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Compassion And The True Meaning of Empathy: Joan Halifax (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax’s talk titled “Compassion And The True Meaning of Empathy” at TED 2011 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


The Many Faces of Compassion

I want to address the issue of compassion. Compassion has many faces. Some of them are fierce; some of them are wrathful; some of them are tender; some of them are wise. A line that the Dalai Lama once said, he said, “Love and compassion are necessities. They are not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”

And I would suggest, it is not only humanity that won’t survive, but it is all species on the planet, as we’ve heard today. It is the big cats, and it’s the plankton. Two weeks ago, I was in Bangalore in India.

Teaching in a Hospice

I was so privileged to be able to teach in a hospice on the outskirts of Bangalore. And early in the morning, I went into the ward. In that hospice, there were 31 men and women who were actively dying.

I walked up to the bedside of an old woman who was breathing very rapidly, fragile, obviously in the latter phase of active dying. I looked into her face. I looked into the face of her son sitting next to her, and his face was just riven with grief and confusion. And I remembered a line from the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic: “What is the most wondrous thing in the world, Yudhisthira?”

The Most Wondrous Thing

And Yudhisthira replied, “The most wondrous thing in the world is that all around us people can be dying and we don’t realize it can happen to us.” I looked up. Tending those 31 dying people were young women from villages around Bangalore.

I looked into the face of one of these women, and I saw in her face the strength that arises when natural compassion is really present. I watched her hands as she bathed an old man. My gaze went to another young woman as she wiped the face of another dying person.

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