In the practice of generating compassion toward sentient beings, Deshung Rinpoche teaches that we need to distinguish among three kinds of compassion. in fact they all go with one another and to focus on only one or two would not be complete.
The context is meditation on the need for compassion and on how to generate compassion. This is the beginning and end point of Mahayana Buddhism and in fact all Buddhism, because without compassion it becomes very difficult to go any further on the path of a practitioner.
As is perhaps well known, compassion, or karuna in Sanskrit, is the desire to rid sentient beings of their sufferings. We feel compassion when, for example, we perceive a suffering being and feel the same pain as it does and wishes to help free it from the suffering. If we can do it, certainly we will do it, such as when we see an insect being drowned or other situations. However, the most effective way of all is to generate a thought, a sincere wish out of the bottom of your heart, so that not only some beings here and there, but ALL beings there are in the six realms, be free from suffering. This is the beginning of the meditation on compassion.
Now we are entering into the three kinds of compassion mentioned earlier. The first kind is the compassion that naturally arises when you perceive the beings who suffer. There are so many beings around; the text says that they fill the entire space, and all of them do suffer. Now no one wants to suffer; everyone, every sentient being wants to be happy. We also want to be happy and don’t want to suffer. We keep on thinking of these beings and feeling the same feeling that they are having. We recognize their sufferings.
Now the second stage of compassion occurs when we realize that the reason why these beings do suffer is their illusory belief that there exists a self. Each being suffers because of this erroneous belief. It is the root cause of all sufferings in samsara. We survey all the suffering beings, and all of them do suffer because of this belief. How good it would be then for these beings to be free from the shackle of this belief!
So we contemplate during this stage on the root cause of suffering, which is the illusory belief that there is an existing, enduring self, and keep on doing this until this stage of compassion becomes our nature to the very bones. Now we enter the third stage of compassion, which Deshung Rinpoche calls “objectless compassion.” This is the awareness and understanding that in the ultimate reality there are no beings, no suffering, no meditator, nothing to be compassionate to. Beings do not realize this, instead they think that things have their inherent characteristics and their independent beings; that is why they continue to suffer in samsara. We meditate on this too.
Among all the practices in Buddhism, meditation on compassion is among the most powerful. This is a sure path toward true realization of non-self and emptiness. Emptiness and compassion do go with each other and cannot miss each other. You have genuine compassion when you realize emptiness, and you do appreciate and realize emptiness when you have the three stages of compassion described here.