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Cultivation of Social Emotions
Dr. Siddhi B. Indr

  Men are inclined to accept the fact that they live to strive and continue to do so, not to let themselves go down or even remain at the merely natural level of instincts or impulses in leading their lives, individual as well as social, but to rise above or at least to have these things refined by the help of some principles which, as is generally believed, make men better and higher than what they are naturally. Men live together and are bound to each other, not by mere instincts and impulses, but by the rational application of certain elements of moral and spiritual values, ultimately speaking, by a conscience which may be called ‘ the human conscience of social bond.’ According to Buddhism, to establish, maintain, develop and strengthen social relationships and to live together happily and peacefully, the members of the society are advised-though the words of the Buddha are here addressed to the monks- to cultivates a sense of ‘fraternity’ by practising the virtues of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and impartiality towards each other [A. II. 183f] and to learn to develop the idea of identity with all others. For, as one’s own self is everywhere most dear to oneself, so it is with others; therefore, one who loves oneself should not inflict evil upon others. [Vism. pp. 246, 256]. In this connection, we propose to study the cultivation of social emotion based on the doctrine of the ‘Four virtues for Excellent Abiding’ (brahmavihaaradhamma), which will lead to an ideal fraternal life in society.

1. The Virtue of Loving-kindness (mettaa). The virtue of loving-kindness occupies a prominent place in the Buddha’s teachings and is one of the factors most beneficial both to spiritual development and he development of a sound pacific relationship in society. In the Buddha’s words: "whatever kinds of worldly merit there may be, all of them are not worth one sixteenth part of the hear-deliverance of loving- kindness…" [ It. p.20]. He urged his disciples to cultivates this virtue by telling them that they should neither allow their minds to become perverted with enmity not utter any evil speech but with the thought of loving-kindness freed from hatred and harmfulness, that they should show kindness and love towards such and such person, and that by starting from one person they should extend it and suffuse the whole world with the heart of loving-kindness, far reaching, widespread, immeasurable, without enmity and malevolence. [ M. I. 129].

And the climax of the Buddha’s attitude towards the promoting of this virtue may be illustrated in his statement: " As lowdown thieves might carve limb from limb with a double handled saw, yet even then whoever sets his mind at enmity, he, for this reason, is not a doer of my teaching… Therefore, consider repeatedly this exhortation on the Parable of Saw; for a long time it will be for your welfare and happiness."[Cp. MLS. I. 166f].

Loving-Kindness works for the disappearance of ill-will and it is based on treating other people with kindness. When one succeeds in practising it, it helps one to eliminate ill-will, but one should be careful not to let it degenerate into selfish affectionate desire.[Cp. Vism., p. 263]. In order to cultivate the emotion of loving-kindness, one is advised to meditate at first on oneself by repeatedly thinking: ‘I am happy and free from suffering…. I live my life free from hostility and trouble and live happily….’[Ibid., p. 245]. This Buddhist contention seems to imply paradoxically, however it might sound, that in order to love others, one ought to love oneself and make oneself beloved too, so that love for oneself is held to indicate the level to which the love for others should be raised and to constitute the measure, pattern and value of one’s own love for others. True self-interest should induce one to love the interest of others, because to do so is advantageous to oneself too. The man of loving-kindness wishes others to be happy and that is clearly to his own advantage since, at least it make them so much more pleasant to live with. Thus it is by cultivating within oneself the thought ‘I am happy…’ as starting point and example that one begins to be interested in the welfare and interest of others and to feel their happiness as one’s own: ‘Just as I want happiness and fear suffering happiness and fear suffering and want to live and not to die….’[Vism. p. 245f.]. In the words of the Dhammapada, which express the same idea: ‘All living beings tremble at the rod…. and fear death; to all living beings life is dear. Therefore, one should treat one’s fellows as oneself and neither strike nor kill.’ [Commentary of the Dhammapada. III, p. 48].

