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Karuna (Pali: compassion) is the ability to feel the distress or pain of others as if it were one’s own. The English word compassion has exactly the same meaning and comes from the Latin com meaning ‘with’ and passio meaning ‘suffering.’ Sometimes in Buddhist psychology compassion is also called commiseration (dayà), empathy (anuddàyanà) or sympathy (anukampà).
The most noticeable feature of the Buddha’s personality was his compassion and this compassion was not just something he felt for others or that they felt in his presence, it was also the motive for much of what he said and did. He said, ‘What should be done out of compassion for his disciples by a teacher who cares about their welfare and out of compassion for them, I have done for you’ (M.I,46).
The Buddha visited and comforted the sick ‘out of compassion’ (Anguttara Nikaya 3. 378), he taught the Dhamma ‘out of compassion’ (Anguttara Nikaya 3. 167). Once he went into the forest looking for a serial killer because he had compassion for his potential victims and also for the murderer himself (Majjhima Nikaya 2. 980). The Buddha’s compassion seems to have transcended even the bounds of time. He is described sometimes as doing or refraining from doing certain things ‘out of compassion for coming generations’ (Majjhima Nikaya 1. 23). Once he said that his very reason for being was ‘for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the benefit and the happiness of gods and humans’ (Anguttara Nikaya 2. 146).
Compassion is the second of the four Brahma Viharas and was more highly praised by the Buddha than any other virtues because it is the root of so many other virtues. The Jàtakamàlà says, ‘Compassion gives birth to all the other virtues just as cooling rain makes the crops grow. When a person is compassionate he has no desire to harm his neighbour, his body, speech and mind are purified, concern for one’s neighbour’s welfare increases and states like kindness, patience, happiness and good reputation grow. Being calm, the compassionate person does not arouse fear in the minds’ of others, he is trusted like a kinsman, he is not agitated by the passions, and quenched by the waters of compassion, the fire of hatred does not blaze in his heart…Remembering this strive to develop compassion towards others, as if they were yourself or your offspring.’