Developing compassion: instructions from an ancient source, plus commentary (Day 32)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

So far I’ve just been advising people to do the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice while bearing in mind the sufferings of others, but karuna bhavana (the development of compassion) is a practice in its own right. I thought I’d take an opportunity to geek out by looking at an early source of instruction on this practice.

The “Path of Liberation” (Vimuttimagga) by Upatissa is the oldest meditation manual that I know about. It was probably written in the 1st century, several hundred years after the Buddha’s death. It’s from India, but the text has only survived in Chinese translation.

The scriptures of the Pali canon, which contain records of the Buddha’s teachings, were written down a few hundred years earlier, but they don’t contain any coherent and structured guides to this meditation practice. The Buddha is recorded in those earlier scriptures as saying, for example, that we should cultivate lovingkindness and compassion, but there’s little detail as to how. For those of us familiar with the various stages (self, friend, neutral person, etc.) into which lovingkindness and compassion meditations are divided, there’s none of that to be found in the Buddha’s teachings.

That doesn’t mean that the forms we’ve learned are wrong. Maybe what we do was taught or practiced in the Buddha’s day, but wasn’t written down (or memorized in a formal way) for some reason. Or perhaps the techniques evolved and were improved upon, as generations of meditators continued to explore these practices. No one knows.

But I thought it would be interesting to show how the Upatissa presented the development of compassion, and to offer a little commentary.

Based on the Vimuttimagga, the Karuna Bhavana practice is as follows:

  1. We cultivate lovingkindness (or compassion) for ourselves.
  2. We cultivate compassion for someone we think of as suffering.
  3. We cultivate compassion for a neutral person.
  4. We cultivate compassion for a person we have difficulty with.
  5. We extend our compassion to all beings.

So there are five stages here. Now let’s look at what the Vimuttimagga says about developing compassion.


So the title is “The Immeasurable Thought of Compassion.” The four practices of which compassion is a part are collectively called the “immeasurables,” because the mind imbued with these qualities embraces all beings. It’s not that we literally feel love for each individual being, but that the mind itself is completely filled with lovingkindness, compassion, etc., and that any being we encounter or think of is met with kindness and compassion.

I don’t know what’s being translated as “thought” in the title above, but compassion is much more than a thought, although reflection is used to help us contact and develop our compassion. Compassion is more a volition or intention than either a thought or an emotion.

Q. What is compassion? What is the practising of it? What are its salient characteristic, function and manifestation? What are its benefits? What is the procedure?

A. As parents who on seeing the suffering of their dear and only child, compassionate it, saying, ” O, how it suffers!”, so one compassionates all beings. This is compassion. One dwells undisturbed in compassion — this is called the practising of it. The non-manifestation of non-advantage is its salient characteristic. Happiness is its function. Harmlessness is its manifestation. Its benefits are equal to those of loving-kindness.

This is a typical commentarial device — breaking a subject area down into manageable units in order to provide a comprehensive definition from various angles.

The definition of compassion is very interesting: “As parents who on seeing the suffering of their dear and only child, compassionate it, saying, ” O, how it suffers!”, so one compassionates all beings. This is compassion.” This is reminiscent of the teaching in the Buddha’s Metta Sutta:

Just as with her own life
A mother shields from hurt
Her own son, her only child,
Let all-embracing thoughts
For all beings be yours.

“Compassionate” here is an archaic verb meaning simply “to have compassion for.”

The illustration suggests that compassion is something very natural. We already have compassion for children and others close to us, and so what we need to do is to extend that to others.

“One dwells undisturbed in compassion — this is called the practising of it.” We just need to practice! It’s just like any other form of exercise — you develop the faculty by “dwelling” in it. By connecting with our innate wish that beings be free from suffering, and by dwelling upon that volition, it becomes a stronger part of our character. We can cultivate compassion in everyday life, of course, but our efforts will always be interrupted. In meditation our exercising of compassion is relatively “undisturbed,” giving us time to really “work out” our “compassion muscles.”

“The non-manifestation of non-advantage is its salient characteristic.” I think “non-manifestation simply means “not doing” and “non-advantage” means “hindering” or “blocking.” So the salient characteristic of compassion is that we don’t make life hard for others, which is what we tend to do a lot of the time, don’t we?

“Happiness is its function.” I rarely find the karuna bhavana practice, unlike metta bhavana, to be joyful! Perhaps what’s meant here is that we help others to be happy? Or maybe “happiness” is a poor translation of “non-suffering”? I’m really not sure. The “function” given in the Vimuttimagga for lovingkindness is “the thought of lovingkindness,” which isn’t terribly helpful. “Non-fear” is the function of mudita, or appreciative joy. I find it hard to see a pattern here. Buddhaghosa, five hundred years later, has “Its [i.e. compassion’s] function resides in not bearing others’ suffering.” By this he means that we don’t ignore other’s suffering. We don’t just go, “Suffering? Meh!” We are actually concerned to relieve suffering. Maybe something got lost in translation from Pali (or maybe it was Sanskrit — we don’t know the original language) to Chinese to English.

