By Erric Solomon

The practice of the Four Immeasurable Qualities—Equanimity, Loving-Kindness, Compassion, and Sympathetic Joy— is common to all Buddhist traditions of practice. For our great tradition of Mahayana, they are the foundation for bringing forth all the sublime qualities of Bodhicitta, the heart and mind of Enlightenment. In previous blogs, we looked at uncovering our boundless equanimity and immeasurable loving-kindness. Now let’s turn our attention towards the next immeasurable quality: Immeasurable Compassion.

Equanimity arises as a natural consequence of the spacious open quality of wisdom. This spacious open quality gives rise to the ability for all things to be reflected in the mind in all their unique manifestations, without any bias. Love is the natural expression of this ability to accommodate. There are two aspects to love: Loving-Kindness (Metta in Pali) and Compassion (Karuna in Pali).  Compassion or Karuna is a deep, heartfelt wish—may all beings be free from suffering, and the causes of suffering. This wish comes from this equanimity, this wide-open spacious situation. And that wish is an expression of the love that suffuses our wisdom nature.

The View of Compassion

Whereas the view of Loving-Kindness (Metta) starts with an acknowledgment of our potential, the view of Compassion is more like a weather report; it takes a look at our current condition.  Currently, our existence, although it has some amazing moments of ecstasy and joy, has a lot of challenges. Buddhist teachings summarize it as “birth, sickness, old age, and death.” These are the four unavoidably crappy parts of cyclic existence since these moments all involve varying degrees of suffering. What this is pointing to is that our current way of going about trying to avoid suffering and sorrow can’t work; although there are moments of relief, we still engage in activities that either will bring sorrow or at least won’t bring a lasting cessation to the cycle of suffering and dissatisfaction. In other words, we aren’t doing everything necessary to fully realize the promise of metta: to experience inconceivable happiness and well-being. Karuna, usually translated as compassion, is our inherent intention and capacity to relieve suffering, and end dissatisfaction.

Karuna is most often translated as compassion, but that isn’t quite right. Compassion has a sense of suffering with someone.  But just like a doctor doesn’t need to have the disease in order to cure you, Karuna doesn’t require us to suffer in order to be responsive to the suffering of others. The great saint Shantideva makes this point in a different way, the hand doesn’t have to be uncomfortable in order to massage a foot that is in pain. So perhaps, it is more helpful to think of Karuna as empathetic responsiveness to the suffering of beings. We can deeply understand and relate to the pain of another, without having to fall into a deep despair. From that understanding, we can act.

Karuna is expressed by deep heartfelt yearning: Just as I long to be free from suffering and its sources, I long for all beings to be free from suffering and its causes. Loving-Kindness (Metta) combined together with Compassion (Karuna) are a profound expression of the love that arises from spacious equanimity, the very basis of our wisdom nature.  Loving-Kindness addresses itself to the positive side of sentient beings—their unlimited potential— whereas compassion addresses the negative side—the current predicament of cyclic existence. But Karuna is not negative, since it holds to the vision that this suffering and dissatisfaction that we currently are enmeshed in is adventitious; it isn’t permanent, we can be free.

Uncovering Karuna

Our goal is to uncover a natural responsiveness to the needs of others. This ideally asks us to be fully engaged with, but not disturbed by, the challenges and suffering of others. What does it mean to not be “disturbed by?”  It means we can act without succumbing to grief. Grief is devoid of hope. It is not the same as sadness. Sadness is tender but still imbued with possibility. When we are sad, it is because we see the possibility of the way that things could be; we aren’t stuck in hopelessness.  

In fact, Karuna’s responsiveness can be a joyful activity. Think of a time you were really able to help someone in distress. Of course there may have been some sadness or a little worry. But also, isn’t it true that there was a subtle satisfaction and joy that naturally arose when we went all out and provided needed assistance. This feeling of satisfaction and joy is what Phakchok Rinpoche and I called Interconnected Happiness in our book Radically Happy. It’s a feeling of joy and satisfaction that comes when we respond to the needs of others.

In the teachings, it does say to react to others as if they were another you. But what does that mean? It means we should respond to the needs of beings with the same intensity as we would if it was our need. Therefore, just like when you began to practice Metta you started with yourself, it is again necessary to start by looking at our own dissatisfaction and suffering. We have to be able to take care of ourselves properly if we are going to have any hope of responding to the needs of others.

