62 - Listener's Questions: Practicing with Mental Illness
64 - Shikantaza: Having the Guts to Just Sit and Let Go of Doing Anything

The Buddha taught the importance of the four Brahmaviharas, or sublime attitudes: Goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These are the emotions we should cultivate toward other beings in order establish a strong foundation for spiritual practice, and are also the best attitudes to have toward people if we want our relationships to be harmonious and beneficial. In this episode I introduce the Brahmaviharas as a whole, including how they fit within the context of other Buddhist teachings.



Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
The Four Brahmaviharas Defined
The Brahmaviharas Within the Context of the Buddha’s Teachings
The Brahmaviharas Aren’t Enough in Themselves (For Complete Liberation)
The Key is Making the Brahmaviharas Unlimited
A Note on Directed Practices Like the Brahmaviharas

Today’s episode is on the Buddha’s teaching of the four Brahmaviharas, or sublime attitudes: Goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The four Brahmaviharas are more than a list of positive emotions; each one leads to and depends on the others, so they’re meant to be practiced together. From the Zen point of view, ill-will, hard-heartedness, envy, and distress are signs of self-attachment and delusion, so working on the Brahmaviharas can allow us to better see and understand our negative karma and challenge us to change it.

In this episode I’ll introduce you the Brahmaviharas as a whole, including a definition of each sublime attitude and a description of how all four of them are necessary for a balanced and effective response to living beings. In subsequent episodes I’ll focus in more detail each of the Brahmaviharas and how we work with them.

The Four Brahmaviharas Defined

The first Brahmavihara is Metta (in Pali, or Maitri in Sanskrit). This can be translated as goodwill, friendliness, or loving-kindness. It’s basically an active sense of goodwill toward beings (including oneself), sincerely wishing for their welfare and happiness. It’s generosity of spirit, the opposite of ill-will. For the most part I’ll use the translation “goodwill” for metta; the translation loving-kindness is common, perhaps because people sometimes wonder where the “love” is in Buddhism. However, although metta certainly can manifest as warm loving-kindness, at other times – such as with the case of someone who has caused a lot of harm and is unrepentant – it may be more appropriate to simply to wish for a person’s welfare while maintaining appropriate boundaries and expectations, rather than bathe them in warm fuzziness.

The second Brahmavihara is Karuna, or compassion. As Ajahn Thanissaro says in his essay “Head & Heart Together: Bringing Wisdom to the Brahmavihāras,”[i] compassion is what arises when someone with goodwill witnesses suffering. As long as we sincerely wish someone well, it moves us when we see that’s not the case. Sincere compassion is conspicuously free of blame, because it doesn’t matter whether someone is a complete victim of circumstance or whether they bear some responsibility for their suffering – we just wish them to be free of it, one way or another.

The third Brahmavihara is Mudita, or sympathetic joy. This is what arises when someone with goodwill witnesses beings experiencing happiness and good fortune. This sublime attitude is, generally speaking, more challenging for us than compassion. We may be moved when we see someone struggling, but their situation doesn’t usually threaten us. In fact, we may secretly get some small satisfaction out comparing our situation with theirs, and our compassion may be tinged with pity (which, as it has been said, contains too much contempt). In order to feel sympathetic joy, on the other hand, we need to put aside our self-concern – especially when we encounter someone who’s enjoying things we wish we had, or when we don’t think they deserve their happiness. As Edward Conze wrote in the book Buddhist Thought in India regarding sympathetic joy:

“In the deeper layers of their minds, people harbor a definite aversion to dwelling on the happiness of others. Envy and jealousy are strong, deep-seated, though rarely admitted, counterforces. All the time we jealously compare our lot with that of others, and grudge them the good fortune which eludes us…”[ii]

The fourth Brahmavihara is Upekkha, or equanimity. Like sympathetic joy, this is a more challenging social attitude for most us, except when we consider people who really have nothing whatsoever to do with us (which doesn’t really count). Equanimity may also seem like a strange attitude to include in a list of sublime social emotions, but it’s important for balancing the other emotions out. The opposite of Upekkha is distress, particularly when we encounter suffering. Upekkha could be described as having a measure of objectivity, the ability to maintain a larger perspective, or the ability to manage one’s emotions for the benefit of all. If we get too upset, we won’t be any good to anyone, no matter how much goodwill or compassion we have.

