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Immeasurably Sublime Abodes – The Brahmaviharas – A Brief Introduction

I. Here, monks, a disciple dwells pervading one direction with his heart filled with loving-kindness, likewise the second, the third, and the fourth direction; so above, below and around; he dwells pervading the entire world everywhere and equally with his heart filled with loving-kindness, abundant, grown great, measureless, free from enmity and free from distress.

II. Here, monks, a disciple dwells pervading one direction with his heart filled with compassion, likewise the second, the third and the fourth direction; so above, below and around; he dwells pervading the entire world everywhere and equally with his heart filled with compassion, abundant, grown great, measureless, free from enmity and free from distress.

III. Here, monks, a disciple dwells pervading one direction with his heart filled with sympathetic joy, likewise the second, the third and the fourth direction; so above, below and around; he dwells pervading the entire world everywhere and equally with his heart filled with sympathetic joy, abundant, grown great, measureless, free from enmity and free from distress.

IV. Here, monks, a disciple dwells pervading one direction with his heart filled with equanimity, likewise the second, the third and the fourth direction; so above, below and around; he dwells pervading the entire world everywhere and equally with his heart filled with equanimity, abundant, grown great, measureless, free from enmity and free from distress.

Tevijja Sutta (DN 13)

Loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity – collectively, the brahmavihāras – are meditative mindsets to be cultivated in Buddhism. Literally meaning “sublime dwellings” or “heavenly abodes,” the brahmavihāras are exalted frames of mind involving the four immeasurables (appamaññā) which are radiantly boundless states overflowing with positive attributes. These four include:

  1. mettā – loving-kindness, good will, well-wishing
  2. karuṇā – compassion
  3. mudita – empathetic joy, appreciative joy
  4. upekkhā – equanimity

These qualities of the heart, immensely virtuous and practical in their capacity to inform our relationships with others, can be cultivated and put into practice by anyone. To illustrate their boundless and immeasurable nature, the Buddha describes the universality of the brahmavihāras with the metaphor of a pure water spring from which all may drink.

Bhikkhus, there is a pond with clear, transparent, pure, cool, water with well formed banks in a pleasant setting. A man from the east would come to it thirsty, tired and overcome with the heat and the burning. Coming there he would dispel his thirst, and burning. A man from the west would come,–from the north would come,—from the south would come. In whatever direction they come; coming to that pond they would quench their thirst and dispel the burning. In the same manner, even from the warrior clan a certain one would go forth as a homeless to the discipline declared by the Thus Gone One and developing thoughts of loving kindness, compassion, intrinsic joy and equanimity will gain internal appeasement.

When internally appeased, I say he has followed the method of recluse-ship. One gone forth as a homeless even from the warrior clan, would destroy desires, his mind released and released through wisdom here and now, knowing realising would abide. With the destruction of desires he is a recluse. One gone forth as a homeless even from the brahmin clan—even from the householder clan,– even from the clan of out castes, would also destroy desires, his mind released and released through wisdom here and now, knowing and realising would abide. He with the destruction of desires is a recluse.

Cula-assapura Sutta (MN 40)

The “internal appeasement” (ajjhattaṃ vūpasamaṃ) one may taste through the cultivation of the brahmavihāras is of the highest calibre. It also means “inwardly calm” and “relief,” much like the sensation that follows when a desert wanderer, parched from intense thirst and blazing heat, drinks the purest spring water.

These qualities of the heart are so powerfully transformative that the Buddha recommended them even to his own son, Rāhula, whom he ordained as a monk.

“Develop the meditation of good will. For when you are developing the meditation of good will, ill-will will be abandoned.

mettaṃ, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvehi. mettañhi te, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvayato yo byāpādo so pahīyissati.

“Develop the meditation of compassion. For when you are developing the meditation of compassion, cruelty will be abandoned.

karuṇaṃ, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvehi. karuṇañhi te, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvayato yā vihesā sā pahīyissati.

“Develop the meditation of appreciation. For when you are developing the meditation of appreciation, resentment will be abandoned.

muditaṃ, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvehi. muditañhi te, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvayato yā arati sā pahīyissati.

“Develop the meditation of equanimity. For when you are developing the meditation of equanimity, irritation will be abandoned.”

upekkhaṃ, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvehi. upekkhañhi te, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvayato yo paṭigho so pahīyissati.

Maha-Rahulovada Sutta (MN 62)

As can be seen in the translation and original text above, each of these qualities is an antidote to a corresponding negative mind-state.

For instance:

  1. mettā – byāpādo
  2. karuṇā – vihesā
  3. mudita – arati 
  4. upekkhā – paṭigho

In other words:

  1. good-will – ill-will
  2. compassion – cruelty
  3. appreciation – resentment
  4. equanimity – irritation

For the sickness of ill-will, good-will is the cure. For the sickness of cruelty, compassion is the cure. For the sickness of resentment, appreciation is the cure. For the sickness of irritation, equanimity is the cure.

Another way to look at this is with the following words substituted:

  1. loving-kindness – hatred
  2. compassion – cruelty
  3. empathetic joy – envy
  4. equanimity – irritation

Any number of translations are possible, as long as the meaning remains clear in the hearts of those practicing the brahmavihāras. Cultivating a heart of immeasurable (appamaññā) loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity can have an immensely liberating impact, bringing one closer to complete liberation from all suffering (nibbāna).

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