The Difference Between Compassion and Pity

The Difference Between Compassion and Pity:
Volunteering after Japan’s Earthquake & Tsunami (Part 2)

New York, N.Y. During my stay in the disaster area, I had been praying for the Dalai Lama to come to Japan. To my surprise, when I returned to Tokyo, he arrived to Japan on April 29th, the most important day in Buddhism. On this day a special memorial service was held in Tokyo and I was delighted to thank him personally from the bottom of my heart.

Japan - B

I wonder how lucky I was to be able to do this. There is always something to be done in a disaster area, so I acted with compassion. My mentor, Master Masahiro Oki, said, “If you don’t know what to do, it’s not volunteering. Find out what you have to do and take action immediately. Then act! This is real volunteering.”

Caring volunteers must work with their full heart and understand what is needed, to serve unconditionally with a heart of mercy.

During these experiences, I was never saddened. But I was truly moved by the remarkable character of the Japanese people, their spirit of caring for others, and their spirit of helping each other. These attributes moved me to tears. I saw the Dalai Lama’s word, “Others before self” actually unfolding.

There was no looting, no one took advantage, and they simply helped each other. On TV, a boy with his last little milk carton saw a young mother holding her baby in the distance. He ran to her and offered his milk. Everyone was sharing small rice balls and water. They gave their food to the children who in turn even shared it with other children.

This character of the Japanese is remarkable. In today’s society full of modern self-assertion, I thought perhaps this wonderful nature had been lost a long time ago. This original character returned and I was very proud to be Japanese.

This is the most remarkable thing the disaster brought to Japan. We were able to recover from the devastation of World War II because this character was deeply rooted in us. At that time, Tokyo and Osaka had been completely destroyed, but recovered in less than eight years.

When we went to Ishinomaki, the road was blocked with rubble piled high like a mountain on both sides of the road. A ship was on top of a building and cars were piled up high. In the middle, incredibly houses were piled up on houses. The narrow road was cleared somewhat so that the special Self-Defense Force rescue vehicles could pass.

Having witnessed several years before the dire situation in New Orleans and Haiti, I was surprised at the speed of this recovery. By the time I came back to New York, almost 5,000 temporary homes had already been built, and the government was desperately looking for more land. I was very impressed with the Japanese people.

We don’t know what will happen to nuclear power plants in Fukushima and those who had been evacuated. Perhaps Japan will not have nuclear power in the future. There is a wealth of natural energy there, such as geothermal energy and typhoon power. They say one day we will be able to harness the power of gigantic tsunami waves, but maybe this is too exaggerated.


Compassion and Pity

Compassion is understanding a person and empathizing with his pain and unhappiness. This is not the same as feeling pity for others. Feeling pity is a negative emotion; compassion is a positive emotion. Compassion equates yourself with others and is close to the feelings of others; you sit with them. Feeling pity for others is not sharing their feelings and become an outsider.

Compassion also has a very important element. It’s not just sympathy, it’s about wanting to do something. The key word is action. A strong urge to do something for another is real compassion. It is a feeling of pity to feel sorry for others and do nothing. You have placed yourself with the other. Compassion leads to unconditional service. Pity places you above the person, compassion makes you equal.

The Strength of Unity in Disaster

“One for All and All for One” was an important dictate that helped me many during disasters when I acted on my own without hesitation.

With deep gratitude and compassion and love.

Originally published as Vol. 113 in Weekly Biz, May 16, 2020; translated by Jim Luce.

See: Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura Column in Japan’s Weekly Biz



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About Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura

View all posts by Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko was born into a distinguished old family in Kyoto, Japan, and graduated from Toho conservatory of Music in Tokyo. In 1961 she came to U.S. as a pianist sponsored by the Boston Symphony. She studied at Boston University, New York University, and received her Ph.D. in Oriental Medicine from New York State University and the International Academy of Education in Tokyo. From 1968 to 1992, she promoted cultural exchanges from East to West and vice versa, and became a world famous impresario, producing 2,000 events each year all over the world encompassing over 140 countries. In this connection, in 1972, she went to Dharamsala to find the lost Tibetan Folk Opera, and met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom she remains a lifelong friend. In 1973 and 1991 she arranged and funded personally the tours of the Folk Opera of Tibet to the West. She has received many medals and honors from different countries. Her tireless life long work in Philanthropic field is vast and well known ranging from Save the Beacon Theater, Save the Boat People, Help the Homeless, natural disasters of earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as relief to AIDS and HIV positive children in Africa. She has been a dedicated Board Member to both the J. Luce Foundation and Orphans International for years. Her work focuses on the Tibetan people; Tibetan children remain especially strong in her heart. She raised fund for the new academic building for Manjushree Orphanage in Tawang, India and supported many aspects of the school. See HuffPo pieces entitled Japanese Holistic Healer in NYC to Build School for Tibetan Orphans in India, A Japanese Dinner with Raul Castro’s Daughter, and NYC Gala in Support of Tibetan Orphans Set for January.

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