Blessed are the Compassionate: The value of co-suffering in Mahayana Buddhism and Liberation Theology.

No island or castle can hide us from the reality of suffering, including sickness and death. That was true for Gautama Buddha over 2,500 years ago and it is true today. When we pay attention, we realize that our own lack of awareness, isolation, separation, oppression, greed, denial of change and clinging to things and ideas not only increase our suffering but also lead us to harmful decisions. We come to understand that suffering is beyond pain. Can it then be transformed into the source of our awakening, spiritual growth and liberation?

Human life and spiritual practices show us that our ability to engage suffering has the potential for resilience and transformation. When we learn how to face our fears with courage and respond with grief and compassion, we begin to see meaning in the most difficult situations. Compassion literally means “co-suffering” or “suffering with.” It has the power to heal our brokenness.

Examining the value of co-suffering I find a particularly engaging parallel between the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, as understood by Mahayana Buddhists, and the four phases of Christian spiritual development by South African liberation theologian Albert Nolan[1]. While Mahayana Buddhism is an ancient development and Liberation Theology was first formulated in the 1970s by Peruvian Catholic Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, their concern for liberation of the world’s people from suffering are based on the radical teachings of the Buddha and Jesus. Both stress the interdependence of our actions.

The first teaching of the Buddha, known as the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma[2], elucidates that there is suffering (dukkha) in life; the cause of suffering is ignorance, attachment and aversion; there is cessation of suffering; and the way to liberation is through the Noble Eightfold path of wholesome view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. For Mahayana Buddhists it is skillfully achieved through cultivation of Bodhichitta, the mind that strives toward awakening and compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings.

In parallel, Albert Nolan, in his first phase of Christian spiritual development, exposes us to the suffering and inhuman conditions of millions around the world, asking believers to mindfully “bring home” the complexity of such suffering by participating with the “God of Compassion.” In his second phase, Nolan urges us to discover the structures of injustice and importance of anger, admitting that the cause of suffering is not “God’s Will.”  The third phase is the realization that victims are not “helpless objects of pity,” but rather “necessary agents for change”, endowed with wisdom and virtue. In his last phase, Nolan affirms that there is no “us” or “them” and that we must work together toward change.

In the past, certain regimes and the church hierarchy criticized Liberation Theology’s “preferential option for the poor” as Marxist. Today Pope Francis shows a promising sign of reintegrating Liberation Theology into our faithful engagement with the teachings of Jesus. If we do it with a greater focus on engaging suffering with compassion by moving beyond political labels that separate us, then we can bring more balance, justice and love in our lives.

The good news is that the contemporary research shows that compassion is our innate human response. We are born with it, or one may say, endowed with it. Yet, for our compassion to become a true instrument of change, it must be cultivated and nourished so it can be, as Stephen Batchelor, a Buddhist scholar-practitioner, says, “at the heart of responsibility … not merely for ourselves but for all that lives, for everything that is capable of calling out to us.”[3]

Our compassion, like suffering, is immeasurable and our cultivation of co-suffering is the key to the meaningful awakening and liberation in this lifetime. It is not something that is separate from us; it is within us, always ready to be engaged and embodied.

Image Credits: Enver Rahmanov. Image is in the public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Albert Nolan, Hope in an age of despair: and other writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009). See also Stephen Privett. “Like a Bear Robbed of her Cubs,” Issues in Ethics 9, no 2 (Spring 1998).

[2]Thich Nhat Hanh, Path of Compassion: stories from the Buddha’s Life (Parallax Press, 2012), 81.

[3] Stephen Batchelor, The Faith to Doubt: Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty (Parallax Press, 1990), 4.


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5 thoughts on “Blessed are the Compassionate: The value of co-suffering in Mahayana Buddhism and Liberation Theology.

  1. Thank you for this piece, Enver! You have raised some critical points that I find to be both inspiring and personally helpful. I’m in my second month of working with Syrian refugees in Jordan and the growing number of tragic stories I hear day to day has evoked in me both compassion and compassion fatigue. However, what you said about co-suffering really resonated with me. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by another’s suffering because I feel I cannot relate to it through any of my own experiences, it is perhaps better to not attempt to quantify and compare. Rather, just sitting and being present with refugee families — who are not, as you say, victims to be pitied, but rather human beings from which one can learn — is an opportunity for all of us to grow and engage.

