The quality I believe that we need most in the world today is what I call conscientious compassion. Conscientious compassion differs from the type of compassion that remains content to passively bear witness to the suffering of others and merely send benevolent wishes for their good. It merges altruistic intentions with a deliberate and durable commitment to action—action guided by moral vision and the ideal of a more just, harmonious, and peaceful world.
Conscientious compassion springs from the recognition that in an interdependent world, the fate of each of us is tied to the fate of all. Through compassion we feel the suffering of others as our own. Through conscience we are willing to take personal responsibility for the well-being of others and do something to transform the conditions of their lives.
Conscientious compassion looks to the least and lowest: to the poor, the violated, and the most vulnerable, who are also usually the most powerless. It moves us to reach out and try to rescue them in the face of the calamities and indignities they must face, often on a daily basis: war, violence, poverty, exploitation; discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or religion; oppression by tyrannical regimes or unscrupulous corporations. Conscientious compassion, to be effective, must motivate us to look beyond the manifestations of collective suffering. It must tell us to look deeply and discern the causes of such suffering, which are often hidden and camouflaged. Then it must move us to tackle these causes, and to affirm the rights of all people to a life of material security, peace, and freedom.
Conscientious compassion arises from the confluence—the flowing together—of two subsidiary values that complement and reinforce each other. One is a commitment to justice, the other is love, a heartfelt concern for the good of others. The sense of justice is grounded on the premise that every human being possesses intrinsic worth, an inviolable dignity that must be respected by everyone else and by the institutions that express our common will. It follows from this premise that all people equally possess certain inalienable rights, rights that belong to them simply by virtue of their humanity. Whether white or black or brown, whether male or female or trans, gay or straight or of any other sexual orientation, whether in America, Europe, Asia, Africa, or anywhere else—each person is endowed with an inherent value that cannot be diminished, compromised, or denied.
To accept justice as a guiding ideal means that one is ready to stand up against injustice, to oppose policies, programs, and social forces that threaten to deprive people of the rights and security they should enjoy by reason of their humanity. The commitment to justice inspires a willingness to resist the perpetrators of injustice, however powerful, wealthy, and influential they may be. To resist is to take risk, for those in the seats of power do not yield easily. They are often ready to hold on to their power and privileges by any means at their disposal, no matter how pernicious these may be: through legal manipulation, bribery, or disinformation; by suppression through police power, imprisonment and torture, and even by assassination.
In the face of all such threats, one resists in the recognition that the call of justice is more compelling than one’s natural disposition to a life of complacency and compliance. One resists because one sees that there is a transcendent imperative that tells us the good must prevail. One resists because one recognizes that in the long run and in the deepest sense the triumph of justice is beneficial to all, even to the oppressors.
The commitment to justice, however, also calls for constructive action, for positive deeds, however small, that contribute to creating a better world. To realize justice in this sense, at least two things are required. The first is to ensure that people can gain access to the material requisites of a fulfilling life, above all nutritious food, clean water, a safe home, sanitation, and a healthy environment. It also entails establishing the conditions for economic security and protecting the vulnerable against violence and social neglect.
While the first imperative of justice is to enable people to survive healthy and secure, the second imperative is to enable them to flourish, that is, to live abundantly. For people to flourish they must be free to pursue their aspirations, realize their potentials, and actualize their unique talents and skills. Providing food and other means of physical security is a first step in this process. When one has to struggle every day against poverty and hunger, one’s development will be stunted and one’s potential will be left untapped.
But providing the means to physical well-being is not sufficient to enable people to flourish. The key to helping people realize their potentials, at the most basic level, is education. Education draws out the potentials buried deep in the mind that would otherwise remain untapped. It sheds light into dark corners, nurturing seeds that have not yet sprouted. It opens the doors to a fulfilling life, a life of richer meaning and purpose, and equips one to benefit one’s community, country, and the world.
In many traditional cultures, however, education is still not treated as a universal right but as a privilege, and as a privilege given to the rich over the poor, and to boys over girls. In today’s world, in every country, it is especially necessary that girls be given as complete an opportunity to reap the benefits of education as boys. We must recognize that girls have as much potential for a life of meaning as boys, that they can make just as valuable a contribution to their communities, societies, and nations, and thus deserve to receive as full an education as boys.
One program that I have been involved with through my work as chair of Buddhist Global Relief is the GATE program in Cambodia, implemented by our partner organization, Lotus Outreach. GATE stands for Girls Access To Education. The program provides rice support to the families of poor girls on condition that they permit their daughters to remain in school. Almost all the girls who start the GATE program in high school complete their secondary education, and of those who do so, at this point about a hundred have continued on to college. These are girls from the poorest stratum of Cambodia, a country that had been ravaged by decades of civil war. Often their fathers are missing, and their mothers must support three or four children in a single shack that they call home. Without the sponsorship that GATE provides, these girls would have been forced to drop out of school and go to work to support their families. A large number might even have wound up in brothels, bound to a life of shame. But now, with the sponsorship we provide through our partner, Lotus Outreach, these girls are enrolled in college, studying to become teachers, doctors, nurses, accountants, engineers, and policy-makers. Hopefully, they will become leaders and agents of change in their communities.
The second factor integral to conscientious compassion is love. Love softens the harsh tones of the call for justice. It draws forth the urge to act straight from the heart. The word “love” has many shades of meaning, ranging from the shallow to the profound, but what I mean by love here is a deep, heartfelt concern for the well-being of others, an abiding wish that they dwell secure and happy. This type of love ideally extends toward all human beings, even those unknown to us, based on a recognition of our common humanity. It springs from the understanding that every person is a center of subjective experience, a distinct pole star of an entire world, one particular turning point of the universe. To protect each person is therefore to protect a world.
The salient characteristic of love might be summed up in the word “solidarity,” the feeling of unity with others. The sense of solidarity is rooted in the realization that every human being shares with us the same essential nature: that every person wishes to live and not to die, to be happy and free from suffering, to pursue their ideals and fulfill their aspirations. When one develops love based on the sense of solidarity, one endeavors to extend to everyone the same concern that one would extend to one’s own mother, father, son, or daughter: to protect them from harm, to redeem them from suffering, to establish the conditions for them to live happily and at peace.
When the commitment to justice comes together and coalesces with the spirit of love, what results is conscientious compassion—compassion stemming from an assent to the hard demands of justice and from an ardent wish for others to flourish and realize their fullest potential. Conscientious compassion unites the highest moral visions of the great spiritual traditions in a call for transformative action. If we follow the call of conscientious compassion, we can bring into being the kind of world for which we long.
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a scholar-monk, translator of Pali Buddhist texts, and founder of Buddhist Global Relief, an organization dedicated to combating chronic hunger and malnutrition around the world. The present essay is adapted from the cover essay of the BGR 2015 winter newsletter.