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  • Writer's pictureSabchu Rinpoché

Etymology Class #2: Compassion

The Tibetan word སྙིང་རྗེ་ nyingje means 'compassion'. Among all types of emotions, nyingje is regarded the best, the purest of all, the supreme of all.

The etymological meaning of the English word 'compassion'

compassion (n.)

"feeling of sorrow or deep tenderness for one who is suffering or experiencing misfortune," mid-14 c., compassioun, literally "a suffering with another," from Old French compassion: "sympathy, pity" (12 c.), from Late Latin compassionem (nominative compassio): "sympathy," noun of state from past participle stem of compati: "to feel pity," from com- "with, together."


word-forming element usually meaning "with, together," from Latin com, archaic form of classical Latin cum: "together, together with, in combination," from PIE (Proto-Indo-European language): kom- "beside, near, by, with" (compare Old English ge-, German ge-). The prefix in Latin sometimes was used as an intensive.

passion (n.)

c. 1200, "the sufferings of Christ on the Cross; the death of Christ, from Old French passion: "Christ's passion, physical suffering" (10 c.), from Late Latin passionem (nominative passio): "suffering, enduring", from past-participle stem of Latin pati: "to endure, undergo, experience", a word of uncertain origin. The notion is "that which must be endured."

The etymological meaning the Tibetan word སྙིང་རྗེ་ nyingje, or 'compassion'

Among all types of emotions, nyingje is regarded the best, the purest of all, the supreme of all.

སྙིང་: literally referring to the 'physical heart' but in this context, 'mind' is closer to the truth (usually the ‘embodied mind’, not the ‘subtle mind’; please look up your shiné notes to jog your memory).

རྗེ་: the highest; the most supreme.

Among its basic characteristics, one of the apparent indicative sign of སྙིང་རྗེ་ upon coming across X (whatever it is that provokes the said compassion) is when one feels: I wish X are free of suffering.

Such notion, of course, do not emerge independently. There could be numerous preceding emotions, co-emerging emotions (the associated ones), and many more that might follow through, but nyingje is referring to the one and only described in the above. In another words, I don’t want X to suffer, is what nyingje is. The helplessness, frustration, or anger and many other types of mental states we might typically feel (during or after the provoked compassion) do not characterize compassion upon encountering the concerning object (the pertinent situation that provokes compassion) of the said mental state.

Another indication of Buddhist compassion is that it is not self-oriented, but other-oriented. The prevalent notions conveyed these days through the words such as self-love and self-compassion are also found in Buddhism, but the words love and compassion are not used for those purposes.

We have to note here that Buddhist languages are not fluidic and flexible (like English). The usage of the words do not go in and out of fashion. Considering the wish for Buddhadharma to remain unaltered, this is a great news. If I’m not wrong, the newly coined words such as self-love and self-compassion are neither about love, nor about compassion (going by the definitions of the words). The real intended meaning of the words is closer to the following thoughts: I must give the much-required, often-neglected, and the long overdue care and the astute, caring attention to myself, as to truly understand what do I need. Without considering this first, I cannot and I do not long-lastingly be what I really long to be or be able to continually do what I genuinely aspire to do.

Though there are notions such as བློས་བཏང་ ('letting oneself released from one’s own grasping mind') which is presumably, relatively similar to the Christian idea of self-sacrifice, but such ideas are contextually presented in the Buddhist literature. I do not recall a teaching of self-sacrifice as the predominant message/or practice as one begins the path of Dharma.

One must give oneself astute care and attention persistently in order to manifest long-lasting, untiring, gentle, loving, and compassionate person toward others (please note that care and attention here does not reflect the ordinary, emotional care and attention) and THIS is what is called self-care, self-dignity, or self-respect (instead of self-love and self-compassion). The argued reasons being: we do love ourselves. We have compassion for ourselves. But not in the constructive, self-improving manners. Often destructive and quite contarary to the definition of true སྙིང་རྗེ་ nor nyingje.

Often the so-called instinctive, instantaneous courage of the mothers all species, which we can observe in these two mothers (mother-like figure), is attributed to compassion. Please watch the above video.


