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Brahmaviharas Retreat - Notes

by Tejananda

Brahmaviharas Retreat – Notes

by Tejananda

Given at Vajraloka Retreat Centre, April–July 1999

Related audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/meditation/guided

Brief overview

The brahmaviharas are metta (maitri in Sanskrit), karuna, mudita and upekkha (upeksa in
Sanskrit). Metta is the foundation; karuna & mudita are metta responding to particular
conditions. Upekkha is the union of them all, conjoined with insight.

'Brahmavihara' means 'abode of Brahma' – Brahma being regarded in Buddhist
cosmology as the highest mundane being; so we could call brahmaviharas the 'pinnacle of
the mundane'. This his how they are generally seen in the Theravada tradition. But it
seems quite possible that the Buddha used the term 'Brahmaloka' as a synonym of
awakening, nirvana itself. This suggests that he taught the brahmaviharas as means to
awakening in their own right. They are also known as the '4 apramanah', 'the
immeasurables', as there's no limit to them, i.e. to the number of objects or scope of
metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha.

The Buddha's emphasis on the practice of the Brahmaviharas highlights fact that the
transformation of our emotions is a crucial aspect of spiritual life. So important first of all
to understand what 'emotion' might mean in Buddhist terms.

'Rectification of terms'

I think in approaching the brahmaviharas it is crucially important to be clear about the
distinction between sensation, feeling and emotion – particularly the latter two. I propose
to use these terms in quite a specific way, as related to particular Pali / Sanskrit terms.

'Sensation' is here synonymous with sparsa/phassa, i.e. as 'sense impression' or 'contact'.
A definition of sparsa from the Pali canon is: 'Dependent on the [sense organ] and the
[object], [a sense]-consciousness arises: the coming-together of the three is

sense impression – e.g. the coming together of feather, skin and mental awareness of

a 'tickle' amounts to a unitary experience which we can call a 'sensation'. So, 'sensation'
refers to any sense-experience that we might have. It doesn't just refer to our sense of
touch – sight, hearing, smelling, taste and mental sensing (thoughts, images, emotions
etc) are also here included under 'sensations'.

'Feeling' or 'feeling tone' means vedana. This refers just to the pleasant, unpleasant or
neutral feeling which is inseparably associated with any sense impression. 'Feeling-tone'
is perhaps better as it clearly avoids the usual associations with the word 'feeling' in
English. I.e. we're not understanding 'feeling' in usual colloquial sense of, for instance, 'I
feel angry' – which less colloquially but more accurately means 'I'm emoting anger'.
Remember that as senses include the mind – the mental sense – mental activities and
emotions also have their own associated feeling-tone or vedana, pleasant, unpleasant or

Note that in the 12 nidanas of conditioned arising, sensation and feeling are 'karmically
resultant' – i.e. they are not actively karma-forming in themselves. They so to speak
happen to us, rather than ourselves making them happen (though we have in the past –
and this could include the very recent past – set up conditions which make them 'tend' to

'Emotion' is equivalent to samskara. These are what we make happen – i.e.
volitions/impulses, willings, wantings, wishings, motivations, makings, formings, moods.
Samskaras are karmically active or formative and can be either skilful or unskilful. These
are represented in the 12 nidana chain by tr¿na/tanha, the primary manifestation of
delusion in terms of unskilful samskaras. However, in principle, this nidana can be taken
to represent samskaras in general – after 'the gap'. Whether one goes around the cycle of
sa¬sara again, or spirals up the augmentative nidanas towards samadhi and insight
depends on whether one's samskaras are skilful or unskilful ('creative' or 'reactive').

One more definition here: I use 'positive' just as an equivalent of 'skilful' (kusala); and
'negative' as equivalent of 'unskilful' (akusala) – otherwise these words are open to
possible misconstrual if used in the general, rather vague ways that they tend to be by
English speakers.

