Buddhism is sometimes referred to as the “religion of compassion,” while Christianity is probably roughly understood as the “religion of love (agape).
It seems that “compassion” and “love (agape)” have something in common in the broad sense of “doing good deeds for the happiness of others.
In this article, we will examine the differences or similarities between Buddhist “compassion” and Christian “agape” (love).
Is there really a difference between ” Compassion (Mercy)” and “Agape (love)”?
First, let us consider the concept of “love” in Buddhism as a clue.
As many of you may know, the term “love” is not used in a positive sense in Buddhism.
The word “love” is “Taṇhā” in Pali and Sanskrit, which means “thirst of the heart and clinging to something. It is almost synonymous with “attachment.
In Buddhism, the root of suffering is attachment, so “love” in Buddhist terminology is a bad thing.
However, I think it is too shortsighted to take this as a reason why Buddhism is a superior religion to Christianity.
Words cannot escape from their symbolic nature no matter how far they go, so this is a difference in the meaning of the word “love,” not simply a matter of superiority or inferiority between Buddhism and Christianity.
Some sites preach the religious limits of the concept of “love” and explain the superiority of Buddhist “compassion,” but I would say that this is a shallow argument and the horizon of comparison is quite different.
The kind of love Jesus preaches is not a two-sided love. As the scripture “Love thine enemies” indicates, it is a “free love” that gives unselfishly and generously.
Therefore, “love” as a Buddhist term is not comparable, so I will exclude it from the discussion.
In Buddhism, there are two main words to define “love” (in the good sense).
- Dāna (Donation)
- Compassion (Mercy)
Dāna is neighborly love
The word “Dāna” tends to be thought of only as “offering money to a monk,” but the original meaning of “Dāna” is much broader than that.
We often speak of “the Buddha’s Compassion,” but rarely do we hear the phrase “the Buddha’s Dāna
Dāna” should not be understood as love that descends from a transcendent being, such as the Buddha, but as love that is expressed in our human relationships.
The Buddha often preached three theories to lay believers.
- Theory of Almsgiving (dāna-kathā)
- Theory of Precepts (sīla-kathā)
- Theory of Birth into Heaven (sagga-kathā)
It is a simple preaching: “If you do alms and keep the precepts, you will be born into the heavenly realm.”
“Theory of Almsgiving” eventually means “giving love to those we come in contact with”.
In this way, I think it is safe to say that ” Dāna” in Buddhism is almost equivalent to “love of neighbor” in Christianity.
Compassion has two meanings: the love of the Buddha and the love of one’s neighbor
Compassion” as love descending from a transcendent being
Compassion can be understood as the love that descends from the great “Buddha” to us sentient beings, as in the expression “the Buddha’s compassion” or “the Buddha’s mercy.
In this sense, I would say that ” Compassion” is no different from Christian agape, or at least, it is quite close to the concept of Agape as defined by A. Nygren.
In his book “Agape and Eros,” Nygren categorized “love” as follows
- Agape: descending movement from God, with God’s love as its essence
- Eloce: ascending movement toward God, with self-love as its essence
One may rightly argue that the Christian transcendent God is different from the Buddha.
It is true that the Buddha’s position in the primitive Sakyamuni cult is that of a “teacher of mankind,” which is very different from a Christian transcendent deity.
However, in the age of Mahayana Buddhism, especially when it comes to the “Eternal Buddha” who appears in the Lotus Sutra, the king of all sutras, it seems that he is almost a transcendent deity.
I assume that the reason why Buddhism became a world religion was due to the “transcendental deity” aspect of the Buddha, such as the “Buddha of Eternal Buddha” of the Lotus Sutra and the Amitābha of Pure Land Buddhism.
Compassion as neighborly love
In Buddhism, there is a philosophy (also a meditation method) called the Four Infinite Minds (Brahmavihara).
Four Infinite Minds are as follows.
- loving-kindness or benevolence (mettā)
- compassion (karuṇā)
- empathetic joy (muditā)
- equanimity (upekkhā)
So 1 and 2 are exactly what ” Compassion” means.
Then we can see that the word “mercy” clearly includes “love of neighbor” in addition to the meaning of love that descends from the divine reality.
Thus, in the end, ” Compassion” as a virtue we practice is not so different from the Christian “love of neighbor”.
Compassion and Agape can be considered almost the same thing
Agape” was defined earlier as “love from God,” with reference to Nygren, but it is also sometimes used as “love of neighbor.
My commandment is this: love one another, just as I love you. (John 15:12.)
Neighborly love does not exist independently as neighborly love, but rather in the order in which we first receive love (agape) from God and then share the energy of that love with our fellow man.
It is a circulation of love energy, so to speak.
This would be the same in Buddhist Compassion. The basis for us sentient beings and bodhisattvas to practice Compassion is in order to spread the Buddha’s Compassion throughout the world.
In this light, Christian ” Agape” has the following two aspects.
- Love of God (free love from God)
- Love of neighbor (selfless love)
Buddhist ” Compassion” also has the following two aspects.
- Buddha’s love (free love from Buddha)
- Love of neighbor (selfless love)
It is, so to speak, “vertical love” and “horizontal love.
In this way, Buddhist ” Compassion” and Christian “Agape (love)” are, surprisingly, quite close in meaning.
Comparative religion tends to go in the direction of “emphasizing differences,” which is often helpful in understanding different cultures.
However, Neo Buddhism believes that in the coming global age, it is important to view differences as differences, but from a higher perspective, they are synthesized.
In this article, we talked about the similarities between Christian Agape and Buddhist Compassion, but there is a more dynamic article that provides a theoretical base for “synthesizing both Christianity and Buddhism,” which we hope you will read.