By not practically protecting the loved being from the perceived threat, one is acting contrary to the the deeply embedded instinct toward the loved being – I wish my cub (or dog) to be free of suffering.

Upon seeing the perceived danger from the other, the observed human being and the bear instantaneously, aggressively protects each other’s loved one by a physically confrontation.

Will they consider such confrontation if we remove the cubs and the dogs from the equation? I don’t think so. If we replace the cubs and dogs with bunch of frogs and chameleons, would their behaviour be the same? I don’t think so. There is an of the dogs in the mind of the seen human being. There is an emotional and instinctive value of the cubs in the mind of the bear. Sometimes, for some individuals, the said value is HIGHER than the one’s own value of oneself in one’s mind. Usually and typically we see this type of value-projection in overwhelming numbers in mother-children relationships, more than any other types of relationships. Caused by this particular inner value toward the said being, one can and does (as you can see in the video) disregard one’s own well-being, one’s own life, for the purpose of protecting the well-being or the life of the children. Because of the mother’s pre-existing value toward the children, as we can see, the mothers jump toward each other within seconds, because the said emotional and mental-processes are taking place at a lightening speed. In a hypothetical scenario, If we interview the lady in question as to how did she come to the decision to physically confront a giant bear, she might say:I was not thinking. The mama bear might say the same about the dangerous human. That doesn’t exclude the fact about the value-oriented, lightening-fast mental and emotional processes.

In short, compassion need not manifest as sweet, soft, kind, and gentle all the time. If acting contrary is warranted for the aim of I want my baby to be free of suffering, then a mother may and can act aggressively as we observed in the video. If we can understand/agree to this notion, we can also come close to understand the wrathful manifestations of the buddhas (such as Mahakala). If we fail to understand/agree to this, then we need to reevaluate the notion of Buddhist compassion (and also, Mahakala).

Another Important Point

The attributed compassion, in this context, toward one’s offspring is said to be present in ALL beings who are mother in all six realms. Many teachers also argue “it’s the rainbow-like tale-tale sign of the weather-like environment, that which is innately present in all sentient beings, called buddha-nature.”


  • Though this described compassion in question is characterized as compassion, because this is not an emergent of expansive motivation, which incorporates the required “view” thus this is not regarded as any of the three classifications of extraordinary compassion in the Gampopa's book.

  • That said, ANY ordinary, instinctive compassion is a caterpillar which is with the potential of becoming the butterfly of extraordinary compassion, which is why Gampopa (all Buddhist teachers) use this reference more than any other references. But the highlighted point here is that the two are characteristically different and the one should not be mistaken as the other. Hence, Gampopa classifies compassion.

  • What can be inferred from Gampopa’s words is that this ordinary compassion is the foundation. It’s the required base, which Buddhists effectively use as tool for meditation on compassion, with the help of ?! A) WORKING memory. B) LOGICAL inferences. I will add here C) Astute and attentive care of oneself, by oneself (or self-compassion, if you prefer that word) which I described in the earlier post.


  1. As you can see the reasons as to why I have trouble with the fashionable English buzz-words. They can be misleading.

  2. Instead of quickly determining the meanings of the words, (through the touch-and-go type of approach) if we are patient with ourselves, we CAN develop deeper meanings.

  3. From this short write up, I hope you take away many things, but above all – the self-care. Not from the regular egotistical perspective, but rather, through a genuinely invested attention to oneself, which can address the following types of questions:

  • What is truly the best APPROACH I should have toward myself?

  • What is the best way to perceive myself in MY relation with OTHERS?

  • Is my current perception caused by my own intentional scrutiny? Or did I mistakenly collected the wrong baggage from the carousal, thinking it’s mine? Do people do such things?

  • Instead of agreeing to the unverified assumptions of my perception of my own capacities, what am I truly capable of? Do I care to reassess? How do I come to know the full range of my capabilities? Why is it so instrumental to discover the full range of our own capabilities?

  • Instead of the intermittent, short bursts of benevolence to the selected few, how can I long-lastingly benefit others who comes in contact with me? How is the “other-oriented” approach is beneficial for oneself, if any? Why does Patrul Rinpoche (18 c.) calls this “intelligent selfishness”? As opposed to what? Foolish-selfishness?

