Apotheosis episode 34: the wisdom of compassion. "Don't let your calm be disturbed and do not respond to anger with anger." ~Palden Gyatso

Episode 34: The wisdom of compassion

Ryan D Thompson Ancient, Buddhism, Growth, Skills, Values, Vision

Key ideas

Over 2000 years ago, sages around the world arrived at a similar conclusion: we should treat everyone with kindness and concern. Cultivating compassion for all beings, friend and enemy alike, is foundational to spiritual growth.

  • Here's an unfortunate reality: we will have enemies in this life, or at the very least, people we really don’t like. Despite the obvious difficulties, feeling compassion for our enemies – not just our family and friends – can be a powerful means of growth.
  • As the Buddha realized over 2500 years ago, all of us experience suffering in various forms. Our suffering causes us to behave in foolish ways, often causing harm to others and ourselves. 
  • However, we can train the mind to break free of mental habits that create suffering. We can learn to see the delusions and misperceptions that cause problems in our lives. But gaining wisdom isn’t enough; we must also cultivate compassion for others to truly be free.
  • Because how could we ever be truly happy if those around us are suffering? If people are in deep pain, they will behave unskillfully.  While we can’t change the behavior of others, extending them compassion fortifies our own resilience and capacity to rise above.


In 1959, a Tibetan monk named Palden Gyatso joined a protest against the Chinese invasion of his country. The Chinese arrested him, and he then spent the next 33 years in prison camps. For those three decades, he suffered brutal torture at the hands of his captors, both physical and psychological torments. Some of the worst torture came from other Tibetans recruited by the Chinese and brainwashed to adopt communist beliefs.

How does someone survive an ordeal like this? 33 years as a prisoner with no fixed sentence, no end in sight to the torments of body and mind.

In the case of Gyatso, his Buddhist practice kept him alive and sane. Remarkably, he later expressed that even in the height of his agony, he felt compassion for his torturer. He felt anger, even hatred, to be sure. But despite the intensity of his emotions, he maintained his dedication to the Buddhist path. Which is to say, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings – including his enemies.

As Gyatso described in an interview in 2012, “I could see that those who inflicted torture did so out of their own ignorance. As a religious person, I have to sit back and ask myself, what is all this? Buddhist teachings say, don’t let your calm be disturbed and do not respond to anger with anger.”

This level of calm could only be developed from years of intentional practice. One of the pillars of Buddhism is compassion for all beings – even those who commit horrific acts. It’s one thing to believe that we can be compassionate for people we don’t like. Gyatso’s example is like the Olympic gold version of compassion. He demonstrates what we as humans are capable of: we can achieve a state of compassion even for our most reviled enemies.

This episode is part of a series on values that have informed this podcast and that I believe can help us as impact leaders. I might never achieve the level of compassion of Gyatso and other monks. Still, I nonetheless aspire to embody compassion in my life and work. I’m a firm believer that cultivating compassion is one of the most important endeavors for humankind.

In this episode, I’ll focus on Buddhist ideas about compassion. But I think it’s also important to recognize that compassion is a unifying theme across many of the world’s wisdom traditions. I published an episode last year called “The Golden Rule is still golden,” which briefly introduced the Axial Age. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong describes this period as the “Great Transformation.” During this time, sages worldwide began to formulate a similar revolutionary idea. Not only should we treat our family, friends, and other members of our tribe with respect – we should extend kindness and compassion to everyone. This idea of universal compassion changed the world forever. While we clearly have some work to do, it’s hard to make a case that we have significantly improved on this idea of concern for others – even with the humanistic and scientific revolution of the past few centuries. 

This single episode isn’t the place to dive deeply into this argument, but I will present some ideas from Buddhism.

Compassion is at the heart of Buddhist practice. Compassion led the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, to leave the comforts of life in a palace and prince hood to be a wandering ascetic, as the story goes. Seeing the pain and discontent around him, he sought to find a way for people to be free of that suffering. When Siddhartha achieved enlightenment at the foot of the Bodhi tree, thus becoming free from suffering, compassion led him to spend the rest of his life teaching and sharing his insights with others. 

