Karuna – Compassion and Wisdom

The Brahmaviharas Part 3

Carrying on the theme of the Brahmaviharas, this week it is the turn of karuna – compassion, the wish for others to not suffer. As the second Brahmavihara it follows as a natural development from mettā; when we have no ill will towards people then we have no reason to want them to suffer either. But the practice of compassion goes much further than this basic virtuous intention, it is a practice that can have a truly radical impact on us.

Despite compassion being a very familiar term, no clear description of what compassion means is actually found in the Pali texts [1] and that can sometimes make it seem like there is little difference between compassion and mettā. But the word compassion is used frequently in the suttas, and we can draw out the facets of its meaning by looking at how the word is used.

Compassion in an Early Buddhist context does have some clear functions, but perhaps our ordinary understanding of what compassion is muddies the waters a little. For instance the dictionary definition of compassion is largely focussed around feeling sympathy for people or taking pity on them. Self-compassion is another term we hear a lot of these days, and not without good reason either – as I wrote in last week’s post our Western tendency towards self-hatred is so strong that we often need self-compassion to learn to unravel it.

But interestingly from the texts of the Pali canon we find that the opposite of hate isn’t compassion. As I wrote last week mettā is the wholesome counterpoint to ill will, so mettā is actually the opposite of hate. Compassion is instead presented as the wholesome equivalent to harmfulness; compassion is, in essence then, a practice in cultivating harmlessness in our intentions and mind states.

Bhikkhu Analayo gives us this description of compassion that shows how this difference between mettā and compassion can be understood:

“The intention of harmlessness is thought guided by compassion (karuna), aroused in opposition to cruel, aggressive, and violent thoughts. Compassion supplies the complement to loving-kindness. Whereas loving-kindness has the characteristic of wishing for the happiness and welfare of others, compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings.” [1]

So mettā and karuna, despite cultivating different intentions, are very much related to each other. Thanissaro Bhikkhu sees the relationship between them as being very direct, one leads to the other:

“Compassion (karuna) is what goodwill feels when it encounters suffering: It wants the suffering to stop.” [2]

But compassion and harmlessness don’t seem to make an obvious natural progression, perhaps because harmlessness doesn’t seem to have much of a connection with the way we normally talk about compassion. In general the usual way we understand compassion has the emphasis more on an empathetic connection to the suffering of others, so where harmlessness would fit into that isn’t clear.  But if we look at some examples of compassion in its Buddhist context, and of practices in harmlessness, we might start to see how harmlessness and compassion are connected to each other.

The most obvious example of practicing with an intention of harmlessness is the practice of the first precept – to undertake the precept to avoid killing any living creature. It could also be argued that all of the five precepts have a component of aiming towards harmlessness in them [1] because they are focused on refining our behaviours towards other people and beings, which creates the conditions where they can feel safe in our company.

For example, when we go on retreat it is very common to take the eight precepts for the duration of the retreat, because it creates an atmosphere where everyone can feel physically safe. Because of the 1st precept, no one will try to kill you, because of the 3rd precept, no one will try to  seduce or sexually abuse you,  because of the 4th precept no one will speak harshly to you, or lie to you, and because of the 2nd precept your possessions are also safe because no one will try to steal them. This safe environment creates the ideal conditions your fellow retreatants to cultivate wholesome mind states, so following the precepts in this case can be understood to be an act of harmlessness, motivated as it is by our wish to do others no harm.  By making them feel safe we are also upholding our wish that they shouldn’t suffer, so we can also see that following the precepts can be understood to be compassionate too.

The fourth precept, to refrain from speaking harshly or lying, finds a further expression in the application of Right Speech, the third factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, and again we can understand it as a practice in harmlessness and compassion. As I’ve written about before in Right Speech and Conflict, [3] for speech to be right speech we have to consider if it is truthful, beneficial, and agreeable to others. By running what we might say through these criteria it filters out an awful lot of what we normally say without thinking about the repercussions of. It switches the emphasis of our speech from serving the primary purpose of making our own opinions heard, to making our first consideration the impact our words will have on others.