In the process of practising the virtue of loving-kindness one is further exhorted to do so first towards one’s dearly beloved companion, and then towards other people that are neutral by regarding them as one’s dearly beloved companion, and lastly towards one’s enemies by regarding them as neutral. Thus one will be able to regards one’s enemy without resentment but with loving-kindness in the same way as one does one’s own admired, dearly beloved companion and as a person that is neutral. Therefore, one should extend loving-kindness towards all living being equally without making any difference between oneself and others, or between one’s own beloved, favourite, pleasant and agreeable people and those who are neutral to oneself, an even one’s enemy, always thinking: ‘May all living beings be without enmity, without ill-will, untroubled; may they keep the self well. May all living beings, all creatures, all peoples, all these who are included in a personality be without enmity, without ill-will, untroubled; may they keep the self well…[Vism. p. 245]. May they al be safe with the disappearance of all fear and calamities… May they be satisfied with physical pleasure and may their hearts rejoice with all mental pleasure,’ [Khuaddaka Paatha. p. 244]. With one’s whole heart and all one’s self suffused with loving-kindness, one identifies oneself with all, be they inferior, middling or superior, be they friends, foes or neutral, etc. without making any distinction between them and oneself, [Vism., p. 256]. 

And one arouses one’s interest and aspiration for the achievement of their welfare and happiness and for their release from harm and suffering, thinking: ‘ whatever breathing beings there may exist,…. no matter whether they are seen or unseen, existing far or near, in one’s own abode, in village, country, continent, world system…[ Khuaddaka Paatha. p. 246] may they all be happy and safe and may their hearts rejoice…[S. 36]. Pray, no person at all might treat any other person at all with such evil manner as betrayal and the like or might slight any other person at all in any way on the ground of his birth, race, wealth, power, etc..,… May no person with suffering or any kind of trouble to another, even with provocation or resistive thought… As a mother guards her child, her only child the child of her breast born in herself, guarding it with her own life willing to sacrifice it in order to prevent her child from troubles, thus would one cultivate, maintain, generate again and again, and augment one’s loving-kindness to every living being.’[Khuaddaka Paatha. 248]

To remove the evil habit of anger or hatred (dosa) and to replace it by the virtue of tolerance or patience (khanti) one develops the social emotion of loving-kindness, [Vism. p. 244] and in order to do so one-should not allow one’s own thought of enmity (verisa~n~naa) and ill-will (byaapaada) to grow against others, even though they might do something wrong to oneself; on the contrary one should keep one’s mind in balance, think of the virtues possessed by them and forgive their faults done to oneself. [Vism. p. 246]. While developing the virtue of loving-kindness one simultaneously comes to realize the disadvantages of evil habits such as hatred, viz., that a person who is under its influence obviously loses control of mind, thereby does not understand, as it really is, his own profit and that of others, and consequently plans things which trouble both oneself and other. [A. I. 216]. 

He realizes moreover, that one who is of covetous desire (abhijjhaalu), of lustful mania (tibbasaraago), with malevolent aspiration in the heart (padutthamansasamkappo) of a corrupted mind (mu.t.thassati), not attentive (asampajaano), incapable of concentration (asamaahito), of a confused mind (vibbhantacitto), and uncontrolled senses (paakatinadriya), is like a firebrand from a funeral pyre, blazing at both edges and smeared with dung in the middle, which serves no purpose as fuel in a village or as timber in a forest. [It. p. 90]. In addition, the following paraphrased passage shows the disadvantage of anger or hatred: An angry man is very ugly; with his anger he causes the loss of both his material and spiritual fields; he cannot sleep comfortably; his acts and words trouble and hurt others; he spoils his own life and is despised by his friends and relatives; under the influence of anger he is blind to the cause and the effect of what is good or of what is bad; when his anger has subsided he suffers like one scorched by fire, and he does not know shame, respect and like; the deeds performed by him bring about remorse; he would destroy any person and kill even his own parents, the source of life and love, due to his blind and strong self-centredness; distracted y anger the common folk increase trouble and difficulties and even destroy themselves as well as others in one way or another, because anger destroys all life and all good things; and therefore one should exterminate it, be wise and train oneself in Dhamma, free oneself from anger and become peaceful.[A. IV. 96f].

