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The Four Brahmaviharas

A Warm Welcome to All as we gather around the terminals. Whether we feel calm and peaceful, or worn out and agitated, we can pause for a while to make some resolution to practise in the coming moments and beyond.

When needing inspiration and a bit of spark in Buddha Dhamma then bring to mind the Four Brahmaviharas!

The Brahmaviharas (brahma + viharas) are known as the Divine (or Sublime) abidings (or modes of conduct). They may be viewed as expressions of Love. They are also attributed with the title the "Four illimitables" (appamannya) in that they have no bounds.

These sublime modes of conduct are as follows (in Pali and then English translation):

metta Loving-kindness
karuna Compassion
mudita Sympathetic Joy
upekkha Equanimity

Let us explore each of these in turn - I use for today's reference source, Ven. Narada's, 'The Buddha and His Teachings'.

1. metta is radiation of loving kindness without exception. It is very much like the way the suns' rays shine uniformly in every direction and is characterised by benevolence. This kind of friendliness is fundamental to getting on with each other; its practice may culminate in sabbattata, being the identification of oneself with all living beings.

The cultivation of metta (metta bhavana) is one of the most common forms of meditation practised by all Buddhists - either through a practise devoted explicitly to the development of positive mental states or when sharing merit of any such states that have accrued during a practise.

In some of my first formal meditation instruction I was taught the metta bhavana at the FWBO's Glasgow Buddhist Centre and I found that it could be particularly energising. Such a practise is traditionally in successively more difficult stages, one popular version (which the FWBO taught me) is as follows:

  1. First you start with yourself (since one can only give what one has!) Try recalling happy times or visualising a wonderful scene - whatever facilitates a positive compassionate glow inside. It may help to repeat words such as "May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering."
  2. Next visualise a friend and convey the metta to this person, perhaps using techniques as above.
  3. Repeat the previous stage for a person for whom your feelings are neutral.
  4. Continue the practice by conveying metta to someone for whom your feelings are inimical.
  5. Gather together in your mind everyone visualised so far and start radiating the metta further out ... until it encompasses as far as you can conceive.
  6. Gently return your awareness to yourself and finish the practise.

2. karuna
He who tends the sick, tends me

[saying of the Buddha Gotama]

Karuna is kindness that is borne out of compassion at the sorrowful plight of others. It manifests in acts of charity that are aimed at relieving the suffering, both on a physical level and on a spiritual level. The Christian Gospels relate many instances of the works and teachings of Jesus that are full of karuna - healings at many different levels and the story of the Good Samaritan. The Buddha Gotama faced many a disagreeable mug and tried to help them all. As the result of his karuna, there were many dramatic turnarounds in character: one of the most remarkable was Angulimala, who had become a murderer, but on encountering the Buddha, was persuaded to reform, and in due course was accepted into the Noble Order of Bhikkhus (see the Angulimala Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya).

On a collective level, karuna manifests in compassion and action for human rights, though in such cases the need for the next two brahmaviharas becomes especially important.

3. mudita is sympathetic or appreciative joy. It is a most happy acquiescence in the success and good fortune of others, whether they be related or unrelated.

As an indication of how difficult this practice can be, consider any sports team that you have supported or currently support with some vigour. Now consider a rival team competing with 'your' team and winning! How much can you rejoice in the other team's victory?!

The cultivation of mudita overcomes a false dualistic view that separates "them" from "us" in any context - sporting, economic, religious etc .. Hence East can rejoice in West and West in East; followers of various religions can extol the virtues of other religions, and in this way happy and peaceful re-associations can be fostered. I saw a nice gesture of Inter-Faith mudita in the May '96 edition of 'The Middle Way', the quarterly publication of the UK Buddhist Society: Cardinal Arinze wrote a letter with warm wishes to Buddhists celebrating Vesakh (commemorating the birth, Enlightenment and passing away of Buddha Gotama).

4. upekkha means 'discerning rightly, being balanced, having equanimity'. It is the most difficult and yet most essential of the sublimes modes of conduct, especially in a topsy-turvy world such as that which contemporary society throws itself about.

Basing action in upekkha means that acts of loving compassion, kindness and sympathetic joy are appropriate for the situation. To be able to act with this basis requires tremendous strength in the face of ever-changing tides. One may experience a see-saw of responses that vary from consternation to oodles of praise. In the face of all this, one must remain internally unmoved like a rock - just as the great heroes keep very cool and calm in crisis situations.

Links related to the Brahmaviharas

An Anecdote of Sayagyi U Ba Khin - Metta Bhavana and Vegetarianism concerns the question of whether not being a vegetarian can be consistent with the practice of metta bhavana. This was a fine speech, well grounded in references to suttas, that was given as a spontaneous response to the issue that was raised during a talk given by a Pali scholar visiting Burma in the 1950's. This was kindly made available by the Sayagyi U Ba Khin Memorial Trust, in the UK. However, the page is no longer available, so I've only pointed to an archived version.

The Karuna Trust is an organisation dedicated to the promotion of human rights and other conditions that improve life, particularly for the 'Untouchables' of India, who have long suffered severe discrimination..

Four Immeasurable Minds ∓ Four Ways of Persuasion, part of an introductory book called 'Buddhism in a Nutshell'. This is a fine exposition of exemplary conduct of a Bodhisattva; part of the Dharma services of Buddhist Door

The Heart of Dhammakaya Meditation gives a basic introduction to the Dhammakaya method of meditation, indicating how upekkha is essential to progress along the path. The importance of Upekkha is also indicated by its being one of the Ten Perfections.

The Rev Sarika Dharma's Writings on the Brahma viharas - Metta and Karuna - are greatly inspired by the radiant Compassion of Kuan Yin. (These links seem to have stopped working - anyone know where these articles have gone?)


This article was originally one of a series of contributions I made as a 'Buddhist Guide' for the Mining Company.

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- Paul Trafford