Notably, as this discussion of equanimity points out, the four Brahmaviharas are all necessary and complement one another. Goodwill can get overbearing and unskillful without the ability to notice people’s suffering, and can get clingy without some equanimity. Compassion can turn into pity without sincere goodwill, and it can turn into despair and overwhelm if we don’t cultivate sympathetic joy – the ability to notice and celebrate the things that are going well for people (and ourselves). Sympathetic joy can be silly Pollyannaish denial if we don’t also have compassion. Equanimity, of course, can turn into coldness and indifference without the other attitudes.

The Brahmaviharas Within the Context of the Buddha’s Teachings

The term “brahma” in “brahmavihara” refers to a divine being in the Buddhist cosmology (a god, if you will, but not in the omnipotent, monotheistic sense), and “vihara” means a dwelling place or abode. Therefore, a Brahmavihara is a divine dwelling place, or heavenly realm – which describes the peaceful and happy experience you have if you can truly dwell in goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. As is typical of Buddhism, the emphasis is on how you can alter the nature of your experience right here, right now, based on what you do with your own mind and body; if you cultivate the Brahmaviharas, you can be in a heavenly realm right now, no matter what’s going on. And it’s not just about your current experience, as Ajahn Thanissaro says in his essay “Head & Heart Together: Bringing Wisdom to the Brahmavihāras:”

“Remember that emotions cause you to act. They’re paths leading to good or bad karma. When you see them as paths, you can transform them into a path you can trust. As you learn how to deconstruct emotions of ill will, hard-heartedness, resentment, and distress, and reconstruct the brahmavihāras in their place, you don’t simply attain an unlimited heart. You gain practice in mastering the processes of fabrication.”[iii]

By fabrication, Thanissaro is referring to a point in the process of the generation of karma where, out of our basic sensations and impulses, we mentally create something more complicated: A complex of thoughts and emotions which takes on a life of its own. That fabrication has energy, and affects our actions as well as our future perceptions, sensations, and impulses. As Thanissaro points out, one of the main teachings of Buddhism is that we can choose to fabricate thoughts and emotions that cause suffering and entrench ignorance, or we can choose to fabricate ones that result in happiness and greater wisdom.

Before I start going into detail about the Brahmaviharas, I want to say something about how the Buddha presented them within the context of his teachings a whole. In brief, the four sublime attitudes are taught as prerequisites for higher levels of meditative concentration and spiritual attainment, not so much as ends in themselves. For example, in the Pali Canon Sankhitta Sutta, the Buddha describes using the Brahmaviharas in meditation, saying:

“Then you should train yourself thus: ‘Good-will, as my awareness-release, will be developed, pursued, handed the reins and taken as a basis, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, and well-undertaken.’”[iv]

The term Thanissaro translates as “awareness-release” means “a state of mind released from passion,” and the Buddha goes on to say that when you have developed concentration in this way, you should then continue to develop it at higher and higher levels. Each level of meditative concentration – in the original Buddhist view – becomes more and more refined and subtle, as you transcend coarser, limited – and ultimately unnecessary – aspects of experience. Just to give you a sense of the classical Buddhist teachings, here’s the rest of the passage:

“…you should develop this concentration [that is, concentration based in goodwill] with directed thought and evaluation, [then] you should develop it with no directed thought and a modicum of evaluation, [then] you should develop it with no directed thought and no evaluation, [then] you should develop it accompanied by rapture… [then] not accompanied by rapture… [then] endowed with a sense of enjoyment; [then] you should develop it endowed with equanimity.”[v]

Then, according to the Buddha, you’re supposed to repeat the process with the remaining three Brahmaviharas of compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

The Brahmaviharas Aren’t Enough in Themselves (For Complete Liberation)

Thenif you want to attain liberation in the Buddhist sense as opposed to just resting in and enjoying the divine abodes – you should practice further by developing the seven factors of enlightenment. In one of several Pali Canon texts known as the “Metta Sutta,”[vi] the Buddha clarified this for his disciples. They come to him and tell him they’ve met other teachers who recommend cultivating the sublime attitudes, so they ask him what makes his teaching different. (You can see this as, essentially, asking what the difference is between Buddhism and other religions which also teach people to be kind, loving, and generous, etc.)

The Buddha tells his monks that teachers and followers of other sects, even though they teach the Brahmaviharas, don’t understand the goal which is even higher. They will not be able to answer if you ask them, “how, friends, is awareness-release through good will developed, what is its destination, what is its excellence, its fruit, and its consummation?”[vii] (And the same question for compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.) The Buddha then goes on to describe the higher levels of meditative concentration and spiritual liberation possible if you cultivate each of the Brahmaviharas, followed by the factors of awakening “dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in letting go.”

