Severe effects from misunderstanding of Karuṇā

Namo Buddahaya
Dear venerable and respected friends,
As we know, some Buddhists in the West (and among these a relative of mine) have a very wrong view about karuṇā or (with somewhat probably bad translation) compassion. Indeed they understand like in the Latin word origin: to have passions (usually painful ones) with others to show support.
karuṇā has nothing to do with “passions” or emotions or feeling anxious because of the pain of the others. Clearly, in the Pali Canon, the concept is linked to the intention to remove suffering and stress from others included that we create in so many ways and general included towards ourselves. So I was taught during my stay in Burma.
Unfortunately, my relative (as many other Buddhists in particular in my country of origin, which is Catholic) seems to consider any other form of compassion, which does not include pain and pity for the object of compassion, as not compassionate enough.
This has particularly deleterious effects on some people who then develop anxiety, depression or expect that somebody’s compassion should be expressed through distress and total support of the suffering status (pity).
Albeit I know the commentary places where it is mentioned that karuṇā is the removal of harm and stress and not being absorbed or “moved” into the pain or the stress of others (practically karuṇā is more like a doctor approaching a patient) I would like some help to identify some suttas that can validate this point.
I have tried to show that all of the Buddha teaching focuses on not being involved with emotional statues of grasping, and of course, pity and co-emotion and depression are fetters. Still, unfortunately, my argument did not seem to be too convincing since I could not point to a sutta or suttas that show clearly the essence of karuṇā.

Thanks for any help you can provide. :pray:


I doubt you’re going to find anything in the suttas, but I’m also not sure that your relatives need information from the EBTs. Something like Mathieu Ricard’s writings might be more accessible and helpful: The Differences and the Relationship between Empathy and Compassion by Matthieu Ricard | Neuroscience | Buddhism

Having said that, there’s a nice saying in the Vimuttimagga, “Sorrow is failed compassion,” that’s directly about how compassion is not about suffering.


There is a passage where monks who are too intimately connected with lay people that talks about the monks being happy when the lay people are happy and sad when the lay people are sad. I can’t remember where it is but it kind of goes to your point.


I was not satisfied with the explanation i have read on Karuna. The main reason is they could conjure a few blips of compassion, but nothing near being saturated.

When I start to notice the attitude towards beings with their opportunity and ability to hear and understand dhamma, compassion falls right in then out from all directions.

For the beings who are blindly wandering on in samsara, including the beings who are healthy, happy for now, including the beings who are in agony and trauma, given them in hells, earth or heavens, i wish them all have the chance to hear dhamma and came to learn the skills to end the suffering for themselves.

Mudita - it is the appreciation for Buddha, Sangha, dhamma supporters and all beings who are walking on the path with us.

Also, I realized it is very true and literal - Buddha teaches dhamma out of compassion.

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There is this description in AN 5.162:

How should you get rid of resentment for a person whose behavior by way of body and speech is impure, and who doesn’t get an openness and clarity of heart from time to time?

Suppose a person was traveling along a road, and they were sick, suffering, gravely ill. And it was a long way to a village, whether ahead or behind. And they didn’t have any suitable food or medicine, or a competent carer, or someone to bring them to the neighborhood of a village.

Then another person traveling along the road sees them, and thinks of them with nothing but compassion, kindness, and sympathy: ‘Oh, may this person get suitable food or medicine, or a competent carer, or someone to bring them to the neighborhood of a village. Why is that? So that they don’t come to ruin right here.’

In the same way, at that time you should ignore that person’s impure behavior by way of speech and body, and the fact that they don’t get an openness and clarity of heart from time to time, and think of them with nothing but compassion, kindness, and sympathy: ‘Oh, may this person give up bad conduct by way of body, speech, and mind, and develop good conduct by way of body, speech, and mind. Why is that? So that, when their body breaks up, after death, they’re not reborn in a place of loss, a bad place, the underworld, hell.’

That’s how to get rid of resentment for that person.

It’s not even about action, but just about the inner attitude: the wish for them to be free from suffering.

Sometimes there is something you can do, and sometimes there isn’t. But you can always wish them well.


You are so correct, thank you for bringing attention to such a misunderstood topic in Buddhism!

In terms of Suttas, one I think might be helpful is AN 5.50.
Even though it mainly deals with grief for the death of a loved one, I think some things can be applied in this situation.

