In the Dhammapada, Buddha advised sentient beings to diligently practice the “Four Brahmaviharas”. He taught that one should expand these four qualities of the mind, without limitations, towards all sentient beings in all directions. These are the characteristics that help individuals become virtuous and perfect, embodying the lifestyle of a saint. So, what are these Four Brahmaviharas? Let’s explore the meaning of them with LotusBuddhas in the following article.
What are the Four Brahmaviharas?
The Four Brahmaviharas, often referred to as the Four Divine Abodes or the Four Immeasurables in English, constitute an integral concept within the philosophical and ethical systems of Buddhism. They represent a set of virtues or practices that are deemed desirable, beneficial, and attainable, aiming at promoting harmonious interactions with others and contributing to a deepened sense of inner peace and wisdom.
The term “Brahmavihara” is a compound of two Sanskrit words: “Brahma” and “vihara”. The former signifies a divine or lofty state, while the latter is usually translated as abode or dwelling. Thus, Brahmaviharas are sublime or divine states of mind that practitioners aspire to cultivate and maintain.
These four virtues are as follows:
- Metta (Pali) or Maitri (Sanskrit): This is commonly translated as loving-kindness or benevolence. It refers to an unconditional, selfless love and kindness towards all sentient beings, irrespective of their actions or attitudes. It calls for the elimination of negative feelings such as hatred, anger, and aversion, fostering instead an attitude of goodwill and understanding.
- Karuna: This term translates to compassion in English. It is the emotional response to the suffering of others and the desire to alleviate it. Compassion requires a deep understanding of the suffering that others experience and a willingness to take action to mitigate that suffering.
- Mudita: Translated as sympathetic or appreciative joy, Mudita entails rejoicing in the happiness, success, and good fortune of others. It serves as an antidote to jealousy and envy, encouraging individuals to find joy in the joy of others.
- Upekkha (Pali) or Upeksha (Sanskrit): This is usually rendered as equanimity. It denotes a state of mind that remains undisturbed in the face of life’s ups and downs. It signifies a deep level of inner peace, which comes from understanding the transient nature of worldly phenomena and treating all beings with impartiality and fairness.
The Four Brahmaviharas are traditionally cultivated through meditative practices that aim to develop these attitudes towards oneself and all other beings. By consciously practicing these virtues, Buddhists believe it’s possible to eradicate unwholesome mental states, thereby developing a mind that is radiant, joyful and peaceful. Importantly, the Four Brahmaviharas also align with the fundamental Buddhist principles of non-harming (ahimsa) and the interdependent nature of existence (pratityasamutpada), making them crucial to the actualization of Buddhist ethical and soteriological goals.
Meaning of Metta (loving-kindness)
“Metta” often translated into English as “loving-kindness,” is a term originating from the Pali language, which was utilized in the canonical texts of Theravada Buddhism. The corresponding Sanskrit term is “Maitri”. As a foundational concept in Buddhist ethics, Metta denotes a specific quality of benevolence and goodwill extended universally and unconditionally towards all beings.
At its core, Metta embodies a selfless form of love, devoid of possessiveness or attachment, and fundamentally distinct from romantic or familial love. It is a love that does not discriminate, seeking the welfare and happiness of all sentient beings without exception. Importantly, this includes oneself, with Metta practice often beginning with the cultivation of self-love as a basis for extending loving-kindness to others.
In the practice of Metta meditation, also known as Metta Bhavana, practitioners cultivate this quality of loving-kindness. This meditation typically involves focusing the mind on generating feelings of love and goodwill, initially towards oneself, then progressively towards a good friend, a neutral person, a difficult person, and eventually all sentient beings. The aim is to break down barriers and create an inclusive sense of love that transcends differences and divisions.
Metta, as a practice and philosophical principle, has significant ethical implications in Buddhism. It underpins the Buddhist precepts, such as abstaining from harm (Ahimsa). By cultivating Metta, individuals are believed to become more altruistic, patient, and understanding, leading to more harmonious interactions and less conflict. Consequently, Metta plays a pivotal role in Buddhist ethics and personal spiritual development, contributing to the reduction of suffering (Dukkha) and the attainment of Nirvana.
Meaning of Karuna (compassion)
“Karuna“, commonly translated as “compassion,” is a fundamental concept in the philosophical and ethical frameworks of Buddhism. Deriving from the Sanskrit and Pali languages, Karuna represents a profound sense of empathy and understanding towards the suffering of all sentient beings, coupled with a sincere desire to alleviate this suffering.
