I : Head & Heart Together
The sublime attitudes (brahmavihāras) are the Buddha’s primary heart teachings—the ones that connect most directly with our desire for true happiness. They’re the qualities of heart that motivated the Buddha to find awakening and then to teach the path of awakening to others. At the same time, they function as part of the path itself. This means that the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings—its “head” aspect—has to be understood in terms of these heart qualities. At the same time, though, these heart qualities have to be understood in terms of the “head” teachings on how cause and effect, in our actions, can bring about genuine happiness. Only when head and heart are brought together in this way can the path yield its full results.
The term brahmavihāra literally means, “dwelling place (vihāra) of brahmās.” Brahmās are beings who live in the higher heavens, dwelling in an attitude of unlimited goodwill, unlimited compassion, unlimited empathetic joy, and unlimited equanimity. These attitudes are unlimited both in the sense that they extend to all beings, and in the sense that they can be applied to all situations where they are appropriate. For example, you can extend empathetic joy to all who are happy, regardless of whether you like them. Similarly, you can feel compassion for all who are suffering, regardless of what they did to bring on that suffering. These unlimited attitudes can be developed—and for the path to thrive, they have to be developed—from the more limited versions of these emotions that we normally experience in the human heart.
Of these four attitudes, goodwill (mettā) is the most fundamental. It’s a wish for true happiness, both for yourself and for others. Because the highest level of true happiness comes from within, your true happiness need not conflict with that of anyone else. Thus goodwill can be extended to all beings without contradiction or hypocrisy.
The next two attitudes are essentially applications of goodwill. Compassion (karuṇā) is what grows out of goodwill when you see suffering: You want the suffering to stop. Empathetic joy (muditā) is what grows out of goodwill when you see happiness: You want that happiness to continue.
Equanimity (upekkhā) is a different attitude, in that it acts as an aid to and a check on the other three. When you encounter suffering that you can’t stop no matter how hard you try, you need equanimity to avoid creating additional suffering and to channel your energies to areas where you can be of help. You also need equanimity to strengthen your endurance when meeting with difficulties or needing to make sacrifices in the course of striving for greater happiness. In this way, equanimity isn’t cold-hearted or indifferent. It simply makes your goodwill more focused and effective by opening your heart to the lessons of your head.
Which means, of course, that your head has to be giving the right lessons. This is where it’s important to understand the brahmavihāras within the context of Buddhist practice, in particular the Buddha’s teachings on what happiness is and how it can best be attained. And yet this is an aspect of brahmavihāra practice that is often lacking in the West, creating many misunderstandings about what the various brahmavihāras mean, how they are practiced, and the effect they are supposed to have.
The purpose of this study guide is to clear up some of these misunderstandings, first by looking at the place of the brahmavihāras in the context of the noble eightfold path—the teaching that provides the overall context for all Buddhist practice—and in particular the path factor of right view, both on the mundane and transcendent levels. Then, having established this context, it discusses seven common misunderstandings about brahmavihāra practice, showing both how these misunderstandings can create obstacles to effective Buddhist practice and how they can be corrected with reference to right view. This is then followed by a set of readings that provide further correctives to the misunderstandings, at the same time illuminating additional points so that brahmavihāra practice can be truly effective in leading to a happiness that’s lasting and true.
II : In the Context of Right View
In the Buddha’s eightfold path to awakening, the brahmavihāras can act as part of two of the eight factors: the second factor, right resolve; and the eighth, right concentration (§6.2). Right resolve is defined as the resolve for renouncing sensuality, the resolve for non-ill will, and the resolve for non-cruelty. The resolve to act on goodwill is equivalent to the second of these resolves; the resolve to act on compassion, to the third. As part of right resolve, goodwill and compassion provide the motivation to act on the insights of right view—which is the first factor—into the nature of action and its power to bring about the end of suffering. In other words, goodwill and compassion take these insights and resolve to use them to direct your thoughts, words, and deeds to bring about the end of suffering and to attain true happiness.
As part of right concentration, all four brahmavihāras can function as objects of jhāna, the strong levels of concentration that strengthen the mind’s ability to make the sublime attitudes truly unlimited. The concentration based on these attitudes can also provide the mind with the steadiness and inner strength it needs for discernment to break through to total release.
Because the brahmavihāras function both toward the beginning and again toward the end of the path, they have an interactive relationship with all the other path factors. On the one hand, they provide the motivation to practice right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness both for one’s own good and for the good of others. On the other hand, the development of concentration based on the brahmavihāras requires, as a prerequisite, that you work on making your thoughts, words, and deeds harmless, for otherwise your concentration will be undermined by hypocrisy.
Actually, all the factors of the path have an interactive relationship, interpenetrating and strengthening one another along the way. This means that the brahmavihāras, as elements in right resolve and right concentration, also strengthen right view, the first factor of the path, just as right view gives them guidance.
To begin with, right view is not simply a collection of facts about the world. Instead, it focuses attention on a single problem, which is an issue of goodwill and compassion: how to understand causality in a way that helps put an end to suffering. In this way, the brahmavihāras provide direction for the use of discernment on the path.
At the same time, the brahmavihāras in the context of the path take their guidance from right view so that they don’t flounder around in wishful thinking or ineffectual resolves. Instead, grounded in a clear understanding of cause and effect, they are focused on the most effective ways of achieving their aspirations.
This guidance is provided by right view both on its mundane and on its transcendent levels.
The mundane level of right view teaches the principle of kamma: that we experience happiness and sorrow due to a combination of our past and present intentions. If we act with unskillful intentions—based on ill will, cruelty, resentment, or passion, either for ourselves or for others—we’re going to suffer. If we act with skillful intentions, we’ll experience happiness.
The fact that happiness and sorrow are dependent on present, and not just past, intentions is what allows the brahmavihāras to be effective in the first place. If everything depended on our past actions, we—and all other beings—would simply be passive victims or beneficiaries of forces over which we had no present control. But because our present intentions play a crucial role in determining whether we are to experience mental pleasure or pain now and into the future, the attitudes that influence our present intentions in a skillful direction can have a real effect in leading to happiness. The extent to which we can encourage others to develop similar attitudes will have a real effect on their happiness as well. Even when people have done unskillful things in the past, the quality of present skillful intentions and attitudes can mitigate those effects dramatically.
