Compassion is a major theme throughout much of Buddhist history. In Early Buddhism, mettā/maitrī (Pāḷi/Sanskrit), often translated as “loving kindness,” is more prominent, and in Mahayana Buddhism, karuṇā, usually translated as “compassion,” becomes more widespread; these two virtues are most closely associated with the English sense of compassion, or sympathetic or empathetic care, in Buddhism specifically for sentient beings, with reference to liberating them from the suffering of samsara, the cycle of birth and death. Particularly in Mahayana Buddhism, wisdom (Skt. prajñā) and compassion are the two primary virtues, and, as such, so much of Mahayana can be characterized as having to do with compassion that any bibliography on the topic is by necessity somewhat arbitrary and highly limited in its selections. Regardless, it can be argued that certain figures carry a special emphasis on compassion: bodhisattvas, who vow to bring all sentient beings to awakening, and among them especially Avalokiteśvara (Tib. Chenrezig; Ch. Guanyin; Jpn. Kannon), and cosmic buddhas, especially Amitābha and Amitāyus (Ch. Amitofo; Jpn. Amida). The concept of upāya, skillful means for liberation, expresses the multifarious application of compassion and is particularly associated with bodhisattvas (upāya, however, deserves a separate bibliographical entry of its own). Other figures include Tārā, most prevalent in Tibetan Buddhism, said to be an emanation of Chenrezig, and Bodhisattva Jizō (Skt. Kṣitigarbha) in Japanese Buddhism, protector of children and travelers and more recently associated with mizuko kuyō, offerings to aborted fetuses and deceased infants. In Early Buddhism, the bodhisatta (Pāḷi) of the Jātaka tales refers specifically to the past lives of the historical Buddha Śākyamuni in which he compassionately sacrificed his own life over many lifetimes until he accrued the merit to become the Buddha. The Jātaka tales are a subset of the Avadāna, which generally refers to past life sacrifices. Scriptures, schools, and sects, and major teachers related to these figures, are also often associated with compassion. The approach taken here is intensive rather than extensive. Primary texts in translation, commentarial traditions arising out of them, and sometimes contemporary interpretations are grouped together to provide a multifaceted view. Formal treatises of prominent Buddhist thinkers are often paired with collections of letters, where the former provide the doctrinal basis of compassion and the latter personalized, concrete, intimate expressions. Owing to space limitations, this necessarily means that some traditions are sampled and others are not.
These works provide helpful starting points and contain descriptions of major scriptural sources, figures, and practices related to compassion. The first three introductory surveys, Harvey 1990, Williams 2009, and Jackson 2004, help to place them within the larger framework of Buddhism generally. Makransky 2012 provides a brief overview of practices across the three major Buddhist traditions that aid the practitioner in the development of compassion. Harvey 2000 and Goodman 2009 introduce the field of Buddhist ethics, including significant discussions of compassion. Sponberg 2007 offers a brief survey of buddhas and bodhisattvas relevant to the theme of compassion.
Goodman, Charles. Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
A comparative study of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayāna Buddhist ethics in South Asia and Tibet as well as standard Western ethical positions (consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics). The author argues that the moral systems of these Buddhist traditions share a common foundation, namely compassion for other beings. A discussion of compassion and punishment is included.
Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
A comprehensive introduction including schools, major figures, scriptures, and practices. Chapter 6, “Mahāyāna Holy Beings,” and chapter 9, “Buddhist Practice: Ethics,” contain substantial discussions of cosmic buddhas and bodhisattvas and virtues related to compassion, respectively. Full historical range from early nikāya Buddhism through Mahayana and Vajrayāna are covered, although descriptions are somewhat less extensive and less detailed with regard to East Asian developments.
Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values, and Issues. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Provides an outline of ethical principles that are held in common by various traditions as well as their points of difference. The author speaks to issues that are of interest to a Western audience. The second and third chapters, “Key Buddhist Values” and “Mahāyāna Emphases and Adaptations,” are notable for their treatment of virtues related to compassion.
Jackson, Roger R. “Karuņā (Compassion).” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 1. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr. 419–421. New York: Macmillan, 2004.
This article provides a succinct introduction to the ways in which sutras and notable figures employ the term. The author focuses on the ideas and practices put forward by the Buddha and the Mahayana tradition.
Makransky, John. “Compassion in Buddhist Psychology.” In Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy. Edited by Christopher K. Germer and Ronald D. Siegel, 61–74. New York: Guilford, 2012.
This article provides an overview of the models of compassion in Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayāna Buddhism. Brief descriptions of practices that cultivate compassion within each tradition are included. The author suggests that such practices could be helpful to Western psychotherapists and their clients.
Sponberg, Alan. “Archetypal Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 1. Edited by Damien Keown and Charles S. Prebish, 37–43. London: Routledge, 2007.
Provides a brief introduction to the most influential cosmic buddhas and bodhisattvas. The latter are grouped into five families according to an important Vajrayāna mandala. The author links the cosmic buddhas and bodhisattvas to the sutras and schools in which they appear.
Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge, 2009.
This broad overview of Mahayana Buddhism includes a discussion of prominent sutras and schools. Chapters 9 and 10 consider the bodhisattva path and the cosmic buddhas. Tantric Buddhism, Zen, and Pure Land receive less attention than other schools.
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