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Some schools of Buddhism focus on the cultivation of wisdom/understanding as a way to reduce suffering in this lifetime and to move towards Nirvana. Other schools of Buddhism focus on cultivation of compassion as a means towards these same ends.

I've occasionally heard and read statements to the effect that developing wisdom without compassion can be risky, dangerous, cold, cruel, etc.

My question is, can true wisdom ever be devoid of compassion? Or would true wisdom by it's nature necessarily contain compassion? In other words, is the risk of developing a cold, cruel wisdom a real possibility?

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    Wouldn't you say the very essence of wisdom is that it's marked by compassion? Wisdom without compassion is like having water without wetness. – user698 Jun 22 '15 at 18:44
  • I read this bio of an European monk in Sri Lanka who IIRC came to be a monk shortly after WW2 and was declared a Sakadagami or better by many. The biographer recounts he gave off a very strong presence of wisdom about things, calmness, learning and solidity, but he didn't really bother to teach or associate with other monks or lay people. In the monk's own words, he didn't ever practice metta - he had tried it a few times and didn't enjoy it. So wisdom yes, but maybe not perfect wisdom. I'll link to it when I remember the name. When Jhanas come easy, and one wants nothing, one can go inwards. – Buddho Jun 22 '15 at 19:06
  • @Buddho, thank you for your thoughts. I wouldn't agree though that an advanced practitioner who chose not to teach or associate with others or practice metta necessarily lacked compassion. I believe there are scriptures advocating solitude in some cases. And if this monk was a sakadagami and had only eradicated the first three fetters, he might have foregone metta practice to avoid lust. Not sure. But I don't think that necessarily implies a lack of compassion. – Robin111 Jun 22 '15 at 21:07
  • Similar Question: buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/9360/… – user2341 Jun 23 '15 at 12:13
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    @Robin111 Even Arahats slipped up from time to time according to sutras. I'm not sure whether they lacked "true wisdom" but none other than the Buddha had perfected compassion it appears. > Ananda already knew that the Tathagata, the World Honored One, had admonished Subhuti and great Kashyapa for being Arhats whose hearts were not fair and equal, and he regarded with respect the Tathagata’s instructions on impartiality, to save everyone from doubt and slander. 1:132 – Buddho Jun 24 '15 at 8:57
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It depends on what you mean by wisdom. By wisdom, if you mean intelligence as well, it can be dangerous and cruel. ex: coming up with more effective ways to invade countries, deceive people to make more profit etc.

But wisdom from a Buddhist perspective can be seen as two fold.

  1. Worldly wisdom: Wisdom that helps you live a successful family life, be an ideal husband, wife, householder or worker; wisdom that helps you improve a good business; wisdom that leads you to a happy destination, next life. etc. Singalovada Sutta has many such examples.
  2. Wisdom that leads to Nibbana. Basically this means the understanding of the four noble truths.

can true wisdom ever be devoid of compassion?

Sure! Wisdom need not be associated with compassion. Ex: take each of the 16 Vipassana Nanas. Those mind states have nothing to do with compassion. Some of them are associated with fear towards Samsara. Wisdom can also come as disappointment towards sensual pleasures. Read the story of Upatissa & Kolitha who later became the chief disciples of the Buddha. Even the four stages of enlightenment don't have compassion as a quality.

To reach enlightenment, one needs to cultivate the Five Spiritual Faculties:

  1. Faith
  2. Vigor
  3. Mindfulness
  4. Concentration
  5. Wisdom

Balancing of these five faculties is more important to the progression in the path:

For one who is strong in faith and weak in wisdom places his confidence foolishly in an unworthy object. One strong in wisdom and weak in faith errs on the side of cunning and is as hard to cure as a sickness caused by medicine. But with the balancing of the two, faith and wisdom, a man has confidence only in a deserving object.

But this doesn't imply compassion(Karuna) and kindness(Metta) are unimportant. They have many useful benefits and they help us to stay away from hells by subduing our cruelty and hatred. That is very conducive to attaining Nibbana. Realising that is wisdom.