In this way, the teaching on kamma not only explains why the brahmavihāras can be effective means to happiness but also provides the reasons that motivate us to develop these attitudes: We need to strengthen them so that we can make our intentions more trustworthy.
At the same time, the teaching on kamma shows what it means to aim at genuine happiness. Because happiness has a cause—skillful action—your wish for happiness has to focus on the cause. Otherwise it will have no effect. This lesson applies to the sublime attitudes both when directed to yourself and when directed to others. Goodwill for yourself means being determined to act skillfully; goodwill for others means hoping that they will understand the causes for true happiness and act in line with that understanding. Compassion means compassion not only for people who are suffering, but also for people who are acting in ways that will create more suffering. Empathetic joy applies not only to people who are happy but also to people who are acting in ways that will lead to true happiness. Equanimity applies not only to sufferings that are beyond one’s control but also to actions that one cannot prevent.
All of this means that if you really want other people to be happy, you don’t just treat them nicely. You also want them to learn how to create the causes for happiness. The best way to do this is to show them through the example of your own behavior. If possible, you can also encourage them to follow your example. At the very least, you don’t thwart their attempts to act skillfully. This is how the brahmavihāras function in the context of mundane right view.
The transcendent level of right view takes the teaching on kamma and applies it to the mental processes that cause suffering—and that can be redirected to alleviate suffering—within the mind. The technical term for the kamma of mental processes is saṅkhāra, or fabrication—not fabrication in the sense of lying, but fabrication in the sense of intentionally putting things together. All experience at the senses—the five physical senses and the mind taken as a sixth sense—follows the general principle of kamma in that it is fabricated through past and present intentions. Past intentions provide the raw material for present experience. From this raw material, your present intentions—sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously—select and shape what you actually experience in the present. These present intentions also add to the range of raw material from which you will select and shape experiences in the future. The selecting and shaping is what is meant by fabrication.
There are three types of fabrication: bodily, verbal, and mental (§6.3). Bodily fabrication is the in-and-out breath, because the way you breathe is the most fundamental physical process determining how you experience your body. It’s also the form of fabrication that brings thoughts “into the body”—as when anger changes the way you breathe—turning them from mere thoughts into emotions with a bodily component. Verbal fabrication consists of directed thought and evaluation, the two mental processes that shape how you frame sentences in talking to yourself. Directed thought focuses on a topic; evaluation asks questions and comments on it. Mental fabrication consists of feelings—of pleasure, pain, and neither pleasure nor pain—and perceptions, the words and images that underlie your thought processes. Feelings and perceptions are the most basic factors in shaping your mental states.
These three types of fabrication interact with one another. The way you breathe affects your feelings and thoughts; pleasant and unpleasant feelings affect your breath; your perception of the breath affects the way you breathe as well as providing the underlying images and words that directed thought and evaluation use in composing sentences in the mind.
If these fabrications act under the influence of ignorance—i.e., ignorance of what suffering is, what fabrications cause it, what its cessation is, and what fabrications lead to its cessation—then they lead to suffering. However, if this ignorance can be replaced with knowledge, and that knowledge can inform the processes of fabrication, those fabrications can then form the path to the goal of the cessation of suffering, which is something unfabricated—or beyond conditions (§6.1).
This is why the Buddha’s most basic form of meditation—mindfulness of in-and-out breathing—focuses on perceiving the present experience of body and mind in terms of these three fabrications, and seeing the effect these fabrications have in causing pleasure or pain (§6.4). In doing so, it brings clear knowledge to these fabrications, making them part of the path. The Buddha’s directions for how to meditate on the breath come in the form of verbal fabrications. The steps of breath meditation focus on developing sensitivity to bodily and mental fabrication as they occur; and they don’t stop with simple sensitivity. They also encourage the meditator to master cause and effect around these fabrications so as to bring them to calm. For example, you can learn how to calm the mind by breathing in a soothing way, and to calm the breath by holding in mind a perception that allows for a smooth flow of energy throughout the body. In this way the Buddha’s instructions for breath meditation show how to fabricate the present experience of body and mind in a way that fosters the tranquility and insight that bring the path to completion.
The mastery of fabrication gained through this practice can then be applied to all emotions and mental states so as to deconstruct unskillful ones and replace them with more skillful ones. The opposites of the brahmavihāras—ill will, cruelty, resentment, and passion (§5.12) —are a case in point. The knowledge and sensitivity you’ve gained with regard to fabrication enables you to analyze these emotions in terms of their component parts, encouraging you to see how the way you breathe, speak to yourself, and hold onto feelings and perceptions sustains these emotions in a way that causes unnecessary suffering and stress. The mastery you’ve gained in calming fabrications allows you to change these component factors so that you can develop the brahmavihāras in their place.
The Buddha’s discourses aid in this direction by providing alternative ways of thinking, evaluating, and perceiving that encourage you in this practice and provide you with strategies to carry it through. In other words, with their vivid images and similes they provide models of verbal and mental fabrications that help you see the drawbacks, say, of ill will; encourage you to perceive the brahmavihāras as more skillful responses to the situation that has sparked ill will; and show how to reframe your understanding of the situation that sparked ill will, so that you can genuinely develop goodwill in its place.
For instance, when you pass judgment on another person’s behavior, the underlying perception in your mind may be that you are sitting on a judge’s bench, the other person stands accused beneath you, and you are unaffected by whatever suffering you would like to see that person undergo. In a case like this, you might feel it beneath you to look for that person’s good qualities as a way of encouraging goodwill or compassion for the person instead. AN 5:162 (§6.7), however, provides an alternative perception of the situation: You need to appreciate that person’s good qualities in the same way that a person trembling with thirst needs water. Otherwise, your own goodness will die. In fact, your need for this water is so great that you should be willing to endure the “indignity” of looking for that person’s good qualities, in the same way that a desperately thirsty person would be willing to get down on all fours to slurp up the puddle of water in a cow’s footprint.
