Articles March 4, 2023

The Divine Abodes

At the core of our practice lies the cultivation of two fundamental virtues: wisdom and love. Mindfulness and clarity enable the growth of wisdom, while love flourishes through the conscious training of the heart in kindness and compassion. The practice of love brings us from personal connection as the primary expression of love in our lives to universal, impartial kindness—love as an expression of the wisdom mind.

The heart practices taught by the Buddha are embodied in a set of four sublime qualities known as brahmavihāra, or “divine abodes.” Starting with the fundamental expression of universal love known as lovingkindness (mettā), the brahmavihāras taken together describe the awakened heart: warm, balanced, and responsive to the world.

The four brahmavihāras are:

  1. Lovingkindness (mettā)

  2. Compassion (karuṇā)

  3. Sympathetic Joy (muditā)

  4. Equanimity (upekkhā)

Lovingkindness (mettā)

The Pāli word mettā means “friendliness” and is also translated as “lovingkindness,” “benevolence,” and simply “love.” Mettā is a form of love that wishes other beings to be well and at ease, regardless of our personal connection to them. The training in mettā begins with cultivating warmth and friendliness for ourselves and those we know personally then expands to gradually include all beings: those we don’t know personally, those who are difficult to love, and ultimately everyone in the universe.

Mettā is contrasted in the Buddha’s discourses with pema, or love that tends toward attachment. This form of love is sometimes presented as a hindrance to awakening, such as when attachment arises to pleasurable sights, sounds, thoughts, or other sensory experiences. At other times, pema is used to describe the wholesome love a student feels for their teacher or wise friend, and is an expression of faith and devotion. Romantic and familial love can have aspects of both mettā and pema, combining the generous and sincere wish for the other’s happiness with sensual desire and grasping for connection and security that is ultimately impossible to attain. Attached love is the “near enemy” of mettā because it has some of the beautiful qualities of impartial love, but is colored by grasping.

As a fundamentally wholesome quality, mettā is woven throughout the path, expressed as sīla (ethics), samādhi (meditation), and pañña (wisdom). Because it is impartial and supports non-grasping, mettā has a strong wisdom aspect to it. Tending our relationships and communities through taking care with our actions is love as an expression of ethics. And mindfulness, which deepens our intimacy with ongoing experience, brings the quality of loving awareness to meditation and daily life.

The practice of mettā is detailed in the beloved discourse “The Buddha’s Words on Lovingkindness” or Mettā Sutta (Snp 1.8).

Mettā is the foundation of all four brahmavihāras. The other three qualities can all be understood as variations of lovingkindness that arise in different circumstances.

Compassion (karuṇā)

Compassion arises when lovingkindness encounters suffering. The impartial friendliness of mettā wishes for others’ well-being, and when pain and distress are perceived, it naturally becomes the wish that they be free of that pain and distress. Compassion is distinct from empathy, or “feeling with” another’s experience. Compassion does not aim to feel the pain another is experiencing, but rather aims to care for them and wish for their well-being in a way that is free from grasping or attachment. The near enemy of compassion is pity, which cares for another’s suffering but can also look down on them with blame or judgment.

Compassion is such an important part of Buddhist practice that in Mahāyāna traditions it is the central expression of the awakened heart, embodied in beloved deities such as the bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara, also known as Kuan Yin, and Tārā. Like all the brahmavihāras, compassion can be cultivated for ourselves, those we know personally, and beings everywhere, known to us or not. Because we know that the Four Noble Truths apply to everyone, we know that life inevitably includes painful experiences, and that grasping leads to suffering. Understanding this universal truth, we can feel compassion for beings everywhere, knowing that like us, all beings long for relief from pain.

Sympathetic Joy (muditā)

Sympathetic or appreciative joy is the manifestation of mettā that arises when well-being is encountered. The counterpart to karuṇā (compassion), muditā is a natural expression of mettā that celebrates another’s good fortune without jealousy or judgment. Because muditā rejoices in well-being, it is closely related to generosity, which rejoices in supporting others through giving and service. When oriented toward ourselves, muditā can take the form of gratitude, appreciating our well-being through being thankful for the good fortune that has come to us.

Muditā helps us recover from habits of negativity, excessive judgment, and the comparing mind. When we appreciate others’ good fortune, we let go of self-centered grasping and are able to celebrate goodness wherever it arises in the world. The near enemy of muditā is ungrounded positivity and spiritual bypassing, in which we focus only on the pleasant aspects of experience and ignore or deny the reality of the painful. Practiced with wisdom, sympathetic joy enables us to be present with all that is good and beautiful in life without giving in to grasping and attachment.

Equanimity (upekkhā)

The culminating brahmavihāra is equanimity (upekkhā), which balances the other three by bringing impartiality and balance of heart to the foreground. Equanimity is a deep wisdom quality, situated at the end of many of the Buddha’s lists, including the seven factors of awakening and the ten perfections. A form of mettā mixed with wisdom, upekkhā supports us to understand that the suffering or ease beings experience is due to the conditions of their life and their own past actions, rather than our wishes for them. Knowing this, the heart grows in the ability to stay open and kind regardless of circumstances.

