In these essays on the Conscious Process, I have often talked about the various obstructions to human development and liberation, chief among them being selfishness (greed), hatred, envy, and ignorance. Transcending these poisonous mind states signals the emergence of true maturity and emotional intelligence, and indicates that one has accomplished the necessary pre-conditions to move up and onward to higher levels of adaptation, beyond the elementary educational circumstances this earthly realm represents.
Many human wisdom systems have suggested antidotes to the aforementioned poisons, such as the Golden Rule of treating others as oneself, but here I am going to focus on four noble and sublime virtues called Brahma Vihàras, or Divine attitudes, which the Buddha recommended be cultivated and practiced as skillful means in all relations and under all conditions. These four Brahma Vihàras are loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
Now, with the advent of internet search engines, one could easily access and read numerous articles by all sorts of authorities that delve into Brahma Vihàras in great detail, and I do intend to offer my own modest understanding in a moment, but there is a good question that I would like to explore first. That is: why bother trying to cultivate such virtues at all?
Well, the negative consequences of our behavior are felt directly in our emotional life, and not just in this current human life, but also in all future lives as well, until the emotions are at last resolved. The emotional baggage we accumulate must be sorted out until all the lessons have been learned and traumas healed, and we have proven ourselves ready to engage a higher curriculum than the one which prevails on this comparatively primitive level of universal possibility.
Moreover, the influences of greed, hatred, envy, pride, and ignorance that we indulge have a more immediate effect on our living environment here on Earth by creating an atmosphere poisoned by violence, cruelty, fear, and misery. Literally, what we do to others we also do to ourselves, since in reality there is no separation. As the legendary Chief Seattle remarked: “All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons [and daughters] of earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
In that sense, we are responsible for creating our own destiny, on both the individual as well as the collective levels, which indeed are not two separate things. If we create our own prisons, for example, then it is likewise our own responsibility to free ourselves from it. The Brahma Vihàras (both as subjects of contemplation as well as principles to be actualized) are tools in this respect, and very effective ones. Properly utilized, they constitute a veritable “karma repair kit”.
In previous essays, I have expressed my understanding that every moment of life offers us a choice. We can choose to live in fear, anxiety, and existential despair, as if we are a helpless victim, or we can choose to learn from our experiences and self-correct, in the light of love and understanding. Indeed, it is appropriate that the first Brahma Vihàra is Loving-kindness, which is a sure foundation for all other virtues which complement it, and a perfect antidote to the poison of greedy selfishness.
Of course, it is easy for us to love the people that are attractive to us and return our love, but much more difficult to love those for whom we have some conditional aversion, or who are mean and threatening to us. Thus, to really embody the attitude of Loving-kindness, we need to be able to include all beings in our embrace, extending the same unconditional loving regard to everyone and everything with both intention and attention, recognizing all as mirrors of ourselves, manifestations of the same Source in which we all inhere, beyond any apparent separation. Its hallmark is the sincere desire for the happiness of others, without any expectation of some reward in return. In that sense, it is truly free of the taint of self-interest, which pervades the lesser forms of love.
With true Loving-kindness, there is no desire to possess or manipulate, since it is characterized by selflessness at its root. It is the perfect cure for the emotional contraction at the heart, because it is fearless in its free and open loving, neither grasping nor turning away, and always ready to exceed itself in service to love. It begins with learning to love oneself, and then extends that love to others, eventually encompassing the whole totality of universal manifestation with no exclusions in unconditional loving regard.
To get a more comprehensive view on the practice of Loving-kindness, one might investigate the readily accessible works of the contemporary Buddhist writer Sharon Salzburg, including her books “Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness” (1995), and “A Heart as Wide as the World” (1999).
The second Brahma Vihàra is complementary with Loving-kindness, and that is Compassion. Compassion is our empathetic response to the world’s suffering, both within individuals, as well as collectively. It is truly a divine attitude in its most evolved form, in that it is totally non-judgmental and non-withholding in its tender and vulnerable regard for the distress that plagues and even characterizes existence in this realm. The great Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche characterized it this way:
“Compassion comes from clearly seeing the state of how others are. Shifting your attention away from being concerned with merely yourself, you begin to tune into how other beings feel. Soon you realize that their aims and what they actually manage to achieve are in a total contradiction. Everyone wants to be happy and free, but the involvement pursued through thought, word and deed for the most part created future pain, future entanglement. When one really sees this clearly, the sense of compassion becomes overwhelming.”
The quality of Mercy radiates an intention from the very depths of our heart in all directions that every being be freed from pain, sorrow, and anything that causes suffering. This genuine concern for others is embodied in acts of charity and selfless service, and is prompted by a deep insight into the causes of human suffering – the afflictive poisons such as hatred, of which compassion is the most excellent antidote. Like Loving-kindness, it must eventually extend without limit to embrace all life and beings, and is a mark of a true Bodhisattva, who is moved by Compassion to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings.
Among contemporary writers, the 14th Dalai Lama has written comprehensively on the subject, practice, and implications of Compassion as one of the four “Immeasurables” (Brahma Vihàras), and his books can be found here.
