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


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Section III:  Bhavana Meditation on the Sublime States

One important starting point for anyone beginning meditation practice, whether new to Buddhism or not, is to try to discard all thought and ideas about spiritual beings, the use of mantra, visualizations, fantasies, raising one’s consciousness and the like. The natural state of mind is what we are after – at the beginning and throughout our lives. The potential for living one’s life in a wakeful, receptive, non-judgmental way, with the prospect of liberation, egolessness and awakening may be taught by an ordained Buddhist minister or qualified lay teacher, not as a dogmatic or philosophical religious belief but rather as a direct experience within reach of everyone. Emerging spiritually to a higher, non-material level of consciousness is assisted through guidance by the teacher, and one may get a glimpse of a mindful state – in the midst of a confused and busy life.

Buddhist meditation techniques are based primarily upon the experiences of the Buddha and the ways he transmitted these experiences to his disciples. In the religious pursuit, embracing faith, belief and practice become the essential factors. In a brief treatment in this text, we will address the technique and practice of samadhi. Meditation is the process of developing a higher form of consciousness. This condition is attained through meditation skills diligently practiced, and not by setting a “super-human” state as the goal.

Samadhi is defined as cittassa ekaggata, one pointedness of mind; it is described as the dominant factor in the process of eliminating sensory impressions from the mind. Samadhi and consciousness are not synonymous terms, but it is Samadhi which occurs in the highest realm of consciousness. In a psychological analysis in the Abhidhamma, it is said that one can not begin the practice of ekaggata until a cleansing of all immoral thoughts has begun. This is common to all states of consciousness, whether pure or impure. The word kusala when added to the term cittekaggata, one-pointedness of mind, designates the practice of eliminating impure, sensory and evil thoughts.

At this point, by instructing the meditator on the “Five Hindrances” (see Section V), and ways to eliminate them, one emphasizes the importance of “emptying-out”, that is, eliminating unwholesome or evil thoughts. Evil thoughts may or may not be purposefully brought up during formal meditation practice. In emptying-out impure thoughts, one takes in wholesome thoughts as indicated by the Four Sublime States – lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. Through devout and diligent practice, this replacement, or exchange, can take place: that is, for example, replacing thoughts of hate and jealousy with love and wishes of well-being. This practice of bhavana, or mental development, i.e. meditation by means of development, applies to both Samadhi and Vipassana meditation practice. Paravahera Vajranana Mahathera, in Buddhist Meditation in Theory and Practice explains further:

‘It is true that in “Bhavana” there is a certain thought process, similar to that involved in mental prayer, and also the repetition of some particular words or phrases in different practices, such as “Be happy, be happy” in the practice of Metta;… But “Bhavana” is more than that. It is “thinking” in a special manner, to edify something in oneself, something which is always good. The essential thing, therefore, in “Bhavana” is its productive factor…For example, when one practices “Metta bhavana”, one not only think upon “friendliness” but makes it come into being, and grow stronger and stronger in his mind, so as to eradicate thoughts of enmity, malice, aversion and the like; and finally the aspirant becomes friendly towards all living things. In this sense it is “becoming”. ...“Bhavana” means the accumulation of all good qualities within oneself, to become apt and fit for the attainment of Nirvana.’

Meditation on the Four Sublime States is a process to engage in under the guidance of a competent teacher. It begins with some simple techniques of putting the mind at rest in the realm of not how to produce these states, but only in taking note of them through the dimension of relativity, not absoluteness. These observations may be uncomplicated, but expressing the feelings they generate is highly complex.

We have emphasized throughout this text the importance of mindfulness in everything we think and do. Being mindful of feelings is not a simple endeavor, and willingness and the resultant expressions (verbally or by one’s actions) leaves that person – in human behavioral terms – “emotionally vulnerable” and liable to criticism. Therefore, to assume that expressing one’s views and feelings is uncomplicated suggests that mindfulness meditation is the way to help remove these human behavioral stumbling blocks. Verbalizing one’s views and feelings can sometimes be highly complicated and emotionally a difficult thing to do. We have found that mindfulness in daily activities, as well as on our meditation cushion, can help one recognize and remove these barriers to morality (sila). In or discussion on techniques and principles of meditation, we will find that certain types of meditation will provide ways for one to develop willingness to express true feelings.

