Compassion and the End of Suffering

It’s been a long time since I posted here last–I’m way overdue. However, I’m glad to say that I haven’t been away so long because of laziness. My son Siddhartha was born on July 8, and Tara and I have been dealing with long, sleepless nights with a screaming infant. Lots of fun. Now I’m staying up late nights, though, to let Tara get some sleep, so I finally have some time to get back into things.

I’ve also launched into a couple of new projects, that I’m working on along with my preparations to teach non-western philosophy in the fall. I’ve begun a fictional work after a long absence, which is closely enough related to the subject matter of this blog to mention here. I have started a semi-fictional account of the story of the Buddha, from his late youth as prince of the Sakyans to the first of his teachings as the Buddha. This story has always been one that has interested me (as it has many others through the centuries), and I think I may finally have enough skill (though perhaps only barely) as a writer to give it a shot.

Along with this project, and to an extent informing it, is a reading of the Theravada suttas, some of which I plan to make some comments on (that I might post here). Of course, the Analects project is still going (also to be posted here), but I figure that including the suttas is a good way to mix things up. One difference between the sutta commentaries I will give and my Analects commentary is my grasp of the original languages. My classical Chinese knowledge is many times better than my knowledge of Pali, which is pretty weak, so I’ll be depending mainly on English translation for the sutta commentaries (with perhaps a little sprinkling of the original Pali text, where I can understand it or it’s important enough to consult Warder and/or the PTS Dictionary).

So, I have no commentary right now–but I would like to post this sutta, the Karaniya Metta Sutta (Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s translation), from the Sutta Nipata. This sutta is the essence of compassion. Reflecting on it, maybe we can cultivate the compassion (metta, often translated “loving kindness”) to live the good life. (Although karuna rather than metta is more often translated as compassion, I think that metta is an important element of our notion of compassion. Our word compassion probably contains what are three separate concepts in Pali Buddhism, karuna, metta, and mudita [“sympathetic joy”])

This is to be done by one skilled in aims
who wants to break through to the state of peace:
Be capable, upright, & straightforward,
easy to instruct, gentle, & not conceited,
content & easy to support,
with few duties, living lightly,
with peaceful faculties, masterful,
modest, & no greed for supporters.

Do not do the slightest thing
that the wise would later censure.

Think: Happy, at rest,
may all beings be happy at heart.
Whatever beings there may be,
weak or strong, without exception,
long, large,
middling, short,
subtle, blatant,
seen & unseen,
near & far,
born & seeking birth:
May all beings be happy at heart.

Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or irritation
wish for another to suffer.

As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.
With good will for the entire cosmos,
cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, & all around,
unobstructed, without enmity or hate.
Whether standing, walking,
sitting, or lying down,
as long as one is alert,
one should be resolved on this mindfulness.
This is called a sublime abiding
here & now.

Not taken with views,
but virtuous & consummate in vision,
having subdued desire for sensual pleasures,
one never again
will lie in the womb.

6 responses to “Compassion and the End of Suffering

  1. Hi Alexis,

    Long time no see. I’ve been lurking here occasionally, just to see what was going on. I just wanted to congratulate you on the birth of your son. Lots of luck with those sleepless nights!

  2. Alexus McLeod

    Hi David-
    thanks–good to hear from you! Hope things are going well–you’re at Liverpool now, right?

  3. Currently at Liverpool, yes. I finish my degree here in June. We’ll see where I go from there.

  4. I also extend much belated congratulations…my computer time has been haphazard lately.

  5. Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Loving kindness is, it seems, expressed in interpersonal and intimate relations, whereas I might have compassion, say, for those suffering in Darfur (and do things that evidence such compassion: give money to appropriate aid agencies, write congressional representatives, and sundry other forms of activism), hence I suspect the distinction the Buddhists have in mind here is important and, moreover, that ‘our’ use of the word compassion does not combine or conflate these two meanings.

    Similarly with ‘sympathetic joy,’ i.e., taking joy or delight in the joy or happiness that others are experiencing: I do not see how this is a feature of compassion as we typically employ it. Again, I think the Buddhists rightly make important distinctions between karuna, metta, and mudita, and that loving kindness and sympathetic joy are in no way an integral part of the word compassions as we typically use it. I think a more interesting analysis would discuss the subtle differences found between compassion, sympathy, mercy, and pity….

  6. Patrick S. O'Donnell

    I meant to include empathy in the above list as well. And of course ‘compassion’ not ‘compassions.’

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