karuṇaṃ, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvehi. karuṇañhi te, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvayato yā vihesā sā pahīyissati.
“Develop the meditation of compassion. For when you are developing the meditation of compassion, cruelty will be abandoned.”
As the second of the brahmavihāras, karuṇā or compassion is the capacity to be fully present with suffering. It means holding unpleasantness gently, cradling it with care, being present without resistance. In holding it with care, suffering loses its hold over us.
In Buddhism, compassion is one of the most exalted qualities of heart that can be cultivated. Compassion starts with oneself and expands outward in ripples. Caring for those who are suffering, both ourselves and others, with infinite compassion lessens the magnitude of that suffering, bringing its intensity down to manageable levels, and eventually, transforming it altogether.
Although not spoken directly by the Buddha, the Vissudhimagga, meaning “The Path of Purification,” a Buddhist text written by the classical Buddhist scholar Buddhaghoṣa, contains a straightforward and informative description of karuṇā:
“When there is suffering in others it causes good people’s hearts to be moved, thus it is compassion. Or, alternatively, it combats others’ suffering and demolishes it, thus it is compassion. Or, alternatively, it is scattered upon those who suffer, or extended to them by pervasion, thus it is compassion.”
Thus, compassion can be understood as the natural human response to suffering. It is no wonder then that the ancient texts proclaim that the Buddha taught out of compassion for the world – lokānukampāya.
The root of karuṇā (करुणा) – ka क – is the same as the root of karma (कर्म), meaning action. Like karma, karuṇā has an active component underlying its very meaning. When one witnesses the suffering of others, often, out of compassion, one feels or shares in the suffering. Feeling the suffering of others compels us to act out of compassion.
In the Vissudhimagga above, it is stated that compassion “combats others’ suffering and demolishes it.”
paradukkhe sati sādhūnaṃ hadayakampanaṃ karotīti karuṇā. kiṇāti vā paradukkhaṃ hiṃsati vināsetīti karuṇā. kiriyati vā dukkhitesu pharaṇavasena pasāriyatīti karuṇā.
Vism 1, 9. brahmavihāraniddeso, pakiṇṇakakathā,
This phrase is especially powerful since it conveys the active force of compassion. The first two sentences are especially evocative.
para | dukkhe | sati | sādhūnaṃ | hadaya | kampanaṃ | karotīti | karuṇā
others | suffering | mindful | good people | hearts | tremble | make | compassion
Mindful of others’ suffering, it makes the hearts of good people tremble. Thus is compassion.
kiṇāti | vā | para | dukkhaṃ | hiṃsati | vināsetīti | karuṇā
combat | or | others | suffering | destroy | expel | compassion
Or, it combats, destroys, and expels the suffering of others. Thus is compassion.
Compassion is therefore active, not passive – a force to be reckoned with. It is profoundly transformative, moving us to spring into action. It is the spark that ignites actions of deep care. Thus is the Buddha’s compassion.