The concept of Karuna should not be mistaken as passive sympathy or pity. Instead, it denotes an active state of empathy that compels one to take action to mitigate the suffering of others. It requires a deep understanding of the reality of Dukkha, the Buddhist term for suffering, unsatisfactoriness, or stress that characterizes existence. Informed by this understanding, Karuna transcends mere emotional resonance to motivate benevolent action.
In the context of Buddhist meditation practices, Karuna is typically cultivated through structured meditative exercises. Practitioners reflect on the suffering of sentient beings, allowing feelings of empathy and compassion to arise and strengthen. Over time, this practice helps to diminish tendencies towards cruelty and indifference, replacing them with compassionate attitudes and behaviors.
Ethically, Karuna is pivotal to the Buddhist path. It underlies the commitment to Ahimsa, the principle of non-harming, and Bodhisattva ideal in Mahayana Buddhism, where individuals strive to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. The practice of Karuna helps to dissolve self-centeredness, promoting altruistic actions that accord with the fundamental Buddhist goals of reducing suffering and attaining enlightenment. Thus, Karuna is not only an ethical principle but a vital tool for personal transformation and spiritual growth within the Buddhist tradition.
Meaning of Mudita (sympathetic joy)
“Mudita“, often rendered in English as “sympathetic joy” or “altruistic joy,” is a significant principle within the Buddhist moral and philosophical framework. Derived from the Pali and Sanskrit languages, Mudita refers to the capacity to rejoice in the happiness, achievements and good fortune of others.
Unlike common notions of joy, which are typically self-referential and conditional, Mudita is characterized by selflessness and universality. It involves the cultivation of an altruistic delight in the success and well-being of others, irrespective of one’s personal circumstances or relationships with those individuals.
Mudita transcends feelings of envy, jealousy, and competitiveness, which often emerge in response to others’ success. Instead, it fosters a sense of shared joy that is unaffected by self-interest. By cultivating Mudita, one can confront and alleviate feelings of resentment and dissatisfaction, thereby engendering harmony within oneself and one’s social interactions.
In the context of meditative practice, Mudita is typically developed through the intentional focusing of the mind on the good fortune of others, celebrating their happiness and success, and wishing them continued well-being. This practice gradually nurtures an open-hearted joy that appreciates the happiness of others as if it were one’s own.
Ethically, Mudita contributes to the practice of right conduct within Buddhism. It promotes a communal sense of well-being and a reduction in harmful behaviors driven by envy and resentment. In a broader sense, Mudita underscores the Buddhist teachings on interdependence (Pratityasamutpada) and non-self (Anatta), as it requires acknowledging and valuing the happiness of others as much as one’s own. Consequently, Mudita is not just an ethical principle but a significant tool for personal and spiritual growth within the Buddhist tradition.
Meaning of Upekkha (equanimity)
“Upekkha” often translated into English as “equanimity,” is a term of considerable significance within the philosophical and ethical frameworks of Buddhism. Stemming from the Pali and Sanskrit languages, Upekkha represents a state of mind that maintains calmness and mental equilibrium in the face of life’s various vicissitudes.
Equanimity should not be mistaken for indifference or disengagement. Rather, it signifies a balanced state of mind that remains composed amidst both joy and sorrow, gain and loss, praise and blame. It is the capacity to experience fully the broad range of human experiences without succumbing to emotional reactivity or bias.
In practical terms, the cultivation of Upekkha involves developing a profound understanding of the principle of impermanence (Anicca), a cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy. This understanding engenders a deep-seated acceptance of the changing nature of life’s circumstances, thereby facilitating mental steadiness and detachment from transient experiences.
Within the context of meditative practices, Upekkha is cultivated through mindfulness and concentration techniques that enable the stabilization of the mind. Such practices promote a balanced mental state, free from attachment and aversion, thereby enabling individuals to navigate life’s ups and downs with serenity and wisdom.
From an ethical standpoint, Upekkha is instrumental to the practice of right conduct within Buddhism. It promotes the ability to respond to all beings and situations with fairness and impartiality, thereby reducing bias and prejudice. Moreover, Upekkha supports the broader Buddhist goals of reducing suffering and attaining enlightenment, as it aids in the detachment from desire and aversion—the root causes of suffering according to Buddhist doctrine. Therefore, Upekkha is not merely an ethical guideline, but a fundamental tool for personal and spiritual growth within the Buddhist tradition.