Teachings from Meditation in Recovery: The Four Brahma Viharas

The following is from a series of essays on recovery as seen from the Buddhist perspective of the paramitas and the Brahma Viharas.

Molly De Shong
20 November 2008

The following is from a series of essays on recovery as seen from the Buddhist perspective of the paramitas and the Brahma Viharas. The essay appears in this month’s San Francisco Zen Center newsletter.

“The paramitas are the so-called ‘perfections’ of generosity, morality, patience, effort, meditation and wisdom. The Brahma Viharas, or ‘divine abidings,’ are compassion, loving-kindness, sympathetic joy and equanimity. These essays emerge from the ongoing Monday night Meditation in Recovery group that meets at City Center, and we hope they will be useful to you. If you are interested in acquiring these essays or the  series of essays on Buddhism and the Twelve Steps in booklet form, please contact publications [at] sfzc.org.”

The Four Brahma Viharas, written by Anonymous

Introduction: The term Brahma Vihara has various translations. The most exact might be something like the “dwelling of Brahma.”  Others in use are “the divine abodes” and “the immeasurables” (as these practices extend in all directions, to all beings, without limit). However translated, it refers to a teaching of the Buddha on four qualities to be developed by the practitioner: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

One of the earliest records of this teaching comes from the Pali Canon. In the “Subha Sutta” a young Brahmin asks the Buddha, “Master Gotama, I have heard that the recluse Gotama teaches the path to the company of Brahma. It would be good if the Master Gotama would teach me the path to the company of Brahma.”

Brahma was the highest of the gods in the prevalent cosmology of the day; so, the young man is essentially asking the Buddha how to get to heaven. The Buddha, in response, gave him the practice of the four immeasurables.

There is a striking parallel between this story and the story of the wealthy young man who comes to Jesus asking the same question…
This conversation is recorded in the three synoptic gospels. Jesus tells the man that he must obey God’s commandments and enumerates them. The man says that he has obeyed them since his youth and questions if there is anything else he must do. In the gospel of Mark, it is said that Jesus looked on the young man and loved him. And he said that only one thing was lacking: that the man sell his possessions, give the money to the poor and follow Jesus. The man went away sadly as he was very wealthy and could not accept the teaching of absolute poverty.

In a sense, the Brahma Viharas also invite us to poverty in that they require us to give up not our material possessions, but our mental, emotional and spiritual ones. Practiced, they involve relinquishing bits of our ego—for most of us about as easy and pleasant as hacking off a chunk of flesh. In this practice, we give up (even if only for the duration of the meditation) our resentments, self-centeredness, greed and addiction to emotional excitement.

It should be noted that the Brahma Viharas do not lead to final liberation. In the “Dhananjani Sutta” the Buddha’s disciple Sariputta teaches them to a dying brahmin and the Buddha gently chides him for leaving off the teaching while there was “still more to be done”—in other words, before leading him to final liberation. Sariputta replies that brahmins are devoted to the Brahma-world and that he was giving the man what he wanted. The Buddha replies that upon death Dhananjani was indeed reborn in that world.

Perhaps for those of us devoted to the bodhisattva path and to the service recommended by Step Twelve the teachings of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity may be more immediately to the point than our final liberation from the world of suffering. From the point of view of the bodhisattva, personal salvation apart from others is not only a lesser goal, but actually impossible. For the recovering addict or alcoholic, there is a debt to repay through service to the next sufferer, as well as our own spiritual well-being to consider—which is secured largely through our work with other addicts and alcoholics.

As well as bringing us into the company of Brahma, the four immeasurables are also considered as antidotes to various unwholesome states of mind. And until those states are dealt with, our ability to practice the meditations that lead to liberation are severely compromised. Therefore, let us examine these divine abidings sequentially.

Karuna (Compassion)

It is traditional to begin the discussion with metta, or loving-kindness. However, experientially, we often find that compassion is what leads us to develop the other qualities. The Dalai Lama has said that it is compassion which leads to wisdom.

