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.

This article did not suddenly teach me the error of my ways or cause me to exclaim, “Eureka! I should treat people well! My random face-punching days are over!” The article instead was refreshing in it structure and specificity.

There is a tendency, I feel, among some Buddhist writers and teachers to show how there are infinite manifestations of compassion, each with its wildly varying details. I’m sure this is done to show the wonder and grandeur of compassion, but as someone looking to be more compassionate and understand how compassion works, being about everything is not much different from being about nothing.

The article is full of well-crafted distinctions written in clear language. Another favorite of mine comes from the title: the disparity between the head and the heart. This proliferation of this distinction is a pet peeve of mine, since all too often we speak of the contest between the head and the heart as if they were two separate warring impulses rather than ambivalence born from the disparity between what we want and the way we know things are. Thanissaro Bhikkhu defines the disparity thusly:

If we think of the heart as the side of the mind that wants happiness, the head is the side that understands how cause and effect actually work. If your head and heart can learn to cooperate — that is, if your head can give priority to finding the causes for true happiness, and your heart can learn to embrace those causes — then the training of the mind can go far.

4 Replies to “Well-worn Words: The Brahma-viharas”

  1. Very nice….

    Personally, I do not like the dualistic idea between heart and head even though this seems to be just another distinction that’s been developed. I do, however, think the meaning behind the post and quoted material is spot on.

    Once we realize that the heart and head are not separate and we learn to put them back together… we find our natural state of compassion and happiness.

    Easier said than done, right?

    – Andrew

    1. Andrew –

      Thanks for being a frequent and now slightly talkative reader!

      I agree that the the distinction between the head and the heart is a false one in that it does not correspond to the way things are, but it is real in that it is an idea which is communicated and lives on in our culture. One of the things that I think this essay does very well is use our existing cultural concepts to teach skillful solutions and new ways of thinking of things.

      If you click the link and read the whole essay I think you’ll find Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s explanation of karma and how it related to compassion spot on in much the same fashion: working with some of our cultural and philosophical baggage and using the act of understanding it to make us into better people.

  2. It’s interesting how these things look from a Mahayana perspective. Most Mahayana teachers don’t spend much time teaching about the brahma viharas (although Robert Aitken Roshi has written about them). As you suggest, most teachers simply talk about “compassion” as a catchall way of addressing this topic. This can seem so broad as to be meaningless, as you note, but that’s the Mahayana way! In fact, one of the manifestations of Avalokitesvara is with 1,000 arms. Each arm has a hand with an eye in the palm of the hand – so that with the perception of one of the 1,000 kinds of suffering, action can simultaneously occur.

    For many years, I viewed the teachings about Avalokitesvara as indicating the importance of acting with compassion in the world. And, of course, this is fundamental.

    But a couple of years ago, I began contemplating the 1,000 hands and eyes of Avalokitesvara as ways of scouring my own consciousness – the always shifting impulses, feelings, thoughts, concepts, habits, etc. that produce suffering. In a way, her hands/eyes become metaphors for the work of practice.

    Regarding heart and mind…in the Chinese Buddhist tradition, there is a single word, “shin,” which means ‘heart/mind.’ In this East Asian view, there is no distinction between the two – they are unified, although faceted.

    Thanks for this interesting post!

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