In this extract from the path-breaking book, Zen in the art of helping (1976; 1990) David Brandon examines the nature of compassion its role in helping.

contents: preface · compassion · how to cite this piece

David Brandon (1941-2001) made a major contribution to our appreciation of the experience of rough sleeping and the needs of homeless people; to the way we can approach helping others; and to deepening practice with with those suffering mental health problems and advocating on their behalf. His work with Mind and commitment around mental health resulted in a number of important interventions and fed into picture: david brandon. Used with the permission of Toby and Althea Brandon.publications especially with regard to advocacy. Furthermore, his book 'Zen in the Art of Helping' (1976; 1990), has been described by Phil Barker as 'the the most remarkable book of my generation'

Zen in the art of helping (Brandon 1976, 1990) was based in a strong appreciation of the relationship between personal troubles and public issues (Mills 1959) and of the contribution that insights from Zen Buddhism could make to helping. It also drew upon Brandon's experiences in social work and upon thinkers like Fromm, Illich and Friere. The real kernel of all our help', David Brandon (1990: 6) argued, 'that which renders it effective, is compassion'. Just like later writers like Nel Noddings, he argued that caring and concern to alleviate suffering and the relationships that flowed from this needed to define helping rather than the managerial and technical concerns that have come to dominate much social work and education.

links: david brandon - homelessness, advocacy and mental health, and zen in the art of helping

[page 47 - page numbers refer to the 1990 Arkana edition]

If only
I could throw away
the urge
to trace my patterns
in your heart
I could really see you.

When Bankei held his seclusion weeks of meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend. During one of these gatherings a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the pupil be expelled. Bankei ignored the case.

Later the pupil was caught in a similar act, and again Bankei disregarded the matter. This angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief, stating that otherwise they would leave in a body.

When Bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him. 'You are wise brothers,' he told them. 'You know what is right and what is not right. You may go somewhere else to study if you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave.'

A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the [page 48] brother who had stolen. All desire to steal had vanished. (1)

The story of Bankei is full of compassion which is at the core of helping. He was generous both to the thief and to the self-righteous pupils. He saw clearly the need of the petitioners to look at their own self-righteousness and the consequences of protecting property. He taught an enlightening lesson about the dangers of passing judgments similar to those lessons of Christ. Who can cast the first stone? Who is better than another?

Compassion is an unpopular word nowadays. It points towards commitment, involvement, caring, love and generosity of heart. These are directions closely related to feeling and sentiment, sources of considerable embarrassment for twentieth-century man. It is less dangerous to be cool than passionate in contemporary society. However, compassion lies at the heart of all helping; without it relationships between people are like dry leaves in the wind.

Openness, intimacy and sensitivity are the herbs of compassion. Those qualities are concerned with seeing deeply and directly into the other person and feeling his needs and wants. That has nothing to do with verbal diarrhoea. Being compassionate does not mean giving people the everlasting benefit of your advice, telling them the intimate details of your nasal operation or leg wound. Genuine caring is much less conspicuous and unself-conscious.

The beginning of compassion both to oneself and to others is in decreasing the number of judgments. I begin to see what is there without continuously labelling the events with the colours of my judgments and values. I stop punishing myself for [page 49] falling short of standards which I erected. I see the way someone behaves and do not feel that it is either bad or good. That desire had melted away by feelings of respect for the other's independence. He or she is not there anyway to suit or satisfy my view of the world.

'I know exactly how you feel' must be mistaken however good the intent of the speaker. How can it be possible to make any kind of accurate analogy, experiential or otherwise, between two persons' feelings, even about an apparently similar happening? When you tell me about the death of a friend, it is most probable that it is my pain I feel about the death of someone close to me. I cannot tell whether what moves inside my heart is similar to that which moves inside yours. I can share it but must be careful not to drown your grief and sorrow with my own.

