Compassion and Insight

From: Awakening From Belief 6a
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Student: This stems from yesterday from a question about the practice of shamatha leading to insight as different from that leading to compassion To my experience, the two seem so intertwined. I was unable to catch where it separated and how they are not almost one and the same. 
Ken: Compassion and insight? Well, they're quite different. 
Student: But don't they arise almost co-emergently? 
Ken: [Laughter] That's a big word. Where'd you get that one? [Laughter] Where's my dictionary? Ah, the lhan cig skyes pa'i ye shes  (pron. lhenchik kyé pe yé shé), co-emergent or co-natural awareness,  I guess. Okay, how much do you want on this? 
Student: I'm asking the question because it's-- 
Ken: I can give you a three- or four-sentence answer or I can give you two hours. 
Student: Make it two hours. [Laughter] 
Student: Middle way. 
Ken: Ah, there we go. What's behind your question?: What's the practice experience? 
Student: Again from my own experience, it's that compassion has continued to grow as I've been involved more and more in practice, and that the insight that develops from the practice reveals the relationship to all sentient beings. Maybe I am using or hearing the word insight incorrectly.
Ken: Compassion is the ability to be present with suffering. It's necessary if you're actually going to help somebody. If you can't be present with the suffering, then you will try to change the situation so that you don't feel the suffering. That's not helping the person. So, the number one requisite in compassion is to be able to be present with the pain in the situation. To do that you have to let go of control, which for some people is a bit challenging. 
 Now, when we use the term insight in Buddhism we are pointing to something that's quite different from the way the word is used in ordinary English. And even within Buddhism there are significant distinctions in how the word is used.
In the Theravadan tradition, the word mindfulness refers to what in the Mahayana tradition we refer to as the union of shamatha and vipashyana. It's quite different usage. Even within the Mahayana, in the Gelugpa tradition, insight is used to refer to working with such questions as what is the nature of mind, what is the color of your mind, where is your mind, all that kind of stuff--you know what I'm talking about. 
In the Kagyu tradition, those questions are viewed as the preparation for insight, and insight actually refers to seeing into mind nature. That's insight.
Now, it's quite possible to be able to stand and be present in the presence of pain and suffering and have no insight. And it's quite possible to see into the nature of mind and have difficulty being present with suffering. It's possible and, unfortunately, that happens.
In the Mahayana tradition, emptiness--which is the result of seeing and compassion--are regarded as...well, the phrase that my teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, always used was stong nyid snying rje snying po can (pron. tongnyi nyingjé nyingpo chen). stong nyid  is the Tibetan word for emptiness, and sngying rje is the word for compassion, snying po  is the word for heart and can is the word to have. To have the heart or the essence which is the union of compassion and emptiness. And this is, I think, one of the aspects of the genius of the Mahayana, is the recognition that you need both. 
In terms of practice, as you cultivate compassion--that is, as you become more and more able to be in the presence of suffering--then you can open to more and more experience. You can open to the experience of everyone you encounter. You can open to the totality of your experience because you can be present with the pain in others and you can be present with the pain in you. So, you open to the totality of your experience, and this provides you with a stability of attention, which is awfully useful when it comes to developing insight.
At the same time, when you really see into how things work--and we're talking about mind, but it's the same in other areas of knowledge--compassion arises quite naturally, unless there's an emotional block against it. So, for instance, if you have mastered a body of knowledge--you know, carpentry, psychotherapy, linguistics, it doesn't matter--but you really know it, you understand it very deeply, what do you experience when you see someone fumbling around and making mistakes in the area of knowledge that you know so well?
Student: You help them.
Ken: Yeah, you feel compassionate. So that's why I say compassion arises naturally from deep knowing, unless there is an emotional block. And there are all kinds of people who have very deep knowledge of a particular area and aren't particularly noted for their compassion.
So, yes the two work with each other and can and do enhance each other, but it's not a given. It's not a given, and that's why one is encouraged to cultivate both.