April 15, 2015

Study: Being Exposed to Buddhist Concepts Makes You More Compassionate.

Photo: Jennifer via Flickr.

According to a new study just hearing about Buddhist concepts may be enough to lead individuals to become more compassionate and tolerant.

This isn’t just in reference to those of us who are practicing Buddhists. It probably wouldn’t be controversial to say that people who try to cultivate compassion succeed at it.

This applies to people that have Buddhist friends or co-workers. This applies to people who are interested enough to learn about Buddhism without actually becoming Buddhist.

Scientists at Stanford University found that the simple act of exposing people (of different spiritual backgrounds) to Buddhist concepts was effective in increasing tolerance and promoting kindness and empathy.

The study just involved showing participants some words. The study group was shown Buddhist words like “Buddha,” “Dharma,” and “Awakening.” The control group was shown neutral words.

And the study indicates that it made a difference. Those in the study group showed an increased tendency toward tolerance and compassion.

Now, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.

It would be easy to say, “Look at this. Buddhism is totally the best religion.”

But that’s probably not a good response to this.

But this is worth studying and thinking about. Meditation has been studied by the scientific community for a while and demonstrated to have effects like increased tolerance, openness and kindness, as well as effects on things like mental health and well being. That’s what got me started on all of this and probably a lot of other people. The benefits of meditation are thoroughly well documented.

But, being exposed to Buddhism? Being friends with a Buddhist makes you a better person? The implications are enormous. It seems crazy to say that maybe we’re making the world a better place just by being who we are, but what if we are?

Compassion is a really important virtue in Buddhism. As a Buddhist, my life is dedicated to the cultivation of compassion and wisdom. The importance of compassion is a running theme throughout Buddhist teachings.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh said:

“If we have the energy of compassion and loving kindness in us, the people around us will be influenced by our way of being and living.”

My guess is that any practicing Buddhist will tell you that the results of this study are not surprising. I feel that as I have studied Buddhism more deeply, meditated more, and spent more time with like minded people, I have become a better person. But, the people around me too? I don’t know.

I do think we have a profound ability to affect each other, and can be impacted by what’s around us. In the same way that the cranky person in the office can bring everyone’s day down a little, maybe the Buddhist in the office can bring everyone’s day up.

But, this study wasn’t about being around Buddhists. It was just about seeing Buddhist concepts written down. How can that make someone feel more compassionate?

At a deep level I think we all know we have the capacity to awaken. You don’t have to be Buddhist to awaken. There are many paths to awakening. So, when we see words that are designed to help us find our way, maybe that can dial us in to our true nature a little. Maybe it can remind us that we are connected to the world around us and each other. Maybe this is normal and not weird at all.

I don’t know, but I think this phenomenon is worth further study and I’m excited to see how it unfolds.



“Why are you a Buddhist?”


Author: Daniel Scharpenburg

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Author’s Own


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