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Brahma-vihāra – The Buddhist art of being compassionate

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Brahma-vihāra – The Buddhist art of being compassionate

(NB Diacritics in the text quotes as given by the author have not been corrected by us)

In the early Buddhist philosophy as available in the Pāḷi Nikāyas the idea of Brahma-vihāra can be regarded as the sound psychological basis of non-violence. It is noteworthy that in the Buddhist preachings (as contained in the Pāḷi volumes) metaphysics did not have any important role. The silence of Mahātma Buddha on the elemental (tattvik) questions rejects the role of metaphysics in achieving salvation (nirvāṇa), the highest goal of life. The word ‘Brahma’ in the Brahma-Vihāra doesn’t refer to the supreme power of the Vedānta. It, however, means a state like that of the Brahma i.e. the serene, divine and supreme state of the mind. Similarly, ‘Vihāra’ means continuous existence of the mind in this divine state. Brahmavihāra is thus the manifestation of the supreme and sublime sentiment of the mind. A comprehensive description of the Brahmavihāra is found in the ninth chapter of the Visuddhimagga [= The Path of Purification] composed by Buddhaghosha.

The incessant playfulness or dalliance of the mind in the states of amity [loving-kindness] (mettā or maitrī), compassion (karuṇā), delight or gaiety (muditā), and resignation (upekkhā or upekṣā) is called Brahmavihāra. In the Buddhist preaching these four have been used in a very wide sense, the like of which is rarely found elsewhere. The Yoga philosophy does indeed mention these four, but the divinity, sublimity and vastness of the Brahmavihāra is far superior. (Maitri-karuna-muditopekshanam sukhduh khapunya-punya-vishayanam bhavanatash-chitta prasadanam Yogadarśana, Samadhīpāda Sūtra 33). As per the Buddhist psychology, the vices or filths of the mind alone are the causes of all our sorrows and difficulties. The Brahmavira annihilates these vices for ever. In the Dhammapada a very beautiful psychological device has been provided to bring out the impropriety of violence. The Buddha says that everybody is afraid of punishment and the life of everybody is dear to him; therefore, treating everyone like your own self, neither indulge in violence with anybody nor instigate or provoke others to do that. (Sabbe tasanti dandasya sabbesam jeevitam piyam/ Attanam upamam katva na haneyya na ghataye – Dhammapada, 130). Amity, compassion, delight and neglect or resignation – these four annihilate respectively the vices or filths of the mind such as malice, anger, violence and jealousy etc. and cultivate the feelings of pure love, cordiality, joy, cooperation and social amity, which ultimately helps us in the attainment of the highest good. The practice of Brahmavihāra in our practical life which is initially easy becomes gradually difficult. It starts with the family, moves to our behavior with the common people and ends with our loving relationship with the enemy. The Brahmavihāra spreads in the form of love with all living beings of the world piercing the boundaries of neighbor, town and nation. That is why in the Buddhist preaching the Brahmavihāra has been called infinite (appamaññā or apramāṇa).

Amity or friendship (mettā) means affectionate behavior towards all living beings. The feeling of amity involves not only wishing happiness for all living beings (sattvas) but also making sincere efforts to it according to one’s means and capabilities. The feeling of amity destroys malice. In a mind free from malice arise the pure emotions of affection, cordiality and co-operation. An affectionate and amiable mind doesn’t allow any room for vices like violence, acrimony and hatred. The amity envisaged in the Brahmavihāra is one of detachment, and attachment (rāga) is its closest enemy. Prima facie attachment appears to be just like love, but it is not so. Attachment is confined to a narrow-minded behavior which is based on selfishness. A friendship based on attachment cannot be for all living beings. It is a selected friendship which is predominated by personal interests, likes-dislikes, and selfish motives. The amity or friendship which is guided by attachment is the mother of malice. Accordingly, those who are instrumental or helpful in the attainment of our selfish ends are our friends and the others become our enemies. A moment’s relaxation or negligence turns our loving amity into one of attachment. The basis of amity is not infatuation or attachment but knowledge. To the Buddhists, only a love replete with knowledge is acceptable as friendship because it is free from the feelings of authority and return. Besides, it is universal and not confined only to a few as happens in the case of selective love. The compass of this knowledge-based amity is extended equally to one and all – good or bad, friend or enemy, benevolent or inimical. Just as a mother cares for her only child with maternal love and affection disregarding her own life, in the same way an amiable person maintains a feeling of infinite love towards all living beings (Suttanipāta [=Collection of Suttas/Sūtras), Mettāsutta 148-149).

