Three Faces of Compassion


For many years, I wondered if compassion could be seen from perspectives other than what most of us are familiar with: the kind of compassion that is focused on another’s suffering, particularly those in our in-group. I had a breakthrough in my quest to understand this when I read the fourteenth-century Zen master Muso Soseki’s Dialogues in a Dream. Soseki discusses the kind of compassion that is most familiar to us, where we direct our compassion toward others. Social psychologists call this “referential compassion.” He also notes two other faces of compassion: compassion that is based on insight, and compassion that has no object, but is non- referential and universal.

Referential Compassion

Most of us experience compassion toward those with whom we share close connections—our parents, children, spouses, siblings, and our pets. We also tend to feel compassion more readily for our friends, colleagues, neighbors, and members of our own culture or ethnic group. We may feel a stronger connection with those who have suffered in ways that we ourselves have experienced. Because I was blind as a child, I long ago noticed that I feel a vivid identification with and compassion for blind people.

Referential compassion may also extend beyond the circle of our familiars to include those whom we don’t know, such as victims of sexual harassment or police violence, or the unsheltered and refugees. It can also extend to creatures and places.

This kind of compassion is embodied in the story of the women from La Patrona, a small village not far from the city of Veracruz. One day more than twenty years ago, two sisters, Bernarda and Rosa Romero Vázquez, were returning from purchasing milk and bread for breakfast. They stood at a train crossing while a freight train approached. They were surprised to see train hoppers cling- ing to the tops and sides of boxcars and young people riding the rods beneath.

A man hanging on to one of the first boxcars called to them, “Madre, we are hungry!” As car after car passed, more shouts filled their ears: “Madre, we are hungry!” Before the last train car, Bernarda and Rosa tossed their newly purchased food to those who could catch it.

When Bernarda and Rosa returned to their family home that morning, they were afraid they would be punished for giving away their family’s breakfast. But, no matter, they had to share what had happened with their mother, Leonila Vázquez Alvizar. Instead of punishing the sisters, the family gathered together to see what could be done, and a plan emerged.

Since 1995, when the sisters tossed the first food to transiting migrants, nearly every day these sisters and other villagers of La Patrona have stood beside the railroad tracks with food for those riding the rails to a hoped-for freedom.

“La Bestia,” the Beast, is a moniker for the trains that have carried thou- sands north through Mexico to our borders. When La Bestia passed on its route through Veracruz and neared La Patrona, the village women, or as they are called, “Las Patronas,” dash to the railroad tracks with bulging plastic bags of freshly cooked beans, rice, and tortillas. As the train hurtles by, they toss their offerings to the hungry migrant train hoppers.
I was told that sometimes the train slows at night so Las Patronas can more easily give away their food bags. But by day trains whiz through the village, and women of all ages stand strong in the violent currents of wind generated by the speeding train, reaching out to the desperate and hungry. It is an act of pure compassion.

Over the years, tens of thousands of meals have been offered. So far, the flow of migrants north continues in spite of violence, border walls, detention centers, and drug lords. La Bestia has carried its human cargo north, day after day, and Las Patronas have met them with food in hand.

Las Patronas have built a clinic and small rest house for weary train- hopping migrants. The kitchen has expanded, and those who cook and toss food bags include more people, including village men. They are also working with organizations across Mexico, lobbying the government for more protection for migrants. Patrona Norma Romero said, “While God gives me life, and migration continues to exist, I believe I will be here helping.”
And as Guadalupe Gonzalez told the BBC, “We never expected it to turn into something so big. I think it’s because it came out of nowhere, it came from just the little that one can give.” Her words strike deeply.

That same BBC report on Las Patronas made a poignant observation. “Las Patronas took their name from their village. But it has a wider religious con- notation too, patrona meaning “patron saint” in Spanish. For the migrants, who grab a potentially life-saving donation from a woman they may never see again, the name could not be more apt.”
Hearing about Las Patronas from my Mexican friends in Santa Fe, and following their miraculous and humble work through media reports, I am moved by the great compassion and bold determination of these women who show up day after day, cooking and delivering beans, rice, and tortillas for those traveling north. They represent to me the best in the human heart. Compassion, altruism, grit, dedication, and engagement—and the power to transform suffering, against all odds.

