The Brahmaviharas – Immeasurable States of Mind

The Brahmaviharas Part 1

I’ve been writing about  mind states and latent tendencies recently so now seems like a good point to explore the role that positive mind states can play in our practice. The Brahmaviharas are the most obvious example of these kinds of practice that focus on the deliberate cultivation of positive mind states. I admit that I’ve often thought of the practice of the Brahmaviharas as just well-being  exercises, something to lighten the load a bit in between the usual grind of insight and concentration meditation.  But I’ve found out that the Brahmavihara practices work on the mechanics of the mind at a much more fundamental level that I had ever realised, and that these practices have the potential to lead to powerful transformations.

In the wider world, there is a general sense that positive thinking has a healing quality to it, and some of the Brahmaviharas have unsurprisingly found their way into psychological treatments  through therapeutic applications of compassion and metta in  approaches like compassion focused therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy, so any sense that we might have that the Brahmaviharas are to do with well-being could be forgiven.

A brief survey of articles about the Brahmaviharas produces quite a list of potential uses and ways to understand them, such as being practices for dealing with karma, being about social relations, as a psychology of love, as a critical response to the inequalities reified into Indian culture by Brahminic teachings, as a means to master fabrication, as a nice place to put your mind, a preparation for jhana, as moral attitudes, as guides for conduct, or as a means to a more fortunate rebirth.

But the Brahmavihara practice as it appears in the teachings is presented as a meditative practice for the development of concentration, so it might be natural to wonder how this particular practice can have such divergent takes on what it is.

This diversity of perspectives is also reflected in the names that are given to the Brahmaviharas too. The Pali word for these states is the appamāṇas,  which translates directly as ““without measure”, immeasurable, endless, boundless unlimited, unrestricted all-permeating.” [1],but they are also commonly referred to as the  Brahmavirahas, the immeasurables, the divine abodes, the sublime abidings, and the sublime states. I have chosen to  use the term Brahmavihara only because it tends to be the most familiar , but I also find the translation as ‘the immeasurables’  useful  too.

But I find Brahmavihara  a  particularly useful word to contemplate because it is rich in potential ways to understand it :

“They are called abodes (vihara) because they should become the mind’s constant dwelling-places where we feel “at home”; they should not remain merely places of rare and short visits, soon forgotten. In other words, our minds should become thoroughly saturated by them. They should become our inseparable companions, and we should be mindful of them in all our common activities.” [2]

Further:

“These experiences are “dwellings” or “abidings” (vihāra), because they become how one lives (viharati). And they are called “sublime” or “divine” (brahma) because those who inhabit these experiences are said to be the equals of the brahmā divinities in having most excellent and faultless minds or, alternatively, because they were taught by the best of the brahmā divinities, that is, the Buddha.” [3]

So while Brahmavihara isn’t really a direct translation of appamāṇa, it does have a lot of layers of meaning in it that I find equally as useful as the more accurate translations because it points us to the sense that these mental qualities are to become more than just occasional responses, they are to eventually become the natural realm of the mind.

It is certainly interesting that what is articulated in the texts as a meditation practice can be seen in so many different ways, and perhaps that in itself implies  that something about them has the scope to  impact on so many levels of our experience.

They are though, first and foremost, meditation practices, based on cultivating metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (happiness for others), and uppekkha (equanimity), but we are given two different ways to work with them.  In the nikayas, which are the main collections of suttas in the Pali canon,  the Brahmaviharas are to be practiced as a ‘radiation’ meditation, each quality is to be cultivated and then sent out in the six directions – front, back, left, right, up, and down – immeasurably and without reservation to all beings, which obviously  tallies with the more direct translations of the word appamāṇa.

If you do metta meditation this might be an unfamiliar format to you, normally the process involves bringing a cast of people to mind who you send loving-kindness to, starting with someone you are fond of, and going through the same process for the other people . Although very common, this style of meditation isn’t actually found in the nikayas. It instead comes from a later book that is found in the Theravadin Abhdhammapitaka,  a collection of systematic summaries and analyses of the teachings in the Nikayas, called the Visuddhimagga or the Path of Purification, attributed to the great commentator and scholar Buddhaghosa. [4]

Despite the differences in approach, both takes are situated very squarely with concentration meditation and specifically the attainment of various stages of jhana, which could be quite surprising if you generally consider them to be mostly practices to do with training in ethical behaviour as they might appear to be at face value. In this regard it is  interesting  to compare  the processes that others  understand as being the mechanism that allows the contemplation of these positive mind states  and development of ethical behaviours to lead to deep concentration states. 

Nyanaponika Thera’s take on it is very closely aligned with the ethical dimension – it is the purifying action that contemplating these wholesome qualities has on our behaviour off the cushion that feeds into our ability to concentrate on the cushion. [2] The position  is well established within the texts that ethical conduct, such as following the five precepts, has a settling effect on the mind because it gives us less occasion to have regrets about our behaviour. Any regrets we have will come to the fore as soon as we try to meditate, so having a ‘clear conscience’ is a very important element for making meditation progress.