What does it really mean that cultivating the Brahmaviharas, in themselves, aren’t enough for complete liberation as defined by original Buddhism? The take-home message, as I see it, is that the Buddhist ideal includes the most sublime social attitudes – they’re definitely prerequisites, after all – but also asks us to develop direct personal insight into things like the nature and causes of suffering, how to gain release from suffering, and teachings like anatta, or not-self. In other words, just trying to feel goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity is only going to get us so far if we’re still attached to self and deluded about what causes suffering.

That said, in other parts of the Pali Canon the Buddha describes many benefits of cultivating the Brahmaviharas in addition to using them as a basis for meditative concentration. If your mind is free of passion and imbued with the Brahmaviharas, the Buddha says:

  • You naturally will do no evil or selfish action and therefore you won’t hurt any living beings or generate any bad karma;[viii]
  • You can rest assured you’re living the best possible way, regardless of whether or not there’s any kind of afterlife;[ix]
  • If you experience the negative repercussions of your past actions in the present, your experience of these negative results will not feel so bad as they otherwise might;[x]
  • You’ll be better able to endure suffering and injustice.[xi]

The Key is Making the Brahmaviharas Unlimited

The last point I want to make about the Brahmaviharas in general is that the value in practicing with them lies in making them unlimited. Most people experience all four of the Brahmaviharas often – but only for certain people, at certain times. We naturally feel good will for ourselves. (Even if we’re self-critical and don’t feel we deserve happiness, we still wish we could change ourselves and consequently be happy!) We easily feel goodwill and sympathetic joy for someone we’re in love with, or our child when we’re proud of them, or someone who’s just done something generous for us. We easily feel equanimity about people we don’t know, and who don’t affect our lives in any obvious way. The challenge – and reward – of the Brahmaviharas comes when we try to break down the barriers between self and other, dear person and stranger, people who’ve been kind to us and people who’ve hurt us, “good” people and “bad” people, likeable people versus unlikeable people, etc.

In an essay called “The Four Sublime States,” Nyanaponika Thera explains:

“These four — love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity — are also known as the boundless states (appamañña), because, in their perfection and their true nature, they should not be narrowed by any limitation as to the range of beings towards whom they are extended. They should be non-exclusive and impartial, not bound by selective preferences or prejudices.”[xii]

Why is it necessary to be able to extend the Brahmaviharas, without limit, to anyone? While the Brahmaviharas undoubtedly have a positive effect on the beings toward whom they’re extended, the main point is about what’s going on in your own mind and heart. The ordinary way of viewing emotions is that we can’t do much about them, and which ones we feel toward people pretty much depends on the characteristics and actions of said people. In contrast, from the Buddhist point of view, when you find yourself unable to feel goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, or equanimity for someone, it’s because of your own limitations.

Any restriction on our ability extend the Brahmaviharas is based in self-attachment (which is, of course, one of the critical ingredients in creating delusion and suffering according to Buddhism). For example, we’re stingy with our goodwill when someone has hurt or disappointed us – as if, by withholding goodwill, we’ll be able to punish them for what they’ve done. We rarely think of ourselves as being that vindictive, but when we really start to explore the subtly of the Brahmaviharas we find, in fact, sometimes we are.

In another example, it’s difficult to feel compassion for someone who’s caused a lot of hurt and damage and willfully continues to do so, as if, by withholding our compassion, we’ll make them mend their ways. We may feel righteous in our lack of compassion, but if we really examine our feelings, we’ll find there’s a fair amount of self-interest in maintaining a worldview in which the offending person is wrong and we’re right – and this is usually a worldview that struggles to make sense of things in order to keep us feeling safe and good. (There may be a certain legitimacy to our worldview, but the part that impedes our compassion is about self.) We also resist developing a sense of equanimity toward someone who’s made us angry, as if by merely holding on to our distress we’re making sure said person doesn’t get away with it.