Initial understanding of these four terms (and practices) – lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity – will most certainly be related to the experiences and attitudes of each individual; therefore, each person is encouraged to reject his and her pre-judged idea of the bare meaning of each term and try to imagine a relationship of (1) one notion with each of the other three and (2) the accumulated “mystical” energy of all four taken in unity. Once these relationships are recognized, the devotee starts with zero concepts and definitions of the words. In the context of the jhanas, and later Zen master’s teaching, we start from the void and end with the void – not taking the self with us, but returning to emptiness (sunnata). We will discuss the jhanas, and more detailed methods of meditation practice in the remaining sections of the text.

According to the “Sangiti-Suttanta” (in Digha-Nikaya, 33), there are three Encompassing Abodes:

  1. The Heavenly Abode (dibba-vihara)
  2. The Divine Abode (brahma-vihara)
  3. The Noble Abode (ariya-vihara)

We will begin our discussion here of the four abodes of the Divine Abode (lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity). The Brahma-vihara can be selected even by the novice practitioner as the subject of meditation. A devout teacher will refer to these as “qualities of the heart”, and they help anyone engaging in sincere practice to open his and her heart and mind to these ideals of Buddhist beliefs. In cultivating the four sublime states, the mind can be delivered to a state of “liberation: or “deliverance” (vimokkha). The three liberations are:

  1. Conditionless, or signless (animitta-vimokkha)
  2. Desireless (apanihita-vimokkha)
  3. Emptiness, or void (sunnata-vimokkha)

The four sublime states are found in this “triple Gateway to Liberation” (vimokkha-mukha). These states are known as “boundless” (appamannayo) as they have no boundaries or dimensions. As we think of spiritual states or conditions, the universality of sacred and devoted entities – as they stand alone – gives us the notion of being in flight without any barriers: thus, they are known as “sublime”, exalted and majestic. But, they are within reach of every earnest meditator.

No living being is outside the circle of these qualities, which make no distinction between rich or poor, intelligent or ignorant, saint or sinner. They do not discriminate, and as we see, the peek of their attainment is “equanimity” – without discrimination! The general purpose of the four “Divine Abidings”, as pointed out in The Path of Purification (Visuddhi Magga, IX 97), is to emphasize the bliss of insight (gain through meditation) and a model for one’s future existence… ‘That peculiar to each is respectively the warding off of ill will…’ This continues:… ‘lovingkindness has the purpose of warding off ill will, while the others have the respective purpose of warding off cruelty, aversion (boredom), and greed or resentment’. Further explained:

‘For this is the escape from ill will …the mind deliverance of loving-kindness. …For this is the escape from cruelty …the mind-deliverance of compassion. For this is the escape from aversion (boredom) …the mind deliverance of gladness’ (i.e. sympathetic joy). …For this is the escape from greed …the mind-deliverance of equanimity.’ (Visuddhi Magga, 1991)

One is able to generate a calm and pure mind by cultivating these qualities. They are in consonance preached to devotees in all religions – Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu and many minor sects. We practice these for self-development, for if we can not love ourselves then there can be no empathy and feeling of true spiritual love for others. In a mantra of lovingkindness we can say, “I am well, I am happy, I am free”. Then, this thought is repeated to all others in our personal domain – wishing wellness, happiness and freedom to friends, relatives, teachers and perhaps even people you know who may consider you their enemy. The most difficult task is to wish wellness and love to those who are not extending these gifts to us. But, what other way is there to mend relationships, whether we have caused the riff or not? If lovingkindness and compassion must come from only one direction – let the gift be ours. Let us now look at each one of these Sublime States in ways which they can be drawn mindfully into our daily lives.

Lovingkindness (metta) is the factor of our emotions which endears one to oneself, and in gracious well-being to all others, unconditionally. It is for the happiness and joy of all beings that lovingkindness is directed. It must not be for the sake of lust, sensuality and greed of possessiveness. As emphasized by Piyadassi Thera in Buddhist Meditation, at the onset one must guard against these masked enemies. Love is wishing for welfare to go to all beings when extended universally and is directed toward a family member or acquaintance in a personal relationship. Love, in Buddhist sense, should be unconditional, limitless, boundless, and non-attached and without expectation. How can one think that love is non-attached? If we truly love another being, it seems that the attachment of “love” is necessary, otherwise where is this thing called love going?