The exercise of loving-kindness, finally, leads one to the path of ‘non-violence’ (ahi"m'sa) which consists therein that one delights in the happiness of others and others and does no harm to anyone and tries to cultivate sentiments of loving-kindness: ‘By this way of living I do not harm to anybody at all…’[It. p. 31]. He trains himself in treating his fellow man in the righteous manner with tranquillity of thought, speech and deed, [A. I. 65] cultivates a patient and benevolent attitude towards others, neither reviling those who revile him nor insulting those who insult him nor abusing those who abuse him. [A. II. 152]. On the other hand, he is meek and kind, compassionate and merciful, benevolent and useful to all living beings, laying aside stick, sword and all sorts of weapons, [A. IV. 388], and always meditating on human beings, thinking that among human beings all should learn to be of one mind, and that they should not quarrel with one another as beasts always do. [Jaataka. IV. 211].

One is exhorted to cultivate the virtue of loving-kindness to such an extent that one feels neither hatred nor ill-will towards others and behaves oneself like the earth and the water which are not filled with horror, loathing or disgust when the people cast or wash things, clean or foul, dung, urine, spittle, pus or blood on and in them, and like the fire, the wind and the duster which respectively burns, blows and wipes away things, clean or foul, dung, urine, spittle, pus or blood, and yet are not filled with them, and like a well-trained bull whose horns have been cut away and consequently harms nobody with its feet or horns. [A. IV. 374ff]. One should overcome anger with non-anger, evil with good, the niggard with gifts and speaker of falsehood with truth, [Commentary of the Dhammapada, III. 313ff], realizing that ‘a man who shows the evil habit of hatrred to others behaves like one who holds a hot fiery things or dung in his hand, in order to throw them at others, but the hot fiery thing will burn him and the dung will cause him to smell fiery thing will burn him and the dung will cause him to smell badly first,’[Vism. 249], and that ‘one should not address anybody with harsh speech, because angry words bring trouble, and those whom one addresses may answer one in the same way, just as one may return blows for blows: therefore one should keep oneself in peace like a broken gong and in behaving thus one has already reached peacefulness and no angry speech is found in one.’[Commentary of the Dhammapada, III. 57].

The following passage shows us, by an example, how one can overcome the habit of abusive treatment based on hatred. A brahmin named Bharadvaja who was vexed and displeased with the Buddha, came to him, reviled and abused him with rude and harsh speech. The Buddha instructed him by citing the simile of the greeting: if the brahmin offered some sort of things to greet his visitors and if the latter refused to accept those things of the greeting, they still belonged to him. And the Buddha concluded, "Even so, brahmin, in this case though you revile…scold…. abuse us who do not revile…scold…abuse, we do not accept them from you. Therefore, brahmin, all is left to you alone and all belongs to you alone…He who reviles back, scold back, and abuses back, is worse than he who reviles scolds and abuses…"[Cp. S. I. 161ff].

According to the Buddha, human beings should not be cruel, ferocious, violent or oppressive but should live together mercifully, compassionately and benevolently doing good to each other. [Jaataka, p. 504f]. We are further told that a person who has attained the freedom of mind through the virtue of loving-kindness practised with all devotion of thought and constant meditation and has increased it and firmly established himself in it, will surely experience the following eleven advantages (ekaadasaanisa"msaa). He sleeps happily, wakes up happily, dreams no evil dream, is dear both to human beings and to non-human beings, the gods guards him, he is not affected by fire, poison and weapons, his mind is easily and calmly concentrated, the expression of his face is serene, at the moment of his death he dies without confusion, and if he cannot reach the higher state of salvation he will reach the excellent existence in heaven. [A. V. 342f, Jaataka, 61. Cp. Vism. 258-60].

