The Buddha stressed compassion in his teachings. It seems that the more one tries to be compassionate towards people, a natural tendency of attachment develops. For example, it seems that if I try to practice compassion towards my close family (and focus my mind on helping them), then I develop more attachment for them, and I feel closer to them and the pain of separation increases. Is it wrong that I want to feel closer to them? Did the Buddha have any advice about developing compassion while avoiding attachment (and other side effects like pride) ?

  • In case it matters, when you wrote "family" did you mean "parents and siblings", or did you mean "spouse and children"?
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 8:07
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    @ChrisW I mostly meant parents and siblings. This is family that I was born with and feel like it is my duty to take care of them.
    – user3547
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 8:23
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    A related topic (a topic with related answers): What's the aim of avoiding attachment?
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 10:07
  • Thank you for the related topic @ChrisW. This is very relevant to my question!
    – user3547
    Commented May 2, 2016 at 22:01
  • Are you certain that this is attachment, or concern for your parents well being? Sexual attachment, selfish attachment due to some sort of dependency needs to be distinguished from concern and wanting to take care of one's parents. Remember Ven. Ananda greatly loved and cared for the Buddha, and is said to have wept during the Buddha's parinibbana. The Buddha too deeply cared about all beings and strove to help them cross over from samsara. Commented May 3, 2016 at 1:49

7 Answers 7


I am personally not aware of any direct advice the Buddha gave about developing compassion without attachment since the majority of the Buddha's teachings are about developing non-attachment & the minority of teachings are about developing compassion. In general, the compassion teachings are generally related to cultivating non-harming, non-hatred & non-cruelty and also about teaching the dhamma to others. In other words, the compassion teachings are generally not about how to help others in more worldly or mundane ways.

The teachings of the Buddha are generally separated as: (1) teachings for monks; and (2) teachings for laypeople. The teachings for monks focus on non-attachment where as the teachings for laypeople rarely mention non-attachment.

In general, the Buddha encouraged laypeople to do good so they develop personal pride or self-respect in relation to their good actions (eg. Anana Sutta & Samajivina Sutta).

For example, in With Brahma (Itivuttaka 4.7) and in the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha discusses the compassionate role & duties of parents & family members but does not mention non-attachment. In the Piyajatika Sutta, the Buddha says to a man his grief towards his dead son comes from his love but does not teach non-attachment.

In SN 42.12, the Buddha eventually refers to a man who uses his wealth to help his family without being attached to it, "seeing the danger in it, understanding the escape" but does not go into any details. That said, "seeing the danger & understanding the escape" are a stock teaching for monks in the suttas, where the "danger" (ādīnava) is attachment & the "escape" (nissaraṇa) is the non-attachment of the eightfold path.

Therefore, I think non-attachment can be developed by comprehending the danger or suffering of attachment. As the Buddha taught about the 1st noble truth: "This suffering (of attaching to the five aggregates) is to be comprehended".

In the Udayi Sutta, it is mentioned teaching others with compassion & without harming oneself.

In the Attavagga in the Dhammapada, it is again mentioned doing good without hurting oneself.

The Attavagga holds the principle that each individual must help themself. The Maggavagga has the phrase: " You yourselves must strive; the Buddhas only point the way".

These accord with the practise of equanimity (upeka), where it is reflected each individual is the owner of their actions.

Compassion (karuna) is one of the 4 brahma vihara, which also include metta, mudita & equanimity (upeka). Here, helping others (compassion) is balanced with the understanding (upeka) that we try to help others to help themselves; thus ultimately, others are responsible for their lives.

This old booklet may be helpful for you:

http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/4sublime_states.pdf http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel006.html


Use Upekkha(Equanimity) to straighten Karuna(compassion) when it strays into sadness.

Karuna is characterized as promoting the aspect of allaying suffering. Its function resides in not bearing others’ suffering. It is manifested as non-cruelty. Its proximate cause is to see helplessness in those overwhelmed by suffering. It succeeds when it makes cruelty subside and it fails when it produces sorrow.

Uppekkha is characterized as promoting the aspect of neutrality towards beings. Its function is to see equality in beings. It is manifested as the quieting of resentment and approval. Its proximate cause is seeing ownership of deeds (kamma) thus: “Beings are owners of their deeds. Whose [if not theirs] is the choice by which they will become happy, or will get free from suffering, or will not fall away from the success they have reached? It succeeds when it makes resentment and approval subside, and it fails when it produces the equanimity of unknowing, which is that [worldly-minded indifference of ignorance] based on the house life. -Visuddhimagga

So observe the mind to see what is happening as you practice Karuna. If it subdues cruelty, continue. As soon as it turns into sadness, practice Uppekkha until it goes away. Again switch back to Karuna and so on.