Bhikkhunī Dhammadinnā sees the practice of the Brahmaviharas as working  at the level of our intentions, and she feel that the Brahmaviharas are designed to fulfil the requirements of the second step of the eightfold path – right intention. Right intention is defined as developing the intentions of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness in everything you do, and letting go of the wrong intentions of desire, ill will, and harmfulness. [5] She says that our responses to sense contact are gradually re-conditioned by the ‘wholesome intending’ [5] that we develop through the practice of the Brahmaviharas.

So she also sees one of the key outcomes of Brahmavihara practice as being their impact on the reduction of reactivity, and this happens because our wholesome intentions mean we are less likely to respond to things that come up in our meditation with craving or aversion, which in simple terms means we are less likely to get distracted. .(Bhikkhunī Dhammadinnā, p. 91) I wrote about the importance of reducing reactivity  last week to allow us to uproot our latent tendencies to think and act in unskilful ways, so the Brahmaviharas seem to be a practice that can help to tackle that particular issue too.

Both Bhikkhunī Dhammadinnā and Thanissaro Bhikkhu see the Brahmaviharas as also being intricately involved in helping us to deal with karma and our intentions, and Thanissaro Bhikkhuexplains the connection between these succinctly:

“The teaching on karma starts with the principle that people experience happiness and sorrow based on a combination of their past and present intentions. If we act with unskillful intentions either for ourselves or for others, we’re going to suffer. If we act with skillful intentions, we’ll experience happiness. So if we want to be happy, we have to train our intentions to always be skillful. This is the first reason for developing the brahma-viharas: so that we can make our intentions more trustworthy.” [6]

(Note  that skilful and wholesome are just different translations of the same Pali word – kusala.) [7]

Dhammadinnā’s definition of karma as the tendencies and habit patterns of the mind makes this connection even more obvious – changing our tendencies essentially means the same thing as changing our karma. [5]

The Brahmaviharas seem to employ another mechanism too. Given that they are not our usual states of mind, for most of us anyway,  simply sitting and observing the mind isn’t going to bring them up for us, this is going to require an act of fabrication – we are going to have to make them happen. While this might seem somewhat contrived for such lofty mind states as love and compassion, this is an essential element of training the mind’s inclination towards the wholesome. But not only does this lean the mind in the right direction, it allows us to learn how to control the mind in the process too, as Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggest:

“As you learn how to deconstruct emotions of ill will, hard-heartedness, resentment, and distress, and reconstruct the brahma-viharas in their place, you don’t simply attain an unlimited heart. You gain practice in mastering the processes of fabrication.” [6]

This  sentiment that the Brahmaviharas are part of the training to learn how to control the movements of the mind is echoed by Bhikkhunī Dhammadinnā  when she suggests that “an important step towards full mastery of the mind is to intentionally incline the mind towards the wholesome (kusala).” [5] Naturally, better control over the mind makes it easier to stick with the meditation object and not be distracted, so the role that this has in concentration practice is clear. Putting all of these ideas together then it seems that the connection between fostering positive mind states and concentration practice is quite firmly established.

Despite the Brahmaviharas being a meditation practice, still we can find them being presented as principally working on an ethical level.  But while all of the previous evidence supports the idea that the Brahmaviharas are for meditation more than for ethics, it is also clear that these two aspects can’t be neatly separated from each other – wholesome actions support a concentrated mind, and vice versa.

I don’t dismiss the social impact that the Brahmaviharas have because it can be clearly seen from experience that good conduct is a great support to social cohesion, but I  recognise that while this may be a side effect of the practice, and isn’t necessarily the principal  intended consequence of it, it can still support their development.

As Buddhaghosa says in the Visuddhimagga, the first step before practicing  any of the Brahmaviharas is to reflect on why they are good and why the opposite is bad, [4] so this ethical and social dimension is something that can help us to commit ourselves to uprooting our unwholesome inclination ; being kind to others and helping them to feel safe and happy can be more directly motivational than an abstruse idea like reshaping intention or remodelling karma for instance.

This social dimension seems to have a much wider role than just ethics though, it also seems to be serving as a transformative mechanism too. The practice to breaking down the boundaries between ourselves and others in the Brahmaviharas suggests the practice is also intended to impact on that most fundamental understanding of our universe and our experience – our sense of self.

Nyanaponika Thera talks about the Brahmaviharas promoting “brotherhood against the forces of egotism” [2], and Bhikkhu Bodhi  suggests that the act of sending metta outwards requires a “shift in the sense of identity, … expanding the sense of identity beyond its ordinary confines and learning to identify with others. [8], so there is, it seems,  a part of the practice that changes our usual way of seeing ourselves by changing our relations to other people and beings.

But others go further than this and even suggest that the boundaries are not just to be dropped between ourselves and other people or beings, but between our self and any other object, in essence to do away with the position of self completely.

