Buddha's Compassion to Enlighten Others

I wanted to ask this because while it appears a little over skeptical, I fear it’s a rather big point of concern that I’d rather have explained properly to me if possible!

After reading about The Buddha’s Early Life in The Buddha and His Dhamma, Two Lectures on Buddhism by Ledi Sayadaw it outlines the Buddha’s path to enlightenment. After achieving this, there is a point whereby Buddha is on the verge of just enjoying his own enlightenment rather than opting to share it with others. Essentially he believes that it’s all to complicated for others to understand so he doesn’t bother. In fact the lecture suggests it was only when the high god Brahma Sahampati fame to plead with him that he changes his mind.

This is probably an over simplification but it feels to me that the Buddha was initially only concerned with his own enlightenment rather than everyone else’s. How does everyone else interpret this?

Ven. Analayo discusses this in “The Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal”

“Being myself subject to old age … and death, now suppose I were to search for what is free from old age … and death, for the unsurpass- able peace from bondage, Nirvāṇa.”23

“Being myself truly subject to old age and death … suppose I were to search … for what is free from old age and death … for the unsur- passable peace from bondage, Nirvāṇa.”24

This appears to be the only passage in the Pāli Nikāyas that explicitly for- mulates what motivated the bodhisattva Gautama to set out in search of awakening. Notably, this formulation does not in any way reflect a concern for others. Rather, according to this autobiographical report the bodhisattva Gautama’s motivation was to find a solution for the problem of being “him self”, attanā/自, subject to old age and death etc. The same trait recurs in the description of the successful completion of the bodhisattva’s quest, given in the Ariyapariyesanā-sutta and its parallel. According to both versions, having arrived at the unsurpassable peace from bondage that is free from old age and death, Gautama realized that he had fully liberated himself from the prospect of future birth and existence. Here, too, there is no reference at all to being able to save others. Instead, the way the Buddha perceived his own awakening – according to early Buddhist discourse – is formulated entirely in terms of having freed him- self.

The conspicuous lack of any concern for others becomes even more prominent with the next episode recorded in the Ariyapariyesanā-sutta, according to which the newly awakened Buddha was disinclined to teach others and decided to rather remain content with having reached liberation himself.

You can read the rest in the link. So, judging from the early texts the Buddha wasn’t motivated to save others. It was to free himself from birth, death and dukkha. This matches this sutta, where we are compassionate because it aids with the goal of freeing ourselves from samsara. Compassion primarily protects us, with others being protected as a by-product:

You protect me, dear Medakathalika, and I’ll protect you. Thus guarded by one another, protected by one another, we’ll display our skills, collect our fee, and get down safely from the bamboo pole.’ When this was said, the apprentice Medakathalika replied: ‘That’s not the way to do it, teacher. You protect yourself, teacher, and I’ll protect myself. Thus, each self-guarded and self-protected, we’ll display our skills, collect our fee, and get down safely from the bamboo pole.’

“That’s the method there,” the Blessed One said

Of course, when he became awakened he realised that there were at least some who would get it and so he set out to teach them. That is how we have the sangha today.


Thank you for the article, I’ve read the piece in full. It does appear that there’s no comprehensive evidence then that compassion was “not seen as a quality that motivated the bodhisattva’s quest for awakening.”

I suppose it doesn’t mean, like you say, that it doesn’t have benefits, but it does leave me questioning the emphasis some schools put in this very important positive quality.

One of the main differences between Theravada and Mahayana is the understanding of compassion within the Dhamma. In Theravada we are compassionate to others as it protects ourselves and them. Its an aid to awakening, not an end in of itself. It’s also not considered selfish to seek awakening. In Mahayana compassion is more about others and so there is the idea of delaying awakening to save others. It becomes more of an end than a means.

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That makes good sense. Thank you, for your concise and insightful reply!

You’re more than welcome.

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Easy way of seeing this. Practicing the spiritual life already has friends teaching each others in Dharma as a quality recommended by Buddha. And he recommended his disciples to teach. If you think it this way also. Explaining Nirvana is not easy to explain. So actually the message in my understanding is what he found out is so profound, that there is a natural feeling at first to teach. But I guess, as is in India nowadays. Students come to you to learn. And there he could not resist because the qualities he already had because finally reaching Nirvana. For example his disciples did teach also. I think it’s just things that happen natural. For example. When your father. It’s natural that you teach your child. But not because he is born you already have all the good qualities to teach, it’s builded with time. So the same for whoever reach nirvana. It’s natural for them to teach. And in the case of Buddha we see can his teaching style improved probably over the years. Sometimes we wish to think maybe that Buddhas immediately has all the words to explain what he found. But together with his close disciples terms and words and ways of teaching are naturally builded up with time. That’s my opinion.