karuṇā (T. snying rje སྙིང་རྗེ་; C. bei; J. hi; K. pi 悲) is translated as "compassion," "empthy," etc. It is the wish that others be free from suffering. It has the nature of being moved by the suffering of others.
The cultivation of karuṇā is an important factor of the spiritual path in all Buddhist traditions. Karuṇā can be practiced in daily life by developing a compassionate attitude towards the suffering of other beings, and it is incorporated into meditation practices such as the four immeasurables (apramāṇa).
The 14th Dalai Lama states:
- In The Path of Purification, Buddhaghosa says compassion “has the aspect of allaying suffering for its characteristic. Its function is to find others’ suffering unbearable. It manifests as noncruelty and nonviolence. Its proximate cause is seeing helplessness in those overwhelmed by suffering. When it succeeds, it reduces cruelty. When it fails, it produces personal distress.”
- Compassion enables us to look at suffering in all its tortuous varieties without succumbing to despair. From the annoyance of the smallest inconvenience, to extreme physical pain, to unfathomable emotional misery, all beings caught in saṃsāra are susceptible to duḥkha. Instead of reacting by medicating the distress we experience when seeing our own or others’ suffering, compassion opens our heart to this universal experience and reaches out either directly or indirectly to others. This compassion isn’t limited to those who are evidently suffering, but extends to those who seem happy at this moment yet still live under the control of ignorance, afflictions, and polluted karma.
- Immeasurable compassion, like immeasurable love, does not favor some and exclude others. It does not blame others for their own suffering, but realizes that it was caused by a mind overwhelmed by ignorance. In addition, compassion does not blame one person for another person’s suffering, but understands that both beings are controlled by karma and thus both are worthy of compassion, whether they are the perpetrator or victim of harm.
The nature of compassion
Bhikkhu Analayo explores the nature of compassion as presented in the early Buddhist texts. He states:
- The early discourses do not offer a succinct definition of the term “compassion”. The giving of precise definitions is a concern mainly of later literature, so that determining the meaning of a particular term in its early Buddhist usage often requires some interpretation. Particularly helpful in this respect are similes.
- A simile that provides help for understanding the nature of compassion occurs in a discourse in the Aṅguttara-nikāya and its Madhyama-āgama parallel, which take up ways of overcoming resentment. The simile in question describes a situation that arouses feelings of compassion to illustrate the attitude one should cultivate towards someone who is immersed in unwholesomeness. Here is my translation of the simile in the Madhyama-āgama version:
- It is just like a person who is on an extended journey along a long road. Becoming sick halfway he is exhausted and suffering extremely. He is alone and without a companion. The village behind is far away and he has not yet reached the village ahead.
- Suppose a person comes and, standing to one side, sees that this traveller on an extended journey along a long road has become sick halfway, is exhausted and suffering extremely. He is alone and without a companion. The village behind is far away and he has not yet reached the village ahead. [The second person thinks:]1 “If he were to get an attendant, emerge from being in the wilderness far away and reach a village or town, and were to be given excellent medicine and be fed with nourishing and delicious food, be well cared for, then in this way this person’s sickness would certainly subside.
- So that person has extremely compassionate, sympathetic, and kind thoughts in the mind towards this sick person.2
- This simile shows that an essential component of compassion is the concern for others to be relieved from suffering and affliction. Although this is hardly surprising, a subtle but important point to be noted here is that the simile does not qualify the act of seeing the actual suffering as compassion. Rather, compassion is concerned with the other being free from affliction. The way the simile proceeds makes this quite clear, where the vision of the sick person being cared for, or even actually caring for this person, is what corresponds to the “extremely compassionate, sympathetic, and kind thoughts” of the person who has come by.
- Drawing a clear distinction between the realization that others are suffering and the wish for them to be free from suffering is important, since mentally dwelling on the actual suffering would be contemplation of dukkha. Such contemplation offers a basis for the meditative cultivation of compassion. The cultivation of compassion itself, however, finds its expression in the wish for the other to be free from dukkha. In this way, the mind takes the vision of freedom from affliction as its object. Such an object can generate a positive, at times even a joyful state of mind, instead of resulting in sadness.
- This is vital in so far as the meditative cultivation of compassion can only lead to deeper concentration if it is undertaken with a positive or even joyful mind. From a practical perspective this means that one’s cultivation of compassion needs to steer clear of sadness. This is not easy, since what causes the arising of compassion can naturally lead to being afflicted oneself by sadness. Therefore it is important to monitor closely one’s own response to the affliction of others. This should ideally proceed from the opening of the heart that is genuinely receptive to the pain and suffering of others, to the positive mental condition of being filled with the wish for others to be free from affliction and suffering.
- Understood in this way, compassion does not mean to commiserate to the extent of suffering along with the other. This would be falling prey to what later tradition considers to be the “near enemy” of compassion. According to the Visuddhimagga, cruelty is the “far enemy” of compassion, in the sense of being directly opposed to it, whereas worldly forms of sadness are its “near enemy”.3 Needless to say, both enemies are best avoided.
Nina von Gorkom states:
- Compassion, karuna, and sympathetic joy, mudita, are among the six sobhana cetasikas which do not arise with every sobhana citta. They accompany kusala citta only when there is an opportunity for them. They are classified among the four "divine abidings", brahma-viharas (1 See also Dhammasangani, 258-261.) The other two divine abidings are, as we have seen, loving-kindness, metta, and equanimity, upekkha (2 The term upekkha does not in this case, stand far indifferent feeling, but it stands for equanimity.). The divine abidings are called "illimitables" (appamannas), because when they have been developed in samatha as meditation subjects which condition calm and when, by means of them, jhana has been attained, they can be directed towards innumerable beings.