Compassion means giving people room; opening doors rather than closing them; asking questions rather than giving answers. It means becoming sensitively aware of another person's situation and feelings. It means listening with your whole being and giving, if you can, what is relevant and appropriate to the relationship without self-consciously measuring what that is. 'I went away warmed by his quiet attention to my words, and by his ability to imply with a smile or gesture, the sharing of a common humanity.' (2)

Compassion is the process of deep contact with the primordial source of love. It is the direct communication from the innermost recesses of one's existence.

Compassion has nothing to do with achievement at all. It is spacious and very generous. When a person [page 50] develops real compassion, he is uncertain whether he is being generous to others or to himself because compassion is environmental generosity, without direction, without 'for me' and without 'for them'. It is filled with joy, spontaneously existing joy, constant joy in the sense of trust, in the sense that joy contains tremendous wealth, richness. (3)

The highest level of compassion is without any purpose or intent. It seeks neither the good of others nor its own good. It lies in being good not 'doing good'. There is simply living without design or conscious reflection. It embodies the fostering of love.

Zen Buddhists use the term Karuna to describe a process rather than a quality in particular people. Suzuki wrote: (4)

When Prajna [wisdom] is attained, we have an insight into the fundamental significance of life and the world, and cease to worry about individual interests and sufferings. Karuna is free to work its way, which means that love, unobstructed by its selfish encumbrances, is able to spread itself over all things.

At this highest level, Karuna does not attach itself to the intricacies of suffering or to individual human situations. It is involved with the salvation of all living things. It spreads out the map of enlightenment for all who care to look.

That is the way of the Buddhas. I am very much concerned with those individuals who live around me. I continually 'judge' myself as being inadequate when judged against all sorts of standards in my head. Most [page 51] of the energy in my helping comes from feelings of pity felt towards others. Pity is one part arrogance and one part sympathy. Unlike compassion it sees others as unequal, inferior.

Its intent is a mission to help others who are perceived as 'less adequate'. The echoes of smugness and complacency can drown the genuine giving and hinder people. Such a mixture is all that is possible at present for me. I travel on a pathway of meditation and acceptance, both of myself and others, which may uncover less selfish, striving effort.

Travelling along this pathway does not mean the development of quietism, withdrawal from the world or acquiescence in suffering and cruelty. It actually means a much firmer entry into everyday life — the hoeing of the garden and the troubles and joys of both family and friends. Instead of becoming a social anaesthetic, meditation involves a greater immersion in the simple process of living.

For many, such voyages are associated with the labels of 'self-indulgence' or even of 'psychological masturbation'. This attitude reveals a definite split between the worlds of service to fellow man and inner reflection. It sees the two as quite separate. In Zen existence is an inseparable whole, an overall unity, in which we embrace and are also embraced by the whole universe. That view is opposed to a withdrawal from the world.'. . . it follows that we cannot attain genuine peace of mind merely by seeking our own salvation while remaining indifferent to the welfare of others.' (5)

Genuine self-discovery cannot cut itself off from the cries of those who suffer because of famine and physical pain. The traveller hears those cries and sees the suffering. Those experiences are part of [page 52] journeying towards enlightenment. He helps where he can and experiences pain and alienation. His own greed and selfishness contribute in no small way to the suffering of the world.

Generosity is an important component of compassion. But giving has many pit-falls to trap the unwary and unsighted. It can effectively help inflate the ego. In the helping process it can become a peculiar form of parsimony. It deprives others. Helpers lust to give in a showering of tangible and verbal presents like the worst form of Santa Claus. Each gift re-affirms the inferiority of the recipient. Each gift becomes an indication of the pity felt by the giver. 'I am sorry for you. . . .'

In the Greek Street community for homeless women I lived next door to Joanna who had been ten years in a psychiatric hospital diagnosed as 'acute schizophrenic'. She slept in the large linen-room and cursed me loudly through the thin cardboard wall for continuously sexually interfering with her. I was sorry for Joanna and tried very hard to communicate. The response was a long whispered incoherent discourse with certain words like 'laser beams' and 'rape' repeated over and over again. Several times each night I would wake up because she was banging on the wall and screaming 'Rape, rape . . .' I tried to help her but nothing seemed to work.

