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The four Brahmavihāras are a series of virtues and Buddhist meditation practices designed to cultivate those virtues. Brahmavihāra is a term in Pāli and Sanskrit meaning “Brahma abidings”, or "Sublime attitudes." They are also known as the Four Immeasurables (Sanskrit: apramana).
According to the Metta Sutta, Shakyamuni Buddha held that cultivation of the Brahmavihāras has the power to cause the practitioner to be re-born into a Brahma realm (Pali: Brahmaloka). The meditator is instructed to radiate out to all beings in all directions the mental states of: 1) loving-kindness or benevolence, 2) compassion, 3) sympathetic joy, and, 4) equanimity. These virtues are also highly regarded by Buddhists as powerful antidotes to those negative mental states (non-virtues) like avarice, anger, pride and so on.
Nomenclature and etymology
Pali: cattāri brahmavihārā
Sanskrit: catvāri brahmavihārāḥ
Tibetan: tshans pa'i gnas bzi
English: four divine abodes, four divine emotions, four immeasurables, four sublime attitudes
Brahmavihāra (Pali and Sanskrit) may be parsed into "Brahma" and vihara; which is often rendered into English as "sublime" or "divine abodes". They are also called the "Four Immeasurables," or "the four sublime attitudes (loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity)", and are Buddhist virtues that followers can cultivate endlessly, that is without limits, as good qualities for any Buddhist to possess in good measure. They form a sequence of Buddhist virtues recommended in the Brahmavihara Sutta.
When developed to a high degree in meditation, they are said to make the mind "immeasurable" and like the mind of the loving brahmā gods.
- Metta/Maitri: loving-kindness towards all; the hope that a person will be well; loving kindness is "the wish that all sentient beings, without any exception, be happy."
- Karuna: compassion; the hope that a person's sufferings will diminish; compassion is the "wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering."
- Mudita: altruistic joy in the accomplishments of a person, oneself or other; sympathetic joy, "is the wholesome attitude of rejoicing in the happiness and virtues of all sentient beings."
- Upekkha/Upeksha: equanimity, or learning to accept both loss and gain, praise and blame, success and failure with detachment, equally, for oneself and for others; equanimity means "not to distinguish between friend, enemy or stranger, but regard every sentient being as equal. It is a clear-minded tranquil state of mind - not being overpowered by delusions, mental dullness or agitation."
Metta and Karuna are both hopes for the future (leading, where possible, to action aimed at realizing those hopes), while Mudita and Upekkha are attitudes to what has already happened, but also having consequences for future action. While these four might be delineated as attitudes of the future or past, they contain the seed of the "present" within their core (as a living embodied practice). This is the essence of the spiritual laws of karma, self-responsibility, and samma sankkalpa - right thoughts. A dedicated intention that all beings are in the "here and now" tranquil, happy, in touch with their gifted talents/accomplishments, and feel interconnected by that synergy to eschew suffering by abdication.
The Brahmaviharā practices are explained in "The Path of Purification" (Visuddhimagga), written in the fifth century CE by the scholar and commentator Buddhaghosa. They are often practiced by taking each of the "Immeasurables" in turn and applying it to oneself, wishing oneself well (omitted while training oneself in mudita), and then to others nearby, and so on to everybody in the world, and to everybody in all universes.
Although this form of these ideas has a Buddhist origin, the ideas themselves are in no way sectarian. The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement uses them in public meditation events in Sri Lanka bringing together Buddhists, Hindu, Muslims, and Christians. Rudyard Kipling's inspirational poem If refers to the idea of Upekkha in calling Triumph and Disaster impostors.
The Brahmaviharā in Early Buddhism
In the Tevijja Sutta: The Threefold Knowledge of the Majjhima Nikaya set of scriptures, Buddha Shakyamuni is asked the way to fellowship/companionship/communion with Brahma. Shakyamuni Buddha replies that he personally knows the world of Brahma and the way to it, and explains the meditative method for reaching it by using an analogy of the resonance of the conch shell of the Ashtamangala:
“A monk suffuses the world in the four directions with a mind of benevolence, then above, and below, and all around – the whole world from all sides, completely, with a benevolent, all-embracing, great, boundless, peaceful and friendly mind … Just as a powerful conch-blower makes himself heard with no great effort in all four [cardinal] directions, so too is there no limit to the unfolding of [this] heart-liberating benevolence. This is a way to communion with Brahma”.
