Why are the Brahmaviharas ‘Immeasurable’?
…my practice is conducive to complete turning away, dispassion, cessation, quieting, direct knowledge, enlightenment, and nirvana.
— The Buddha, Digha Nikaya II.251, Translated by Harvey B. Aronson
The Buddha taught the Brahmaviharas (Four Immeasurables) to attain enlightenment via loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. They are immeasurable because their results are immeasurable; they are boundless in nature and extend to all beings.
A monk suffuses the world in the four directions with a mind of benevolence, then above, and below, and all around – the whole world from all sides, completely, with a benevolent, all-embracing, great, boundless, peaceful and friendly mind … Just as a powerful conch-blower makes himself heard with no great effort in all four [cardinal] directions, so too is there no limit to the unfolding of [this] heart-liberating benevolence.
— AN 4.125 Metta Sutta translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
We cultivate these 4 qualities through meditation and
then they integrate into our daily life.
The first thing to grasp is that these are not simply nice mental dreams that are beyond our day-to-day grasp. This is an integrated single practice where the 4 components dovetail and underpin one another to create one strong bond that gives us a wholesome interface with the rest of the world.
Of course, we see our imperfections in trying to live this way. That’s exactly why we need to practice. If we want to be perfect, we must improve from where we are.
The well-known translator and academic, Jay Garfield, likes to translate Metta as ‘friendliness’ and, rather than ‘compassion’, he prefers to render Karuna as ‘care’ and for Upekkha, he prefers ‘impartiality’. Friendliness, care and impartiality are immediately understood as worthwhile tangible qualities.
Along with Sympathetic Joy, that is a bunch of qualities we would welcome in others so let’s try to develop them ourselves.
- To practice loving-kindness/friendliness, one starts by generating feelings of well-wishing towards oneself and then gradually extends that feeling to loved ones, neutral people, and eventually to all beings. It is the antidote to selfishness, anger, and fear.
- Compassion/care is developed through empathetic understanding of suffering and the desire to alleviate it.
- Sympathetic Joy involves rejoicing in the virtuous acts of others, their happiness and success without jealousy or envy.
- Equanimity/impartiality is cultivated by developing a balanced and non-reactive mind in the face of changing circumstances, treating all beings with fairness and respect.
The Brahmaviharas can be approached in various ways. It is important to recognize that there is no one correct method, and flexibility is encouraged. Teachers have developed different approaches to help individuals connect with these qualities based on their unique needs and circumstances.
Practicing the Brahmaviharas involves developing genuine connections, empathy, and care for all beings. It requires that we move beyond our automatic self-centeredness and begin to cultivate an inclusive perspective that lowers our reflexive barriers. So much of our problems result from our own resistence and child-like attempts to block out those unwanted things we cannot block out.
By developing a more open, friendly, caring, rejoicing, and impartial (not indifferent) interface with the word, much of our daily torment will vanish.
Near and Far Enemies
The teaching also link each of the 4 Immeasurables to their specific Near and Far Enemies. The Far Enemy is more usefully comprehended as the opposite character. The Near Enemy is the quality that we may mistake as being close to quality we are after, but it is not. Here, we call it ‘false’.
By overcoming the near enemies of these qualities, such as indifference, sentimentality, pity, and hypocrisy, and the far enemies, such as hatred, ill will, cruelty, and jealousy, one can fully experience and express love, kindness, compassion, and joy.
The Brahmaviharas are transformative qualities that promote harmony, understanding, and well-being. They help practitioners break free from self-centeredness and develop a genuine concern for the welfare of all beings. By integrating these qualities into thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and actions, individuals can cultivate a more compassionate and inclusive outlook on life. Regular meditation is often used as a supportive practice for developing the Brahmaviharas, allowing practitioners to cultivate a calm and focused mind and intentionally direct these qualities towards oneself and others.
The practice of the Brahmaviharas leads to an expansion of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, creating a more caring and harmonious way of relating to oneself and the world.
Metta protects Sympathetic Joy from its false version, superficial positivity
Mudita protects Compassion from its false version, sentimental pity
Karuna protects Impartiality from its false version, indifference or apathy
Upekkha protects Friendliness from its false version, partial friendliness
While each Brahmavihara has its unique focus, they are interconnected and mutually supportive in several ways.
Here is another variation:
1. Loving-Kindness (Metta) and Compassion (Karuna):
Loving-Kindness is the genuine wish for all beings to be happy and free from suffering. Compassion arises when we encounter suffering and wish to alleviate it. These two qualities are closely related. Loving-Kindness generates a sense of connection and warmth towards others, which opens our hearts to their suffering, thus fostering compassion. Conversely, cultivating compassion helps us deepen our Loving-Kindness by recognizing and empathizing with the challenges and difficulties faced by others.
2. Compassion (Karuna) and Sympathetic Joy (Mudita):
Compassion and Sympathetic Joy are intertwined in their responses to others’ experiences. Compassion arises when we encounter suffering, and Sympathetic Joy arises when we encounter happiness or success. When we cultivate compassion, we develop the ability to genuinely rejoice in the well-being and accomplishments of others without envy or jealousy. Conversely, experiencing Sympathetic Joy enhances our capacity for compassion by reminding us of the interconnectedness of all beings and the shared nature of both Joy and suffering.
3. Sympathetic Joy (Mudita) and Impartiality (Upekkha):
Sympathetic Joy involves rejoicing in the virtue, happiness and success of others. It cultivates a sense of interconnectedness, generosity, and goodwill. Impartiality complements Sympathetic Joy by helping us maintain balance and stability in the face of changing circumstances. It allows us to celebrate others’ achievements without becoming envious, attached or clinging to our own personal desires or expectations. Impartiality reminds us to accept the ups and downs of life with grace, remaining steady in our commitment to well-wishing and empathy.
4. Impartiality (Upekkha) and Loving-Kindness (Metta):
Impartiality can be seen as the foundation for the other Brahmaviharas. It involves developing a balanced and non-reactive mind, accepting the impermanence and uncertainty of life. When we cultivate Impartiality, we can approach all beings with a steady and unbiased heart, fostering a genuine and unconditional sense of Loving-Kindness. Impartiality allows us to extend our goodwill and care to all beings, regardless of their actions, circumstances, or our personal preferences.
The Brahmaviharas interconnect and support each other in a harmonious way. Loving-Kindness lays the groundwork for Compassion, which in turn nurtures Sympathetic Joy. Impartiality serves as a stabilizing force for all the other qualities, helping us maintain balance and non-attachment. By cultivating all four Brahmaviharas, we develop a comprehensive and compassionate approach to ourselves and others, fostering well-being and peace.