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The Four Sublime States
Doctrine and Practice in Buddhism
Thich Vien Ly

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Given there is a universal understanding of a norm of moral and ethical standards which cuts across civilized cultures and societies, human beings learn to initiate traditions to guide them in all of their endeavors – their work, worship and prayers – for happiness. For some, happiness comes through material gains, for others by spiritual quest. Such human behavior is learned as appropriate actions which follow the mores of the society. People adopt those folkways which they consider beneficial to the welfare of the majority within a given culture. Their adherence to such behavior is reinforced through continued observance of the laws of society.

The Buddha-Dhamma developed in response to the struggle of people searching for happiness. What is known now as the dhamma are those sermons, suttas – or discourses – and sayings of Sakyamuni Buddha, mostly written down by his disciples long after his passing away in the fifth century before the Christian Era (B.C.E.). These teachings of the Buddha give both spiritual guidelines for his doctrines and specific methods by which his followers could find release from suffering, following the path of enlightenments to nibbana and find true happiness by terminating the cycle of birth and death. Ancient Buddhist literature emphasizes four states, or conditions, for a peaceful, happy life. Known as Sublime States, these states, as taught in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, are to be attained by the practice of the jhanas, or “meditations in the realm of pure form”. They are termed “sublime”, because they are concerned with the control and the practice of lofty spiritual qualities. These four states are referred to in this text by their common terms, viz. lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

The Four Sublime States – lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, or joyousness and equanimity – are found in the Buddha’s dialogues with, and directions to, his disciples as spoken and written for the purpose of teaching. The Buddha’s formulae for happiness lie in many suttas, sermons, dialogues, in the Dhammapada – but the most direct doctrine and methods of achieving happiness are found in the Four Sublime States. Illustrated by the order given is the hierarchical character of the related conditions for living the true dhamma. They are, first, conditions of the mind, or “attitudes”. Understanding them as sublime, each human being has to develop positives attitudes – that is, those mental sets of dispositions and opinions connected with each Sublime State. In practice, one begins to realize that these four are sublime in the sense of exhalted, boundless, limitless, etc.

These are referred to in the scriptures of all Buddhist translations. Some translate the term as “The Divine Abidings”. In the Abhidhamma and Mahayana literature they are called the “measureless states”. Mrs. Rhys Davids, British scholar of Indian and Buddhist philosophy and eminent translator of the Buddhist Pali canon, cites these as Sublime Moods, or the Illimitables, and defines them as a discipline for control of emotions, or behavior. They are philosophical as well as actual states of being, and are conditions to be achieved by the practice of meditation. These four states are taught, each one and in its sequential order, as subjects of meditation.

This book is organized according to a method of natural progression by sections. Starting from a straight forward approach to introduce the philosophy of the condition of mind in the Four Sublime States, the discussion leads to interrelated thoughts, constant adjustment of attitudes into positive realms and the need for stabilizing emotions in order to attain a happy and peaceful state. It is suggested that this condition of mind can be reached, and a primary understanding of the brahma-vihara gained, only by moral and virtuous practice through the progressive process of mindful awakening. The jhanas are the purposeful attention during meditation practice.

In this text, the cultivation of the mind through meditation known as samadhi (Pali and Sanskrit) is stressed by referring to writers who have explored and taught the five jhanas. Pham Cong Thien, noted Vietnamese Buddhist scholar and author, states that to practice meditation in the fine material world, or in the realm of pure form (rupadhatu), we can derive valuable experience by dwelling among the sustained ways of solitude and silence.

In his writings, Professor Thien cites Pali commentators on the blissful experience of the meditations in the “realm of pure form”. These are summarized as follows:

  • the first jhana is accompanied by thinking (vitakka), sustained thought (vicara), joy (piti), happiness (sukha) and one-pointedness (ekaggata);

  • the second jhana is accompanied by sustained thought, joy, happiness and one-pointedness;

  • the third jhana is accompanied by joy, happiness and one-pointedness;

  • the fourth jhana by happiness and one-pointedness;

  • the fifth jhana by equanimity (upekkha) and one-pointedness.

According to Lama Anagarika Govinda, “one-pointedness is said to exist in every act of consciousness as a kind of immanent tendency of direction, but in the case of meditation, and especially in the higher states of absorption (or meditation – jhana), this factor is raised to a definite state of concentration”. Meditation itself is completely transformed into proper absorption; that is what we call samadhi in Sanskrit.

From his many years of personal experience in teaching the Dhamma, precise examination of current psychological and Buddhist references and presentations of material compiled for this book, the author has found it important to go beyond merely stating the need for the reader, the listener and the learner to relate the subject to meditation practice. He attempts to give more guidance than just saying, “meditate on the Four Sublime States”. The need is to press deeper into the methods of Buddhist meditation practice. To be more critical of the expression “meditate on” would require more explanation of the involvement in practice far beyond the scope of this text.

Emphasis on mindfulness and concentration has been made throughout the book. With full descriptions of the Four Sublime States, we hope to provide the reader with an adequate understanding and impetus for further investigation of the subject. In the description of these terms, the reader with leanings both in Theravada and Mahayana, can be motivated to search deeper into the jhanas. As wisdom grows from extended concentration and self-examination, one’s mind grows, expanding to a greater sphere – even in reflection back on the simple acts of beginning practice. In more advanced practice, personal inventories of acts omitted and acts committed can be taken in quiet meditation periods. These lead to the factors contributing to ethics and morality. Stating briefly, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains, the scope and practice of meditation is twofold – to stop and to see: samadhi is stopping, and vipassana is observing to understand.

The Four Sublime States, or “immeasurables” are guides to helping one view his/her behavior as benevolent, first to oneself, then extending the “rights” of the Eight-Fold Path to all other beings. The degrees necessary for concentration come through the heart of meditation practice. Students are reminded to follow the breath and repeat silently: “breathing in calms my body/ breathing out I clear my mind”. The deep breaths, mindful inhalation and exhalation, calmness of body, clarity of mind and our feelings of body and emotions reflect the basis of consciousness. The objects of meditation are the brahma-vihara: lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

This book is meant as an instructional text in addressing the scope and explanation of the Four Sublime States with the process of meditation practice. However, the author feels that including the short history of Sakyamuni Buddha’s life in the Afterword will afford a clearer understanding of the Buddha’s teachings.

- Thich An Hue (Claude Ware, Ph.D.)
Spring 1998

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