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Compassion and Its Ethical Value as Depicted in Early Buddhism by Ven. Pantu Chakma

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Compassion and Its Ethical Value as Depicted in Early Buddhism
Ven. Pantu Chakma, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka

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Looking at the subject of this topic, it can be drawn that a large amount of scholarly works have been done on the subject matter of compassion (Karuṇā) together with the other “Sublime States”. The concept of compassion has always been a popular research topic for the scholars since it is one of the prominent qualities of the Buddha. But as a separate topic for academic research the concept of compassion from the socio-ethical point of view has been left out by modern scholars. It is still remains as one of the great subjects in early Buddhism. Even though we find enough scholarly works, much research is needed in order to understand the concept with greater analysis in the field of Buddhist studies. In fact, there are some gaps that have remained in this field of research, which is why it aroused me to fill up this gap as part of my academic research.

The main purpose of this research is to study the significance of Karuṇāas an ethical value with reference to the suttas in early Buddhism. The term Karuṇā in the general sense of the English language means “Compassion”. On the other hand, the term Karuṇā itself has a philosophical meaning, which is to relieve the suffering of other human beings; however it is not limited to human beings but it extends to all sentient beings. It is evident from the particular verses found in Suttanipàta aññhakathà as “the desire to remove what is detrimental to others and their happiness” (ahita-dukkhàpanayanakamatà). So in this regard Karuṇā will be explored more systematically with the Four Brahma-vihàras. The Buddha being one of the greatest human personalities has possessed this great quality. It has been said that before the break of the dawn the Blessed one used to survey the world with his eye compassion (Budhacakkhu) to help those beings who needs his help. The Buddha saw all sentient beings with equal compassion irrespective of any difference.

Buddhism always encourages human beings to build an ethical and peaceful society and practice compassion for all beings. From the ethical point of view, Buddhism is completely opposed to human violence. Even the rulers are not advised to commit unlawful and unkind acts against their subjects. Normally, all human beings have some amount of compassion in their hearts, for example; a wealthy man can give material support to a poor man out of compassion. So this is common to normal human beings like us. But in the case of the Buddha and the Arahants it is considered as being far more advanced and unlimited and which manifests as the deep motivation and desire to relieve suffering of beings by leading them to Nibbàna.

Definition of the Term: Karuṇā

Karuṇā, (n) the root kr – to mourn, to feel pity for, to act, to have compassionate and etc. and the verb is Karuṇayati from the base Karuṇā. The Buddhist scholars and translators generally have rendered the meaning of the term Karuṇā into English as pity or compassion and more specifically it stands as to relieve the suffering of others. Although, the writers past and present have given the definition based on textual basis, it is clear that the conception of compassion stress more than this. Nevertheless, three meanings are given to the term ‘compassion’ basing on texts: a prerequisite for a just or harmonious society; an essential attitude for progress along the path towards wisdom (pa¤¤à); and the liberative action within society of those who have become enlightened or who are sincerely following the path towards it. In fact, the Theravada definition of the term Karuṇā (compassion) goes beyond just mere feeling of removing the pain. It defines it as, “the deep feeling of sharing the suffering of another in the inclination to give and or support, or show mercy”. The PTS Dictionary also renders the meaning of the term as compassion and pity. It is one of the four sublime states of a person who has attained the liberation of heart (Ceto-vimutti) frequently found in this formula with “Karuṇā Sahagatena cetasà”(the exalted compassion for all beings). Therefore, compassion is described as “liberation of mind” (cetovimutti). Loving kindness and compassion appear as the objects of various forms of the verb “cultivate” (bhaveti) where they are said to mean access (upacàra) or placement (appana). In the Buddhist text it is frequently found the term Karuṇā explained as “ahita-dukkh-àpanaya-kàmatà”, the desire of removing bane and sorrow of others, while Metta is explained as “hita-sukh-åpanaya-kàmatà”, the desire of bringing that which is for the welfare and good. Besides these renderings we find another definition given by Ven. Buddhaghosa in his commentary he implicitly gives the philological definition, Visuddhimagga as,

“Paradukkhe sati sàdhånaü hadayakampanam karotã ti Karuṇā. Kiõàti và paradukkhaü,
hiüsati vinàsetã ti Karuṇā. Kiriyati và dukkitesu pharaõavasena pasàriyatã Karuṇā.”
(The feeling that causes the good people’s hearts to be moved when they see others’ suffering is compassion. That which combats attacks and demolishes others’ suffering is compassion, it is called compassion because it is scattered upon those who suffer, and it is extended to them by pervasion.)

