Compassion in Zen, Psychology, the World


“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination. —Carl Rogers

“What is most important is to find peace and to share it with others.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

“For one who consciously develops unlimited loving-kindness upon seeing the destruction of attachment, the chains are worn.” – Itivuttaka 1.27

“My religion is kindness. – His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

During my last columns, I discussed the different theoretical orientations of psychology and their relation to Zen. Psychology, like Zen, seeks to understand human experience and existence. Psychology and Zen are concerned with how people think, feel, relate to each other, and exist in the world. Psychology has evolved through several different and dominant paradigms in its scientific quest to alleviate suffering and promote well-being.

David Zuniga

As I have discussed in previous columns, the schools of psychology derived from Freud sought to provide insight into the unconscious motivations and influences that people experience; cognitive scientists then rose to prominence in seeking to measure, track, and work with automatic thoughts and conditioned thought patterns. Psychologist Carl Rogers was a pioneer in his development of client-centered therapy. In a radical departure from earlier Freudian or cognitive models, Rogers argued that the main determinant of skillful therapy was the attitude and style of the clinician as opposed to any particular technique.

Rogers called for maintaining an environment of unconditional positive consideration instead of imposing goals on a customer. But providing compassion to customers is more complicated than some realize. For example, psychologist Gerard Egan differentiates between primary empathy and advanced empathy. In the first case, the clinician reaffirms the thoughts and emotions of the client; in the latter case, the clinician sheds light on thoughts and emotions of which the client may not be aware. Advanced empathy is based on the therapist’s discernment of the underlying meaning of what the client is describing. At the advanced and interpretive level of empathy, the therapist offers a new perspective that is more productive and generates a new path of behavior. Providing advanced empathy takes energy; it is a skill that is refined over time and experience.

Roger’s form of humanistic therapy believed that psychology should focus on enriching and actualizing human potential, and that the ultimate goal of psychology is to understand what it means to be human. Zen certainly affirms and embraces all these positions defended by humanist psychologists.

In Buddhism there is a popular refrain: “The twin wings of enlightenment are wisdom and compassion.

Without any skillful wings, we become like a bird with broken wings that cannot fly. It is fashionable in some circles of professional psychology to say “we are all Rogerians”. But this is not true. Compassion, or as Rogers would say “unconditional positive gaze”, is a committed and intentional skill that requires energy and constant attention; it is both a skill and a state of being that are refined over time and tested in the forge of real world suffering. Learning to practice compassion is a lifelong journey. And compassion, an unconditional positive gaze, is something the world needs now.

Rogers was optimistic about the nature of humanity. Like Zen Buddhism, Rogers believed that with an unconditional positive outlook and without the presence of negative environmental factors, people would naturally manifest kindness. As a Zen priest and clinical psychologist. I have found this to be often true. But there are negative environmental factors, such as sexism, homophobia, ableism, poverty and racism. In our country, the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Rogers championed the clinical value of unconditional positive gaze, Rogers also emphasized the authenticity of the client-therapist relationship. Rogers felt we had to be genuine and honest. And the simple truth is that it is much harder to cultivate self-actualization or the traits that make up psychological well-being when you are faced with poverty or discrimination. True compassion doesn’t mean bland “kindness”. Silence or bilateralism, in the midst of oppression, is complicity.

One of the best ways to transform the thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and relationships that bother us is to change our environment. Sometimes following the path of compassion means speaking the truth to power. Sometimes if we’re not feeling angry, we’re probably not paying attention. The key is not to get stuck in our anger. Anger can empower us to act, but directing anger at someone else is often not the best way to motivate them to change. As Maya Angelou observed, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

If people feel that you genuinely care about them – not just your agenda, however valid your agenda is – they can experience your true compassion, then you can move mountains.

Dr David Zuniga is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Austin, and he is also an ordained Zen Buddhist priest; its website is a source of free interdisciplinary support:

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