    1. Enver, I always love your reflections. Liberation theology was also very political and engaged in trying to reform society into something more just. I struggle to understand if the earlier sutras from India really argue the same. Social and political concern seem to the rarity. Yet, socially engaged Buddhism, which has grown in the same modernity as liberation theology, seems to resonate. You raise for me, through this helpful comparison, the question of how relevant Buddhist teaching is for justice making. Does justice even make sense in Buddhism? I saw the Dalai Lama speak recently, and he is clear that what needs to change is our minds, our consciousness. It is the individual level that counts. Yet, our minds are formed by institutions – social structures. Can such a one-sided emphasis be enough? How does Buddhism respond to humans as groups and the dynamics that come from this, when so much of Buddhist teaching is cultivation of the individual? I think your comparison with liberation theology is perfect for this question, and I am grateful for your reflection.

  2. Thank you Chelsea for your kind feedback and, above all, for your compassionate work with the refugees.
    I agree that we cannot compare or quantify such presence in the situations of tragedy and despair. Perhaps that’s why, in Buddhism, compassion is one of the four Immeasurables that extends its benefits far beyond our mental grasp. Zelda Fitzgerald once said that nobody has ever measured, even poets, how much a heart can hold. I think these words speak well of an innate quality of compassion beyond our religious language. What both the science and spiritual wisdom practices show us is that our cultivation of the quality of compassion, including toward ourselves as caregivers, help us with our more compassionate presence with those who suffer.
    As you reflected upon Nolan’s words of Liberation Theology, our empathetic response has nothing to do with pity, but it is rather an equal exchange of transformational power of presence, a sort of compassionate human solidarity.

  3. Joe, thank you for your kind feedback and great questions worth of many important discussions. Buddhism is very diverse and yet what all Buddhist agree with is that there are karmic consequences to one’s actions within the central concept of dependent co-arising. In that sense justice, as harmony and wholeness of all, makes sense. The early Buddhist texts (both The Pāli Canon and the Mahāyāna texts) do speak of compassion as an immeasurable virtue that leads to welfare and happiness. Bhikku Bodhi, a prominent American Buddhist monk, scholar and translator of the the Pāli texts, wrote a lot on what we call today engaged compassion from the Theravada perspective. Please check out his online article on the recent government shutdown. The West’s secular approach to Buddhism as cultivation of the individual, I think, is somewhat misunderstood. The Mahāyāna sutras do speak of cultivation of one’s mind, not the individual. They teach to “subdue your mind,” together with the “practice of virtue” for the benefit of all beings. The Avataṃsaka Sūtra, one of the well-known early Mahāyāna texts elucidates that wisdom only exists for the sake of putting it into practice; that it is only good insofar as it benefits all living beings. Śāntideva, the author of the most known Mahāyāna text, the Bodhicaryāvatāra, in his inner dialogue on the teachings of the Buddha, focuses on the benefits of bodhicitta, the compassionate wish to reach full enlightenment for others. As you mentioned the Dalai Lama has done many teachings on this texts and has written several in-depth commentaries. Like him, many other prominent Buddhist scholars and teachers, have used this text of the prominent Indian master and Buddhist monk to embody compassion, by cultivating their mind, conscientiousness, mindfulness, etc., with a selfless aspiration – to alleviate the suffering of the world.

    1. Enver, I really appreciate that thoughtful reply. Unless we stretch the meaning of those writings, though, they do not speak to our modern understandings of justice, at least, not as social justice as distributive (meaning we need more equitable allocation of material goods) nor really even of recognition (we need to give political recognition to politically identified groups). To be fair, I don’t think Christianity has this either, but our modern understanding comes, at least in part, from that tradition. My feeling is a Buddhist understanding of social justice (I’m hesitant to even say “Buddhist,” as it is a huge tradition) would be different than this, though not antithetical perhaps. Would it even recognize a concept of “social” justice? How would suffering play in? For example, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum have their capabilities approach to justice, where everyone needs to have certain capabilities, but in liberal fashion, are then left to fail or succeed. Would a Buddhist conception of justice stress the importance of suffering, and that we have to give support to those who suffer at every turn, something beyond the capabilities approach? Sorry for riffing here – your comments and response generated a lot of thinking for me, and I am very grateful.

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