Similarly, MN 21 (§6.9) provides a series of similes that encourage you to perceive goodwill as vast and impregnable, and to perceive as pitiful and weak the insults that otherwise might tempt you to abandon your goodwill. Goodwill, it says, is like space, like the river Ganges, like the great earth. The insults you meet with are like a person who wants to draw pictures in space, burn up the Ganges with a torch, or get rid of the earth by digging, spitting, and urinating here and there on the ground. Simply holding this mental fabrication in mind can help you endure many slights that you otherwise would find hard to handle in a skillful way. In fact, the same passage states that even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, you should still have goodwill for them. When you keep this perception in mind, the slights and insults of ordinary human life become easier to bear.
In addition to providing useful examples of mental fabrication for discouraging ill will and developing goodwill, the discourses provide examples of useful verbal fabrications as well. When you encounter abusive or thoughtless speech, MN 21 encourages you to check any ill will that might arise in response by reminding yourself that speech of this sort is a normal part of human experience. People all over the world are subjected to harsh, false, and untimely speech every day, so there’s no need to feel that you’ve been singled out for particularly outrageous treatment. Other passages provide examples of phrases to keep in mind when trying to develop positive feelings of goodwill, such as this example from AN 10:176 (§1.3): “May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease!” Or this from Khp 9 (§1.2): “Happy, at rest, may all beings be happy at heart. Whatever beings there may be—weak or strong, without exception, long, large, middling, short, subtle, blatant, seen & unseen, near & far, born & seeking birth: May all beings be happy at heart. Let no one deceive another or despise anyone anywhere, or through anger or irritation wish for another to suffer.”
The discourses also provide useful examples of mental and verbal fabrication for developing equanimity. SN 15:3 (§6.13) encourages you, when faced with loss, to hold in mind the perception that the tears you have already shed over the loss of loved ones through the many eons of wandering on is greater than the water in the oceans. AN 5:49 (§6.12) encourages a verbal fabrication: “It doesn’t happen only to me that what is subject to destruction will be destroyed. To the extent that there are beings—past & future, passing away & re-arising—it happens to all of them that what is subject to destruction will be destroyed. And if, with the destruction of what is subject to destruction, I were to sorrow, grieve, lament, beat my breast, & become distraught, food would not agree with me, my body would become unattractive, my affairs would go untended, my enemies would be gratified and my friends unhappy.” Paradoxically, reflection on the universality of suffering helps to lessen the sting of your own personal loss: You’re not being singled out for unfair treatment, for loss and suffering are common throughout the cosmos.
MN 28 (§6.10) encourages a long verbal fabrication for developing equanimity in the face of unpleasant words and physical attacks, beginning with the reflection that all these unpleasant sensations develop through physical contact. You wouldn’t be feeling the pain of unpleasant words if a sound hadn’t made contact at your ears. You wouldn’t be feeling a physical attack if you didn’t have a body that something could strike. If, by reflecting in this way, you can leave the event just at the contact—without adding the complaining commentary that the mind usually adds to such events—it helps to depersonalize the situation, and you free the mind from a huge load of unnecessary suffering and stress.
When you have gained skill in using these forms of fabrication in daily life, you can use them to develop the brahmavihāras beyond the level of right resolve to the various jhānas, or levels of right concentration. This is because the levels of concentration begin with the three types of fabrication and then, when mastering those fabrications, bring them to stillness and calm.
The discourses provide only very sketchy instructions for how to develop the brahmavihāras to this level, perhaps because the verbal fabrications used in developing these themes into right concentration are the same as those for developing the brahmavihāras in daily life. However, the discourses do provide a vivid perception—a mental fabrication—for indicating the type of mind state that this practice should foster: “That disciple of the noble ones—thus devoid of covetousness, devoid of ill will, unbewildered, alert, mindful—keeps pervading the first direction [the east] with an awareness imbued with goodwill… compassion… empathetic joy… equanimity, likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth. Thus above, below, & all around, everywhere, in its entirety, he keeps pervading the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with equanimity—abundant, expansive, limitless, without hostility, without ill will—just as a strong conch-trumpet blower can notify the four directions without any difficulty.”
As with all the objects of right concentration, you can be quite conscious at the beginning of just how fabricated the concentration based on the brahmavihāras can be. However, as the practice progresses and these states become easier to access, this fact often fades into the background. This does not mean, though, that they become unfabricated; simply that the mind offers less resistance to the processes of skillful fabrication. Nevertheless, meditators can easily miss this point, and the discourses provide cautionary tales of people who, thinking that their practice has reached an unconditioned level, practice no further.
In fact, the levels of concentration developed through the brahmavihāras are not only conditioned—and thus subject to falling away—they also provide a focus for self-identification as you hold to those levels as you or yours (§7.4). This self-identification is a form of clinging that brings suffering. Thus the brahmavihāras, on their own, can’t take you to the end of the path.
The next step is to use your head—your discernment—to focus on the fabricated nature of even the refined pleasure and calm provided by the brahmavihāras (§§7.9–7.10). Your purpose here is to help the heart develop dispassion for all fabricated phenomena. Because passion is what drives the processes of fabrication, once dispassion is absolute, all fabrications cease and the mind “unbinds,” gaining total release from suffering and reaching the highest possible happiness: the goal toward which the brahmavihāras ultimately aim (§§7.11–7.14).
After the experience of the deathless, the mind returns to the experience of the world of the senses, but now with a sense of being detached from the pleasures and pains they display. This is because the mind’s own internal sense of wellbeing and freedom is so absolute that it feels no need to feed on the input of the senses ever again.
When you’ve reached this level—full awakening—your own task in searching for happiness is done. Head and heart have completed the work they need to do together for your own sake. However, having perfected the path, you can provide an inspiring example and accurate advice to others in their search for happiness. In this way, the act of attaining your own true benefit helps others attain theirs as well. The fully awakened person is thus the one who most effectively embodies the brahmavihāras in thought, word, and deed.
This is how the brahmavihāras relate to the Buddhist path.
III : seven misunderstandings
When understood in context, the brahmavihāras are effective tools on the path to awakening. But unfortunately, now that the brahmavihāras have come to the West, they have often been taken out of context, giving rise to confusion about their nature and role. This may be because they deal with emotions that are common human property, so people feel that they intuitively understand them without needing to have their Buddhist context explained. Or it may be because the West has such a long tradition concerning the religious role of selfless love. Seeing that goodwill resembles selfless love, many people have assumed that the Buddha’s teachings on this topic fit neatly in with what they have learned from Western religions.
