Brahmavihara Dhamma

Part V, by Ven, Mahasi Sayadaw

(67) What is meant by Karuna

Karuna means “compassion” in plain Burmese. This Burmese terminology (Thaner-gyin which means ‘compassion’ in English), is not mingled with any other sense of expression. It is quite precise. Metta in Burmese should be translated as “Love”. This term “love” is mixed up with raga – passionate feeling of attachment. In fact, metta means wishing others to be blessed with happiness. On the other hand, “compassion” i.e. karuna, is not mingled with any other sense. It is exact and definite. It conveys the same sense as: “wishing a person who is in trouble, to be free from suffering or misery”. That is the reason why the intrinsic quality and characteristic of the term “karuna” is explained in the Visuddhimagga as ‘dukkhapanayanakarappavattilakkhana, i.e. having the characteristic of removing suffering or misery.

If anybody is, or a good many other people are found or seen to be suffering and in misery, a noble-minded person will feel like removing this suffering or miserable condition. This is nothing but a feeling of compassion and goodwill. Hence, paradukkho sati – if any other person is suffering, nay, if anybody is seen or heard to be in distress or in suffering, sadhanam – men of virtue, hadayakampanam – moved with self-giving compassion, or the heart palpitates, karotiti – makes the hearts of virtuous men moved with compassion, (and therefore) karuna – is called karuna, vacanattha – and expressed or stated authoritatively as such.

To put it in another way, paradukkham – regarding another’s suffering, kinatihim sati vinasetiti – being likely to remove, or rather, eager to remove, it is known as ‘karuna’. Since it is stated as being “eager to remove” another’s suffering, a question may arise as to whether it would really remove or wipe out the suffering. A person who feels pity having had deep sympathy for another in trouble, may save the other by exercising his faculty of karuna or compassion. There are clear instances where suffering is removed or cured as also where no assistance to rescue can be rendered. Though suffering cannot be subdued, a person who has the compassionate feeling will still feel like removing the suffering. In any case, one would feel sorry for another’s plight, or feel like dispelling the distress or misery suffered by another. When a person stricken with disease is found, a feeling of compassion or pity will arise automatically wishing the other to get immediate relief, or if possible, get cured. Much as he may wish, if he is not competent to give medical treatment, he cannot effectively assist the other. And yet, he is at heart willing to see him recovered from illness or suffering. Such being the case, this instinctive nature of a man wishing to remove or cure another’s suffering, should be regarded as “karuna”.

In other words, kam sukham – one’s own happiness, rundhatiti – is likely to be prevented or hindered, and hence, karuna – it is known as ‘karuna’. Karuna is said to have the basic quality of preventing one’s own happiness from occurring, or rather, deterring one’s self-realization of happiness. A person who is compassionate will lose his opportunity to some extent to make himself happy since he has to be rendering help to another so as to let the other escape from trouble or misery. If one is found to be suffering in his close proximity or under his own eyes, he is ready to offer his aid. During this interregnum, he will not have an opportunity to seek for his own happiness. He may even lose his sleep during nighttime for having had to render his assistance and look after the welfare of another person. He may have to forego his sleep and sacrifice his own happiness. If a sick person is found, he has got to nurse him as far as possible, and by doing so, he may himself suffer stiffness in his own limbs or get tired. Sometimes, he may even fall sick. At one time, a medical doctor was said to have suffered from gastric ulcer for being fully preoccupied in attending the sick which had caused him to miss his regular meals. He died of that stomach disease while still young. Hence, karuna or compassion can prevent one’s own happiness.