When a being attains or passes the state of Anagami, he removes aversion completely. Then there's no obstacle in his mind for compassion and kindness to arise, when he interacts with people. That's why they are naturally inclined to help other beings attain enlightenment. That is the reason why we even have Buddhism today. If the Buddha did not have any compassion towards the worldlings, he wouldn't have preached the Dhamma just because the Maha Brahma invited. Compassion and wisdom can work in tandem. Ex: Maha Karuna Samapatti Nana of the Buddha. But compassion is not a requirement for wisdom to be present.

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    This is really good. Thank you Sankha. Lots here to think about. Thank you for links as well. – Robin111 Jun 23 '15 at 19:25
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    Welcome, Robin! – Sankha Kulathantille Jun 23 '15 at 19:30
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    I cannot agree that there can be wisdom without compassion any more than one side of a mountain can be high while the other side is low. To be Realized is to be At One. There is no more this or that, so whatever one is, it is all, total, cannot be added to or detracted from. If there is total wisdom, there is total compassion, total everything. The mountain is either high, or it is not high. This is Nonduality. – user2341 Jun 24 '15 at 12:38
  • I think you are referring to a Mahayana teaching. This answer is given from a Theravada perspective. We analyse mind as a moment to moment causes and effect process. Not as a soul. So the analogies you have given don't fit well. – Sankha Kulathantille Jun 24 '15 at 13:00
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I wouldn't say cruel, but I certainly would say cold.

The path to enilghtenment is divided in 4 stages. Before reaching each stage there is a progression of the insight that is similar in structure in all of the stages, and culminates with the attainement of the next stage. A simplified description of this progression of insight is that it is divided in the knowledge of impermanence, followed by the knowledge of unsatisfactoriness, followed by the knowledge of no self. When this culminates, the next enlightenment stage is attained.

Now, during the period where you are at the knowledge of unsatisfactoriness, you feel a lot of negative emotions. Having known impermanence before this, you now feel everything around you, and inside you, is ending. This causes you enormous turmoil. This is where the concentration meditation and/or the compassion meditation are very helpful: to ease the suffering and to not allow this negativity to be destructive to you and to others.

The advanced meditators that are going trough this period again, many times feel subjectively that their negativity is not strong. And in fact it isn't. But what they say is perceived to be extremely cold and sometimes, yes, cruel. But this is because neither party is fully aware of the real situation. That's why I say it's not cruel, because it is not perceived correctly by those who hear it, nor it is spoken correctly by the meditator. But it can be perceived as cruelty, when in fact it's just coldness.

When the whole path reaches its end, this coldness is no longer there. There are some teachers who are somewhat cruel to a few of their disciples, but the fully enlightened teachers usually do this for the benefit of their students who are inclined to be instructed with strong words, or have a complicated karma to be resolved. But for a fully enlightened teacher there isn't a single drop of cruelty in their hearts. You have to be on the look out, though, for fake teachers who are genuinely cruel. The mind of the totaly enlightened teacher, while not having an intrinsic quality of compassion, inclines to compassion almost automatically because there is no negativity to be entertained by their minds. They feel compassion as naturally as we breathe.

For more about this look into Mahasi Sayadaw "The Progress of Insight".

  • You can often find suttas talking about the unenlightened as silly, and making unflattering comparisons. This doesn't of course make the Buddha cold hearted, he speaks from a place of great wisdom to an audience of monks, usually. However a lay person very attached to his self, and materialism may find it objectionable at first. Hardly anybody likes to be told their entire life is a mistake, and will likely take offence. – Buddho Jun 22 '15 at 19:21
  • Indeed. The Buddha's wisdom, I believe, was deep enough that he could say those things with the correct intention and having the correct impact. But the meditators who are not enlightened, who going trough the periods of the knowledge of unsatisfactoriness and who practice very little jhana, are somewhat confused and are not able to see clearly how their speech can be perceived as cruel, even though this perception is (half) flawed. This is not uncommon among "dry vipassana" meditators who are not enlightened yet. – EyeArrow Jun 22 '15 at 21:21
  • Also see Pilinda Sutta where monks took offense at some words that were not meant to be provocative. – Buddho Jun 24 '15 at 9:18
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My question is, can true wisdom ever be devoid of compassion?

