Wisdom and Compassion: Two Sides of the Same Coin

The Master views the parts with compassion, because he understands the whole.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 39)

The essence

Wisdom and compassion are the essence of an enlightened life.

Wisdom and compassion are inextricably linked. They are two sides of the same coin. They are a unit. Separating them is an artificial, intellectual act.

When compassion is taken out of the equation, wisdom turns into worthless platitudes, which easily become destructive. Without compassion, wisdom degenerates into an escapist entanglement in concepts, theories and dogmas.

Wisdom is more than just cleverness plus compassion. It differs in quality to a point where it may seem to have little to do with cleverness. Sometimes, the actions of wise people seem to go against common sense. In fact, wise people often act in ways which are considered foolish by clever people.

the greatest love seems indifferent, the greatest wisdom seems childish.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 41)

They would, for example, sacrifice their own interests for the sake of others, or accept defeat, sometimes even their own destruction, when they had every chance of winning or escaping. They would refuse to speak in their own defense when it seems expedient to do so, or they would speak up when it means putting themselves in jeopardy. Often, wise people would ignore what seem like clever strategies, and choose suffering instead.

When wisdom is taken out of the equation, compassion is perverted, for it loses direction totally. It becomes like a lost ship without navigational means drifting aimlessly on a stormy ocean. A good example of love without wisdom is when parents spoil their children, giving them everything they want, without giving them direction in life. Another example is if someone lacks the courage to tell his friend when she is wrong out of fear he might lose her friendship. A friend that allows you to go astray does not qualify as a friend.

Without wisdom, compassion lacks the detachment essential to perspective and constructive support. Wisdom gives the compassionate person the strength to act against her own personal interests and desires.

A commitment

Often, compassion is mistaken for a feeling of love. True compassion is independent of emotions. It may produce feelings, but these feelings are not its substance. Compassion is a commitment to constructive support. Love as mere emotion is fickle and unreliable.

Like fuel-starved fire
fading into ash in the cold,
beliefs fed by emotions
will surely fail you
when you need them most.
The Taoist sage
ignores emotions and
by the ego.
The Taoist sage
does not cling even to silence,
for clinging to silence
is turning your back on emptiness.

(The Tao is Tao, 35)


Both compassion and wisdom are elusive. They cannot be acquired by solely studying texts. They cannot be bought or sold. They are qualities that can be gained in the experiential sphere only, and only if they are not self-serving. You have probably met people who strive to be wise but care only about themselves. They inevitably become victims of vanity and folly. They never become wise, for true insight as the essence of wisdom can only be gained by being compassionate. The same is true for gaining compassion. Your love only becomes compassionate when it becomes constructive. This, again, is only possible when you act wisely, that is without being driven by your ego, which is the root of all ignorance. Only when your ego has been tamed will your love become true compassion.

Two different approaches to enlightenment

Compassion and wisdom in fusion destroy ignorance and induce enlightenment.

Compassion and wisdom present two different approaches to enlightenment. Some people would be attracted to wisdom, and in their effort to understand, they would come to the conclusion that compassion is essential. Other people would come to wisdom via compassion. They would start off by being filled with love for other beings, and they would come to the conclusion that their love needs direction. Then you get those fortunate people who are filled with love and care for others, and are simultaneously guided by wisdom.

Wisdom is more than just understanding on an intellectual level. It is only realized when it becomes part of compassionate support.

You can only increase your wisdom if you are compassionate, and you increase your compassion as you acquire wisdom. One could use the image of a bicycle to explain this truth. In this image, the two wheels of the bicycle would represent wisdom and compassion. The front wheel, which steers the bicycle, is wisdom, and the back wheel, which drives the bicycle forward, is compassion. The bicycle only functions when both wheels are in order. You could say that the back wheel can only move forward when the front wheel moves forward as well. Or you could say that the bicycle can only move forward properly when both wheels move forward. The pedaling has to be done by you, though. And the steering.

Let me illustrate this with a concrete example. A teacher tried to persuade her students to stop smoking. She, however, smoked, and her efforts were therefore not very convincing. She was propagating methods to overcome addiction while being a living example of addiction. Young people seldom do what you tell them; they do what you do. She realized her efforts would remain futile unless she stopped smoking herself, which she did with tremendous effort. Her freeing herself from her own addiction was a beautiful act of compassion towards her students. It was an inspiring example of liberation to her students, some of whom gave up smoking. In the final analysis, she also learned to love herself more, for she had also decreased the risks to her own health. Her compassion increased her own insight into the power of teaching without words.

Teaching without words, performing without actions: that is the Master's way.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 43)

The teacher became wiser because of her own compassion.

Compassion promotes wisdom. Wisdom increases compassion.

Hatred destroys wisdom

Hatred destroys compassion and therefore wisdom. No matter how clever you are, or how wise you have been in the past, the moment you allow hatred to control your mind, you have become ignorant and foolish. The inability to forgive prevents real solutions from being formulated and implemented, and blocks your way to spiritual development. Carrying grudges increases suffering, and is incredibly stupid. Vengeance is a state of destructive ignorance.

