The Logic of Love: The Practice of Bodhicitta

On the path of bodhicitta, sometimes we even make the wish: “May I take the sufferings of others onto myself!” This is an outrageous aspiration. Beings are limitless, therefore suffering is limitless, and so our compassion and care for them too must be limitless. 


Dear Elizabeth,

First of all I would like to thank you for your way of teaching. You speak with great clarity and after listening to your talk during the Walk the Walk retreat at Omega last October I had several profound realizations and a great shift in my understanding of what it means to practice.

To that end I’ve found myself asking questions and not looking for or needing answers. I have come to understand how there can be an answer that fits in one moment but not in the next or in one situation but not in another. As a result I actually find it difficult to think of questions I’d like to ask someone else as I find the responses come from within as a result of contemplation and my regular meditation practice.

However, there is one question that has been trying to form itself for some weeks, and it’s one I really struggle with because it’s a question or challenge often put to me when I share my thoughts on compassion with others.

The question is nebulous and like all of the very juiciest of questions, will not have straightforward answers, regardless of the context or circumstances.

It has to do with those individuals who lack the ability to have compassion—defined as sociopathic/psychopathic. We all encounter others who are incapable of feeling empathy because of the very wiring of their brain. Such people are often not dangerous as media would make them out to be, and they are just as complex and multi-faceted as any other human being, but their lack of emotional response is seen as threatening and the belief seems to be that such people deserve no kindness.

Tseringma by  Tara diGesu

Tseringma by Tara diGesu

Genuine compassion comes from a place of clear seeing, not putting oneself in harm’s way or giving someone the benefit of the doubt if they’re proven themselves to be hurtful. I know it’s possible to love someone but not like them very much. I also know that compassion starts with the self and removing oneself from harm’s way is as important as being present for another in their time of need.

I suppose the question I really have is how would you present or explain genuine compassion for all beings when someone argues that those incapable of empathy don’t deserve it?

I’ve tried a few times—living life as an experiment—by sharing the idea that compassion is better for the self than hatred or that no one is "bad" or "good." Some people are very confused and no one does anything because they want to feel worse. I am met with hostility for presenting these ideas or they are seen as "flaky hippy-speak" that’s unfounded. I’ll continue to experiment, regardless, but wanted to know if this was something you have encountered or what you might say to encourage others to get curious about how compassion is of great benefit in all circumstances.

Thank you.


Dear Friend,

Thank you for this question and the way you articulate it so clearly.  I hear you searching for a logic surrounding loving-kindness and the many points you raise seem like good reasoning to me. There is, indeed, a very strong logic behind why one would cultivate unbiased empathy in the Buddhist Mahayana tradition. However, it requires that we have the motivation to look fearlessly into the way we view the world, the way we react, and sometimes our own hypocrisy. Some people don’t want to do that.

After reading your question the first thing that came to mind was: “What would it be like to live without empathy?” When I pause and think about that for a moment, I can only imagine a life bereft of meaning, warmth and aliveness…something very cold and disconnected.  To live without altruism is to live in a world of self-concern. We know how it is to be completely caught up in ourselves—how painful that is. Imagine always living that way. The warmth of our empathy and care can sustain us; it serves as a refuge from the ego.

Empathy means we are able to put ourselves in others’ shoes, to share in or cultivate sensitivity to another’s happiness and pain. By refusing to put our self in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know empathy, simply mimics the behavior of such individuals, making us cold and uncaring too; it deprives us of warmth and love, making us not very empathetic. Wouldn’t we, as empathetic people, as people who actually have the capacity to care, want to pray harder for those who don’t have access to the heart? How is withholding love in this way a rational argument?


As you say, those who lack the ability to empathize sometimes threaten society and make us uncomfortable and afraid, often for good reason. We try to protect ourselves from such people. As you mentioned, many of them have biological deficits or have suffered inconceivable trauma. How do we deal with the fear we have of them?