For example the passage:

“An educated noble disciple has someone liable to sickness who gets sick. So they reflect on sickness: ‘It’s not just me who has someone liable to sickness who gets sick. For all sentient beings have someone liable to sickness who gets sick, as long as sentient beings come and go, pass away and are reborn.”

This is the recognition of the universal nature of suffering, which is the starting point for the development of Karuna.
In our undeveloped minds this recognition often leads to depression, anger, confusion, anxiety, despair (see environmental issues, cancer, hunger in the world etc…)
The sutta instead continues with the correct attitude to keep in the face of this recognition:

If I were to sorrow and wail and lament, beating my breast and falling into confusion, just because someone liable to sickness gets sick, I’d lose my appetite and my physical appearance would deteriorate. My work wouldn’t get done, my enemies would be encouraged, and my friends would be dispirited.’ And so, when someone liable to sickness gets sick, they don’t sorrow and wail and lament, beating their breast and falling into confusion. This is called an educated noble disciple who has drawn out sorrow’s poisoned arrow, struck by which uneducated ordinary people only mortify themselves. Sorrowless, free of thorns, that noble disciple only extinguishes themselves.

And the point is emphasised even more in the final verses:

Sorrowing and lamenting doesn’t do even a little bit of good. When they know that you’re sad, your enemies are encouraged.
When an astute person doesn’t waver in the face of adversity, as they’re able to assess what’s beneficial, their enemies suffer, seeing that their normal expression doesn’t change.
Chants, recitations, fine sayings, charity or traditions: if by means of any such things you benefit, then by all means keep doing them.
But if you understand that ‘this good thing can’t be had by me or by anyone else’, you should accept it without sorrowing, thinking: ‘The karma is strong. What can I do now?’”

So to me the point is clear: letting pollutants enter the mind becasue of a misguided idea we have about compassion is not beneficial.

In more general terms I think it’s useful to reflect on the attitude of the Buddha and the Arahants as presented in the suttas. They don’t grieve, lament, are sad and distressed about the sufferings of others. They are simply willing to help in any way they can when possible. When not possible, what is the point in lamenting?
This should give a clue as to how misguided our perception of what compassion should look like is.

Even though it’s not a sutta, I find this video of Ajahn Sona quite direct in explaining the difference between proper Karuna and its misunderstood counterpart, which he skillfully calls “sympathetic grief”.

One simile he uses often that I think makes the point clear is that if you’re taken to the hospital after a bad car accident you don’t want the doctor to cry and grieve with you. You want him to keep a straight mind so that he can fix you, possibly with a cheerful and uplifting attitude.

Finally, there is an article by Analayo titled “How Compassion Became Painful” which could help clear some things up further:



When a person encounters a hungry monk, he offers food out of his kindness (or metta), not compassion(karuna).
When a monk encounters a hungry person, he offers him a dhamma talk on 3C, out of compassion.

To wish beings well-being here and now, no consideration if it is just, ethical, entitled, skillful, it is metta. It is lack of wisdom. It is thus called ‘unconditional love’.
Compassion commonly understood is metta(love, kinderness, or good heart).
That is what we slang as ‘big heart no brain’.

Compassion of Buddha’s Sangha, is different. It is rooted with wisdom and insight of four noble truth.

No wisdom, no compassion.

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Dārukhandhopama (Simile of the Tree Trunk) Sutta, SN 35.241


SN 42.13 talks about “immersion based on understanding of principle,” which involves using each BV (including Karuna) to stimulate rapture, tranquility, bliss and samadhi and validate faith in karma/ethics.

In his book “Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation”, Ven. Analayo has this to say:


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.
MĀ 25 at T I 454b18 to b25 (translated Bingenheimer et al. 2013: 169) and AN 5.162 at AN III 189,8 (translated Bodhi 2012: 776)

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.


I know some scholars choose to translate it as “care” or “caring” for this reason. This is my preferred translation.


Permit me to share my views.
The 4 Brahmaviharas (Illimitables):
• Metta (friendliness) - towards all.
• Karuna (Compassion) - towards those afflicted
• Mudita - Joyfulness
• Upekkha - Equanimity

Compassion is directed towards those who are afflicted by suffering.
Friendship is directed towards all.