The state of meditative absorption  we get into when we use the radiation version of the Brahmaviharas allows us to transcend of our usual sense of being separate from what we are observing or experiencing [5]  because we are doing it from a position that doesn’t require a self to send anything out to anyone else, there is just the generation of the feelings of metta, etc., going outwards in every direction. According to Dhammadinnā this experience lets us see that our usual way of viewing the world from a perspective of self and other is a fabrication.[5]

Perhaps this could be one of the most profound ways to use  the Brahmaviharas – as a direct and simple way to experience not-self. The instructions for the radiation type meditation found in the Nikayas say simply to generate the feeling and to send it out in every direction, and when you bring up this wonderfully immersive and embodied sensation there is no requirement for the thinking mind to become involved in any way. You can just sit and glow with metta, or compassion, etc., and when you do it you can notice quite easily that there is no need for a sense of self to do it – there is just the feeling of metta, etc. Also there is no need for a sense of anyone else to send it to either, it just has to be sent out, and that can give you a very direct experience that it is possible to both exist and function in the world without having to make reference to either a self or to others – action doesn’t require either a do-er or a do-ee to receive the action. This undoing of a sense of self would then carry over into the way that we meet all the other objects in our experience.

When I started doing research on this subject I did wonder if I would find that the two different approaches to doing the Brahmaviharas practice would lead to different results. Mostly I wondered  would the now common person-centred meditation approach from the Visuddhimagga leave the practitioner still with a very clear sense of self and other intact in the way that the radiation method seems  wouldn’t because it was targeting this quite directly?

I think it is possible that this could happen, particularly if we don’t understand the more common method is meant to be an absorption meditation, an embodied practice where the emphasis is on cultivating psychosomatic states. If we treat it like a cross between a shopping list, a mantra, and a prayer , as can sometimes happen, then it our sense of self could go thoroughly unchallenged. Granted, it might keep your mind out of less wholesome topics while you are doing it, and it does help to train your mind to stay on one intended task, so taking this approach  still serves an important training function, but it is unlikely to take you beyond these basic improvements. .

But instead if we put the focus on our heart centre and on generating a strong feeling of metta while we are using the common method, and send that feeling to each person on our list though, this is a very different experience, and it is one that I think fits very well with the radiation style approach. In fact, if the Visuddhimagga approach is carried out in this way then I can understand that it was perhaps created to help provide the scaffolding that most of us require to be able to get to the stage of radiating in all directions with no reference to self or other. The Visuddhimagga approach reads to me very much like a training method that will gradually take you from where you are all the way to the most expansive rendition of the practice, so I wouldn’t necessarily argue that they are two different practices, they seem to me more like gradations of the same practice.

Personally,  I’ve found using the Brahmaviharas in their radiation meditation form to be really eye opening in terms of showing me directly that it is possible to not have to always keep making reference to the world from a sense of self. By putting my attention on radiating metta, for example, I find I experience a kind of de-centring; I am not so ‘stuck’ to personality, or self, I am free to move beyond them and act without them. .

I can see how the practice might ultimately go on to replace a habitual reference to self in the mind into a habitual reference to a state that requires no self, and in such a directly transformational way that the contemplation and observation of anatta would struggle to match. But I can also appreciate that I wouldn’t be able to do the radiation meditation without having learned and cultivated the Vissudhimagga method first, or without reference to the other teachings too, so I think everything has its place in the wider structure of the path.

So the Brahmaviharas seem to be anything but a basic practice in learning how to be good, or as a pleasant alternative to the hard yards of insight or concentration meditation, they seem to be a much more important practice than their otherwise unassuming appearance conveys. They are a powerful aid to developing concentration, to purifying our intentions, and perhaps even an important contributor to the fundamental re-alignment of perspective that is the final goal of the practice – enlightenment.

Image by Bessi from Pixabay

References

1.      SuttaCentral. Pali dictionary results for appamāṇa. 30/06/2021. https://suttacentral.net/define/appam%C4%81%E1%B9%87a. Accessed 22 Jul 2021.

2.     Nyanaponika Thera. The Four Sublime States: Contemplations on Love, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity. 1994. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel006.html. Accessed 22 Jul 2021.

3.     Heim M, Ganeri J. Buddhaghosa on the Phenomenology of Love and Compassion. Oxford Handbooks Online. https://www.academia.edu/31864806/Buddhaghosa_on_the_Phenomenology_of_Love_and_Compassion

4.     Buddhaghosa trans. Nyanamoli Thera. Visuddhimagga: The Path of Purification. 23/07/2021. https://www.bps.lk/library-search-select.php?id=bp207h. Accessed 23 Jul 2021.

5.     Bhikkhunī Dhammadinnā. Semantics of wholesomeness: purification of intention and the soteriological function of the immeasurables (appamāṇas) in early Buddhist thought. https://www.academia.edu/6747478/Semantics_of_wholesomeness_purification_of_intention_and_the_soteriological_function_of_the_immeasurables_appam%C4%81%E1%B9%87as_in_early_Buddhist_thought

6.     Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Head & Heart Together: Bringing Wisdom to the Brahma-viharas. 06/06/2018. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/headandheart.html. Accessed 22 Jul 2021.

7.     SuttaCentral. Pali dictionary results for kusala. 30/06/2021. https://suttacentral.net/define/kusala. Accessed 22 Jul 2021.

8.     Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering. 14/10/2017. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html. Accessed 22 Jul 2021.

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