From the Visuddhi-Magga (I added in [...] what is 'etc.' in the PDF)

One who wants to develop compassion should begin his task by reviewing the danger in lack of compassion and the advantage in compassion.

And when he begins it, he should not direct it at first towards a dear person, [a very dear companion, a neutral person or an antipathetic/hostile person]; for one who is dear simply retains the position of one who is dear, a very dear companion retains the position of a very dear companion, one who is neutral retains the position of one who is neutral, one who is antipathetic retains the position of one who is antipathetic, and one who is hostile retains the position of one who is hostile. One of the opposite sex and one who is dead are also not the field for it.

According to this, in meditation one should:

  1. Consider the advantage of compassion/ danger in lack of compassion
  2. Develop compassion by picturing/think about a being that is in great suffering and making the wish: "May he/she be free from suffering"

Just as he would feel compassion on seeing an unlucky, unfortunate person, so he pervades all beings with compassion” (Vibh 273). Therefore first of all, on seeing a wretched man, unlucky, unfortunate, in every way a fit object for compassion, unsightly, reduced to utter misery, with hands and feet cut off, sitting in the shelter for the helpless with a pot placed before him, with a mass of maggots oozing from his arms and legs, and moaning, compassion should be felt for him in this way: “This being has indeed been reduced to misery; if only he could be freed from this suffering!

If you don't know about such a person, towards an evil-doing person

But if he does not encounter such a person, then he can arouse compassion for an evil-doing person, even though he is happy, by comparing him to one about to be executed. How?

[...] So too a bhikkhu whose meditation subject is compassion should arouse compassion for an [evil-doing] person even if he is happy: “Though this poor wretch is now happy, cheerful, enjoying his wealth, still for want of even one good deed done now in any one of the three doors [of body, speech and mind] he can come to experience untold suffering in the states of loss.

  1. Now in the same way develop compassion for a dear person
  2. ... a neutral person
  3. ... a hostile person

  • In case resentment arises towards the hostile person, one should focus on metta instead
  • After this section in the Visuddhimagga, there is a comment about different ways of practicing compassion. (Towards yourself or first a hostile person then a unlucky)
  • Does this explain what the Buddha said about how to avoid becoming attached to ones family (e.g. parents) while at the same time having compassion for them?
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 13:20
  • It's not the word of the Buddha, but the instruction from the Visuddhimagga state very clear, that in karuna-meditation you shouldn't start with your closest loved ones as an object, but rather come to them, after the feeling of compassion is strong enough to overcome the attachement. What the OP describes, is exactly the danger described in the Visuddhimagga (' for one who is dear simply retains the position of one who is dear') Commented May 1, 2016 at 18:14

When developing compassion do not use a specific person of the opposite sex. This will lead to attachment. Also a person you are too attached to or averse to.

When you think of someone, you get a pleasant or emotional feeling in your mind sense door, then this is what is reinforcing the to attachment to the person. [Cha Chakka Sutta] So in these cases be equanimous of the feeling, knowing its arising and passing nature. [Pahāna Sutta] This will help reduce attachment towards other people. Attachment towards other people is misery, perhaps this in you motivation to avoid it, and by overcoming this attachment towards other people, you can overcome misery such attachment. [Bhadraka Sutta also called Gandhabhaka Sutta] See: Brahmavihara and Upekkha

If you are developing pride, this is since you are measuring yourself against the other and evaluating yourself superior. (Māna) Soṇa Sutta The way to get over this is though Karuṇā and Mudita, as Karuṇā pose as an antidote when you evaluate someone inferior, lower, bad situation in comparison to what you would evaluate as medium or average as Karuṇā develops thoughts to uplift someone from and undesirable predicament or wish for him betterment, and similarly Mudita when you evaluate that someone is better off or in a positive situation you wish that this is maintained you overcome inferiority.

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    Did the Buddha have any advice about developing compassion while avoiding attachment (and other side effects like pride)?
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 8:06

this is what i gathered from many suttas. Start with 5 precepts because it is a foundation of peace. then you set up your mind that you will not kill, harm, harsh words..etc. others.

Set it in your mind that others beings around you have no reason to fear you because you will not do anything to hurt them or destroy their benefit or well being. you start with beings right next to you first and then spread out the circle or radiate compassion and kindness outward.


