Compassionate Goodwill 

– by S. N. Goenka

(The following is a translation of an article originally published in the December 1999 issue of the Vipashyana Patrikā.)

An international seminar was recently organised in Lumbini, Nepal, the sacred birthplace of Sakyamuni Gotama the Buddha. The theme of this seminar was compassion and its objective was to establish friendly relations with the neighbouring Buddhist countries.


Compassion (karuna) is a very noble state of the human mind. Like selfless love (mettā), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha), compassion is also a brahmavihara (sublime state of mind). Merely talking about compassion, discussing compassion or praising it-all these are far away from true brahmavihara. It is good to accept compassion at the intellectual level as an ideal sublime state. But this is also far away from true brahmavihara. Brahmavihara means the nature of a brahma (the highest being in the order of beings). It is the practice of superior qualities, the practice of Dhammic qualities. Only when the mind is suffused and overflows with such brahmic qualities can we call it brahmavihara. The mind can overflow with compassion as well as mettā, mudita and upekkha only when the mind is completely free from all defilements at the deepest level. This purity of mind and the resultant sublime states born out of it is the fruit of practice of Dhamma.

What is the meaning of living a Dhamma life? It means living a life of morality, that is, to abstain from performing any vocal or physical action that will disturb the peace and harmony of others and harm them.

In order to get established in morality it is necessary to have complete control over one’s mind. The mind should be fully restrained, fully disciplined. For this, it is necessary to practise concentration of mind with a neutral object of meditation. A neutral object of meditation neither generates raga (attachment) nor dosa (aversion). It is based on direct experiential truth and is free from ignorance.

But it is not enough to concentrate one’s mind with the help of such a neutral object of meditation. It is necessary to develop wisdom (pañña) at the depths of the mind on the basis of direct experience and to become established in this experiential wisdom (pañña). By this practice it is possible to eradicate the ingrained habit-pattern of the mind that generates, multiples and accumulates reactions (sankharas) of craving and aversion out of ignorance.

As the wisdom gradually weakens this habit pattern, the old accumulated defilements are eradicated and new ones do not arise. Ultimately, the mind is completely freed of all defilements and becomes pure. Then the mind is naturally filled with the brahmic qualities of mettā, karuna, mudita, and upekkha.

As long as the old stock of defilements is present in the mind and new defilements are added to it, it is not possible for brahmavihara to arise in the mind. Ego plays a role in the arising of all defilements. As long as the mind is ego-centred, self-centred, one may talk about the four brahmaviharas and praise them highly, but one is not able to cultivate true brahmavihara.

The more the mind becomes free from defilements the more the development of brahmavihara. When a meditator is fully liberated, he dwells continuously in the pure brahmavihara. Therefore, for development of the brahmaviharas of mettā, karuna, mudita, and upekkha, it is absolutely essential to become established in sila, samadhi and pañña.

No individual of any caste, colour, class, society, community or religion has a monopoly on the practice of sila, samadhi and pañña. The practice is universal. Anyone can cultivate them by exerting sufficient effort. One who cultivates them and purifies his mind becomes naturally suffused with love, compassion and goodwill. Just as the defilements of an impure mind cannot be labelled as Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Jain defilements, similarly love, compassion, goodwill and other wholesome qualities of a pure mind cannot be given any sectarian label. The defilements and wholesome qualities of the mind are the same for all.

Just as the pure Dhamma of sila, samadhi and pañña is universal, eternal, absolute, timeless all over the world, so also the brahmavihara arising because of its practice are universal, eternal, absolute, timeless all over the world. None of the religious traditions-Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jewish-reject the importance of morality, concentration of mind and purification of mind, and the resultant compassion and goodwill.

Different societies, communities and sects have different ways of worship, different places of worship, different rites and rituals, different festivals, different vows and fasting days. Their philosophical beliefs are different. Actually, different communities or sects originate and flourish on the basis of these differences. But the Dhamma of morality, concentration, wisdom, and love, compassion and goodwill is universal. It is the same for all societies, communities and religions. This universal Dhamma and the resultant compassion unite all religious sects. While continuing to maintain their distinct sectarian features, they can unite at the level of universal Dhamma. All can become one in the practice of the brahmaviharas of love and compassion.

