Yesterday I wrote about how the Buddha, when he was in agony after having been injured, kept the suffering of self-doubt at bay by lying down “with sympathy for all beings.”
The word for sympathy here is “anukampā,” which literally means “to tremble with” or “to vibrate with.” Taking the meaning of “to vibrate with” we could even understand anukampā as being “resonating” with others, or having empathy for them.
Anukampā is closely related to karunā, or compassion, although karunā is from a root meaning “to act,” and so it’s a more active and dynamic term, while anukampā is more receptive. When we have anukampā we’re receptive to the feelings of others. We’re open to resonating with them. We are moved by them.We are touched by them. A synonym of aunukampā is muducittatā, or tender-heartedness. So anukampā, or sympathy, has this very receptive quality to it. It’s that in us which is touched by the joys and sorrows of others.
And it’s this ability to resonate with others that lead to our actively wishing beings well, and to our acting to relieve their sufferings, where it’s possible for us to do that.
So the Buddha told his first five followers, all of whom he had recently guided to Awakening, to go forth out of anukampā for the world, and when he said that he taught out of compassion, anukampā was the word he used. Many Buddhists, perhaps even most of them, have never heard the word anukampā, and yet it was the entire basis of the Buddha’s life and his mission to teach and help beings liberate themselves from suffering.
Anukampā is a natural feeling of sympathy. It’s a sense of solidarity with others, recognizing that we all suffer. In fact the receptive nature of anukampā leads to us sharing the suffering of others. Paradoxically, this does not increase our suffering, but reduces it. It’s a lack of sympathy that leads to us causing suffering to others and thus causes strife and conflict in our lives, and it’s a lack of sympathy with others that leads us to think that our own suffering is unique and that we’re worse off than others (a most painful state to be in).
Anukampā, in modern terms, would result from our “mirror neurons,” which allow us to create internal models of the thoughts and feelings of others, so that we can have empathy for them. The Buddha expressed this quite simply as the basis for ethics:
‘A person with evil wishes and dominated by evil wishes is displeasing and disagreeable to me. If I were to have evil wishes and be dominated by evil wishes, I would be displeasing to others.’ A bhikkhu who knows this should arouse his mind thus: ‘I shall not have evil wishes and be dominated by evil wishes.’
So I’m going to suggest a very simple practice: for the next few days, be aware of anukampā, “trembling with” or “sympathy for” others. Let go of your utilitarian thoughts and judgements about people — “she’s attractive,” “he’s unpleasant” — and just notice the fact that you feel when you are aware of another person. The feelings may be subtle or they may be obvious.
Stay in touch with your tender-heartedness, and allow yourself to notice how the heart resonates with others. Notice what mental attitudes suppress your natural sympathy, and which allow it to be noticed. And notice how your sympathy for others leads to the desire to help them be free from suffering.