The Brahma Viharas

Indians at the time of the Buddha worshipped many gods but the chief of them all was Brahma, the name simply meaning “the highest”. This deity was conceived as having four arms and four faces and- like the god being worshipped at about the same time by the Hebrews- was given various impressive titles. He was called All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Lord, Maker, Creator and Ruler, Appointer and Controller, and Father of All that Are and All that Shall Be. [1] However, Brahma was not an angry vengeful deity; he was thought of as mainly benign. He lived above the clouds from where he looked down upon the world with one of his four faces. When he saw people who were virtuous and kindly he would look upon them with his face of mettā. When he saw them in distress, grieving or enduring pain, he would look upon them with compassion. When people were happy and jubilant, Brahma would turn his face of sympathetic joy towards them and rejoice with them. And when he saw people who were immoral, selfish or cruel, he would not get angry and threaten retribution, but rather he would turn his fourth face towards them and regard them with equanimity. The way people related to Brahma was to call upon him for help, praise him and try to please him with offerings and sacrifices. The hope was to be protected by Brahma during life and be reborn in his presence after death.

The 6th-3rd BCE in India was a time of great transition as it was in several other parts of the world. Old assumptions, including religious ones, were being challenged and new ideas were being debated. The question of how to attain union with Brahma, how to be reborn in his presence, was top of the list of hot religious topics. Two teachers whose ideas on this subject had attracted attention were the Brahmans Pokkharasati and Tarukkha. Once two young men, one a disciple of Pokkharasati and the other of Tarukkha, came to ask the Buddha what he thought of their teachers’ contending views. As a part of his answer the Buddha asked them a series of questions. First he got the young men to acknowledge that Pokkharasati and Tarukkha, like many priests at the time, had numerous wives, lived very comfortable lives, charged rather high fees for their services, and were not entirely immune from pride and jealousy, impatience and anger. He then had them confirm that Brahma was nothing like this. Moving the discussion on, the Buddha pointed out that two things completely different from each other, at odds with each other, were hardly likely to come into union with each other. On the other hand, if Brahma’s nature was loving and compassionate anyone who was like this had something important in common with Brahma and may well be reborn in his presence. For the Buddha the most meaningful “union” with Brahma was to be like Brahma, that rather than praising Brahma for being loving it was more meaningful to be loving yourself. [2] In some ways this mirrors Jesus’ exhortation: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [3]

While the Buddha had no need for the idea of a single supreme being, Brahma’s supposed four attributes appealed to him and he included them into his teachings and called them the Brahma Viharas. It has already been noted that the name Brahma simply means the highest, the foremost, the ultimate. The word vihāra means to “live” or to “abide”. So Brahma Vihara could be translated as the Godly Lifestyles or perhaps better as the Divine Abidings. Thus the Brahma Viharas are not states of mind to be visited from time to time or as and when it is convenient, but what we dwell in and what dwells in us. Let us have a closer look at each of these four Brahma Viharas.

Mettā has been discussed in detail above. To briefly reiterate, an early commentary says “mettā means being friendly towards beings, having friendly feelings, being friendly within oneself, being sympathetic, having sympathy and being sympathetic within oneself. It means being beneficent, compassionate, non-violent, untroubling, non-hating and possessing the root of goodness”. [4]

Compassion (karuṇā), the second of the Brahma Viharas, is the ability to feel the distress or pain of others as if it were our own. The English word comes from the Latin com meaning “with” and passio “suffering”. An almost exact Buddhist equivalent of this is anukampa, which means “to tremble with”. Buddhist psychology has several other synonyms for this same quality including sympathy (anuddayanā), empathy (dayā), and commiseration (anuggaṇha).

The most noticeable feature of the Buddha’s personality was his compassion, and this compassion was not just something he felt for others or that they felt in his presence, it was also the motive for much of what he said and did. He said: “What should be done out of compassion for his disciples by a teacher who cares about their welfare and out of compassion for them, I have done for you.” [5] He visited and comforted the sick “out of compassion”, [6] and he taught the Dhamma “out of compassion”. [7] Once he went into a lonely forest looking for the serial killer Angulimala, out of compassion both for him and for his potential victims. [8] The Buddha’s compassion seems to have transcended even the bounds of time. He is described sometimes as doing or refraining from doing certain things “out of compassion for future generations”. [9] On many occasions he said that his very reason for being was “for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the good and the happiness of gods and humans”. [10]

