Empathy appears to be a rather popular concept these days. In fact, if it appears that you have no empathy with one who is suffering then you must be "cold and heartless." So Empathy is universally held in high regard. 

When one examines this Empathy which is expected then you must theoretically be able to put yourself in their Suffering position and feel something akin to what they feel and furthermore feel sorry for them. What is more, that "fellow bedfellow" feeling must be expressed as condolence, and is called COMPASSION.

Traditionally, religions have espoused compassion as one of their higher values, if not the highest. This COMPASSION is often attributed to a god supreme, who is presented as merciful and taking pity on those who suffer, and in extraordinary circumstances is even capable of intervening in human affairs to improve their lot. 

On the other hand, pity has also been considered a noble response in society, and especially in Catholic countries, images of Christ on the cross and the Virgin Mary as mater dolorosa silently yet effectively convey the notion that suffering for the suffering of others is not only the highest kind of divine love but also its most genuine human counterpart.



Following cultural archetypes, we could say then that these two are the masculine and feminine aspects of a single phenomenon. 


        COMPASSION is wishing that they do not Suffer

        EMPATHY is experiencing what the other feels

This non-involvement which is less emotional might well explain the appeal of EMPATHY, insofar as it is perceived as a neutral term, devoid of both the religious and the gender overtones of compassion and pity in these increasingly secular, egalitarian times. Perhaps that is why it has become common currency in psychotherapy and the mental heath professions.

Be that as it may, the fact that empathy has displaced compassion and pity as a label does not mean it has left behind the fundamental attitudes behind its forerunners: to help and assist on one side, to share and console on the other. One seems more involved with mental processes, whereas the other is more affective. If we look at definitions of empathy by experts, we can detect a similar divide. Empathy can be variously conceived as:

“A complex form of psychological inference in which observation, memory, knowledge, and reasoning are combined to yield insights into the thoughts and feelings of others.” (William Ickes)

“The capacity to know emotionally what another is experiencing from within the frame of reference of that other person, the capacity to sample the feelings of another or to put one’s self in another’s shoes.” (D. M. Berger)  

Or it can be understood as:

“An affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition, and that is similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel.” (Nancy Eisenberg)

“Empathy is about spontaneously and naturally tuning into the other person’s thoughts and feelings, whatever these might be [...] There are two major elements to empathy. The first is the cognitive component: Understanding the others feelings and the ability to take their perspective [...] the second element to empathy is the affective component. This is an observer’s appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotional state.” (Simon Baron-Cohen)

“[Empathy] is what happens to us when we leave our own bodies... and find ourselves either momentarily or for a longer period of time in the mind of the other. We observe reality through her eyes, feel her emotions, share in her pain.” (Ken Lampert)

Perhaps the best definition is that of Carl Rogers:

“To perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the “as if” condition. Thus, it means to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it and to perceive the causes thereof as he perceives them, but without ever losing the recognition that it is as if I were hurt or pleased and so forth.”

What does Dharma have to say about empathy/compassion? Buddhist teachings portray compassion as part of the innermost essence of human beings, along with wisdom, and yet this compassion is understood quite differently from the virtue of religion, in a way that is likely to disconcert newcomers and maybe even put them off unless it is properly explained.

In Dharma psychology, compassion is understood as the noble aspiration that no one suffer. Suffering, of course, is the cornerstone of the entire Buddhist teaching, which means that anyone aspiring to follow the path of Buddha Dharma needs to gain deep, experiential knowledge of what suffering is, how it arises and how it can cease, as well as the method to bring about its cessation.

        Furthermore the Dharma must add to the Carl Rogers definition:

“To perceive the illusory internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, knowing that Suffering to be an unnatural condition, without ever losing the “as if” condition. Thus, it means to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it and to perceive the illusory causes and the Natural solutions thereof, without ever losing the recognition that it is AS IF if I were hurt or pleased and so forth, nevertheless knowing the Truth regarding Suffering.” 

       Perhaps you can see the debility in the mundane approach to Empathy.

       First, it reinforces the concept of Identity.

       Second, it justifies the existence and acceptance of Suffering.

Within Compassion too, with mundane Empathy as a base, any Compassion is linked to an "I" who perceives the necessity for Individual cessation of Suffering and thus puts blinkers upon the correct attitude, which is the Bodhisattva concept that all suffering should cease for all human creatures.


The Diamond Sutra, Part XXV, makes that clear.

        Buddha declared:

"Subhuti, what do you think? Let no one say the Tathagata cherishes the idea: 'I must liberate all living beings.' Allow no such thought, Subhuti.

"Why? Because in reality there are no living beings to be liberated by the Tathagata. If there were living beings for the Tathagata to liberate, He would be participating in the idea of selfhood, personality entity, and separate individuality. 

"Subhuti, though the common people accept Identity as real, the Tathagata declares that Identity is not different from non-Identity. 

"Subhuti, those whom the Tathagata referred to as 'common people' are not really common people; such is merely a name."