Karuna – A Neologism



  1. the universal compassion of a Bodhisattva.
  2. any action that is taken to diminish the suffering of others.
  3. active sympathy or a willingness to bear the pain of others.

We ask a lot of the word “sorry.”  We use it when we are distressed, when we are feeling regret, to apologize, to ask someone to repeat something, to express sympathy, and to describe someone or something in a pitiful condition.  We’ve saddle the word with so much that at this point I think use of the word fails at the primary purpose of words – to convey information from one person to another. Instead of informing the word ‘sorry’ instead confuses and requires further explanation and explication.

We have other words we could use to convey some of the information that “sorry” is now used for. Today, I just want to focus on that fifth definition above, “to express sympathy.” Instead of using ‘sorry’ one could say, “I sympathise with you/you’re situation.” Or you could say, “I’m empathetic.” Or you could try and use the word ‘compassion’ not sound clunky in a sentence. All of these words though sound paternalist and patronizing. They all convey a strong felt emotion but they also come off as distant and intellectual. ‘Sorry’ conveys very little of the emotion of compassion but does feel close and personal when it conveys the correct message at all!

Enter ‘karuna.’ The word is found in both Sanskrit and Pali and is often simply translated into English as ‘compassion.’ This loses some of the subtlety found in those original languages though where the word is not just describing an emotional state but an emotional state that moves one to action on behalf of the one suffering. When a family member or friend shares a pain or hurt with us and we are moved to take that pain or hurt on ourselves and act to reduce that pain or hurt we are experiencing karuna. But, what we say is ‘sorry’ a word that conveys none of that depth of emotion and may leave the listener saying, “you didn’t do anything wrong.”

So, I suggest that we stop using ‘sorry’ to express sympathy and instead say ‘karuna.’ This both solves the confusion use of the word ‘sorry’ sometimes creates and better conveys our actual thoughts and feelings in a concise, clear manner.

  1. The Wikipedia article on ‘karuna’ is here.
  2. Brahmaviharas – the four Buddhist virtues, karuna is the second.


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