Karunā, mettā and ahimsa

Autumn leaves

KARUNĀ (compassion), METTĀ (loving- kindness), AHIMSA (non-violence)

The three words karunā, mettā and ahimsa have great importance in Buddhism, and can be seen as denoting the principles that underpin a healthy, well-balanced and mindful society. Given that the universe is interwoven with networks of cause-and-effect, all beings are interconnected, and what is done to one affects all the others. In this way we are all related. There is kinship and fellowship between all beings, from a fly on the wall to a Queen in her palace.

The qualities of karunā, mettā and ahimsa arise naturally from a clear understanding and realisation of Dharma – how the world IS – realising that all phenomena are impermanent, interdependent and without a fixed essence. In this Buddhist view of the world all boundaries are artificial conventions, rather than aspects of the world.

Mettā is a Pali word, derived from, mitta, ‘friend’ – it is most often translated as ‘loving-kindness’, but a more accurate rendition might be ‘true friendliness’. The Buddha says that friendliness (metta) “is the emancipation of mind … friendliness radiates, shines and illumines.” With friendliness we are warmed and we give warmth; we are lit and we light others. In the light of non-clinging friendliness we see others as relatives, treating them with respect, tolerance and warmth.

Karunā, is usually translated as compassion, and our word, ‘compassion’ comes from a Latin root, compati (com- “together” + pati “to suffer”).  In other words, we have combined here a sense of ‘fellow-feeling’, of shared suffering, of empathy, and the feeling of care and kindness to those who suffer as we do. Karunā, compassion, grows out of a deep feeling of connectedness, interdependence and shared state of being. Compassion, like friendliness (metta) is grounded in non-attachment, which arises from wisdom (prajna), an understanding of how the world is. Jack Kornfield, a well-known Buddhist teacher and social activist, makes a distinction between a feeling grounded in attachment (“I love this person or this thing. I want to hold it…to keep it”) which grasps and holds and aims to possess for oneself, and feelings grounded in non-attachment which are open, appreciative and unconditional.

Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word meaning, ‘not to cause injury through actions, words or thoughts’; also ‘non-violence’. If all beings (indeed all things) are interdependent and inter-acting, and in constant process, any action, however small, affects all things. Not only are all things interconnected and therefore inseparable in any absolute sense, then there can be no easy distinction between oneself and the universe. We are what we are not; we are the universe; the universe is us. Thus to injure or harm any part of the universe is to harm ourselves.

Mindful meditation, in its many forms, enables us to develop non-possessive awareness, insight, empathy and kinship, through a clear-sighted enquiry into how things are. Kinship, compassion and non-violence tend to presuppose: tolerance, mutual respect, open-mindedness and non-dogmatic enquiry.

A poem by Kenneth Rexroth:

Buddha took some Autumn leaves

In his hand and asked

Ananda if these were all

The red leaves there were.

Ananda answered that it

Was Autumn and leaves

Were falling all about them,

More than could ever

Be numbered. So Buddha said,

“I have given you

A handful of truths.  Besides

These there are many

Thousands of other truths, more

Than can ever be numbered.”