Wisdom and compassion in a globalised world


by Winton Higgins


Wisdom and compassion are commonly identified as the two great virtues that Buddhism builds on and expresses. This is especially emphasised in the Mahāyanic traditions, but they also come up frequently in the Pali canon – the earliest teachings – and in the theravada, as well as the secular forms of Buddhism in today’s world.

Buddhism doesn’t just preach wisdom and compassion. They’re right there in the very building blocks of the tradition. For instance, in the Buddha’s most important teaching on meditation, the Satipatthāna sutta. Here the Buddha provides us with a practicable method for developing awareness of our most personal physical, emotional and cognitive experience, including the difficult experiences – dukkha – that every human being encounters, that are part of the human condition. It’s not just a question of becoming conscious of experiences, but of clearly knowing them (sampajaña).

So here we have wisdom at its most basic level, and we develop it more and more profoundly as we work our way towards the dhammas, or mental phenomena, to be understood in terms of the Buddha’s central teachings.

And it’s not just a question of becoming intimately aware of our own experiences, but of clearly knowing them ‘externally’ as well – using our growing receptivity and reflectivity to develop empathetic awareness of what others are experiencing as well. Here, then is the foundation of compassion. We can see that compassion grows out of the same seedbed of practice as wisdom. They grow together.

At times the Buddha was more explicit about the importance of compassion, as in his famous admonition to his monks that’s in the to spread the dharma:

Wander forth for the welfare of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare and happiness of gods and humans. And let not two of you go the same way.


Compassion for the world

So let’s think about what the Buddha might have meant by his expression, ‘compassion for the world’. He lived in a world and a time when the great calamities besetting humankind came from the workings of nature: drought, flood, famine, disease, attacks by wild animals, and dramatic natural events such as storms and earthquakes.

A relatively minor source of calamity was the actions of war-mongering, greedy rulers, and a lot of unrecognised suffering was caused by gross customary inequalities – between castes and between the sexes – which also seemed to be part of the natural order.

No benevolent king or tribal council could do much about any of this. Politics didn’t matter in this world, and he gladly gave up his own position in the political elite of his own people, the Sakyans.

What was ‘the world’ itself? Consistent with the Buddha’s teaching, it was the known and knowable world. For most people, the known world consisted of the people and animals within a radius of around 30 kilometres, say. Most people would have not strayed any further than that, though a small minority of travellers might from time to time spread rumours about who and what lived further afield, and what was happening to them.

The Buddha was one such traveller who took the opportunity to travel much further afield, in what is now northeastern India, and to develop compassion for all he met. And he clearly saw it as important that his main followers emulate him in this way. He would have resonated to the difficulties of a large number of people, but always with the assumption, realistic at the time, that nothing could be done to prevent the calamities in question.


Ashoka: the world grows bigger

Let’s fast forward two centuries, to the reign of the emperor Ashoka (269–231 BCE), the heir to the Magadhan throne once occupied by the Buddha’s great patron, king Bimbisara. In his early days, Ashoka was a particularly bloodthirsty tyrant who achieved his dream to conquer virtually the whole of the Indian sub-continent.

As the story goes, he fought his final battle at Kalinga (modern day Odisha) in around 260 BCE. Around 100,000 dead lay strewn on the battlefield, and as he walked among them he was appalled at the consequences of his own actions. He fell into a deep spiritual crisis, which he resolved by converting to Buddhism.

But what then? Would he do like so many powerful converts had done before, renounce his power and wealth and become a monk? Was there an alternative?

There was an alternative, and he took it: become a dharmaraja, one who rules in the spirit of the dharma. He had travelled exceptionally far afield, and was well aware of the difficulties of his vast numbers of new subjects.

So he set about civilising his empire: establishing the rule of law, promoting the practice and availability of medicine for both people and animals, and creating amenities like shade trees lining the main thoroughfares of India for the comfort of travelling humans and animals.

Local authorities had to see to it that people were fed and housed. He created a very early version of a modern welfare state. The prominent British intellectual of the last century, HG Wells, who was no Buddhist, comments in his Short history of the world:

In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves ‘Their Highnesses’, ‘Their Majesties’, ‘Their Exalted Majesties’, and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day.