  • Instead of operating in the false assumptions of/about myself, how can I alter myself voluntarily, intentionally? Do I think there is a need for alterations, if any? Do I dare to see the falsities, if discovered? What if I become depressed? What are my ways, if any, to circumvent such pitfalls? Do I have enough knowledge in me to self-recognize these dangers?

These are the deep and courageous introspections one make about oneself when one is under one’s own SELF-CARE.

Led by these questions and coming to the inner confidence in the spiritual path, as rightly so, THE path for inner discoveries, one then embarks on the journey of spiritual practice. It’s not ordinary path, as you can understand by reading this type of descriptions, and it is indeed the case.

However, as I write this sequentially as to my liking, you must know that your life, my life, life in general sense, does not unfold sequentially – in order. Life is one big ball of chaos. Like a ball of treads all jumbled up, the task of finding the ends of the thread can sometimes take hours. Nevertheless, the light of knowledge is and should be always preferable over the darkness of ignorance.

Since the so called self-care is so basic, why Gampopa DOESN’T include this in his composition? Shouldn’t this be the starting point of all lamrim texts?

I’d think that It’s a common knowledge for ALL spiritual seekers at the time and to a great extent, even now. These are the ABCD of being/becoming intelligent human being. Apart from the great interesting fields of science, and resultantly the achievements, of modern sciences, the other great use of human intelligence is the described inner discoveries. For Buddhist practitioners, the latter is far more important the former.

Unfortunately it’s not so common nowadays, and it’s more uncommon in some regions of the world than the others. On behalf of Gampopa, I might blatantly say, “you are expected show up with the bare minimum requirements of a spiritual seeker.” That is what I mean by “common knowledge.” The fact that the said common knowledge is not soooo common can also indicate the preparedness of the person/society. After all, the discrepancies between what IS and IS NOT commonly shared correspond to what is NEW or NOT NEW in a given society.

If you imagine yourself having grown up in a environment of spiritual practitioners, these types of introspective pursuits and resultantly, the inner disposition could be very normal, very commonly shared among all your peers. And then imagine talking to an another group of people from another society (or a group of people from another time period), you might think, “Gee…they have an entirely different set of “common knowledge” than ours.” In this fictional scenario, there is some grains of truth. In other words, when a society progressively moves away from the true, character-forging, inner introspection, and if a long time has passed, well, what was common might be not so common anymore. What was a common knowledge then, is now a new knowledge.

Anyhow, in such cases, it becomes the job of the living teachers to indicate that the seemingly new knowledge was a common knowledge. If you and I, everyone slowly turn ourselves toward to this type of reflection, the new knowledge will soon become common knowledge, as it might be case in small pockets of Buddhist families, which I admittedly have had the chance to witness in the western world.

If this is true in some contexts, why does it happen? Sometimes, it must be because “throwing the baby with the bath water” type of reasons. Sometimes, it could be because the given societies have forgotten their good, old traits. Consider the number of western philosophers’ writings about the importance of deep reflection and introspective pursuits paints a wonderful picture. Please read this write-up, composed by a western author named Albert Camus.

Life is short and it is a sin to waste time. I waste my time during the whole day and others say that I am very active. Today is a halt and my heart goes away to meet itself.

If there is still an anguish that embraces me, it is to feel this impalpable moment slipping between my fingers like the pearls of mercury.

I can say and I will say later that what counts is to be human, simple. No, what counts is to be true, and then everything fits in, humanity and simplicity. And when am I more true and more transparent than when I am the world?

A moment of adorable silence. Men have fallen silent. But the song of the world rises and I, chained to the bottom of the cave, am fulfilled before having desired.

Eternity is there and I hoped for it. Now I can speak. I don't know what I could wish for better that this continuous presence of myself to myself. It is not to be happy that I wish now, but only to be conscious.

One believes oneself cut off from the world, but it is enough for an olive tree to stand up in the golden dust, it is enough for a few dazzling beaches under the morning sun, for one to feel this resistance melt away.

So it is with me. I become aware of the possibilities for which I am responsible. Every minute of life carries within it its value as a miracle and its face of eternal face.

