This is a practice-related question. In Buddhism the goal is to not suffer, but empathy seems to mean suffering because someone else is suffering.

In several places in the Pali Canon and elsewhere, compassion, loving-kindness, and sympathetic joy are mentioned, but so is equanimity. Here is an instance. I assume this means one should feel free from malice towards someone while also being unpained by this, but how does one deal with the wrong empathy that emerges, which is an energetic pull towards even codependency (If I were to say it in psychological terms)?

In the moment, empathy seems very blinding, so how does one extricate from it without losing the non-violence, happiness, and positive feelings?

It seems from the fetter view that empathy is at least one of the 3 forms of craving, or perhaps it is some form of restlessness. I wonder if there is an antidote for this particular complex.

5 Answers 5


In Tibetan Mahayana, there's an official doctrine for this, called The Union of Wisdom and Compassion.

Compassion or Empathy means, you can see it from their side. The child is crying over her broken toy, you can see how it looks from her side. Not just "understand" but really put yourself inside her subjective world. What the toy meant to her. The magnitude of her loss. You love the child. You are happy when the child is happy and you empathize her dramas.

At the same time you remain somewhat detached, whether the child is happy or sad - you remain an adult. You know what's really good for the child, whether she understands it or not. You feel her frustration when she wants candy but you know she must eat her oatmeal first.

So these two qualities: Empathy and Equanimity, are not mutually contradictory, they are like the superpower of being in two places at the same time. The magic vision, from both perspectives at once.

It is important to get this context. Buddhist compassion is somewhat top-down, because there's always that equanimous core that remains above the situation. That's why you don't lose yourself in it, and not getting 100% drained of energy - because you are not actually sucked into the drama, your space ship is orbiting at 300 miles above the planet, you just send down an FPV drone.

It is that very mother ship (the Wisdom and Equanimity of the Dharma) is what drives that drone of Empathy and looks through its camera. Without that connection to Dharma (ultimately, to Emptiness), Empathy loses its balance and crashes into a tree.

And yet Empathy is essential, because if you only ever look down from 300 miles, everything seems peaceful and you end up being an ivory tower jerk.


There are direct statements of empathy in the suttas, such as:

  1. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

  2. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.


A noble disciple reflects this way, ‘I want to live and don’t want to die; I want to be happy and I dislike pain. Since this is so, if someone were to take my life, I wouldn’t like that. But others also want to live and don’t want to die; they want to be happy and dislike pain. So if I were to take the life of someone else, he wouldn’t like that either. The thing that is disliked by me is also disliked by others. Since I dislike this thing, how can I give that pain to someone else?’ Reflecting this way, first, he gives up killing beings. Second, he encourages others to abstain from killing beings, and third, he praises the act of abstaining from killing beings. So, his bodily behaviour is purified in three ways.

Furthermore, a noble disciple reflects this way, ‘If someone were to steal from me... ‘If someone were to have sexual relations with my wife... ‘If someone were to harm me by lying'... '‘If someone were to split me up from my friends using divisive speech'... ‘If someone were to insult me with harsh speech'.... ‘If someone were to waste my time by idle chatter'...

SN 55.7

And how do you look after yourself by looking after others?

Kathañca, bhikkhave, paraṁ rakkhanto attānaṁ rakkhati?

By acceptance, harmlessness, love, and sympathy.

Khantiyā, avihiṁsāya, mettacittatāya, anudayatāya— evaṁ kho, bhikkhave, paraṁ rakkhanto attānaṁ rakkhati.

SN 47.19

I guess unskillful empathy can arise in many ways, including:

  • When we overestimate our capacity to help another person. For example, the suttas (e.g. DN 11; AN 9.5) most highly praise the gift of instruction. For example, unlike Christianity, there appears no practice of 'laying on of the hands' in Buddhism. The suttas also say only a person can purify them self, we cannot purify another (Attavagga). Therefore the suttas say if you instruct others, with a mind clear and confident, your compassion and empathy don’t create attachments (SN 10.2). In short, we can generate unskillful empathy when we unrealistically take upon ourselves the duty of removing another person's suffering.

  • Per SN 55.7 (quoted above), we, ourselves, have insufficient moral perspective & training. We do not truly understand the harm of transgressing the moral precepts. Then when we view another person suffering from their immoral kamma, we lack a moral perspective because immoral behaviour is normalized in our mind. For example, a person has an impulsive unthoughtful sexual affair; then later the person suffers when the sexual affair does not work out. We may think: "Oh, such bad luck, he was so handsome, she was so pretty". We ourselves lack moral perspective therefore we don't understand how heedless behavior will often inevitably result in suffering.

