Karuna in its simplest meaning stands for compassion. All the major religions of the world do stress on compassion as an essential quality of a good human being. But this word is given more importance in the religions of the east like Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, especially in the case of Buddhism and Jainism. Karuna in this context means any action that is taken for the benefit and well being of others. In other words it could be termed as ‘compassionate action’. “Karuna means compassion, tenderness and devoted action to alleviate suffering.” (Karuna Centre for Yoga and Healing Arts).
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The purpose of this paper is to study the concept of karuna in Buddhism and its relevance to the two major sects in that religion namely Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. It is to be noted that karuna was an important element in the early stages of Buddhism also. It formed a part of the four immeasurable attitudes known as the Brahma-Viharas or Divine Abidings. They are, loving kindness or metta, compassion or karuna, sympathetic joy or mudita, and equanimity or upekkha. The importance of karuna can be seen from the fact that it comes second in the list. These are essentially four states that the mind can achieve through right meditation. All these four attributes are said to have positive qualities that has to be directed towards the self, towards the family, the community that the practitioner lives in and the universe as a whole in that order. It should also include all enemies and even person one hates.
Theravada Buddhism is in reality what is left from the early teachings and schools of Buddha. It is also known as the ‘Southern Buddhism’ because of its impact on countries south of India like Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Karuna in Theravada Buddhism is a part of the four attributes mentioned above. Unlike Mahayana Buddhism which lays more stress on action, the Theravada school relies on meditation to achieve these states. The first step to achieving compassion as well as all the other three attributes, a person has to exercise will power and try to be impartial. But this alone is not enough. The next step is methodical mediation which will help to achieve the above mentioned four sublime states.
This in turn will help the person to achieve jhana or meditative absorption. The meditative process starts with thinking about compassion with reference to the self or the person doing the meditation himself. Then it should expand to others whom the person doing the meditation loves and respects, like a teacher. Next comes persons who are loved like near and dear ones. Then it should extend to people who have no relationships whatsoever. Finally it should embrace one’s enemies and hated people. Once this has been achieved, problem of being partial in showing compassion towards certain types of people mentioned above may develop. Further meditation is necessary to be totally impartial to every one be it enemy, relative or friend. “After one has been able to cope with the hardest task, to direct one’s thoughts of loving-kindness to disagreeable people, one should now “break down the barriers” (sima-sambheda). Without making any discrimination between those four types of people, one should extend one’s loving-kindness to them equally.” (Thera).
Long periods of meditation will help in making these attributes deep into ones mind and also to express the same outwards to the world. As mentioned earlier the process will follow the order of self, relatives, neighbors, locality, country and the whole world or universe.
Mahayana Buddhism is also known as the Northern Buddhism because it was popular in north of India in countries like China and Tibet. Karuna in Mahayana Buddhism is viewed in a slightly different context when compared to the other schools. This school of thought is said to have emerged much later after the advent of Buddhism and has made a lot of reforms and changes to the rules and practices of the religion. According to Mahayana Buddhism it was selfless action towards the betterment of others that was important and hence, stress on meditation as a means of enlightenment was looked down upon. Mahayana Buddhism went to the extent of deriding other schools of Buddhism calling it the derogatory word of Hinayana (lesser vehicle) Buddhism.
Special stress was given to karuna and prajna (insight) and the practice of paramita (six perfections) like generosity, morality, patience, perseverance, meditation and insight. But the greatest difference when compared with other schools was how compassion was viewed. In following the practice of compassion, Mahayana Buddhism allowed certain fundamental deviations from the basic teachings. For example, ahimsa or non violence took a back seat if an act was done in the pursuit of compassion. A bodhistava of the Mahayana order could even commit violent acts like murder. If a person would surely commit a crime in the near future and the fact became known to a bodhistava, he could even kill that person so that the crime could be avoided. “The pressure to bend or suspend rules in the interests of compassion results in certain texts establishing new codes of conduct for bodhistavas which sometimes allow the precepts to be broken.” (Keown, P. 19).
Whatever the differences in the two schools of thought, karuna is an integral part of the religion and has many followers throughout the world. Buddhism has also been popular in the west with many well known personalities like Richard Gere, Steve Jobs and Jennifer Lopez who have become Buddhists or at least have adopted the important tenets of this great religion. Buddhism’s principles are increasingly become relevant in this violent era and age.
Karuna Centre for Yoga and Healing Arts. 2008. Web.
Thera, Nyanaponika. The Four Sublime States: Contemplations on Love, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity: Introduction. BPS. 2007. Web.
Keown, Damien. Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short: Introduction. Skilful Means (upaya-kausalya). Oxford University Press. P. 19. 2005. Web.