One weekend I was writing a pamphlet, 'Women without Homes', for Christian Action which had to be finished by the Monday. I was very tired and depressed. Each time I used the typewriter Joanna would scream. I knew that she felt my typewriter was a laser machine. I tried pleading, cajoling, knocking on the wall and cursing to no avail. Finally, in desperation I looked out my earlier [page 53] pamphlet and wrote her a note.

Dear Joanna,

I am trying to write another pamphlet like 'Homeless in London' which I enclose. It has to be finished this weekend. Please help me by remaining silent.

I shoved the pamphlet and note under her door and went back to my room. After an hour or so, I heard a shuffling and the pamphlet was returned under the door. Inside was a scrawled note. 'David, I enjoyed the pamphlet. Please continue.' I typed on into the night and there were no sounds. She was helping me. For the first time a social worker needed help from her.

People who seek or are seen as requiring assistance frequently need also a way to give something worth while.

It is well known that the poor are more willing to give than the rich. Nevertheless, poverty beyond a certain point may make it impossible to give, and is so degrading, not only because of the suffering it causes directly, but because of the fact that it deprives the poor of the joy of giving. (6)

I have known families in severe poverty, without beds, real furniture or proper food supplies, persistently defined and treated as mendicants and suppliants. Help came to them as handouts in a truly feudal context with little sense of their own dignity or worth. Sometimes the 'help' would come and thinly disguise a strong contempt expressly seeing them as 'malingerers' or 'wasters'. Those families had [page 54] either become bitter or had learned thoroughly a whole ritual unctiousness, to gain benefits which ought, anyway, to have been theirs by right.

Such giving often comes with strings attached. 'I will give you this if. ..." The if can mean 'improve your behaviour, take better care of your children, pay your rent more regularly, clean yourself up. . . .' Rarely are the implicit strings and conditions and resulting sanctions spelled out to the recipient. The Helping Game is much more complex and misty than that. Sanctions may mean a withdrawal of promised aid or support; a recommendation for eviction or taking the children into care; or simply and cosmologically 'I will not care for you any more.'

Genuine compassion cannot be glued together so easily with ulterior motives particularly those which remain concealed. I may consider that life would be better for you if you were to bathe more frequently, spoke properly or managed your money more efficiently. I cannot know that that is the case. Helping is frequently embroidered with emotional blackmail of all kinds. Sometimes the blackmail has to do with the functions of an agency desiring certain ends and certain kinds of behaviour; sometimes to do with the personal needs of the helping agent. There is a great difference between spelling out what you think might be the consequences of certain proposed actions by the client and leaning heavily on him to behave in a certain way.

The nature of compassion is to widen choices rather than narrow them. Getting my own way as helper is not the object of the process at all. My notion of widening the options may not co-incide with that of the client's view. That divergence should be the beginning of a continuing and important [page 55] discussion between us. I have to be careful in the way I use power that I do not play the tune whilst he foots the bill.

Giving can be much more for the benefit of the giver than for the good of the recipient. Givers can become obsessed with the process of 'doing good to people'. It can become an important drive and even a sickness in which they urgently need the continuing contact with recipients to give added meaning to their lives. Helping becomes a drug. This can hide an aching emptiness and real good cannot come easily from such restless energy.

We have continually to examine the source of our caring energy. It can come from many sources. Herschel Prins argues that (7) it can come from curiosity, creativity, as well as from unconscious needs to punish, to control others, to solve one's own problems.

It is hard to achieve some fine balance between reaching out and self-exploration. I have heard social workers and doctors sob in groups that they were thoroughly miserable and unloved but 'I don't have time for myself. The clients are much worse off than me and much more important.' These people can be left feeling empty and desperate.

