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


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Section I:  Present Moment of Mind: Happiness and Awareness

Human behavior may be described as actions predicated by the merging of external environmental conditions with one’s intellect and feelings about those conditions. Buddhist teachings relate emotional feelings (desires and wants) to the dictates of an individual’s self or ego, and stress that attachment to cravings and the self is the basic cause of suffering, ignorance and rebirth. The Four Sublime States (brahma-vihara), or “The Art of Noble Living”, discussed in this text are presented as aspects of Buddhist practice which can alleviate the human condition arising solely from the dictates of the self or ego. This is a self-regulating system which can be controlled by the practice of mindfulness using the three sustaining factors of the Buddha’s teaching –virtue (sila), concentration (Samadhi), wisdom (panna).

There are numerous conditional sets of actions and reactions resulting from constant adjustments to various situations in life from day to day, and many times from minute to minute.

We are all aware of the various ways by which the signs and signals from our environment dictate what we do and how we feel. We change clothing to adjust to the weather, stop for red lights, quarrel about traffic conditions, protest over mistreatment, etc. The dynamic arrangement of environmental stimuli controls us to the extent that it meshes with our psychological, or mental being. But, humans are not confined to strict behavioral commands, as animals are, because we have a will, a psyche which allows us options to perform as we wish, choosing our actions in responding to given situations which can result in happiness and in our best interest. We can make decisions to help fulfill our needs and wants.

Humans make decisions based upon information which is constantly being processed – information from memory of past experiences and evaluation of the current state of our lives. There is a continual adjustment to one’s life conditions for wants, desires and needs. Human emotions ideally should be unrelated to the drive of “self” or “ego” in making purposeful decisions. On the contrary, because of uncontrolled emotions, humans usually make irrational, inappropriate decisions with strict ego involvement. In may instances, without being mindful – one makes decisions and takes actions based upon false judgments. We learn that even carefully thought-out decisions do not always make one happy, and hopefully, we learn to adjust to them adequately.

In making mindful decisions regarding the importance of having material “things”, and providing a comfortable condition of life, there may be some conflict between “wants” and “needs”. The process of negotiating one’s wants with true needs (for emotional and physical comfort or survival) should be based upon something of a hierarchy of needs, or “first things first”. Abraham Maslow, noted American psychologist, argues in Eupsychian Management… the balance of human survival with happiness dictates that basic physiological needs are to be satisfied before we can move up the hierarchical triangle to LOVE and SELF-ESTEEM, the ability and opportunity to obtain gratification for our efforts, our basic livelihood being based primarily upon physiological needs. Wants may not be necessarily lower in status than needs, but our mind must be trained to recognize the difference. Wants, in Buddhist thinking, may be the desire to satisfy grasping, ego-drive, shallow thoughts and the like. Maslow agrees with Buddhist teachings, that from the basic physiological needs to the gratifying of emotional needs, peak experiences – the probable experience of enlightenment – are produced by each individual in his or her pursuit of the Path of Purification to Nibbana.

In the reality of seeking happiness in this life, there is an inner need in every human being to make continuous adjustments between extremes and opposites to reach a middle-way between optimism-pessimism, negatives-positives, gain-loss, and advance-retreat. One does not lean to opposite conditions which demand one’s constant adjustment. In a Buddhist and psychological sense, one adjusts one’s feelings about the opposites only to identify the conflicts which need to be resolved. In attempting to stabilize our emotions to become resolute in a happy and peaceful state, there is a position we learn to take. As Buddhists we are taught to behave (act) in a moral or virtuous (sila) way according to the Five Precepts, the Noble Eight-Fold Path and other ethical principles which include the Four Sublime States.

Awareness, attention, consciousness, and the like, are states of mind which we constantly utilize in direction thoughts to take actions in ways which we can control. Being mindful of what we are thinking, speaking and doing is one way of practicing mind-control. With the guidance of a “master” and understanding and practicing these teachings, we become mindful by regular meditation practice. Through it we learn little by little to adjust our lives to ethical standards laid down in the Sublime States. Learning and control do not happen suddenly and do not stay without sustained application and practice. As practice deepens, over time, one becomes more mindful of the objectives of inner peace and happiness. Moreover, our devotion grows with greater resolution and fervor.

There is known to be a progressive order of mindful awakening. Mindfulness is the resulting state of being. Adjustments to life’s conditions may be as one says, “I am always changing my mind”. Does changing one’s mind mean changing a physical situation or an emotion state? Mind is the primary condition of life from day to day. Being mindful and practicing mindfulness are terms often used to explain a condition of mind. The Dammapada [Narada Thera, 1993, p.5] states:

‘Mind is the forerunner of all (good) states. Mind is chief; mind-made are they. If one speaks or acts with pure mind, because of that happiness follows one, even as one’s shadow that never leaves.’

When we want to take action to do something, we have to be mindful of what we are thinking and feeling. We think ahead into our actions. All of our thoughts and feelings are determined by our mind. In making up our mind to do something, all thoughts and feelings are directed to what thing itself. It is the mind that determines the condition and resulting consequences. To be mindful of what we do is also saying that we have to be careful not to make quick judgments or not forget things. We must give heed to, and apply ourselves to each situation or condition. We have to be attentive to our own being and its various modes of presence (or absence) in the context of the present, fleeting moment. Mindfulness is the gestalt, the resulting interactions of all these elements. Our life, our present existence, is just a fleeting moment on this earth. Even our consciousness is no longer than a moment which is almost gone before we can conjure up a thought. Some human behavior studies show that the brain can sustain a single thought no longer than six seconds. Buddhist psychology assesses the speed of thought to be much higher. A “thought-moment” or “conscious-moment” (citta-kkhana) lasts no longer than a billionth part of an eye-wink or a flash of lighting. To emphasize this brevity of time, The Diamond Sutra quotes the Buddha in Sect. XXXII [Price & Wong]

‘Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.’

It is said in Anguttara Nikaya (I, 10): ‘Nothing, O monks, do I know that changes so rapidly as consciousness. Scarcely anything may be found that could be compared with this so rapidly changing consciousness.’ In the Visuddhimagga (VIII, 39): ‘…in the ultimate sense, the life moment of living beings is extremely short, being only as much as the occurrence of a single conscious moment. Just as a chariot wheel, when it is rolling, rolls…only on one point of the circumference of its tyre, and, when it is at rest, rests only on one point, so too, the life of living beings lasts only for a single conscious moment. When that consciousness has ceased, the being is said to have ceased.’ [B. Buddhaghosa].

Every moment of our life comes to be, then lingers for an instant, and quickly disappears in a flash. Remembering that, whenever we want to do something, we have to be mindful of this present fleeting moment. As written in the Bodhicaryavatara:

‘Once met, it yields the welfare of mankind. If the advantage is neglected now, how will this meeting come again? At night in darkness, thick with clouds, a lightning flash gives a moment’s brightness. So, sometimes by the power of the Buddha, the mind of the world might, for a moment, turn to acts of merit.’ [Santideva]

The first act of the merit is what we do right now; that means simply that we are reading about the teaching of the Buddha, giving our mind to this favorable moment – a moment’s brightness, a perfect opportunity, so hard to meet, leading to the achievement of human well-being. As we will come to know, we must be mindful of every passing thought and feeling during the entire time. And yet, whenever some distraction arises in our mind, we will be mindful to its arising and set our mind to this meaningful thought-moment, here and now. If we know how to do this, we will be capable of dwelling in the heart of meditation. Only if we understand the essence of mediation can we see the moment’s flash which opens up new world of thoughts, feelings and actions.


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