 This is undoubtedly a cultivation of intentions of harmlessness because the aim we have is to uproot our habit of speaking in ways that cause hurt, discord, or harm. By causing less harm, we reduce the suffering of others, and so we can again see how this is also an act of compassion.

Thinking about the Brahmaviharas as meditation exercises, as I have discussed in the previous two posts, it might not be so obvious how compassion can lead to an absorption state, but by thinking about it as being a practice for cultivating the right kind of mind states that allow deep states of meditation we can see that any latent tendency towards doing harm is likely to get triggered by things that annoy us or disturb us while we are sitting.

The mind, when it goes on one of its spectacular papañca runs, can spin the most extraordinary stories and the most ruthless of punishments in a heartbeat – anyone who coughs during communal meditation should be shot, for example, or banned from the monastery. Naturally we don’t mean this literally, most of the time, but that kind of sharp, venomous response points to that tendency we have to want to eliminate anything that causes us discomfort. When our mind state is truly abiding in the harmless, we would never think such things, and that improves our chances of not having the mind go off on a charge, which means we are more likely to stay on track with our meditation.

Bhikkhu Analayo feels that the role of compassion in meditation makes it all the more important to ensure that the compassion we are activating is one of wishing  for others to not suffer, and not the kind of compassion that is more about feeling other’s suffering. If we are to use the suffering of others as a reflection, this is not uplifting because it is using dukkha as the subject of contemplation. [1] Focusing on dukkha would make it very hard for us to get into a peaceful meditation state.

But to say that we are to not focus on feeling other’s suffering doesn’t mean our goal is to be heartless, our goal is to not add to our own suffering or anyone else’s by learning how to react more skilfully to what life throws at us through cultivating a mind state of harmlessness.

One of the most frequent ways that compassion is referred to in the suttas is in connection with teaching the Dhamma. When someone in the suttas asks the Buddha or an arahant for a teaching the request is often that it be given ‘out of compassion’, and likewise the teacher afterwards frequently states that they delivered the teaching out of compassion. [1] Indeed the story of the Buddha’s decision to teach after he reached enlightenment says that he was initially reluctant to do so because he thought the teaching was so subtle that no one would understand it, but the Brahma god Sahampati implored him:

“Beings are here with but little dust in their eyes,

Pray, teach the Dhamma out of compassion for them.” [4]

Fortunately for us all, this changed the Buddha’s mind, and he devoted the rest of this life – the next 45 years – to teaching the Dhamma, as Sahampati requested, out of compassion.

Compassion also has a component of taking responsibility for guiding others when they are not acting skilfully, as found in suttas where the Buddha admonishes his senior monks for not intervening when others were not conducting themselves correctly. [1] Teaching as an act of compassion and taking responsibility for guiding others away from unskilful actions are easy enough to understand as aiming at helping others to reduce their suffering, but how they connect to harmlessness is again not so clear.  

Harmlessness though, in the context of being part of the practice of compassion, is a mind state. It isn’t the outcome of our actions as such, instead it is the condition that allows our actions to do no harm. By being compassionate to people we aim to reduce their suffering, and with the wish that no one suffers our mind inclines towards us not being one of the sources of their suffering, and so our mind develops the intention to be harmless.

So  compassionate thoughts and  actions, and the wish that others don’t suffer is the practice that leans our mind towards a state of harmlessness. Harmlessness is the result of our compassion, and it is this harmless mind state that we want to help us to reduce reactivity to sensory experience. Metta leads to a mind state of good will which helps us to stop reacting negatively to our experiences; karuna leads to harmlessness which helps us to stop responding to our experiences by wanting to destroy them.

The act of reflecting on our own experience, again as with mettā practice, is a crucial component of developing compassion. To recognise suffering in others we have to recognise suffering in ourselves and make a connection to how others must also have as strong a desire to not suffer as we do:

“Like mettā, compassion arises by entering into the subjectivity of others, by sharing their interiority in a deep and total way. It springs up by considering that all beings, like ourselves, wish to be free from suffering, yet despite their wishes continue to be harassed by pain, fear, sorrow, and other forms of dukkha.” [5]

But this aspect of reflecting on our own experience of suffering in compassion practice also serves another crucially significant role. This reflection is critical for us to gain a direct understanding of the central teaching of Buddhism – the Four Noble Truths.

