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Brahma-Vihara’s Exalted Mind States
There are four exalted states of mind taught by the Buddha. These are perfected mind-states that reflect an enlightened view of humanity. In Pali these states are known as the Brahma-Vihara or perfected-abode. These are mind-states that one abides in. These states of mind animate conduct to all human beings. These are also the wise and loving response to all social interaction and will diffuse tension and conflict.
The four sublime states as taught in the Dhamma are:
Love or loving-kindness (Pali: Metta)
Compassion (Pali: Karuna)
Unselfish Joy (Pali: Mudita)
Equanimity (Pali: Upekkha)
A teaching of the Buddha on these four sublime states is found throughout the Pali Canon. Here is a teaching on all four states from the Digha Nikaya 13:
“Friends, when one dwells continuously with their heart filled with loving-kindness, pervading the entire world, they are abundant, they have grown great, their love is measureless and they are free from enmity and distress.
“Friends, when one dwells continuously with their heart filled with compassion, pervading the entire world, they are abundant, they have grown great, their love is measureless and they are free from enmity and distress.
“Friends, when one dwells continuously with their heart filled with unselfish joy, pervading the entire world, they are abundant, they have grown great, their love is measureless and they are free from enmity and distress.
“Friends, when one dwells continuously with their heart filled with equanimity, pervading the entire world, they are abundant, they have grown great, their love is measureless and they are free from enmity and distress.”
Love is always selfless and imbued with Dana, generosity. Love embraces all things in the phenomenal world while being mindful of impermanence – love does not further clinging. Love does not discriminate – with no “I” there is no mind of discrimination. Love is dispassionate – seeing all things with equanimity. Finally, Love is the Dhamma and living in and expressing the Dhamma.
Compassion arises from understanding our own suffering. Through Dhamma practice an understanding of confusion and suffering occurs. Through personal understanding comes universal understanding. Compassion deepens for ourselves and others through Right Understanding. This develops compassion informed by wisdom. Compassion is also free of discrimination and passion. Compassion to all beings begins with remaining harmless. Compassion to all beings is maintaining Right Intention.
Unselfish Joy is pure joy with other’s success and happiness. It is joy that seeks to further other’s happiness without passion or discrimination. The highest aspect of unselfish joy is the joy that comes from recognizing another’s understanding of the Dhamma.
Equanimity is a mind that is free of reaction, stable in its understanding of Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta. A mind resting in equanimity is a mind deeply mindful of all that is occurring and a mind that responds with wisdom, love and compassion in all situations. A mind of equanimity is a mind free of an attachment to an ego-personality and is free of defending or maintaining the ego-self. Equanimity is a mind of lasting peace and happiness.
These are mind-states free of discrimination. In this manner they are also referred to as boundless states as they are not limited by any partiality. These qualities of mind are effortlessly maintained in all situations. They are the results of a whole-hearted Dhamma practice that has a recognition of views arisen from a lack of understanding and has achieved a measure of non-reaction (equanimity).
The framework for Dhamma practice, The Eightfold Path, provides the Right View necessary to gain mindfulness of these perfected mind states and recognition when one is not abiding in them. In this way, mindfulness of the state or condition of one’s mind in the present moment provides the direction for ongoing Dhamma practice. This is another practical aspect of non-analytical insight.
Shamatha-Vipassana meditation brings insight to all clinging and impermanent views arising from a lack of understanding. As meditation practice develops with the framework of the Eightfold Path, mind-states that are less than loving or compassionate or lacking unselfish joy or equanimity become apparent. Putting aside the need to defend views of and ego-self allows recognition of these sublime states and the Right Intention to renounce clinging to these views.
The entire Dhamma develops these four sublime states of mind. The love that is developed is not a reaction to passion or possessive of an object. Compassion is also dispassionate and informed with wisdom. Being free of attachments allows for true joy in other’s accomplishments. A mind of equanimity is always mindfully present and unwavering in love, compassion and unselfish joy. In this way, the Dhamma is a Dhamma of developing perfect love, and perfect love has aspects of all four sublime states of mind.
My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland and Maurice Walsh, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
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