The Buddha then says that the monk must follow this up with an equal suffusion of the entire world with mental projections of compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (regarding all beings with an eye of equality).
In the two "Metta Suttas" of the Anguttara Nikaya (AN 4.125, AN 4.126), the Buddha states that one who practices radiating the brahmaviharas in this life is destined for rebirth in a heavenly realm in their next life. In addition, if such a person is a Buddhist disciple (Pali: sāvaka) and thus realizes the three characteristics of the five aggregates, then after his heavenly life, this disciple will reach nibbana. However, if one is not a disciple, then after the heavenly life, they may still be reborn in a hell realm or as an animal or as a hungry ghost.
The Brahmaviharā in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra
In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha teaches that the Brahmaviharā are characteristic qualities of the Buddha-dhatu (Buddha-nature or Buddha-Principle, the all-pervading essence of the Buddha). He states:
“Great Benevolence [or “Loving-kindness”] and Great Compassion are the Buddha-dhatu. Great Sympathetic Joy and Great Equanimity are the Buddha-dhatu. The Buddha-dhatu is at once the Tathagata"
“The Tathagata is Benevolence, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity. Benevolence, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity are Liberation [moksha]. Liberation is Nirvana, and Nirvana is Benevolence, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity.”
In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (as in other Mahayana sutras), a central place is accorded to the Brahmaviharas of benevolence and compassion. Benevolence/ friendliness/ loving-kindness (maitri) is especially viewed in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra as the root of all good qualities, the very heart and inner soul (atman) of what the Buddha and Mahayana ultimately are. Shakyamuni Buddha states:
“All the roots of goodness of all … Bodhisattvas and all Tathagatas have as their foundation Loving-kindness (maitri)… If any person asks about the root of any aspect of good, say that it is Loving-kindness … Loving-kindness is Mahayana. Mahayana is Loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is the Tathagata. The Tathagata is Loving-kindness … Loving-kindness is the Buddha-dhatu of all beings…. Loving-kindness is the Self. The Self is Dharma. Dharma is the Sangha. The Sangha is Loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is the Tathagata…. Loving-kindness is the Immortal (amrta). The Immortal is Loving-kindness…. Loving-kindness is the Supreme Way of all Bodhisattvas. The Way is Loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is the Tathagata …. Loving-kindness is the limitless world of the Blessed Buddha. The limitless world is Loving-kindness. Know that Loving-kindness is the Tathagata.”
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu, .
- http://www.buddhistethics.org/9/wetle021.html Jon Wetlesen, Did Santideva Destroy the Bodhisattva Path? Jnl Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 9, 2002
- AN 4.125, "Metta Sutta", . See note 2 on the different kinds of Brahmas mentioned.
- http://www.tara.org/Teachings/The_Four_Immeasurables.pdf Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo, The Four Immeasurables
- Peter Harvey, "An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics." Cambridge University Press, 2000, page 104.
- http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/bs-s15.htm Buddhist Studies for Secondary Students, Unit 6: The Four Immeasurables
- http://viewonbuddhism.org/immeasurables_love_compassion_equanimity_rejoicing.html A View on Buddhism, THE FOUR IMMEASURABLES: Love, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity
- “Majjhimanikaya”, tr. by Kurt Schmidt, Kristkeitz, Berlin, 1978, p.261, tr. by Tony Page.
- http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.125.nymo.html Ñanamoli's translation
- (Nirvana Sutra, Vol. 9, p. 59).
- Yamamoto, Kosho (tr.) & Page, Tony (revision) (2000). The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. London, UK: Nirvana Publications. Vol. 10, p. 50.
- Yamamoto, Kosho (tr.) & Page, Tony (revision) (2000). The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. London, UK: Nirvana Publications. Vol. 5, pp. 16-18
- Berzin, Alexander (2005). The Four Immeasurable Attitudes in Hinayana, Mahayana, and Bon
- Brahma-Vihara Foundation
- The Four Sublime States by the Venerable Nyanaponika Thera.
- Online Metta Contemplation
- The Four Brahma Viharas
- The Four Immeasurables
- Buddhas Reden (Majjhimanikaya), Kristkreitz, Berlin, 1978, tr. by Kurt Schmidt
- Yamamoto, Kosho (tr.) & Page, Tony (revision) (2000). The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. London, UK: Nirvana Publications.
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