No

Or would true wisdom by it's nature necessarily contain compassion?

Yes

In other words, is the risk of developing a cold, cruel wisdom a real possibility?

Yes but within Early Buddhism there is less of a chance since the very first training--which comes before the training in wisdom--includes loving-kindness meditation, as well as compassion, and mutual joy.

--

In Buddhism, Wisdom is seeing the Three Characteristics, seeing that our reality is impermanent and interconnected--not being confused into thinking that anything really exists on its own.

In my own experience, knowing this does not necessitate compassion, but it certain makes compassion almost automatic. It is unusual to be wise (read: to see the interconnected non-self nature) about something and not compassionate as well. Usually it is because when one has wisdom

To explicate the word "compassion" further, in Buddhism, there are four of these very wise emotions, the Four Brahmaviharas: loving-kindness, compassion, mutual joy, equanimity.

These four qualities are interrelated with wisdom--especially the latter.

When someone says "compassion" they are usually talking about the Four Brahmaviharas.

One should read about or do these meditations to find out how closely tied together they are with wisdom.

Nonetheless, the two are not always synchronous and there do exist states of mind during the Stages of Insight where the one's wisdom and ability to see the Three Characteristics is high but one's compassion for oneself and others not so easily attained.

Basically, compassion/the Brahmaviharas often lend to greater wisdom, relative and absolute, but in my experience, wisdom only occasionally leads to compassion--especially because wisdom is missing the element of calm and peace.

It may also answer your question to think about The Five Faculties (wisdom, faith, energy, concentration, mindfulness). After learning what they are and having an idea how they inter-relate to each other it would be worth noting the following: no single factor is in its true form unless supported by the other. They are one cohesive organism... every organ is strengthened by the others. These five factors are recommended as evaluative gradients to be mindful of to enter into concentration.

The wisdom component has its opposite complement: faith. This is similar in energy to compassion in its unconditional love, acceptance, and understanding.

Thus, contemplate about those 5 Faculties. Instead of just Wisdom and Compassion, there may be more fruit of thinking of Wisdom, Faith, Concentration, Energy, and Mindfulness and how they power each other up and may even be Ultimately the same thing.

Also, another perspective: Dualism is the modality through which our thinking mind operates and is able to master the world--but it is also the very trap that sets us apart from Awakening. That previous sentence is a very trite sentence in Buddhism but it is valid and true: sometimes we can use our distinction-creating mind where it is not correct. At the Ultimate level Compassion and Wisdom are the same thing. Knowing is Loving, Loving is Knowing.

  • Thank you. Could you you expand the last few words ("five faculties") into a sentence or two, to explain how they relate to the question? Is your point that "compassion" is mentioned nowhere e.g. on this page? – ChrisW Jun 22 '15 at 22:24
  • To me, the idea that wisdom can be separate from compassion points to separation in general. If you see yourself as separate... you are. As this Answer says, "Dualism ... sets us apart from Awakening." – user2341 Jun 23 '15 at 12:20
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To liberate from suffering, both wisdom and compassion are needed.

If you focus on the cultivation of wisdom/understanding, compassion will come with true wisdom/understanding. If you focus on the cultivation of compassion, true wisdom/understanding will come with cultivation of compassion, and true compassion will come with true wisdom/understanding.

True wisdom, the one that leads to the cessation of suffering, cannot be devoid of compassion. True compassion, the one that leads to the cessation of suffering, cannot be devoid of wisdom.

Wisdom without compassion is knowing without doing.

Compassion without wisdom is doing without knowing. Doing without knowing is doing because "it feels right". Doing because "it feels right" can lead to wrong doing.

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    Quote by Victor Weisskopf: "Human existence is based upon two pillars: Compassion and knowledge. Compassion without knowledge is ineffective; knowledge without compassion is inhuman." – user2341 Jun 23 '15 at 12:16

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