The Brahma Viharas - four positive attitudes

The Buddha himself advised that we should radiate compassion…

"Thus, [the practitioner] keeps pervading above, below, and all around, everywhere and in every respect, the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness [which is] imbued with compassion: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will."       Kalama Sutta

Unlike ego-centered emotions, there are other-centered attitudes which will improve your own well-being and that of others around you. Indeed, adopting them can even cure depression. They are love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. It would be so convenient if we could just take a pill to adopt these attitudes overnight but it still takes focus, dedication, and a little effort. Fortunately for those intent on improving themselves (a.k.a. the sangha), Buddhists of the past have left detailed instructions on both cultivating the four positive attitudes and counteracting the negative. As we shall see, the four positive attitudes are also key to having good, wholesome attitudes and avoiding depressed states. They are usually called The Four Brahma viharas (“Divine Abodes”) or The Four Immeasurables, neither of which give any hint of what they’re all about. Hence my description, ‘positive attitudes’.

English Sanskrit Pali
Love maitri metta
Compassion karunā karuna
Sympathetic joy [pra]mudita mudita
Equanimity upeksha upekkha

Although the Buddha taught the Brahma viharas, he freely admitted that, unlike the Noble Eightfold Path to nirvana, they were not his own invention. He did extend the practice to include all sentient beings though. Let us examine each of them in turn:

Love

The English word “love” has several meanings and shades of meaning. It is so often confused with the “attachment” aspect of the word with the associated meanings of being “in love,” that many translations of Buddhist texts use “loving-kindness” for the original metta (Pali) or maitri (Sanskrit) By contrast, the Buddhist definition of “love” (or “loving-kindness”) is nothing more than the attitude of “wanting more happiness” for someone.

If you can call up that attitude of loving-kindness at will, that’s wonderful; if not we must do it by thinking ourselves into that frame of mind which, as we shall see, is initially a challenge, but not all that difficult with a little practice. Everyone knows what it’s like to be happy. Even when we’re sad we strive to be otherwise. Is there someone who you’d like to be happy? If so, a Buddhist would say that you love them. This is, surely, how we should always behave toward each other but, all too often, true loving-kindness can degenerate into, for instance, wanting to possess someone as “mine”. This ego-based “love” which values one’s own happiness above that of others is not the love referred to in Buddhism. Rather, it would be called “attachment”. As an example of the Buddhist kind of love, I offer a kind parent’s attitude to their children. They would do anything for their child, sometimes even sacrificing their own life. Once we develop this basic grounding in what Buddhists mean by loving-kindness, then we are ready for the concept of “universal loving-kindness”. When we realize that everyone, every sentient being, shares this desire for happiness, we make the sincere wish that they all fulfill this desire.

Compassion

Our word “compassion” comes from the Latin com (“with”) and passio (“I suffer”). Thus, if we have compassion for another (person or animal) we are, in effect, suffering with them. We see someone painfully strike their shin or get hit in the eye by a flying baseball and we wince, as if we ourselves had been injured. That is “suffering with”. By remembering this, we become aware of the essential component of compassion: a true appreciation of another’s suffering.
The kind parent, seeing their child fall and graze her knee, will wince as if feeling the pain themselves, then endeavor to ease her suffering. When we truly grok this, we will surely wish someone to suffer less. And this is the Buddhist definition of compassion: wanting less suffering for someone. As an extension of this, universal compassion is the wish for all beings to suffer less.

Sympathetic-Joy

Being pleased by someone else’s happiness helps us shift our focus away from the selfish pursuit of comfort and pleasure for ourselves alone. This is replaced with the urge to improve the lives of all beings, humans, animals, and even aliens. If a practicing Buddhist should have a friend or neighbor who gets a splendid new car, finds $20 in the street, or even wins the lottery, then they should feel nothing but joy for them.
We may understand this by imagining that kind parent once more. She does not rest until her children are happy, and when her children are happy, then she is happy; the happiness of her children brings her happiness. I’m sure that many readers can recall watching small children giggle and play happily. Even if we are quite unrelated to them, their glee makes us smile. This instinct of delight in the happiness of others is called “sympathetic joy”. When we rejoice in the comfort and happiness of all sentient beings, this is “universal sympathetic joy”.

Equanimity

This is basically being “cool,” no matter what, and not valuing any phenomenon, any person, any “thing”, over any other. Consider this old Chinese story (it’s Taoist not Buddhist, but it works here):

A farmer had a mare which pulled his plow and helped him earn a living. One day, the horse ran away, and his neighbors exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so. Maybe so.”
A few days later, the mare returned home, leading two wild stallions. The neighbors shouted out, “Your horse has returned, bringing you another two horses. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so. Maybe so.”
Later that week, while trying to ride one of the wild stallions, the farmer’s son was thrown to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so. Maybe so.”
A few weeks later, the army came through the district, recruiting most of the able-bodied boys but rejected the farmer’s son due to his injury. The neighbors shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so. Maybe so.”

