Is compassion really a good translation for Karuna? I've been fooled by "patience" before, now I'm sort of suspicious of the other common translations for the paramitas.

Does karuna in addition to feeling other people's pain also entail regret? In "A Few Good Men" by Nattier, she talks about people on the Bodhisattva path developing karuna by doing a 3 part ritual that is a repentance ritual. This seems far removed from imaginatively feeling the pain of others.

Could it be that Karuna and English compassion, don't cover the same semantic ground?

  • 1
    I do not really know whether this is etymologically correct, but I've read somewhere, that "karuna" might have a common root or a connection with "care" in the sense of "to care for" . I can nicely feel into it if I think of my daughter (it has another tone than only "metta"), and -why not- something with this tone might be meant when it is said the it is the feeling a "good king should have for his people" (as mentioned in the other answer) Oct 17, 2015 at 6:04
  • Please also check out rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Four_immeasurables ... nyingjé was recently translated for me as "good heart" with a hearty laugh and smile.
    – sova
    Oct 17, 2015 at 17:12

9 Answers 9


Literally, karuna means "to mourn", "to pity", "to lament" - but the Buddhist meaning is quite different.

In Pali Canon karuna is one of the four brahmaviharas, practiced as an antidote against aversion towards people and society due to their shortcomings. Somewhere in the Canon I've read Buddha saying karuna is like what a good king should feel for his people. The king does not complain that his country is imperfect nor does he resent his people! Instead, he appreciates their condition and tries to help them out as much as he can. (This doesn't mean he lets them sleep in his bedroom - he can't solve their problems for them, but he can "give them the fish pole and teach them how to fish".) There is a reason they are called "brahma-vihara"-s, the dwellings of Brahma - the nondualistic all-inclusive God-Absolute. It is like the practitioner takes on the Brahma's perspective.

In Mahayana compassion goes hand in hand with wisdom and skillful means, exemplified by Lotus Sutra's parable of the burning house. It is like compassion of parents towards their children. They know there is sex, but they don't want their children to be harmed by what those are not ready for, yet. They know Santa Claus is an illusion, but because they love their children so much they put the gifts under the Christmas tree.

As you see, in both cases it is a top-down compassion, compassion of superior taking care of the junior, weak, sick, or confused - using whatever tools you have at your disposal, from logic, to useful fiction, to wrath and "tough love". Instead of resenting the way the world is or the people are (=the victim stance), we take the master's stance.

At the same time, part of the practice of deconstructing the ego is to cultivate clear understanding that in principle, there is nothing substantial that makes Bodhisattva "better" than others, beside the luck of having encountered, and benefited from, the genuine teaching. Bodhisattva can relate to everybody's dukkha - because they see that deep inside people are not that different. Everyone is subject to the three marks of existence. Every one is subject to emptiness. Even though Bodhisattva has realized Emptiness, s\he sees how hard it is to not assume things to be real. Bodhisattva can see how people organize their lives around illusions - and how it inevitably leads to suffering. This is why it is said, in one who sees things as they are, compassion arises spontaneously.

So [in my understanding] Buddhist compassion is not as much just feeling other people's pain -- as it is an attitude, a modus operandi permeated with the sense of ownership of and responsibility for the good of all beings - based on being able to relate, to put oneself in their shoes.


Several quotes to support my understanding.

Thich Nhat Hanh:

[Karuna is] the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows. Karuna is usually translated as 'compassion', but that is not exactly correct.


1) When there is suffering in others it makes (karoti) good people’s hearts tremble (kampana), thus it is compassion (karuna).
2) It combats (kinati) others’ suffering, attacks and demolishes it, thus it is karuna.
3) or it is dispersed (kiriyati) over the suffering, is spread out through pervasion, thus it is karuna.

The-Teaching-of-Aksayamati-bodhisattva Sutra:

As for this great compassion (maha-karuna), reverend Saradvatiputra, it means "work" or "action" (kar-)
[Even if is for the sake of others] it is one's own work - thus it is called "great compassion".


Whether we translate karuna as 'compassion' does not matter that much. Why? Because that compassion which is karuna is defined as "the wish for others to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering". Consequently, the fact that the etymology of 'com-passion' might relate to 'suffering with' and so forth does not really matter, since we are clear on the definition of the so-called "buddhist compassion, which is karuna".

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    I thought that the way in which the Violence chapter in the Dhammapada starts (e.g. "All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.") implied something about the motive for karuna/compassion i.e. implies that the "com" and "with" might be important.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 17, 2015 at 10:33
  • I agree with you that the "com", "with" aspect might be important. We chose "compassion" over, for instance, "private jet" because the usual meaning of "compassion", its connotations, and maybe even its etymology convey something of the meaning of karuna better than "private jet" does. However, compassion which is karuna has a definition of its own, while 'common' compassion has another lexical universe that does not overlap in all respects. Oct 17, 2015 at 18:16

my take on it is Karuna means that feeling you want others to come out of pain or misery. In contrast with metta, a feeling that you don't want others to be in pain or misery.

Karuna drives you to help, where Metta prevents you from harming others. My opinion.


That seems to be the usual translation. It's specifically associated with removing afflictions. The PTS dictionary pairs it with (i.e. as a complement of) metta,

Karuṇā (f.) [cp. Vedic karuṇa nt. (holy) action; Sk. karuṇā, fr. kṛ. As adj. karuṇa see under 3.] pity, compassion. Karuṇā is one of the 4 qualities of character significant of a human being who has attained enfranchisement of heart (ceto -- vimutti) in the 4 sentiments, viz. mettā k.˚ upekhā muditā Freq. found in this formula with ˚sahagatena cetasā. The first two qualities are complementary, and SnA 128 (on Sn 73) explains k˚ as "ahita -- dukkh -- âpanaya -- kāmatā," the desire of removing bane and sorrow (from one's fellowmen), whilst mettā is expl. as "hita -- sukh -- ûpanayakāmatā," the desire of bringing (to one's fellow -- men) that which is welfare and good.

