What is compassion

By Latika Kalantri

August 2013

A disciple learns the meaning of compassion from a master

A young disciple asked his master, ‘Master, what is compassion?’


The Master explained: ‘An old man was begging at the corner of a busy street. First an old lady passed by him and taking pity on the beggar, gave him a gold coin. Then a merchant, noticing that a small group of men were looking at him, gave him five gold coins, and walked on with a sense of self-satisfaction. Finally, a boy who went to collect some flowers for his mom, passed by the beggar; smiled at him and gave him a flower. ‘

The master asked his disciple: ‘Which one of them do you think felt the most compassion towards the beggar?’ ‘The merchant did,’ replied the boy.

The master, smiling, continued, ‘The merchant acted out of pride, the old lady acted out of pity; however, the boy felt real compassion. Compassion is a far greater and nobler thing than pity.

  “Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again.”
– Joseph Campbell

Pity has its roots in fear, and a sense of arrogance and condescension, sometimes even a smug feeling of ‘I’m glad it’s not me’. When your fear touches someone’s pain, it becomes pity. When your love touches someone’s pain, it becomes compassion. Feeling compassion is more essential than showing compassion.

“To train in compassion, then, is to know all beings are the same and suffer in similar ways, to honour all those who suffer, and to know you are neither separate from nor superior to anyone.’

- Zen Story

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