“Harmlessness is its manifestation.” This is much clearer. Harmlessness is more often called “non-harm” (ahimsa). When we’re compassionate we don’t intentionally cause harm, or even act in ways that obstruct others’ happiness.

What is the procedure ? The new yogin [meditator] enters into a place of solitude and sits down with mind collected and undisturbed. If he sees or hears of a person stricken with disease, or a person affected by decay, or a person who is full of greed, he considers thus: “That person is stricken with suffering. How will he escape suffering?”.

Now we get onto the details of practice.

You may notice that there’s no “self-compassion” stage! There’s not even a self-metta stage. We just plunge straight in. Or so it would seem. But Upatissa has just explained the lovingkindness practice, which is very detailed, and says at the end of the guidelines for practicing compassion that “the rest is as was fully taught above,” so I’m assuming he was just giving brief instructions here, and that self-metta (or self-compassion) is meant to be cultivated.

So when he says that the meditator sits “with mind collected and undisturbed,” I take it that this is a reference back to the lovingkindness instructions, where he presents a long list of things that the meditator should wish for at the start of the metta bhavana practice, including,

One should wish to be endowed with tranquillity, to be free from hatred, to be endowed with all merits and to gain good advantages. One should wish to gain a good reward, a good name, to gain confidence, to gain happiness, to be endowed with virtue, knowledge, liberality and wisdom. One should wish for happy sleep and happy awaking. One should wish to have no evil dreams.

So this is a very extended and detailed form of “May I be well; may I be happy” etc. Basically it’s self-metta, or even self-compassion.

Upatissa skips the “dear friend” stage, and this time I don’t think it’s because the practice instructions are abbreviated. My sense of Upatissa’s thinking in skipping the “friend” stage is that in the metta bhavana practice we have the friend as the person for whom we (should) naturally have metta, while the suffering person is someone for whom we (should) naturally feel compassion.

And again, if he sees or hears of a person of perverted mind and bound with the defilements, or a person entering into ignorance, or one, who, having done merit in the past does not now train himself, he considers thus: “That person is stricken with suffering; he will fare ill. How will he escape suffering?”.

Then we have the “suffering person” stage, where we call to mind someone who is obviously suffering, physically or mentally, and develop the thought for them: “That person is stricken with suffering. How will he escape suffering?”

So we’re wishing that this person be free from suffering. This includes all kinds of suffering, not just the more obvious things like sickness, bereavement, etc.

And again, if he sees or hears of a person who follows demeritorious doctrines and does not follow meritorious doctrines, or of a person who follows undesirable doctrines and does not follow desirable doctrines, he considers thus: “That person is stricken with suffering; he will fare ill. How will he escape suffering?”.

Wishing for the welfare of those who follow demeritorious doctrines would have been important for a monk, since by the time Upatissa was writing, Buddhism had splintered into many competing sects. And although Buddhists are (ahem!) not supposed to have ill will for those with differing views, it’s inevitable that this is going to happen.

Our equivalent would be those with different political views. It’s natural that we will feel threatened or angered by people having differing views, but we can combat this by contemplating how those views might lead to suffering. And if they don’t lead to suffering, why are we so bothered about them?

That yogin by these means and through these activities develops the thought of compassion for these persons and repeats it. Having by these means and through these activities developed the thought of compassion and repeated it, he makes his mind pliant, and capable of bearing the object. Thereafter he gradually develops (compassion) for an indifferent person and an enemy. The rest is as was fully taught above. Thus he fills the four directions.

So this is rather interesting. It’s by cultivating the volition of compassion for the four people who have been in the practice that we get to the point where the mind is “capable of bearing the object.” So the object is “all beings.” We’ve been practicing cultivating compassion for beings who are suffering and for whom we naturally would feel compassion, for those whose suffering we’d normally ignore, and for those whose suffering we might normally wish for! This gives the mind “pliancy” and allows us to meet any individual with a mind imbued with compassion.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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3 Comments. Leave new

  • Melody Peters
    May 13, 2013 3:02 pm

    This helped my understanding a great deal. Metta seemed easy, blissful even. Compassion not so much. Learning compassion was my original motivation in studying Buddhist teaching. As my understanding increases so does my intention to stay on this path.

  • Could “not bearing” another’s suffering also mean not taking it on ourselves?

    Also, you’ve inspired me. Fear causes us to question whether we’re worthy of good things, whether or not we can continue to have good things, and whether or not someone else’s success threatens our own success. So, could that be why “non-fear” is the function of Mudita?

    • I don’t know what you mean by “not taking suffering upon ourselves,” Blake, so I can’t say. In this context, “not bearing” another’s suffering means “not ignoring it” or “seeing it as important and as something to be acted upon.”

      Resenting someone else’s success or good qualities as a threat would certainly be incompatible with mudita.


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