What Is Buddhist Ecopsychology? 6 Mahayana, Nature, and Great Compassion __ Jonathan Barfield

Green Earth and Buddhism|What Is Buddhist Ecopsychology? 6

Mahayana, Nature,
and Great Compassion

Jonathan Barfield | Ecopsychologist


The Rift between Self and Others

Apart from severe psychosis, it is quite arguable that no one has ever really intended to harm another. Rather, we destroy ideas, projections, and abstractions. In the “Compassionate Instinct,” Alfie Kohn writes, “In order to kill, we must cease to see individual human beings and instead reduce them to an abstraction: the enemy.” 1)

This perspective really struck me while interviewing a war veteran for my doctoral dissertation. He said: “I don’t think I ever met any soldier over there that killed another human being. We killed terrorists, Taliban, enemies, Iraqis…we didn’t kill human beings.”2)

People do not hurt or kill individuals with families, emotions, and consciousness. These people have some commonality with us. We recognize we are of the same thread. We do not hate people who are part of our in-group – fleeting as that group may be.

This tendency to divide into groups and form oppositions is well documented. Preferences for in-groups are observed in both infants and adults. E.O Wilson explains:

Different parts of the brain have evolved by group selection to create groupishness…. People are prone to ethnocentrism. It is an uncomfortable fact that even when given a guilt-free choice, individuals prefer the company of others of the same race, nation, clan, and religion. They are quicker to anger at evidence that an outgroup is behaving unfairly or receiving undeserved rewards. And they grow hostile to any out-group encroaching upon the  territory or resources of their in-group.3)

E.O. Wilson suggests that our fundamental attraction to our own group and our aversion toward others is an inherited trait conditioned by thousands of years of tribal living.

Nature as the Other

Just as we dehumanize others by condemning them to an out-group (ethnocentrism), we also condemn nature to an out-group (anthropocentrism). Though we are frequently unaware of this relationship, it is a deeply engrained assumption that nature must be tamed. Nature is perhaps the greatest out-group ever. It was a major factor in the formation of tribes — to group together against beasts, harsh elements, and other tribes. This has changed little throughout history.

Aside from when it is convenient to connect with some beautiful aspects of nature, we often disregard the natural world we are embedded in.

When nature is our in-group, even briefly, we are embedded in it. This embeddedness is synonymous with feelings of peace, reverence, and insight, through which we also display pro-environmental behavior.

The Extension of Great Compassion: A Mahayana Perspective

Though our evolutionary habits condition us to treat nature and others as separate while reserving compassion for our in-group, this does not mean we should maintain this narrow perspective. If we are to thrive in this delicate ecological balance, we must transcend such narrow perspectives.

Often when we speak of compassion, we view it in ordinary terms, the compassion reserved for our in-group. An out-group, whether social or ecological, does not receive our ordinary compassion. However, the Mahayana teachings tell us to reject ordinary perception and cultivate “great” compassion.

Extending compassion to all out-groups is a central tenant of Mahayana Buddhism. “The training is not to create compassion, because compassion is natural.” Professor John Dunne explains. “The training is to expand one’s circle of relations who they are compassionate for.”4) Thus, the practice involves beginning with loved ones, then extending compassion to a wider circle that one is typically not concerned for, and eventually even to one’s enemies. As Dzigar
Kongtrul Rinpoche expresses, “This very heart has to be stretched to have room for all sentient beings. It is a big stretch to not just have room for one person or a few persons who are related to us but to have room
for all sentient beings.” 5)

Three Forms of Great Compassion

Extending compassion is often accomplished by recognizing that others have been our parents at one time throughout the endless cycles of the universe. Whether this is literally the case is less important than what happens when we sincerely contemplate this possibility. Contemplating others as our parents is to contemplate impermanence: the temporal understanding of phenomena. It is also contemplating emptiness: the spatial understanding of phenomena.

