Why me? We are tempted to ask ourselves this question whenever suffering comes knocking at our door.  Our first reaction naturally is Pain and the desire to avoid it. But let’s take a moment to consider the value of suffering and trial in our lives.

Buddhists tell us that we shouldn’t expect a life without challenge as the ‘Three Awakening Sights’ – Disease, Old Age and Death – are our greatest friends in awakening our spiritual awareness. How? Because these outwardly unpleasant realities enable us to understand and empathize with the sufferings of others. In this way we have the opportunity to develop Compassion because we know what it is like to suffer ourselves and therefore we want to save others from this fate. As the old saying goes: “If you don’t feel it, you can’t heal it.” – both for ourselves and for the world.

Empathy & Compassion- Definitions: The very words ‘Empathy’ and ‘Compassion’ provide the key to understanding this process. The English word Empathy is derived from the ancient Greek word εμπάθεια (empatheia, meaning “physical affection or passion”).  This, in turn, comes from εν (en, “in, at”) and πάθος (pathos, “passion” or “suffering”).  Compassion, is derived from the Latin com with + pati to bear, suffer] Literally then, the capacity of ‘feeling with’, sympathetic understanding; the feeling of one’s unity with all that is, resulting in an “intimate magnetic sympathy with all that is.”

Empathy and Compassion are the key qualities enabling us to be sincerely motivated to help others without thought of reward in a suffering world and to maintain the desire to continue that help on into the future ages which are required for enough people to change inwardly to outwardly make a better world.

The Good Life? Consider the life of a person who lives comfortably all the time without many challenges and setbacks, ie. the ideal life painted in magazines and TV programs of material wealth and well-being.

What if we were to have such an easy life and didn’t have any difficult experiences? Surely we would then become ‘Colourless’ people who couldn’t easily identify with the majority of people and therefore would not make the effort to heal ourselves and the world.

This, in fact, is often the case for many people living in comfortable ‘first-world’ situations such as prevails for most people in Australia.  We may be tempted to remain isolated from the suffering of the majority of humanity – ‘Us and Them Syndrome’.

Or we may become exhausted by continually being asked to contribute to the efforts of those organisations, like the Salvation Army, trying to help out  – ‘Compassion Fatigue’.

Psychological studies of how ordinary people can inflict horror on others: Psychologists have studied the effects on human behaviour of becoming remote from the suffering of others.  Three famous psychological studies spring to mind which have had an enormous impact on our understanding of how ordinary people can be capable of inflicting horrors on other people during wars and in other stressful situations.

Zimbardo Prison Study: Psychological scientist Philip Zimbardo, a professor emeritus at Stanford University and president of the Heroic Imagination Project, uncovered the demon inside with devastating, and unexpected consequences.

In the 1960s he set up some pioneering studies where psychology students role-played prison guards and prisoners in a make-believe prison over a three day period.

Physically and psychologically normal and healthy people role-playing uniformed ‘prison-guards’ and under the orders of a brutal administration (Zimbardo himself) rapidly became sadistic and brutalised the ‘prisoners’.

Professor Zimbardo is famous for this Prison Study and his authorship of various introductory psychology books and textbooks for college students, including notably The Lucifer Effect (how good people turn evil) and The Time Paradox.

The Milgram Obedience Experiment: In the 1960s and 70s, Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychology professor, designed a series of studies on obedience to authority, using a “teacher” and a “learner.”

The “teacher” was supposed to inflict an imaginary electric shock on the “learner” if an answer was incorrect, starting at 15 volts and going up to 450 volts, increasing the shock each time the “learner” missed a word in the list. The ‘teachers’ were told that the electric shocks were real.

Ultimately 65% of all of the “teachers” punished the “learners” to the maximum 450 volts which would cause death if a real charge was administered!

The Asch Conformity Study: These studies reflect the findings of Solomon Asch an American psychologist. Seeking to discover why ordinary people could inflict dreadful suffering during World War II, Asch found in his famous experiment of 1951, that people when pressured by a peer group and knowing answers they gave were wrong, still went along with the group.

Asch measured the number of times each participant conformed to the majority view.  On average, about one third (32%) of the participants who were placed in this situation went along and conformed with the clearly incorrect majority on the critical trials. Over the 12 critical trials, about 75% of participants conformed at least once, and 25% of participants never conformed. In the control group, with no pressure to conform to confederates, less than 1% of participants gave the wrong answer.

Why did the participants conform so readily?  When they were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought “peculiar.”  A few of them said that they really did believe the group’s answers were correct.

Apparently, people conform for two main reasons: because they want to fit in with the group (normative influence) and because they believe the group is better informed than they are (informational influence).

Asch found that the majority of people can be manipulated by peer group pressure to do things they know are wrong!

Good and Evil Within: These studies show that when we are remote from the suffering of others, or pressured by those in authority, most people are capable of identifying with their ‘Lower Self’ and are therefore quite capable of inflicting suffering and even death upon other people.

However, we should not lose sight of the fact that most people can also make the choice of identifying with their ‘Higher Self’ and providing Empathy, Love, and Compassion for others given the right external leadership and inner motivation.

The Patience of Job: The Biblical Book of Job certainly reflects this theme:

The “richest man in the East”, Job had had everything stripped from him by God as a test of his Faith – his wealth, his children, and even his health.

With unswerving faith in God, Job tried to make sense of what was happening to him. Perhaps this is what is meant by ‘the Patience of Job’ which is certainly required of all of us sometimes in dealing with life’s challenges, or most certainly when actively treading the spiritual Path.

