The Dalai Lama states that the feeling of affinity with others leads to overcoming negative states of mind. It is through empathy that compassion is created. “If something is missing in your heart, then despite the most luxurious surroundings, you cannot be happy…we have no alternative to compassion, recognizing human value and the oneness of humanity: This is the only way to achieve lasting happiness.”
Empathy is the core of Mahayana Buddhism. In response to the question, ‘What does it mean to be a good person?’ Kelsang Togden, resident teacher at a Dipamkara center in New York, wrote, “To try to abandon non-virtuous actions that are the cause of suffering for oneself and others, and to try to practice virtuous action that are the cause of happiness for oneself and others. To cherish others wishing to promote their happiness and refrain from causing others any harm.”
Two stories from Buddhism illustrate the concern for empathy.
Here is the first: Four men who, after a long journey, come to a high wall surrounding a village. Not knowing what was on the other side, they climb to the top to see what is there. First one, then another, and then the third are delighted by what they see. It is a veritable paradise. They each scale the wall and jump into the compound. Not so the fourth. Equally delighted by what he saw, this one remembers those he had left behind and returns to tell them what he had seen and how to get there. This person is a bodhisattva, the person who could attain nirvana but chooses instead to stay in this world to help enlighten others because of the compassion that he feels toward them.
The second story is the legend of how Buddhism came to be founded: Siddhartha Gautama grew up in all the luxury that his father’s kingdom could provide. He was pampered and protected. Nothing unpleasant was to cross his path. When he left the palace, runners preceded the entourage, clearing the way of anything that might offend the prince’s sensibilities. So it was that Siddhartha was protected from life’s harsh realities. However, one day his carriage left the palace without the runners. Now as he looked out the window he saw an old man who steadied himself on a crook. The man was gaunt and toothless. Wanting to see more of the uncensored world, the next day Siddhartha left the palace alone. He came upon a diseased and wasted body lying on the roadside. On another day the prince encountered a corpse waiting to be consumed by vultures. Moved by what he had seen, Siddhartha renounced his title and sought the path to overcoming pain and suffering. Instead of a recluse and ascetic, Siddhartha became a teacher.