Whatever their cause, these assumptions have given rise to some misunderstandings around brahmavihāra practice that are serious enough to get in the way of awakening. Most prominent among this sort of misunderstanding are these:
1) Mettā, the first brahmavihāra, means love or lovingkindness.
2) The practice of the brahmavihāras is a form of prayer.
3) Mettā is best expressed by acts of uncritical tenderness.
4) The brahmavihāras are part of the innate nature of the human heart.
5) Other people deserve our mettā, either because of their own innate goodness or because we are all one.
6) The brahmavihāras are purely heart qualities, needing no input from the analytical mind.
7) The brahmavihāras are, in themselves, a complete path to awakening.
Many of these misunderstandings arise from not viewing the brahmavihāras in the context of the Buddha’s teachings on kamma and fabrication. Because they are so widely entrenched, it’s worthwhile going into detail as to why they are actually detrimental on the path, and how a proper understanding of kamma and fabrication can help avoid that detriment. Delineating clearly what the brahmavihāras are not helps to clarify what they are.
What follows is a discussion, one by one, of exactly how these misunderstandings deviate from the Buddha’s original teachings on the brahmavihāras, and how they can be corrected by examining what those teachings actually have to say about the issues that these misunderstandings raise.
This discussion is supplemented by the reading passages given in the second part of the book. These passages—drawn from the Pali Canon, the earliest extant record of the Buddha’s teachings—have also been arranged in seven sections, corresponding to the seven sections in the discussion, so that you can easily find the material on which the discussion is based and explore it further.
The purpose of this presentation is to clear away any obstacles that might block the use for which the brahmavihāras were intended: as part of a path to the happiness of total release.
Misunderstanding # 1: Mettā means love or lovingkindness.
The Pali word for love is not mettā. It’s pema. As the Buddha points out, pema is partial by nature. When you love people, you tend to love anyone who treats them well, and to hate anyone who mistreats them. And there are cases where you love anyone who mistreats the people you hate (§1.1). For this reason, love is not a good basis for an attitude that is universally skillful toward all.
Because mettā is essentially an impartial wish for happiness, it’s best translated as goodwill. When goodwill is developed in line with right view, it understands that beings will be happy only from understanding and acting on the causes of genuine happiness, rather than from winning special favor with you. In this way, when you extend thoughts of mettā to others, you’re not offering to make them happy, as you might in a loving relationship. Instead, you’re expressing the wish that they take responsibility for their happiness themselves. If there’s anything you can do to help them in this direction, you’re happy to provide help; but you realize that—because they need to be willing to work for genuine happiness—you can only do so much. In this way, goodwill won’t conflict with equanimity when you’ve reached the point beyond your ability to help.
This understanding of mettā is borne out in the passages where the Buddha recommends phrases to hold in mind when developing thoughts of mettā. These phrases provide his clearest guide not only to the emotional quality that underlies mettā, but also to the understanding of happiness that explains why it’s wise and realistic to develop mettā for all.
The first set of phrases comes in a passage (§1.3) where the Buddha recommends thoughts to counter ill will. These phrases conclude with the wish that all beings “look after themselves with ease.” In other words, you’re not saying that you’re going to be there for all beings all the time. And most beings would be happier knowing that they could depend on themselves rather than having to depend on you. If you really wish others well, it’s best to wish them the happiness of independence and self-reliance.
Another set of mettā phrases, in the famous Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta (§1.2), includes a wish that all beings avoid the causes that would lead them to unhappiness:
Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or resistance
wish for another to suffer.
In repeating these phrases, you remember that people will find true happiness only if they understand the causes for happiness and act on them. They also have to understand that true happiness is harmless. If it depends on something that harms others, it’s not going to last (§5.4). So again, when you express goodwill, you’re not saying that you’re going to be there for others all the time. Instead, you’re hoping that all beings will wise up enough to be there for themselves.
The same discourse (§1.2) goes on to say that when you’re developing this attitude, you should protect it with all your vigilance and strength.
As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.
This passage has to be read carefully and in context. It’s sometimes understood as saying that we should be willing to sacrifice our lives to protect all others, in the same way that a mother would sacrifice her life for the sake of her child. Putting aside the fact that such a requirement is simply impossible to carry out, there is nowhere in the Canon where the Buddha states this as a moral responsibility. You can’t stop all those who want to mistreat their fellow beings. The best you can do to protect others is to adhere in all cases to the precepts against doing harm, so at the very least they will suffer no harm from you.
There are passages, however, where the Buddha says that you should protect your goodwill with your life, even when others are intent on killing you in a savage way:
“Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of goodwill, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with goodwill and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with goodwill—abundant, expansive, limitless, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.” (§6.9)
So in the Buddha’s image of the mother protecting the child, the child represents your goodwill—something you need to protect devotedly to make sure that your virtuous intentions don’t waver, even in the most difficult situations. Harm can happen most easily when there’s a lapse in your goodwill, so you do whatever you can to foster this attitude at all times. This is why, as the Buddha says toward the end of the Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta, you should stay determined to practice this form of mindfulness: the mindfulness of keeping in mind your wish that all beings be happy, to make sure that it always informs the motivation for everything you do.
Finally, there’s a passage (§1.4) where the Buddha teaches the monks a chant for spreading goodwill to all snakes and other creeping things they encounter in the wilds. Strikingly, the chant concludes with the sentence, “May the beings depart.” This wisely takes into consideration the truth that living together is often difficult—especially for beings of different species that can harm one another—and the happiest policy for all concerned is often to live harmlessly apart.
These different ways of expressing mettā show that mettā does not equal lovingkindness. Mettā is better thought of as goodwill, for two principal reasons. The first is that goodwill is an attitude you can express for everyone without fear of being hypocritical or unrealistic. It recognizes that people will become truly happy not as a result of your caring for them but as a result of their own skillful actions, and that the happiness of self-reliance is greater than any happiness coming from dependency.
The second reason is that goodwill is a more skillful feeling to have toward those who would react unskillfully to your lovingkindness. There are people who, when seeing that you want to express lovingkindness, would be quick to take advantage of it. There are also people you’ve harmed in the past who would rather not have anything to do with you ever again, so the intimacy of lovingkindness would actually be a source of pain for them, rather than joy. And there are plenty of animals out there who would feel threatened by any overt expressions of love from a human being. In these cases, a more distant sense of goodwill—that you promise yourself never to harm those people or those beings, and that you wish them well—would be better for everyone involved.