Equanimity is a pinnacle quality in the cultivation of the heart because it reveals the depth of love that is possible when attachment and grasping have subsided. Without the clinging and reactivity of the grasping mind, the heart’s natural capacity to love fully and generously comes to the foreground. Equanimous love is a quality of the heart very close to liberation itself, revealing some of the bliss of deliverance in its radiant, unbounded warmth.

Practicing the Brahmavihāras

Mahāsī Method: Phrases

There are many ways to cultivate the brahmavihāras. At Spirit Rock, the primary method we use is from our Burmese vipassanā lineage of Mahāsī Sayādaw, and is based on the Visuddhimagga, a practice manual by the 5th century Sri Lankan monk Buddhaghosa. This method uses the repetition of phrases of well-wishing paired with visualization of a series of beings, starting with individuals and then opening to categories of beings.

There are many variations of mettā phrases. A classic set wishes for safety, strength, and well-being, but phrases can be modified widely to support feelings of love and kindness. The practice is to visualize the recipient of the mettā, say the phrase silently, and encourage feelings of love that arise.

May you be free from danger

May you be strong in body

May you be strong in mind

May you live with ease

The phrases are repeated many times for each category of beings, with practitioners encouraged to stay with a single category for an entire meditation or even for many days if on retreat, before moving on to the next category. A simple sequence of categories of beings is:

  1. Oneself

  2. A benefactor (teacher, guide, supporter)

  3. A good friend

  4. A neutral person

  5. A difficult person

  6. All beings

Some practitioners find it difficult to begin with themself, especially if self-love is not easily accessible. In this case, beginning with a benefactor or good friend—someone who is easy to love and appreciate—may be helpful, then directing mettā toward oneself once the heart is in a more open state.

A full sequence used in this style of practice combines radiating mettā to a long set of types of beings, then to each of the ten directions (eight compass directions plus above and below), leading to a 528 step sequence. This practice is described in Sayādaw U Paṇḍita’s book The State of Mind Called Beautiful. At most Spirit Rock retreats, a simple sequence like the one described above is taught sequentially over many days. In home practice, abbreviated versions of the sequence may be practiced, bringing in whatever categories or emphases feel most helpful at the moment.

For compassion (karuṇā), phrases like these may be used:

May your suffering be eased

May you be free from suffering

For sympathetic joy (muditā), phrases like these may be used:

May your well-being continue

May your joy increase

For equanimity (upekkhā), the classical phrase is a stock passage from the discourses that reminds us that each person experiences the results of their own actions, encouraging acceptance:

All beings are the owners of their actions, heir to their actions, born of their actions, related to their actions, abide supported by their actions. Whatever action they do, for good or for ill, of that they will be the heir.

Sutta Method: Radiating

An alternate method for practicing the brahmavihāras is drawn from the Pāli discourses (suttas), and is taught by contemporary teachers such as Bhikkhu Anālayo. In this method, phrases aren’t used, and instead the practitioner connects directly with the feeling of the brahmavihāra and “radiates” it out from the body in all directions, often sensing each direction in turn before combining them into a full-body feeling.

The passage that describes this method is found in many discourses, including DN 13, AN 4.125, and many others:

A person meditates spreading a heart full of love to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of love to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.

This method can appeal to practitioners who prefer a body-based approach to the more cognitive approach of the phrases. Whichever approach to cultivating the brahmavihāras we choose, the heart of the practice is sustaining the feeling of mettā and encouraging it to stabilize and grow. When practiced in a sustained way, all of the brahmavihāras can be doorways to deep concentrated states known as jhāna (meditative absorption) and samādhi (immersion).

The Benefits of Brahmavihāra Practice

These beloved states of the heart are known as brahmavihāras (divine abodes or abidings) not just because it feels “divine” when they are well-established in us, but because classically they were understood to lead to rebirth in the heaven realms. The discourse “Love” (AN 4.125) describes how meditation on the brahmavihāras leads to rebirth in the Brahma realms, and “The Three Knowledges” calls them “a path to companionship with Brahmā.” (DN 13.76-77)

Spirit Rock teacher Sylvia Boorstein teaches frequently on a beautiful list of eleven “Benefits of Love” (AN 11.15) that include both immediately-impactful benefits like sleeping and waking easily and having peaceful dreams, to more subtle ones like being loved by devas (spirits) and dying peacefully to be reborn in the heaven realms.

Finally, brahmavihāra practice can lead to full liberation from suffering, called “the heart’s release by love.” In a poetic early discourse, the Buddha described the heart’s release as being like the radiant light of the sun or moon, and that “A mindful one who develops limitless love weakens the fetters, seeing the ending of attachments.” (Iti 27)