Compassion: Buddhist Psychology | Jack Kornfield

Narrated by: Jack Kornfield

In Theravāda Buddhism, karuṇā is one of the four “divine abodes” (brahmavihāra), along with loving kindness (Pāli: mettā), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha). In the Pali canon, Gautama Buddha recommends cultivating these four virtuous mental states to both householders and monastics. When one develops these four states, Buddha counsels radiating them in all directions, as in the following stock canonical phrase regarding karuṇā:

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.

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.

The Pali commentaries distinguish between karuṇā 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. The “far enemy” of karuṇā is cruelty, a mind-state in obvious opposition. The “near enemy” (quality which superficially resembles karuṇā but is in fact more subtly in opposition to it), is (sentimental) pity: here too one wants to remove suffering, but for a partly selfish (attached) reason hence not the pure motivation. In the Pāli Canon, Buddhas are also described as choosing to teach “out of compassion for beings.”

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