This doesn’t mean that lovingkindness is never an appropriate expression of goodwill. You simply have to know when it’s appropriate and when it’s not. If you truly feel mettā for yourself and others, you can’t let your desire for warm feelings of love and intimacy blind you to what would actually be the most skillful way to promote true happiness for all.
Misunderstanding # 2: The practice of the brahmavihāras is a form of prayer.
As the Buddha points out, if people could find happiness simply through the power of prayer, no one in the world would be short-lived, ugly, unhappy, or poor. Happiness has to come from taking actions that function as the causes of happiness (§2.1). To perform these actions, you need to set your resolve on them, because they take effort. And because the thoughts on which you resolve bend your mind in their direction, you have to train your resolves so that they lead consistently in a skillful direction (§2.5). This is why the brahmavihāras are a practice, something you work on again and again. You try to make them unlimited so that even in difficult circumstances you will keep in mind the need to act in ways that cause harm to no one—neither yourself nor others.
For these reasons, the practice of the brahmavihāras is a matter, not of prayer, but of resolve.
Misunderstanding # 3: Mettā is best expressed by acts of uncritical tenderness.
The word mettā is closely allied with the word mitta, or friend. It’s the quality of heart that one genuine friend offers to another. There are many kinds of friendship—true and false, skillful and unskillful—and it’s obvious that the quality of mettā the Buddha recommends is that of a friendship skillful and true.
The Pali Canon recognizes two types of worthwhile friends. The first is the loyal friend: One who is generous and steadfast, working for your benefit even when times are difficult, encouraging you when you’re right, correcting you when you’re wrong, and willing even to sacrifice his or her life for your sake (§§3.1–3.2). The second type of friend is the admirable friend: one whose behavior is exemplary in terms of conviction, virtue, generosity, discernment, and—if possible—in the noble attainments; and who encourages you to emulate his or her good qualities in yourself (§§3.3; 3.6–3.7).
As the Buddha says, the loyal friend is to be treasured; the admirable friend is to be emulated. The loyal friend is obviously one who feels love (pema) for you, and so is partial toward you. For this reason, this sort of friend, even though worth treasuring, is not the best model for developing universal goodwill, because partiality stands in the way of a mind state that’s truly universal. Still, it’s worth noting that even the loyal friend doesn’t adopt an uncritical attitude toward your behavior, and doesn’t encourage you to engage in activities— such as killing, stealing, illicit sex, lying, and taking intoxicants—that would go against the precepts of moral virtue. Because this sort of friend desires your true wellbeing, he or she can be critical and stern to prevent any moral lapses on your part.
The same is true of the admirable friend, who is the ideal model for the development of universal goodwill. This sort of friend is even more scrupulous in wanting you to avoid evil actions and to develop the best and highest qualities of the heart and mind. This is the sort of friend you try to be to the whole world when you develop thoughts of unlimited goodwill.
What this means in embodying the brahmavihāras is that not all acts of tenderness are in line with genuine goodwill; not all critical thoughts or words are harmful.
The Canon makes this point in many ways. To begin with, it states very clearly that a spiritual teacher should not engage in physical intimacy with a student. This is an area where a great deal of damage has been done—in schools, churches, and spiritual communities—over the centuries. However, the Vinaya—the section of the Canon containing the rules by which the monks should live—prohibits this form of behavior in no uncertain terms. A monk who has sexual intercourse with anyone at all is immediately expelled. If a monk even suggests that someone would benefit from having sex with an advanced spiritual practitioner—such as himself—he has to undergo a severe penance.
From the Buddha’s point of view, acts of goodwill and compassion must fall within the bounds of the precepts if they are to be genuinely friendly—and he offers no room for the idea that goodwill or compassion can ever be used as excuses for breaking the precepts. In fact, it’s only through adhering strictly to the precepts that you are forced to confront subtle unskillful attitudes within yourself that you otherwise might not have noticed or whose long-term harm you might not have seen.
There may be short-term benefits that come from breaking the precepts, but they are outweighed by the long-term harm they cause. If you break a precept, you harm yourself in creating bad kamma; you harm others in the impact of your actions on them and in setting them a bad example. And it’s important to understand what the Buddha counts as harm. It may be necessary to sacrifice your comforts—and sometimes your health and even your life—for things you hold in higher esteem, but that doesn’t count as doing yourself harm. True harm is when you abandon the principles of right speech, right action, and right livelihood on the path (§3.5).
Because an understanding of “right” and “wrong” requires critical judgment, the Buddha indicates that there is a place for critical thoughts and words in an attitude of genuine friendship because genuine friendship includes wanting what is right for your friend. Hurting your friend’s feelings when aiming at his or her welfare does not count as harm. The image the Buddha gives is of a child who has placed a sharp object in its mouth. You have to get the object out, even if it means drawing blood, for if you let the child swallow the object, it will cause itself even greater harm. In the same way, the Buddha would speak harsh words when and where he saw that they needed to be harsh to have a beneficial effect (§3.4).
His general principle on right speech is that he would speak words that are true and beneficial—note that he does not entertain the idea that false words could be beneficial—knowing when to state those words in pleasing ways, and when to state them in unpleasant ways. In other words, there are cases where pleasant words are not wise expressions of goodwill or sympathy. In all cases, his motive is compassionate: the welfare of those who are listening. And as he notes in his discussions of worthwhile friends, this is a quality not only of an admirable friend, but also of a loyal one. It’s an expression both of love and of goodwill.
All of this means that mettā is best expressed in your own external behavior by words and deeds that set an upright example to others, and by encouraging others—harshly or gently, as the case may require—to be upright in their behavior as well.
Misunderstanding # 4: The brahmavihāras are part of the innate nature of the human heart.
The Buddha never attributed an innate nature of any kind to the heart—good or bad. In fact, in AN 4:199, he identified the thoughts “I am good” and “I am bad” among the “craving-verbalizations” that ensnare the mind. If you assume that the heart is basically bad, you won’t feel capable of following the path, and will tend to look for outside help to do the work for you. If you assume that the heart is basically good, you’ll feel capable but will easily get complacent. You won’t exert the scrupulous effort needed to develop the brahmavihāras at all times.
