When we feel compassion for another person, we feel what the other person is feeling. We don't simply intellectualize with thoughts like, "Oh, this person is unhappy. I should be more patient and considerate." We really feel what they are feeling, at least to some extent. A barrier has evaporated between us, and instead of "That person is experiencing unhappiness," it's more a matter of We are experiencing unhappiness. It is an experience of us-ness, in this case with another person who is suffering. This is not a particularly controversial idea.
In Buddhism, one of the most common definitions of enlightenment is the cessation of suffering. An Arahant may feel physical pain, but he or she no longer has craving, and since craving is the cause of all suffering (in accordance with the Second Noble Truth), an Arahant no longer experiences suffering. This also is not a particularly controversial idea, at least in Buddhism.
The controversial idea may rear its knuckled head, however, when these two uncontroversial ones are joined together: An Arahant feels compassion—and therefore an Arahant experiences suffering. But Arahants aren't supposed to experience suffering.
It may even be hypothesized that a hypothetical fully enlightened being feels universal compassion; all (ultimately illusory) barriers whatsoever have evaporated, and the Arahant experiences the suffering of the entire world, and of all worlds. If this is true, then, ironically, an enlightened being would feel much, much more suffering than, say, a teenage girl who was molested by her father, ran away, became a prostitute, is addicted to heroin, is regularly beaten by the men who use her, and furthermore has killed her own newborn baby. The hypothetical enlightened being would experience infinitely more suffering than her. With universal compassion, it would seem that a fully enlightened being, like the Buddha for example, would experience infinite suffering. What is wrong with this picture?
A possible solution to this apparent problem may be found in a book that I read long ago in a cave in Burma. It was given to me by a friend, and was one of those things that happened right when it needed to happen, to help me see what I needed to see at the time. The book is In Each Moment by Paul Lowe; and if I were required to make a guess and name an enlightened being alive in this world today, I would probably guess him. Anyway, whether he is enlightened or not, at one point in the book he is discussing "the system" of body, emotions, and thinking mind:
"If the system wants to cry—let it cry. There is no need to get involved. That is not you. If it wants to laugh, let it laugh. That is not you."
In other words, the system of body, feelings, and thinking mind is irrelevant to Enlightenment.
There have been times in my life when I have had a rush of heightened awareness, in which I saw the world very clearly, yet from a point of view that was somehow more real than what I was seeing. These experiences have occurred in unpredictable flashes—as a layperson they tended to occur when I was in a near-death situation, like when the car I was driving was sliding out of control (and as a young man I often drove like a maniac, so it happened more than once), or else when I was under the influence of certain "consciousness expanding" drugs, and later, after being a meditating monk for several years, as a result of formal contemplation. These experiences could be called mystical; and as William James points out in his classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience, one very common feature of mystical experiences is that those who have them are quite sure that they are at least as real and valid as ordinary waking consciousness. I would guess that a highly spiritually advanced being, like an Arahant for example, would be in such a state pretty much all the time. Such a being would see the world from a vantage point of higher reality, in which what most of us consider real is a kind of mirage, dream, or miracle play.
Consider a masterpiece of dramatic tragedy—my favorite example is King Lear. Here we have a story in which three-fourths of the main characters die gruesome deaths, including Cordelia, an innocent young woman who has done nothing to deserve such a fate. One character gets his eyes gouged out ("Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?"), and King Lear himself is driven raving mad with grief and outrage, accompanied by a severely depressed court jester and a homeless man who seems to be even more insane than the king and claims to live on a diet which includes rats, tadpoles, newts, and pond scum. Yet despite all this bleakness, darkness, and misery, it is considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces of dramatic art, considered by many to be "too immense" to be effectively played upon a stage. It is a horrible tragedy, and a beautiful masterpiece. It is the tale of a betrayed King and the deaths of his friends and his betrayers, and it is actors strutting around on a stage speaking in bombastic poetry. What it is depends on how you look at it.
So the hypothetical enlightened being experiences the suffering of others very clearly, not even attributing it to an "other," since interpersonal distinctions and distances have been outgrown—yet also experiences it from a higher perspective, a higher reality, in which the tragedy may even be viewed as a divine masterpiece, or perhaps just as ultimately perfect Emptiness. Presumably an Arahant would operate on both these levels simultaneously. Compassion may be appropriate for the character getting his eyes gouged out, but not for the actor playing the role, much less for the underlying Emptiness.
One reason why American Buddhists rarely make very deep progress in Dhamma is that, due to their scientific, materialistic Western conditioning, they consider Samsara to be reality. They are convinced of it. Thus they essentially try to straighten out their lives within the context of an illusion. In other words, they try to wake up within the context of the dream they are dreaming, the tragic or comic play in which they are players. To see through the illusion, the make believe, to transcend it and experience a deeper reality, is called insight.
I will conclude this week's installment of words with one more quote from In Each Moment:
You do not need to identify with your emotions and behaviour. You may say, "I am depressed," yet, you are not depressed. You cannot be depressed. What you are saying is that there is an imbalance in your mind that affects your body and emotions. But that is not you.