KARUṆĀ , normally translated as "compassion," is a term central to the entire Buddhist tradition. When linked with prajñā ("wisdom") it constitutes one of the two pillars of Buddhism. Karuṇā is frequently described as the love for all beings, as exemplified by a mother's love for a child. However, karuṇā is quite unlike conventional "love" (Skt., priya, kāma, tṛṣṇā ), which is rooted in dichotomous thinking (vijñāna, vikalpa ) and centered on self-concern. Love in this latter sense is egoistic, possessive, clouded by ignorance (avidyā ), and easily subject to its opposite passion, hate.
In contrast, karuṇā is manifested in the non-dichotomous mode of prajñā that has broken through the self-other discrimination. Thus freed of self-centeredness, karuṇā is concerned only with the welfare of the other. The root meaning of karuṇā is said to be the anguished cry of deep sorrow that elicits compassion. Love in the conventional sense and compassion in its Buddhist sense may be loosely equated to eros and agapē, respectively.
The life of Śākyamuni Buddha, especially his missionary work of forty-five years, is a manifestation par excellence of compassion. The cruciality of compassionate deeds for the attainment of supreme enlightenment is evident in the jātakas, a collection of fables recounting the previous lives of the Buddha. The evolution of Buddhism in Asia and its spread throughout the world are, from a Buddhist point of view, none other than the unfolding of karuṇā in history.
In Buddhist doctrine, karuṇā is most commonly found as the second of the Four Immeasurable Attitudes (catvāri apramāṇāni ) that are to be cultivated in meditative practice: maitrī ("friendliness"), karuṇā ("compassion"), muditā ("sympathetic joy"), and upekṣā ("equanimity"). Friendliness is said to give pleasure and happiness to others, compassion uproots pain and suffering, and sympathetic joy refers to one's joy for the happiness of others. Finally, equanimity frees one from attachment to these attitudes so that one may go forth to practice them in the service of all those in need.
The Mahāyāna scriptures, in spite of their diversity and differences, reveal the multifaceted dimensions of karuṇā. Central to all Mahāyāna texts is the bodhisattva vow, which puts the deliverance of all beings from saṃsāra (i.e., the cycle of births and deaths) before one's own deliverance. To put it in a more personal way, the vow states, "As long as there is one unhappy person in the world, my happiness is incomplete." The vow acknowledges the absolute equality of self and other (parātmasamatā ) and the interchangeability of self and other (parātmaparivartana ), such that one willingly takes on the suffering of others.
Philosophically, the justification of compassion is rooted in the notion of śūnyatā ("emptiness"), which sweeps away all divisions and discriminations—self and other, good and bad, like and dislike, and so forth—that are created by the arbitrary conceptions of the subjective mind. This clearing away of all forms of discursive thinking, originating from the fictive self, is none other than the working of prajñā, which is inseparable from karuṇā. Wisdom and compassion are said to be like two wheels of a cart or two wings of a bird.
Another important dimension of compassion that figures in Mahāyāna Buddhism is mahākaruṇā ("great compassion"). The adjective "great" connotes the transcendent nature of the compassion that is an essential quality of Buddhahood. All Buddhas—whether Śākyamuni, Vairocana, Bhaiṣajyaguru, Amitābha, Akṣobhya, and others—manifest great compassion. Amitābha (Jpn., Amida) Buddha, for example, reveals great compassion in his "primal vow" (Jpn., hongan ), which states that his attainment of supreme Buddhahood was contingent upon the guarantee of the selfsame enlightenment for all beings who have faith in him. The practitioner of the Mahāyāna path, then, becomes a recipient of great compassion. In fact, it is said that the bodhisattva progresses on the path to enlightenment by virtue not of his own powers but of the powers of great compassion.
Historically, however, karuṇā is also manifested in such practical expressions as acts of generosity or charity (dāna ). Among the puṇyakṣetra ("merit-fields", i.e., sources for creating religious merit) available to the devotee are compassion, wherein those in need, helpless beasts, and even insects are the objects of care and concern; gratitude, where parents, all sentient beings, rulers, and the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) are revered; the poor, where the destitute are fed, clothed, and housed; and animals, which are to be released from human enslavement. In premodern times, karuṇā was also understood and appreciated in much more concrete forms: planting fruit orchards and trees, digging bathing ponds, dispensing medicine, building bridges, digging wells along highways, making public toilets, establishing clinics and orphanages, teaching sericulture, farming methods and irrigation, building dikes and canals, and countless other welfare activities.
There is no single monograph on karuṇā in any Western language. Because it permeates Buddhist literature, it is best to go to the original sources. A good sampling may be found in Edwin A. Burtt's The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha (New York, 1955). For the relationship between śūnyatā and compassion, see The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti, translated by Robert A. F. Thurman (University Park, Pa., 1976); for the working of wisdom, compassion, and upāya (liberative technique), see The Threefold Lotus Sutra, translated by Bunnō Katō and others (New York, 1975); and for the Primal Vow of compassion, see "The Larger Sukhāvatī-vyūha," in Buddhist Mahāyāna Texts, edited by E. B. Cowell, in "Sacred Books of the East," vol. 49 (1894; reprint, New York, 1969).
Clayton, Barbra. "Ahimsa, Karuna and Maitri: Implications for Environmental Buddhism." Ecumenism 134 (1999): 27–31.
Jenkins, S. L. "The Circle of Compassion: An Interpretive Study of Karuna in Indian Buddhist Literature." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1999.
Viévard, L. Vacuité (Sunyata) et Compassion (Karuna) dans le Bouddhisme Madhyamaka. Paris, 2002.
Taitetsu Unno (1987)