Metta, or loving kindness is wanting people to be happy (including yourself).
Karuna, or compassion is wanting people to free from their suffering (including yourself). Compassion is the emotion that moves you, that compels you to act upon seeing someone else’s suffering (as opposed to just standing there doing nothing).
Regarding compassion, you need to know 2 things:
- Compassion does not necessarily mean that you have to be nice to someone. Often, being compassionate means being nice to them but not always. Sometimes, you’ve got to do or say things to people that are unpleasant in the short term, but in the long term they will have far more benefit. This is like a form of delayed gratification.
- Compassion also needs to be balanced with wisdom. So you don’t just give away things mindlessly. You give away things in a way that ensures that the greatest good is done.
In the Abhaya Sutta, the Buddha illustrates how sometimes, you may have to something that is temporarily unpleasant for the greater good:
Now at that time a baby boy was lying face-up on the prince’s lap. So the Blessed One said to the prince, “What do you think, prince: If this young boy, through your own negligence or that of the nurse, were to take a stick or a piece of gravel into its mouth, what would you do?”
“I would take it out, lord. If I couldn’t get it out right away, then holding its head in my left hand and crooking a finger of my right, I would take it out, even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have sympathy for the young boy.”
Now regarding balancing compassion with wisdom. If someone is too compassionate, too attached to compassion, then perhaps they may do things that would never harm anyone. But then, giving others free reign to do anything is not necessarily compassion. It can be attachment masked as compassion, because people are not benefitting much in the overall scheme of things.
Say you give away some money to someone who actually wastes the money instead of doing good things with it. Although you’ve done a good deed, the good deed was wasted. So you want to give your money away in a way that can do the maximum good – perhaps in a way that multiplies the amount of good that’s been done.
So in balancing wisdom with compassion, the head and the heart must work in harmony with each other and have a nice balance. But if they’re out of balance, these sorts of things can happen:
- If you let your heart over-rule your head, it’s easy to do stupid things and possibly regret it later.
- If you just do things with your head, then the result can be cold and sterile – with no heart and soul behind it.
So compassion really comes from the intent – the intention to do the best that you can for others AND do it in the best way possible such that it will do the greatest good overall.