The Brahma Viharas: A road map of how to live
The second last time I saw my teacher before he died was when I got an opportunity to drive him to the airport. During the drive, he mentioned that he’d received a letter from a student (he didn’t mention her name, he always made efforts to protect students’ confidentiality); apparently this student had written to him asking his advice for a choice she had to make. She was torn between life with a new boyfriend or entering a Buddhist nunnery. What she asked him was which of these two choices would be a better life for Dharma.
Reading between the lines, he said what she really wanted to know was which of these two paths would have the least suffering. And he said, “I could tell her, but I’m not going to, because she’s misunderstood what Dharma is for. Dharma does not give you a life free of suffering. Dharma is how you deal with suffering.” (Later on he said: “In the monastery she’ll pine for the boyfriend; if she ends up with the boyfriend, she’ll wish she were meditating in a cave–either way she’ll have to deal with not getting what she wants.”)
This was enormously helpful advice to me and when I look at the Brahma Viharas (BVs) I realize that, even more than using them as a subject of meditation, I’ve employed the four practices as ways of addressing day-to-day life. They form a path, steps to be taken to lessen the emotional/mental clinging to problems, and they are also efforts that can increase the beauty and joy of life–whether you’re meditating in a cave or dancing in the city.
The first BV is Metta: friendliness, warm-heartedness, loving-kindness. This is the foundation. It tells us that our general approach to life, to people, to nature should be basically friendly, warm, and open. Over and over again it helps us develop a posture of listening and being present. The greatest gift we give in ordinary day-to-day interactions (people, pets, places) is when we give our attention.
Only that sentence can convey the funny emotional arithmetic of loving-kindness: that a receptive state of friendly attention is a powerful act of giving.
#2 is Karuna, compassion. Compassionate action delivers that oh-so-important feeling of being of use, of being responsive, of being able to do something helpful. It’s the number one antidote to paralysis and depression.
#3 is Appreciative Joy (Mudita). They say that when you put a softly vibrating tuning fork next to another one, the second one will begin to hum at the same frequency. This is the secret to the power of sympathetic joy. Using sympathetic joy in daily life means that we are alert to opportunities where happiness and success and growth can transmit from others to us and from us to others. Mudita is about actively strengthening positive events and connections and transmitting them on.
If mudita is about actively strengthening and sharing the good connections, then upekkha (#4, equanimity) is about recognizing all the connections. One of my favourite people to receive e-mails from is my Australian buddy, Ian. When something goes spectacularly wrong in his life, my friend Ian usually writes up a terrifically funny account of his misfortune which always ends with this fabulous sarcastic summary: “I guess this is all just part of life’s rich tapestry!”
Upekkha (equanimity) is about seeing the weaving (not just the loose threads).
Thich Nhat Hanh has a lovely way of explaining upekkha as “letting go without being detached”. Upekkha is a great balancer.
What I’m talking about here is a way of using the four Brahma Viharas to work with the vicissitudes of life. Yes they are a meditation practice, but they are also tools for dealing with the downs and ups of life: share the good, fix the bad, dwell in a friendly open way and always keep one eye on the big picture, balanced. When the Buddha gave his longest talk about the Brahma Viharas (Digha Nikaya#13), he described them as a route, a map, how to get from A to B. In the Chinese translation of the suttas, the Buddha said four teachings were enough to take a person to complete awakening; the four Noble Truths, the four Brahma Viharas, seven Factors of Enlightenment, and the Eight-fold Noble Path.
The Brahma Viharas are both a way to deal with life and a practice to do on your cushion.