The teachings recognize there are different levels of spiritual perception with corresponding levels of compassion. As Deshung Rinpoche teaches:

[There are] three types or stages of perception:…the impure vision of ordinary persons…filtered through subjective concepts of ego and also through concepts of a subject-object dichotomy and other very fundamental delusions…The second stage is the vision of experience, where one ceases to see things as an ordinary, deluded earthling and sees them as they appear to someone on the spiritual path…The third type of vision is called pure vision because it directly intuits ultimate reality as it is, perceives the nature of all phenomena as they are, and is not obscured by any veils of passion or ignorance.6)

Accordingly, there are three types of compassion that correspond to the three levels of spiritual perception: 1) Compassion toward others, 2) Compassion toward phenomena, and 3) Compassion without an object. In the first type, we see the struggles of others and wish them freedom from suffering. However, we may not yet understand the nature of causes and conditions in the mind. Likely, we still want to save things we like – aspects of our in-group – and destroy things we dislike. This form of compassion is relational in that it is concerned with objects and organisms impinging upon each other, and it is the foundation of an environmental ethic, but it is only “great” compassion if it includes an ever widening circle of beings. Therefore, it is imperative we begin to relate with our outgroups and see others as our actual mothers – our in-group.

In the second form of compassion, we see phenomena associated
with attachment to the self (skandhas) and develop compassion in relationship to observing wrong view, or ignorance, and wish for others to be free of these causes of suffering. “Here, we have as our object [of compassion] not beings as such but their components. We see beneath the surface to the source of beings’ suffering, which is their false belief about themselves.” 7)

If we call this training in the Dharma a vertical, developmental path, it is only by means of the relational and proportionate to the relational. As Deshung Rinpoche says, “If compassion is lacking in an individual, [they] will not be able to endure the rigors of the other practices…even if you persevere in trying to awaken wisdom through
the practice of calm abiding and insight, or train in the other paramitas, without being motivated and guided by great compassion, practice will be difficult.” 8)

The extent of this form of compassion is no less than the training of a bodhisattva.

The third type of compassion is compassion without an object.

This arises when we see there are no such things as beings… nonetheless, we realize that from a conventional point of view, those unenlightened ones who are still deluded about the reality of their true nature remain subject to the experience of suffering. Thus, we don’t abandon them or leave them in ignorance about reality; rather, we feel unceasing great compassion for them and hope they will become enlightened to their true nature.9)

In this third form of compassion, one ceases to take any refuge in self and abandons all defensiveness and pleasure associated with such worldly refuge. Complete refuge in the Dharma brings complete freedom from self-concern and makes possible perfect buddhahood. The result is an intrinsic ethic of objectless compassion.


There is no logical or virtuous reason to consider and behave as if nature, the elements, and even this cosmos are out-groups. In the deepest sense, we are completely contingent. It is only the mind’s delusions that make us act otherwise. Nothing short of enlightenment and the well being of all life requires us to extend our compassion to all
things. This great compassion is the root, the branch, and the fruit of the Mahayana Path.


1) Kohn, A. (2010). A different view. In D. Keltner, J. Marsh, & J.A. Smith (Ed.), The compassionate instinct (pp. 157-160). New York: W.W. Norton and Co.
2) Barfield, J. (2010). A study of the mind in conflict: A methodological novel exploring radical transformations of consciousness. (p.110) Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Palo Alto, CA.
3) Wilson, E.O. (2012). The social conquest of Earth. (p. 60). New York: Liveright Publishing Corp.
4) John Dunne, 2008, personal communication, “Exploring the language of mental life: A dialogical exploration between Buddhist contemplative practice and modern science” conference.
5) Ray, R. (ed.). (2004). In the presence of masters. (p. 135) Boston: Shambhala
6) Deshung Rinpoche, 2003, (p. 14)
7) Deshung Rinpoche, 2003, (p. 266)
8) Deshung Rinpoche, (2003). (p. 265).
9) Deshung Rinpoche (p. 266).

Jonathan A. Barfield received PhD from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. He is an ecopsychologist and psychotherapist in the mountain and desert communities of the American Southwest. He works for a number of non-profits that facilitate therapeutic wilderness adventures. His research focus is on radical transformations of consciousness-exploring the experience of individuals who have found peace and freedom of mind amidst great  conflict. He is a professional musician, organic gardener, and teaches meditation in small mountain towns.

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