Perspective-taking, empathy in suttas?

Hello dear members,

I was wondering if there are any suttas inviting us to take momentarily the perspective of another person or to cultivate empathy in interactions ?
There is the Dhammapada (50), regarding criticisms,
“Let none find fault with others; let none see the omissions and commissions of others. But let one see one’s own acts, done and undone.”
but it seems more about restraining oneself than understanding the other’s perspective.


If you mean sympathy, empathy, practical compassion, perhaps the suttas linked below are relevant.
I suspect trying to find the concept of “taking another’s perspective” might get confused with the idea of adopting another’s View, which is not (I think) exactly relevant.

The suttas are full of references about considering the welfare of others; it’s difficult (is it even possible?) to understand another’s welfare or concerns, and to speak appropriately to them in their particular condition, without some insight into how they might see it.

So - Perhaps this?

“No matter what the apparent reason
why people are together, Sakka,
it’s unworthy for a wise person
to not think of the other with compassion.

If you instruct others
with a mind clear and confident,
your compassion and empathy
don’t create attachments.”

And then there’s this, perhaps?

Develop the (mind-) development that is friendliness, Rāhula. For, from developing the (mind-) development that is friendliness, Rāhula, that which is malevolence will be got rid of.

Develop the (mind-) development that is compassion, Rāhula. For, from developing the (mind-) development that is compassion, Rāhula, that which is harming will be got rid of.

Develop the (mind-) development that is sympathetic joy, Rāhula. For, from developing the (mind-) development that is sympathetic joy, Rāhula, that which is dislike will be got rid of.

Develop the (mind-) development that is equanimity, Rāhula. For, from developing the (mind-) development that is equanimity, Rāhula, that which is sensory reaction will be got rid of.

or Bhante S’s translation (but the words might be scarier?)

Meditate on love. For when you meditate on love any ill will will be given up.

Meditate on compassion. For when you meditate on compassion any cruelty will be given up.

Meditate on rejoicing. For when you meditate on rejoicing any negativity will be given up. Meditate on equanimity.

For when you meditate on equanimity any repulsion will be given up.

Nice topic, I look forward to reading other (probably more erudite) responses.


Empathy and sympathy can get mired in identity view. MN8 prods us to consider consideration itself as a primary perspective for dealing with others. There are 44 entries, starting with:

MN8:12.2: ‘Others will be cruel, but here we will not be cruel.’

With empathy and sympathy we might get tangled up in shared resentment at others cruelty. Notice that the Buddha takes a different perspective and simply acknowledges the cruelty of others while advocating a lack of cruelty on our own parts. In doing so, we need to include others in our perspectives. And that inclusion might rely on empathy and sympathy in part, but is ultimately guided by consideration.

The other 43 considerations are versed similarly that end with:

MN8:13.4: ‘Others will be attached to their own views, holding them tight, and refusing to let go, but here we will not be attached to our own views, not holding them tight, but will let them go easily.’

And this last perspective points out that any identity view cannot be the basis for sustained skillful interaction with others.


Thank you very much @ERose for the excerpts !

The four brahma vihara are wonderful and are a motivational basis to understand others or the other. But if we don’t try -temporarily- to view things from the same perspective or internal context than the other, we may act in unbeneficial ways. That’s why I distinguish metta and empathy.

If we could read others’mind, like the Buddha according to some suttas, it should not be too much of a problem ! :wink:

Thank you also for SN 10.2 which exhorts us to have compassion :

it’s unworthy for a wise person to not think of the other with compassion.
Na taṃ arahati sappañño, manasā anukampituṃ.

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s following translation seems more about being compassionate without attachments however :

"If, O Sakka, for some reason
Intimacy should arise,
The wise man ought not to stir his mind
With compassion towards such a person.

But if with mind clear and pure
He gives instructions to others,
He does not become fettered
By his compassion and sympathy."

However empathy is distinct from sympathy. We may understand another’s cognitive and emotional world without sympathizing with it or agreeing with it or feeling intimacy, at least in a sensual meaning.


Maybe SN 55.7 is what you are looking for:

It’s when a noble disciple reflects: ‘I want to live and don’t want to die; I want to be happy and recoil from pain. Since this is so, if someone were to take my life, I wouldn’t like that. But others also want to live and don’t want to die; they want to be happy and recoil from pain. So if I were to take the life of someone else, they wouldn’t like that either. The thing that is disliked by me is also disliked by others. Since I dislike this thing, how can I inflict it on someone else?’ Reflecting in this way, they give up killing living creatures themselves. And they encourage others to give up killing living creatures, praising the giving up of killing living creatures. So their bodily behavior is purified in three points.
(and so on for the other precepts…)


Thank you very much @karl_lew !

Indeed mindfulness and non-attachment can help us to understand the others’ view without losing our own while not being attached to any of them. Great reminder ! It also reminds me that I really enjoyed reading Mahasi Sayadaw’s technical exposition of the Sallekha sutta.