  • Our mind, itself, has not yet come to terms to ourselves being afflicted by the vicissitudes of life; including our own non-realization of not-self; and thus our mind projects self onto other life forms (aggregates) when the vicissitudes of life occur. AN 5.57 is particularly about this topic, when it says: 'I am subject to illness, have not [mentally] gone beyond [grasping] illness.' ... 'I am subject to death, have not [mentally] gone beyond [grasping] death.'... 'I will be separated from all that is dear and appealing to me.'

Therefore, equanimity, mindfulness & clear-comprehension are how to avoid unskillful empathy; while simultaneously fully recognizing how beings (life forms) can be afflicted in ways against their deepest wishes. It follows SN 47.19 (quoted above) also says:

And how do you look after others by looking after yourself? By development, cultivation, and practice of satipatthana meditation.

Satipatthana meditation is summarised as follows:

It’s when a monk meditates ... resolute, clearly-comprehending & mindful, rid of covetousness/longing and distress towards the world.


Dhamma Dhatu's answer mentioned "unskillful empathy".

I'd like to try to mention "skillful empathy": perhaps acting with kindness and more-or-less selflessly is the right thing to do -- it is (or fits) the definition of "skillful ethics", and as such it occasions "freedom from remorse" etc.

how does one deal with the wrong empathy that emerges, which is an energetic pull towards even codependency

Perhaps "codependency" is immoral -- so, don't lose sight of what's moral?

For example Wikipedia suggests that "codependency" derives from "co-alcoholic" (which is a context in which I first heard that word) -- Buddhist doctrine about morality might help with that, not only the fifth precept, also seeing things as they are (perhaps without "denial"), right speech (kindly and at the right time), etc,

empathy seems very blinding, so how does one extricate from it

I'm not sure whether one does extricate. Granted it says elsewhere that, "there's no association with a fool"; but perhaps this question might be why some schools of Buddhism distinguish "Mahayana" from "Hinayana" -- the latter being a vehicle where you try to extricate yourself, the former being more together in some way.


Unless you have empathy , how can you have compassion? Unless you have compassion, how can you be non-violent and kind? Unless you are non-violent and kind , how can you claim to know the Truth?

What is the Truth?

All conditioned phenomena are impermanent.

All conditioned phenomena are suffering.

All conditioned and unconditioned phenomena are not Self.

You should have empathy for every kind of life. You should have compassion for every kind of life. You should be non violent towards every kind of life. Because only then you will be able to understand that all conditioned phenomena are suffering.

You do not put yourself in everybody’s shoes every now and then , you have already put yourself in everyone’s shoes, and you know that all beings are going to suffer. You should have unshakable compassion for all. You should see with the eye of Dhamma.To those who are suffering, you should tell them that the suffering will not continue forever and should therefore be relaxed.To those who are joyful , you should tell them that the joy will not last forever and should therefore do not see happiness as permanent. We should escape this conditioned phenomena of suffering and joy by abandoning the things we are attached to. Out of empathy and compassion you should teach that body or its parts are not me , mine or myself, feelings are not me , mine or myself, perceptions are not me , mine or myself, choices are not me , mine or myself, consciousness are not me , mine or myself.


The four brahmaviharas (sublime states of mind) are compassion (karuna), empathetic joy (mudita), loving kindness (metta) and equanimity (upekkha).

Compassion is directed at others who are suffering much worse than we are. We would want to help alleviate their suffering. It overcomes the feeling of contempt. It does not include participating in their suffering, but it does include some empathy to understand their suffering.

Empathetic joy is directed at others who are doing much better in life than we are. We would want to feel joy when others experience good fortune in their lives. It overcomes the feeling of envy and jealousy.

Loving kindness is directed at everyone (including ourselves) and includes everyone who are suffering no less and no more than we are. This covers the case of equals. We would want them all to experience happiness and contentment in their lives. This overcomes the feeling of hatred and ill will.

The above is how we relate and react to others. The next one is how we respond when others react to us.

Equanimity is how we respond when others react towards us in good or bad ways. We should not feel elated when praised or dismayed when chided. It overcomes passion and aversion.

This is the right way to use the brahmaviharas.

Empathetically absorbing and indulging in the suffering of others much worse off than us falls outside the brahmaviharas. It appears to be unskillful, since it increases suffering.

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