In eulogising compassion, the Jātakamāla says: “Compassion gives birth to all the other virtues just as cooling rain makes the crops grow. When a person is compassionate he has no desire to harm his neighbour, his body, speech and mind are purified, concern for his neighbour’s welfare increases and states like kindness, patience, happiness and good reputation grow. Being calm, the compassionate person does not arouse fear in the minds of others. He is trusted like a kinsman; he is not agitated by the passions, but quenched by the waters of compassion. The fire of hatred does not blaze in his heart … Remembering this, strive to develop compassion towards others; as if they were yourself or your offspring.” [11]

The Pali word mudita comes from mudu, meaning soft or pliable. It is usually rendered in English as appreciative or sympathetic joy and is the quality of being happy in the happiness of others.

The Buddha said of one of his more advanced disciples: “He is pleased and joyous with the gains of others just as he is pleased and joyous with his own gains.” [12] This is a good description of how the minds of those capable of sympathetic joy work. When they hear of or see someone getting a windfall, winning a prize, or receiving an accolade for some worthwhile achievement, it does not arouse their jealousy or envy. Rather, they identify fully with that person’s delight. Having a natural tendency to sympathetic joy is to be doubly blessed; we experience and enjoy our own happiness and other people’s as well.

In the town where I grew up, there was a small church not far from our house. On Saturdays and Sundays there were always crowds there, not of worshippers but of wedding parties. It was a rather attractive old church and made a great backdrop for wedding photos, so young couples came from all over the district to get married there. When I sometimes walked past this church I noticed there was often a small group of elderly ladies outside waiting for the newly-weds to emerge. Just seeing the young couple glowing with happiness and their delighted kin gave the ladies such joy that they would congregate there each weekend. Once I saw one of these women approach a bride and say to her: “We’re so happy for you, dear.” This statement sums up sympathetic joy well, as does “Congratulations!”, “How wonderful for you!”, “I really hope things go well for you”. When such words come from the heart they help to further transform the heart, and make it happier as well.

The last of the Brahma Viharas is upekkhā, usually translated as equanimity. The word is composed of upa meaning “on” and iks “to look” and means looking at something from a distance, detached observation. At first equanimity would seem to be qualitatively different from the other three Brahma Viharas. They presuppose an emotional involvement while equanimity suggests a standing back, even a disinterest. Used in some contexts in the scriptures upekkhā means exactly this, but as a Brahma Vihara it is somewhat different. Here it is an emotional evenness (susamāhita) towards people or situations we would otherwise get excited about, a remaining centred (majjhatta) when someone is acting to our detriment, a composure (ṭhitatta) in the face of provocation. It also includes relating to people with impartiality (samanattatā), treating everyone the same whether they be rich or poor, of the same faith as us or different, known to us or not.

As the prefix upa in upekkhā can have the additional meaning of “over”, the word also means overlooking in the sense of forgiving. Forgiveness, what the Buddha called khamati, is related to and has an element of equanimity within it in the sense of being unmoved by the desire to strike back or retaliate. The English word forgiveness suggests giving something to someone, granting them a pardon or being merciful or indulgent towards them. In Buddhism, forgiveness is seen as having a dual value. It frees the person who has it from destructive states like bitterness and grudges, hatred and vengefulness, and it frees the person who receives it from fear of retribution, from shame or prolonged guilt. As almost everyone has injured someone at some time, whether deliberately or inadvertently, if we never forgave we would never have any long-term relationships. Forgiveness allows for the resumption of the relationship ruptured by wrongdoing. It is a loving response to human imperfection. It may also have a connection with self-understanding. The more we can acknowledge our own trespasses, the easier it becomes to forgive those of others. The Buddha said: “By three things a wise person can be known. What three? Seeing a fault as it is, on seeing a fault trying to correct it, and when another acknowledges a fault forgiving it as should be done.” [13]

The Brahma Viharas can be looked at from several different perspectives: as orientations of character, as distinct and separate states or as a lattice of related states balancing and complementing each other. Buddhaghosa said the Brahma Viharas are “like a mother with four sons: one an infant, one an invalid, another in the prime of youth, and a fourth successfully making his way in the world. She wants the infant to grow up, the invalid to recover, the one in the prime of youth to long enjoy his youth, and she has no worries about the one making his way in the world.” [14] Another view of the Brahma Viharas is as four ways the loving mind relates to beings according to their situation and circumstance, as the appropriate ways love manifests itself. Let us examine this perspective more closely.

