity.
Love and forgiveness beget judgment
Many people say that the primary (and some say, only) rule of Christianity is Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31–“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which includes love and forgiveness. The two cannot be separated. In order to love unconditionally, you also must forgive unconditionally. However, forgiveness requires separation, which opens the door to judgment: God says I must love and forgive you–even you haven’t earned it–so I can become a better person. You bestow your love and forgiveness upon others as if it were a gift, and in return you feel superior. For spiritually immature individuals, then, forgiveness legitimizes judgment and feeds the ego’s desire to feel righteous and superior.
The emotions of separation and judgment are present when a parent teaches a child to love and forgive. Children learn to act as if they love and forgive, and their reward is parental approval and a sense of superiority. This relationship of the Father to his children is key in Christianity.
Compassion, however, is what the parent feels for the child. As a parent, of course you love and forgive your child. That is never in question. Your children are part of you, and you are part of them. A well-adjusted parent cannot not feel love and forgiveness, no matter what the child does.
Mature spiritual growth, then, means to evolve beyond God-as-Father and be the Father/parent–“be as God” (Genesis 3:5). Spiritually evolved individuals are able to experience compassion, for they recognize we are all connected. We are all part of each other, the world, and the universe, as the parent and child are part of each other. Therefore there is no need to give love and forgiveness, because those emotions are implicit when all things are connected.
Buddhism embodies compassion
A more profound spiritual growth is required to practice compassion. In Tibetan Buddhism, compassion is defined as wanting others to be free from suffering; the Latin word for “compassion” means “co-suffering” (Wikipedia). To be compassionate, you must feel empathy and recognize that there is no separation between you and the person you are interacting with. Everyone is on the same long journey of self-discovery; we all have made the same mistakes, and we all are doing the best that we can at this time.
Of course, the world is full of many spiritually evolved Christians (and atheists, and Muslims and so on), and they interact at the level of compassion.
How to live in compassion
When you meet someone and become frustrated or angered, you remember that, not only does a deep connection bind you both in the way a parent is bonded with a child, but you also understand, at the deepest level in your being, that you are that other person: At some point in the infinite universe, you have shared the same breath, the same physical space, the same atoms. And at some point in your infinite lifetimes, you have been that person: the zealot warrior, abusive husband, conniving merchant. You comprehend that you truly are that person (although not in this time or space) and you do not judge that person or see them as separate from yourself.
You understand what drives people at the core of their being, and you remember that you have experienced those motivations as well. You empathize deeply with them and feel overwhelming compassion–the same compassion you feel when you witness your children learn a difficult lesson.
Compassion sometimes means not interfering
You may wish you could lessen another person’s suffering. But you know you cannot, the same way you know you cannot take away the pain of your child’s first love, or rejection, or failure. You know they must experience those emotions and resolve the conflict themselves in order to learn. And all you can do is empathize with them, understand their missteps, and love them with all your being.
But you also experience their successes and their joys. As such, every interaction with every living thing is filled with pain and suffering but also with love, triumph, appreciation. And you focus on the good, and recognize that often the best way to help is to not interfere in their journey.
A note from PJ: This is the first time I’ve ventured into expressing my own openions. Am I off base? I’d love some feedback on this notion. Thanks, all.