So even though the Buddha’s primary focus was on the citta—which can be translated as both heart and mind—he nowhere defined what the citta is. As he said in SN 22:36, if you define yourself, you limit yourself. So instead he focused his assumptions on what the mind can do.
To begin with, the mind can change quickly. Normally a master of the apt simile, even the Buddha had to admit that he could find no adequate analogy for how quickly the mind can change (§4.1). We might say that it can change in the flash of an eye, but it’s actually faster than that.
And it’s capable of all sorts of things. Neither inherently good nor inherently bad, it can do a huge variety of good and bad actions. In the Buddha’s words, the mind is more variegated than the animal kingdom. Think of the many species of fish in the sea, birds in the sky, animals on the land and under the ground, whether extant or extinct: All of these species are products of minds—the acts of mind that caused those beings to be born in those bodies—and the mind can take on a wider variety of forms than even that (§4.2).
This variety comes from the many different choices the mind makes under the influence of ignorance and defilement. But the mind doesn’t always have to be defiled. Past kamma is not entirely deterministic. Even though past kamma shapes the range of options open to the mind in the present, it doesn’t have to determine present kamma—the intentions by which the mind chooses to fabricate actual experiences from among those options. Thus present kamma can choose to continue creating the conditions for more ignorance, or not, because present choices are what keep ignorance alive. Although no one—not even a Buddha—can trace back to when the defilement of ignorance first began, the continued existence of ignorance depends on conditions continually provided by unskillful kamma. If these conditions are removed, ignorance will disband (§4.3).
This is why the Buddha said that the mind is luminous, stained with defilements that come and go (§4.4). Taken out of context, this statement might be misconstrued as implying that the mind is inherently good, kind, or awakened. But in context the Buddha is simply saying that the mind, once stained, is not permanently stained. When the conditions for the stains are gone, the mind becomes luminous again. But this luminosity is not an awakened nature. As the Buddha states, this luminous mind can be developed. In the scheme of the four noble truths, if something is to be developed it’s not the goal; it’s part of the path to the goal. After this luminosity has been developed in the advanced stages of concentration, it can be used to help pierce through ignorance, and then—as with all the factors of the path—it is put aside so as to allow the goal to be fully experienced.
What this means is that the brahmavihāras are not innate in the heart or mind, but then neither are their opposites. The heart is capable of either, and which attitudes you fabricate is a matter of choice. This is why the Buddha spent so much time explaining how and why the brahmavihāras should be fabricated and developed to an unlimited level. If these attitudes were innate to the heart, there would be no need for a “how” or a “why.” The brahmavihāras would simply be there, and he would have told you to let them unfold on their own. But because the heart can just as simply go in the other direction, the Buddha did the responsible thing in warning of the dangers of the untrained heart, and did such a thorough job of displaying the benefits of—and explaining the means for—getting it trained.
In fact, it’s just as well that the brahmavihāras are not innate to the heart, for if they were, they would get in the way of total release. You’d need to stay in a universe where there would be objects for your goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. You would never reach the freedom of a dimension where awareness has no need for objects at all.
Misunderstanding # 5: Other people deserve our mettā, either because of their own innate goodness or because we are all one.
This is a misunderstanding on two levels.
The first level concerns other people: Just as we are not innately good, neither are they. Their hearts are as vastly variable as ours.
And the Buddha never said that we are all one. When asked if the cosmos is a oneness or a multiplicity, he declined to answer, as the question was irrelevant to the practice for ending suffering (§5.1). He taught the interdependence of events, not as a celebration of oneness or interconnectedness, but as a way of showing that all interdependent events are unstable and destined to pass away. On their own, they don’t provide a reliable happiness. The appropriate way to respond to this insight is to use interdependent events skillfully, with knowledge, to reach a dimension totally free from dependency of any kind.
As for the oneness that can be experienced in meditation, the Buddha saw that it was a fabricated state, and so wasn’t the ultimate attainment (§5.2). As with all states of concentration, he saw the danger in giving a metaphysical meaning to the experience—as a ground of being or ultimate reality—and instead advised the meditator to see how the state was fabricated so as to develop dispassion for it and to achieve freedom from its limitations.
So the Buddha never stated that all beings are good, or that we are all one. These ideas have nothing to do with his motivation for teaching the brahmavihāras or ours for developing them.
This leads to the second level of misunderstanding here. The fact is, we don’t develop the brahmavihāras toward others because they deserve it. If we did, the unskillful parts of the mind could easily find proof that beings don’t deserve our goodwill or compassion at all. The truth is, though, that we develop the brahmavihāras because we need these attitudes for the sake of our own happiness and protection.
This realization grows from a quality the Buddha called heedfulness (appamāda), and that he identified as the source of all good and skillful qualities in the mind (§5.3). In other words, we act skillfully toward others not because we’re innately kind or because they deserve it. We do so because we realize that if we don’t, it will lead to our long-term suffering. The principle of kamma shows that, if we want to live peacefully and harmoniously in this life, we need to develop the brahmavihāras toward all. If we want to train our hearts to the point where we can depend on them not to create bad kamma in the present or on into the future, we need these attitudes to be universal in our hearts.
Heedfulness even helps to protect us from our past kamma: Because our present experience is shaped both by past and by present kamma, the attitudes we bring to the potentials we encounter from our past kamma can play a huge role in determining whether we will shape those potentials into pleasure or pain. If the mind is expansive and unlimited—a quality developed through the brahmavihāras—then the results of past bad actions will hardly be felt, in the same way that, if a river is filled with clean water, a lump of salt thrown into the river won’t make the water unfit to drink. However, if the mind is narrow and restricted, the results of past bad actions will be like a lump of salt thrown into a small cup of water: The water will be overwhelmed by the salt (§5.14).
So, through heedfulness, we develop the brahmavihāras primarily for our own protection. And through protecting ourselves, we protect others as well (§5.10).
Misunderstanding # 6: The brahmavihāras are purely heart qualities, needing no input from the analytical mind.
Although it is possible to develop warm feelings without much help from the head, the brahmavihāras are much more than warm feelings. As we’ve already noted, you have to practice them within the context of right view concerning kamma and fabrication if you want to make them a part of the path.
