|Forest Sangha Newsletter||April 1989|
The Four Brahma Viharas
There is one teaching in particular in this Theravada tradition which really stands out for me: it concerns the Four Brahma Viharas, or the Four Celestial Abidings. In the beginning when I used to hear this teaching explained I would think: "Well, this is not really what I took ordination for - I'm not really interested in the talks about kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and serenity. I really want the hardcore; I want to go for the direct path of Transcendent Wisdom; I don't want to hear anything about kindness: its a bit wimpish really - the sort of thing we used to hear about in Sunday School"
So in the beginning this teaching didn't make much sense; actually, it really irritated me. Yet as the years went by as a monk, I discovered how, through cultivating kindness, there was a new way of seeing the tendencies that before had made me wobble so much - tendencies like anger, greed, fear, confusion, anticipation, worry and doubt. I gradually began to realize the transforming power and wonder of kindness. Kindness is actually not insignificant: the Buddha didn't call it a Celestial Abiding, or a Wonderful Abiding, for nothing.
One of the occasions I remember of waking to the power of kindness was when I first came to England. I was travelling on a train in a relatively empty carriage. About half a dozen people were sitting at one end of the carriage, and I thought I would sit down at the back of the carriage and be quiet. The guard came in and checked the tickets, went away, and then came back again and sat just over the aisle opposite to me. I thought: "This is strange - he is taking an interest in me; what does he want? I've got my ticket ... "
Here, sitting on the train, was this man generating a completely different energy - I sensed that he really cared about me.
Then he moved over and said: "What are you up to then?" I thought, well, that's an invitation to speak on the Dhamma, isn't it! You know, we are not allowed to speak unless invited. and that was an invitation so I said: "Well, I'm a Buddhist monk and I live in a monastery in West sussex, and have been living in Thailand for a few years"
At this point he interrupted, saying: "Well listen, son, let me tell you ... " and he pulled a book out of his pocket and started waving it in my direction - and I didn't get another word in for about 25 minutes! He obviously had something important to tell me about. Initially I thought: "Well surely he asked me what I was about" and there was a little kind of ... "Why doesn't he give me a turn!?"
But it suddenly dawned on me that he really cared about me. I think I noticed it because I had just been standing on a railway station in the centre of London where people had a different attitude towards me altogether: they had a lot of aggression, and a lot of resistance. Here, sitting on the train, was this man generating a completely different energy - I sensed that he really cared about me. I left all of the argumentative carry-on in my head and came down to this sensitivity, to his really caring about me. I dwelt on that and I thought, "OK, well you care about me and I care about you. May you be radiantly happy, may there be no suffering in your life for you or your wife, or your children," He, of course, was going on and on, but I kept just this "May you be radiantly happy" going-and I really felt it. And after about 25 minutes he ran out; he stopped and said: "Well, tell me some more" And I started again and he started again; so I started, "May you be happy.." and it felt wonderful. I didn't really mind if he didn't want to listen to me ... "May you be happy ... "
|Then we pulled into my station and I had to get off. Suddenly I had this tremendous feeling of affection for him. I thought: "What a nice encounter on a train" I reached over - he was very into Jesus - and I touched him an the arm and I said: "Do you love me? Well I love you and I'm sure that is all Jesus wants from us" He stopped and looked, something really happened at that moment, we really touched each other; a potential situation for a lot of aggression had been really tamed. This is the taming power of kindness. This is why kindness is actually a Celestial Abiding, it can cut right through the aggression. When we can discover this attitude of kindness in the heart, this, the Buddha said, is like the attitude that a mother has for her only child when she says unconditionally: "May my child be happy" It doesn't matter what the child does, the mother still feels like that. This then the Buddha said, is a truly Celestial Abiding and it has a great transforming power to it. We've all seen this power; when we witness an act of kindness our hearts are melted and transformed. Just to realize the power of kindness is a great inspiration. But if we can't locate this feeling of kindness what do we do?|
The first factor of the eight-fold path is to wake up to the way things are, to see the way things are, to stay with the facts. The Buddha always encouraged people to be in touch with the truth. Now the fact is, often I would like to be kind. I think it is wonderful to be kind; I think the whole world should be kind. Yet a lot of the time I don't feel, that way. Sometimes I actually feel quite unkind. But the Buddha said: "Stay with the facts." So perhaps, in keeping with the Buddha's instructions to be aware of what is, there is a value in being mindful of any unkind feelings I might have.
So in meditation practice we experiment with our unkind attitudes. Rather than sitting there pretending: I love everybody, I would sit there and think: "I really wish everybody would just disappear." How does it feel to feel that way? It feels awful; it really feels paniful to feel like that. If we actually feel the pain it causes us when we dwell in unkindness, it is possible to get a feeling for the state of awareness that is non-aversion. Aversion is a state, a feeling, and non-aversion is an awareness of that feeling. And non- aversion is a synonym for metta; non-aversion is actually the same thing as loving kindness. When we can get behind our aversion and abide in non aversion we have the seed for loving-kindness. So, rather than say: "Yes I think lovingkindness is wonderful, I should have lots of it, but I'm not that sort of person, I was born with lots of fire in my heart and my mother didn't love me. and well, that is how it is" We say: "Right, well this is how it is. Yes I have a lot of heat, a lot of fire, a lot of anger - but I don't mind. I want to see it, I want to work with it, I want to be with it." Then we discover the workability of our anger; we discover we have access to loving-kindness by going through our anger. So cultivating the Brahma Viharas is not just a matter of saying: "Well I know how I should be" It is saying: "How am I? How does it feel to be this way?" Then we have access to these qualities of loving-kindness, of metta.
