The brahmavihāras (sublime attitudes, lit. "abodes of brahma") are a group of four virtues and the meditation practices made to cultivate them. They are also known as the four immeasurables (Sanskrit: apramāṇa, Pāli: appamaññā).
According to the Metta Sutta, Gautama Buddha held that cultivation of the four immeasurables has the power to cause the practitioner to be reborn into a "Brahmā realm" (Pāli: Brahmaloka). The meditator is instructed to radiate out to all beings in all directions the mental states of:
- 1) loving-kindness or benevolence
- 2) compassion
- 3) empathetic joy
- 4) equanimity
The four immeasurables are also found in the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali (1.33), a text composed long after the beginning of Buddhism and substantially influenced by Buddhism. These virtues are also highly regarded by Buddhists as powerful antidotes to negative mental states (non-virtues) such as avarice, anger and pride.
Etymology & translations
Apramāṇa, usually translated as "the immeasurables," means "boundlessness, infinitude, a state that is illimitable". When developed to a high degree in meditation, these attitudes are said to make the mind "immeasurable" and like the mind of the loving Brahmā (gods).
- English: four divine abodes, four divine emotions, four sublime attitudes.
- East Asia: (traditional Chinese: 四無量心; ; pinyin: Sì wúliàng xīn; Korean: 사무량심; Vietnamese: Tứ Vô Lượng Tâm; literally: "immeasurable states of mind, from apramāṇa-citta"), (traditional Chinese: 四等(心); ; pinyin: sì děng; literally: "four equalities/universals"), (traditional Chinese: 四梵行; ; pinyin: sì fàn xíng; literally: "noble Brahma-acts/characteristics").
- Tibetan: ཚད་མེད་བཞི, Wylie: tshad med bzhi or Tibetan: ཚངས་གནས་བཞི་, Wylie: tshangs gnas bzhi.
The four immeasurables are:
- Loving-kindness (Pāli: mettā, Sanskrit: maitrī) towards all: the hope that a person will be well; "the wish that all sentient beings, without any exception, be happy."
- Compassion (Pāli and Sanskrit: karuṇā): the hope that a person's sufferings will diminish; "the wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering."
- Empathetic joy (Pāli and Sanskrit: muditā): joy in the accomplishments of a person—oneself or another; sympathetic joy; "the wholesome attitude of rejoicing in the happiness and virtues of all sentient beings."
- Equanimity (Pāli: upekkhā, Sanskrit: upekṣā): learning to accept loss and gain, good-repute and ill-repute, praise and censure, sorrow and happiness (Attha Loka Dhamma), all with detachment, equally, for oneself and for others. Equanimity is "not to distinguish between friend, enemy or stranger, but regard every sentient being as equal. It is a clear-minded tranquil state of mind—not being overpowered by delusions, mental dullness or agitation."
Loving-kindness and compassion can both be viewed as hopes for the future leading, where possible, to action aimed at realizing those hopes. Joy and equanimity can be seen as attitudes useful for reflecting on what has already past and, through this reflection, present us with an opportunity to apply knowledge to our actions. Consequently while the four immeasurables might be delineated as attitudes to the future or past, they contain the seed of the "present" within their core; as they manifest new ways to act (a living embodied practice). In this context, a living bodied practice can be a dedicated intention that we are in the "here and now"; that is to say we experience both a tranquil awareness of at once a) our own and other being's gifts and accomplishments and b) tranquil awareness of moments where our own and other being's actions do not reflect the four immeasurables.
"All we experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind, made by mind. Speak or act with a corrupted mind
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.
All we experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind, made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind
And happiness follows like a shadow that never leaves." - Dhammapada 1-2
Central to Buddhist spiritual practice is a deep appreciation of the present moment and the possibilities that exist in the present for waking up and being free of suffering. The four immeasurables can represent a way of experiencing the past and the future in an enlightened manner, a manner that avoids suffering and encourages peace and happiness.
Brahmavihāra practice in the Visuddhimagga
The four immeasurables are explained in The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), written in the fifth century CE by the scholar and commentator Buddhaghoṣa. They are often practiced by taking each of the immeasurables in turn and applying it to oneself (something which is in fact not recommended by the Buddha in the Pali suttas), and then to others nearby, and so on to everybody in the world, and to everybody in all universes.
The four immeasurables in early Buddhism
In the Tevijja Sutta: The Threefold Knowledge of the Majjhima Nikaya set of scriptures, Buddha Shākyamuni is asked the way to fellowship/companionship/communion with Brahma. He replies that he personally knows the world of Brahma and the way to it, and explains the meditative method for reaching it by using an analogy of the resonance of the conch shell of the aṣṭamaṅgala:
A monk suffuses the world in the four directions with a mind of benevolence, then above, and below, and all around – the whole world from all sides, completely, with a benevolent, all-embracing, great, boundless, peaceful and friendly mind … Just as a powerful conch-blower makes himself heard with no great effort in all four [cardinal] directions, so too is there no limit to the unfolding of [this] heart-liberating benevolence. This is a way to communion with Brahma.
