"Empathy and embodiment together are the nature of compassion. Empathy teaches us to listen to and understand suffering and its causes. Embodiment is concerned with what we do with that understanding. Embodiment asks for courage. A compassionate life is a fearless life. It is courage that rescues compassion from being only a fine sentiment restricted to those who are helpless and innocent. It takes great courage to have compassion be the guiding principle of our thoughts, words, and acts. Courage is needed as mindfulness awakens us to the depth and apparent endlessness of suffering in the world. Remarkable courage is needed to stay close to the suffering that feels unbearable. It is courage that enables us to look pain in the eye without wavering. Compassion in its deepest sense is immeasurable. It embraces the most difficult people in our lives, the most brutal people in the world. Compassion is concerned with meeting suffering and uprooting the causes of suffering: the greed, hatred, and confusion that scars the lives and hearts of too many in this world.
"Martin Luther King Jr. reflected on his death and the manner of his funeral, asking that whoever delivered the eulogy should not talk too long. He said, 'Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize or three or four hundred other awards. I'd like someone to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. Say that I was a drum major for justice, for peace and for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I just want to leave a committed life behind.' We remember the young man facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square, the Indian peasants protesting the salt tax walking unarmed into the squads of armed British soldiers, the young nurses serving in the Ebola treatment centers, the nuns in Calcutta going into the dawn to collect the abandoned children. Our hearts are moved in wonder in the face of the heroism embodied by the people who have changed our world, by their dedication to uprooting the causes of suffering. They do so through their acts and their willingness to engage with suffering and its causes. They were not born saints or heroes but found in themselves a courageous commitment to say no to the unacceptable.
"The courage of compassion is not the domain only of the saintly. An elderly man takes on the care of his much loved wife, lost in the twilight world of Alzheimer's disease. Parents love and raise cherished disabled children. The young man on the bus confronts the passenger shouting racial abuse. Compassion recognizes the ways in which untold suffering is generated and regenerated through thoughts, words, and acts of ill will, fear, and confusion, and does not turn away. We may indeed feel fearful in the face of cruelty and harshness but know there is something more important than our fear.
"A monk, imprisoned and abused for many years, recounted to the Dalai Lama the story of those years of pain. The Dalai Lama asked him, 'Was there ever a moment when you felt your life was truly in danger?' He replied, 'The most dangerous moments were when I felt myself beginning to lose compassion for my jailers.' "