Sublime states of mind

Nyanaponika Thera wrote:

Four sublime states of mind have been taught by the Buddha:

Love or Loving-kindness (metta)
Compassion (karuna)
Sympathetic Joy (mudita)
Equanimity (upekkha)

In Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures, these four are known under the name of Brahma-vihara. This term may be rendered by: excellent, lofty or sublime states of mind; or alternatively, by: Brahma-like, god-like or divine abodes.

These four attitudes are said to be excellent or sublime because they are the right or ideal way of conduct towards living beings. They provide, in fact, the answer to all situations arising from social contact. They are the great removers of tension, the great peace-makers in social conflict, and the great healers of wounds suffered in the struggle of existence. They level social barriers, build harmonious communities, awaken slumbering magnanimity long forgotten, revive joy and hope long abandoned, and promote human brotherhood against the forces of egotism.

The Brahma-viharas are incompatible with a hating state of mind, and in that they are akin to Brahma, the divine but transient ruler of the higher heavens in the traditional Buddhist picture of the universe. In contrast to many other conceptions of deities, East and West, who by their own devotees are said to show anger, wrath, jealousy and “righteous indignation,” Brahma is free from hate; and one who assiduously develops these four sublime states, by conduct and meditation, is said to become an equal of Brahma.

They are called abodes (vihara) because they should become the mind’s constant dwelling-places where we feel “at home”; they should not remain merely places of rare and short visits, soon forgotten. In other words, our minds should become thoroughly saturated by them. They should become our inseparable companions, and we should be mindful of them in all our common activities. As the Metta Sutta, the Song of Loving-kindness, says:

When standing, walking, sitting, lying down,
Whenever he feels free of tiredness
Let him establish well this mindfulness —
This, it is said, is the Divine Abode.


So we turn to a new subject. After all our recent death contemplations, it’s time to take up something intrinsically uplifting.

I must confess at the outset that practicing with the Brahmaviharas (or sublime mind states) is not my strongest suit. I’ve mostly been a reluctant practitioner, being more inclined to investigation and wisdom. However, it is an essential part of what the Buddha taught, and I intend to take this opportunity to develop these mind states as best I can.

You may already know a lot about developing loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. If so, please comment!

We can start by trying to recognize when one of these states is present in our minds and when one (or more) is absent. Recently a friend told me about her first visit to a third-world country (Cambodia), and how it opened her heart to compassion and (as a consequence) generosity. As she spoke, I felt my own heart opening to both compassion and generosity, and not in a limited way. There’s still gratitude in my mind for that encounter.

Think back to the last time you experienced an unlimited (non-attached) sense of good will, or compassion, or joy for someone. What did that feel like? If you can’t think of an instance, use your imagination. What might it feel like?

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
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