day six : afternoon

Sublime Attitudes

This afternoon I’d like to discuss the theme of the four brahma-vihāras, which are translated as sublime attitudes. This is a meditation topic where issues of mindfulness and kamma come together. On the one hand, the practice of the brahma-vihāras is a type of right mindfulness because it’s associated with right resolve—and remember that remembering to develop right resolve is a type of right mindfulness. On the other hand, the development of the brahma-vihāras is a type of good mental kamma that helps strengthen your motivation to develop further good kamma in your thoughts, words, and deeds. It nourishes your motivation to find a happiness that doesn’t harm you and doesn’t harm anyone else, for the sake of your own long-term happiness and for theirs.

The brahma-vihāras are also associated with kamma in that they are one of the ways of developing a skillful state of mind here in the present moment as protection from the results of your own past bad kamma. When your mind is engaged in any of these attitudes to the point where they’re unlimited, then if any results of past bad kamma come, they won’t have much impact on the mind in the present. The Buddha gives the image of a large lump of salt. If you take that lump of salt and put it in a tiny cup of water, you won’t be able to drink the water. But if you take that same lump of salt and put it into a large river of clean water, you can still drink the water of the river. Developing the brahma-vihāras is like making your mind like that large body of water [§14].

Now, there are a couple of misunderstandings about the brahma-vihāras that need to be cleared up. The four brahma-vihāras are attitudes of unlimited goodwill, unlimited compassion, unlimited empathetic joy, and unlimited equanimity. The first one, goodwill, in Pāli is mettā. Often mettā is translated as loving-kindness, but that’s one of the misunderstandings. Mettā has nothing to do with love. It’s all about goodwill. You can have goodwill for people without loving them and even without liking them—in fact, when you don’t like people, that’s when you need to develop mettā for them the most.

Basically, goodwill—when understood in the light of kamma—is the wish that people understand the causes for happiness and act on that understanding. This is something you can wish for anyone, even people who are very evil or whom you dislike intensely. Ajaan Fuang once told me about a snake that had entered his room one night and had stayed there for several days. Ajaan Fuang used it as a test for his own fear. He spread thoughts of goodwill to the snake every day, and after a while he realized that he had reached the point where he didn’t have any ill will for or fear of the snake. But he also realized that the situation was dangerous for both of them.

So one evening, he sat and meditated, spreading lots of goodwill to the snake, and in his head he addressed these words to the snake: “It’s not that I don’t like you, but we’re of different species, so it would be easy for misunderstandings to arise between us. I think it would be safer for both of us if you left the room. There are many other places out there in the forest that would be safer for you to stay.” And the snake left the room.

Now in a case like this, you can’t say that you really love the snake, and probably the snake really wouldn’t want your love, but it would appreciate your goodwill: that you don’t want to harm it and that you want it to be happy even if that means staying apart from one another.

A second misunderstanding about the brahma-vihāras: Sometimes you hear people say that mettā is the primary innate quality of the mind. Actually, unskillful and skillful habits are both innate to the mind, and you have to learn how to develop the skillful ones very consciously. You need to develop goodwill and the other brahma-vihāras because ill will, harmfulness, resentment, and passion are no less innate to the mind than they are.

In some instances this will require more effort than in others. This parallels the Buddha’s teachings on how to deal with different causes of stress. In some cases, you only have to look at the cause of stress and it will go away. In other cases, you have to exert fabrication in order for it to go away. Similarly with mettā: With some people, you just think about them and you immediately feel mettā for them. In other cases, you really have to exert a fabrication. And this involves all three of the fabrications we’ve been talking about this week.

First you try to breathe calmly to get a feeling of ease and fullness in the body—this is bodily fabrication combined with one aspect of mental fabrication.

Then you direct your thoughts toward that person and you evaluate why you find it difficult to feel goodwill for him or her. Then you reason with yourself, reminding yourself that there really is no good reason not to feel goodwill. And however skillfully you can think your way into an attitude of goodwill, that would count as verbal fabrication.

Then you try to use whatever perceptions would make it easier for you to feel goodwill. This would be the other aspect of mental fabrication. For example, you hold in mind the perception of the image of the footprint of the cow. In other words, you think about the good qualities of that person, and then you drop any attention to whatever bad qualities they may have. If it so happens that you can’t think of any good qualities in that person, that’s when you have to develop compassion. Here the perception to hold in mind is the Buddha’s image of seeing someone out in the desert lying alone on the side of the road, sick, with no one to help him. Instinctively, you would feel compassion for that person. In the same way, if you see people with no good qualities at all, you really have to feel sorry for them: They’re creating a lot of bad kamma for themselves. This is a skillful use of perception. That’s the first brahma-vihāra.

The next two brahma-vihāras—compassion and empathetic joy—are extensions of mettā. Compassion is what you feel if you have goodwill for all beings but you see that there are some beings who are suffering or are doing actions that would lead to suffering. You have to feel compassion for them and wish that they would stop those actions.

Empathetic joy is what your goodwill feels for people when you see that they are happy or are doing things that will lead to happiness. You don’t feel resentful of them; you don’t feel jealous of them. If you do feel some jealousy, the Buddha recommends this perception: In the many, many lifetimes you’ve been through, you have experienced the same pleasure that that person is experiencing now. It left you, and in time it will leave the other person. The fact that the other person may be better off than you right now means very little in the larger scheme of things. There’s no need to be jealous. It’s the same way with compassion. If you see someone suffering, you remember that you have suffered in that way, too. In this way, your compassion is not condescending and your empathetic joy is not a hypocritical disguise for jealousy.