Exercise 1: Self Compassion

Begin by doing the Limitless Equanimity practice.

Ask yourself: “Do I have any suffering that I’d long to be free of? Do I have any fears, anxieties unresolved traumas? Do I have physical ailments, chronic diseases or disabilities?”

Take stock and take time to really get in touch with your fear or discomfort.

Make the mental aspiration: “I sincerely wish to be free of suffering” Just give yourself the gift of becoming used to feeling the wish.  If sadness or griefs start to become part of the picture, recognize that comes from indulging in the story of suffering, rather than feeling the wish to be free. When that happens, switch back to equanimity practice, allow yourself to feel how you feel.  Than go back to feeling the wish to be free. Alternate, in this way, until you can stay with feeling the wish, a longing to be free from suffering and its causes.

Now imagine a soft, gentle light begins to grow in your heart. It’s the light of love and understanding. Allow the light to grow, gradually filling your whole body. As it does, consider that all your suffering is washed away.

At the end of the session you can make aspirations according to your tradition of practice.

Exercise 2: Compassion for Another

Do the exercise as explained just above.

Having experienced this yearning to be free of suffering, we can recognize what we are talking about and then bring to mind another person who is suffering and think “Just as I wish for myself, so too may you be free of suffering.”

Therefore, consider someone who is very close to you who is going through a difficult time and suffering. If this suffering was yours, wouldn’t you want to be free of it?

Imagine the gentle light that emanates from your heart touches your suffering loved one. It fills them entirely. This light completely heals their body and their mind; their suffering is brought to an end.

At the end of the session you can make aspirations according to your tradition of practice

Our goal here is to gradually increase the number of people we can include in our healing gentle light combined with the wish: “As I wish to be free of suffering, so do others wish to be free of suffering. May you be free from suffering and all its causes.”

Often times we are too quick to send the light to all sentient beings, but that can be a kind of spiritual bypass—a way to skip the real challenge of this practice. Therefore it is good to try to do this practice with an enemy or someone whose actions we find to be vindictive and malevolent. If we can do it for someone we abhor, then it really will be possible to have Immeasurable Compassion.

Exercise 3: Compassion for an Enemy or Evil Person

Do Exercise 1.

Then bring to mind a person who engages in evil, harmful actions. Perhaps they caused you real harm or their actions are cruel, vindictive, spiteful or incredibly selfish. What makes them seem to be so malevolent? This can be a really intense experience when you look at this person’s qualities, we may even experience grief, anger, or deep resentment. If you do, go back to equanimity practice, and just focus on feeling rather than the story. Then come back to considering your enemy. Now think, “Just as I wish to be free of these torments, harmful behaviors, may you, my enemy, also be free.” See the person as they truly are beyond the temporary defilements of negative emotions and malevolent actions. They, like you, want to be free from suffering and its causes. They, like you, yearn to be happy.  Let the warm healing light of Karuna stream from your heart into theirs. See it cleansing all their pain and sorrow. Then think, “May you find all the happiness you seek. Just as I wish to be free from suffering, may you be free from suffering and its causes.”

Now gradually widen your circle to include all beings in this warm healing light of Karuna.

At the end of the session, you can make aspirations according to your tradition of practice.

By practicing Karuna in this way, we weaken the inaccurate perception of a boundary between self and other. Gradually, our concerns and others’ concerns will be in complete harmony. Our responsiveness will become more skillful, and we will have the wisdom to know when to act or not to act. People focus so much on the Buddhist view of no-self, often either misunderstanding it as nihilism or a way to bypass personal responsibility. When our view of self is seen through the truth of interconnectedness, the concerns of one are the concerns of all. By practicing Immeasurable Karuna, our view of self gradually becomes immeasurably vast, suffering is no longer mine nor yours, but ours. And with that view, the basis of suffering itself is rendered impotent.

Further Study

The Relying on the Four Immeasurable Qualities During a Pandemic Series:

Part 1: Immeasurable Equanimity
Part 2: Immeasurable Loving-Kindness
Part 4: Immeasurable Sympathetic Joy

You may also find Tonglen Practice: Developing Bodhicitta of interest.