There is a part of us that thinks first of ourselves, and only then of others. It's innate and not necessarily bad. But when self-interest becomes a dominant force, we become insensitive to others and even cause them harm. While people sometimes may have to act out self -interest to protect themselves. Most human problems require cooperation and care from or for others to solve. Buddhism identifies compassion as key to solving most human suffering.
The Chinese Buddhist term for compassion, pronounced jihi in Japanese, comprises two characters. The first ji, comes from the Sanskrit word maitri, meaning "to give happiness," and the second, hi, from Sanskrit karuna, meaning "to remove suffering," Together they mean to relieve people of suffering and give them happiness.
This Buddhist compassion is an expression of the Buddha or Bodhisattva nature innate in all people. Nichiren Daishonin writes: "Even a heartless villain loves his wife and children. He too has the portion of the Bodhisattva world within him. " (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 358). Everyone has the potential of a Bodhisattva-to act with compassion toward another. Naturally, kindness that does not empower people may have little lasting value. But in the Buddhist view, compassion means to lead people to root out the cause of misery in their lives and to create happiness for themselves.
A natural example of compassion is seen in the actions of a mother toward her child. A mother will do anything toward her child. A mother will do anyyhting she can to protect her child, even if it means braving flames or flood.
Nichiren wrote, "I, Nichiren, am sovereign, teacher and father and mother to all people of Japan" (WND-I, 287). He made this statement to convey his state of life as the original Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law, capable of embracing all people with the compassion of a parent.
Yet, how do those of us who sometimes lose patience even with our own children develop such compassion? The first step is to expose our lives to the state of compassion manifested by the Buddha. When we chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo with faith in the Gohonzon, which embodies the compassionate life-state of Buddhahood, we can stimulate and bring forth the source of boundless compassion within us.
Also, any successful parent or teacher knows the importance of seeing things from the child's perspective. Such people transcend divisions of self and other to view the sufferings and joys of their own children or students as their own. Constant is their concern for the children. The Nobel Prize winning French author Andre Gide puts it clearly: "True kindness presupposes the faculty of imaging as one's own suffering and joys of others."
Compassion therefore includes the willingness to know the sufferings and concerns of others. Also, while we try to recognize their strengths, we can come to appreciate and feel closer to them, and our concern for their well-being naturally increases.
Buddhism involves practice for self and for others. Our thoughts for others' well-being expressed in our daily prayer allows us transcend self centered impulses, and illuminate the fundamental darkness that is the source of suffering with the light of our innate Buddhahood.
-April 2000/Living Buddhism