This is to try to add to the other answers:

  • What about compassion?
  • What about attachment?
  • What about parents?


The question started with, "The Buddha stressed compassion in his teachings" but I'm not sure that's so.

For example the answers to questions like, Is Anatman the most important concept in Buddhism? and How to explain what Buddhism is? suggest that maybe "compassion" isn't the most important concept?

On the other hand, some of the writing of the Dalai Lama, and maybe of other teachers too, suggest that perhaps it is a most important concept?

Perhaps there's a difference between what the Buddha emphasized in the Theravada canon, versus the emphasis in the Mahayana tradition (in which "compassion" might be portrayed as more central)?

So I think that sentence is both right and wrong: i.e. he did emphasize compassion, but then again he emphasized a lot of other topics as well.

FYI I'll try to answer based on what I've learned of the Theravada canon.

What about compassion?

On the subject of compassion: compassion is one of the four Brahma-viharas (see for example these two essays: Head & Heart Together, and The Four Sublime States).

I'm not completely sure what the difference is between "compassion" and "loving-kindness" (karuṇā and mettā). Wikipedia says,

The Pali commentaries distinguish between karuṇā and mettā in the following complementary manner: Karuna is the desire to remove harm and suffering (ahita-dukkha-apanaya-kāmatā) from others; while mettā is the desire to bring about the well-being and happiness (hita-sukha-upanaya-kāmatā) of others.

However they seem to me to be two sides of the same coin (i.e. removing dukkha versus promoting sukha), and so they seem to me to be more-or-less interchangeable.

Also I think that Theravada Buddhism, at least, seems to promote or advertise the development of mettā more than it does karuṇā. When your question asked about "developing compassion", I think that some of the other answers are based on "developing loving-kindness", which is a practice called metta-bhavana (where bhavana is a word which can be translated as something like, "becoming").

For example, Suminda's answer ...

When developing compassion do not use a specific person of the opposite sex.

... is I think probably based on these instructions.

Anyway maybe that helps to explain some of the other answers to your question: I think they saw "develop compassion" in the title, and are therefore quoting metta-bhavana instructions.

This essay on metta-bhavana, The Philosophy and Practice of Universal Love, talks about metta as a "universal" love -- there, I think, not a love that is restricted/exclusive to parents, but a love which includes parents ... so already, by including other people, perhaps it tends towards some kind of non-attachment towards own family. And there's this essay, The Practice of Loving-Kindness (Metta), which has the advantage of being "As Taught by the Buddha in the Pali Canon" i.e. it's principally a collection of relevant quotes from the suttas.

I was going to say or started to write that there is more written about metta than there is about karuna, but on reflection maybe that's not true -- because, I think that the ethical precepts (rules of behaviour, about which a lot is said) are at least partly for the purpose of compassion or harmlessness:

Furthermore, abandoning [the behaviour forbidden by each of the five precepts], the disciple of the noble ones abstains from [that behaviour]. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings.

So part of the "compassion" that you rightly show to family (if you're asking, "how to show compassion?") includes simply keeping the precepts: for example abstaining from incorrect speech, and so on.

What about attachment?

I'm not sure how to summarize what the Buddha said about avoiding attachment.

For a start, there's a slight difference between "attachment" (see Upādāna) and "craving" (see Taṇhā).

I think that the Buddha said more about "craving" than about "attachment": for example, the second noble truth is about "craving".

The difference between "craving" and "attachment", I think, is that I think of "craving" as being a kind of blind thirst or lust or desire ... which, is a habit inherent in (a property of) 'me' ... whereas "attachment" is when I subsequently attach that desire to a particular thing (or particular person) because I think it can satisfy that desire ... so attachment is my projecting my desire onto something else; for example:

  • Imagine that I'm thirsty -- that "thirst" is probably a craving
  • I want something, anything, to drink -- maybe that's still a craving but it's starting to become an attachment, because maybe I think I want something in particular i.e. a drink, that a drink will satisfy my thirst
  • I get a drink and I think, "This is the best drink ever: it saved my life, it quenched my thirst ... now I want to keep this drink, forever!" -- that's definitely become an attachment

According to doctrine, attachment is conditioned by craving (i.e. "as a result of craving attachment arises" or "the existence of craving is the condition in which attachment arises") so a way to avoid attachment might be to avoid or reduce craving, or maybe (I'm guessing) at least to be aware of craving and not allowing it to become attachment (e.g. to think "ok so I was thirsty before but that's not a good reason to become attached to and to try to keep this specific glass of water", or to think, "that thirst was impermanent, arises and ceases, and so was the water and the sensation of drinking it").

