The Four Sublime Abodes (and the Enemies Close at Hand)
Compassion, equanimity, sympathetic joy, loving-kindness – these states of mind are sometimes referred to as the brahma-viharas – the “Four Sublime Abodes” (Sangharakshita, 1980, p. 141). Literally translated, brahma-vihara refers to “divine states of dwelling” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, 46) or the “dwelling place of brahmas” (Thanissaro, 2011), reflecting the belief that the cultivation of these properties will bring rebirth in the higher heavenly realm of the Brahmas. Figuratively speaking, however, the brahma-viharas are those “sublime attitudes” (Thanissaro, 2011) or “the four immeasurables” that the bodhisattva must cultivate in order to aid in the liberation of others (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, 46).
Funny thing, though, whenever we strive to cultivate something that we’re not already intimate with, we tend to look for evidence of its fruition in places where it might not yet exist – like when we cover a handful of seeds with carefully prepared soil and then look at every arising sprout, weed and flower and vegetable alike, as that which must be nurtured. It can be especially difficult when two plants look very similar at first glance, only revealing their true identity when whatever fruit that they might bear (or none at all, as the case may be) becomes apparent. And so it is that the sublime attitudes of compassion, equanimity, sympathetic joy, and loving-kindness have their imposters – qualities that, in the words of Jack Kornfield (1993), “arise in the mind and masquerade as genuine spiritual realization” (p. 190). These imposters are often referred to as the “near enemies” of those qualities that we truly value. “Far enemies” are easily discerned; they are essentially the opposite of that which we are cultivating. “Near enemies,” on the other hand, lurk undetected in our midst, stealthily carrying on their business (so to speak) of making us feel unduly good about ours.
Let’s examine each of the brahma-viharas, and their near enemies, in turn:
Compassion (karuna) consists of “taking note of the sufferings of other beings” and exhibiting “a willingness to go out of one's way to give aid where possible” (Khantipalo, 2010). Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) note that “compassion extends itself without distinction to all sentient beings” (p. 176). Compassion’s near enemy is variously described as “pity” (Kornfield, 1993, p. 191) or “grief” (Khantipalo, 2010).
Equanimity (upekkha), according to Khantipalo (2010), “is reflected in one's life by an ability to meet difficult situations with tranquility and undisturbed peace of mind.” Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) note that equanimity is “a state that is neither joy nor suffering,” reflecting a “mind that is in equilibrium and elevated above all distinctions” (p. 394). The near enemy of equanimity is “indifference” (Kornfield, 1993 & Khantipalo, 2010).
Sympathetic Joy (mudita), or “empathetic joy” as Thanissaro (2011) would define it, is the finding of “joy in the happiness of others” (Kornfield, 1993, p. 191). Its near enemy is “comparison” (Kornfield) or merely “reflecting on one's own gains” (Khantipalo). Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) note that sympathetic joy is ultimately manifested as “limitless joy over the liberation of others from suffering” (p. 232).
Loving-kindness (metta), or “goodwill” as Thanissaro (2011) would define it, is “an unselfish love which can be extended to everyone” (Khantipalo, 2010); it is a “benevolence toward all beings that is free from attachment” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 217). As one might expect, then, the near enemy of loving-kindness is “attachment” (Kornfield), or, more specifically, “sensual attachment, often miscalled ‘love’” (Khantipalo).
In this series of posts I’d like to explore each of these brahma-viharas, in turn, as well as their near enemies, with particular attention paid to their manifestation in my own practice during my own experience of grief. For the remainder of this post, then, let me focus on the sublime abode of compassion.
Compassion and Pity
Perhaps you can read between the lines of my blog profile and intuit that I might have made a lot more money at one time than I’m making in my present career. You would be right. This transition alone has opened up my eyes to how money can insulate us (or at least provide the illusion of insulation) from certain types of hardship – not all, to be sure, but a great many indeed. For instance, it used to be the case that an unexpectedly expensive automobile repair was but a minor inconvenience for me. After all, at the very worst I could simply rent a car for the time it took me to purchase a new one. There was never any question as to whether I could afford it or not. Gosh, for a time I even had two vehicles – a newer car and an old pickup truck. One of them was always in good running order and at the ready for dependable transportation. Oh, those carefree days!
Now, though, I have to watch my money a bit more carefully. I’m down to one vehicle, and it’s getting on in years. And so it is that when I hear one of my clients speak about how an automobile breakdown caused them to lose their job, thereby precipitating a cascading sequence of unmanageable events, I can understand much more completely what they’re facing; or when a lack of transportation prompts one of them to drop out of school, thereby causing them to put on hold their dreams of a brighter future, their circumstances are that much more real for me. I have a greater ability to empathize with them. My compassion has grown much more genuine due to my perception of the separation between us and our respective circumstances having diminished.
When we feel that harm or hardship is something that only befalls other people our “compassion” might actually veer into the realm of pity – compassion’s near enemy. However, when we realize that there is nothing special about our own existence that can keep the hardships of life at bay our tendency to feel pity seems to dissipate – at least, that is how it seemed to be for me. Pity arises from a sense of separateness, specialness, protectedness. True compassion arises out of the realization that we are all the same with respect to the experience of hardship. Nobody is immune from it. Each of us will know it sooner or later.
After the initial shock following the breakup of my marriage I began to really see how much suffering there is in the world. In the months that followed, storms and disasters seemed to strike one after another. (I suppose it’s always like that, though, isn’t it?) Three tornadoes touched down in Virginia that following month, injuring 200 and destroying 140 homes. Arkansas storms killed seven and injured thirteen just a few days later, and then a couple of days after that some 78,000 were killed when a cyclone devastated the Irrawaddy Delta of Myanmar. A week later storms swirling across Oklahoma, Missouri, and Georgia killed twenty and injured hundreds while, in China, some 67,000 died when an earthquake struck in Sichuan Province. Further compounding the initial destruction caused by the earthquake was the evacuation of 150,000 just a couple of weeks later due to the threat of devastating flooding. But it wasn’t just natural disasters causing suffering around the world. The global financial crisis was beginning to unravel at that time. Banks were failing. Businesses were folding. People were losing their jobs. Homes were beginning to be foreclosed upon en masse. Gasoline prices were skyrocketing, putting pressure on household finances everywhere and causing food prices to increase at an alarming rate in areas of the world that could least afford it. Yes, it might have felt at first as though only my world was imploding, but all I had to do was pay attention and I could see that the entire world is in this together.
But it’s not a matter of minimizing our own suffering by comparing it to that of another who we might perceive as being “worse off” than us. No, it’s a matter of realizing that we’re all in this together – this world in which so much joy exists simultaneously with so much pain, this world in which there is no real distinction between those who happen to be facing hardship and those who are not. When the last remaining boundary separating self and other has been torn down, when the walls that were once a convenient hiding place (if only an illusory one) have all crumbled, compassion will then walk freely anywhere it needs to go, and pity will be nowhere to be found.
Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (2010). Practical advice for meditators. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel116.html
Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart – A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. Bantam Books.
Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (2011). Head & heart together: Bringing wisdom to the brahma-viharas. Access to Insight, 17 April 2011,
by Exsodus Paradise Garden
Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank