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◷ 10 min read - Oct 26, 2015
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The Four Brahmavihāras of Buddhism

The four brahmavihāras are known in English as the four divine abodes and the four immeasurables. There is benevolence or loving kindness (mettā), compassion (karuṇā), altruistic or sympathetic joy (muditā) and equanimity (upekkhā). In meditation, these four social emotions are evoked and imagined to radiate into all directions, so that the meditator's mind becomes a vast and boundless field of the given emotion. The vastness and boundlessness seems likely to be the origin of the name "brahmavihāra" which literally translates to "abode of brahma". In ancient Indian belief, the Brahmā gods dwell in their heavenly abodes and pervade their respective worlds to varying degrees, just like the meditator is supposed to dwell pervading the world with virtuous social emotions (Anālayo 2015, p. 23).

Benevolence, compassion and altruistic joy are inherently pleasurable and, unlike many other forms of pleasure, they do not come with a catch. They are universally wholesome and by their very nature cannot turn into suffering. The only non-pleasurable brahmavihāra is equanimity, but, as elaborated below, equanimity keeps suffering in check and allows for the other three brahmavihāras to grow unhindered in the presence of all kinds of pain.

Benevolence (Mettā)

Meditating on benevolence, also known as loving kindness, is the base of the following two brahmavihāras. It is an experience of pure, unconditional friendliness. It is the opposite of hatred.

The Mettānisamsa Sutta (AN 11.16) lists 11 benefits for a practitioner of benevolence meditation as follows.

One sleeps easily, wakes easily, dreams no evil dreams. One is dear to human beings, dear to non-human beings. The devas protect one. Neither fire, poison, nor weapons can touch one. One's mind gains concentration quickly. One's complexion is bright. One dies unconfused and — if penetrating no higher — is headed for the Brahma worlds.

Because benevolence forms the basis for compassion and altruistic joy, it seems plausible that many items on the above list would also apply to the practice of these other two brahmavihāras. The devas and Brahma worlds are part of ancient Indian folk belief and cosmology, and can safely be ignored by the rational reader.

The practice of mettā is described in the Karaṇīyamettā Sutta (SN 1.8). I shall quote here in full the translation by the Amaravati Sangha, which is a work of art in itself and captures well the spirit of the practice.

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful,
Not proud or demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born —
May all beings be at ease!

Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

Compassion (Karuṇā)

This is a special case of benevolence that has at its core the wish for suffering to cease. Where mettā addresses all beings, both suffering and at ease, karuṇā specifically focuses on those who are suffering. It is the opposite of cruelty.

Compassion is altruistic. When a friend of yours is hurting or sick and you wish for him get better for his sake, that is compassion, if on the other hand you are wishing for him to get better because you want to go camping with him this weekend, that is selfish desire, not compassion.

Compassion is positive. Seeing people suffer on the news and feeling bad for them is not compassion, but pity. The two are not to be confused. Wishing for suffering beings to be at ease is compassion, suffering yourself by way of empathy is not. You could say that, in the presence of suffering, karuṇā focuses on the absence of suffering rather than on the suffering itself. Here is a more subtle example: If a friend of yours were sick and you were wishing for her to be strong and fight off the disease, that would be compassion for your friend, but at the same time it contains a wish for fighting. Fighting means aversion and struggle. That is not positive, and it is not really what you want for your friend, either. What if she did not even need to fight but would still get well just the same? Would that not be preferable? You want her to be well and at ease - and that's all there is to karuṇā.

Altruistic Joy (Muditā)

Altruistic joy means to take part in the joy of others, it is the opposite of envy. Just as karuṇā is about beings who are suffering, muditā is about those who are well. It means to be happy when the people around you are happy, regardless of your own desires. When your neighbors win the lottery, muditā allows you to be happy for them, rather than envying their fortune. When your romantic partner wants to go to dinner with an old flame, muditā feels happy for their reunion and counters the emotion of jealousy. In competitive situations, muditā is happy for the win of another, even if that comes at the cost of one's own loss.

Equanimity (Upekkhā)

Equanimity is the stillness in your actions, the quietude in your talking, the peace when you are arguing. It is the mind's emotional airbag and the world's way of giving you a break. When there is upekkhā, the mind does not indulge in pleasure or pain. If you are being praised, upekkhā prevents you from falling victim to pride, if you are being censured, upekkhā prevents you from giving in to anger or sadness. When you act out of compassion, but your help is not wanted, when you are being attacked, made fun of or provoked, upekkhā allows you to keep your peace. It is an unshakable calmness and steadfastness.

The following quote from the Kakacūpama Sutta (MN 21) is known as the simile of the saw.

Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: 'Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.' That's how you should train yourselves.

Monks, if you attend constantly to this admonition on the simile of the saw, do you see any aspects of speech, slight or gross, that you could not endure.

Equanimity gives you the ability to remain detached from the turmoil inside body and mind, and observe what is going on, as illustrated by the following passage from the Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta (MN 28).

Now if other people insult, malign, exasperate, & harass a monk [who has discerned this], he discerns that 'A painful feeling, born of ear-contact, has arisen within me. And that is dependent, not independent. Dependent on what? Dependent on contact.' And he sees that contact is inconstant, feeling is inconstant, perception is inconstant, consciousness is inconstant. His mind, with the [earth] property as its object/support, leaps up, grows confident, steadfast, & released.

And if other people attack the monk in ways that are undesirable, displeasing, & disagreeable — through contact with fists, contact with stones, contact with sticks, or contact with knives — the monk discerns that 'This body is of such a nature that contacts with fists come, contacts with stones come, contacts with sticks come, & contacts with knives come. Now the Blessed One has said, in his exhortation of the simile of the saw, "Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding." So my persistence will be aroused & untiring, my mindfulness established & unconfused, my body calm & unaroused, my mind centered & unified. And now let contact with fists come to this body, let contact with stones, with sticks, with knives come to this body, for this is how the Buddha's bidding is done.'

Equanimity is not to be confused with indifference or ignorance. Ignorance would be not knowing what is going on, but equanimity can exist just fine in the presence of discernment and awareness. Indifference would mean that one knows, but simply does not care. When accompanied by benevolence, compassion and altruistic joy, however, it would seem impossible not to care.

Equanimity is a wise response in cases where the range of possible responses is limited to negative states of mind. For example, if we are being harassed, we could get angry, fearful or sad, but we may find it impossible to be glad to be harassed. In these situations, equanimity is the response of choice as it cushions the blow like an airbag and paves the way for the other three brahmavihāras. Note that an equanimous mind does not entail passiveness. One may be equanimous about being harrassed and still take appropriate action to change the situation.

Varieties of Brahmavihāra Practice

In addition to meditation, there are various other brahmavihāra-esque rituals and practices.

For example, there is the transference of merit (puñña) to another, e.g. a deceased loved one. Merit is sort of a spiritual currency that is believed to be generated by acts of generosity or virtue, or by meditating. It is further believed to have positive effects for the people who have it. In some traditions, the merit believed generated by a meditation session is dedicated to the enlightenment of all sentient beings. This is basically a small brahmavihāra ritual to conclude one's regular meditation.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there exists a practice called Tonglen, where one imagines to breathe in all the suffering of other beings, acknowledges it, and breathes out positivity and happiness for all sentient beings.

The pinnacle of brahmavihāra-related practices would have to be the Bodhisattva vow in Mahāyāna Buddhism. The practitioner vows to work for the liberation of all sentient beings, postponing their own ultimate reward of liberation from the round of existence (saṃsāra) until all others have been freed. This is a big difference to early Buddhism and modern Theravāda Buddhism where one is mainly concerned with achieving one's own liberation.