Karuṇā better translated as kindness, rather than compassion?

I’ve always thought that compassion was kind of a bad translation of the term .

Compassion means “suffering with”, and I always saw it as having the connotation of feeling someone else’s suffering

But it is easy to see how this is un-Buddhist. It just ends up creating more suffering.

Meanwhile, kindness is defined by Aristotle as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped” in Book II of Rhetoric.

Access to insight uses the translation of compassion and sympathy, while at the same time glossing it as “the aspiration to find a way to be truly helpful to oneself and others.”

I think this is more in line with “kindness” than with “compassion”.

Or maybe I am just too hung up on the Greco Roman meaning of the word, and it doesn’t matter. Is it just me or does “compassion” sound a bit sentimental - in the sense that the compassionate person also “feels bad” for others? If this is the case that the standard English word compassion has that connotation, then it would be better not to use it.

What do you guys think?

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I dunno, the MW definition works ok for me:

EDIT: A key point is that karuṇā is only possible towards being that are suffering, and that fits with compassion, but it’s possible, even a good idea, to feel kindness towards anyone.

But if its a “sympathetic consciousness” then it does have the connotations I am weary of because sympathy is defined by the same dictionary as

what I am worried about is

whatever affects one similarly affects the other; mutual or parallel susceptibility or a condition brought about by it

Does that sound like karuna in the suttas?

There are multiple choices for sympathy- it is possible to choose one where the suffering is not taken on, e.g.

“3a. the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the … interests of another”

Maybe this definition of compassion is better:

Anyway, as far as American English goes, I don’t think there is necessarily the connotation of suffering along with the other person, although it is a possible interpretation and it is definitely worthwhile to clarify that is not the intent. Kindness does not seems to be an appropriate alternative, especially since metta is often translated as “loving-kindness”.

EDIT: Here’s a link to support the claim that co-suffering is not necessarily implied in “compassion”: http://www.compassionfatigue.org/

Well, don’t get me starting on “loving-kindness” as a translation for metta, that’s off too!

Yeah, I don’t like it myself. I wrote my own brahmavihara verse to get over these one-word translations:

"May I be healthy, live with ease, and be happy, be released from suffering, and have long-lasting joy. Whether suffering, joyous, or at ease, may I accept myself as I am.

As fervently as I wish these things for myself, may all beings be healthy, live with ease, and be happy, be released from suffering, and have long-lasting joy. Whether suffering, joyous, or at ease, may I accept all beings as they are."

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The Oxford English Dictionary confirms that the etymology of the English word “compassion” does indeed derive from an original meaning to suffer together:

“Etymology: < French compassion (14th cent. in Littré), < late Latin compassiōn-em (Tertullian, Jerome), noun of action < compati (participial stem compass-) to suffer together with, feel pity, < com- together with + pati to suffer.”

For word geeks, the first known recorded English use of the word was in the year 1340:

Source: Ayenbite: “Huanne on leme is zik oþer y-wonded. hou moche zorȝe heþ þe herte and grat compassion y-uelþ.”


This is how I understand Karuna. For instance looking after a sick person.

This is not how I understand Karuna. This more sound like Tongling in Mahayana.

Having practiced tonglen, I can tell you it is not “suffering with” either

It is imagining the taking of their suffering, and the transformation of it.


If the target audience is modern, then I would think the word choices of translations should reflect modern usage, not etymolgy or the definitions of a guy who died over 2000 years ago.

Here’s another link that uses the word compassion with the meaning I believe karuṇā is intended to have:

But it’s not just Cicero, since the modern dictionaries cited also support that reading.

The dictionaries support that those meanings are possible, but there are other possible meanings. Context should not be under-rated in determining how people will decide which meaning (of the several possibilities) is intended.

When I read/hear about karuṇā, it is always in the context of the four brahmaviharas, with upekkhā being critical for balance. While I may wish that all beings be released from suffering, at the same time I know that at this time there are many that are suffering - and that is what is, it cannot be undone. I could have distress over this state of affairs, or I could accept what is and allow my awareness of that suffering to motivate me to helpful actions, to the extent that is reasonable.