In the Buddhist tradition we have a practice or view that we cultivate called bodhicitta, generally translated as “awakened mind\heart.” Many people think that bodhicitta just means compassion. But it means much, much more than that. Bodhicitta is the practice of including others in the realm of the love and care we usually reserve only for ourselves. The more we expand to include others, the more fearless we become.

On the path of bodhicitta, we make an aspiration: “May I bring all beings to Buddhahood.” Sometimes we even make the wish: “May I take the sufferings of others onto myself!” This is an outrageous aspiration. Beings are limitless, therefore suffering is limitless, and so our compassion and care for them too must be limitless. Would it not be wonderful to be that big? We don’t have to get intimidated by the grandness of this aspiration…we just have to live there and let the aspiration guide us. In speaking of bodhicitta my teacher recently said: “Our endeavor is not religious, but rather a test of what we as a human being can become, the greatest unfolding of our potential.”

My late mother-in-law (who was Tibetan) once said to me: “You should make your heart big enough to hold a horse race inside.” She came from a remote area in Tibet—a horse culture—and they used to hold races near her home. It was a vast and spacious landscape, which she considered very big. In Tibetan culture, to have a big heart means you are able to bear the poignancy of life—all the beauty, mystery and pain of it—without shutting down. It means to be courageous. So she was giving me the instruction to make my heart bigger…big enough to include even the things I didn’t understand or scared me.

If we want to overcome fear and find courage, we will have to question this tendency to protect our ego—to shrink from life in this way. This is another reason not to withhold compassion from those we don’t understand.

Friend or Foe?

We tend to reserve our love for our friends and withhold it from our foes. In relation to most others, towards whom we feel simply neutral, we miss the opportunity to cultivate courage and loving kindness altogether. People just pass us by on the street and we don’t even notice. How can we use all these relationships to cultivate a bigger view?

In other words, for the most part our altruism and warmth is conditional and based on our own preferences. Preferences have to do with the ego: what is good for me/what is not good for me. This approach is very self-centered and not at all big. It does not demand courage, instead keeping us small and fearful…or neutral and dull. For those we love we sustain a fragile, fickle and precarious kind of love. It all depends upon how good they are to us, and even what that means to us changes each day.

If we really, honestly investigate, we can’t definitively discern friend from foe. Someone who has hurt us in the past may step up and save our life. Someone we trust now my break our heart in the future or even cause us harm. And even then, who can say where that will lead? Everything arises based on limitless causes and conditions. You may look at someone and assume you know who and how they are, but you only ever see a little piece of them.

My favorite movie, even after so many years, is Dead Man Walking. It is about a young man who rapes a young woman and kills her and her boyfriend and feels no apparent remorse. The movie follows him to his death by lethal injection. As the movie progresses you start to know him. At first you naturally fear and despise him—you feel no compassion. But then you meet his mother, then his family. You see he is a son and a brother. Slowly, you find it impossible to demonize him. This doesn’t mean you forget what he did, but you begin to include the many disparate elements and qualities of his humanness. As this all unfolds, as you begin to see him in a fuller way, it naturally releases your own compassion and clarity.

To say that someone does not deserve compassion lacks the humility and understanding that we actually don’t know anything or anyone in a determinate way. We don’t see the fullness and complexity of any situation. To think that someone is limited to the idea you have of him/her is not in accord with the way things are. It is extremely myopic and narrow.

There will be those who will want to hold to “principles”—that means they hold on to belief systems rather than examining such things directly and fearlessly. When this is the case, there is no point in engaging them. However, for those who want to understand how to be in the world beyond simply reacting—who want to expand their heart and intelligence—bodhicitta and this line of investigation is extremely powerful, sane, and emboldening.

I really appreciate your question and rejoice in your path of loving-kindness!!!


As I was thinking about this I got curious about people with autism because you hear that they don’t experience empathy as most people do. Here is a link for an interview with Temple Grandin that helps us understand something about people who are different in this way. As a person with autism, she has done some beneficial work with animals and also educating people about autism…she clearly has her own kind of empathy…although she expresses it in a different way.