We’ve also noted the ways in which an awareness of the three types of fabrication can help (a) in dismantling any attitudes that get in the way of the brahmavihāras, (b) in fashioning the brahmavihāras in their place, and (c) in making the brahmavihāras universal. And we’ve noted some of the ways in which a knowledge of kamma helps to understand what it means to have goodwill for all—wishing that they act on the causes of true happiness—and that we express that goodwill best by being a good example in our own behavior.
But it’s worth paying attention to two further ways in which an understanding of kamma helps in developing the brahmavihāras. The first way deals with situations in which you might be tempted to treat people with equanimity when in fact a more appropriate response would be compassion or empathetic joy. The second way deals with the opposite problem: not being able to feel equanimity when in fact that is the appropriate attitude to develop. In other words, the analytical mind is useful for determining which brahmavihāra to develop at which place and time.
a) A proper understanding of kamma helps to correct the false idea that if people are suffering they deserve to suffer, so you might as well be equanimous and just leave them alone. When you catch yourself thinking in those terms, try to keep four principles in mind.
First, remember that when you look at people, you can’t see all the karmic seeds from their past actions. They may be experiencing the results of past bad actions, but you don’t know when those seeds will stop sprouting. Also, you have no idea what other seeds, what wonderful latent potentials, will sprout in their place.
There’s a saying in some Buddhist circles that if you want to see a person’s past actions, you look at his present condition; if you want to see his future condition, you look at his present actions. This principle, however, is based on a basic misperception: that we each have a single karmic account, and what we see in the present is the current running balance in each person’s account. Actually, no one’s karmic history is a single account. It’s composed of the many different seeds planted in many places through the many different actions we’ve done in the past, each seed maturing at its own rate. Some of these seeds have already sprouted and disappeared; some are sprouting now; some will sprout in the future. This means that a person’s present condition reflects only a small portion of his or her past actions. As for the other seeds, you can’t see them at all.
This reflection helps you when developing compassion, for it reminds you that you never know when the possibility to help somebody can have an effect. The seeds of the other person’s past bad actions may be flowering right now but they could die at any time. You may happen to be the person who’s there to help when that person is ready to receive help.
The same pattern applies to empathetic joy. Suppose that your neighbor is wealthier than you are. You may resist feeling empathetic joy for him because you think, “He’s already well-off, while I’m still struggling. Why should I wish him to be even happier than he is?” If you find yourself thinking in those terms, remind yourself that you don’t know what your karmic seeds are; you don’t know what his karmic seeds are. Maybe his good karmic seeds are about to die. Do you want them to die any faster? Does his happiness diminish yours? What kind of attitude is that?
The second principle to keep in mind is that, in the Buddha’s teaching, there’s no question of a person’s “deserving” happiness or “deserving” pain. The principle of kamma is an impersonal one: that there are actions leading to pleasure and actions leading to pain. In this way, it’s not a respecter of persons; it’s purely an issue of actions and results. Good people may have some bad actions squirreled away in their past. People who seem horrible now may have some wonderful actions in theirs. You never know. The Buddha didn’t create the principle of kamma, or say that it’s good or just. He simply pointed out the way actions produce results.
So there’s no question of a person’s deserving or not deserving pleasure or pain. There’s simply the principle that actions have results and that your present experience of pleasure or pain is the combined result of past and present actions. You may have some very unskillful actions in your past, but if you learn to think and act skillfully when those actions bear fruit in the present, you don’t have to suffer.
A third principle applies to the question of whether the person who’s suffering “deserves” your compassion. Because no human being has a totally pure karmic past, if you make a person’s purity the basis for extending your compassion, there will be no one to whom you can extend it.
Some people resist the idea that, for example, children born into a warzone, suffering from brutality and starvation, are there for a karmic reason. It seems heartless, they say, to attribute these sufferings to kamma from past lives. The only heartlessness here, though, is the insistence that people are worthy of compassion only if they are innocent of any wrongdoing. Actually, people who are doing wrong are just as deserving of our compassion as those who are being wronged. There’s no need to like or admire the people for whom you feel compassion. All you have to do is wish for them to be happy. Then you do what you can to alleviate the suffering that comes from past mistakes and to stop the mistaken behavior that causes suffering now and into the future. The more you can develop this attitude toward people you know have misbehaved or are misbehaving, the more you’ll be able to trust your intentions in any situation.
The fourth principle to remember concerns the kamma you’re creating right now in reaction to other people’s pleasure and pain. If you’re resentful of somebody else’s happiness, someday when you get happy there’s going to be somebody resentful of yours. So ask yourself: Would you want that? Or if you’re hard-hearted toward somebody who’s suffering right now, someday you may face the same sort of suffering. Would you want people to be hard-hearted toward you? Always remember that your reactions are a form of kamma, so be mindful to create the kind of kamma that gives the results you’d like to see.
b) The principle of kamma is also important to understand when you want to feel goodwill and compassion at times when equanimity would actually be more appropriate. No matter how unlimited the scope of your good wishes, their effect is going to run into limits. In the first place, there are limits to your own time and energy. In the second, there are bound to be people whose past actions are unskillful and who cannot or will not change their ways in the present. And there are times when your own past kamma gets in the way of your present desires for happiness. This is why you need equanimity as your reality check. When you encounter areas where you can’t be of help, you learn not to get upset. When you encounter areas where you can’t change your circumstances, or you meet up with obstacles in your path to awakening, you learn not to resent the fact. Think about the universality of the principle of kamma: It applies to you—and to everyone else regardless of whether you like them or not.
Accepting this fact puts you in a position where you can see more clearly what can be changed, where you can be of help. In other words, equanimity isn’t a blanket acceptance of things as they are. It’s a tool for helping you to develop discernment as to which kinds of suffering you have to accept and which ones you don’t. For example, someone in your family may be suffering from Alzheimer’s. If you get upset about the fact of the disease, you’re limiting your ability to be genuinely helpful. To be more effective, you have to use equanimity as a means of letting go of what you want to change and focusing more on what can be changed in the present.
Understanding this point can help you see equanimity as a positive thing, and you find it easier to develop it when you need to.
These are some of the ways in which the heart of the brahmavihāras benefits from the insights offered by the head of right view.