Bhikkhu ¥àõamoli translates the passage as follows,

When there is suffering in others it causes (karoti) good people’s hearts to be moved (kampana), thus it is compassion (Karuṇā). Or alternatively, it combats (kinàti) others’ suffering, attacks and demolishes it, thus it is compassion. Or alternatively, it is scattered (kiriyati) upon those who suffer, it is extended to them by pervasion, thus it is compassion (Karuṇā).

As Ven. Buddhaghosa has given the definition of compassion (Karuṇā) in the Theravada commentaries, similarly it is identified in Mahayana sources also with regard to the term compassion (Karuṇā). In Aksayamatinirdesa sutra, the philological definition of Karuṇāis rendered as,

“As for this great compassion, reverend Saradvatãputra [the meaning of the word compassion is “work” …and all the roots of the good are] work performed by oneself … [Even if is for the sake of others and oneself] it is one’s own work, thus it is called great compassion.”

The term Karuṇāis not mingled with any other sense because it is definite. On the other hand loving kindness (mettà) is mixed with raga and attachment. That is the reason why the term Karuṇāis explained in the Visuddhimagga as “dukkhapanayanakarap pavattilakkana”, which means having the characteristics of removing the suffering or misery. The other words that have been used very often in the canon (Tipitaka) are “anukampà” and “daya”, translated as sympathy, convey the same meaning. The Buddha is a unique being in the history of mankind; he is the teacher of gods and men (sattadevà manussànam). He possessed an incomparable knowledge which enables him to see the things as they truly are (yathàbhåta–¤àdassana). The Buddha being wise in regard to all things was compassionate to everybody, he exceeded (others) in the best qualities, (knowing) what was for his own and others’ good. And through sympathy he set his mind on the perfections, through wisdom he raised himself up, he raised himself above all things; through sympathy he raised others too. Therefore, the contemporary Pali scholars define the term as compassion. Compassion is a great virtue which removes the suffering of other beings that are in great agony. It is a virtue that feels one’s own suffering and recognizing the suffering of others. In this deluded world, by seeing the pain everywhere we tend to practice this great virtue to us as well as to others. Buddhism being the religious philosophy denies the fact that it does not concentrate only one single individual but for the sake of whole humanity.

In the Buddhist terminology, there have appeared many similar terms conveying the meaning more or less. This is well demonstrated in the canonical sources and in the commentarial period. Some researchers have done only a conceptual or a comparative study of these terms. The terms such as “Anukampà”, “daya” are used to convey the same meaning in the canonical literature because it is frequently found rather than the term Karuṇā.

Therefore, it is useful to focus here on the wordAnukampà” also, as a key term that is useful in explaining Karuṇā. The word ‘anukampà’ means sympathy but literally it is ‘kampa’ which means to tremble, or vibrate and the prefix ‘anu’ means with or towards and etc. Venerable Buddhaghosa defines ‘anukampà’ as being soft hearted. In describing anukampà, Buddhaghosa comes close to his definition of Karuṇā, saying anukampà is the heart ‘trembling’ from the suffering of others.

The concept of compassion has to be without lust(raga), anger (dosa) and delusion (moha), for there is the possibility of having them which might be harmful to one’s spiritual progress and as well as others. The definition runs in Cariyapitaka commentary thus “it is the hatelessness (avyapajjatà) accompanied with compassion and proficiency of means, directed at the good and happiness of the world”.

The whole concept of compassion is epitomized by the heartfelt wish, “may all beings be free from suffering”. It is not just sympathy to relieve the suffering of others. The practitioner has to develop it through meditation practice, an idea or wish that others be free from suffering. The kind of compassion that motivates one’s own moral development is beneficial to others as well. If a person practices diligently, he will be rewarded with visions of Brahma in this life and birth hereafter in the realm of Brahma world. In the psycho-ethical social philosophy of Buddhism, the concept of compassion has two aspects. First, as a desirable quality in human character, it is meant to regulate our attitude to other people. This mundane aspect of compassion is developed into a semi-transcendental level in the theory of the four divine abodes (Brahmavihàra), of which compassion occupies the second place. Secondly, it has its higher or more advanced aspect in what is designated as great or grand compassion (Mahà Karuṇā) found only in released saints like Buddhas and Arahats.

As said in the above sentences, they will be explored in the latter chapter. Because they both are needed to be developed in order to practice compassion from the ethical point of view. We have seen in the earlier definitions that the Buddhist concept of compassion is to relieve the suffering of other beings; therefore, the best way to practice it is to lead them with ethical basis to the path of Nibbàna and hence it makes the concept truly worthwhile.