There are many people who spend all their time giving aid to the needy and joining movements for the betterment of society. To be sure, this ought not to be discounted. But their root anxiety, growing out of their false view of themselves and the universe, goes unrelieved, gnawing at their hearts and robbing them of a rich and joyous life. Those who sponsor and engage in such social betterment activities look upon themselves, [page 56] consciously or unconsciously, as morally superior and so never bother to purge their minds of greed, anger and delusive thinking. But the time comes when, having grown exhausted from all their restless activity, they can no longer conceal from themselves their basic anxieties about life and death. Then they seriously begin to question why life has not more meaning and zest. Now for the first time they wonder whether instead of trying to save others they ought not to save themselves first. (8)

They have not begun the search for a substantial source of nutrition. All their energy and wandering empties them. They can find no genuine satisfaction in helping others because it comes from a desperate need to escape feelings of isolation and loss. I came into social work primarily because I felt it was the only way to find deep and satisfactory human relationships to ease my own desperate sense of isolation. My true growth began in experiencing the sense of isolation rather than in giving to others.

Superiority and self-righteousness are closely interrelated to each other and moral imperialism. 'I feel better than you. I feel warm and good about what I am able to do for the socially isolated and inadequate.' When we look at the sheer chaos and misery of our own lives, it makes self-righteousness seem even more empty and insubstantial.

We need to protect ourselves and others from the consequences of good intentions even more than from those of the destructive. When good intentions are entangled with feelings of moral superiority it can be twice as dangerous. This mixture can encourage the recipient to feel worthless and third-rate; seeing [page 57] us as 'good' and himself as 'bad'. It is so much harder to struggle against the pressing attentions of someone who is intent on undermining you by doing good.

I got very upset at a Quaker Meeting and after seventeen years of membership never went back. I felt there had been a good deal of dishonesty and repressed emotion at a time which called for emotional expression and authenticity. That was my crude and angry judgment and on the way to the car park after the meeting I felt violent with passion. An elderly Quakeress pulled at my arm.

'Why are you so depressed, David?'

'I'm not depressed. Not at all. I am feeling absolutely bloody furious with you all.'

'Come and have coffee with me and talk it over. You'll soon feel better.'

'I do not particularly want to feel better. Thank you for the offer. I will have coffee with you some other time.'

'Come and have coffee with me. It is very unchristian of you to refuse.'

Unchristian or not, I walked off without looking back and was much too angry to be affected by the final twist of guilt until later.

Clearly it was important that I had coffee with her — to her rather than me. I felt she wanted to suck me in. She was wanting to pour sugared cream over all my emotions. The offer seemed to have nothing to do with me and the way I was feeling at that time.

I don't see compassion as necessarily 'making people feel better'. It is a much more robust process than this. It does not involve simply being good or pleasant to people. Saying the right or socially acceptable thing is not usually being compassionate. Being nice is a simple ongoing social device to avoid [page 58] undue disturbance and pain. Compassion accepts the risks and ignores those dangers.

Thus the marriage counsellor tells us, the husband should 'understand' his wife and be helpful. He should comment favourably on her new dress, and on a tasty dish. She, in turn, should understand when he comes home tired and disgruntled, she should listen attentively when he talks about his business troubles, should not be angry but understanding when he forgets her birthday. All this kind of relationship amounts to is the well-oiled relationship between two persons who remain strangers all their lives, who never arrive at a 'central relationship', but who treat each other with courtesy and who attempt to make each other feel better. (9)

Without wishing to be quite as scathing as Fromm, the example illustrates form rather than content. Behaving as if you did care may sometimes flower into genuine love. But avoiding trouble, being courteous and patient when it does not spring from your inner being may hinder personal growth. Sadly much helping is aimed at the lubrication of relationships rather than experiencing the situation of lack of caring. Understandably, expediency dominates thinking about help in many settings. 'How can I/we achieve some element of personal comfort?' I see nothing wrong in that.

Real compassion is often uncomfortable and disturbing. It enlightens rather than lubricates. It has few intentions and works in an unflaunting and unself-conscious way. [page 59]

Highest good is like water. Because water excels in benefiting the myriad creatures without contending with them and settles where none would like to be, it comes close to the Way. (10)

Compassion is the complete reflection of overall harmony. It contains, as Fromm pointed out in writing of love, the ingredients of care, responsibility, respect and knowledge. (11) It is vital to feel caring for others; to feel concern as to what may be or is happening to them although this does not necessarily involve personal affection.