Compassion means, literally, “with suffering” using the older meaning of the word passion. But this suffering is of a special kind according to its Latin root and means “to be acted upon.” So compassion is to be with suffering which comes to us from the outside, from the other. When we practice compassion, we are allowing ourselves to be open to and acted upon by the suffering of others. And in our world it is not an easy decision to make to be open this way. We are bombarded not only by the suffering we experience directly, but by the suffering of the entire world, human and non-human, brought to us through technology. It is easy to be overwhelmed and make the self-protective decision to shut down. It will require the practice of upekkha, equanimity, to allow us to remain open to the suffering of the world, and loving-kindness to motivate us to do so.

In order to experience compassion for others, we first begin with ourselves. We must be willing to clear away what we use to deny our own suffering, to blunt and cover it over. For many reading this, that will have been drugs, alcohol or obsessive behavior. Until we are able to face our own suffering, to “admit that we were powerless” and that “our lives had become unmanageable” we have no hope of addressing it in any productive way. This is why the Buddha began his teaching with the basic fact of suffering. Until we admit the problem, there is no way to take care of it. Otherwise we are like someone who is too frightened of his symptoms to go to a doctor.

It is an act of great bravery to let go of whatever analgesics—be they substances or behaviors—that protect us from our suffering. Whatever they have taken from us, however much suffering they, ironically, inflict upon us themselves, what they give us is familiar. We do not know what tsunamis may be unleashed when they are gone. This may be one of the reasons why so few addicted are able to heal: the initial shock of unmitigated reality can be so terrifying as to send us back to the accustomed dull, dark places we lived our half-lives before.

When, however, we do find the courage or the hope or luck to begin to face our pain, it can take a long while for us to be willing to allow even more into our lives—the suffering of others. Compassion is not automatic. With attention to our surroundings and through listening in meetings to others, we come to realize that we are not alone. Our experience is not unique. We arrive empty, scoured out, and it is essential that we at first allow ourselves to be filled with the compassion of others. Then, naturally, we will overflow with what we have been given. We may begin to see and feel, through empathy, that the pain in other lives is essentially the same as the pain in our own, though it expresses itself in different circumstances and behind different masks.

The practice of compassion can be as simple as remembering these two statements: “All beings wish to be happy. All beings wish to avoid suffering.” From this understanding we can begin to see ourselves and others as ultimately the same. We shrink from inflicting suffering on others as we would from thrusting our own hand into a fire.

A corollary of these two statements might be: “And most beings haven’t the slightest idea of how to attain happiness or avoid suffering.” We see in ourselves and in others the grasping and fighting that we mistakenly believe will get us what we think we need. A couple of hours of watching television (any show, any channel) should confirm this adequately should we doubt it.

As Shantideva, the Eighth Century Indian scholar/monk and poet wrote:

For beings long to free themselves from misery;
But misery they follow and pursue.
They long for joy, but in their ignorance destroy it
As they would a hated enemy.

Empathy, compassion, has it dangers. In the commentaries on the Brahma Viharas, it is said that each of the four has two “enemies”—a near enemy and a far enemy. The far enemy is the opposite mental state which challenges our practice. The near enemy resembles the desired quality but is ultimately negative. It is easy to see that the far enemy of compassion is cruelty. This is an activity in which we engage with the terribly mistaken idea that it can protect us or get us what we want.

The near enemy of compassion is grief, or pity. When we feel the sorrow of others to such a degree that we become stuck in an emotional morass with no energy to move, it does not help the other and it damages us. Pity can become a self-indulgent exercise and an excuse for inaction. “There is such a mass of suffering in the world there is nothing I can do. All I can hope to do is feel terrible about it. Even the greatest effort would be wasted.”

It is not difficult to see where this sort of thinking and emotionalism can lead for the alcoholic or addict. We are simply too sensitive to live in such a horrible world, so let’s get wasted ourselves. This is not compassion. It is not the quality that leads us to offer a helping hand. It may be clinical depression or it may be rationalization or it may be disappointed idealism or it may be simple self-delusion. But it is not the Buddha’s compassion.

The compassion of the Buddha, which we are trying to cultivate in ourselves, can be the compassion of a mother holding her sick child. But it can also be the compassion of the surgeon, cutting open the body to excise a life-destroying tumor. Only balanced by wisdom and skillful means is compassion wholesome and spiritually effective. Without these, it leads to paralysis and self-indulgent emotionalism.