The righteous
will insist on justice
and rip out the eyes of the blind
to make them see.
The Taoist sage lives outside
the merciless cycles of vengeance and hatred,
for he knows
there is no such thing
as anger in peace:
a moment of rage
can destroy the fruits
of a thousand years of virtue;
only patience
can guide one towards

Only in a placid pool
can the moon be reflected
in all its perfection.

The righteous
subscribe to ‘an eye for an eye’;
the Taoist sage
prefers to be blind.

(The Tao is Tao, 37)

The nature of ignorance

Ignorance is quite simply to live in a state other than compassion. Exaggerated self-love is such a state. A person serving his own ego cannot be wise, no matter how clever he is, and his own service to himself will turn out destructive also to himself in the end. Greed is the natural product of ignorance and exaggerated self-love. Greed, too, destroys wisdom, for it ignores the true needs of human beings.

The solution

The Master leads by emptying people's mind sand filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those who think that they know.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 3)

Cleverness is not going to solve the real problems of the world, like war, civil strife, poverty and the high incidence of violence. Neither is it going to solve the mental problems so rife in the modern world. Only wisdom and compassion can solve these problems.

Only wisdom and compassion can give cleverness the right direction. It can turn science into true progress. It can turn economy into something serving the people and the environment, and not just profit and greed.

Without these qualities, science can become a nightmare. Nuclear power has been used to create weapons of mass destruction. Technology has been used to destroy people’s livelihoods. Even medicine is often used in a heartless way in service of profit, causing unnecessary suffering to millions of poor people and sending them prematurely to their deaths.

We are witnessing what damage can be done by economic systems serving mainly greed and profit, and how they increase rather than diminish suffering and destruction. Only compassion can turn cleverness into wisdom, and inspire economic systems dedicated to improving conditions for all, and to sustaining the environment for future generations.

Only compassion and wisdom can solve the mental problems so rife in the world today, for they can tame greed, the source of so much exploitation, dissatisfaction and futility.

Becoming less

Compassion and wisdom encompass all aspects of life and religion, and cannot be compartmentalized.

Many scriptures have endeavored to describe these two aspects. Studying these scriptures might give one an idea of what compassion and wisdom entail.

It must be remembered, though, that these two aspects are an integral part of spiritual development, and of life on earth. To completely understand them is to be truly and fully enlightened, and to have reached perfection. Even though they are impossible to reach in their most perfect forms, striving towards them improves life tremendously. "Improvement", though, has a different meaning in this context. What is progress in a spiritual sense could sometimes be seen as deterioration and defeat in a world dedicated to the ego.

The humble man close to Tao
becomes less every day.
When he has lost himself completely,
only his true self remains.

(The Tao is Tao, 55)

True compassion knows no rules. Compassion can drive one into hell itself for the sake of others. Does compassion then drive one to be unwise? Of course not, for wisdom, too, is not subservient to rules. A person of compassion and wisdom is a truly free person, who will not hesitate to act against traditions, conventions and laws if his wisdom and compassion tell him to.

Even though he is filled with the joy of life, the true sage guided by compassion and wisdom has higher priorities than happiness, obeying the law and mere survival.

The problem of written "wisdom"

Writing down wisdom is a problem. By definition, wisdom is not theoretical. The moment it is turned into dead language, it becomes just that: dead. It is lifeless until it is put into practice through the power of compassion. Wisdom is determined by motive and direction. Any "wisdom" on paper can be turned into its opposite by the way it is applied. Particularly people in power have a way of using "wisdom" to serve their own ends. Almost any wisdom, no matter how true or pure it may be, can and has been used by people in power for their own selfish ends. Therefore writing wisdom down could be dangerous, for it could be utilized to justify evil. Many wise men doubt the wisdom of writing wisdom down. Wisdom is never wisdom when it furthers egocentric power or manipulates people for evil ends. Wisdom without compassion does not qualify as wisdom.

Throw away holiness and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times happier. Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 19)

Any definition of compassion can be abused. We have seen how the idea of "love" has been abused in religion, where it has been used as justification to wage war, to torture and to kill. The word "love" is sometimes being used to sell hatred and prejudice. In our consumer society, it is often utilized as a commodity to manipulate consumers and evoke greed.


Compassion without wisdom does not exist. There is no such thing as wisdom without compassion.

Only when wisdom and compassion fuse do they become a tremendous force working for the good of everyone and everything.

Only when we live
in harmony with the Tao
will harmony come.
There is no other way.
Only when compassion and wisdom
flow in abundance
from emptiness and silence
will cruelty fail
and mercy prevail.

(The Tao is Tao, 42)

Jos Slabbert 2001
Postal Address: P.O. Box 4037, Vineta, Namibia
Fax No.: 09264 64 46 1014 E-Mail: jos_slabbert@hotmail.com

This passage or excerpts from it may be reproduced for non-profit motives.