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


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Section VI:  The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

In this section we will look more closely at the Four Sublime States and their relationship with, and development through, training in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (satipatthana).

In The Path of Purification, (Visuddhi Magga), Buddhaghosa gives us some concise thoughts on the effect of each of the four brahma-vihara on the ethical purification. It says:

  1. With respect to the essence of lovingkindness, it has the characteristic of devotion (pavatti) in relation to others’ welfare (IX, 93)


  2. With respect to the essence of compassion (karuna), it has the characteristic of devotion to removing others’ suffering…It has the function of not tolerating others’ suffering, not enduring others’ suffering (IX, 94). The meditative cultivation of compassion is the effective way to remove harmfulness (IX, 108).


  3. Sympathetic Joy has ‘the characteristic of rejoicing’…It has the function of being non-envious, un-envious’ (IX, 95)…The meditative cultivation of sympathetic joy is the effective way to remove displeasure (IX, 108).


  4. Equanimity has… ‘the characteristic of devotion to the aspect of even-mindedness with regard to sentient beings. It has the function of seeing beings equally’ (IX, 96). The meditative cultivation of equanimity is the effective way to remove lust (raga) (IX, 108).

It should be noted that equanimity as one of the Four Sublime Abodes is quite different from equanimity in the sense of “feeling”…‘the former is neutrality with regard to sentient beings; the latter is the feeling of neither pleasure nor pain that accompanies various states of consciousness’ [Visuddhi Magga, IV, 158, 162; cf. and H.B. Aronson, Love and Sympathy in Theravada Buddhism.]

As yet, little is known of the method of practicing lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, but, according to the Pali tradition, the only way to practice and realize these states is by “mindfulness”, which in the famous Maha Satipatthana Sutta is described as ekayano maggo. According to Nyanaponika Thera, this way of mindfulness is the … ‘heart of Buddhist meditation…the heart of the entire doctrine (dhamma-hadaya)’, [The Heart of Buddhist Meditation]

Concerning the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (satipatthana), the Buddha said: “This is the sole way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destroying of pain and grief, for reaching the right path, for the realization of nibbana, namely, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness”, these are: (1) contemplation of the body; (2) contemplation of feeling; (3) contemplation of mind, and (4) contemplation of mind-objects. They can be expressed in Sanskrit as:

  1. kaya-smrty-upasthana, application of mindfulness to body
  2. vedana-smrty-upasthana, application of mindfulness to feeling.
  3. cita-smrty-upasthana, application of mindfulness ot mind
  4. dharma-smrty-upasthana, mindfulness of all things

All things are realized in our mind and by our attention through mindfulness, which means “attention with clear comprehension” (sampajanna). The technique for Mindfulness Training is described concretely by Nyanaponika Thera in The Heart of Buddhist Meditation.

Satipatthana, the training in right mindfulness is culture of mind in its highest sense…Morality’s safest roots lie in a true culture of the heart. In the Buddha’s teaching, this culture of the heart has a prominent place, and finds an ideal expression in the four Sublime States or Divine Abodes of the Mind (brahma-vihara): Lovingkindness, Compassion, Sympathetic joy and Equanimity. Selfless and boundless lovingkindness is the basis of the other three qualities as well as of any effort for ennobling the mind. Therefore, in the Satipatthana method too, a primary task of Mindfulness is to watch that no deed, word or thought offends against the spirit of unbound lovingkindness (metta). The cultivation of it should never be absent from the path of the disciple.’

The Buddha laid the greatest emphasis on morality (sila). We stress again the three sections of Eight-Fold Path – virtue, concentration and wisdom. Virtue, or morality (sila), is the beginning and sustaining element. Fixing one’s mind on the subject of mindful meditation, the devotee washes out the impurities of the mind. And, all three “trainings” go hand in hand, because without sila practice one can not begin to enter the path of mindfulness through concentration to the realm of wisdom

In Digha Nikaya (III, 223 f), there is a discourse on the “Irradiation of Friendliness, Compassion, Tenderness and Equanimity”, which could be considered a model text in a semantic matrix for nearly all of the later elaborations concerning the Four Sublime Abodes in the development of Mahayana Buddhism. The text under reference consists of four paragraphs, each one being composed of the same structural harmony as follows:

‘Idh’, avuso, bhikkhu metta-sahagatena cetasa ekam disam pharitva viharati, tatha dutiyam, tatha tatiyam, tatha catutthim. Iti uddham adho tiriyam sabbadhi sabbatthataya sabbavantam lokam metta-shabagatena cetasa vipulena mahaggatena appamanema averena avyapajjhena pharitva viharati.’

The following literal translation is rendered carefully by R.E.A Johansson in Pali Buddhist Texts:

‘Friends, now the monk remains pervading one quarter then a second, then a third and a fourth, with a mind filled with friendliness, up, down, horizontally: in all directions, everywhere, he goes on pervading the whole world with a mind filled with friendliness, extensive, expanded, boundless, free from hate and malevolence.’

The same paragraph, with different English rendering of the Pali phrases are found in The Vision of Dhamma (Nyanaponika Thera, p.251). The words of Lord Buddha:

‘Here, monks, a disciple dwells pervading one direction with his heart filled with lovingkindness, likewise the second, the third and the fourth direction; so above, below and around; he dwells pervading the entire world everywhere and equally with his heart filled with lovingkindness, abundant, grown great, measureless, free from enmity and free from distress.’

Regarding the other three paragraphs, there is the same structural elegance and economy of contextual symmetry where one can easily see the focus. After metta (lovingkindness) in the first phrase, we see karuna (compassion) at the beginning of the second, and so on through sympathetic joy and equanimity in the third and fourth paragraphs. The order shown here is found only in the Pali, but the central axis of the structure and substructure is also easily visible in different English versions. The text is uniform in mentioning all Abodes of the Four Sublime States.

On the above quoted text of the Buddha, the following remarks seem to be pertinent:

  1. The “heart” or “mind” is not a being among other beings.


  2. Space is not construed simply as being with its modes of being such as the “ten directions”.


  3. There is non-duality between heart and space, and we are endowed with the unlimited possibility of the heart to give space to everything. Therefore, we have the tremendous potentiality to “dwell pervading” (pharitva viharati): “he dwells pervading, he goes on filling”, viharati expresses duration, and essential mode of temporality.


  4. Since the heart is condition of possibility of space, and intentionally is the movement of the heart itself, the heart is able to “dwell pervading everywhere”, encompassing all directions.


  5. The essence of the heart consists in the boundlessness, the immeasurable, the endless of the “Encompassing Being”, which is empty; emptiness or void – that is empty of its own nature (svabhava sunyata). The Four Divine Abodes in Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend are rooted in the teaching of the “void”.


  6. Only the void or emptiness (sunyata) of the heart could render possible the transformation of everything and the realization of the transference of the “other” and “self” (paratma parivartana) and the equality of the self and another (paratma samata). This leads to the supreme practice of equanimity as expounded in Santideva’s Entering the Path of Enlightenment, Atisa’s Lamp for the Path and the Lam Rim spiritual method of the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.


  7. The Four Sublime Abodes are transformed into the most important dwellings for the Bodhisattva’s way of spiritual practice, considered as the “great skilful means”: great lovingkindness, great compassion, great sympathetic joy, great equanimity inseparable from the Great Perfection of Wisdom (mahaprajnaparamita, Skrt).

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