And this is a ruler whose reign began so badly! But note the profound shift that has occurred through Ashoka’s actions, inspired by wisdom and compassion. He has evidently dropped to the possibly new fact that human action can relieve a lot of suffering through supplying medicine and social infrastructure and assistance.

He has also noticed that human injustice causes a lot of suffering, and that this can be tackled in the first instance through the rule of law. In his reign, politics began to matter, and we see a first glimmering of justice as important to human well-being.


Wisdom and compassion in the modern world

Let’s fast forward again to the 20th century – the one we in this room were all born into. On the bright side, the basic idea of justice has by now been greatly developed, to mean more than the rule of law, but justice as fairness as a core principle of government and social morality.

For the reasons I’ve given, you won’t find it in the earliest teachings of Buddhism, but it’s a natural extension of a commitment to wisdom and compassion. Injustice as unfairness causes a huge amount of human distress and death in our modern world, from the failure to distribute food, medicine and public-health facilities to disadvantaged and strife-torn communities, to the effects of violence at all levels, to the way gender inequalities make domestic life a torment for millions of women and children.

The big pattern – too big for us to notice if we haven’t worked diligently on our wisdom and compassion – shows that badly functioning human institutions, and grossly unskilful human decisions and actions, are now by far the principal cause of human suffering.

To a large extent we humans have learned how to shield ourselves from the ravages of nature, through myriad developments from modern medicine through scientific building codes and warning systems to deal with typhoons and earthquakes, and so on.

At the same time, we have become infinitely more destructive and vulnerable to each other.

Take a glance at the 20th century: 37 million died in the first world war, 50 million in the second. You can treble those numbers to encompass those whose lives were blighted by disability, disfigurement, trauma, displacement, destitution and grief. Add to them all the casualties of the scores of other wars fought during that century.

Then there were the 260 million victims of ‘democide’, or government-led non-war killing campaigns – genocides, massacres, pogroms, persecutions etc. And all that is before we come to the – uncounted, unrecorded, un-newsworthy – mass deaths from preventable starvation and preventable disease.

And all those whose lives were diminished through lack of access to fair life chances, such as education, social mobility, and personal freedom.

And yet, in the 20th century, just as in this present one, no war is unavoidable, and no child need starve or suffer from a preventable or curable disease if we simply reform our way of living and working with each other, and sharing our resources fairly.

In other words, the only scarce resources in our globalised world are wisdom and compassion.


Wisdom and compassion now

Let’s recap. The Buddha left us with a method for cultivating intense awareness of our own experience, including our experience of the inevitably difficult aspects of human life. That method admonishes us to cultivate such awareness ‘internally and externally’ – by tuning into ourselves, and on that basis, into the experience of those around us as well.

To fully know (sampajaña) our own experience is to know theirs too, to resonate with it, to feel compassion and arrive at understanding. In that way we generate wisdom and compassion together.

But in our highly connected global village, who are those others? (Or as a cheeky lawyer asked Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbour?’, to which he replied with the parable of the good Samaritan.) Everyone within a 30 km radius, as in the Buddha’s time, and that’s it? Hardly.

We are all aware of the extreme distress our fellow humans are suffering right now in sub-Saharan Africa, Syria, Bangladesh, the Australian detention centre on Manus Island, and many, many other places that the mass media is right now reporting on.

If we don’t know about these concentrations of human anguish, we’re being wilfully ignorant and insensitive. You’ll be hard put to it finding the Buddha praising ignorance and insensitivity. In his dispensation, ignorance is never bliss.

And so politics matters as never before. As the only effective means we have to overcome the organised technological violence of modern warfare, the destruction of the planet through unskilful industrial production and consumption, and the maldistribution of food, medicine and social amenities.

For those of us who are citizens of functioning democracies in particular, citizenship places a great responsibility on us for the actions – good and ill – that our elected rulers take in our name, and their complicity in the malign workings of corporations and markets.

In today’s globalised world, we collude in gross suffering on a colossal scale if we remain silent, inactive and ‘above politics’. Wisdom and compassion – dharma practice – demands a whole lot more of us.


• This talk was given to Unibuds (the University of New South Wales Buddhist Society) in May 2013. Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.


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