The sublime attitudes (brahmavihāras) are the Buddha’s primary heart teachings—the ones that connect most directly with our desire for true happiness. They’re the qualities of heart that motivated the Buddha to find awakening and then to teach the path of awakening to others. At the same time, they function as part of the path itself. This means that the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings—its “head” aspect—has to be understood in terms of these heart qualities. At the same time, though, these heart qualities have to be understood in terms of the “head” teachings on how cause and effect, in our actions, can bring about genuine happiness. Only when head and heart are brought together in this way can the path yield its full results.
The term brahmavihāra literally means, “dwelling place (vihāra) of brahmās.” Brahmās are beings who live in the higher heavens, dwelling in an attitude of unlimited goodwill, unlimited compassion, unlimited empathetic joy, and unlimited equanimity. These attitudes are unlimited both in the sense that they extend to all beings, and in the sense that they can be applied to all situations where they are appropriate. For example, you can extend empathetic joy to all who are happy, regardless of whether you like them.
Similarly, you can feel compassion for all who are suffering, regardless of what they did to bring on that suffering. These unlimited attitudes can be developed—and for the path to thrive, they have to be developed—from the more limited versions of these emotions that we normally experience in the human heart.
Of these four attitudes, goodwill (mettā) is the most fundamental. It’s a wish for true happiness, both for yourself and for others. Because the highest level of true happiness comes from within, your true happiness need not conflict with that of anyone else. Thus goodwill can be extended to all beings without contradiction or hypocrisy.
The next two attitudes are essentially applications of goodwill.
Compassion (karuṇā) is what grows out of goodwill when you see suffering:
You want the suffering to stop. Empathetic joy (muditā) is what grows out of goodwill when you see happiness: You want that happiness to continue.
Equanimity (upekkhā) is a different attitude, in that it acts as an aid to and a check on the other three. When you encounter suffering that you can’t stop no matter how hard you try, you need equanimity to avoid creating additional suffering and to channel your energies to areas where you can be of help. You also need equanimity to strengthen your endurance when meeting with difficulties or needing to make sacrifices in the course of striving for greater happiness. In this way, equanimity isn’t cold-hearted or indifferent. It simply makes your goodwill more focused and effective by opening your heart to the lessons of your head.
Which means, of course, that your head has to be giving the right lessons.
This is where it’s important to understand the brahmavihāras within the context of Buddhist practice, in particular the Buddha’s teachings on what happiness is and how it can best be attained. And yet this is an aspect of brahmavihāra practice that is often lacking in the West, creating many misunderstandings about what the various brahmavihāras mean, how they are practiced, and the effect they are supposed to have.
The purpose of this study guide is to clear up some of these misunderstandings, first by looking at the place of the brahmavihāras in the context of the noble eightfold path—the teaching that provides the overall context for all Buddhist practice—and in particular the path factor of right view, both on the mundane and transcendent levels. Then, having established this context, it discusses seven common misunderstandings about brahmavihāra practice, showing both how these misunderstandings can create obstacles to effective Buddhist practice and how they can be corrected with reference to right view. This is then followed by a set of readings that provide further correctives to the misunderstandings, at the same time illuminating additional points so that brahmavihāra practice can be truly effective in leading to a happiness that’s lasting and true.
In the Buddha’s eightfold path to awakening, the brahmavihāras can act as part of two of the eight factors: the second factor, right resolve; and the eighth, right concentration. Right resolve is defined as the resolve for renouncing sensuality, the resolve for non-ill will, and the resolve for non-cruelty.
The resolve to act on goodwill is equivalent to the second of these resolves; the resolve to act on compassion, to the third. As part of right resolve, goodwill and compassion provide the motivation to act on the insights of right view—whichh is the first factor—into the nature of action and its power to bring about the end of suffering. In other words, goodwill and compassion take these insights and resolve to use them to direct your thoughts, words, and deeds to bring about the end of suffering and to attain true happiness.
As part of right concentration, all four brahmavihāras can function as objects of jhāna, the strong levels of concentration that strengthen the mind’s ability to make the sublime attitudes truly unlimited. The concentration based on these attitudes can also provide the mind with the steadiness and inner strength it needs for discernment to break through to total release. Because the brahmavihāras function both toward the beginning and again toward the end of the path, they have an interactive relationship with all the other path factors. On the one hand, they provide the motivation to practice right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness both for one’s own good and for the good of others. On the other hand, the development of concentration based on the brahmavihāras requires, as a prerequisite, that you work on making your thoughts, words, and deeds harmless, for otherwise your concentration will be undermined by hypocrisy.
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Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]
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