This is Post 37 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series.
The overall framework for the articles in this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series has been provided by the mandala of the four brahmavihāras: Equanimity (upekshā), Appreciative Joy (muditā), Loving Kindness (mettā), and Compassion (karunā). In order to make these four ‘attitudes of Consciousness’ more accessible, and in order to help people recognise them in their experience, I have, in recent articles, been exploring to the Four Qualia – a formulation of my own, which I have found to be very useful.
The qualia are difficult-to-define, difficult-to-describe, difficult-to-account-for experiences, and there a four of them that together provide a helpful experiential framework for meditation practice: Embodiment; Being; Uncaused Happiness; and Life Energy. Deepening into our experience of resting as Consciousness using this ‘Four Qualia’ formulation as our guide, is essentially an easier, more modest, and more experiential way of approaching the sublime brahmavihāras.
In the next article in this series, I shall be presenting some more detailed reflections on each of the Four Qualia and their corresponding brahmavihāras, for those wishing to experiment with them in their meditation practice, but first, in this article, I would like to reflect on the importance of these practices, and also on why, given their great value, they appear to have been relatively neglected.
Why are the brahmavihāras not better known?
The brahmavihāras are literally the vihāras or ‘dwelling places’ of the great four-faced creator god Brahma – they are the states in which Brahma was believed to abide. Importantly the word vihāra does not denote a permanent home, but a lodging or retreat, like the accommodation for travellers to rest overnight while on a pilgrimage. So the term immediately suggests a staged form of meditation, in which the practitioner moves systematically through a series of four stages corresponding to the brahmavihāras, in order perhaps to achieve a fifth stage, the state of balance, wholeness and internal energetic coherence that Indian tradition calls samadhi. We are being invited, in the brahmavihāras meditation-cycle, to ‘rest’ for a period of time in each vihāra – to rest and find refreshment and renewal in our true nature, both in our meditation practice, and on the journey of life.
In ancient Indian tradition, Brahma is the first of the gods. He was believed to exist before anything else and before any other beings existed. He was the creator of everything, and his spirit, or brahman, pervades all beings and all of the cosmos, in much the same way that the one-point Quantum field appears to pervade the universe in Quantum Physics. It is abundantly clear therefore, that Brahma carried the projection of Consciousness for the people of ancient India.
The Buddha would have been keenly aware of Indian religious belief in Brahma when he was integrating his realisation, and preparing to present his challenging new teachings within the religious cultural context of his time and place. It is at first perplexing therefore, that the brahmavihāras are not given a higher profile in Theravada Buddhism, and are not usually associated with the meditation mandalas of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism – especially when it is so clear that the Mandala of the Five Archetypal Buddhas is a reflection of the same archetypal pattern.
Although the association of the Five Buddha mandala with the brahmavihāras is very evident, an important new, distinctively Buddhist formulation of the five archetypal principles that the mandala represents, emerged during the Mahayana period – and this came to take precedence. This new formulation was the Five Wisdoms, which closely parallel the brahmavihāras and express them in a new way. This is a theme that I shall be returning to very soon.
Brahma – the Four-Faced Creator God of Ancient India
In modern terms we could say that the Buddha was thinking like an archetypal psychologist. He recognised that Brahma, the great four-faced creator god of ancient India, was a personification – not a person. He would also have recognised however, that Brahma was a extremely important personification, a very significant archetypal figure in the ancient Indian imagination – a personification of Consciousness itself. In the context of ancient Indian language and culture, the Buddha had no choice but to embrace the figure of Brahma, and the brahmavihāras that were associated with him. He would, no doubt, have been experiencing the brahmavihāras within himself – indeed he would have found them to be a perfect description of what he was experiencing.
The Buddha had a problem however, in regard to the brahmavihāras, and his followers had the same problem after his death. The Buddha was forging a whole new approach to spirituality, which, though it appeals to the modern western sensibility, must have appeared very radical to the people of ancient India. He was asking them in effect to abandon the idea that their gods were cosmic persons. Indeed he was saying that there are ultimately no separate selves whatsoever – of any sort.
Buddhism’s Need to Distinguish itself from Hinduism
In modern psychological language, the Buddha was inviting his students to ‘take back the projection’ of Brahma, and instead to recognise what is being projected ‘within’ – as a psychological reality. To see how difficult it is for us to do this, we need only to look at the way the religious fundamentalisms of Christianity and Islam thrive to an extraordinary degree in the modern world, where people happily deny the truth of the scientific knowledge on which our high-tech world depends – refusing the insights of depth psychology and the Quantum Biology of the brain in order to retain the certainty of our religious beliefs.
The Buddha would have had no difficulty with the idea that Brahma is an archetype – a non-personal personification of Consciousness. His students down the centuries however, would have had difficulty taking back of the projection, and this created a problem. For the Buddha, and even more so for the Buddhist teachers who were trying to preserve the Buddha’s teachings after his death, there was a great need to distinguish Buddhism from the Hindu religious culture out of which it had emerged. This clearly presented a difficulty when one the Buddha’s foundational approaches to meditation was based on the pre-Buddhist teaching of the brahmavihāras.
