Multi-Faith and Belief Chaplaincy, For All Faiths and None

Intercultural Compassion by Yujun Xu

Yujun Xu holds a PhD in intercultural experiential learning and education, and is an Associate of the Global Compassion Initiative (GCI). In this blog, she explores approaches to expand our minds and practice interculturally, and emphasises the critical roles of imagination and courage in enacting compassion.

With the increase in people’s pressure and anxiety caused by the pandemic, more efforts need to be paid to ensure an inclusive, safe, harmonious, and diverse environment in higher education, both online and offline. Both students and staff are expecting to live, study, work, collaborate, innovate, and flourish in higher education, obtaining a sense of intercultural community. By embedding a culture of compassion, higher education could construct a more humanistic space of inclusion, diversity and peace. The harmonising intercultural learning should be in a mode of tempered dialogue, instead of a monologue mode. This article discusses some of the potential approaches to reconstructing compassionate higher education in daily practices, drawing on both western (Socratic) and non-western (Taoist) perspectives. It proposes a three-pillar model of constructing a compassionate mindscape to provide an alternative pathway of creating compassionate atmosphere in international higher education.

Ink painting of Lockdown City, by Yujun Xu. The calligraphy letters mean ‘The experience of months lockdown feels like being imm
Ink painting of Lockdown City, by Yujun Xu. The calligraphy letters mean ‘The experience of months lockdown feels like being immersed in a heavy fog’.


Papadopoulos (2017, p. 81) suggests that intercultural compassionate education should be provided in higher education to all students because it “meets the criterion for being a common good”. International universities are shaping global citizens in an age of cultural diversity and increasing interculturality. This means students who see themselves as citizens of a multicultural and diverse society, in a multinational interdependent world (Nussbaum, 2002, p.299). Nussbaum further advocates that public education ‘should cultivate the ability to imagine the experience of others and to participate in their suffering’ (Nussbaum, 2001, p. 426). She is describing the ability of ‘narrative imagination’, which is listed as one of the three capabilities by which a global citizen pains proper comprehension. The other two capabilities are: ‘the Socratic ability to criticise one’s own traditions and to carry on an argument on terms of mutual respect for reason’, and ‘the ability to think as a citizen of the whole world, not just some local region or group’. Kurt Hahn, in a similar fashion, emphasised that compassion is one most significant attribute for young people to gain from outdoor experiential learning (James, 1980).

In Chinese Taoist philosophy, compassion (‘’) is also regarded as a valuable capacity of practical virtue, which is courage. In Tao Te Ching Chapter 67, it says, compassion leads to courage (“慈故能勇”). This indicates that compassion not only sits at cognitive or emotional levels, but embraces an empathetic feeling and calls for action to ensure a positive outcome via interaction - hence the saying, “compassion leading to courage” (“慈致勇”) in Taoism. The motivation for taking actions to practice the empathetic feeling can even lead to one’s bravery and courage. Intercultural compassion could lead to the courage to embrace the uncomfortable sensation of stepping out the one’s comfort zone; the courage to criticise particular internalised cognitive/ behaviour systems; the courage to break the fragility of ethnocentrism. Practical intercultural compassion could then lead people to think out of the box and speak out against injustice.

In general, compassion can be practised in two forms: compassion as an ability and willingness to empathise with the suffering of others; and self-compassion that requires one to be open and moved by one’s own suffering (Gibbs, 2017, p. 230). In the intercultural context, compassion primarily refers to the first form. Youngson (2014) believes that compassionate care includes three integrated elements: (1) inner resources; (2) a sense of togetherness; and (3) a sense of place. I understand compassionate practice as including three integrated elements: (1) Reflexive Self-imagination; (2) A sense of communal inter-connectedness; (3) Reflective other-imagination with the courage of taking actions.

Based on this understanding, a three-pillar model of compassionate mindscape is proposed below, with the hope of providing an alternative approach to reconstruct compassionate higher education in daily practices.

Three-pillar model of the compassionate mindscape

Three pillars of constructing either an individual compassionate mindscape or institutional compassionate mindscape:

  1. Reflexive Self-imagination/Space for reflexivity
  2. A sense of communal inter-connectedness/Space for an intercultural community that encourages diversity and inclusiveness
  3. Reflective other-imagination with the courage of taking actions/Space for mindful reflection on relational interactions in practice
Compassionate Mindscape graphic showing three pillars with text at the bottom of each pillar. First pillar - reflective self-imagination. Second pillar - communal interconnectedness. Third pillar - reflective other-imagination.


Pillar 1. Reflexive Self-imagination /Space for reflexivity

Because of the social distancing policy during the lockdown, the interaction between the self and the other takes place in a more hybrid manner. People have extra space and time to talk with themselves, and to reflect on their selves. This provides a mindful space that brings together the wandering thoughts to focus on presence in this multicultural society.

In most circumstances, people are likely to be multi-layered, as Holliday et al. (2004, p. 161) argued. The identity component of self-reflection includes: nationality, region, ethnicity, social class, sex, age, religion, and social role. Some of the ingredients are genetically inherited, while others are available for people to choose. An individual could regard these elements as inner resources that could either bring restrictions or advantages for individuals to interact with the world.