You started by saying that "the Buddha stressed compassion" but it seems to be that a lot of what the Buddha stressed is that it's not appropriate to become attached to things because things are impermanent. It's especially "compound things" or "things put together" that are impermanent (or 'disappointing' or 'subject to decay', for example as explained in the last words of the Buddha).

In summary I guess it's something like:

  • When you become aware that attachment has arisen, see that it's inappropriate
  • Stay mindful that things (e.g. sense-impressions) arise and cease so it's not worth becoming attached to them

I think I agree with Dhammadhatu's answer:

I think non-attachment can be developed by comprehending the danger or suffering of attachment.

You can read a further introduction to attachment e.g. here on Wikipedia. I might be worth noting there are two types of attachment are identified:

  • Sense-pleasures (e.g. the comforts of home)
  • Ideas (e.g. a view of self as specific person within specific family)

What about parents?

That's a little difficult to answer: IMO the answer isn't straightforward, and/because the answer may be a "middle way between extremes".

For example, apparently (if I remember correctly) you need (you're expected to obtain) your parents' permission before you ordain as a monk. I think that someone, on this site, once suggested that maybe that's so that the Sangha (community of monks) wouldn't develop a bad reputation with lay society (which they would if people's children started leaving home without permission). On the other hand, there's a story of a son whose parents refused permission, and who replied that he'd simply stop eating until either he died or they gave him permission (and after a few days, seeing that he was determined, the parents gave permission).

Buddhism teaches that one owes to parents an enormous debt of gratitude (see e.g. this essay, The Lessons of Gratitude).

I think that maybe monks may be released from their ordinary obligations and restrictions in order to physically look after their own parents if and when they need it -- depending on the tradition, either while still a monk, or by disrobing temporarily.

There are also teachings about how to be a good member of lay society, including to one's family: sober, hard working, frugal, kind, and so (see for example the Sigalovada Sutta).

One thing though, the Kataññu Suttas end by saying,

But anyone who rouses his unbelieving mother & father, settles & establishes them in conviction; rouses his unvirtuous mother & father, settles & establishes them in virtue; rouses his stingy mother & father, settles & establishes them in generosity; rouses his foolish mother & father, settles & establishes them in discernment: To this extent one pays & repays one's mother & father.

So, helping/teaching/enabling your family to "avoid attachment", if you can, might be a good way to show them compassion.


To some extent you're asking a difficult question. The type of "attachment" which you seem to be talking about is maybe part of the ordinary or 'healthy' development of infants, so it's something we're all born with and/or acquire in early childhood development, and either keep or have to un-learn somehow. The couter-measures might be insight and wisdom.

As if wisdom and insight aren't already plenty to learn, Mahayana further introduces the concept of skillfulness: so your (compassionate) behaviour should be wise (to avoid negative consequences such as attachment) but also skillful.

Although maybe I don't have a good, canonical understanding of what "skillful" means, I think of it as meaning, partly, an ability to keep to a middle way between extremes (e.g. maybe neither an extreme attachment nor an extreme indifference is appropriate).

Finally it might help to remember that both you and they must find your/their own ways towards enlightenment: though you might help (help yourself, them, and others), maybe attachment is counterproductive to that goal.

  • Karuna requires the other to be in a state of suffering. You can offer snacks to your friends or invite them for dinner. That's Metta. They don't suffer, even if you didn't. You can be impolite and rude to your neighbor. That is lack of Metta. But if he gets a heart attack, you might be moved to take him to a hospital. That's Karuna. Commented May 3, 2016 at 15:43
  • Being thirsty is not craving. It's simply a feeling. Tanha is liking of the sensation. Upadana is wanting what was liked. Tanha always endsup with Upadana. Commented May 3, 2016 at 15:44
  • "Being thirsty is not craving" -- Yes, thirst meant to be an analogy for craving. Craving (tanha) is like being thirsty or greedy, typically greedy for a sensation ... it's "wanting" (desiring) something.
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 3, 2016 at 17:52

Compassion and creativity are by-product of consciousness. The more you are aware of metaphysical nature of your being more compassionate you will be. For example if you witness your past births you will understand that people are transient phenomenon.

The problem is compassion is being cultivated in all religions of the world including Buddhism. It is not an intellectual affair. It is experience of higher states of being which brings in compassion. You cannot preach/teach compassion.

Karuna meditation helps in attaining compassion but to become truly compassionate one needs to be enlightened. Otherwise there will always be some element of attachment.

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