Practice: The Brahma Viharas

by Rev. Sarika Dharma

What keeps a lot of us Buddhists on the path is being able to see concrete results in daily life from doing the practice. Meditation, the eightfold path, taking refuge and working to keep the precepts do make a difference in the here and now of our everyday lives. Not everyone can meditate, but we can all begin to put the other practices into place -- and watch how many more people smile at us. Or is that smile back at us.

Here's another practice that's quite helpful. In Theravada practice, these are listed as a group of four meditations. In Mahayana tradition, they are part of the paramitas, the practices of the Bodhisattvas.

Brahma vihara means divine dwelling place. The practitioner arouses in herself four positive states of mind and radiates them out in all directions. One begins this while sitting meditation and soon enough it imbues the content of our actions and our interrelationships.

The four practices are loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

Metta or maitri, loving-kindness, refers to sending positive caring thoughts to all sentient beings. The best way to start is with oneself, repeating in one's mind: "May I be happy, peaceful and free from suffering." After a few months of this, we can begin to send that loving kindness out to people we love intimately and share our lives with, then to other friends and relatives, to people who cause us difficulties, to people we share the world with but don't necessarily know, and ultimately to all sentient beings.

There are many metta suttas, and one can create one's own. Here's the one I've been using during morning practice. I adapted it from one in "Entering the Stream" and have been watching it change for the past few months with suggestions from other practitioners. The words are beginning to have more relevance to our times.

Metta Sutta

This is the way of those who are skilled and peaceful, who seek the good and follow the path:

May they be able and upright, straightforward, of gentle speech and not proud, but content and easy wherever they are.
May they be unburdened, with their senses calm.
May they be wise and not arrogant, and live without desire for the possessions of others.
May they do no harm to any living being.

May all beings be happy.
May they live in safety and joy.
All living beings, whether weak or strong, old or young, man or woman, smart or foolish, healthy or disabled, gay or straight, seen or unseen, near or distant, born or to be born, may they all be happy.

Let no one deceive or despise another being, whatever their status.
Let no one by anger or hatred wish harm to another.

As parents watch over their children, willing to risk their own lives to protect them, so with a boundless heart may we cherish every living being, bathing the entire world with unobstructed and unconditional loving-kindness.

Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, in every moment, may our hearts be filled with loving-kindness for ourselves and all living beings.

The reason we start by giving ourselves loving-kindness is that we can't love anyone else openly and freely until we love and accept ourselves. And we deserve to be loved, appreciated, respected and honored. If we can do that for ourselves we are more able to accept the love of others without question as well as give love to others.

Loving-kindness is unconditional love. It is not dependent on someone's behavior. Of course, we don't want to condone foolish behavior nor allow people to cause us suffering through their words or actions. But if we think of ourselves and others as deserving this kind of love, we are happy in our hearts, hold no ill will or animosity, and can be fully present in the moment. We let go of resentments, realize that the other person is only as far as they are and understand how they might make mistakes. (We create our own karma and get to experience the effects, so no one needs to punish us.) And we can look at ourselves the same way, without guilt and shame, knowing how hard it is to be a human being.

[Kwan Yin]Compassion was a much easier practice for me early on, because I fell in love with Kwan-Yin, her beautiful face, her pose of royal ease. And probably because I understood pain a lot more readily than I understood loving.

Compassion is not sympathy or pity; those are feelings that make us feel separate from the one who suffers, somehow better than. Compassion is feeling with.

Pema Chodren said something that has always stayed with me. That we need to feel our own pain fully and consciously so that we can truly understand the pain others experience. Whether we are experiencing physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual pain, we need to be fully present with it, to whatever extent we are able to be at that moment, in order to process it.

Then we can begin again with compassion for ourselves. Compassion for being a human being, for experiencing the dukkha of existence, for this person who has faced so much pain in her life.

While our practice begins in meditation, it is fulfilled in our daily actions. If we can manifest compassion for ourselves and others, we feel our hearts open and our fears abate. We need to take baby steps, go slow, because the world is not always a safe place. But it becomes safer as we get closer to our true selves, to the Buddha nature within us.

The other two of the Brahma Viharas are mudita or sympathetic joy and upeksha or equanimity. Sympathetic joy is the joy we feel for another's happiness. Even for that person who just got the promotion we wanted and thought we deserved. (None of these practices are easy!)

Equanimity refers to our ability to see all human beings, friends or foes, as a part of our world without discrimination.

All these practices lead us to overcome ill will, gloating over others' misfortunes, discontent and deluding passions. Ultimately, they lead us to liberation.

Nammo Kwan Yin Bodhisattva,