In a recent version of the Buddhist Geeks podcast Rick Hanson said that recent academic research is showing that in the Pali Canon there were teachings indicating that compassion is enough to progress all the way on the Buddhist path. He further states that this foreshadows the Mahayana developments and if this has been emphasised within the early schools it would have negated the need for Mahayana at all.

Does that ring any bells with anyone? Has anyone heard anything of this research or more broadly has anyone got any references where the Buddha really emphasises compassion and indicates that compassion alone is enough.

Note: if anyone is interested Rick Hanson says this in the last 10 minutes of the podcast.

It's at about time 29:55 through 30:48 in the podcast. Rick Hanson starts by saying (I paraphrase) that:

  • The Buddha talked about the three poisons: ignorance, anger, greed
  • Anger and greed map to the brain's two 'red-zone' behaviours, i.e. the 'aversion' and 'approaching' systems of the brain.

Rick goes on to say that the brain has a third need or drive i.e. "heart-ache" for which the antidote is "love", and,

recent scholarship has shown that for him [the Buddha] love is a fully-sufficient path to complete awakening, and scholarship today has shown that maybe if there was a better understanding at the time that that's what he taught, after he died, there might not have been a need for the Mahayana revision if you will in terms of bringing more heart back into Dhamma practice."

He goes on to say that there's a social brain, that love and social skills are the primary evolutionary driver of the brain, etc., that we need to honour heart-ache and pay attention to the attachment system. He thinks of "heartache" as a "fourth poison".

7 Answers 7


The recent scholarship that Hanson is referring to is probably this, by Richard Gombrich, the eminent British academic scholar of Buddhism:

Kindness and Compassion as means to Nirvana in Early Buddhism

This abstract mentions other places where Gombrich explicated his thesis:

Gotama Buddha taught that compassion can produce enlightenment. So Richard Gombrich claims, based most notably on his reading of the Tevijja Sutta. First announced in his 1996 How Buddhism Began, Gombrich revisited this thesis (his “discovery”) the next year in his Gonda Lecture, “Kindness and Compassion as Means to Nirvana in Early Buddhism” and has returned to it more recently in his 2009 What the Buddha Thought.

Despite Gombrich's rather radical assertion, now almost 20 years ago, I have never been able to find any direct discussion of it by other authors either Western or of any tradition of Buddhism (the above paper is about the neuroscience of the issue). I suspect that is because it is so earthshaking for the Theravada -- effectively saying that they have been missing something huge in the Pali Canon for millenia -- that nobody would touch it with a ten-foot katvanga.

My own speculation (totally unsupported by any scholarship) is that Gombrich may have uncovered the hidden and forgotten roots of the Mahayana in the Pali Canon, but has mistaken it as an either-or doctrine when in fact it is meant -- and was developed by the Mahayana -- as a coordinate path to the highest enlightenment: you need both wisdom (Pañña, Prajna) and compassion, and at the highest level they actually become one.

Addendum -- 8/27/2015. I have since found this rejoinder to Gombrich by Bikkhu Bodhi, the distinguished Theravada scholar and translator. The nub of his objection to Gombrich's proposal is this:

But Gombrich then goes on to argue that for the Buddha union with Brahmà is simply a metaphor for Nibbàna, and thus he concludes the Buddha taught that kindness ... was a way to salvation (p. 62). Such an inference, however, cannot stand, for in many texts the Buddha declares the divine abodes to be inadequate for attaining Nibbàna (e.g. DN 17, MN 83, MN 97, etc.); it would also mean that paññā, insight or wisdom, is not needed for final liberation. Gombrich is not unaware of the texts that contradict his position, but he casually dismisses them as the work of the compilers of other suttas (p. 61). The contrary evidence, however, is just too weighty to allow such an easy way out.

  • He also asserts that "kindness is salvific" in his book "What the Buddha Thought" (which I enjoyed otherwise) with a strict partial look without really elaborating on all the suttas that strongly disagree (I was very confused by the sight of his credentials and such an obvious partiality)
    – user382
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 4:50

As a practicing Theravadin I've studied the Pali Suttas very seriously for the past six years and I've never found anything in them that indicates that compassion is sufficient for enlightenment. In fact the term compassion (Karuna in Pali) is used quite infrequently. The term Metta meaning loving-kindness or goodwill is much more common than the term compassion.

The texts are emphatic in identifying the spiritual path with the Noble Eightfold path, particularly in terms of its alternate formulation as the threefold training of Sila, Samadhi, and Pañña.

  • 1
    Good point: Crab Bucket's quote says "love" is sufficient, not compassion. Not much of a distinction between them, in common usage in English... but in Buddhism, compassion and love are distinct enough to be listed as two of the "Four Immeasurables". Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 0:31

Has anyone heard anything of this research or more broadly has anyone got any references where the Buddha really emphasizes compassion and indicates that compassion alone is enough?

