"The Buddha's Dharma is about knowing the mind, shaping the mind and freeing the mind. This applies to the whole spectrum of our mental life, not least to the emotional side of our nature. The emotions can be a source of great suffering, but they can also be a source of joy and peace if we learn to practise the skilful emotions. I am referring to the four brahma viharas of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. Brahmavihara literally means "divine abiding" because these mental states are the normal dwelling place of the Brahma gods, so when we practise these we are quite literally partaking of the consciousness of the gods. And if we are truly skilful we will practise these states at all times; it is said that the wise person always dwells in one or the other of these abidings.
The benefits of these states of mind are profound. The Visuddhimagga says that one who masters the brahma viharas sleeps in comfort, wakes in comfort and dreams no evil dreams. She is dear to human beings and to non-human beings. Deities guard her; fire, poison and weapons do not affect her, her mind is easily concentrated, she dies unconfused, and if she penetrates no higher, she will be reborn among the Brahma gods.
These states of mind are not always easy to maintain. They are certainly not a sign of weakness, but on the contrary require great courage. This is especially true now that the world seems to be drifting into a period of lawlessness and warfare. Powerful forces of propaganda and social pressure teach us to hate the enemy in times of war; it takes a truly open and courageous heart to remain in a state of universal loving-kindness. And to have any value compassion and loving-kindness must be perfectly universal. Anything less is to cut ourselves off from some aspect of the whole. Universal love is the gateway to wisdom, anything less is merely mundane particularism.
The Buddha set a high standard for this. He said that if bandits seize you, tie you up and saw off your arms and legs with a two-handled saw, should any thought of animosity arise in your consciousness, then you are not following his teaching.
But the first and for many the most difficult challenge is to arouse genuine loving-kindness for oneself. If you do not truly love yourself, if you do not really have compassion for your own failings, then you can never begin to have it for others in any meaningful way. And, conversely, if you really do have genuine loving-kindness for your own being, then you will not be able to stop there. True self-love is not egotism; one small being will be too small to contain the universal energy. To love the world, first love yourself and love for the world will inevitably follow.
But we must be clear about what these states are in the Buddhist teaching, and what they are not. To begin with loving-kindness, it is best described as the earnest wish that this being (and then all beings) be well and happy. Please think about this simple affirmation. It does not necessarily entail approval or even what is colloquially understood by "affection." To have loving-kindness for a being does not necessarily mean one would want to spend time with them. It is kindly wish for the others well-being. So simple, but so profoundly powerful and oftimes so difficult of realization.
To help understand this, it is useful to consider the idea of the near and far enemies. Each of the divine abidings has a near enemy, which is a state which resembles the true abiding but misses it by being tinged with the defilements. It also has a far enemy, which is its polar opposite and which cannot share the same mental continuum. The far enemy of loving-kindness is ill-will, whereas the near enemy is greed, understood in the broadest sense of desiring to possess.
Compassion is a state that is very often misunderstood. There is nothing mawkish or sentimental about true compassion. It is the earnest wish that all beings be freed from their suffering. It can be thought of as an active love, whereas loving-kindness is a passive form. If it is tinged by sadness or pity then it isn't pure. The near enemy is grief and the far enemy is cruelty, or the wish to inflict harm.
Sympathetic joy is the wish that all beings continue to enjoy the pleasures they have attained. This is a somewhat neglected contemplation and many find it difficult to practise. It is a rejoicing in the good fortune of others, and if practised properly can give us a lot of joy and bliss (piti-sukha.) It overcomes the petty-mindedness of jealousy and envy. The near enemy is sensual pleasure and the far enemy is aversion and boredom.
Equanimity is the highest and most refined of the divine abidings. It purifies the subtle attachments that the others may still harbour. Equanimity has an important place in Buddhist mental development. In the jhana path it is the mark of fourth jhana, that which transcends rapture and bliss. In the insight path, the stage of equanimity of formations is the jumping off place for enlightenment. The mind which picks and chooses is still mired in the world of grasping, and is bound to birth and death. Equanimity has ignorance as the near enemy; what the Thai tradition calls "water-buffalo equanimity." The far enemies are both attachment and aversion.
An important aspect of developing the brahma-viharas the eradication of the negative states of anger, hostility, aversion etc. In other words, all the manifestations of ill-will. We should especially be on guard for the arising of "righteous" anger. Remember that ill-will is a poison and that you are only hurting yourself, karmically and spiritually, when you harbour a grudge for an imagined, or even a real, wrong. May all beings dwell in loving-kindness and may this poor planet find its way to universal peace."
Posted with the kind permission of Bhikkhu Punnadhammo
With metta / Antony.