EDIT: BTW, I don’t mean to devalue your concern that people might misinterpret the meaning of karuṇā. I had exactly that reaction when I realized what the Bodhisatta vows mean (which is sometimes called “great compassion”). Wouldn’t delaying the release from saṃsāra increase suffering?

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I translate karuṇā as mercy, since this is the closest English word to the opposite of cruelty.

Not a scholar or linguist at this time.

But i understand metta to be an act of intention (and possible other effort as well) for the happiness and peace of what seems to be a separate being. The practice seems to be personal, but it somehow removes or weakens conditioned distinctions between “self” and " other".

Karuna seems (at this moment in this life) to be awareness of suffering, its cause, and its escape, combined with intentions related to the ultimate well being of all. (Happy and peaceful are parts of the raft, maybe.)

=D now, scholars and linguists, please, educate me, if this is not consistent with the pali.

It can mean different things to different people. If we take it syllable by syllable, it would be ‘with-suffering’ and we could say it might mean 'me with suffering (of myself or others or both) or ‘what (I am) to do with suffering’.

For me any practice has to start with myself. So, my first question is, what do I do with my own suffering? Ignore, indulge, investigate and transform?

I’m not concerned with ‘un-Buddhist’ but rather ‘a-dhammic’. What might be un-Buddhist might also be wholesome according to Dhamma.

I do not believe anyone can act without their own benefit in mind. Even if it is to put aside one’s physical needs for the benefit of others, this would bring a benefit to oneself of satisfaction in living according to a strong belief.

For me, kindness is Mettā and can also be Karuṇā, if the distinction is Mettā is a mental attitude/thought, ‘wishing well for all beings’ but Karuṇā is what we DO in word and body when we or someone else is suffering.

I agree with you and call this kindness as Mettā, the aspiration or thought, not verbal and bodily action.

For me:
Mettā is the wish that all beings would be free from suffering.

Karuṇā is empathetic sadness and the verbal and bodily action based on that previous wish. Empathetic sadness is not sympathetic sadness, the latter of which might be understood in ‘suffering with’,

Muditā is empathetic joy, rather than envy. So one feels happy at other’s good fortune.

Upekkhā is equanimity, in that, even though one has advised that one thinks the chosen path would lead to suffering, the other person still chooses it and one accepts the other person’s self-determination, having expressed one’s concern for their well-being. (We are heir to our mental actions - here choices.)

best wishes

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For me the crucial distinction between sympathy and empathy is the ‘perception’ of it.

ie I have sympathy when I see someone suffering - but there is a complete boundary between myself and the other… I feel sympathy but I don’t feel their pain, I may even believe that I could never come to that position, that it ‘belongs’ to the other person or class of persons alone. It doesn’t have to, but can, include judgement (such as helping ‘sinners’). So sympathy is an acknowledgement of suffering, and may or may not lead to action.

Empathy on the other hand is understanding/knowing what that pain feels like, not seperating it from self ie.‘there, but by the grace of god, go I’. KNowing that this suffering is a part of the human/animal etc condition. No judgement is possible here - it is shared. Again it may or may not lead to action, but it is acknowledged as well as felt/experienced and shared. Hence in a therapeutic milieu one works toward establishing empathy with the client… Sympathy is deemed unhelpful. One seeks to know what the other is experiencing.

As such, from my perspective, I can understand why one could call it “suffering with”…

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I don’t think karuna can be interpreted as sadness or any other kind of suffering or co-suffering, since the enlightened Buddha was said to act out of karuna. English words like “care” and “concern” also carry the suggestion of worry and suffering.

I think the idea is supposed to be a kind of pure and untainted benevolence - a “will toward the beneficial” not rooted in any kind of reactive affliction. It’s something like what a perfectly serene and emotionally untroubled, but wise and good, king would exhibit toward his kingdom.


If I may be a stickler for words once again, Merriam Webster defines empathy as:

1 : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this
2 : the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it

emphasis mine

So I am not sure if it gets us out of the “suffering with” problem.

As far as metta, I like Sujato’s “love”.

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Sure, “love” is a completely unambiguous, not-overloaded term. (SI)

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