In this story, the farmer “rolled with the punches,” accepting whatever happened, taking the good with the bad, and showed true equanimity.

And that good parent we were talking about earlier? She has no favorites.

Generating the Four Immeasurables

When following Buddhist practice texts, we are apt to come across the blunt instruction to “now generate the four immeasurables” or “now generate bodhicitta” with no further comment on how this task is to be accomplished. So, how do we do it? Fortunately, a Tibetan practice provides the necessary procedure. It does require rather a lot of visualization, but it really does help to increase these helpful emotions. And it becomes very much easier after daily (or more frequent) repetitions so that all we need is the instruction to “generate the four immeasurables.” For group settings it might be useful for someone to read the following instructions aloud or listen to a recording of it. If reading it aloud, remember to pause after each instruction, long enough for everyone to complete their visualization. Here it is:

Posture
  • Sit comfortably upright, as in your usual meditation.
  • Close your eyes.
The imaginary landscape
  • Picture a sunny Spring day with blue sky and small fluffy clouds.
  • You are standing in a parkland with rolling hills covered with well-kept lawns.
  • There are well-spaced trees of all kinds, some in bloom, some with fruit, and some bedecked with strings of gems.
  • You face a large, beautiful lake.
The sentient beings
  • All kinds of terrestrial animals roam this park, worms, insects, mammals, and reptiles. Even the ferocious beasts are harmless and peaceful at this time.
  • In the air and on the branches of the trees are all the birds of the world.
  • The lake is filled with all kinds of fish and marine creatures.
  • In the space above you, you may imagine such invisible entities as hell beings, hungry ghosts, devas, asuras, nāgas, and beings in the bardo state between death and rebirth.
  • In the far distance, beyond the atmosphere, there are alien beings in other worlds.
The humans
  • You are front and center, freshly bathed (or showered), and in your best clothes.
  • On either side of you are your closest family and friends, all similarly bathed and attired.
  • Behind them are your acquaintances, people who you know but don’t spend time with – your workmates and neighbors.
  • Next are the millions of people who you don’t know, the millions of other humans scattered across the planet.
  • And finally, behind everyone else – the people who personally wish you harm, those who don’t like you at all.

Cultivating Universal Love

  • Consider how it is appropriate to wish more happiness for yourself.
  • Pause to convince yourself that you would like to be happier. Then, understanding how your family and friends must feel the same way, wish that your family and friends could be happier.
  • When you are firm in this aspiration, consider how your acquaintances all strive for happiness, too, and extend your wishes to them.
  • Understanding that the millions of people who are unknown to you also want to be happy, you make the wish for their happiness to also increase.
  • Even those who hate you and wish you harm must be included here because, however misguided, they want happiness, too. Thus, we make a sincere wish that their happiness also increases.
  • Now the animals, birds, and water creatures. Obviously, however dim their consciousness, all animals seek to maximize their level of comfort and satisfaction. Thus, we bring to mind all classes of animals and wish them an increase in happiness and the sources of happiness.
  • Finally, we consider all those discarnate, invisible entities in the air above us, beings between lives in the bardo, and all the alien beings in distant galaxies and realize that, if they are sentient at all, they must all strive for their own personal satisfaction. Thus, we wish them all happiness.

This is the method for generating Universal Love and we rest for a moment in this state.

Cultivating Universal Compassion

  • Consider how it is appropriate to wish less suffering for yourself.
  • Pause to convince yourself that you would like to suffer less. Then, understanding how your family and friends must feel the same way, wish that your family and friends could also reduce their suffering.
  • When you are firm in this aspiration, consider how your acquaintances all strive for less suffering, too, and extend your wishes to them.
  • Understanding that the millions of people who are unknown to you also want to suffer less, you make the wish for their suffering to also decrease.
  • Even those who hate you and wish you harm must be included here because, however misguided, they want happiness, too. Thus, we make a sincere wish that their suffering to also decreases.
  • Now the animals, birds, and watercreatures. Obviously, however dim their consciousness, all animals seek to minimize their level of discomfort and dissatisfaction. Thus, we bring to mind all classes of animals and wish them a decrease in suffering and the sources of suffering.
  • Finally, we consider all those discarnate, invisible entities in the air above us, beings in the bardo, and all the alien beings in distant galaxies and realize that, if they are sentient at all, they must all strive to escape their own personal afflictions. Thus, we wish their suffering to decrease.

This is the method for generating Universal Compassion. We should rest for a moment in this state.