Compassion, or karuna, the second Brahma Vihara, is that selfless sensitivity to the suffering of others -that quality a mother has for her only child when that child is writhing in bed with a fever, a deadly fever, terribly ill. How does that mother feel: "May that being be free from suffering; for that being's sake, not for my sake -not at all. May that being be free from suffering" When we can allow ourselves to sense suffering when we can open up to our own suffering and to the sufferings of others - our sense of isolation, worry, and loneliness can be transformed. A meditation that we do in the monastery that I've found very powerful, is to sit and simply contemplate the feeling and experience of suffering. Then we think about the person next to us and sense how they experience exactly the same suffering. Everybody is experiencing exactly the same suffering of fear, desire or ignorance, and the wanting to be free from them. Just as I really want to be free from suffering, so do all other living beings want to be free from suffering, To open up and know inwardly that this is a shared experience transforms that sense of isolation into a new way of seeing, a new sensitivity to the human predicament.
In the time of the Buddha, a mother called Kisa Gotami became deranged by the loss of her child, and would not accept his death. It was only when the Buddha caused her to be aware of the universality of loss and bereavement that she came to her senses. From the isolation of her personal grief, her mind opened to the universality of compassion.
Sometimes you look at the world - you watch what is happening on the television or read the newspapers - and it is too much to bear. It is just too awful so you don't want to know about it any more. And what do you do? You deny your sensitivity. When we deny our sensitivity, we also deny our humanness, we also deny our life. So dwelling an the fact of suffering in our lives, isn't a morbid and negative thing, this sensitivity actually opens us up again, it begins to melt those restrictions and limitations.
When we've denied our sensitivity for so long, the heart becomes closed, cramped and isolated. We feel so lonely and afraid, that to open up to our pain seems like it is going to be too much. But that's just the way it appears; because we've turned ourselves off from life, it does seem that way in the beginning. But if we can bear with it, if we can use our intelligence to contemplate the way it appears and endure it a little bit, maybe we can come to experience a transformation of the heart. Maybe we can look at the world and the suffering of other beings: "Yes it really hurts" and not close ourselves off from it. We can do that - rather than looking at another suffering being with fear and loneliness. and saying, please don't be that way, I can't stand it. Please cheer up." Sometimes we do that when we see people suffering. Do we really want to cheer them up? Do we really want to help them for their benefit? Do we want this child to be free from suffering for the child's sake'? - or is it for my sake because I can't stand it?
Now true compassion is that selfless compassion the wish that all beings be free from suffering, because we're all in this together. Theres a teaching which says: "Being born is like stepping on a boat that is about to sail out to sea to sink" That's how it is for all of us. If we lose touch with that fact and cut ourselves off from each other, then we lose touch with life. So the transforming power of compassion allows us to feel our own pain, and to be honest with the pain when we see it in living beings. So it transforms fear into understanding and takes us beyond our isolation.
Mudita, the third Brahma Viliara, means sympathetic joy. When I first came across The Four Brahma Viharas in Thailand I thought: "Sympathetic joy, what on earth does that mean?" It took me a long while before I could even begin to get a feeling for it. When the feeling did come it came from looking at its opposite - I had a lot of jealousy -and it really hurt. So by somehow allowing myself to feel this pain of jealousy rather than turning away from it, there was a knowing that I really wanted to be free of it. With the willingness to honesty feel jealously, the letting go occurs naturally. Just as when we feel something hot, you don't have to tell yourself to let go, as soon as you feel the pain of it letting go happens immediately. It's the same when we turn towards the pain of our anger, loneliness or jealousy; already by feeling these things a little, letting go happens. When we have a feeling for that freedom from jealousy, there is the seed for sympathetic joy. We can actually look at someone being happy and say: "I'm really happy that you're happy." This, the Buddha said, is the feeling that a mother has for her only child when she sees the child doing well. If we can locate this abiding, then when jealousy comes along it doesn't get in. It's like a well-oiled raincoat, the water doesn't get in - it just runs right off. So the transforming power of mudita or sympathetic joy is this quality of being able to take a situation like jealousy. which is really awful, and work with it.
So now to consider the transforming power of upekkha. Loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and serenity: the first three qualities, or Celestial Abidings as they are called, are very much heart qualities. And yet if there is not a perspective on the whole process, if we don't understand what is appropriate according to time and place, we might go and dump our compassion right down on somebody who doesn't want it. So the quality of serenity (upekkha) comes from the cultivation of wise equanimity.
We don't have that kind of control over life where just because we want somebody to be free from suffering, they're going to be free from suffering; it is really up to the individual. So the wisdom aspect of the Four Brahma Viharas is understanding the process of life. The compassion aspect is opening up the heart, and allowing ourselves to be sensitive. But if we're going through life with an open heart, and we don't have an overview of the cause and effect relationship - that everything arises depending on a cause, and that everything that arises will pass away - if we don't have that knowledge, then we don't have an understanding of what is appropriate according to time and place. The transforming power of upekkha means we can accept situations with understanding - we can work with our confusion. In the monasteries every morning we chant a reflection on upekkha which is that all beings, including ourselves, are: owner of their kamma; heir to their kamma; born of their kamma: related to their kamma; abide supported by their kamma. Whatever kamma is done, for good or for ill, of that they are the hair.
So the teaching of the Four Brahma Viharas is a teaching of transforming power. pointing to the balance between compassion and wisdom. When we have a feeling for this balance, this Middle Way, then we see the workability of every moment. Rather than life being the continual struggle not to wobble, there's an inner stillness which knows the workability of everything. We can begin to contemplate what is meant by life after death in a totally different way. We begin to sense that what is True Life isn't born and doesn't die; doesn't need to be cultivated and can't be destroyed.