Therefore, the Buddhists have regarded only a detached and loving behavior as one of amity. Amity is soothing like a cool shade in the scorching and singeing summer, or lotus-like delicate touch on a rough and rigid surface. A loving and friendly conduct knows how to do good to all living beings without expecting anything in return. A feeling of amity doesn’t even unknowingly harm anyone, let alone of violence. All human beings have generally a natural tendency to have a feeling of friendship towards the good and the gentle, while hatred or indifference towards the bad and the wicked. But a person practicing or dallying in the Brahmavihāra has a feeling of amity even towards the wicked thinking that they need it the most. The transformation of the heart of a wicked person is possible only by love and not by hatred. The Buddha says that animosity and hostility can never be pacified by animosity. On the contrary, it can be countered only by its opposite feeling, i.e. love. This is the perennial rule: “Na hi vairena vairani sammanteedh kudachanam/ Avairena cha sammanti esa dhammo sanantano”Dhammapada, 5. Where there is no enmity, there is no malice or hatred; and where there is no hatred or malice, there is no violence. The feeling of amity promotes and fortifies non-violence.

Compassion is the hallmark of all the Buddhist Nikāyas (Systems). The compassion of the Pāḷi Nikāyas becomes the great compassion (Mahākaruṇā) in the Mahāyāna of Northern Buddhism and gives birth to the concept of the Bodhisattva, i.e. one whose essence is perfect knowledge or enlightenment. Compassion is the most touching and poignant emotion of the Brahmavihāra. Even at the slightest pain caused to a living being, the heart of a person dallying in the Brahmavihāra beats with compassion. He is affected by the agony and misery of others as if he himself were suffering from it. This feeling of grief inspires him to dispel the grief of others. As a matter of fact, no grief is impersonal or alien to him. When a grief is thought to be alien, it evokes the sympathy of the common people and not compassion. In the worldly sympathy there exists a feeling of helplessness for the afflicted person, but no sincere effort is made to mollify or redress the pain. On the other hand, a compassionate person cannot sit content until he has found a way out to alleviate or dispel the pain of the other. The difference between compassion and great compassion is that a compassionate monk dispelling the pain of others and practicing the Brahmavihāra in his lifetime ultimately attains salvation (nirvāṇa), while a Bodhisattva bearing great or supreme compassion, despite his reaching the stage of salvation, does not accept it unless and until he has annihilated the pain of all the Sattvas [i.e. all beings].

The feeling of compassion destroys the feeling of cruelty and violence. The flow of compassion opens up the internal knots thereby converting the narrowness of the heart into infiniteness. Compassion cultivates the feelings of love and friendship. In fact, love and compassion both promote each other. Compassion is always positive. A compassionate person can never be violent towards anybody. On the contrary, he is always co-operative with all living beings. Compassion is not a weakness but the internal force of the heart which gives strength and energy even to others to fight against the calamities. While love is soothing coolness, compassion is that warmth of the heart which melts like wax the mind of a rigid person made as though of flint. It is that hyper-sensitivity of the mind in which a man can feel the pain of even microcosmic and subtle beings and endeavor to mollify and redress them. Grief is the nearest enemy of compassion. Grief converts compassion into helplessness thereby making it ineffectual. A common man does express his grief towards the afflicted person but doesn’t make any effective efforts to dispel his pain. On the contrary, a compassionate person feels the alien pain himself and tries to mollify or mitigate it without plunging into grief. If a person himself plunges into grief, his mind becomes weak and debilitated thereby relaxing his good efforts.

The property of pleasure or gaiety is happiness. To feel happy at the progress and prosperity of others is delight or gaiety (muditā). While an ordinary person feels jealous of the progress of his neighbor, a man practicing Brahmavihāra feels elated at the success and rise of others treating the same as his personal achievement. So much so that he feels happy even at the prosperity of his enemy. To feel happy at the happiness of our own people due to infatuation or fascination is the nearest enemy of delight or gaiety as it dispels the very feeling of delight. Like amity, the basis of delight is also knowledge. A delight replete with knowledge destroys the feeling of jealousy. The Buddhists are often called pessimistic because they think every human feeling or experience to be full of sorrow. But it is not really so. The moments of happiness may be few and far between, but treating the happiness of others as one’s own has been praised therein. The feeling of joy engendered by the acts of public weal is acceptable to the Buddhists. The absence of sorrow is also happiness. The feeling of delight is destructive of sorrow. A person who is engrossed in delight is not pained even at his own grief. The most effective means to get rid of one’s sorrow is to treat others’ happiness as one’s own. This very feeling of delight keeps the mind joyous and elated. In a mind which is always gay, the idea of violence can never arise. In the Dhammapada the whole chapter entitled ‘Sukhavaggo’ deals with the idea that the life of a righteous man is full of happiness. (“By being cordial among enemies,…painless among the afflicted,…detached and aloof among the infatuated, we are passing our life happily…health is the highest gain, contentment is the greatest wealth, trust is the greatest friend, and salvation is the greatest happiness”- Dhammapada, 197, 198, 199, 204). The holy man lives happily in both mundane and super-mundane worlds.

