And the greatest of these…

During the month of June, our Thursday morning study and practice group paused to reflect once again on the very familiar, relational Dharma practices called the four brahma viharas. These are: goodwill, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. These “pro-social” teachings all center around the intention of connecting wisely, kindly, and appropriately––in ways that create the least harm––with those with whom we share the world. Not an easy task in these contentious times. They are all aspects of love, a love that grows out of an understanding of the Four Noble Truths, the basis of the Buddha’s teachings. These are the truths of our vulnerability and our related reactivity, as well as the truth of the possibility of skillfully ameliorating this human condition by way of bodily and mental development, and the operational truth of a specific scheme of eight categories of actions.

Dharma teachers Caroline Jones and Paul Burrows summarized these ways of loving beautifully. In a talk given a number of years ago at the Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts, they suggested that goodwill (metta) is the love that connects; compassion (karuna) is the love that responds; appreciative joy (mudita) is the love that celebrates; equanimity (upehkka) is the love that allows. Each one of these four qualities supports and is supported by the others. In addition, each one supports and is also supported by the clear seeing of mindfulness––and by the steadiness of the gathered, concentrated heart. They are all manifestations of a love that doesn’t turn away.

As we explore them, we easily recognize that our cultivating these attitudes or intentions is helpful to others. When we manifest caring in these ways, we help others feel safer and more connected. As we practice with them and they become more and more authentic and habitual, they have a strong altruistic component. It’s sometimes less obvious that these same states are beneficial to ourselves as well, but we come to realize that they are accompanied by the arising of pleasant feelings in ourselves, feelings which are not dependent on outer events. Working with them leads us to an inner sense of ease and confidence. They bring us to our own happiness and to feelings of safety. We are even told by science that they are conducive to good physical and mental health. In time, we experience this directly. They help us as we work with them.

Metta frees the heart from thoughts of ill will;
Karuna frees the heart from thoughts of cruelty;
Mudita frees the heart from envy, resentment, and discontent;
Upekkha frees the heart from attachment to preferences.

Clearly, we can practice with these attitudes in our interactions with others, and we found last month that we can also cultivate them in our meditative lives on the cushion. In meditation, we can develop an attentiveness that is colored by a kind, compassionate quality, a joy in goodness, and an evenness of heart, which manifests trust in ourselves, in others, and in the natural unfolding of life––without having to push or force or turn away from it. We can bring this kind of attentiveness to the breath, to bodily sensations, to thoughts and opinions, to the direct experience of change and endings within the framework of our silent, solitary practice. As we do this, we radiate the complexities of loving connection into the world––not only through our actions, but also through our general way of being, through the refining of our attentiveness and our tenderheartedness.

We become like the wise moving through the villages of this shared world, who, we are told in the Dhammapada verses, “move like the bee who gathers the sweet nectar from the flowers of life, while not harming or disturbing the color or the fragrance of the flower.”

Our practice group began our month-long exploration of the four brahma viharas by invoking a gentle curiosity about them. How does metta (and each of the other three factors in turn) “look, feel, taste, sound, smell, and cognize” when it is present? How can we tell when is it present and when is it not present? Some years ago, Dharma teacher Taraniya Gloria Ambrosia reflected that when we are learning to meditate, we are told to sit down and to concentrate and be mindful––and mostly, in those early stages, we have no idea what that means! Maybe this is true for metta too. We don’t really know what it is. Our practice helps us to know.

As we connect with a naturally arising benevolence and engage in the meditative and contemplative practice of friendliness over time, we refine our thoughts about the concept of kindness; we remember it; we imagine it; we relax with the intention to become it; and we allow it to spread out from us. We begin to recognize it. Using metta as our meditative object (“anchor”) in sitting practice, we bring a mindful awareness to the increasingly familiar experience when it is present. We gently investigate it with just the right effort, and we start to feel the joy and spaciousness it affords. We gradually cultivate a steady, gathered, and balanced state of metta––one we can call to mind fairly easily––both in quiet and in challenging moments: “The key to development along the Buddhist path is repetitive routine guided by inspirational vision” (Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi).

Metta is often translated as “loving-kindness.” It refers to the benevolent heart––one that is empty of hatred and ill will, but not empty of kindness. Metta attunes to another’s experience. It protects and is friendly, filled with well-wishing towards all––without exception, just like a gentle rain, nourishing all things equally.

Karuna, compassion, is more specific. It arises in the presence of harm. It is the love that responds, the love that doesn’t turn away from suffering. It has four components: (1) seeing that physical harm or mental distress is being experienced by someone for some reason, be it intentional or from natural occurrence (mindfulness and empathy); (2) knowing that something can be done to ease the pain; (3) feeling the urge to do something; (4) moving toward direct action. There is wisdom in the realization that this suffering is due to certain causes and conditions surrounding it. There is often a kind of joyous energy in the sense that “we can change this situation; we can do this together.” There are often the voiced questions of How can I help? How can I ease the physical or mental distress? How might I express a feeling of solidarity to soften the sense of aloneness? “It is the perspective of the sufferer that determines whether a given experience perpetuates suffering or is a vehicle for awakening” (Mark Epstein).

According to the scholarship of Bhikkhu Analayo, Mudita is the one of the four brahma viharas that is mentioned least in the Buddhist scriptures. He sometimes thinks it refers to a positive attitude, a feeling of lightness and uplift. Bhikkhu Bodhi once said, “I believe in a positive force in the universe.” Bhikkhu Analayo once responded to this by saying, “I believe I can be a positive force in the world.” Both of these statements reflect upon this quality of joy, Mudita. A related Pali word is Anumodana: “To delight in the goodness being done.” (Thanks to Judith Randall for this information.)

Upekkha is the “love that allows.” Its far enemy in our hearts is clinging based on craving: when we feel that addictive quality of having-to-have, we know that equanimity is far away. Its near enemy might be harder to distinguish; it is indifference, apathy. Once when asked how we can know the difference between apathy and equanimity, Bhikkhu Analayo said, “That’s easy. If there is mindfulness present, it is equanimity; if not, it’s indifference.” Joseph Goldstein suggested that equanimity might be understood as patience––in our meditation practice and in our lives. It is a practice. Its presence is strengthened by wisdom:

Equanimity is not just a decision that we can will into being: “Let me be equanimous, right now, in the face of this difficulty.” It’s based on a deep understanding of the impermanent, unstable, changing, unreliable, and conditional nature of reality.
––Pascal Auclair, “The Fourth Quality of the Heart,” Tricycle, Summer 2023

The power of love in the transformation of a life and as a liberating factor, which frees us from confusion, anxiety, and depression, is known by many spiritual traditions. The title of this essay comes from a well-known verse from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. In searching the various translations online, I chose this one:

Until then, there are three things that remain: faith, hope, and love––and the greatest of these is love. . . . So above all else, let love be the beautiful prize for which you run.
–– 1 Corinthians 13:13 TPT

Perhaps in our Buddhist tradition, we could interpret this as “let love be the beautiful gift for which we practice”; and we could emphasize the importance of this practice component with Thich Nhat Hanh’s important reminder: “It’s not just a matter of faith; it’s a matter of practice.”

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