Insight-Based Compassion

Referential compassion is deeply valued in our society, and that is a good thing. Yet there are forms of compassion that are less familiar to most of us. Soseki writes about insight-based compassion, a concept that also exists within Tibetan Buddhism. This kind of compassion is more conceptual.

Soseki’s discussion focuses on impermanence and dependent co-arising. From my perspective, as a contemplative and caregiver, insight-based com- passion also encompasses the understanding that compassion is a moral imperative—and we can deduce that ignoring suffering can have serious consequences for self, other, and society.
When we see someone in need, ideally, we feel morally compelled to act. We don’t just walk by. We don’t feel indifference or moral apathy. Responding to suffering with compassion is the “right” thing to do, an affirmation of respect and human dignity. When we experience the suffering of others from this perspective, and when this understanding is supported by our natural kindness and our aspiration to relieve suffering, then our heart will be filled with wise compassion.

Not so long ago, I was sitting at the bedside of a woman who was dying of liver cancer. Her legs were so swollen with edema that the skin over her shins was splitting open. This was the day before she would take her last breath, although I didn’t know it at the time. She had been a close friend and had fought cancer for years. I experienced great compassion for her, referential compassion, as she was being tossed about by confusion and pain; when I took her hand into mine and spoke softly to her, I felt the over- whelming wish to relieve her suffering. By the same token, through the lens of insight-based compassion, I was able to see her situation in terms of the truth of impermanence, that her suffering was a discrete moment in time and was made up of non-suffering elements. I also felt deep in my heart that responding to her suffering was a moral necessity. These perspectives kept me from succumbing to empathic distress and helped me hold the space for her in a less reactive way—and finally, to be with her with greater love.

Non-Referential Compassion

Soseki also suggests that there is a third form of compassion that is unbiased. We can call this non-referential compassion—that is, compassion with- out an object. This third form is true compassion, Soseki says.

I experienced this form myself once. I was teaching in Toronto and staying in a private home. Getting out of the shower, I slipped on the wet floor and fell, shattering my thighbone and trochanter. I knew a really bad thing had happened when I looked at the angle of my leg. A few heartbeats later, I was seized in the grip of excruciating pain. Being a good Southerner, I politely called out, “Help! Can someone help me?” My voice was thin as a reed, and I could barely breathe. Within minutes my host, Andrew, arrived, gently braced my back where I was sitting on the floor, and shouted to his wife to call an ambulance. I could not move and could hardly speak, but Andrew knew what to do. Like a tree, he supported my spine and remained perfectly still, so I could let go into the spaces between the wrenching pulses of pain.

When the first responders arrived, a young medic came into the bath- room and announced that they were going to move me onto a gurney. My mind and body balked at his words—I was already on the edge of blacking out, and I could feel my blood pressure dropping from the intensity of the pain. I looked the young medic straight in the eyes and said, “Before you move me, I need something to control the pain.” The medic told me in a flat voice that he was not licensed to administer morphine. “Get someone who is,” I said. I wasn’t kidding. He dialed his phone to bring in a licensed provider.

Ten long minutes later, an older medic arrived. He kneeled beside me and took my blood pressure, which was ocean-bottom low. He nodded and with a syringe pulled clear liquid from a small bottle. He stretched out my arm, but my veins had collapsed from shock and the needle poke yielded nothing.

He tried the other arm, then each of my wrists, then I don’t remember where; I only recall noticing the sweat drip down his face as he tried to help me, his mouth drawn and the skin taut around his eyes.

The young medic was standing beside the bathroom wall, looking pale; his eyes rolled up as though he was going to faint. He seemed distressed watching me get stuck with the needle six times. My heart opened to him, and at that moment my veins opened too, flushing my body with blood. The needle slipped in, and I felt enough relief that I could be moved.