Because the Buddha’s teaching was not written down until 400 years after his death, there is much that we cannot know about the details of how the Buddha taught meditation. It seems very reasonable to assume however, that however central they were to the Buddha’s teachings, the association of the brahmavihāras with the Hindu god Brahma would have presented a cultural incongruence – one that would have been strongly in conflict with the need for Buddhism to forge its own distinct cultural identity separate from Hinduism.
The Brahmavihāras and Mahabrahmavihāras
Our lack of knowledge of the course of the development of the brahmavihāras is compounded by the complete destruction of the great monastic libraries of Indian Mahayana Buddhism, which would have provided a record of the period during which the Mandala of the Five Buddhas evolved. We are told that the burning of the thousands of beautiful hand copied palm leaf books in the centuries old library at the great Buddhist university of Nalanda took several weeks. Thankfully some of those books had been translated into other languages, and taken abroad. We will never know what works of spiritual genius were lost to humanity, and Buddhism was in effect completely destroyed in India. Only very recently, have we seen the start of a re-introduction of Buddhism, from outside India, in the second half of the 20th Century.
One thing that we do know however, is that the Mahayana saw the need to distinguish the ‘great-brahmavihāras’ or mahabrahmavihāras (i.e. aspects of the absolute, or Consciousness itself) from the brahmavihāras (i.e. the relative aspects – the reflection of the mahabrahmavihāras in our relative experience). This was an important distinction to make, and one that I have been endeavouring to reflect in my approach, although it is difficult to always make the distinction without seeming academic – indeed much of the time, when I write about the brahmavihāras I am really talking about the mahabrahmavihāras.
At the same time however, to avoid appearing pedantic, I tend to use the use the word brahmavihāras as a generic term for both the brahmavihāras and mahabrahmavihāras. As with my approach to the practice of resting as Consciousness, where I take Consciousness to be an ultimately universal, objective, and collective phenomenon appearing as a personal one, so to with the experience of the brahmavihāras. While we can approach them as personal – and may appear to make progress with them on that basis – there is very much greater transformative potential in recognising that brahmavihāras are also ultimately a universal, objective, and collective phenomena appearing as a personal one.
The notion of the Four Qualia, which I am returning to once again in this article, can be seen as a modern attempt to make the same distinction. What I have come to call the Qualia, may be thought of from this point of view, as the relative experience of brahmavihāras. It seems likely that the attitudes of Consciousness that we can sense in the background as the ‘attitudes’ of Consciousness, and which I have been simply calling the brahmavihāras, are what the tradition came to call the absolute- or maha- brahmavihāras. While this distinction is clearly necessary, it seems important that we think about these things in way that has the effect of making the non-dual reality more accessible, and more recognisable in our experience, rather than less so.
A Simpler, More Experiential Approach to the Brahmavihāras
As another way of understanding the distinction between the Four Qualia and the brahmavihāras, we can say that, whereas the four brahmavihāras can be characterised as ethical and relational ‘attitudes’, and as a way of approaching the meditation mandala through the judging function of Feeling; the Four Qualia take the perceptual function of Sensation, or bodily-felt experience, as their starting point.
In brief, we could say perhaps, that whereas the four brahmavihāras are best thought of as the attitudes of Consciousness itself, the Four Qualia are felt experiences of the energetic embodiment of Consciousness in the subtle bodies, and therefore are a more practical and experiential way of approaching the brahmavihāras. Although this is a useful conceptual distinction to make, the ultimate nature of mind is such that both ideas take us to the same place. Experientially, the Four Qualia practice and four brahmavihāras practice are almost identical – but the former, in my experience, is significantly more accessible than the latter.
The Practice of the Four Qualia
In the practice of the Four Qualia we rest as Consciousness, and notice the experiential reflection, or resonance, of Consciousness, in the four surface bodies. The practice of the brahmavihāras is very similar, and in my experience naturally follows on from, or develops from, the Four Qualia practice. The practice of the brahmavihāras, takes us close to the non-dual essence of meditation – just resting as Consciousness and recognising its attitudes and qualities as our own true nature – and the Four Qualia practice provides a stepping stone by which we can approach that experience.
The practice of the Four Qualia fully acknowledges the state of incoherence in our subtle bodies. While this might seem to be adopting an explicitly dualistic position, it provides us with a very much more accessible foundation and jumping off point for the brahmavihāras practice. Many are aware of the brahmavihāras, but are overwhelmed by the thought of identifying, and opening to, all of these four sublime attitudes in a single meditation session. For those people, the practice of the Four Qualia can provide an easy point of entry into a whole new dimension of meditation practice.
