The Brahmaviharas on the Path to Awakening by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (long post)
- "The first meditation instructions given to a child raised in a Theravada Buddhist family usually focus on the practice of metta, or goodwill. The parents teach the child to spread thoughts of goodwill a wish for happiness to all living beings every night before going to sleep.
As the child grows older, the instructions are expanded to include three other attitudes, which along with metta are called the brahmaviharas when these attitudes are developed in an unlimited way. The term brahmavihara is a combination of two words: brahma, which is a being on a high level of heaven, plus vihara, which literally means "dwelling," and figuratively "attitude" an attitude in which the mind habitually dwells. The brahmaviharas are the habitual attitudes of beings on a high plane of existence.
Unlimited metta is the first of the four attitudes, the other three being unlimited karuna, or compassion a wish that suffering and the causes of suffering will end; unlimited mudita, or empathetic joy a wish that happiness and the causes of happiness will continue; and unlimited upekkha, or equanimity an impartial acceptance of what can't be changed.
These attitudes are unlimited in the sense that they're extended to all beings everywhere including oneself without bias. Because human beings aren't on the level of the brahmas, they don't automatically dwell in these attitudes in an unlimited way. They tend to feel them more strongly for some living beings than for others. However, human beings can make these attitudes unlimited through conscious practice, and in that way lift their minds to a higher level.
If the child doesn't take any further interest in meditation, he or she will probably equate metta or the brahmaviharas with meditation throughout life. In fact, in Thailand, where the language has a tendency to string words of similar meaning together, the words metta and bhavana "meditation" are a common string. And the attitudes of the brahmaviharas are highly regarded throughout the culture. I've even known Thai Christians who insist that the brahmaviharas are not a specifically Buddhist teaching. Respect for the brahmaviharas is part of being Thai.
If the child does take further interest in meditation as he or she gets older, the development of the brahmaviharas provides the framework for whatever other practice he or she may specialize in. Ajaan Mun, the founder of the Wilderness tradition, specialized in contemplation of the body, but he is said to have spent time developing the brahmaviharas three times a day: when waking up in the morning, when waking up from his afternoon nap, and just before going to sleep at night. He taught one of his students, Ajaan Khao, a chant expressing the attitudes of the brahmaviharas directed to all the classifications of beings in all directions throughout the cosmos, a chant that takes a good half-hour to recite. Ajaan Lee, another of his students who specialized in breath meditation popularized another chant focused on the brahmaviharas that takes a similar amount of time to recite.
When you look into the Pali Canon the source texts for the Theravada tradition it's easy to see why the brahmaviharas are given so much importance in the living tradition, for there the brahmaviharas are connected to all three aspects of the path to the end of suffering: virtue, concentration, and discernment.
For virtue, the brahmaviharas provide the motivation. You undertake the precepts because both because you have compassion for others (Ud 2:3) and because you have goodwill for yourself (Ud 5:1). The Buddha once taught the brahmaviharas to a group of non-Buddhists who weren't sure whether actions lead to results beyond this lifetime, or even if there was a life beyond this telling them that if they practiced in line with these attitudes, they would have nothing to fear if actions did lead to results beyond this lifetime. If there was no life after death, they could still view themselves as pure in terms of their conduct here and now (AN 3:65). In another case, the Buddha taught that if you realize that you've harmed another person through your misconduct, you should realize that remorse will not undo the harm. Instead, you should recognize the mistake, resolve not to repeat it, and then develop the brahmaviharas as a way of strengthening your resolve (SN 42:8).
In developing concentration, the connection with the brahmaviharas is even more direct. The Buddha taught the brahmaviharas as themes on which the mind can focus to develop strong states of mental absorption, called the four jhanas. One discourse (AN 8:63) suggest that each of the brahmaviharas can lead all the way to the fourth jhana; two other discourses read in conjunction (AN 4:123 and 4:125) suggest that the first brahmavihara can lead only to the first jhana, the second only to the second, and so on up to the fourth. But in either case, because these jhanas count as right concentration in the noble eightfold path, any of the four brahmaviharas can play an integral role in the path to the end of suffering.
As for discernment, the Canon contains two types of discussions on how the concentration based on the brahmaviharas can act as a basis for discernment. The first type focuses on how a meditator should contemplate the concentration that results from any of the brahmaviharas. In two cases, the Canon recommends reflecting like this (taking goodwill as an example): "One reflects on this [state of concentration] and discerns, `This awareness-release through goodwill is fabricated & intended. Now whatever is fabricated & intended is inconstant & subject to cessation.'" (MN 52; AN 11:17) In another case, the recommended reflection is this: "One regards whatever phenomena there that are connected with form, feeling, perception, fabrications, & consciousness, as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a disintegration, an emptiness, not-self." (AN 4:126)
In both cases, the realization that these refined states of concentration are inconstant, stressful, and not-self can give rise to a sense of dispassion and disenchantment not only for them, but also for all fabricated things. The sense of dispassion can then lead to all-around release.
The second type of discussion on the relationship between discernment and the brahmaviharas (SN 46:54) focuses on the mental qualities that can be combined with the concentration based on the brahmaviharas to lead it beyond the four jhanas. These qualities are the seven factors for awakening mindfulness, analysis of qualities, persistence, rapture, serenity, concentration, and equanimity brought to a heightened pitch so that they are "dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in letting go." Ordinarily, the seven factors for awakening are used to give rise to jhana, but the fact that in this case they are dependent on dispassion and cessation means that they have been refined through the contemplations mentioned in the first type of discussion: in other words, the sort of contemplation that leads through dispassion to release. For instance, you can develop a state of jhana based on one of the brahmaviharas and then in light of your realization that it's fabricated or stressful analyze its qualities as they're actually present to develop this knowledge to the level of insight where you're really willing to let go.
According to SN 46:54, when the brahmaviharas are combined with the seven factors for awakening to the point of letting go in this way, they can lead at the very least from the four jhanas to even higher stages of concentration. For example, empathetic joy in this combination can lead beyond the fourth jhana to the a state of concentration called the "dimension of the infinitude of consciousness." Equanimity in this combination can lead even further to a state called the "dimension of nothingness." But SN 46:54 adds, without further explanation, that these combinations can lead still higher than that. Now, because other passages (such as MN 118) say that the seven factors for awakening dependent on seclusion, etc., can to lead all the way to full awakening, it's easy to conclude that when they're combined with the brahmaviharas they can lead that far as well.
So it's clear that Theravada, both in its living tradition and in its source texts, has long given a great deal of importance to the brahmaviharas, both as a basic set of attitudes to be practiced by all human beings who hope to raise their minds to a higher-than-human happiness, and as part of the path of practice leading to the highest happiness of all: nibbana.
In other words, the traditional emphasis on the brahmaviharas as a path to awakening is neither too little nor too much. The Brahmaviharas can function as part of the path to awakening, but only a part. To attain even the first level of awakening, you have to add other practices to induce the disenchantment and dispassion leading to genuine release."
From: The Limits of the Unlimited Attitudes
The Brahmaviharas on the Path to Awakening
For Free Distribution, as a gift of Dhamma, from Thanissaro Bhikkhu
With metta / Antony.