The fourth brahma-vihāra is equanimity. Equanimity is expressed in a different manner from the other three. The first three are expressed with the phrase, “May all beings be happy” and “May they do this” and “May they do that.” In other words, it’s a wish. Equanimity is expressed by a statement of fact. “All living beings are the owners of their actions, heir to their actions, and so forth.” This is not a wish; it’s a statement of fact. There’s no “may” there at all.

Equanimity is the appropriate emotion to feel when you see that there are beings who are doing things that will cause suffering and that no matter what you do, they will not stop. Or they are suffering from something in their past actions, and no matter how hard you try to help them you cannot stop that suffering. This is when the Buddha has you reflect on the fact of kamma: All beings are owners of their actions, and there are some cases where their actions prevent you from helping them or your own lack of skill prevents you from helping them. So for the time being, you have to put your concern for their happiness aside, remembering—being mindful of the fact—that you have limited abilities and a limited amount of strength. If you waste your energy trying to help people you cannot help, it saps the strength that you could have devoted to people you can help. So for the time being, you have to put aside your concern for the people you can’t help and focus instead on the areas where you can make a difference—realizing that some day there may come a time when you can help, but for the time being you have to be patient. In this way, equanimity is not hard-heartedness. It’s simply bringing discernment to your goodwill.

When you’re trying to develop equanimity, it’s also useful to remember the Buddha’s five strategies for putting aside distracting thoughts. Otherwise, your mind may try to make you feel guilty for developing equanimity, and you have to use your tools for separating yourself out from those thoughts.

If you can develop these unlimited mind states, you can begin to trust yourself more as you deal with difficult people and difficult situations. In this way, the brahma-vihāras provide a good motivation for doing skillful kamma now and into the future, at the same time providing you with protection from the results of any unskillful kamma you did in the past.

So they’re good attitudes to keep in mind, and skillful qualities to develop with ardency.

Q: The fact that I, the self, am sending thoughts of goodwill to others: Does this not risk developing an even bigger ego?

A: There is such a thing as a healthy and an unhealthy ego. An unhealthy ego doesn’t care about the happiness of others. A healthy ego does care about the wellbeing of others, because it realizes that your happiness can’t last if it’s built on the sufferings of others. Also, remember that the simple fact of your spreading thoughts of goodwill will not necessarily make them happy, but it does help establish your motivation to act skillfully with regard to all people, even those you don’t like. The first beneficiary of this practice is thus you; secondarily, through your actions based on goodwill, it benefits other people. So sending thoughts of goodwill is actually a way of keeping your ego in line.

Q: Sometimes I get in touch with the suffering of others and then experience very strong sadness. How do you advise handling that?

A: The first step is to spread thoughts of goodwill to those people. If there is something you can do for them, then do that. If there’s nothing you can do, then you have to move from goodwill to equanimity, which is the thought that all of us have our own kamma, and if you focus on things where you can’t make a difference, then you’ll deplete the energy you could otherwise use to help people you actually can help. It’s one of the hard parts of being a human being that we can’t help everyone who is suffering. So you try to focus on the cases where you can be of help.

Q: When you speak of sending thoughts of goodwill to ourselves and to others who are dear to us, concretely how can that person sense it? Does the person have a sense of being lighter or happy at that moment or on that day?

A: This depends both on how receptive the person is and on the strength of your own concentration and goodwill. It’s like a radio tower sending out a signal. If the signal is weak, it doesn’t go far. And if the radio isn’t turned on, it won’t receive anything, either. Some people are like radios turned on, and others like radios turned off. However, the main reason that we spread goodwill is to make sure that our own intention is in line with the Dhamma, so that when we look for happiness, we want a happiness that doesn’t harm anybody. Whether or not other people can sense your thoughts of goodwill, try to make your thoughts of goodwill have an impact on your actions.

Q: On the subject of the metaphor of the radio: The transmitter that you are making reference to is the heart or the mind, right?

A: Right.

Q: Could you please then explain how to develop the power of the transmitter?

A: Basically, through concentration. That’s what gives more power to the goodwill you send out. Ajaan Suwat used to say that when you meditate, you want to spread thoughts of goodwill at the beginning of the meditation and at the end. When you do it at the beginning of the meditation, it’s basically for you, to get your mind in the right state to meditate. When you spread thoughts of goodwill at the end, that’s for other people, because your mind should then be more powerful.

Q: Regarding equanimity and mettā: What short meditation can one do in order to return to equanimity when one finds oneself in the agitation of life?

A: The reflection on kamma is a good one. You have to remember that each person has his or her own kamma, and all you have to fall back on now is your own kamma, so you have to get the mind as calm as you can, right away, and see that any other attitudes that would pull you out of equanimity at that point are not good for you. They could lead you to bad kamma, so they’re worth letting go.

Q: Emptiness and equanimity. Is it correct to associate the two? Is equanimity the skillful attitude to take, to develop in the face of the emptiness of all conditioned phenomena?

A: Don’t be in too great a hurry to develop equanimity. We first need to develop a sense of conviction and a  sense of determination in the path. This has to be motivated by goodwill for ourselves and goodwill for all other beings. Equanimity is most useful when you come up against issues that you cannot resolve. Develop equanimity for those issues so that you can focus your attention more skillfully on things that you can resolve. The equanimity of people who have gained awakening comes from the fact that they are no longer feeding on conditioned phenomena and so they can participate in the world when they see it’s skillful, and remain unconnected with the world in areas where it’s not.

As for the emptiness of all conditioned phenomena: In the original texts, this means that all phenomena are empty of self—they’re not you, they’re not yours. But here again, don’t be in too great a hurry to see everything as empty. For the sake of the practice, we hold on to some things—such as our actions and intentions—as ours, and we try to use what control we do have over them to make them skillful. Apply the idea of “empty of self” only to habits and other actions that you can see are unskillful to do. As your standards for what counts as skillful grow more refined, you’ll be letting go on more refined levels until finally there’s nothing more to let go.