During the time we are feeling love for a lover – which may be short in overall duration – the strength of our love is gripping and we put all we have into it. The love for our parents should be cherished to the point that nothing can shake it. Love is not always an emotion of joy and fulfillment, for that love shared by two people may wane. On one-to-one, or in a family situation, the lack of being mindful and conjoint meditation on metta permits a crevice in this bonded relationship; soon doubt (of another’s true love), ignorance and hate creep in. Ignorance is the lack of communication with others about one’s feelings and results in hate because of distrust and jealousy.

Meditation on metta is the best prescription for the disease of anger. Anger can be resolved in our meditation practice and through repeated mindful recitations of the well-wishing mantra: “May they be well, happy and free”. We know hate destroys, but only letting-go of that hate is not enough. It must be replaced, at first with just the intent to regain love. Metta once lost can be regained, within oneself and with another being. Lovingkindness is an active force and must be expressed, or exercised, on a daily basis. As Piyadassi Thera emphasizes:

‘If one has developed a love that is truly great, rid of the desire to hold and possess, that strong clean love which is untarnished with lust of any kind, that love which does not expect material advantage and profit from the act of loving, that love which is firm, but not grasping, unshakable but not tied down, gentle and settled, hard and penetrating as a diamond un-hurting, helping but not interfering, cool, invigorating, giving more than taking, not proud but dignified, not sloppy yet soft, the love that leads one to the heights of clean achievement, then in such a one there is no ill-will at all.’ [Buddhist Meditation]

An awareness will settle to the top of the muck and mire of the “hate” ingredients. The self-centered reasons for ill-will and hate must be confronted and destroyed and the “hate” image de-materialized to a vapor. One must empty the mind of the idea of hate during each daily mindful meditation. Then that calm, quiet period can be filled with the Lord Buddha’s proclamation:

‘Hatred never by hatred
Is appeased in this world;
By love alone it is appeased.
This is the ancient law’
[Dhammapada, 5]

Compassion (karuna) is that attribute of the heart so difficult to attain and keep. In most un-rewarding situations of helping others out of their suffering, karuna may be the strength of one’s true caring for another human being – but it could soon slip away with fatigue and lethargy on the part of the giver. Compassion is characterized as promoting the alleviation of suffering. Its function of benefiting all humankind is not a condition of bearing others’ sufferings as one’s own. Karuna is aroused in our emotions and attitudes because we see helplessness in those overwhelmed by suffering. It succeeds when it causes cruelty to subside, and true compassion must not be masked by feelings of sympathy and sorrow for another. Taking on another’s pain as one’s own, is only exacerbating the pain and diminishing the energy which goes with caring and the ability to help. The purpose of helping becomes vacant when we feel and think only sympathy for a vagrant, street-person, someone suffering or a living being in an economic and social level below ours.

Karuna is characterized by Buddhaghosa:

‘…as promoting the aspect of allaying suffering. Its function resides in not bearing other’s suffering. It is manifested as non-cruelty. Its proximate cause is to see helplessness in those overwhelmed by suffering. It succeeds when it makes cruelty subside, and it fails when it produces sorrow.’

Putting oneself in a higher position than those being relieved of suffering is playing into the egotistic attitude of helping. A person may get into this position of trying to be compassionate to erase his/her feelings of guilt, or balance one’s kamma – to make up for cruelty to another person. Altruism is the unselfish concern for the welfare of others, and compassion is the action taken to extend help. In truth one should say, “I am doing this (good deed) for the complete benefit of others and expect nothing in return.”

Compassion is the key to our spiritual life and gives us the opportunity to develop our own Buddha nature. If metta is the root of love, then love is the root of compassion. We are taught that humility is the key virtue (sila) of Buddhism. In being loving and compassionate, we protect ourselves and we protect others …by cultivating the “Foundations of Mindfulness” (Satipatthana). In the Samyutta-Nikaya 47,19, the words of the Buddha:

‘…And how does one, by protecting oneself, protect others? By repeated practice (of mindfulness), by its meditative development, and by frequent occupation with it.’