Fostering Friendly Relations with Neighbouring Followers of the Buddha

Because the practice of universal Dhamma of sila, samadhi and pañña and the resultant brahmavihara of compassion is inseparable, it can play a successful role in uniting the adherents of different views. Close ties can certainly be developed and strengthened between India and its neighbouring countries based on this universal foundation.

But if we do not bear in mind the following dos and don’ts while establishing relations with these countries all our friendly efforts will not only be completely unproductive but will result in ill will and enmity.

1. When anyone calls the Buddha an incarnation of Vishnu and thinks that he is giving the Buddha a status equivalent to Ram and Krishna making him an object of worship, he is unknowingly making a big blunder. Actually, he is insulting the Buddha. The Buddha became completely liberated from the cycle of birth and death after attaining perfect self-enlightenment and declared,
Ayam antima jati-this is my last birth.
Natthidani punabbhavo-there is no rebirth for me.
How can the devotees of the Buddha accept that the Buddha, who is completely liberated from the wheel of existence, is an incarnation of Vishnu who incarnates himself again and again?

It seems that the belief in the theory of incarnation arose with the Puranas. The story describing the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu was originally created in the Vishnu Purana and was repeated in the other Puranas. The origin of this belief is so shamefully abusive that it not only gives offence to our neighbours but also produces pain in them like a poisonous arrow piercing the heart. According to this story in the Vishnu Purana, the Buddha was not the incarnation of the good qualities of Vishnu but of his unwholesome qualities such as ignorance and delusion (Mayamoha). The only aim of this incarnation was to turn the followers of the Vedas against the Vedas and prevent them from going to heaven so that the reign of Indra and other gods in heaven could be secure. This narrative censures not only the Buddha but also his teachings. The Buddha taught the ancient technique of Vipassana that tears asunder the veil of ignorance and liberates people from the cycle of birth and death. He became known as the embodiment of compassion in the whole world. To proclaim that he is an incarnation of ignorance and delusion who sends people to hell by spreading a net of deceit is not only a total falsehood but also extremely offensive. Therefore the mistake of proclaiming the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu made in the middle ages because of mutual hostility and enmity should not be repeated in the best interests of everyone.

The belief that Kalki, the tenth incarnation of Vishnu, will completely destroy all Buddhists is even more offensive. One must understand how deeply it will hurt the devotees of the Buddha. If we really want to improve relations with our neighbouring countries this false theory of the incarnation of Vishnu as the Buddha must be stopped immediately for the benefit of all.

2. There is one more thing that is extremely hurtful to the feelings of our neighbours. When one says that the Buddha had nothing of his own to give to the world; the source of his teachings is from the Vedic tradition, this greatly hurts them because it is a totally false. The truth is that the Buddha was the leader of the Ṣramana tradition. Instead of giving importance to prayers he gave importance to one’s own strenuous efforts and exertions. He clearly said, “I am not the giver of liberation, I am a giver of the path to liberation.” This difference between the Vedic tradition and the Ṣramana tradition is very clear. How absolutely wrong it is to say that the Buddha had nothing of his own to give, when he has given such a detailed description of the interrelation between mind and body: “Because of (reactions to) the sensations that arise on the body, defilements arise in the mind and keep on multiplying, but if the sensations are observed equanimously, old sankharas are eradicated and new ones are prevented from arising.” This in itself was a great contribution made by the Buddha. The liberating technique of Vipassana that he taught proved to be a priceless result-oriented scientific discovery not only for India and Nepal but also for all human beings of the world. Therefore, to say that the Buddha and his Ṣramana tradition is dependent on the Vedic tradition is false and unbearable for the devotees of the Buddha. It is best to avoid making such statements. Keeping the truth in mind, one should say that the Ṣramana and Vedic are both independent ancient traditions of India. Both these traditions which have prevailed concurrently for centuries have certainly influenced each other to some extent. But to say that one of them is derived from the other serves to devalue that tradition, which is not proper. Such statements will only alienate the followers of the other tradition.

