nying je

Whereas Hannah Arendt centered ethics in thinking, and critics of Arendt like Arne Johan Vetlesen suggested that the emotion of empathy is the key, the Dalai Lama tries to find a middle ground with nying je, which grows out of empathy but also has an intellectual component.

From Ethics for the New Millennium:

Now while generally translated simply as “compassion,” the term nying je has a wealth of meaning that is difficult to convey succinctly… It connotes love, affection, kindness, gentleness, generosity of spirit, and warm-heartedness… [I]t does not imply “pity” as the word compassion may. There is no sense of condescension. On the contrary, nying je denotes a feeling of connection with others, reflecting its origins in empathy.…

…[It] is understood as an emotion, but it belongs to that category of emotions which have a more developed cognitive component. Some emotions, such as the revulsion we tend to feel at the sight of blood, are basically instinctual. Others, such as fear of poverty, have this more developed cognitive component. We can thus understand nying je in terms of a combination of empathy and reason. We can think of empathy as the characteristic of a very honest person; reason as that of someone who is very practical. When the two are put together, the combination is highly effective.

Complementary virtues

Contrasting vices


Virtues possibly in tension


How to acquire or strengthen it

This is no easy task, and those who are religiously minded must understand that there is no blessing or initiation — which, if only we could receive it — or any mysterious or magical formula or mantra or ritual — if only we could discover it — that can enable us to achieve transformation instantly. It comes little by little, just as a building is constructed brick by brick or, as the Tibetan expression has it, an ocean is formed drop by drop. Also, because, unlike our bodies which soon get sick, old, and worn out, the afflictive [harm-provoking] emotions never age, it is important to realize that dealing with them is a lifelong struggle. Nor should the reader suppose that what we are talking about here is the mere acquisition of knowledge. It is not even a question of developing the conviction that may come from such knowledge. What we are talking about is gaining an experience of virtue through constant practice and familiarization so that it becomes spontaneous. What we find is that the more we develop concern for others’ well-being, the easier it becomes to act in others’ interests. As we become habituated to the effort required, so the struggle to sustain it lessens. Eventually, it will become second nature. But there are no shortcuts.

Notes and links


Mentioned elsewhere


Inspirational quotes