Cultivating the Brahmavihāras

An Interview with Bhikkhu Anālayo on his new book,
Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation

Insight Journal: Bhante, most people know you for your work with the satipaṭṭhānas. Why now this book on the brahmavihāras?

Bhikkhu Anālayo: For one, it reflects my own practice. For me, satipatthāna is the very foundation. But this foundation does not stand on its own. It also has its complement in the brahmavihāra practice, in particular as it fulfills samatha—tranquility—meditation. Even when I teach a normal satipaṭṭhāna course, we will have at least some mettā practice at the end. On its own, the practice of mettā is ideally contextualized by all four brahmavihāras. Such a practice can make a major contribution to our progress towards awakening in quite a number of ways.

So I actually don’t see it as something totally distant from satipaṭṭhāna practice, but as a logical extension. Satipaṭṭhāna is definitely the foundation—the basis on which we work. In the satipaṭṭhāna-sutta it says, “Seven years…seven months…seven days…one of two fruits can be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or, if there is a trace of clinging left, non-returning.” (trans. Anālayo) The arahant is qualified by being totally free from unwholesomeness. This in turn means that the way a fully awakened person relates to others will be by way of the four brahmaviharas—with mettā or compassion or sympathetic joy or equanimity. So the brahmavihāras in a way give us a foretaste of the final goal towards which we work with satipaṭṭhāna meditation.rearofflower

IJ: At one point in your book you say, “In relation to the tree of compassion, mettā is the water that nourishes the root of this tree.” (30) It seems that mettā is somehow foundational to the other brahmavihāras.

BhA: If we look at the way it is being described, mettā is the one brahmavihāra that is cultivated with bodily, verbal, and mental deeds. From this, I get the impression that mettā is like the basic mood with which we interact with others. Compassion and sympathetic joy and equanimity are more specific. They build on the basic foundation of having a kind disposition in all our actions and all our words and all our thoughts as we interrelate with others.

IJ: In your book you say, “Instead of mentally commiserating with instances of suffering and affliction, at the heart of compassion stands the wish and aspiration for others to be free from suffering and affliction. Such a wish can and should be free from sadness and grief.” (24)

BhA: Compassion does not mean to suffer with the other. That is a very important point. Instead of being a painful mental condition in which we suffer with the other, compassion is a positive mental state that is open to the suffering but envisions an improvement of the condition of the other and is willing to go out of one’s way to help and aid the other person to reach that condition. It is out of that willingness to give priority to helping the other—that is where the joy comes from. This is a way of thinking and a way of acting that improves the mind, and so it is also good for oneself. Compassion does not mean: 1) If I engage in compassion I’m going to suffer, and 2) If I engage in compassion I’m going to miss out on the straight path to liberation. It’s the exact opposite. If you do not open the heart with the help of the brahmavihāras, you’re missing out on an important support for the straight path to awakening. And you’re also missing out on a lot of joy.

IJ: You quote the Udānavarga which states that,

One should not give up one’s own welfare,
Even for the sake of much welfare to others. (23.7, Trans. Bernhard)

This is something that people continue to battle over: how much time to give to the active helping of others, versus how much time to spend living one’s own life and cultivating one’s own practice. This issue seems to produce a lot of controversy and internal tension.eggplants22

BhA: This is something that each individual needs to sort out in the particular situation in which he or she lives. There’s no fixed recipe for that, apart from the fact that you always have to make sure to give priority to practice, and practice means being mindful, whatever you do. Within that, you make as much space for others as possible. I often suggest to serious practitioners that they meet all the responsibilities they have, but do not create new responsibilities.

Take my own situation. I have met the responsibility of looking after my aging parents. Because of that, I left my meditation center in Sri Lanka and came to live in the West. But I am staying a monk. I’m not going to get myself a partner and children. I’m not building up new responsibilities. And the meeting of my responsibility to my parents has always gone hand in hand with my own practice. I always spend half of my time in retreat, even here. And the willingness to make a place for them is the basis for all this academic work. If not for my returning to be with them, this book we’re talking about would never have come into being. I would have just remained in some forest in Sri Lanka or in a meditation center just doing my practice.

