Well-worn Words: The Brahma-viharas

I’ve found that the hardest Buddhist concepts to understand are those which predate Buddhism in one way or another. One of these is the Buddha’s teaching on the four Brahma-viharas: metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha.

In the Pali suttas they are almost always mentioned as a set without additional descriptions, such that it is hard to know where each begins and ends.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s article Head and Heart Together: Bringing Wisdom to the Brahma-viharas does a really great job of explaining the Brahma-viharas and their interrelationships in a way this hapless practitioner can understand:

Of these four emotions, goodwill (metta) is the most fundamental. It’s the wish for true happiness, a wish you can direct to yourself or to others. […] The next two emotions in the list are essentially applications of goodwill. Compassion (karuna) is what goodwill feels when it encounters suffering: It wants the suffering to stop. Empathetic joy (mudita) is what goodwill feels when it encounters happiness: It wants the happiness to continue. Equanimity (upekkha) is a different emotion, 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.

Continue reading “Well-worn Words: The Brahma-viharas”

An interview with Thanissaro Bhikkhu

So I was surfing the web the other day, looking up information on Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Basically I heard a personal anecdote about him from a friend in Boston, and I had to find out if it was true. Thanissaro Bhikkhu (or “Thaan Geoff”) is a Theravada Buddhist monk who lives at Wat Mettavanaram outside of San Diego. I first met him on a club field trip to Wat Metta in 2004. His writings have had a huge influence on many of my friends. I came across this delightful interview in the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, and I thought I’d share it with everyone: Being a Monk: A Conversation with Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

The interview is great in part because it asks many of the questions that I have always been too ashamed to ask because I know I’m not supposed to ask monks those types of questions. But it’s also always great to hear Thaan Geoff’s perspective on Buddhist practice. Here is one quote that really struck home for me:

The Forest tradition places a lot of emphasis on concentration practice, getting the mind to stay with one object. So that’s a lot of my time. And of course, if you’re sitting for long periods of time, pain is going to come up. Then the mind creates issues about the pain. Dealing with that is the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: There is pain in life. There is suffering in life. I think the reason he focused on that is that if you sit with your pains and suffering, if you have the tools of concentration and mindfulness, you start seeing these issues in your mind.