As an antidote to the poison of envy, the third of the Brahma Vihàras is Sympathetic Joy, and is characterized by an authentic appreciation and pleasure in the well-being and success of others. It is the altruistic smile, even in the presence of doom-sayers, and accounts for the happiness experienced when others are happy. In its meditational application, it serves to counteract feelings of resentment and jealousy. Even when facing difficulties ourselves, we can let go of our personal self-interests and celebrate the achievements and joy of others when we have truly integrated this attitude into our view.
Of the four Vihàras, it might just be the most difficult to fully embody, since envy is perhaps the most pernicious of the vexations afflicting us in this human realm. This is due in large part to our competitive nature born of deep-rooted survival motives, and compounded by the type of conditioning and socialization so prevalent in these times, which stresses the predominance of self-interest, even at others’ expense. In fact, it has been noted by astute observers of the human animal that people are much more ready to sympathize with the misfortunes of others than to rejoice with them.
The ability to feel a genuine joy in another’s happiness, equal to one’s satisfaction with one’s own, represents a rare state of mind, and hence qualifies as one of the four sublime attitudes. However, since all the Brahma Vihàras are inter-dependent, one must be able to access a genuine affection for others, characterized by both the friendliness of Loving-kindness and the empathy of Compassion, for this quality to take root and mature into one’s everyday consciousness. Likewise, without such Sympathetic Joy, the other qualities might be mere empty shells. All three require a sincere and even profound opening at the heart, and likewise, all three must be supported by the fourth virtue – Equanimity.
The contemporary Buddhist author and teacher Pema Chodron offers this description of Equanimity: “Training in equanimity is learning to open the door to all, welcoming all beings, inviting life to come visit. Of course, as certain guests arrive, we’ll feel fear and aversion. We allow ourselves to open the door just a crack if that’s all that we can presently do, and we allow ourselves to shut the door when necessary. Cultivating equanimity is a work in progress. We aspire to spend our lives training in the loving-kindness and courage that it takes to receive whatever appears—sickness, health, poverty, wealth, sorrow, and joy. We welcome and get to know them all.”
Real understanding regarding the nature and purpose of our appearance can only be skillfully utilized when one is stabilized in Equanimity, and so in this anxious and conflicted realm we call “the world”, such actionable wisdom appears to be very rare. Moreover, none can claim it, for to make such a claim is itself a symptom of understanding’s absence. Every claim, every concept, falls short of true understanding. Every concept pointing to some self-image is a form of stress and dis-ease. In order to deconstruct the fortress of Ignorance, we require real Equanimity, born of non-attachment, and informed by Recognition.
When we are anchored enough in Equanimity to let our vision grow so large that we begin to recognize the nature of consciousness itself, we can readily observe that consciousness has a stressful quality. Even in the most conventionally desirable and pleasurable circumstances, we can see how a subtle sense of dissatisfaction permeates our felt experience of life. Even the most intense joys are fleeting, and all that we might cherish is ultimately impermanent. Painful situations of course are self-evidently stressful. In fact, Buddha’s First Noble Truth is that life is dissatisfying, stressful, suffering (Dukkha).
The poet-sage Eknath, when contemplating the arrival of consciousness, exclaimed, “I am stung by a scorpion!” Invariably, when mind appears, there is perturbation. Conversely, when mind dissolves in true understanding, there is rest. Relaxed and at rest in the midst of perturbation is true understanding, true equanimity. However, from a less than comprehensive perspective, it may seem for us as if there is only perturbation:
one endless stretch of falling dominoes, movement always in reaction, whittled down to the fine mind bones of a core contraction — this troublesome trick we call “myself” — so that we never come to peace at heart. In that story, there seems to be a matrix of enduring identity, of unbroken continuity, that feels just like “me”, trapped in a play of ambivalent circumstance that changes like the shifting schemes of shallow sleep we twist in while we dream.
Looking further into this apparent dilemma through the power of True Inquiry, anchored in Equanimity, we can realize that it’s not so. No such actual character can be found – nothing but a cobble of thoughts and memories that we’ve taken to be a self. It’s like a story we’ve been telling ourselves, a meaning we’ve superimposed on life, in order to avoid the looming emptiness of how things seem, and hence distract ourselves from our primal boredom, doubt, and discomfort. The obvious problem with such a strategy, however, is that it comes back to bite us, and thus we suffer the futile fruits of our own would-be escape plans.
Still, the one who seems perturbed, entangled, stressed, and in perpetual dilemma is not the end of the story. It actually is the story, and nothing more that: a fanciful narrative that is purely a product of the imagination – a fabricated mind state — and therein lies the clue to its undoing. With the benefit of true Equanimity, and supported by the other three virtues of Loving-kindness, Compassion, and Sympathetic Joy, we have within us all we need to see through the self-delusion and realize genuine liberation from the poisons of Ignorance, Greed, Hatred, and Envy. May all beings be happy, may all beings be free!
“The activities of enlightenment go far beyond ordinary concepts. According to both Mmahayana and Vajrayana, the purpose of accomplishing enlightenment is to benefit all sentient beings. An enlightened being does not selfishly retire from the world, but becomes busier than before, without feeling even slightly burdened by the activities. Since enlightenment is all-pervasive, enlightened actions are as effortless and spontaneous as the light shining from the sun. Buddha activity transcends all ordinary ideas of effort and accomplishment.”
~Venerable Khenpo Rinpoche