Cultivating Sympathetic-Joy

  • Consider how it is appropriate to enjoy the happiness of others.
  • Pause to convince yourself that you would like to take pleasure in the happiness of others. Then, understanding how your family and friends must feel the same way, wish that your family and friends could also enjoy the happiness of others.
  • When you are firm in this aspiration, consider how your acquaintances would be better off if they, too, enjoyed the happiness of others and extend your wishes to them.
  • Understanding that the millions of people who are unknown to you would benefit from this attitude, you make the wish for them to enjoy the happiness of others.
  • Even those who hate you and wish you harm must be included here because, however misguided, they would benefit from enjoying the happiness of others, too. Thus, we make a sincere wish that their attitude will change in this regard.
  • Now the animals, birds, and water creatures. Obviously, however dim their consciousness, all animals take pleasure in the wellbeing of their offspring. Thus, we bring to mind all classes of animals and wish that they too take pleasure in the happiness of others.
  • Finally, we consider all those discarnate, invisible entities in the air above us, beings in the bardo, and all the alien beings in distant galaxies and realize that, if they are sentient at all, they would all benefit from finding satisfaction in the wellbeing of others. Thus, we wish for them to do so.

This is the method for generating Universal Sympathetic-Joy and we take a moment to rest in this state.

Cultivating Universal Equanimity

  • Consider how much better it would be to be unmoved by circumstances, whether pleasant or disagreeable.
  • Pause to convince yourself that you would like to take be unmoved by circumstances. Then, understanding how your family and friends must feel the same way, wish that your family and friends could be calm and unmoved, whatever their circumstances.
  • When you are firm in this aspiration, consider how your acquaintances would be better off if they, too, remained calm no matter what and extend your wishes to them.
  • Understanding that the millions of people who are unknown to you would benefit from this attitude, you make the wish for them to remain unmoved by circumstances, pleasant or unpleasant.
  • Even those who hate you and wish you harm must be included here because, however misguided, they too would benefit from remaining calm, no matter what. Thus, we make a sincere wish that their attitude will change in this regard.
  • Now the animals, birds, and water creatures. Obviously, however dim their consciousness, all animals are afflicted by changes in emotion. Thus, we bring to mind all classes of animals and wish that they too remain in a state of equanimity.
  • Finally, we consider all those discarnate, invisible entities in the air above us, beings in the bardo, and all the alien beings in distant galaxies and realize that they would all benefit from a calm, stable mind, unaffected by circumstance. Thus, we wish for them to do so.

This is the method for generating Universal Equanimity. Having generated it, we rest in this state for a moment.

The more we practice like this, the easier it will be to generate bodhicitta whenever we come across an instruction to do so in our practice.

Troubleshooting the positive attitudes

Problems

It is possible for any of the positive attitudes to slide, imperceptibly, into a more negative, ego-bound, state known as its “near enemy”. For our own mental health and for the good of those around us, practices to defeat the near enemy are generally beneficial and improve your mood immensely. The “far enemies”, however, are not simply degenerate forms of a positive attitude, they are afflictive emotions based on extreme ego-clinging. If you do find yourself afflicted by any of these far enemies, it is essential that you defeat them soon or you may find yourself descending into the hell realms.

Positive
emotion
Near enemy Far enemy
Love Attachment Ill-will, hatred
Compassion Pity Deliberate cruelty
Sympathetic joy Excitement Resentment
Equanimity Apathy Longing, clinging

Repair

While the four near enemies may be seen as degenerate forms of a positive attitude, the far enemies are their polar opposites. There are, therefore, different strategies for correcting each.

The four near enemies

Fundamentally, these are imbalances in the four positive attitudes. Moreover, it is often the case that an occurrence of a specific near enemy indicates a deficiency in a specific Brahma-vihara. For instance, if your romantic partner moves in with you and your warm, loving feelings for them turn to possessiveness, then this degeneration from love to ego-based attachment is a near enemy. In this case, the enemy is defeated by paying special attention to equanimity when generating the four positive attitudes. This will help you to perceive all beings as equally worthy. In a similar manner, all near enemies may be defeated. Thus…

Near enemy Is defeated by cultivating…
Attachment Equanimity
Pity Love
Excitement Compassion
Apathy Sympathetic joy
The four Far Enemies

These emotions of hatred, cruelty, and so on are not merely imbalances in the four positive attitudes, they indicate strong clinging to the notions of “self” and “other”. The “longing/clinging” emotion is an exaggerated sense of desire for something we do not have (longing) or a terror that we might lose something that we believe we possess (clinging). If you find yourself under the sway of any of these powerful emotions, do not make any serious decisions. Instead, practice Generating the Four Positive Attitudes until a saner, more balanced state of mind emerges.