We can consider compassion from three points of view. Each of these points of view is a more subtle understanding of compassion, and hence harder to understand, or to see. They correspond to Atisha’s three scopes.
This is the suffering that most people understand, and the compassion that arises from it. People are in pain from illness, wounding, hunger, destitution. We know this suffering and we choose to do what we can, according to our compassion and our resources. General dharma seeks to increase our ability to feel compassion, and to spread it no matter the cause, fault, or relationship. This is seen sometimes as the heart of the Mahayana, and the zenith of the Hinayana.
Release from the Cycle
The intermediate scope relates to release from the cycle of suffering. We have to understand that suffering is now understood as the second of Buddha’s noble truths. In the first practice we use Buddha’s first noble truth as the basis for our compassion. Now we must understand the second truth – how suffering arises. Without this understanding of the teaching we cannot practise the second compassion for we have no basis on which to separate it from the first compassion. A Bodhisattva practising the second compassion must understand the causes of suffering according to Buddha’s instruction, and focus upon them to the exclusion of the first.
What are the causes of suffering? They are karma and delusion. Knowing this the bodhisattva of the intermediate scope practices the abhidharma to understand delusions, and examines patterns to find the meaning of karma. Our perception of karma increases as we practise this meditation on karma and the arising of delusions. Eventually we can begin to see the patterns in ourselves, which is the basis for renunciation, and the patterns within others, which is the basis of the second compassion.
It is possible to alter our own patterns of karma through effort, and our own delusion through conscientiousness. But it is not possible to change the patterns of others. So our compassion appears deceptive. We experience the suffering of others upon their causes more than they do, but we are unable to help. Our reduction of ignorance allowing us to see the suffering produced by the causes of karma and delusion in others arise from our own attempts to reduce our own causes for suffering. And this growing wisdom, allowing us to see karma in others, allows us to begin to formulate methods to help them based on wisdom, example, patience and love. We begin to practise the six perfections, and others, for the sake of helping others release themselves from karma.
We have become a bodhisattva helping others release themselves from samsara through practising renunciation.
Compassion for the path means that a Bodhisattva looks to see other buddhists practising a path that does not lead directly to Buddhahood, and develops compassion. What practices do not lead to buddhahood? All the practices of the first, and third doors to Liberation, do not lead directly to buddhahood. Bodhisattvas are born from the second door to liberation. Only the practise of love and compassion lead to bodhicitta, and only bodhicitta can lead to buddhahood. So, a bodhisattva contemplates the paths and actions of other buddhist, or spiritual practitioners, and develops compassion for them. This compassion is practical in that it guides practitioners to bodhicitta. Enlightenment occurs from the supreme path, and all practitioners, even bodhisattvas, must reach this.