2. The Virtue of Compassion (karu"naa). The term "compassion" designates the social emotion that expresses itself in a sense of participation with others in their troubles and difficulties, making one’s heart tremble and quiver at the sight and thought about the sufferings experienced by others, and even arouse the desire to take upon oneself these things, to put an end to them and to strive to do something to help and release others from them. [Cp. Vism., p. 263] when a compassionate person sees or hears or even thinks of others who live in troubled circumstances, his heart becomes overwhelmed with compassion. The virtue of compassion has for its characteristic the activity of removing from other people bad conditions of life that cause trouble; it has for its essence the inability to neglect others’ sufferings; it has for its function the establishment of selflessness and for its basis the sight of helplessness of others in such bad conditions. [Ibid., p. 264. 266]

In a word, a compassionate person is unhappy at seeing others in troubles, he feels himself in solidarity with them and furthermore attempts to make them happy. He counts the harm and other bad conditions of other as his own, and in this manner he identifies himself with others who are in pain, depression, frustration, misery, calamity, lamentation, horror and so on. Therefore, the social emotion of compassion signifies the virtue which is cultivated with a view, on the one hand, to uproot the ill-will to harm others hand, to do good to them, to make people sensitive to the troubles an difficulties of others to such an extent that they do not wish to increase them further, but to decrease and remove them. In order to cultivate and develop the virtue of compassion one goes through a process similar to that of loving-kindness, but the objects towards which compassion is to be expressed are those who are in trouble and difficulties, seeing whom one feels compassionate and strives to help an make them free from such situations as much as possible. [Ibid., p. 260f.].

Psychologically speaking, compassion is closely allied with cruelty and may be easily mistaken. The two are the reverse and obverse of the same medal. Both the compassionate and the cruel are sensitive to the troubles and difficulties experienced by others and keen in watching them. But the sharp difference is that the former experiences pain, while the latter derives pleasure, from what they see, hear or even recollect. This is the compassionate person shares his heart and emotion with those who are in suffering; on the contrary the cruel one keeps them away and even tries to make them suffer more.

3. The Virtue of Sympathetic Joy (muditaa). The virtue that makes one glad, joyful when seeing or hearing of or even recollecting the success and happiness of others, is called ‘muditaa’. [ibid., p. 263]. It has for its characteristic the state of (mutual) rejoicing, for its essence the absence of envying, for its function the suppression of disgust, and for its basis the cheerful acknowledgement of good fortune and prosperity achieved by others. [Ibid., p. 264, 266]. From the above description we see that the virtue of sympathetic joy requires a deliberate effort to identify oneself with those who live successfully and happily and that it enables a person to feel a genuine joy at the happiness of others as much as at his own. It also enables him to share with others their joy of possession, their material or spiritual success, their promotions to positions of civil or national or other importance, or their receipt of titles and glories. It counteracts conceits of all kinds, and its growth and development check craving’s grip in the heart of man. A person, particularly one who is under the influence of jealousy, is advised to cultivate this social emotion f sympathetic joy. He arouses within himself thoughts that foster this emotion and cultivates the habit of sincerely congratulating those who are released from troubles and difficulties, and attain the fulfillment of their wishes. He rejoices with them in their welare, prosperity and well-being. On seeing or hearings or even recollecting others to be happy, cheerful or joyous, the man of sympathetic joy thinks within himself: ‘verily, how good, how excellent is it that this fellow lives happily.’ ‘He treats all people, and even all living beings, with whole-hearted gladness in the same manner as he does himself and his own beloved person. And, moreover he pays that their good fortune, prosperity and well-being may last long. [Ibid., p. 262].

The virtue of sympathetic joy helps a man to learn how to appreciate, with sincere heart, the prosperous conditions of others, to be heartily pleasant in his dealings with them, and to share their happiness even by making it resound in his own heart. It also furthers the sense of altruism and subdues the latent feeling of grudge or ill-will against people in superior positions. By virtue of his ability to identify himself with others the sympathetic man always welcomes with joy the happiness of his fellow men and never welcomes their miseries, and gets rid of what we might call mental isolation caused by selfishness. In the depth of their hearts, some people harbour a definite aversion to dwelling on the happiness of others, since egoism and jealousy are strong and deep-seated, though really admitted, counterforces in their lot with that of others and grudge others their good fortune which eludes them. Therefore, to remove this evil attitude and habit the cultivation of the social spirit of sympathetic joy is introduced.