Of course, I’m not saying that everyone should look after their parents or get a PhD in Buddhist Studies. It is really up to one’s own individual situation. We all have these decisions to make. How much time do I give to meditation? How much do I give to others? We have to make these decisions. But we also have this good friend—mindfulness. And with that mindfulness we monitor what’s happening. Am I still progressing on the path? Or have I become stagnant? Am I getting caught up in my role, my function? Or, on the other side, am I losing contact with reality? Am I no longer really contributing to others? Am I getting self-centered, only concerned with my own practice, wanting to defend it against disturbances created by others? Both sides are very natural losses of balance. It’s not that we have to be negative when these happen. We just want to recognize. And we adjust. We recognize. And we adjust. And so on. And then, after some time, we find the middle path, and we move ahead. This is the practice.

It’s always this coming back to mindfulness as the island, as the refuge—dharma as the island, as the refuge. It is our understanding of the dharma—together with mindfulness, which keeps monitoring what is happening in me and in my way of relating to others—that gives us this precious feedback. Where do I stand? Does this particular mixture of meditation practice and involvement with the world work for me? Or do I need to readjust? No fixed recipe. Except for: be mindful.

IJ: What are some of the advantages of using the brahmavihāras rather than other objects of concentration?

BhA: One is that with other objects of concentration we need to reach absorption experience in order to have what is called liberation of the mind. This whole issue of absorption and how to attain absorption and what is actually meant by an absorption is a huge area of controversy. I know some meditators who are under real stress to attain a certain level of absorption because they feel that this is absolutely required. This attitude can be counterproductive because samatha is being at ease with what is—being calm and tranquil in the present moment.

The brahmavihāras are an option for getting out of this kind of dynamics. Because the basic condition of just resting in this open mental attitude with mettā or compassion or sympathetic joy or equanimity in all directions—this is already an experience of liberation of the mind. Even though it does not yet take place at the jhāna level, it is already “heaven on earth” as I like to call it. It is as if you’re in heaven. You’re there with this beautiful, positive mental attitude, and you allow it to go out in all directions without excluding anybody. This is something that with a little bit of practice most of us can actually do. So it’s a level of “attainment,” if you can even call it like this, that is much easier to reach than absorption, and it removes some of the stress that comes around this whole topic of absorption attainment. Of course, the practice itself does eventually lead to absorption. It’s not that we are leaving this aside. But it’s a softer way into it.

The second advantage is that other meditation practices like the kasiṇas or mindfulness of breathing are very powerful tools that can take us into very deep states of concentration, but they do not have a second benefit on top of that. Every minute, every second I dwell in mettā, on the other hand, is a moment where I am free from anger. It is training the mind in experiencing the beauty in being without anger. For instance, I am an angry person, so I know very well how much mettā has transformed my tendency to anger. Mettā is not able to completely eradicate anger from the mind because for that we need insight, but it can go a long way in helping in that task. Anger in the mind is just a mental conditioning—something irritating comes, and I am used to reacting with anger. But if I train myself in another habit—in the habit of mettā—then something irritating comes, and I can learn how to react with mettā. That makes a world of difference. So using the brahmavihāras as the vehicle for cultivating the tranquility aspect of the path has these two very distinct advantages.

Then there is a third advantage which has more specifically to do with our situation in the West. As Jack Kornfield has quite rightly pointed out, many of us in the West come to the practice with a lot of baggage, personal problems, even issues of abuse. At times, the traditional forms of vipassanā meditation do not offer the tools for us Westerners to address these problems. This is why, like Jack suggests, we need psychotherapy to go along with insight meditation. Even meditation teachers are expected to have some therapy training, so that they can deal with meditators who have problems. There are times when you have to tell a certain person that they should go and see a therapist because the condition they are in is not really suitable for continuing with meditation.