Albert Camus, excerpt from "Notebooks vol. I" (1935-1942)

I’d also say that we have forgotten to ask these important but, the so called “difficult” questions, because we live in a world with ever-growing need for comfort, especially mental comfort. Everything and everyone has to be in comfort, at ease, at all times, at all cost.

When we avoid all situations that smell potential, upcoming disturbances, why on earth will we willingly put ourselves in the magnifying glass? Because, frankly speaking, following is true for many westerners.

A. They like comfort.

B. They like to see themselves in good light.

C. To a large extent, they have the tendency to see themselves only in the bad light (sometimes, only in the good light). The A and B defeats the C.

Decision made (inncompetent sheshin). Upon seeing, we might think of it as some good character trait or some cultural streak. What is usually not seen is the cultivation of the observed phenomenon..

Don’t think about it.

Let’s not talk about this.

Let’s not go anywhere near any situations that could potentially resurface this topic.

Let’s quit this group/church.

Let’s end this relationship.

Side note: If we think about it, this could be one reason as to why we love animals so much. If only our pets could truly TALK to the us, I bet a change in the dynamic of the relationship.

However, yes, they are relatively unsettling questions to ask oneself or have our children ask themselves. Admittedly there are discomforts in this introspective pursuit. But alternatively the cost one pays for the described self-comfort, is (verifiably) self-destruction, life-destruction, or relationship-destruction, which in the hindsight were unknown. To some individuals, it is never-ever known. How terribly unfortunate is that?! An unimaginable level of suffering one endures in the name of “comfort.” How ironical is it?! The great teacher Śāntideva (late 7th to mid-8th century CE) articulate this effectively:

སྡུག་བསྔལ་འདོར་འདོད་སེམས་ཡོད་ཀྱང་། །སྡུག་བསྔལ་ཉིད་དུ་མངོན་པར་རྒྱུག

།བདེ་བ་འདོད་ཀྱང་གཏི་མུག་པས། །རང་གི་བདེ་བ་དགྲ་ལྟར་འཇོམས།

Those desiring to escape happiness from suffering hasten right toward suffering. With the very desire of happiness, out of confusion they destroy their own happiness as if it were an enemy.

The world today is economy driven. From economy perspective, our innate confusions/false assumptions/the earlier mentioned situation (A, B, and C) is “market” to exploit.

Perhaps, just now you felt mildly disturbed because of the way that earlier sentence read. You see what am I saying? Now, I may have lost you already. Now, my words might not be able to penetrate the membranes of your discomfort to come to you successfully. You see our challenge – mine and yours? For these reasons, the described comfort should not be a contingency/condition for one’s own inner discoveries. Discovery is, should always be, the only contingency for discovery, for discovery is the reason for the pursuit.

So, what is the remedy? How do I overcome this propensity? How can my caterpillar become butterfly?

Meditate. Meditate on compassion, as per Gampopa’s description. Alternatively you can also use the “seven parts cause and effect meditation on compassion” to cultivate the described compassion. Understand the function of the phrase “meditation on compassion” in the title. Why not just the word compassion? Why meditation on compassion? We can infer from this the cultivability of compassion. The observed compassion of the teachers we met is cultivated. What is seen is tip of iceberg. Upon seeing, we might think of it as some good character trait or some cultural streak. What is usually not seen is the cultivation of the observed phenomenon.

It takes time. It take efforts to genuinely develop these qualities. Even a minute spent for the cultivation of compassion, it’s a worthwhile time spent on a worthwhile quality. In another words, It can be more than just an instinct, more than just an emotion, and toward more than a selected few. When it is more than an instinct, an emotion, and when it is cultivated for a large number of beings, and when it is driven by the goal of achieving the highest goal one could achieve for the sake of ALL beings, the said compassion then starts to become an effective remedy for ALL problems. ALL.

The said compassion is expansive and reason-based. It’s anchored on a good, strong, and stable base called “the view.” Such compassion is the remedy for all types of mental uptightness. Weather that uptightness oriented toward oneself or it is geared toward others, the world, such compassion is the greatest tool in the toolbox. Hence, that’s the message.

But the very first step is: listening about the said compassion. Read about said compassion. That is always the first step (before the meditation), hence listening, reflection, and meditation, the precise order.

Bhavatu sarva maṇgalam.


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