The Mandala-Cycle of the Qualia and the Brahmavihāras
My recommendation to any meditator who wishes to explore the value of the mandala of the four brahmavihāras as a framework in meditation, is to cycle through the Four Qualia first. When we first sit on our meditation cushion and rest as Consciousness, even a very quick inquiry-cycle through the experience of the Four Qualia in the four surface bodies – Being (east, Mental Body), Embodiment (south, Physical Body), Uncaused Happiness (west, Emotional Body), and Life Energy (north, Volitional Body) – will often bring us very rapidly into quite a deep state of Presence. By the time we have gone through the Four Qualia in this way we will already be experiencing the four brahmavihāras.
From that place of Presence, the brahmavihāras practice is just of the next stage of the deepening as we rest as Consciousness acknowledging the four attitudes of Consciousness in turn – Equanimity (east, Mental Body), Appreciative Joy (south, Physical Body), Loving Kindness (west, Emotional Body), and Compassion (north, Volitional Body). Do not be surprised if you find that the Four Qualia practice and the brahmavihāras are so very closely related, and that they appear to be just two different ways of approaching the same experience.
Below, and in future articles, I will provide more guidance on this approach to the brahmavihāras. I invite readers to systematically explore these principles in their experience – and in their own way. Some will prefer the traditional mandala-cycle order (i.e. Mental Body, Physical Body, Emotional Body, Volitional Body) as set out above, while others will prefer the only very slightly different hierarchical order suggested by the stupa and by the arrangement of the chakras in the field of the body (i.e. Physical Body, Mental Body, Emotional Body, Volitional Body), which I have described previously (here and here). Once you are familiar with the Qualia, you may even prefer to start with Volitional Body and the Heart Chakra and work down.
You can also choose whether you want to do the Four Qualia and the four brahmavihāras as entirely separate practices; or as separate practices one after another; or as a single cycle in combination. The summary of the Four Qualia and the four brahmavihāras in the next article, approaches them in this third way – in combination, and as aspects of the same experience.
Going Deeper in Zen Meditation Practice
I associate the Zen Buddhist tradition with the practice of ‘Just Sitting’, and with the attitude of opening to the experience of the energetic embodiment of Consciousness in the fields of the Body. I believe that the pared-down simplicity of this approach takes us very close to the non-dual essence of what the Buddha was trying to communicate. I have also however, come to see the Four Qualia and four brahmavihāras as an ideal framework for making rapid progress with the Zen ‘Just Sitting’ practice, or Zazen.
This is a somewhat unauthodox approach to Zazen, it has to be said. ‘Just Sitting’ is a meditation practice that is usually distinguished by the way it is taught with almost no guidance or structure, or any particular focus for the attention – apart from the general instruction to maintain a very good sitting posture and to experience the body and the environment. This unfortunately means that many students of Zen are actually denied the guidance that they need in order to find Zazen meaningful, and to go deeper in their practice. At worst, their experience of ‘Just Sitting’ is just that – they are just sitting on their cushions and putting in the hours, but they are not going as deep with their practice as they could be, and not even approaching the non-dual experience of resting as Consciousness, which is at the heart of Zen.
The diagram above is a schematic of the stupa, and is a representation of the four surface bodies and their corresponding chakras. The Qualia and their corresponding brahmavihāras are on the left, and the yin-yang polarities of the chakras are included on the right. More information on the somatic symbolism of the stupa can be found in my previous articles (here and here).
Practitioners of Zazen will find that the Four Qualia, once experienced and understood, will provide a very effective way of bringing a simple form of structure to their practice, that is actually fully compatible, in my view, with the essential spirit of Zen. The Four Qualia will also help all students of meditation to experientially recognise the important underlying connection between the four brahmavihāras (including the mettā-bhāvanā, or ‘Cultivation of Loving Kindness’ practice); the ‘Just Sitting’ practice; and the ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ practice. Ultimately, what is common to all these practices, and what brings depth, transformation and insight, is the attitude of resting naturally as Consciousness and recognising its qualities.
Going Deeper in the Mindfulness of Breathing practice
In a future article I shall also be explaining how awareness of the Four Qualia can bring new depth to the practice of Mindfulness in general, and to the Buddha’s ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ practice in particular. For a number of important reasons, which I shall be going into, there is great value in using the rhythm of the breath to alternate our attention between the Mental Body (Hara Chakra) and the Emotional Body (Solar Plexus Chakra) – in a practice that I call the Short Breath; and to alternate our attention between the Physical Body (Base Chakra) and the Volitional Body (Heart Chakra) – in a practice that I call the Long Breath. The Short Breath and Long Breath are themselves alternated as stages in a Mindfulness of Breathing meditation – the sitting practice period being divided into an even number of stages. I introduced this approach to the practice previously (here).
I need to go into this in much more detail, and will be doing so in future articles. I hope it will suffice to say for now however, that when, through resting as Consciousness, we become familiar with the very different experiences of the four surface bodies and their corresponding chakras, and learn to distinguish these experiences using the Four Qualia and the four brahmavihāras as our guiding framework, the experience of following the breath in the Buddha’s ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ practice takes on a whole new meaning, and becomes a much more powerful practice for generating psychological integration and insight.