Many Hindus believe that if you are suffering, it must be because you created some bad karma by doing some bad thing(s) in this or a prior life. They also believe that the only way to work off bad karma is to accept the resulting suffering. So, they often ignore those who are suffering, lest they interfere with their karmic conditioning.

In contrast, the Buddha taught that one should help the suffering. However, the primary motivation should be to help shed your own ego, and so progress toward your own enlightenment. Is this true compassion in action or rational self-interest?

Buddhists do not have a reputation of being major participants in the providing of humanitarian aid. One such Buddhist humanitarian group, the Dai no Shin Ji Buddhists, notes on its website: “Unfortunately Buddhist organizations do not often have a name for being able or operating Humanitarian projects or relief projects. It is sad but true.” A stated purpose of the group is to “provide training to Buddhist temples and humanitarian agencies to improve their skills and productivity.”

The Dalai Lama talks a lot about compassion. When he does, does it mean the same thing that it does to Westerners? Perhaps not. There are various reasons for the limited activity of Buddhists in humanitarian efforts. Each of these is inherent in Buddhist beliefs and practices.

First, if you believe this world is an illusion, then your goal is to escape it, via becoming enlightened. So, it is more noble to meditate intensively for weeks on end than it is to bring a meal to a shut-in. And if this world is an illusion, what is the point of working hard and earning a good living? It may not be a coincidence that most Buddhist countries are less developed economically. Because of this, they generally do not have the financial wherewithal to give generously to humanitarian relief efforts.

Second, if you believe that doing good deeds generates good karma, and that creating any kind of karma, whether good or bad, retards your advancement toward enlightenment, then it is better not to do good deeds. Instead, your focus will be on watch guarding your thoughts to avoid anything negative.

Third, if you believe that your thoughts and words can radically change the world, then you would tend to focus on just thinking good thoughts. That is much easier than providing tangible help to the suffering.

Fourth, when a Buddhist is being compassionate they are usually wishing that all conscious beings would progress toward enlightenment. They might also be coaching someone in how to make such progress. But usually there is little thought of meeting their material needs.

The Bible teaches that thinking good thoughts, without helping the hurting in real ways, has only limited value. James, the brother of Jesus, put it this way: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17, NIV).

What did Jesus teach about the need to help the suffering? His most dramatic words on this are highlighted in his Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-45:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”

He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (NIV)

These are heavy, dramatic words. And yet they strongly emphasize the importance of helping the suffering in substantive ways, and not just of empathizing with them and wishing them well.

In reality Christians are often lacking in compassionate thoughts or deeds. And yet throughout history the church has spearheaded efforts to tangibly help the needy, the injured and the sick and to establish and maintain educational institutions that teach practical skills as well as spiritual values. The history of Buddhism has a different flavor, as well as one might expect, given its emphasis on focusing within.

Jesus taught, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13, NIV) He was a model servant to others, as exemplified by His humbly washing the feet of His disciples (John 13:3-5). As the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats emphasizes, real compassion includes providing drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothing to those in rags and medical assistance to the sick. Without these, however deep one’s feelings of compassion are, they have little substance.