Misunderstanding # 7: The brahmavihāras are, in themselves, a complete path to awakening.
The brahmavihāras provide a peaceful abiding in the here and now, and—as the Buddha points out—after death can lead to rebirth in the Brahmā worlds. In terms of the path to awakening, however, they function directly—as we have noted—in only two of the eight factors of the path: right resolve and right concentration. To lead all the way to awakening, they need the assistance of all the factors of the path acting together.
To begin with, Khp 9 (§1.2) shows that the development of goodwill needs to be based on developing virtue in word, deed, and livelihood so as not to be hypocritical. This point applies to the other brahmavihāras as well.
Other discourses show why the concentration developed through the brahmavihāras needs to be supplemented by discernment to lead all the way to awakening.
AN 4:125 (§7.8), for example, states that each of the brahmavihāras, when practiced on its own, leads to rebirth in a particular Brahmā world, with goodwill leading to the lowest of the four—the Ābhassara, or Radiant Brahmās—and equanimity leading to the highest, the Vehapphala, or Sky-fruit Brahmās. DN 1 indicates that although these levels are not destroyed with the destruction of the rest of the universe at the end of each cosmic cycle, the beings who live there can still fall from those levels and experience rebirth on a lower plane elsewhere when a new universe evolves.
In fact, AN 4:125 states explicitly that a person who practices the brahmavihāras without having become a noble disciple—in other words, without having reached the first level of awakening—can, after having lived out the life span of a Brahmā in any of these four Brahmā worlds, be reborn in any of the lowest realms of the universe: in hell, as an animal, or as a hungry ghost. Thus the attainment of a Brahmā world is not equivalent to nibbāna, which constitutes total release from the universe as a whole.
Two other discourses show clearly that the difference between nibbāna and union with Brahmā is anything but an idle issue, for it touches on the long-term consequences of choices made at the moment of death. Both discourses state clearly that if a dying person has his mind set on any of the Brahmā worlds, he should be told the drawbacks of those worlds so that he can set his mind on the higher goal of release.
The first discourse (§7.6) makes this point in a fairly poignant manner. The brahman Dhanañjānin, a former student of Ven. Sāriputta, is dying and asks for Sāriputta to visit him. Dhanañjānin has been negligent as a meditator, and Sāriputta, on arrival, reflects, “These brahmans are set on the Brahmā world. What if I were to teach Dhanañjānin the brahman the path to union with the brahmas?” So he teaches him the way to union with the Brahmās, and Dhanañjānin, on dying, is actually reborn in a Brahmā world. However, when Sāriputta returns to the Buddha, the latter chides him for directing Dhanañjānin to an inferior goal at the moment of death when he could have directed him to a higher one.
The second discourse (§7.7) explains why the Brahmā worlds are an inferior attainment. In this discourse, the Buddha’s cousin, Mahānāma asks the Buddha for instructions on how to advise a wise person who is about to die. The Buddha replies that if the dying person is plagued by worries about his family, he should be reminded that his worries at this point cannot help his family, so he should let those worries go. If he is fixated on human sensual pleasures, he should be told that human sensual pleasures are no match for the pleasures of the sensual heavens, so he should focus his mind on those heavens instead. If he’s fixated on the pleasures of the sensual heavens, he should be told that even those are inferior to the pleasures of the Brahmā world, and he should instead focus his thoughts there.
If the dying person is fixated on the Brahmā world, he should be told that even the Brahmā world is “inconstant, impermanent, and included in self-identification.” In other worlds, the Brahmā worlds are unstable, and the beings reborn there still have a sense of identification with the five clinging-aggregates: form, feeling, perception, fabrications, and consciousness. Because this identification is a fetter dropped even at the first stage of awakening, the Brahmā worlds are inferior to that level of attainment. For this reason, the dying person should be told to focus on the cessation of identification. If he can do that as he dies, then even though he may be a layperson, his release is in no way inferior to the release of a monk whose mind is released.
The limitations of the Brahmā worlds are directly connected to the limitations of the brahmavihāras as a path. This connection is especially clear when we read the Buddha’s remarks to Mahānāma in conjunction with AN 4:178 (§7.4). This discourse points out that it’s possible to develop a state of concentration based on the brahmavihāras and yet still feel no interest in bringing an end to self-identification. This shows that the brahmavihāras on their own are not enough to arouse that interest. Something more is needed—such as the reflection on the inconstancy, stress, and not-selfness of that state of concentration—to arouse the interest needed to bring self-identification to an end.
Another discourse (§7.5) makes a similar point: that it’s possible to develop a strong state of equanimity in the higher levels of concentration and yet still cling to that equanimity. Only when there is the added determination not to fashion a sense of identification around the equanimity (§6.16) can that clinging be abandoned.
So it’s obvious that the unlimited attitudes of the brahmavihāras do have at least one limit: On their own, they cannot lead to awakening. As a practice, they can’t by themselves bring about dispassion for self-identification, and so they can lead only to an inferior goal in which self-identification is present as well.
But when the levels of concentration based on the brahmavihāras are analyzed in terms of the fabrications of which they are composed, the mind can develop dispassion around them (§§7.9–7.10). In this way, even though the brahmavihāras are not the whole path to awakening, they can play an important part.
To summarize, the correctives for the seven misunderstandings are these:
1) Mettā means goodwill.
2) The practice of the brahmavihāras is an act of resolve to act skillfully for the sake of genuine happiness.
3) Mettā is best expressed externally through your own virtue and by encouraging others to be virtuous as well.
4) Because the heart is neither innately good nor innately bad, the brahmavihāras must be intentionally developed.
5) We develop the brahmavihāras toward others, not because they deserve it, but primarily for the sake of our own welfare and protection.
6) The brahmavihāras require the help of the analytical mind—one that understands the processes of kamma and fabrication—so that they can be developed skillfully and in an appropriate way.
7) The brahmavihāras act as a motivation to follow the path to awakening, at the same time functioning directly as two factors in the eightfold path: right resolve and right concentration. However, all eight factors of the path need to be developed to arrive at the goal of total release.
When properly understood in these ways, the brahmavihāras can help lead to genuine wellbeing and happiness, both on the mundane level of the worlds of the senses, and on the transcendent level of nibbāna. For this reason, their practice is well worth the time and effort involved—for your own good and for the good of all.