The first Noble Truth is that ‘there is suffering’, and this isn’t meant to be understood as just being a ‘truth’ about the world, it is meant to be something that we have found within our own experiences in our lives. The first Noble Truth isn’t to be taken on faith as being ‘true’, it is something that we are to only accept as a truth when we have seen it for ourselves.

So when we set our intention towards developing compassion for the suffering of others, we start by looking for the suffering in our own lives, and by doing this  we gain a direct experience of the first Noble Truth, because we will see that in our lives there is indeed suffering there – and lots of it.

This action of compassion practice then allows our connection to the other Noble Truths to develop. Having now realised that there is suffering in our lives, this inclines our attention towards the second Noble Truth, that suffering has a cause. We see by examining our own suffering that the cause of it is our clinging to pleasant sensory experiences. This leads us to the third Noble Truth, that suffering can end, and we see by examining our own experiences that when we don’t cling, we don’t suffer.  This understanding leads us to the fourth Noble Truth, which is the Noble Eightfold Path, eight factors to develop that will help us to learn to stop clinging and so end our suffering.

With this understanding of the Four Noble Truths we open up a new dimension to our practice of compassion, one that comes not from feelings of sympathy or pity for others, but one that comes from a place of wisdom:

“… compassionate activity should ideally be based on the perspective afforded by the four noble truths. The resulting compassionate vision sees not only the actual pain and affliction of others (first truth), but also the conditions that have led to their predicament (second truth), and the conditions that can lead out of it (fourth truth). The motivating force of compassion is the wish for others to be free from pain and affliction (third truth). This is what makes compassion become thoroughly Buddhist, namely by way of being combined with the wisdom of the four noble truths.” [1]

It is the wisdom we gain from seeing the Four Noble Truths in action that transforms the scope of compassion from just feeling someone’s pain, to the wish for them to not suffer – along with the motivation to help them deal with it at its source.

This could be what makes the difference between the boundless compassion of the Brahmaviharas and the kind of ordinary compassion that can become heavy to bear. Compassion fatigue can become a problem when we try to help people, but the quality of compassion in the Brahmaviharas is immeasurable and limitless because what it is asking us to do isn’t to feel other’s pain, it is asking us to see that they suffer because they cling to pleasant sensory experiences – just as we do. So teaching in itself isn’t automatically an act of compassion, it  is an act of compassion when it is done with wisdom, with the aim of ending suffering in a very specific way – ending suffering by ending the cause of suffering.  

In the same way, going back to the point of right speech where we sometimes have to tell people things they don’t want to hear, as long as what we are saying is truthful and beneficial, this can also be understood as acting with compassion, when it is an action underpinned by wisdom and it aims specifically at ending the cause of suffering. [1]

 Bhikkhu Analayo uses this element of right speech to show how compassion that comes from wisdom doesn’t inhibit our ability to take a strong line with someone, in a way that is sometimes hard to do when our compassion is based more on feelings of pity:

“Motivated by the wish to help others emerge from the conditions that cause their unhappiness, such compassion has the courage to do what is temporarily unpleasant, whenever this is required.” [1]

This resonates with the advice Ajahn Chah gave some Western Dhamma teachers when they asked him about what it takes to be a good teacher, ‘you have to be prepared to stab them in their hearts’. [6] To challenge students on the points they needed to be challenged on was, he thought, a sign of the compassion of the teacher.

So this compassion that comes from the wisdom of understanding suffering through the lens of the Four Noble Truths helps us to make sense of some of the more unusual ways that we find compassion being referred to in the texts such as in the Sakalika sutta. (SN 4.13) There we find a conversation between the Buddha and Mara as the Buddha is lying down to rest. Mara is sometimes described as the ‘Buddhist devil’, but in the suttas he largely plays the part of the little voice in your head that tries to convince you either to do the wrong thing, or to convince you that what you are currently doing is the wrong thing. Taken this way, Mara can be understood as the embodiment of the hindrances.