Now, I do not want to dismiss that whole part. I see it as very valuable, but I also believe that brahmavihāra practice addresses a considerable part of the work being done through psychotherapy, some of which might in this way be done within the framework of Buddhist meditation. Cultivation of the brahmavihāras does not solve all problems, but a number of problems that would be very difficult to address with traditional vipassanā meditation techniques can be faced with the cultivation of the brahmavihāras.

Those are the three advantages I see: easy access to the experience of liberation of the mind, the cultivation in itself transforming the mind, and that the brahmavihāras offer us an aid in dealing with some personal problems for which otherwise we would have to enlist the help of psychotherapy.

IJ: I have found that playing around with the brahmavihāras in my own practice—both during and since having read your book—that especially in working with the defilements, I was surprised at how much difference it made to have a strong base of brahmavihāras. When a defilement came up, there was much less reaction and fear around it because it felt like I was stronger somehow.

BhA: Yes. Exactly.

IJ: In your book, Bhante, you use different stages of the sun as a simile for the brahmavihāras. Would you share that with us?depotatoedfield

BhA: Imagine that we are in a cold climate, where the sun is experienced as something pleasant and positive. Then mettā is like the sun at midday, which shines its rays on all without making any kind of distinction. It gives warmth and light to all who are receptive to it. It will not get upset if you move inside the house and afterwards say, “No, I’m not going to shine on you. You went away.” It’s just there, radiating. Also, sunlight is the product of a process of implosion. The sun collapses into its center, and from that collapse all the photons are sent out. It’s the same thing with mettā—a coming together in the heart that gets radiated outward. There are these two types of movement that take place concurrently in the practice: this gravitating towards the center, and at the same time this radiating out in all directions.

From mettā we move to compassion, which is like the same sun at sunset, when darkness is very close by, just as when compassion opens the heart to all the suffering in the world. Even though darkness is very close by, the sun shines all the more beautifully, coloring the whole sky.

Sympathetic joy is like sunrise. Early morning. The birds are singing. There’s a dewdrop on the branch of a tree. The sun shines and it sparkles like a diamond in the light. Just so is the willingness to rejoice in the good fortune of others—an attitude that is totally removed from envy, jealousy.

With these three sun images—mid-day, sunset, and sunrise—we have a counterpart for the more outgoing qualities of the first three brahmavihāras. Upekkhā—equanimity—is more of a standing back. It is not a looking away and not wanting to have anything to do with it. It is an open being there—a holding of the situation with awareness, but without moving towards others. Just allowing them to do or to be just the way they are. In this sun simile, equanimity finds its counterpart in the full moon, which reflects the sunlight. The beautiful moonlight. The sky free from clouds. It also shines, but not as brightly as the sun. It also gives some warmth, but not as strongly as the sun. It’s a reflection of it.orangeflowers

IJ: What would it be useful for people to keep in mind while developing a brahmavihāra practice?

BhA: The way I teach the brahmavihāras is based on taking the instructions in the suttas quite literally. These instructions do not speak about using individual people as the object—a friend, a neutral person, etc.—but instead describe a boundless radiation. In my book I mention that in one discourse—the Dhānañjāni-sutta in the Majjhima-nikāya (MN 97)—it’s quite clear that this radiation is being practiced by somebody who had no experience with brahmavihāra meditation, and who on top of that was also quite sick, so this radiation description does not describe only absorption experience.

To translate this into actual practice, my suggestion is to employ whatever method one may already be comfortable with for arousing the condition of mettā or the others, and then to move from doing mettā to just being mettā—simply resting in that condition. Then from there allowing it to shine in all directions without any kind of force or effort.

The simile I use is a lamp standing behind a curtain. We just softly and gently pull away the curtain. Just allow the light to shine as far as it shines naturally. There’s no need to push to make it stronger. All we do is simply pull away that curtain and allow it to be open. This is appamāṇa—this is boundlessness. It doesn’t mean we have to reach out to any specific distance. It just means not putting any boundary—that is quite sufficient. From simply resting in that condition, it naturally becomes more familiar and stronger.

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