This is Post 10 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
One of the Buddha’s respectful borrowings from the earlier spiritual traditions of ancient India, was the four brahmavihāras (Sanskrit). I regard this teaching as fundamental to our understanding of meditation, and I shall be devoting a long series of posts to exploring it. In my view, the four brahmavihāras are not only essential for understanding and practising meditation – they are essential for understanding life.
As a starting point we can say that the four brahmavihāras are very refined and positive mental-emotional states associated with the divine in Indian tradition. I hope to show, in the course of these articles, that it is important to think of the four brahmavihāras as more than this. They are better thought of as the characteristic mental-emotional attitudes of Consciousness, or qualities of Consciousness – ethical and relational attitudes, not merely mental states. Correctly conceptualised they constitute a universal moral compass that is inherent in Consciousness, and if they were correctly and widely understood in this way they could change the way humanity sees itself, and change the course of history. The importance of this particular ancient description of the divine cannot be overstated. The four brahmavihāras are probably one of the most refined expressions of the mandala archetype, and also one of the most perfect and most illuminating expressions of Jung’s four functions of Consciousness, in the whole of human history.
Brahma – An Archetypal Image of Consciousness
In Indian spiritual tradition, the Sanskrit word Brahman denotes the absolute divine, and the god Brahma is the deity who personifies that ultimate reality – and who occupies the highest place in cosmic order of the ancient Indian pantheon. He is held to be the creator of the universe in Hindu tradition, so he is very like the Judaeo-Christian Yahweh in that regard, but in other ways he is very different.
Brahma is depicted with four faces, one facing in each of the cardinal directions. He also has four arms. So, even without going any deeper into Indian tradition, we can see that Brahma is very much a mandala-form being – a being who very concretely embodies the mysterious four-fold nature of the Divine that we see symbolised in mandala images. In the visionary imagination of ancient India, long before the Buddha established his tradition, it was the god Brahma who most completely carried the projection of the mysterious creative power of Consciousness.
Equanimity; Appreciative Joy; Loving-Kindness; and Compassion
A vihāra (Sanskrit) is a form of dwelling or shelter, especially a dwelling for spiritual practitioners. In India, a lodging place used by those who are on pilgrimage is often called a vihāra. The four brahmavihāras are upekṣā (Sanskrit – pronounced upeksha); muditā (Sanskrit), mettā (Pāli), karuṇā (Sanskrit) – usually translated as Equanimity, Appreciative Joy; Loving-Kindness; and Compassion, respectively. Hence we have the idea that the brahmavihāras are four mental-emotional ‘dwelling states’, or four characteristic mental-emotional attitudes of Brahma the Creator. In the next few posts I hope however, to be able present the four brahmavihāras as the Buddha did, as a universal description of the Divine, that is valid in all religious contexts and none – and as four aspects of Consciousness.
In my experience, all four of these facets of Consciousness are equally important. In religious terms, the four brahmavihāras show us a whole and balanced image of the divine, and as a meditation guide they give us a way of grasping the multi-dimensional balance and wholeness of Consciousness. They provide invaluable pointers to the actual experience of Consciousness. Consciousness is, by nature, never completely knowable, but it can be pointed to. These pointers are often difficult to grasp however, so there is great value in using four pointers together in succession, in a mandala-cycle, as we do when we contemplate the brahmavihāras.
Five Spiritual Choices
The four brahmavihāras also powerfully support our ability to distinguish, and therefore choose between, on one side, the four functions of Consciousness as egoic functions, and on the other side, the four functions of Consciousness as qualities or attitudes of Consciousness itself. This process of learning to discern the subtle fear and violence of the egoic mind, is foundational in the spiritual life. It is almost impossible to move beyond egoic patterning until we become familiar with the alternative responses and ways of being that Consciousness shows us. As we meditate on the brahmavihāras and become familiar with them, we start to recognise that life offers us four spiritual choices in every moment – or at least four alternative ways of grasping the fifth and central choice, which is the choice to rest as Consciousness.
When meditating on the four brahmavihāras, you can start anywhere – as long as none of the four are neglected. Indeed if you find one of the brahmavihāras difficult to grasp or connect with, there is great value in dwelling on that one until you are familiar with it. The Buddha appears however, to have given great importance to mettā, and the mettābhāvanā practice, or ‘Cultivation of Loving-Kindness’ is a popular practice among modern-day Buddhists. In this Meditation Guidance series, I will start (in my next post) by following this apparent emphasis on the part of the Buddha, and by talking about mettā, or Loving-Kindness. I will also however, be emphasising the enormous value of connection deeply with all four brahmavihāras in every meditation session whenever possible.
The Four Brahmavihāras – An invitation to explore Consciousness
Although it is clear from the Pali texts of early Buddhism that the other three brahmavihāras were also systematically embraced in the meditation practice of the early Buddhists, no detailed descriptions of the practices were preserved by the oral tradition. Those who, like myself, are drawn to the four brahmavihāras, find themselves engaging in a process of inner exploration, or meditative self-enquiry to discern these four principles. I invite you to join me in this investigation, and can assure you that it will be fruitful if you apply yourself.
Please have patience as you follow this exploration – it will take several months of articles. We shall be discussing the essence of the relationship between the human and the divine; tying to find words to describe the way Consciousness finds embodiment in the human; and asking how we can accelerate the process of unfoldment – both by systematically aligning ourselves, and by getting out of the way.