The Sunday TimesPlus

18th May 1997



Thoughts on Karuna

By G.P.S. de Silva Chief Justice

Karuna, in English means compassion. Karuna may be broadly described as the desire to remove that which is baneful and sorrowful from all living beings. It is a quality which moves the heart of good men, when they behold the distress and sorrows of others. It is the desire to rescue others from their troubles and afflictions. Complementary to Karuna is Metta, which in brief is the desire to bring about the welfare and happiness of others. The direct enemy of Karuna is cruelty and violence.

One must, however, not confuse Karuna with sentimentality and false sympathy. Many of us weep when one who was close to us dies. But that is not Karuna. The tears and the sadness may spring from the loss of the comfort and happiness and it may even be the assistance and support we derived from the dear one who has now left us.

The source of the grief is the inner thoughts of selfish affectioin. It is the loss that we have sustained that makes us sad. The grief in truth centres on the ‘I’, the ‘Me’ and the ‘Mine’. In short , it is self-interest that is predominant and this could hardly be described as Karuna.

The Buddha was the All Compassionate One (Mahana Karuna) and Karuna is the foundation of His teaching. Indeed Karuna is as it were the golden thread that runs through ;the entire teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha radiated His great compassion towards all living beings. His thoughts, His words, His deeds were all founded on Karuna

Karuna - an all embracing and pervading quality

Thus it was the practice of the Buddha at dawn every day to survey the world with His eye of purified vision for beings who needed His help. If He observed any being in a state of distress or sorrow. He would immediately go, regardless of distance or inconvenience and render assistance.

He had great compasion towards Devadatta who attempted to kill Him, and towards Angulimala, the murderer, who later underwent a complete change in character. It was out of compassion for all beings suffering in Samsara that he renounced the comfort and the luxury of the life of a Prince and left His wife and child in quest of the Supreme Enlightenment.

The Buddha walked the highways and by-ways of India for 45 years, teaching the Dhamma out of compassion for suffering worldlings. When the Bodhisathva was Sumedha tapasa he could have won Deliverance for himself , but He could save not only himself but all beings from the eternal round of births and death.d

Again, as the Bodhisathva, he sacrificed his life to save a starving tigress and her cubs. Buddha himself once bathed a monk with sores on his body. He thus set an example by attending on the sick andexhorting His disciples with the memorable words; " He who ministers unto the sick, ministers unto me ."

Karuna like Metta, has an all-embracing, all-pervading quality. Not only the sick, the poor, the helpless, the helpless, the ignorant and the destitute need our compassion, but also thevicious, thewicked and the indisciplined. The latter shouldnot be despised or condemned, but should be treated with compassion, for they are spiritually and mentally sick.

Emphasizing the all-embracing character of Karuna, the Buddha in one of his discourses said;"Here O! monks, a disciple dwells pervading one direction with his heart filled with compassion, likewise the seccond, the third and the fourth direction; so above, below and around; he dwells pervading the entire world everywhere and equally with his heart filled with compassion abundant! , grown great, measureless, free from enmity and free from distress.

The Five Precepts which every Buddhist takes are themselves founded on compassion. Take for instance the first Precept

(I undertake to abide by the precept to abstain from killing). In Buddhism, the undertaking is not only to abstain from killing human beings but all living beings, including the meanest creature on earth.

In the words of the Dhammapada; "All tremble at the rod. All fear death. Comparing others with oneself, one should neither kill no cause to kill"

Similarly, a Buddhist abstains from stealing , sexual misconduct, uttering falsehood, partaking of intoxicants, out of a sense of and abiding compassion. It may be truly said that compassion is the heart of Buddhism. In this great compassion, the idea of self disappears. It is a selfless compassion which is the foundation for the moral and spiritual conduct preached by the Buddha.

To the man of compassion the suffering of others becomes a part of his own suffering. To alleviate their suffering is his dominant desire. The practice of Karuna entails the practice of all that is good and wholesome.

The late Dr. G. P. Malalasekara once said. "There are two priceless qualities that any human being can have - a composure which no tempest can ruffle , and a compassion which is susceptible to the faintest woe".

It is necessary here to mention a word of caution. When we give food to a hungry man, or help in some other way a person in difficulty or distress, we are moved by a feeling of compassion. But if in such a situation our dominant thought and our prime intention is to profit by such act in a furture birth or may be even this life, then our good deed is, even to a small extent, tarnished by a motive which tends to be selfish.

We should not become unduly conscious of result of our good deeds and become too attached to it. The good result will invitably follow the act of kindness, but to become too attached to the result is to invite greed or craving which tends to besmirch the good act itself. We give food to the hungry, to alleviate the hunger and that is the best reason for our act of Kindness. While it is essential to be conscious of the good results our actions can bring, yet we should not in an unwholesome way, be over-attached to the results.

This is a meaninful quotation from Nyanapomika Maha Thera’s work entitled, "The Four Sublime" State in The Wheel Publication No 6. I quote:

"The world suffers. But most of men have their eyes and ears closed. They do not see the unborken streem of tears flowing through life, they do not hear the cry of distress continually pervading the world. Their own little grief or joy bars their sight, deafens their ears.

Bound by selfishness their hearts turn stiff and narrow. Being stiff and narrow, how should they be able to strive for any higher goal, to realize that only release from selfish craving will effect their own freedom from suffering?"

"It is compassion that removes the heavy bar opens the door to Freedom, makes the narrow heart as wide as the world. Compassion takes away from it the inert, weighing, paralysing heaviness gives wings to those who cling to the lowlands of self."

"Through compassion the fact of suffering remains vividly present to our mind, even at times when personally we are free from it. It gives us rich experience of suffering, thus stregthening us to meet it prepared, when it befalls us".

"Compassion reconciles us to our own destiny by showing us the life of others, often much harder than ours".

"Behold the endless caravan of beings, men and beasts, burdened with sorrow and pain. The burden of everyone of them, we also have carried it in bygone times during the unfathomable sequence of repeated births. Behold this, and open to compassion your heart.

"And this misery may well be our own destiny again. Who himself is without compassion now, will one day cry for it. If sympathy with others is lacking, it will have to be acquired through a long and painful experience of one’s own. Thus is the Great Law of LIfe. Knowing this, keep guard over yourself".

"Beings, sunk in ignorance, lost in delusion, hasten from one state of suffering to another, not knowing the real cause, not knowing the escape from it. This insight into the general Law of Suffering is the real foundation of our compassion, not any isolated facet of suffering."

Continue to Plus page 3 - Education to blame for today’s decline in Bhikku morals

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