As such, our innate capacity for empathy is the source of that most precious of all human qualities, which in Tibetan we call nying je. Now while generally translated simply as "compassion," the term nying je has a wealth of meaning that is difficult to convey succinctly, though the ideas it contains are universally understood. It connotes love, affection, kindness, gentleness, generosity of spirit, and warm-heartedness. It is also used as a term of both sympathy and of endearment. On the other hand, it does not imply "pity" as the word compassion may. There is no sense of condescension. On the contrary, nying je denotes a feeling of connection with others, reflecting its origins in empathy. Thus while we might say, "I love my house" or "I have strong feelings of affection for this place," we cannot say, "I have compassion" for these things. Having no feelings themselves, we cannot empathize with objects. We cannot, therefore, speak of having compassion for them.
Although it is clear from this description that nying je, or love and compassion, is understood as an emotion, it belongs to that category of emotions which have a more developed cognitive component. Some emotions, such as the revulsion we tend to feel at the sight of blood, are basically instinctual. Others, such as fear of poverty, have this more developed cognitive component. We can thus understand nying je in terms of a combination of empathy and reason. We can think of empathy as the characteristic of a very honest person; reason as that of someone who is very practical. When the two are put together, the combination is highly effective. As such, nying je is quite different from those random feelings, like anger and lust, which, far from bringing us happiness, only trouble us and destroy our peace of mind.
To me, this suggests that by means of sustained reflection on, and familiarization with, compassion, through rehearsal and practice we can develop our innate ability to connect with others, a fact which is of supreme importance given the approach to ethics I have described. The more we develop compassion, the more genuinely ethical our conduct will be.
Reprinted from Ethics For The New Millennium by His Holiness The Dalai Lama by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by His Holiness The Dalai Lama. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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