True compassion means to become one with whatever situation you find yourself in, moment to moment. This is enlightenment. This is what the Buddha’s enlightenment teaches. There is a famous story about Zen Master Man Gong, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s grand-teacher which illustrates this clearly.
One day, Man Gong Sunim was walking into town with Hae Am Sunim, who at that time was also a Zen Master, a junior Zen Master. Along the path they passed by a pond where a boy had set up a little stand, much as when you drive down the street in your neighborhood and there will be a little lemonade stand. Except, this boy had set up a little frog stand. What he had done was catch a number of frogs and put a little string around their legs tethering them to the ground. Then he would sell them to passersby. Hae Am Sunim saw this and right away he went over to the boy, took out some money, and bought all of the frogs. Reaching down he undid all of the strings tying the frogs. Immediately the frogs jumped back -PLUKE! PLUKE! PLUKE! — into the pond. Then they were all very happy, just sitting there, bulging eyes looking up. Returning to the path where Man Gong Sunim was waiting, he said, “Oh, I just saved those frogs! I bought them all and released them.”
Then Man Gong Sunim said, “Yes, those frogs are very happy, but you are a devil.”
Hae Am Sunim was quite taken aback, “Master, why do you call me a devil? I just saved those frogs from suffering.”
“You said, ‘I saved those frogs.’ You have ‘I,’ so you are a devil.”
One of my favorite stories about compassion comes from the book A Flower Does Not Talk. It’s about a bird who lives in a forest. One day a very large forest fire sweeps through the forest. Seeing this the bird immediately understands what a forest fire means: a lot of suffering for all the animals. All the animals try to flee, some of them get trapped and burned alive; the animal’s food is destroyed, their homes are destroyed. Since this bird understands what fire means, out of compassion, it flies to a pond that’s some distance away and fills its beak with water. Then it flies back and drops the water on the forest fire. And then it flies back to the pond for another mouth full of water. Back and forth; back and forth, until finally, completely exhausted, it falls to the ground, dead.
This kind of compassion has no “I,” only “how can I help?” Many times when we get the idea that we’re going to be compassionate, right with that idea is a judging and checking mind which says, “Uh-oh . . . this isn’t going to work,” or “Oh, there’s so much suffering in this world, how can my little action help” or, “‘I might get hurt,” or “Oh, I’m a really great and compassionate person.” (Hae Am Sunim’s disease.) But true compassion has no I-my-me, so it has no checking or wanting anything; no taint of “I.” Only help; only just do it!