To be more effective in the ethical philosophy of compassion, the ideal of Ahimsa (non-violence) would be vital to practice firsthand. The Vasala sutta makes this relationship explicit. This kind of practice of compassion is important in the daily existence of life, as the Dhammapàda says, life is dear to all.

“Sabbe tasanti daõdassa sabbesaμ jãvitaμ piyaü, attànaü upamaü katva na haneyya na ghataye” (130)
(All trembles at violence, life is dear to all, putting oneself in the place of another, one should neither kill nor cause another to kill)

According to Buddhism, compassion can be viewed in two phases as mundane side and higher spiritual side. The mundane side of compassion is found in leaders and people in positions of power; an ideal example being King Asoka who experienced it. He was deeply moved by compassion after realizing the massacre of the Kalinga war. It is to be noted here that in accordance with the teaching of the Buddha, if a ruler goes against the Buddhist ethics in a cruel manner towards his subjects, then the state declines. The Cakkavattisãhanàda sutta illustrates the idea of a righteous monarch in vivid detail. Thus, this kind of mundane aspect of compassion is very commonly found in the society. It is very natural to have sympathy or compassion to those who are physically, economically or financially weak and help them. It may be either material assistance or any other form of help. On the other hand, the higher spiritual side of compassion is different, because it is only found in the Buddhas and Arahats who first realized it by themselves in full and then begin to help others. They have no more attachment to the worldly life like that of worldlings (puthujjana). That is why the Buddha teaches the method of compassion from the mundane side to the higher level compassion which is known as Mahà Karuṇā.

The Moral Significance of Compassion

It has been observed in Buddhist studies in the past recent years that socio-moral aspect of its philosophy has been paid scant attention at the hands of writers both of the East and the West. The reason behind the decline of its social-moral aspect can be regarded as mainly in the East, the students have thought that Buddhism is purely personal religion and dealt with only the intention of individual ethics and practice. On the other hand the Western scholars have dealt intensively with the subject of historical and metaphysical Buddhist ideas. Thus, the socio-ethical aspect of Buddhism has hardly received the special attention in the religious arena. Nevertheless, a careful student of Buddhist field no matter will find enough data available or as contained in the Buddhist canonical texts about the socio-moral problems current at the time of their composition. However, in Buddhist philosophy the most important aspect of its social philosophy relates mainly to the sphere of ethics, particularly of psychological ethics. Hence, the Buddha states that if one is willing to get to the higher spiritual progress then one must certainly need to hook up with moral conduct or Sila. In Buddhism, the philosophy is meaningful only if in reality one regulates one’s life. Therefore, the attainment of knowledge and insight (pa¤¤à) is freedom (vimutti).

Sila is one of the terms that occupy an important place in the ethics of Buddhism. The PTS gives the meaning of the term as ‘nature’, ‘behavior’, ‘character’ or ‘habit’. Sila, more difficult etymologically than Vinaya, is probably derived from the verb Sil and generally translate as virtue, moral virtue or morality, although Ven. Buddhaghosa in the Visuddhimagga traces it to a different root, associated with ‘cooling’ and Vasubandhu in the Abhidharmako÷a suggests it derives from the root si, which he too associates with cooling.[1] And in the same book too, Damien Kewon has given a quotation from the Hirakawa’s analysis on the aspect of Sila and Vinaya. Sila is more preferably highly rich concept for understanding the individual ethical conduct.

Thus Damien Keown quotes:

Hirakawa’s analysis of the two words seems to have enormous significance for Buddhist ethics. Our present inquiry into the essential meaning of Buddhist ethics and morality, to address the task of its constructive modernization, demands that we give serious consideration to the means for maintaining a balance between autonomy (Sila) [sic], expressing the inner spirit of Dharma, and the heterogeneous norms or precepts (vinaya) of the Buddhist order.[2]

It is a clear view that very often morality has been used as a synonym to the term Sila. The term Sila also has been used in the Indian religious traditional context as I have mentioned earlier. But in Buddhism the term Sila has been used both as an evaluative term in its ethical language as well as descriptive or neutral tern in other context. In Buddhism Sila is used in terms of a moral life. In most instances the term Sila is referred to any practice that was adopted by a given group of religious seekers to guide their way of life. The early Buddhist formulation of the path of moral development is presented in the Pali literature in the form of three-fold training in which Sila occurs as the first step and the foundation for the other two steps.