Bhikkhu Bodhi explains why only two of the four brahmaviharas are classified as sobhana cetasikas (beautiful mental factors):
- Although four illimitables are recognized as ideal attitudes towards beings, only two—compassion and appreciative joy—are included as cetasikas under the heading of the illimitables. This is because loving-kindness, as we have seen, is a mode of the cetasika adosa, non-hatred, and equanimity is a mode of the cetasika tatramajjhattatā, neutrality of mind. Non-hatred does not necessarily manifest as loving-kindness; it can appear in other modes as well. But when loving-kindness does arise in the mind, it does so as a manifestation of the cetasika non-hatred. A similar relationship holds between the cetasika neutrality of mind and the sublime state of equanimity as impartiality towards living beings.
- The two illimitables that appear as mental factors in their own right, not as manifestations of other mental factors, are compassion and appreciative joy. Whereas non-hatred and mental neutrality—the factors underlying loving-kindness and equanimity—are present in all beautiful cittas, these two are present only on occasions when their functions are individually exercised.
The Visuddhimagga (IX, 94) states:
- Compassion (karuna) is characterized as promoting the aspect of allaying suffering. Its function resides in not bearing others suffering. It is manifested as non-cruelty. Its proximate cause is to see helplessness in those overwhelmed by suffering. It succeeds when it makes cruelty subside and it fails when it produces sorrow.
Bhikkhu Bodhi states:
- Karuṇā, or compassion, has the characteristic of promoting the removal of suffering in others. Its function is not being able to bear others’ suffering. It is manifested as non-cruelty. Its proximate cause is seeing helplessness in those overwhelmed by suffering. It succeeds when it causes cruelty to subside, and it fails when it produces sorrow.
Nina von Gorkom states:
- Compassion has as its near enemy "grief, based on the homelife". This is dosa, conditioned by attachment which is connected with "worldly life", that is, attachment to people and pleasant things. Compassion has as its far enemy cruelty (Vis. IX, 99). one cannot practise compassion while one is cruel.
Near and far enemies
The 14th Dalai Lama states:
- Compassion’s near enemy is personal distress or grief based on worldly life. This grief is the sadness and distress felt when we or those we care about cannot get what we want. It may be sorrow over past frustrations or present disappointments. The grief is similar to compassion in that both have an element of sorrow due to others’ misery. Compassion’s far enemies are cruelty and violence.
Cultivation of compassion and wisdom on the bodhisattva path
In Sanskrit Mahāyāna tradition, karuṇā is one of the two qualities, along with enlightened wisdom (Sanskrit: prajña), to be cultivated on the bodhisattva path. According to scholar Rupert Gethin, this elevation of karuṇā to the status of prajña is one of the distinguishing factors between the Theravāda ideal of the arahant, and the Mahāyāna ideal of the bodhisattva:
For the Mahāyāna ... the path to arhatship appears tainted with a residual selfishness since it lacks the motivation of the great compassion (mahākaruṇā) of the bodhisattva, and ultimately the only legitimate way of Buddhist practice is the bodhisattva path.
In the Intermediate section of the Stages of Meditation by Kamalashila, he writes:
Moved by compassion [karunā], Bodhisattvas take the vow to liberate all sentient beings. Then by overcoming their self-centered outlook, they engage eagerly and continuously in the very difficult practices of accumulating merit and insight. Having entered into this practice, they will certainly complete the collection of merit and insight. Accomplishing the accumulation of merit and insight is like having omniscience itself in the palm of your hand. Therefore, since compassion is the only root of omniscience, you should become familiar with this practice from the very beginning."
The Bodhisattvacaryavatara (Chapter 8) presents the following meditation on karuna:
Strive at first to meditate upon the sameness of yourself and others. In joy and sorrow all are equal; Thus be guardian of all, as of yourself. The hand and other limbs are many and distinct, But all are one--the body to kept and guarded. Likewise, different beings, in their joys and sorrows, are, like me, all one in wanting happiness. This pain of mine does not afflict or cause discomfort to another's body, and yet this pain is hard for me to bear because I cling and take it for my own. And other beings' pain I do not feel, and yet, because I take them for myself, their suffering is mine and therefore hard to bear. And therefore I'll dispel the pain of others, for it is simply pain, just like my own. And others I will aid and benefit, for they are living beings, like my body. Since I and other beings both, in wanting happiness, are equal and alike, what difference is there to distinguish us, that I should strive to have my bliss alone?"
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. karuṇā.
- The Abhidhamma in Practice, by N.K.G. Mendis
- Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2020, s.v. Chapter 1: The Four Immeasurables.
- Anālayo 2015, Chapter 1. Cultivating Compassion.
- Sobhana Cetasikas: Compassion (karuna) and Sympathetic Joy (mudita)
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2012-11-06). A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha (Vipassana Meditation and the Buddha's Teachings) (Kindle Locations 2411-2416). Independent Publishers Group. Kindle Edition.
- Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2020, s.v. Chapter 1:The Four Immeasurables.
- Gethin (1999), p. 228.
- Stages of Meditation by H.H The Dalai Lama, Root Text by Kamalashila. Snow Lion Publications. Page 42-43
- The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva. Shambhala Publications. Page 122-123
- Anālayo (2015), Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, Cambridge: Windhorse Publications
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Dalai Lama; Thubten Chodron (2020), In Praise of Great Compassion, The Library of Wisdom and Compassion, Volume 5, Wisdom Publications
- Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1994). Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas (AN 3.65). Retrieved 2008-05-10 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2006). Metta Sutta: Good Will (1) (AN 4.125). Retrieved 2008-05-10 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.125.than.html.
- van Gorkom, Nina (1999), Cetasikas, Zolog