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This page of Dhamma Lists includes,

Four Brahma-viharas (Highest Attitudes/Emotions)

Heavenly or sublime abodes (best home). Near enemy is a quality that can masquerade as the original, but is not the original. Far enemy is the opposite quality.

  1. Lovingkindness, good-will (metta): Near enemy – attachment; far enemy – hatred
  2. Compassion (karuna): Near enemy – pity; far enemy – cruelty
  3. Sympathetic joy, Appreciation (mudita), joy at the good fortune of others: Near enemy – comparison,hypocrisy, insincerity, joy for others but tinged with identification (my team, my child); far enemy – envy
  4. Equanimity (upekkha): Near enemy – indifference; far enemy – anxiety, greed

Given that "pity is the near enemy of compassion", then what is the difference between 'compassion' and 'pity' (e.g. what is present in compassion but absent in pity, or vice versa)? Does knowledge/awareness of that difference somehow inform your intentions and/or actions?

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The dictionary descriptions of compassion and pity are similar. But in modern English usage, pity has an element of holding yourself superior to whatever conditions are affecting the person you feel pity towards.

So you may feel sorrow for someone and pity them, but at the same time feel they are in some way responsible for their predicament. It's a subtle thing.

Compassion and sympathy are the words used to express the sorrow or concern you feel for someone when you don't have this same feeling of superiority or feeling that the person is somehow to blame for their misfortunes.

An example of this is that to say to someone, "I pity you" is quite an insult while to say to someone "I sympathize with you" or "You have my compassion" is comforting or reassuring.

I've seen karuna described as compassionate pity. And with the qualifier of "compassionate" it works around this subtle element of superiority/blame.

None of these words necessarily mean taking action to help or relieve the suffering of the being who has prompted your compassion, pity, or sympathy. You may feel moved to help or you may feel unable to help. Your decision to help, or not, is different than the feeling of sorrow for another being. An example: two people watch a documentary on drug addiction. One feels pity for the addicts as they believe them to be responsible for their predicament. The other feels compassion for the addicts as they view addiction more as an illness. Neither one takes any action to help but they have each experienced the emotion of sorrow for another being in different perspectives.

From a Buddhist point of view, feeling superior to someone else (by looking on their misfortunes with pity instead of compassion) would be short sighted as the ripening of our own karmic fruit is always unknown until it happens.

Edit It's possible this view of pity, as being sorrow touched with superiority to that which is being pitied, is not universal. However here in the United States, if a person were to say, "you have my pity" an expected response might be, "I don't need your pity!" or "I don't want your pity!". Actually those words are said even in cases where a person suspects they are being pitied. In these parts, "pity" definitely has negative aspects which are not present in "compassion" or "sympathy".

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This answer is based on my own understanding of compassion and pity.

Compassion is an honest and true way of wanting to help another being. One sees and understands this beings situation and wants to help. In this type of help there is no attachment involved. This way of helping is pure.

Pity is different. In pity there is an element of attachment present. One might even feel guilty or obliged to help. One helps because one wants to ease the bad conscience that has arisen.

So compassion is a pure and genuine wanting to help while pity is wanting to help based on attachment in order to ease ones own guilty conscience.

If i can make a comparison then compassion is like having a real rose and taking care of it because of its gentle nature. Pity is like having a plastic rose that one does not need to give any special care.


I stumbled upon a video by Ven. Yuttadhammo that you might find useful. It's called "Ask A Monk: Compassion vs. Pity".

A little summary of it is as follows:

  • The question was, "It's easy to feel compassion for someone who's worse off than I am; but how can I feel compassion for someone who's better off, who I don't pity?"
  • The answer started by saying that the brahma viharas are meditations in their own right which you can practice if you feel yourself lacking in them; but that according to the tradition which he follows they are not considered to be crucial or essential because the more important thing is wisdom: if you have wisdom then you'll naturally be compassionate.
  • Compassion manifests as "non cruelty"
  • When someone else does evil things then you feel compassion because you know they're suffering or are going to suffer
  • Compassion has no bearing on whether someone people is badly off or someone is well off: it's a state of non-cruelty, it's a state of wishing to help people who are in suffering and not wishing to hurt people; it's a state that's in harmony, that's free from the evil where we do hurt other people and try to get the better of them.
  • So you think that one difference might be "a guilty conscience". I read elsewhere that a difference is "condescension" (if you feel condescending towards the person you're helping). – ChrisW Jul 4 '15 at 22:00
  • I'm not sure about "self" or "ego": is there inevitably some ego in "I want to help" or "that person could use my help" or "... some help from me"? – ChrisW Jul 4 '15 at 22:03
  • It was a unclear use of words from my side. What i meant by self or ego is attachment. Answer updated. – Lanka Jul 4 '15 at 22:07
  • I think that is a good perspective on pity too. Condenscension and guilty conscience. – Lanka Jul 4 '15 at 22:10
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    Pity has self and other, compassion is eliminating the self and the other, and seeing both as the same. The important aspect of the shared pain, though not shared suffering. – Buddho Jul 5 '15 at 7:00

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