Responsibility means that you are sensitive to what is being said and done. There is a direct sensitivity to the consequences of activities and words going on both within and without the relationship. Your own intervention is seen as a contributing factor to the whole process. You have a partial responsibility for all that happens.

Respect is seeing the Buddha nature in the other person. It means perceiving the superficiality of positions of moral superiority. The other person is as good as you. However untidy, unhygienic, poor, illiterate and bloody-minded he may seem, he is worthy of your respect. He also has autonomy and purpose. He is another form of nature.

Knowledge is coterminous with caring and not in opposition to it. If you care about someone or something, you wish to use all your talents, including the intellectual, to arrive at contact with and an understanding of the situation. Knowledge can be an important ingredient of compassion; a reflection, in part, of how much you care. It becomes a yeast for the process rather than another barrier between you and the consumer. Sometimes the professional [page 59] uses knowledge to mystify his patient. He pretends to authoritative statements when there is only an experiential fog.

Compassion is being in tune with oneself, the other person(s) and the whole world. It is goodness at its most intuitive and unreflective. It is a harmony which opens itself and permits the flowing out of love towards others without asking any reward. It avoids using people as tools. It sees them as complete and without a need to be changed.

It achieves a balance between outer and inner worlds until they blend. Blyth reminds us of just how difficult that balance is:

How can we establish a harmony between ourselves and the outside world full of misunderstandings, deceit, violence, and the suffering and death of those we love, when all the while we ourselves are full of that same stupidity, insincerity, cruelty and sloth? (12)

One beginning lies in realizing that we paint the world in the poster colours of our own greed, laziness and cruelty as well as in love and caring. It is all human energy. Those injustices that we see and make us feel so angry begin deep inside ourselves.

Real compassion blooms often. Striving after it is somehow both important and irrelevant. Compassion may be watered by effort but is effortless. Effort is self-conscious; compassion flows quietly and naturally from the nature of being.

A young child has perfect, indiscriminate universal love for all things. As he grows older he makes the mistake of supposing that some things are friendly [page 61] and others are antagonistic to him. (13)

His fears and continuing judgments ripple out into stereotypes and systems of inclusion and exclusion which become cruder and more generalized. His mind categorizes and is made up about a broader range of phenomena. He shuts off parts of himself which he may never fully reach again. They become shrouded in painful memories. He spends much energy defending this soreness against those suspected of wishing to trample over it. Finally he continually emphasizes his growing consciousness of difference and separation rather than of closeness and oneness.

The deepest need of man, then, is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness. (14)

Leaving that particular prison is to discover both fear and compassion.


1. Paul Reps (compiler), Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Penguin Books, 1971, pp. 49—50.

2. Bentz Plagemann, My Place to Stand, Farrar Strauss, 1949, p. 9.

3. Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, Stuart & Watkins, 1973, p. 99.

4. Christmas Humphreys, A Western Approach to Zen, Alien & Unwin, 1971, p. 146.

5. Philip Kapleau (ed.), The Three Pillars of Zen, Harper & Row, 1966, p. 44.

6. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, Harper & Row, 1956, p. 20.

7. Herschel Prins, 'Motivation in Social Work', Social Work Today, vol. 5, no. 2, 18:4:1974.

8. Philip Kapleau (ed.), The Three Pillars of Zen, p. 140.

9. Erich Fromm, op. cit, p. 74.

10. D.C. Lau (trans.), Lao Tzu — Too Te Ching, Penguin Books, 1972, p. 64.

11. Erich Fromm, op. cit, p. 22.

12. R.H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, Dutton, 1960, p. 95.

13. Ibid., p. 355.

14. Erich Fromm, op. cit., p. 8.

How to cite this piece:  Brandon, David (1990) 'Compassion' in David Brandon Zen in the art of helping, London: Arkana. Available in the informal education archives:

Zen in the art of helping was first published by Routledge and Kegan Paul in 1976

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This piece is protected by copyright and has been has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright holders and Penguin Books.

© the estate of David Brandon 1975; 1990
First placed in the archives: November 2006