4. The Virtue of Impartiality (upekkhaa). This principle, in its literal sense, implies the virtue enabling one to keep one’s own mind in a balanced state. [Cp. Vism., p. 263-264]. To quote Buddhaghosaacaariya’s description : "The virtue of impartiality (or even-mindedness) has the characteristic of evolving the mode of being balanced as regards beings; its essence is seeing the equality of beings; its manifestation is the suppression of aversion and bias; its proximate cause is seeing the heritage of the prevailing kamma as ‘beings are the property of kamma. By its decree they will attain pleasure, or be free from pain, or not fall from the prosperity already acquired.’ …its failure is the production of a profane and unintelligent indifference." [Vism., p. 264]. It also covers, in our opinion, at least two aspects; one to be taken from the meditation on the beings’ kamma found in the Visudhimagga, [Vism., p. 264], and the other from its contemporary application to mutual fair treatment in daily practical life. In spiritual practice, ‘upekkhaa’ is understood in the sense of tranquility of mind in its neutral state, neither pleasant nor unpleasant,-the state of ‘one-pointedness’ (ekaggataa) of equanimity which arises during the practice of Jhaana i.e. meditation. This means the stable, middle state of thought that causes the mind to remain serenely identical with itself in its calm state and prevents it from being carried away by any other object. 

Turning to the kammic point of view relating to the practice of impartiality, we find that it implies the arousing of an equal attitude towards all living beings and makes one see them as equals in as far as there is a possibility, according to the law of kamma, for all of them to act and react freely and live in accordance with their own actions. In this aspect, the virtue of impartiality points to two considerations. In the first place, one is advised to realize that all beings are equal in all their aspects and conditions, who as ‘beings’ are all essentially the same under the natural law of impermanence, suffering and non-soul. And in the second place, one considers the effect of action which all beings have on themselves and the reason why they act as they act and endure what they endure. Thus one reflects that everyone’s action determines his or her own fate and destiny, that whatever befalls him or her they have brought it upon themselves, and that only they themselves can alter their fate and destiny. The consideration on the workings of this law of action leads to an understanding that whatever is, is so because it must be, that everyone must manage his own affairs, and that everyone must discharge his own duties.

As regards the mode of mutual conduct in society, the modern Buddhist also uses the term ‘ upekkhaa’ to explain the virtue of impartiality in the sense of just, fair or righteous treatment and in this manner it is closely related to its other above-mentioned aspects and to the first three virtues already discussed. As a matter of fact, the climax of the first three virtues of mettaa, karu"naa and muditaa suggests that one should identify oneself with others. In this respect, one learns to treats as righteous as one treats oneself and is not given to the habit of partial, unjust treatment towards others. Thus a person of impartial spirit makes no difference between those who are beloved, pleasant or favorite and those who are otherwise, but he behaves towards others in accordance with the principle of Dhamma. In his dealings with others he avoids the four ways of unfair treatment, based on either favourism or personal preference, hatred, illusion or fear. [Jaataka. II, 1ff.]

Social life is a matter of interdependence, implying a process of living according to the principle of what we would call ‘reciprocal altruism.’ This points further to the more deeply spiritual interpretation of human brotherhood that any conception of a genuine social unity implies and requires certain virtues that produce social emotions culminating in ‘like-mindedness or one-heartedness’ in the people and a certain recognition that their good and interest is a common one. It is on this conception that the social ideal of fraternity is based and built up.


[Taken from Siddhi Butr-Indr,. The Social Philosophy of Buddhism. (Bangkok: Mahamakut Buddhist University, 1st ed. 1973), pp. 122-34].


Updated: 3-5-2000

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