I Googled briefly to try to understand what you wrote about "talks about people on the Bodhisattva path developing karuna by doing a 3 part ritual that is a repentance ritual."

Could it be that repentance is needed to earn (i.e. to become the object of) compassion, rather than to generate (i.e. become the author of) compassion? Or that one hopes to attain the object of repentance (i.e. removal of affliction) as a result of enlightened compassion? Which, may eventually amount to the same thing, if you remove self-and-other duality? Included in the PTS dictionary definition:

feat of great compassion: in which Buddha is represented when rising and surveying the world to look for beings to be worthy of his mercy and help

Then there's pages 154 and 155 of this PDF -- the fourth vow is to repent the evil karma of misdeed (which might be where "repentance" comes from), and one of the three kinds of repentance is Dharma ritual,

There are three kinds of repentance: (1) repentance by Dharma ritual (2) repentance by meditation (3) repentance of non-arising. First of all, as to the repentance by bowing and chanting sutra, a sinner has to confess his wrongdoing in front of the image or statue of the Buddha, as if the Buddhad were there, and to ask forgiveness with the sincerity. The sinner has to place his knees, elbows and the head on the ground to show the ultimate respect; further, he has to keep chanting the sutra, and thinking of the positive meaning of the sutra. Therefore, the physical, verbal and mental wrongdoing can be purified by the repentance of Dharma ritual. For example, the Lotus sutra (法華經) and Maha karuna dharani Dharma ritual (大悲懺儀) repentance are the most popular ones. Secondly, as to the repentance by meditation, etc.

Anyway yes, "compassion" is the most common translation. There's a collection of 17 definitions here.

One of these definitions explains why they don't translate it as "pity" or "sympathy":

Karunā is often translated as “pity” or “sym­pathy”; since these notions tend to suggest pas­sive attitudes that do not contain the quality of active help that is an essential part of karunā, the concept of “compassion” is more suitable.


This seems far removed from imaginatively feeling the pain of others.

Compassion and empathy aren't quite the same thing. Here's a post by Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard explaining more:

Compassion and selfless love are associated with positive emotions. Based on this, in the course of my collaboration with Tania Singer, a neuroscientist Director at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, we realized that burnout was actually a due to ‟empathy fatigue” and not to ‟compassion fatigue”. In fact, compassion far from leading to distress and discouragement strengthens our fortitude, our inner balance and our courageous determination to help those who suffer. In essence, from our point of view, love and compassion do not wear out. Rather they help to overcome empathic distress.

These three dimensions — altruistic love, empathy and compassion — are naturally connected. Within altruistic love, or benevolence, empathy alerts us that the other person might be suffering. Compassion — the desire to dispel these sufferings and their causes — follows. Thus, when confronted with suffering, altruistic love, catalyzed by empathy, becomes compassion.


Personally, I tend to think 'solicitude' or 'tender-heartedness' are more adequate translations than 'compassion' (though I don't think it's a huge issue). The term 'compassion' always feels a bit distanced to me, as though we are sitting on our cushions fully understanding that others are in a misery of ignorance, but holding it as an abstraction, not really connecting with it. 'Tender-heartedness' suggests that we feel the pain in our own hearts that arises as we face the miseries that others are caught in. This pulls things a bit closer to the original sense of karunā as 'mourning': it is our own sorrow over the nature of the human world that rises within us.

A while back I was talking with a friend of mine — a youngish woman I knew from school — who was having a moment of heartbreak over something her boyfriend of the time had done. I listened, and in that hearing I had a moment (like an echo chamber, or a hall of mirrors) where I felt as though the sound of countless women across every time and place was washing over me, all voicing the same heartbreak over the same action. That sense of constantly recurring heartbreak, of a karmic pulse of misery as regular and inescapable as waves crashing on a shore... That tore at my own heart, a heartbreak over heartbreak. That, I think, is the essence of karunā.


Buddhaghosa says in the Visuddhimagga: "When there is suffering in others it causes (karoti) good people's hearts to be moved (kampana), thus it is compassion (karuna). Or alternatively, it combats (kinati) 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 (karuna)."

Stephen Jenkins writes in Action Dharma that the paragraph above alludes to “three verb roots that may be the base of the noun karuna kr, meaning to make, cause, or act; kṛt, meaning to cut or break; and kṛr, which can mean to disperse or spread.”

He continues, "It is notable that the second of Buddhaghosa's roots, krt, meaning to cut or break, gives an even more explicitly active meaning to compassion which is not merely affective, but actually removes the suffering of others."

Like in the Visuddhimagga, the Aksayamatinirdesa Sutra plays on the similarities of arana, meaning action/work and, Karuna. In my experience, compassion is an active attribute, not passive, like empathy or patience. However, they might very well be two sides of the same coin.

Buddhaghosa points at an indiscriminate compassion that only exists in "good people" and, it ends "others' suffering" on contact. It's also extremely important to note that compassion is not directed towards man alone, but animals as well. He speaks of the "suffering other", not the "suffering human."


Maybe a useful source not to simply give it a name, but also to educate it in the way it was thought by the Buddha, maybe such as real "care or charge" for others is well put. As it was said "The desire to free others form suffering" and not only this but being confident that one actually does the best when sitting in brahmavihara meditation: Educating Compassion


We have two words in English, "empathy" and "compassion," that are similar to "karuna" but not identical to it.

Empathy particularly involves "feeling another's pain," and that process is not shared by the Buddhas. They understand your pain, but are free from it. Buddhas don't suffer "with us," but they do love us unconditionally and work for our betterment.

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