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Translations of
English compassion
Pali karuṇā
Sanskrit karuṇā
Bengali করুণা
Burmese ကရုဏာ
(IPA: [ɡəjṵnà])
Japanese 慈悲
(rōmaji: jihi)
Khmer ករុណា
Korean 자비
Tibetan སྙིངརྗེ
Tamil கருணை
Thai กรุณา
Vietnamese bi

Karuna (Sanskrit, Pali; also karuṇā) is generally translated as "compassion".[1] It has the nature of being moved by the suffering of others.[2]



Within the Four Brahmaviharas

In Theravāda Buddhism, karuā is one of the four "divine abodes" (brahmavihāra), along with:

In the Pali canon, the Buddha recommends cultivating these four virtuous mental states to both householders and monastics.[4] When one develops these four states, the Buddha counsels radiating them in all directions, as in the following stock canonical phrase regarding karuā:

He keeps pervading the first direction—as well as the second direction, the third, and the fourth—with an awareness imbued with compassion. Thus he keeps pervading above, below, & all around, everywhere & in every respect the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with compassion: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.[5]

Such a practice purifies one's mind, avoids evil-induced consequences, leads to happiness in one's present life and, if there is a future karmic rebirth, it will be in a heavenly realm.[6]

The Pali commentaries distinguish between karuā and mettā in the following complementary manner: Karuna is the desire to remove harm and suffering (ahita-dukkha-apanaya-kāmatā) from others; while mettā is the desire to bring about the well-being and happiness (hita-sukha-upanaya-kāmatā) of others.[7]

Within the Abhidharma

Karuna is identified as one of the twenty-five beautiful mental factors within the Theravada abhidharma tradition.

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[8]

Mahayana Buddhism

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, karuā 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 karuā 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.[10]

Throughout the Mahāyāna world, Avalokiteśvara (Sanskrit; Chinese: Guan Yin; Japanese: Kannon; Tibetan: Chenrezig) is a bodhisattva who embodies karuā.

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."[11]

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?"[12]

See also


  1. Regarding the Sanskrit word, see Monier-Williams (1899), p. 255, entry for "karuā" (retrieved at http://www.sanskrit-lexicon.uni-koeln.de/scans/MWScan/MWScanpdf/mw0255-karaTa.pdf), where the noun form of the word is defined as "pity, compassion". For the Pali word, see Rhys, Davids & Stede (1921–25), p. 197, entry for "Karuā" (retrieved at http://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.1:1:356.pali), where it is defined as "pity, compassion".
  2. The Abhidhamma in Practice, by N.K.G. Mendis
  3. Gethin (1998), pp.186-187; and, Rhys Davids & Stede, op. cit.
  4. For instance, in the Kālāmā Sutta (AN 3.65), the Buddha speaks of all Noble Disciples (ariya-savaka) developing the brahmaviharas (Thanissaro, 1994).
  5. Kālāmā Sutta (AN 3.65), trans. Thanissaro (1994). The "four directions" refer to east, south, west and north.
  6. AN 3.65 (Thanissaro, 1994). In regards to in which heavenly realm a frequent karuā dweller will be reborn, AN 4.125 (Thanissaro, 2006) identifies it as the realm of radiant (abhassara) devas, whose lifespans last two eons.
  7. SN-A 128 (Rhys Davids & Stede, 1921–25, op. cit.); see also, BDEA & BuddhaNet (n.d.).
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Sobhana Cetasikas: Compassion (karuna) and Sympathetic Joy (mudita)
  9. 9.0 9.1 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.
  10. Gethin (1999), p. 228.
  11. Stages of Meditation by H.H The Dalai Lama, Root Text by Kamalashila. Snow Lion Publications. Page 42-43
  12. The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva. Shambhala Publications. Page 122-123


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