The Buddha realized that suffering was a pervasive element of life. But he also recognized that suffering has a root cause: a fundamental delusion that external conditions will make us happy. Thus, we grasp fiercely to hold onto things we like. Likewise, we push away things we don’t like with equal intensity. This dance between attachment and aversion produces a dissatisfaction that never goes away, no matter how much we satisfy the objects of our desires. However, since suffering has a root cause, it follows that it can be eliminated. The Buddha then saw a path to alleviating the mental anguish and discontent that characterizes human life. We can free ourselves from the relentless cycle of suffering by training the mind through meditation. We can gradually chip away at the delusions that cause us to suffer.

These first teachings of the Buddha form the foundation for the Buddhist path, the first steps towards attaining wisdom. Especially in the west, many of us are attracted to teachings appealing to the intellect – insights that can be gained through reasoning. Which is indeed appealing and an essential part of Buddhist teachings, as wisdom is one of the three pillars of Buddhism.

But wisdom isn’t enough to attain freedom from our mental suffering.

While the Buddha started his path with a desire to free others from suffering, many of us pursue some spiritual practice because we are not okay. We want to quiet the anxious voices in our minds. We want to feel peace and contentment in a turbulent world. 

But when we progress on this spiritual path, we will quickly realize that it’s not enough to achieve peace only for ourselves. The most basic premise of Buddhism teaches that grasping after objects of desire produces suffering. And thus, when we selfishly pursue feelings of joy and wellbeing for ourselves while ignoring the wellbeing of others, we are on a path to creating yet more suffering. Whatever feelings of happiness we might achieve can’t last very long if those around us are still immersed in pain and discontent.

And so we see that cultivating a concern for others’ wellbeing works in tandem with the cultivation of wisdom. We see the same patterns in our lives as in the lives of others. We see how suffering arises from our own unskillful behavior, just as it arises when others act unskillfully. 

Compassion fuels the cultivation of wisdom. Which in turn fuels the cultivation of greater compassion.

In the Buddhist view, these feelings of concern for the welfare of others don’t stop with our immediate family, friends, or those we otherwise hold dear. We should also feel compassion for people we don’t like or even hate. We should feel compassion even for our worst enemies — much like Palden Gyatso was able to do with his torturers.

Now obviously, this is the advanced form of compassion practice. Most of us will find this very hard to wish happiness and joy to people we hate. 

And yet, on an intellectual level, it makes sense to do so. We might justifiably hate these people due to some horrible behavior. But if they weren’t in deep inner pain, they wouldn’t act the way they do. If they were free from suffering and infused with genuine happiness, they would treat others with kindness and respect. 

On an emotional and practical level, of course, extending compassion to enemies is much harder to achieve. 

Which is why Buddhist teachers always recommend starting small. It’s much easier to work with minor slights and frustrations rather than jumping right to the people who make our blood boil. Instead, we slowly work our way up progressively to larger challenges. Buddhists use a range of meditation and contemplation practices, such as the Four Immeasurables or Sending and Taking. 

But the important part is to just start somewhere: appreciating and cultivating compassion for ourselves, our loved ones, our friends, neighbors, coworkers, and even the jerk who cuts you off in traffic. Especially that guy.

One final note to address a common point of skepticism: compassion does not mean condoning. Compassion is not passive, wet blanket complacency. Just because we can feel compassion for those who wrong us or who wrong others does not mean we roll over and accept wrongdoing. It doesn’t mean we condone bad behavior. On the contrary, compassion, joined with wisdom, encourages us to take active stances against harmful actions. First, to protect those who suffer as a result of those actions. But then second, to reflect back to the committer of wrongdoing that their actions are unacceptable. With a firm foundation in wise compassion or compassionate wisdom, this can be done skillfully and effectively, recognizing that we’re all just muddling along in an ocean of confusion. Ultimately, we all must do the best we can and look out for each other.

To close it out with a quote that is repeated often, for good reason: we should “be the change we wish to see in the world.” We all want to be treated well. So we should embody this wish and treat others well.

On that note, I wish you well in your work and life. May you experience peace, wisdom, and lasting happiness. Join me again next week as I explore the value of integration and synchrony. In the meantime, I have a favor to ask. If you can leave a review or a rating for this podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, that would really help me reach more people with these ideas. Connect with me on LinkedIn or check the Project Indra website for more info. Until the next time, be well!


Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License