Brahmaviharā (Pali and Sanskrit) can be translated as Sublime Attitudes or Abodes of God. They form a sequence of Buddhist meditations recommended in the Pali Brahmavihara Sutta and the Sanskrit Brahmavihara Sutra.
1. Metta/Maitri: lovingkindness towards all; the hope that a person will be well.
2. Karuna: compassion; the hope that a person’s sufferings will diminish.
3. Mudita: altruistic joy in the accomplishments of a person, oneself or other.
4.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.
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.
The Brahmaviharā are practiced by taking each in turn and applying it to oneself, wishing oneself well, and then to others nearby, and so on to everybody in the world, and to everybody in all universes. Buddhism accepts, but does not insist on, the Hindu cosmology of multiple universes throughout space and time, a notion that has models in current physics.
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 Brahma-viharas (literally: “Brahma-abidings”, “dwellings with Brahma”) are an ancient fourfold Buddhist meditational practice, the cultivation of which is said (by the Buddha) to have the power to cause the practitioner to be re-born in the realm of the god, Brahma. 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. Because the “beaming out” of these four positive attitudes proceeds in absolutely all directions, leaving no part of the world untouched by them, they are also known as the “Four Immeasurables” (apramana). It is impossible to measure the universal extent of their reach.
Some scholars have pointed out that the expression “Brahma-vihara” can also mean “dwelling in Brahman” (the essence of All-being) – but this interpretation is not generally accepted within the Buddhist context.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha describes the meditative states of the “Brahma-viharas” as quintessential characteristics of the Buddha-dhatu (Buddha-nature or Buddha-Principle).
The Brahma-viharas in Early Buddhism
In the Subha Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya set of scriptures, the Buddha is asked the way to fellowship/companionship/communion with Brahma. He replies that he personally knows the world of Brahma and the way to it, and explains the meditative method for reaching it thus:
“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 directions, so too is there no limit to the unfolding of heart-liberating benevolence. This is a way to communion with Brahma”. (“Majjhimanikaya”, tr. by Kurt Schmidt, Kristkeitz, Berlin, 1978, p.261, tr. by Tony Page).
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).
The Brahma-viharas in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra
In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha teaches that the Brahma-viharas are characteristic qualities of the Buddha-dhatu (the all-pervading essence of the Buddha). He states:
“Great Benevolence and Great Compassion are the Buddha-dhatu (Buddha-nature). Great Sympathetic Joy and Great Equanimity are the Buddha-dhatu. The Buddha-dhatu is at once the Tathagata ” (Nirvana Sutra, Vol. 9, p. 59).
The Buddha is himself (as the embodiment of the Buddha-dhatu and Nirvanic Liberation) replete with the Brahma-viharic qualities. He says:
“The Tathagata is Benevolence, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity. Benevolence, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity are Liberation . Liberation is Nirvana, and Nirvana is Benevolence, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity.” (Yamamoto/Page, Vol. 10, p. 50).
In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (as in other Mahayana sutras), a particularly high place is accorded to the Brahma-viharas 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. The Buddha declares:
“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 (Buddha-nature) of all beings…. Loving-kindness is the Self (atman). 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.” (Yamamoto/Page, Vol. 5, pp. 16-18).
- Buddhas Reden (Majjhimanikaya), Kristkreitz, Berlin, 1978, tr. by Kurt Schmidt
- The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, tr. by Kosho Yamamoto, revised by Dr. Tony Page (Nirvana Publications, London 1999-2000). Brahmavihára