I have no knowledge about such research. I also can't recollect a reference from the early texts that points, even implicitly, in such direction. There's a reference pointing in the opposite way though:

"And how, bhikkhus, is the liberation of the mind by compassion developed? What does it have as its destination, its culmination, its fruit, its final goal? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu develops the enlightenment factor of mindfulness accompanied by compassion … the enlightenment factor of equanimity accompanied by compassion, based upon seclusion, dispassion, and cessation, maturing in release. If he wishes: ‘May I dwell perceiving the repulsive in the unrepulsive,’ he dwells perceiving the repulsive therein…. If he wishes: ‘Avoiding both the unrepulsive and the repulsive, may I dwell equanimously, mindful and clearly comprehending,’ then he dwells therein equanimously, mindful and clearly comprehending. Or else, with the complete transcendence of perceptions of forms, with the passing away of perceptions of sensory impingement, with nonattention to perceptions of diversity, aware that ‘space is infinite,’ he enters and dwells in the base of the infinity of space. Bhikkhus, the liberation of mind by compassion has the base of the infinity of space as its culmination, I say, for a wise bhikkhu here who has not penetrated to a superior liberation."
-SN 46.54, Accompanied by Lovingkindness

  • Can you explain why that points in the opposite way, that is, to the insufficiency of compassion alone for enlightenment. Why does not the mere phrase "the liberation of mind by compassion" support the thesis in question? Of course, when we analyze these scriptures in translation, without knowledge of the original Pali along with some serious scholarship (of the kind that Gombrich applies in abundance), we are somewhat stabbing in the dark. Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 20:43
  • Because that would be reading it out of the context which it is written. Reading the whole paragraph tells one that reaching the base of infinity of space is the culmination of such pursuit, not awakening. In many places in the canon, these bases are referred to as liberations, not awakening. Such base is still within the bounds of perception and hence not a full penetration of suffering. Cessation would be a full penetration if seen with discernment. One could try to argue that compassion alone is enough, I wouldn't argue back though since I'm not interested in the dhamma for debating.
    – Unrul3r
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 9:17
  • Not debating... just trying to understand. Looking stuff up, I see that the fifth jhana, aka the first formless realm, is infinite space, and I believe that is said to correspond to the Brahmavihara of compassion. That certainly is incompatible with Gombrich's thesis, but there are many contradictions in the Pali Canon. It's been a while since I read Gombrich's stuff so I cannot recall the (rather complex) line of exegesis and reasoning, but given Gombrich's stature as a scholar of Buddhism, I'm sure he is aware of this material and addresses it. Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 15:31
  • In any case, the original question was not whether the assertion is true, but what is the research that Hanson references. Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 15:36

I'm not well-studied or taught, but it seems to me that Itivuttaka: The Group of Ones says that (fully) overcoming any one of the three poisons is "sufficient".

My guess is that's something to do with dependent co-arising: eliminating one implicitly eliminates them all?

He says that explicitly about each of the three poisons, e.g.:

Abandon greed as the one quality, and I guarantee you non-return.

Another single factor (not one of the three poisons and not sufficient to guarantee "complete awakening") is in verse 17:

With regard to external factors, I don't envision any other single factor like admirable friendship as doing so much for a monk in training, who has not attained the heart's goal but remains intent on the unsurpassed safety from bondage. A monk who is a friend with admirable people abandons what is unskillful and develops what is skillful.

The commentary quotes from the Upaddha Sutta,

In SN 45.2 the Buddha says, "Admirable friendship... is actually the whole of the holy life... It is in dependence on me as an admirable friend that beings subject to birth have gained release from birth... aging... death... sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair."


Well it is most certainly based on these passages;

Take another mendicant who says: ‘I’ve developed the heart’s release by compassion. I’ve cultivated it, made it my vehicle and my basis, kept it up, consolidated it, and properly implemented it. Yet somehow the thought of harming still occupies my mind.’ They should be told, ‘Not so, venerable! … For it is the heart’s release by compassion that is the escape from thoughts of harming.’
AN 6.13

One can make compassion one's vehicle all the way up to Arahantship but what this entails in practice is that one will primarily develop the theme of compassion for satisfying the mind and attaining seclusion. Furthermore one will develop the theme of compassion by pondering and connecting it to the themes of impermanence, not self and other helpful themes by inference and up to it's culmination in the removal of thoughts of harm altogether.

This is not an alternative path but a variation that is most suitable for some personality types.


Pure Land Buddhism

It's so much about compassion with Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. IMO Pure Land Buddhism has allowed everyday people to easily achieve a deep meditative state not with pure abstract ideas like Zen but by using simple iconography (although most temples mix in some Zen). The issue and complaint for some is that some ascribe superstition to the teachings. As my master / bhikkhuni says "People come in [to the temple] when they're in trouble and pray but Buddha doesn't work that way." Even folks like Thích Nhất Hạnh have hinted that the Pure Land is more for the mind than anything else when he wrote about "if there's no lemon trees in the Pure Land."

My advice is explore Pure Land and remember that it's compassion that binds us together. Both the skeptic and superstitious can seat next to each other in a Buddha hall, get the exact same experience and be good friends.



The ultimate problem is ignorance, not cruelty. It's from the ignorance of the four noble truths that every suffering arises. Pragmatically, the problem is the ignorance of the nature of reality, namely that every composed phenomenon is impermanent, unsatisfactory and empty. You cannot destroy this ignorance by concentration alone. You need to understand the nature of reality so that you can let it go. I'm afraid there is no other way around this and every buddhist path converges here: direct experiencial understanding of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and emptiness.

There is a lot of room to emphasize the practice of love and compassion and it should be done. But not to the point where the only real solution to suffering is removed from the practice. Wise attention is what destroys ignorance.

As a personal speculation, I believe that liberation by metta (loving kindness), or metta release, means another thing. When a meditator attains any of the 4 levels of awakening described in the pali canon, he gets access to the practice of phala samapatti. The attainment of a level of awakening is marked by two consecutive events: path and fruit, or magga and phala. Phala samapatti is the recolection of the fruit consciousness that arises after a level of awakening is reached. I believe that metta release is in fact the recollection of the fruit consciousness brought about by the practice of metta. It's a particularly powerful way of abiding in the fruit consciousness and perfecting the release of the level of awakening the meditator is at.

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