I was talking to someone fairly new to Buddhism the other day and as so often happens, the subject turned to how to deal with friends, family, and loved ones. I started talking about the four Brahma abodes, the four immeasurables, which are metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha: goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. He hadn’t heard of them yet. That’s not unusual, but it’s a shame. They are essential tools for Buddhist living and for walking the path.
The Brahma abodes serve two purposes in Buddhism. The first is that they are the way Buddhism provides for us to deal with our fellow human beings. Our work as Buddhists is to recognize our habit of dealing with the world from the ego’s point of view and to let go of it. The ego mistakenly wants to use worldly things in an attempt to pacify its fundamental dissatisfactions. It’s always looking for tricks and workarounds to bend the current situation to match its own limited vision of how things should be. As we move away from these habits, what internal guidance can we use to replace our usual neediness and game playing? The answer is the four Brahma abodes.
Metta is the basic Buddhist attitude we take toward our fellow humans and other sentient beings. Metta is usually translated as “loving-kindness”, but I prefer Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of “goodwill”. We may not really feel or express loving-kindness toward poisonous spiders, but we can certainly feel and express goodwill toward them from a safe distance. We wish others happiness, peace, and good health, in whatever way is appropriate for them.
Karuna, compassionate action, is how we deal with the world’s troubles — we are sensitive to the suffering of others and act to reduce that suffering.
Mudita, sympathetic joy, is how we relate to other’s happiness and success. We support and rejoice in people’s healthy and happy situations.
Upekkha, equanimity, is the spacious realm in which these actions occur. Equanimity allows us to stay level among the unlevel. It reminds us that goodwill, compassion, and sympathetic joy are not to be treated as objects for clinging. All conditions, even the four abodes, arise and pass away.
The second purpose of the Brahma abodes is to enable progress on the path. While mindfulness clarifies our thinking and samadhi grounds us in the body, metta opens our hearts. These three aren’t independent, each requires the other two. In fact, metta practice is the gateway to samadhi for many people. Metta toward ourselves, a basic good intent toward our own well-being, starts to soften the the walls, the hard shells that we’ve built in our heart. Walls in the heart create walls in the mind, walls in the body, and walls between ourselves and others. Metta reconnects us to our own nature, it purifies our citta and brings it into our awareness.
Side note — what is citta you ask? My tradition, the Thai Forest Tradition, teaches that citta is the “subjective sense” of the mind. Citta doesn’t deal in words, pictures, or concepts, it deals in impressions, moods, and intuitions. (A topic for another day is the function of the three aspects of mind discussed in the sutras, citta, manas, and vijnana.) Citta isn’t tied to objects in the world like the aggregates. Citta is the part of the mind that can experience enlightenment. Although citta sounds like the soul the way I describe it, it’s not. Citta is not a thing, it is a process, it’s impermanent like everything else, and since it doesn’t deal in objects it has no concept of itself as a separate entity with a particular name and history. It’s just another phenomena, it doesn’t belong to you, but it can be trained, it can be purified. The four abodes are a key piece of this training.
Back to our topic….
So metta provide the basic attitude, the fundamental stance we take towards ourselves as well as others. The other three Brahma abodes are equally important for the inner journey and they should be used when we are turned inward just as when we are turned outward.
Sympathetic joy, when directed towards ourselves, leads to the feeling we call gratitude. We are grateful for our blessings, although of course in Buddhism there isn’t any particular entity that one is grateful towards, and blessings are more about the workings of karma, cause and effect, than the dispensations of a deity. That doesn’t stop you from feeling grateful though. Please don’t let it stop you from feeling grateful.
Compassion toward ourselves allows us to understand that our difficulties are not failures, they are simply the expected results of being a conditioned, limited creature. Our troubles and hurts deserve our care and concern, not the denigration and shame we so often feel towards ourselves. Self-compassion allows us to forgive ourselves and extend kindness toward ourselves. We cannot see ourselves clearly or accept ourselves as we are without this self-compassion — which leads to the fourth abode, equanimity.
Equanimity works the same way inwardly and outwardly. It is the ability to peacefully accept whatever we are and whatever is happening both within us and around us. It is the ability to stay centered and mindful when all hell (or all heaven) is breaking loose. Until one accepts oneself completely and without judgement, it’s impossible to completely accept anything or anyone else. Our natural tendency to judge is very useful when making practical decisions, but judgement is not a fundamental feature of the universe. Things are ultimately not good or bad, they simply are.
The four immeasurables are what guides our thinking and behavior when we are not acting from greed, aversion, and delusion. They allow us to deal with the world in a state of “unentangled participation” as Ajahn Amaro would say. I highly recommend them.