During the time of the pandemic, people are out of their comfort zone, both psychologically and physically. Practising self-imagination and reflexivity could lead to changes in understanding, changes in our inner resources, as well as our changes to our sense of inter-connectedness within the communal space, both online and offline.  

Pillar 2. A sense of communal inter-connectedness / Space for an intercultural community that encourages diversity and inclusiveness

The newly constructed communal space could relate to the notion of ‘thirdspace’. Edward Soja (1996) introduced this concept to challenge people and social/ cultural thinkers to ‘think differently about the meaning and significance of space, as well as the concepts that compose the inherent spatiality of human life: place, location, locality, landscape, environment, home, city, region, territory and geography’ (1996, p. 1).

Soja’s thinking around the thirdspace helps with the capacity not only to understand ‘dominated’ spaces, margins, and marginalised spaces, but also the capacity of understanding the subjective corporeality of the body and mind as well as deconstructing and reconstructing individual and collective identities. This echoes the second capability Nussbaum (2002) proposes: ‘to think as a citizen of the whole world, not just some local region or group’. This requires, in Youngson’s (2014) words, a sense of togetherness.

In this intercultural world, we are surrounded by diversity and difference. We are materially or virtually connected to the rest of the world. However, we also witness that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in acts of sinophobia, xenophobia, discrimination, and racial harassment. A central and important place for equality, diversity and inclusion strategies and implementation is a way to frame how compassion might be made manifest (Gibbs, 2017, p 232). It becomes more crucial than ever for individuals to develop a sense of communal inter-connectedness, and for institutions to create a space for intercultural community that encourages diversity and inclusiveness.

With the construction of humane and supportive work and learning environments, members of communities could develop the inner resources for compassionate caring, across race, sex, age, nationality, region, ethnicity, social class, religion…

Pillar 3. Reflective other-imagination with the courage of taking actions/ Space for mindful reflection on relational interactions in practice

The construction of an environment that makes space for mindful reflection should be seen as a process rather than an end, and as mindful reflection and experiential practice, rather than remaining at a cognitive or emotional level. The notion of mindful ‘reflection on other-imagination’ adopts Nussbaum’s (2002) proposal of ‘narrative imagination’ and the Taoist philosophy of ‘courage of taking actions’, indicating compassion could lead to courage in practice [“慈故能勇”]. Wearing a compassionate lens, people can go beyond personal and cultural boundaries. They can better understand and respect the cultural background and identity of the other by relating to their previous knowledge and experiences. Intercultural compassion, thus, serves as a mirror that reflects one’s understandings of others’ emotional status in the target culture and minimises the barriers between the interactants.

Through practising reflective other-imagination, we might be able to slow down the pace of our life, take time to produce our understandings regarding and response towards things and people that are around us, and the interactions between the self and the other. This is a discourse of ‘positioning the self both inside and outside others’ (Kramsch, 2011, p. 359).

From a healthcare perspective, Papadopoulos (2011) defines culturally competent compassion as ’a human quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it using culturally appropriate and acceptable nursing interventions, which take into consideration both the patients’ and the carers’ cultural backgrounds, as well as the context in which care is given’. To a certain degree, we could also regard us as healthcare practitioners trying to use appropriate and acceptable socio-cultural interventions while understanding others’ suffering. The imagining of the self and the other being in a more responsible relational interaction could lead to more motivation and courage to practice intercultural compassion in the context of education.

Without a genuine attempt to make changes or take actions, practising intercultural compassion would be merely imaginative. By embracing the courage that we obtain from mindful and reflexive self-imagination and other-imagination, we would be empowered to construct a better space of humanity moment by moment, day by day, together.  



Gibbs, P. (2017). The pedagogy of compassion at the heart of higher education. Springer.

Holliday, A., Kullman, J. & Hyde, M. (2004). Intercultural Communication: An Advanced Resource Book for Students. Routledge.

James, T. (1980). Sketch of a moving spirit: Kurt Hahn. Journal of Experiential Education, 3(1), 17-22.

Kramsch, C. (2011). The symbolic dimensions of the intercultural. Language teaching, 44(3), 354.

Lao-tzu (Chunqiu Dynasty). Tao Te Ching.

Nussbaum, M. (2001). Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nussbaum, M. (2002). Education for citizenship in an era of global connection. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 21(4-5), 289-303.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2001). Women and human development: The capabilities approach (Vol. 3). Cambridge University Press.

Papadopoulos, I. (2011). Courage, compassion and cultural competence, 13th Anna Reynvaan lecture. Unpublished keynote lecture, Amsterdam.

Papadopoulos, I. (2017). Intercultural compassion in higher education. In The pedagogy of compassion at the heart of higher education (pp. 73-84). Springer, Cham.

Soja, E. (1996) Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other Real-and-Imagined Places. Oxford: Blackwell.

Youngson, R. (2014). Foreword. In: S. Shea, R.Wynward & C. Lionis (eds). Providing Compassionate Healthcare: Challenges in Policy and Practice. Oxford, Routledge.  pp. xix-xxiii.

Youngson, R. (2014). Re-inspiring compassionate caring: the reawakening purpose workshop. Journal of Compassionate Health Care, 1(1).