Compassion is not an idealized state. It is a profound realization that we are not separate from one another.

The second boundless abode is compassion.  To develop compassion is to learn to be open to suffering.  This often is a gradual process.  Through mindfulness we begin to recognize suffering in ourselves.  This is how we become aware that we all suffer in one way or another.

The ability to develop compassion with strength is a determining factor in sustaining our work with sickness, loss, and all the forms of suffering that we encounter in the experience of dying.  Compassion is not an idealized state. It is a profound realization that we are not separate from one another.  It involves the ability to feel another’s suffering. Like lovingkindness, it is fundamentally interactive and ultimately has no subject and no object.  Lovingkindness and compassion are the perfume of the realization of nonduality.

The practice of compassion has four aspects:

1.  Sharing joy and suffering with all beings, in the realization that we are not separate from any being.

2.  Wishing freedom from suffering for all beings.

3.  Responding to suffering in order to transform it.

4.  Being free of any thought as to the outcome of our action.

I have encountered great compassion in many dying people.  Zen teacher Issan Dorsey, as he was dying, felt the suffering of others deeply and seemed to have even greater equanimity as his compassion deepened.  He was a very open and experimental person.  His dying opened him to an even greater degree, allowing him to let go of everything around and in him. He practiced compassion with flawless humility.

All Articles in this Series:

Intro: Boundless Qualities of the Mind
Part 1: Lovingkindness: The FirstAbode 
Part 2: Compassion:  The Second Abode
Part 3: Sympathetic Joy: The Third Abode 
Part 4  Equanimity: The Fourth Abode

Joan Halifax Roshi – Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, civil-rights activist, and author – is Founder and Abbot of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As Director of the Project for Being with Dying, she counsels dying people and teaches health-care professionals about the dying process. Our thanks for her gracious permission to reprint a series of chapters from her book Being with Dying:  The Four Boundless Abodes (Prajna Mountain Publications, 2003)

Roshi Joan Halifax

Roshi Joan Halifax

About the author

Roshi Joan Halifax, a Buddhist teacher, Founder and Head Teacher of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a social activist, author, and in her early years was an anthropologist at Columbia University (1964-68) and University of Miami School of Medicine (1970-72). She is a pioneer in the field of end-of-life care. Her books include: The Human Encounter with Death (with Stanislav Grof); The Fruitful Darkness, A Journey Through Buddhist PracticeSimplicity in the ComplexA Buddhist Life in AmericaBeing with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Wisdom in the Presence of DeathStanding at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet; and Sophie Learns to Be Brave.