Of course, if you observe human interactions more objectively, you see that goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity are hands down more effective ways to deal with people than ill-will, hard-heartedness, envy, and emotional volatility. As the Buddha said in the most widely-quoted passage from the Dhammapada:

“Hostilities aren’t stilled
through hostility,
Hostilities are stilled
through non-hostility:
this, an unending truth.”[xiii]

This isn’t to say that there aren’t circumstances where you need to draw boundaries with people, say no, communicate expectations, hold people responsible, or even take drastic measures to stop someone from doing a harmful behavior. What the Buddha’s teaching of the Brahmaviharas states is that you can take all of those kinds of actions with goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity in your heart. It’s not easy! But it’s possible, and infinitely preferable. Not only are our own hearts and minds more at ease, the people we’re dealing with will sense our goodwill, etc., and be much more likely to respond to us a positive way.

The stories we tell ourselves about needing to hold on to our ill-will, hard-heartedness, envy, and anger are, frankly, B.S. and just self-serving. It may be very difficult for us to extend the Brahmaviharas to some people – it may even feel close to impossible – but that’s another matter entirely. That very difficulty reveals something about ourselves, and is an opportunity for deepening our practice (and not an opportunity to beat ourselves up because we’re not saints). How to further open our hearts is explicitly addressed in the Buddhist teachings on the sublime social attitudes, and the teachings readily acknowledge how challenging this can be.

A Note on Directed Practices Like the Brahmaviharas

Deliberate Brahmavihara practice – as I’ll discuss in subsequent episodes – addresses the limits on our ability to extend goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity to anyone and everyone, and in the process requires us to let go of our self-attachment. It generally involves calling a person to mind for whom it’s easy to feel a given attitude. In the case of goodwill, it’s recommended we start with ourselves, or with someone we feel grateful to but with whom we’re not too emotionally enmeshed. Then, when we feel the Brahmavihara pretty clearly and strongly, we see if we can extend it to someone for whom it might not be so easy to feel it. Gradually, we work toward extending the Brahmaviharas to those toward whom we feel the most alienation and resentment (but this could take quite a while).

In closing, I’ll say that this kind of direct attempt to alter your emotions or thoughts with a practice is typical of many forms of Buddhism. In Zen, we tend to deemphasize such directed efforts because they can trigger a subtle level of self-attachment in and of themselves (preferring one state over another because it’s more pleasant, or more in line with what we think is “spiritual”). Directed practices may also invite us to spiritually bypass our negative feelings by just wishing them away, which generally doesn’t address the issues and delusions behind those negative feelings. Instead, in Zen we seek intimacy with our direct experience, which allows us to see things much more clearly. When we see how something like self-attachment causes suffering for self and other, we’ll naturally be motivated to find a way to drop it (because we all want to avoid suffering and move toward greater happiness).

However, it’s possible to use a more directed Buddhist practice like the Brahmaviharas without falling into the traps I mentioned above. And sometimes people – even Zen people who generally focus on zazen and mindfulness – find such a directed practice extremely rewarding and effective. Ironically, finding a way to experientially open your heart can lead to insights, just as insights can lead to opening your heart. In true Buddhism, we avail ourselves of whatever tools are going to work.

Read/listen to The Four Brahmaviharas Part 2



[i] Thanissaro, Ajahn. “Head & Heart Together: Bringing Wisdom to the Brahmavihāras” https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/Head&HeartTogether/Section0011.html)
[ii] Conze, Edward. Buddhist Thought in India: Three Phases of Buddhist Philosophy. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1973. (Original copyright 1962)
[iii] Thanissaro, Ajahn. “Head & Heart Together: Bringing Wisdom to the Brahmavihāras” https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/Head&HeartTogether/Section0011.html)
[iv] “Sankhitta Sutta: In Brief” (AN 8.63), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 4 July 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.063.than.html.
[v] Ibid
[vi] “Metta Sutta: Good Will” (SN 46.54), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 22 July 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn46/sn46.054.than.html.
[vii] Ibid
[viii] “Brahmavihara Sutta: The Sublime Attitudes” (AN 10.208), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.208.than.html.
[ix] “Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas” (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html.
[x] “Sankha Sutta: The Conch Trumpet” (SN 42.8), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn42/sn42.008.than.html.
[xi] “Kakacupama Sutta: The Simile of the Saw” (MN 21), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.021x.than.html.
[xii] “The Four Sublime States: Contemplations on Love, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity”, by Nyanaponika Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel006.html.
[xiii] “Yamakavagga: Pairs” (Dhp I), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.01.than.html.


62 - Listener's Questions: Practicing with Mental Illness
64 - Shikantaza: Having the Guts to Just Sit and Let Go of Doing Anything