The Buddha then says that the monk must follow this up with an equal suffusion of the entire world with mental projections of compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (regarding all beings with an eye of equality).
In the two Metta Suttas of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, the Buddha states that those who practice radiating the four immeasurables in this life and die "without losing it" are destined for rebirth in a heavenly realm in their next life. In addition, if such a person is a Buddhist disciple (Pāli: sāvaka) and thus realizes the three characteristics of the five aggregates, then after his heavenly life, this disciple will reach nibbāna. Even if one is not a disciple, one will still attain the heavenly life, after which, however depending on what his past deeds may have been, one may be reborn in a hell realm, or as an animal or hungry ghost.
Presence of comparable practice in Jainism
In an authoritative Jain scripture, the Tattvartha Sutra (Chapter 7, sutra 11), there is a mention of four right sentiments: Maitri, pramoda, karunya, madhyastha.
A Cavern of Treasures (mDzod-phug)
A Cavern of Treasures (Tibetan: མཛོད་ཕུག, Wylie: mdzod phug) is a Bonpo terma uncovered by Shenchen Luga (Tibetan: གཤེན་ཆེན་ཀླུ་དགའ, Wylie: gshen-chen klu-dga') in the early eleventh century. A segment of it enshrines a Bonpo evocation of the four immeasurables. Martin (n.d.: p. 21) identifies the importance of this scripture for studies of the Zhang-Zhung language.
- Jon Wetlesen, Did Santideva Destroy the Bodhisattva Path? Jnl Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 9, 2002 (accessed March 2010)
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu. Abhidhammattha Sangaha: A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma. BPS Pariyatti Editions, 2000, p. 89.
- AN 4.125, Metta Sutta. See note 2 on the different kinds of Brahmas mentioned.
- Swami Jnāneshvara Bhārati. "Commentary on the Yoga Sutras". Swami Jnāneshvara Bhārati. Retrieved 2009-07-31.
- Karel Werner, The Yogi and the Mystic. Routledge 1994, page 27.
- Barbara Stoler Miller, Yoga: Discipline of Freedom: the Yoga Sutra Attributed to Patanjali; a Translation of the Text, with Commentary, Introduction, and Glossary of Keywords. University of California Press, 1996, page 9.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
- Rhys Davids & Stede, 1921-25, Pali-English Dictionary, Pali Text Society.
- Peter Harvey, "An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics." Cambridge University Press, 2000, page 104.
- W.E. Soothill and Lewis Hodous, 1937, A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms.
- Buddhist Studies for Secondary Students, Unit 6: The Four Immeasurables
- A View on Buddhism, THE FOUR IMMEASURABLES: Love, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity
- Allen, Kim. "Beautifying the Mind: Benevolence". http://www.audiodharma.org/. Retrieved 16 January 2014. External link in
- Fronsdal, Gil. "The Issue at Hand". theinsightmeditioncenter.com. Retrieved 16 January 2014.
- Majjhimanikaya, tr. by Kurt Schmidt, Kristkeitz, Berlin, 1978, p.261, tr. by Tony Page.
- AN 4.125, AN 4.126
- AN 4.125: Metta Sutta: Loving-kindness, Ñanamoli's translation (accessed March 2010)
- Berzin, Alexander (2005). The Four Immeasurable Attitudes in Hinayana, Mahayana, and Bon. Berzin Archives. (accessed: Monday March 1, 2010)
- "For students of Tibetan culture in general, the mDzod phug is one of the most intriguing of all Bon scriptures, since it is the only lengthy bilingual work in Zhang-zhung and Tibetan. (Some of the shorter but still significant sources for Zhang-zhung are signalled in Orofino 1990.)" Martin, Dan (n.d.). Comparing Treasuries: Mental states and other mdzod phug lists and passages with parallels in Abhidharma works of Vasubandhu and Asanga, or in Prajnaparamita Sutras: A progress report. University of Jerusalem. (accessed: Monday March 1, 2010)
- Buddhas Reden (Majjhimanikaya), Kristkreitz, Berlin, 1978, tr. by Kurt Schmidt
- Yamamoto, Kosho (tr.) & Page, Tony (revision) (2000). The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. London, UK: Nirvana Publications.
- Berzin, Alexander (2005). The Four Immeasurable Attitudes in Hinayana, Mahayana, and Bon
- Brahma-Vihara Foundation
- The Four Sublime States by the Venerable Nyanaponika Thera.
- Online Metta Contemplation
- The Four Brahma Viharas
- The Four Immeasurables
- Safe Medicine!
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