‘Be not afraid of Sorrow and Trial’: Theosophical writer G de Purucker reflects this universal dilemma with the following advice:

“…Be not afraid of sorrow; be not afraid of trial. They are our best friends; and see what a manly doctrine this is. It is a doctrine of compassion; it is broad-minded, it is human, it is humane, it is sympathetic, it is full of wisdom and quiet peace.

The heart which has never been wrung with sorrow has no fellow-feeling for others. The mind which has never been tormented with sorrow and doubt has a veil before it. Sorrow and doubt awaken us, quicken our intellects, open our hearts, and expand our consciousness; and it is sorrow, suffering, sickness, and pain, which are amongst the gentle agents, the merciful ministers, of the evolutionary process.

The man whose heart has never been wrung with sorrow cannot understand the sorrows of others. The man who has never sorrowed, knows no greatness. He is neither great in heart or mind. Greatness, ethical majesty, spiritual and intellectual power, spring forth from trial.” from Studies in Occult Philosophy page 709.

A Christian Prayer for Empathy & Compassion: A Christian friend offered the following prayer which is in another way of saying:  “If you don’t feel it, you can’t heal it”:

May God bless you with discomfort

At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,

So that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger

At injustice, oppression and exploitation of people.

So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears

To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,

So that you may reach out the hand of comfort to them

And turn their pain to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness

To believe that you can make a difference in the world,

So that you can do what others claim cannot be done

To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.


Where does the Path of Empathy and Compassion ultimately lead? According to Mahayana Buddhist tradition there are two paths in spiritual endeavor. The one is called the Path for Oneself, (Pratyeka Yana) and the other, the Deathless Path or the Path of Compassion (Amrita Yana). The Path for Oneself is that followed by all who seek salvation for themselves — whose most ardent devotees usually yearn to enter some type of life whereby they may leave the turmoil and distraction of earthly existence and attain nirvana quickly. The other is the ancient Path of Compassion, steep and thorny, which is trod by those who would follow in the footsteps of the Christ and the Buddha: the path of altruistic endeavour which seeks wisdom solely that truth and light might be shared with all.

Choices on the Spiritual Path: The path of matter tends downward; though we are involved in its atmosphere, there are very few indeed who follow the pull downward to the exclusion of all else. The path of spirit is up and forward always, toward the divinity within. The choice between matter and spirit therefore is clear, regardless of how often we fail to realize our aspirations for the permanent values.

However, in spiritual things there will likewise come a forking of the way: either to follow the path for ourselves, or for others.

 Boddhisattva: One Whose Essence is Compassion: This concept is well known in the Orient, particularly in those countries where Buddhism has been firmly established for centuries; and that is the reason the populace, by tradition, hold the Bodhisattvas in far greater reverence than they do the Buddhas. To them, the Bodhisattva is one who has reached the point where she/he could step across the chasm of darkness into Nirvana, omniscience, peace or wisdom, however you care to describe it, but she/he refuses so that she/he might stay behind until the last of his/her brothers can cross over with him. A Buddha, however, is one who, having reached the portal, sees the light ahead and enters nirvana, achieving his well-earned bliss. In Japan, China and those parts of India where Buddhism has taken root, you will find numerous carvings of Bodhisattvas. The ideal of compassion is perpetuated in a few of these statues by the right hand of Bodhisattva reaching toward the wisdom and light and beauty of nirvana; while the left hand leans downward toward mankind, in a compassionate gesture of benevolence.

Kwan-Yin: Goddess of Mercy and Friend of Mankind: In Japan, Korea, Tibet, and China, the Boddhisattva, Kwan Yin, is the beloved personification of compassion. Images of her can be found in homes, temples, and within thousands of shrines and grottoes beside roads and shaded pools. People of all ages bring gifts of flowers and fruit, but not in supplication. There is no need for that. Kwan Yin, like a wise and loving parent knows and does what is best; does it with gentle guidance and never needs to punish or coerce. Of all the world’s great gods, she is undoubtedly the kindest and most giving. Innumerable folktales describe her beneficence and each in its way inspires to noble action. Like her, devotees seek to help others by giving of themselves, and of whatever they have. Like her, they avoid causing pain to any other being for, as they say:

‘When a worm is crushed, all beings are crushed; When a single bee sucks honey, all beings in the myriad universes suck honey.’

To the humble she is goddess, mother figure, friend, guide, and protector; to the philosophical she represents the divine force of compassion that not only pervades the cosmos, holding all together in harmonious accord, but also manifests in this world in various forms sometimes through the spiritual nature of one or a series of great men and women. Devotees claim they often feel her nearness, or see her in person. Whether this presence is physical or a subtle thought form perceived by mystic vision, who can say? According to tradition Kwan Yin had been an ordinary person who had followed the Path of Wisdom and Service until after many incarnations she reached the supreme goal, Nirvana. Pausing a moment at the threshold, she heard, rising from the world, a great wail of woe, as if all the rocks and trees, insects, animals, humans, gods and demons, cried out in protest that so virtuous a one should depart from their midst. Without a second thought this noble-hearted soul turned back, determined to remain until every being without exception should precede her into Nirvana.

When the time of choice comes – Will we have the strength of Empathy and Compassion to follow her example?

The Pledge of Kwan-Yin: “Never will I seek nor receive private, individual salvation; never will I enter into final peace alone; but forever and everywhere will I live and strive for the redemption of every creature throughout the world.”


  • Compiled from the writings of G de Purucker, James A. Long, and Eloise Hart, with additional comments from Andrew Rooke, Melbourne, Australia.
  • If you wish to contact the author please email: andrewrooke@hotmail.com