‘…And how does one, by protecting others, protect oneself? By patience and by a non-violent life, by lovingkindness and compassion.’ [The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, Nyanaponika Thera]

The Bodhisattva of Compassion is one who is bent on enlightenment, and in Buddhism we are taught that compassion and wisdom (panna) are like the two wings of the bird – one can not gain wisdom without compassion and compassion is guided by wisdom. Some think that expressing compassion is a sign of weakness of spirit, but if one expresses compassion with the energy and strength we have described here, that person will succeed in casting out ill-will from him/herself in the presence of hatred and anger.

Sympathetic Joy is that sublime state where on the good side of a person’s living situation there is success in a realm or area of his/her life. This “good fortune” could be in being financially secure and affluent, having a loving family, extended time away from the work-a-day world, living in peace and harmony, etc. We must feel the same joy in another human’s acquisition of success and joy, whether it be one who has had this good-fortune for many years or one who has newly acquired this success. We share our joy by congratulating and felicitating the successful person. Sympathetic joy is that attitude we must possess in order to be happy over another’s success. The direct enemy of this is jealousy, which as a negative factor, runs through all of the Sublime States, because jealousy and envy are the antitheses of metta and promote resentment and hate.

In our competitive world, when one person makes a successful leap into a better work position, it seems that most coworkers, because of inflated egos, think they should have had the new position. On the contrary, they should feel a stronger sense of happiness for the individual who succeeded. We can not be the conscience of those who are jealous, nor sense that we are above adverse feelings. But, we should know that we are liable to resent jealous ones. “Bad luck” or “good luck” may not be the reason for the opportunity one gets to improve his/her life. As we feel happy for the other person, moral character and kamma must be recognized as the condition which can improve life.

The term “sympathetic” – describing joy and gladness, can also apply to the identification with others in their ill-fated or unlucky condition. This reaction to other’s misery is a carry-over benefit from the previous Sublime State, compassion. In this state, and in the state of being joyous, one practices mindfulness to enter into another person’s feelings, emotions and mental state – as “being in sympathy with”. We can show others that we identify our feelings with the gladness they feel. In observing that a person is happy in a specific circumstance in life, we express compassion by letting one know that we too are feeling that happiness.

Here, especially, we have to take another’s joy into our mindful meditation to affirm that our rejoicing will not be clouted by any thoughts of envy and jealousy. We focus our meditation on the strength to support the individual in this state of gladness. Mudita is the attitude of being grateful and accepting one’s benefits and merits as well as that of graciousness in sharing this congratulatory gift.

Equanimity (upekkha) is the fourth of the Sublime States. It is the resulting condition of “working” the other three through meditation and practice in all areas of life. Lovingkindness, compassion and sympathetic joy must be imbued in our consciousness daily so they become a habit. What will intensify practice and produce results in the way of building moral (sila) character? One becomes capable of relinquishing such defeating attitudes as discrimination, control, craving, bigotry, egoism, resentment, un-forgiveness, lust and the like. Without the support of meditation and moral practice daily, we forget too often that all beings are the result of their kamma; they are as we see them, but we can be a positive force by showing lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna) and sympathetic joy (mudita). Visuddhi Magga explains:

Equanimity is characterized as promoting the aspect of neutrality towards beings. Its function is to see equality in beings. It is manifested as the quieting of resentment and approval. Its proximate cause is seeing ownership of deeds (kamma) thus: Beings are owners of their deeds. Whose (if not theirs) is the choice by which they will become happy, or will get free from suffering, or will not fall away from the success they have reached?...’

Attachment to metta, karuna and mudita can become a burden and an obstruction in arriving at a state of perfection. Therefore, equanimity is the quality which balances all sublime states, including equanimity itself. Without the forethoughts of upekkha, the mind would be always questioning the extent to which one should go toward perfection of others. Equanimity is without prejudice and bias. Piyadassi Thera clarifies this philosophical point by describing the inter-workings of the Four Sublime States: “Metta embraces all beings; karuna embraces the suffering ones; mudita embraces the prosperous; and upekkha embraces both the good and bad, the loved and the unloved, the pleasant and the unpleasant, the ugly and the beautiful without making any discrimination.” [Buddhist Meditation]


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