They are Sila, morality, Samadhi, the development of mental composure and Pa¤¤à, the cultivation of insight that leads to liberation. The most of the sutta-s contained in the Silakkhadhavagga, the first group of Sutta-s in the Dãghanikàya, deal with morality of the Buddhist path. The most elaborate aspect of Sila is found in the Brahmajàla sutta and the Sàma¤¤aphala sutta of Dãghanikàya. This formulation of the path does not only reveal the pragmatic aspect of Buddhism but also the psychological insight on which the moral practice of Buddhism is based. The Buddha speaks of the path of the spiritual perfection that is the attainment of Nibbàna in terms of Sila as the foundation of Buddhist ultimate goal. It is the basis for the entire spiritual endeavor. Because the morality recommended in Buddhism is directly connected to the achievement of Nibbàna. From morality comes wisdom and from wisdom comes morality.

Buddhist Embryology is a branch of Biology dealing with the development of animal embryo. It means, an unborn baby in the early stages of development. The Buddhist point of view on embryology is very much similar in relation to modern scientific research. But in adopting this view Buddhist thinking was far advanced than the west on its embryological development. The Buddha himself had already discussed that conception and the fetal development marks as the start of an orderly process of development up to birth and beyond through childhood to maturity. Unlike the western thinking which followed Aristotle, and adopted its understanding of embryology through the theory of animation of animals.

As Damien Keown, refers as to how conception is mentioned in Hindu medical treatise:

In the union of husband and wife … the sperm comes out … arrives in the uterus and is united with the menstrual blood. Thus the fetus is created when the spirit (jiva, cetanadhàtu), quick as wind and impelled by his deed in an earlier birth (karman), enters it as the sixth element. If the sperm preponderates a male child is born, if the menstrual blood prevails a female child is generated …

The Buddhist understanding of the conception is similar to the account given above, and in an early canonical text the Buddha explains the conditions under which it occurs. The passage sets out three conditions which are required if an intermediate being is to enter the womb and embark upon a new human life. This passage and other early texts speak of the ‘descent’ or ‘entry’ (avakkanti) of the intermediate being into the womb.

Therefore, it is to be noted here that the Buddha at the very outset said that everything in the universe is interconnected and interrelated in terms of rebirth and providing Buddhist Embryology, which is known as ‘theory of causality’ (Pañiccasamuppàda) in Buddhism. According to Buddhism the human life is ambivalent. It is stressed that every human fetus is regarded as a result of one’s karmic acts from the past lives. Here the most important thing is that to be born as human is an extremely rare or opportunity to take the path of the Buddha Dharma and escape from the unending circle of rebirths.

Abortion means ‘termination of a pregnancy before birth’, or ‘death of a fetus’. The concept of abortion is highly debated issue of our time. Almost all the countries had an idea that doing an abortion means a sinful act. In fact, Buddhism has not dealt with the concept much since it is teaching of non-violence. But in contemporary society some countries like the United States of America have legally induced abortion and some other European countries too. On the other hand, the Buddhist approach is very simple in this respect because doing an abortion means killing a being which implies accumulation of lot of evil karmic deeds. In Buddhism abortion has to be pure, good and ethical manner rather than making it an intentional act which will bring one to grievances. Therefore, from the religio-philosophical ethical point of view Buddhism recommends abortion is inappropriate. Abortion is prohibited by the precept against ‘depriving a human life’. The death of a fetus is considered as grave offence as killing a human being.


The concept of compassion is one of the great virtues of the Buddha. He is said to have possessed this great virtue which is always in presence of him. The outcome of compassion is wide in range when considering one in respect of his ethical progress. The practice of compassion gives one tremendous benefits. My own work began with the view that the compassion of the enlightened one is boundless for the sake of all. That is why the bodhisattva chooses to not to enter Nibbàna unless he helps others to cross over the Saüsàra. Further if one is willing to avoid the direct realization of emptiness as a moment on the path, one must treat the basic philosophical problem of compassionately engaging in the suffering world for the sake of all. Here the realization of emptiness and the development of compassion are neither automatic correlates nor antithetical. But with the process of meditative techniques compassion continues to develop.


  1. See Damien Keown, Contemporary Buddhist Ethics (Richmond, Surrey.: Curzon Press, 2000), p. 38 (Chapter 2)
  2. Damien Keown, Contemporary Buddhist Ethics (Richmond, Surrey.: Curzon Press, 2000), pp. 38-39


Ven. Pantu Chakma, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka
The third International Conference Buddhism & Australia 2014