Although it isn’t mentioned in the sutta, we can understand that this conversation is happening after one of Devatatta’s failed assassination attempts because the Buddha is resting due to having a stone splinter in his foot. We know from other places in the canon that this splinter came from a large rock that Devadatta tried to drop on the Buddha; the rock missed but a splinter from it went into his foot.

On the face of it then having a lie down because you have a piece of stone in your foot after your cousin tried to kill you doesn’t seem too unreasonable, but Mara goads the Buddha as he is lying resting, questioning his mindfulness and commitment – basically accusing him of sleeping on the job. The Buddha, as always, is unmoved by Mara’s  provocation, and replies:

“I lie down full of compassion for all living creatures.” [7]

Normally when we are ill or injured our loved ones tell us to rest to take care of ourselves, but the Buddha’s compassionate action here is not self-compassion. He isn’t resting because he is badly wounded, the intention for his action is out of compassion to everyone else because he is taking action to maintain his ability to continue to teach and thereby reduce the suffering of others. This is an expression of compassion that comes from wisdom, he doesn’t feel like he has to sacrifice himself for others, instead he understands that he needs to take care of himself for others.

This verse in the Dhammapada on the face of it can be read as somewhat selfish:

“Never neglect your own good

for the sake of another, however great.” [8]

But if we treat it as a reflection of the same wisdom that the Buddha applied when he had the stone splinter in his foot, then we can see how it can be understood that if we are acting with wisdom by taking care of ourselves, and that if we didn’t do so then we would be unable to help others reduce their suffering,  then that apparently self-focused act is acting out of compassion for others.

Compassion might seem like it always has to be directed outwards to others, but ironically to develop it we really need to start by focusing on ourselves. Yet ideas around selfishness and ingratitude can really hold us back from finding out how much suffering there actually is in our lives.

If we live a materially comfortable life, it can be hard to see how much we ourselves are suffering if we consider ourselves lucky compared to others.  This way of thinking can sometimes limit our idea of what suffering is to  something that only  happens to people who are ‘less fortunate’ than us. But if we look honestly, we will find that we are suffering too, and it is only when we can be fully open to our own suffering, that we become able to be open to the suffering of others too.

So  compassion in the Brahmaviharas is again like mettā not a sentimental exercise, but a real powerhouse of a practice that makes a huge contribution towards our development on the path: it trains our mind towards mind states of harmlessness, it reduces our hostile reactions to our sensory experiences, it points us to the suffering in our own lives, and it reveals the heart of the teachings to us in the most direct way. Compassion practice when fully developed gives not only us access to the insight we need to carry us further along the path, but also to wisdom we need to have truly boundless compassion.

​​Image by Constance Kowalik from Pixabay


1.      Bhikkhu Analayo. Compassion and Emptiness In Early Buddhist Meditation. 2015. https://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/pdf/5-personen/analayo/compassionemptiness.pdf.

2.     Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Head & Heart Together: Bringing Wisdom to the Brahma-viharas. 06/06/2018. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/headandheart.html. Accessed 2 Aug 2021.

3.     Kalyana Mitta. Right Speech and Conflict. https://kalyanamitta.blog/2021/03/07/right-speech-and-conflict/. Accessed 8 Aug 2021.

4.     Amaravati Sangha, Amaro, Gavesako. Chanting vol 1 // Chanting. Volume one: Morning and evening chanting (pūjā) and reflections /  editors: Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Gavesako. Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, UK: Amaravati Publishing; Amaravati Publications; 2015.

5.     Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering. 14/10/2017. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html. Accessed 2 Aug 2021.

6.     Kalyana Mitta. A Kind Stab to the Heart. https://kalyanamitta.blog/2021/05/02/a-kind-stab-to-the-heart/. Accessed 8 Aug 2021.

7.     Bhikkhu Sujato. Sakalikasutta: SN4.13. 24/07/2021. https://suttacentral.net/sn4.13/en/sujato. Accessed 3 Aug 2021.

8.     Bhikkhu Sujato. Attavagga: Dhp 166. 24/07/2021. https://suttacentral.net/dhp157-166/en/sujato. Accessed 3 Aug 2021.

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