I was also looking more specifically to a sutta pointing us to see the other’s point of view from the inside by asking questions or being empathetic.


Voice found 10 suttas with sympathy

The first, AN2.150 is interesting, yet not as specific as you are looking for:

AN2.150:1.1: “There are these two kinds of sympathy. What two? Sympathy in material things and sympathy in the teaching. These are the two kinds of sympathy. The better of these two kinds of sympathy is sympathy in the teaching.”

Perhaps the other nine may be of value.


Thank you for sharing Bhikkhu Bodhi translation of SN10.2.
I wish it was on SuttaCentral for easy access and comparision!

The distincions between empathy and sympathy have long been of interest to me. How would you define each word? And then, maybe, which pali words correspond to those meanings?

I agree there may be a need to temporarily view things from the same perspective or internal context [as] the other does; it seems to me this is an exercise in abandoning, for a moment, the idea of The Other as Other; which seems to mean surrendering, for a moment, as best one can, identity view… Good practice indeed, if that’s what it is (and not jumping to a delusion, arising because defilements are not yet weakened or abandoned.)

edit: This might be more Discussion than response to Q&A subforum; I mean no disrespect to the intended limits for Q&A!

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Thank you Ven. @vimalanyani !
It really goes into the direction I am looking for.
It reminds me of Udana 5.1 Raja Sutta

“In the same way others each love themselves,
Therefore one who cares for himself should not harm another.”

It is indeed a good case of perspective-taking by asking oneself : what would I feel and think if I were in their position ? Would I like that ?

It generalizes from our perspective to deduce the perspective of others. It works extremely well for basic needs and it endows us with morality.

But for more complex or cultural views, the results may be less obvious. It is empathy but from an egocentric (à la Jean Piaget) view : after all, “the thing that is disliked by me” may not be “disliked by others.”

Thank you everybody ! You all add interesting sources to my search for a Buddhist view of communication !! :slight_smile:

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Me too. :slight_smile:
To define them quickly (from academic psychology) : Sympathy is “I agree with it or I like it”.
Empathy is “I see what she/he sees” (cognitive empathy) or “I feel what she/he feels” (emotional empathy). But we may not agree or like it.

Perspective-taking is cognitive and includes cognitive empathy (but it may be bigger to accomodate multiple views).
To avoid imagining things, empathy is rooted in proper questioning, non-verbal cues and constant interaction and feedback.

Regarding pali equivalents, I am not sure however that translations make those same distinctions.



I have tended to use sympathy for “feeling for” someone, empathy for “feeling with” someone, and “understanding” for what you identify as cognitive empathy. None implying agreement or liking the experience.

I like your definitions, I may adopt them. And I agree, questioning, observing non-verbal cues, constant feedback interaction are key counterbalances. And honed awareness of mental tendencies and habits, maybe, too.

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Thanks @karl_lew. I had not thought of using the search function ! :smile: I found
42 results for sympathy and 5 results for empathy.
Sympathy seems to be ānukampā in pali.


Oh yes. And mindfulness, non-attachment, for that is paramount. I think it can increase our skill in empathy and communication.

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Unfortunately, these words are used in different ways by different people. And then there is compassion, which in some cases is used as a synonym for one or other…


& when sympathy or empathy are defined in a way that involves taking on and feeling, even wallowing in, the emotions of others, they become the near enemies of compassion, which is feeling for others without the extra energy of taking on their pain. At least, according to some people.

I don’t think the near the near enemies of the brahma viharas are mentioned in the suttas, I think they are a Visuddhimarga thing? Is that right please?


Yes, that’s my understanding, too. But I think the VM explanation is valuable, because it’s not easy to figure out karuna exclusively from the suttas, in particular, the difference between compassion and the near enemy that Nanamoli translates as “pity”, which is a kind of distancing.

This video uses “empathy” as a positive recognition of the pain of the other and “sympathy” as a distancing, and talking down of the problem. As I said above, exactly how these words are used depends on the speaker/writer…


:smiley: :smiley: @ Brené Brown.

I agree that it’s valuable.
I find the position that anything that a commentary contains has no value strange; comments may be helpful or unhelpful to readers with different backgrounds. I like to be clear about what the sources are tho.


I found this one today in the same ethical spirit.

“Yathā ahaṃ tathā ete;
yathā ete tathā ahaṃ.”
Attānaṃ upamaṃ katvā,
na haneyya na ghātaye.

“As I am, so are others;
as others are, so am I.”
Having thus identified self and others,
harm no one nor have them harmed.
Sutta Nipāta 3.710 (11. Nālakasuttaṃ - Vatthugāthā niṭṭhitā)


Without restraint, how could understanding arise?

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Sure. It is like a pre-condition : supending our judgment before making the move toward other’s perspectives. But I meant that restraint may not be enough to understand other’s perspective, which is bigger but includes restraint.