3. To reassure the devotees of the Buddha of the neighbouring countries it is absolutely essential that the cordial relationship between the followers of the Vedic tradition and of the Buddha’s tradition in India should grow. There should not be even a trace of mutual animosity between them. This is necessary not only to please our neighbours but also for the preservation of the integrity and unity of India.

The division of society into varna (class) based on birth and the system of castes and sub-castes derived from it has weakened the country so greatly! The caste system is still enfeebling the country. Whatever may the reason for the importance given to birth in a particular caste in the past, it was not proper even then. But considering the precarious situation today, this belief of regarding one as high or low only on the basis of birth is proving to be very dangerous to the country. This belief erodes the importance of Dhamma. Morality and ethical standards lose all value. One may have a high position in society in spite of committing a thousand immoral deeds just because he is born from the womb of a high-caste mother; while another may have a low place in society even though he leads a moral life just because he is born from the womb of a low-caste mother. This system is completely opposed to Dhamma. It is extremely unfortunate that birth from the womb of a certain mother became more important than a moral and ethical Dhammic life. The time has come for a complete transformation in this system. Only moral conduct should make one great or high; only immoral conduct should make one low. Even the lowest of the low should be able to obtain a high position in society by giving up immoral deeds and performing moral deeds. When this system is established, Dhamma will get its true importance and the poison of the caste system that has spread throughout the country will be removed. Mutual affection among the citizens of this country will increase, which will have a beneficial effect on the neighbouring countries.

The Dialogue with H. H. Shankaracarya

Before the seminar held in Lumbini, I had a discussion with H. H. Shankaracarya on this subject in Sarnath. I was very happy to find him expressing his total agreement with me on these three points. We called a press conference of local journalists and issued a joint communiqué. The English translation of the draft of this communiqué is quoted below.

We hope that the intelligent people of the country will agree to this and will extend their co-operation so that it will be beneficial for our country and improve our relations with the neighbouring countries. The purity and greatness of Dhamma (instead of sectarianism) will be established once again and all the people of different traditions in the country will practise the universal Dhamma, purify their minds and become accomplished in generating pure love, compassion and goodwill. There will be a great increase in the peace, harmony and prosperity of the country. In the purity of Dhamma is the good of all, the welfare of all, the liberation of all.

Joint Communiqué by Jagadguru Shankaracharya Shri Jayendra Saraswatiji of Kanchi Kamakoti Pith and Vipassanacharya Satya Narayan Goenkaji.
The Maha Bodhi Society Office, Sarnath, Varanasi. 3:30 p.m., 11 November 1999
This joint communiqué is being issued after the cordial talk between Jagadguru Shankaracharya Shri Jayendra Saraswatiji of Kanchi Kamakoti Pith and Vipassanacharya Guruji Shri Satyanarayana Goenkaji.

Both agree and wish that there should be harmonious and friendly relations between both ancient (the Vedic and the Ṣramana) traditions. If there has been any misconception in this matter in the minds of the people of the neighbouring countries, it should be removed at the earliest.

The following was agreed:

1. Due to whatever reason some literature was written (in India) in the past in which the Buddha was declared to be a reincarnation of Vishnu and various things were written about him. This was very unpleasant to the neighbouring countries. In order to foster friendlier ties between the two communities we decide that whatever has happened in the past (cannot be undone, but) should be forgotten and such beliefs should not be propagated.

2. A misconception has spread in the neighbouring countries that the Hindu society of India is organising such conferences to prove its dominance over the followers of the Buddha. To forever remove this misconception we declare that both Vedic and Ṣramana traditions are ancient traditions of India. Both have their own prestigious existence. Any attempt by one tradition to show itself higher than the other will only generate hatred and ill will between the two. Hence such a thing should not be done in the future and both traditions should be accorded equal respect and esteem.

3. Anybody can attain a high position in the society by doing good deeds. One becomes a low (person in society) if one does evil deeds. Hence anybody can-by doing good deeds and removing the defilements such as passion, anger, arrogance, ignorance, greed, jealousy and ego-attain a high position in society and enjoy peace and happiness.

We agree on all the three things mentioned above and wish that all the people of India from all the traditions should have cordial relations and the neighbouring countries should also have friendly relations with India.

Presented by : Siriyarathna D. Jayasuriya