The fourth organ of the Brahmavihāra is the sense of neglect or resignation (upekkhā), which is the state of mental harmony or equanimity. To remain unruffled and unexcited in the binaries of love-hate, joy-sorrow, victory-defeat, profit-loss etc. is the sense of resignation of the mind (Dhammapada, 201, 202, 210). This very state of resignation has been described in the Bhagavad-Gītā: “sukha-dukhe same kritva labhalabhau jayajayau” (II.38). Just as the drops of water can’t stay on the petals of lotus, in the same way a hermit or ascetic is not allured by what is seen, heard or thought of (Suttanipāta 811, 812). The idea of resignation is also based on knowledge. But the resignation practiced by a man of knowledge and the indifference of a worldly man are different. Indifference connotes total aloofness. A worldly man is generally indifferent to joy or sorrow of others. So long as his self-interest is not going to be encroached upon, he remains indifferent. But the resignation practiced by an ascetic dallying in the Brahmavihāra is a state of stoic equanimity of the mind which is unaffected and unruffled by the binaries of profit-loss, victory-defeat, respect-insult, infatuation-malice, and love-hatred etc. Worldly indifference is the immediate enemy of resignation. In the worldly indifference we treat neither alien joy nor alien sorrow as our own. But in the resignation of the Brahmavihāra, the ascetic not only deters the flow of joy in the state of happiness but also remains calm and unaffected in the state of sorrow. The Buddhist theory of action (karmavāda) promotes the idea of resignation. A man practicing Brahmavihāra is aware of the fact that all our experiences of joy, sorrow etc. are the results of our deeds performed by thought, word or action. The moment a deed is done, our control over it is lost. To do or not to do a deed is within our control, but once a deed has been performed we have no control whatsoever over it. The result of a deed doesn’t issue from any external force, but it is rather the outcome of the deed performed. On the basis of this understanding arises the idea of resignation in the mind of man of knowledge. Once the mystery of deeds (karmas) is known, grief also becomes the friend of the man of knowledge. Though resignation is the unexcited state of the mind, yet it is not the stage of the lack of amity, compassion and delight. Resignation is related to one’s personal joys and sorrows, while amity, compassion and delight are related to the joys and sorrows of other beings.

Of the four organs of the Brahmavihāra, the idea of resignation is the most important as it controls the other three organs. The sense of resignation checks the separation of amity from infatuation. The touch of infatuation instills the idea of selfishness and prejudice in friendship. Grief converts compassion into pity or helplessness. The feeling of resignation saves compassion from being touched by grief. Joy engendered by infatuation turns gaiety or delight into ordinary happiness. In the state of ordinary happiness the progress of those who are ours creates joy, while that of others creates jealousy. The feeling of resignation saves gaiety from the excitement or uneasiness of ordinary happiness. In this way, the feeling of resignation does cautiously save gaiety from the touch of attachment, grief and joy respectively and helps them remain in their basic state. Therefore, resignation is the highest gem of the Brahmavihāra.

The Brahmavihāra of the Pāḷi Nikāyas (Systems) is that sublime and supreme state of the mind in which a man is overwhelmed by the lofty feelings of love, co-operation, non-violence and social amity shunning for good the petty and narrow feelings of attachment, malice, hatred, cruelty and violence etc. In a society which is founded on the rock basis of amity and compassion, there is no chance for violence to thrive. The large-heartedness expressed in the teachings of Lord Buddha is highly relevant today in view of the violence and intolerance rampant in the present times. All living beings whether they are weak or strong, long or short, subtle or huge, visible or invisible, far or near, born or begotten – may all these be ever happy! (Suttanipāta, Mettāsutta 145-146). How can the idea of hatred or violence exist in such a sublime state of the mind? Nobody in his normal senses wants to be slain by anybody. Everybody wants to live. This very state of the mind is the proper relevance of non-violence. An ascetic practicing the Brahmavihāra tells about the relevance of non-violence by establishing as such his identity with others: “As I am, so are these (others) and as these are, so am I. Therefore, neither anybody should slay these, nor let them be slain.” (Yatha aham tatha etey, yatha etey tatha aham/ Attanam upamam katva na haneyya na ghatiye. Suttanipata 705).

The attainment of the state of Brahmavihāra is highly difficult, which is possible only by incessant alertness of the mind. In the Buddhistic teachings this alertness of the mind is called apramāda or appamadā (alertness or cautiousness). Apramada is that efficient sentry of the mind which blocks the entry of the filths or vices like attachment and malevolence etc. into it. Only that man who is not negligent (apramāda) is capable of enjoying or dallying in the Brahmavihāra.

– Prof. Shiv Narayan Joshi ‘Shivji’

(Eng. Trans. by: O.P. Tiwari)

From: Ahimsa Vishvakosh (Encyclopedia of Non-violence) in Hindi)

Publ. Prakrit Bharati Academy, Jaipur, India