As the first responders carried the gurney down the long staircase, my body, pitched at a dangerously steep angle, slid inches down and froze up again. Finally, I was in the ambulance and we were racing through Toronto’s streets toward the hospital, siren screaming. It was Friday the thirteenth and a full moon in June.

The older medic leaned close to me, and I sensed that something was weighing him down. Without thinking, I touched his knee and asked if he was all right. It was a strange question for me to be asking under the circumstances, but it arose out of nowhere, the kind of nowhere that is there during deep meditation, the nowhere that is present when pain has eclipsed the self.

His eyes wet, he said in a barely audible voice, “My wife is dying of breast cancer.” In that moment, nothing existed but this suffering human beside me and the inexplicable warmth I felt in my body, in my heart, in the atmosphere between us. In that moment, my pain vanished completely. I looked into his eyes, and they were wet and unguarded.
Writing this, I recall the words of songwriter Lucinda Williams: “Have compassion for everyone you meet for you do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone.” In the ambulance, I had no idea, and that is the point. . . .

In the ER, I was put on a morphine drip, cathed, given a cool cloth for my head, and left in an outer hall. My new friend sat silently beside the gurney for some hours, until I got rolled away to x-ray. I saw him once more after my surgery. I don’t know his name, never asked for it, didn’t think to ask; but there we were. He had come alongside my boat, and I had come alongside his.

In retrospect, I realized that, in the midst of my own critical state, I had opened into an experience of universal compassion. The experience was not about him, nor about me. The upwelling of boundless concern and love for another had dissolved my sense of self, and with that, my pain had melted away. “The compassion of the undifferentiated body of no-cause comes burning forth.”

Over the years, when I’ve shared the story of the fall I took in that Toronto bathroom, dozens of people have responded with similar stories in which their own suffering ended spontaneously when they felt unbidden compassion for another. What kind of compassion was this? It wasn’t premeditated or even intentional. It arose from my bones, broken though they were—and it gave me relief, surprising relief. I believe it touched the medic as well.

During a recent visit with my old friend Ram Dass, we were talking about compassion. He reminded me of these words from the Ramayana, the Indian epic. Ram, who is God, asks Hanuman, the Monkey God, who embodies selfless service: “Who are you, Monkey?” Hanuman replies: “When I don’t know who I am, I serve you. When I know who I am, I am you.” My old friend and I smiled at each other. Is this not the deepest expression of compassion?


If you would like to explore more of Joan’s work, and get a more in depth view into the practice of compassion, you can do so by purchasing her wonderful book. Simply click the image below to see it on Amazon!


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Joan Halifax

Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D., is a Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, and pioneer in the field of end-of-life care. She is Founder, Abbot, and Head Teacher of Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She received her Ph.D. in medical anthropology in 1973 and has lectured on the subject of death and dying at many academic institutions and medical centers around the world. She received a National Science Foundation Fellowship in Visual Anthropology, was an Honorary Research Fellow in Medical Ethnobotany at Harvard University, and was a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Library of Congress.

Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D., is a Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, and pioneer in the field of end-of-life care. She is Founder, Abbot, and Head Teacher of Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She received her Ph.D. in medical anthropology in 1973 and has lectured on the subject of death and dying at many academic institutions and medical centers around the world. She received a National Science Foundation Fellowship in Visual Anthropology, was an Honorary Research Fellow in Medical Ethnobotany at Harvard University, and was a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Library of Congress.

2 thoughts on “Three Faces of Compassion

  1. This is very interesting. I’m glad I read it. I first began thinking about compassion when my father died of lung cancer in 2015. I couldn’t understand why others couldn’t offer me compassion by helping, instead of asking me to do something for them, and I was baffled by family members’ seemingly lack of compassion for his wife. I’d come to the conclusion that compassion isn’t something we should seek, but rather something we should just be; however, this has added another dimension to my thoughts. Thanks for posting it.

    • Hi K! Thanks for reading. Joan Halifax has published a lot of great content. If you’re interested in exploring her work, the book listed in the article is a great place to start! Like you said, the simple act of being compassionate is tremendously powerful.

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