The brahmaviharas (like all meditative states) are kusala samskaras. It's vitally important
to be clear that metta and the other brahmaviharas are not vedanas (though – a possible
source of confusion at first – vedanas will always be present in them, as they are in every
experience we have). Unskilful samskaras are emotions that arise from delusion, i.e. our
more or less compulsive 'unconscious' attractions towards/pulls away from things
(unconscious in that we are not really, fully aware when we do it). I.e. craving / aversion
and all their derivatives: greed, lust, meanness, irritation, ill-will, anger, jealousy...

At this level – what Sangharakshita refers to as the 'reactive mind' – we're just doing what
we want to do, following the line of least resistance. In contrast to this, the Dhammapada
points to what we need to do: 'Just as a fletcher makes straight his arrow, so the wise man
makes straight his trembling, unsteady citta' (i.e. equivalent to samskaras). So, we need to
learn how to direct & cultivate our samskaras, consciously and deliberately. Which
means, firstly, becoming aware of them. When we have become aware of them, (which is
what we are doing at the beginning of every meditation practice), we can then start
working on them & channeling them more creatively. That's to say, we can explore the
unlimited possibilities of the skilful side of our emotionality & discover just how skilful
emotions find appropriate expression in the different situations we meet in our lives.

But before we can start to cultivate skilful emotions we need to know what we're actually
'emoting' now, already. Gross emotions usually are easy to contact (difficult to avoid!),
subtle ones can be more difficult. This is why it's so important to cultivate overall self-
awareness at the beginning of every meditation practice. What this really means is being
receptive to exactly what is going on in us from moment to moment – in body, mental
activities and emotional activities. So, in becoming aware of our emotional activities as
part of our setting up, we're not just looking for fully formed 'emotional states' – that is,
moods – but also for slighter or more subtle emotional impulses that may be arising – for
example, things that we're wishing for, or wanting to do. A desire to move a hand or
scratch an itch is an emotional activity too. What we tend to think of as 'emotional states'
are simply a 'cloud' or continuum of such volitions – entrenched samskaras. So working
with our emotions means going deeper into ourselves – contacting what we really are
emoting and then working from where we are – with hindrances or dhyana factors,
whatever the case may be, in the brahmaviharas.

Points on metta bhavana (Most of these points apply to all the brahmaviharas)

As we've seen, metta, like the other brahmaviharas, is a positive emotion – a skilful
(kusala) samskara. Bearing in mind the distinction between vedanas and samskaras, what
we need to avoid doing when practising the metta bhavana the 'feelgood bhavana' – i.e.
trying to cultivate pleasant or 'nice' feelings /vedanas in relation to self and other people.

As should be clear from the above, it is not even possible to cultivate vedanas directly,
which is why people attempting to do so can end up in strange, or at least strained states.

As a samskara, metta naturally has particular characteristics. As regards the meaning of
the word, in Sanskrit, maitri is ultimately derived from 'mitra' which in turn comes from
the root mith 'to unite, pair, couple, meet (as friend or antagonist)'. 'Mitra' has the former
association: 'a friend, companion, associate'. An alternative form of mitra, found in
compound words, is maitra which has the associations of 'coming from or given by or
belonging to a friend, friendly, amicable, benevolent, affectionate, kind'. From this is
derived maitri – 'friendship, friendliness, benevolence, good will'. (Definitions from
Monier-Williams' Sanskrit dictionary). Metta is the Pali (prakrit, i.e. a colloquial) form,
derived from the Pali equivalent of mitra, i.e. mitta, derived also from maitra. In the PED,
the definition is 'love, amity, sympathy, friendliness, active interest in others'.

As we are aware metta, as a brahmavihara, has a number of specific characteristics, i.e. it
embodies the qualities of the definitions above, characteristic of friendliness, and is
disinterested and limitless (apramana – viz the alternative name for the brahmaviharas,
the 4 apramanah or 'illimitables').

Note that the basis of metta is friendliness, not friendship – i.e. we are training ourselves
to be friendly to all beings, not to think in terms of 'all beings could actually be my
friend', (which they can't ...

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