When we come into contact with someone for the first time it shows a loving disposition to relate to them in a friendly manner – smilingly, politely, respectfully, with courtesy and openness. If further contact shows that they respond to us similarly and that they seem to be ordinary decent people we continue to relate to them in this manner, getting to know them better, and later maybe including them in our circle of friends. In time our friendliness to them and theirs to us may become deeper and closer. So the appropriate way love expresses itself to someone who is open to our friendliness is with the friendly aspect of mettā.

But not everyone will relate to us in a friendly and open way, or not always. Sometimes people are in the midst of a crisis, they may be grieving for a loved one, gravely ill, depressed, or preoccupied with some tribulations in their lives. In such situations, it would be completely inappropriate, insensitive even, to approach them as we would a friendly person, with smiles and good cheer. Now our mettā has to express itself differently. Now we have to relate to them in a much more subdued manner, we need to do what we can to wipe away their tears or perhaps to cry with them. The cheerful pat on the back should become the comforting arm over their shoulder. Yesterday’s smiling welcome or light small talk should be replaced by words of sympathy and reassurance, an offer of help or by a silence that listens as they unburden themselves. Compassion is the way mettā relates to those in distress. Once again, not everyone is in need of compassion. Sometimes those around us are celebrating or savouring success. Now it is appropriate for mettā to manifest itself by celebrating with them, listening as they recount their good fortune and being happy in their happiness. Sympathetic joy is mettā’s response to those who are happy. However there is another aspect of sympathetic joy that does not always get a mention.

Years ago, before becoming a monk, I lived in a block of flats in a large country town. As in most such arrangements the residents did not know each other and their only interaction was an occasional “Good morning” or “Good evening” if they met on the steps while coming in or going out. One day there was a knock on my door and I opened it to find a beaming man standing there holding a plate of food. “Hello!” he said. “I live on the floor above you. Our son has just graduated with honours. Please come up and share some food with us. And if you can’t come up I brought this food down for you.” I was taken aback for a few moments, as one tends to be by sudden and unexpected friendliness from a complete stranger, but I accepted the invitation and followed the man upstairs. There was a Sri Lankan family utterly delighted in their son’s recent success, so delighted that they could not restrain themselves from sharing their delight with anyone who happened to be near. A few other residents were there too and after a bit of awkwardness we all got to know each other and spent a few hours thoroughly enjoying the company, the food and the atmosphere of good cheer. From that time onwards more of the residents talked to each other, visited each other and were on friendly terms. So while one aspect of sympathetic joy is identifying with the happiness of others, another aspect of it is inviting others to share our happiness.

We often hear the exhortation “Love your enemies”, but a statement like this is not just easier said than done, it can also be rather confusing. Such problems are caused by thinking that love is only or mainly that warm cherishing feeling we have towards those closest to us. Thus people assume that they must have such feelings towards those who have done mean, cruel or hateful things to them, something that appears to be impossible. Some Buddhists make the mistake of thinking that “practising mettā” requires them to grit their teeth, stifle their anger, force a smile onto their face and mutter “May you be well and happy” when dealing with difficult people. But as previously noted, love is not a feeling; it is an attitude, a behaviour and a way of relating to others. So exactly how do we have mettā towards people we would otherwise ordinarily perceive as enemies? Seeing the Brahma Viharas as different expressions of love can help answer this question.

When I was in Indonesia in 2004, a Chinese woman came to me with a problem. During the riots preceding the downfall of President Suharto a year before, her business had been looted, she had been manhandled, and her niece had been sexually assaulted. She knew the people responsible for these outrages, and occasionally saw them in the street. But because of politics, she also knew that they were unlikely to ever be brought to justice. Understandably, she had still not recovered from the trauma of all this. But compounding her distress was the fact that she was unable to love the people who had committed these crimes. As a devout Buddhist she had told the monk she had gone to for guidance and consolation about her feelings of anger and revenge. He had rebuked her, told her that she must “love her enemies” and then given her a lecture on mettā. Holding back her tears and with apparent feelings of failure and inadequacy she said she found it impossible to “love” them, despite her best efforts. The monk implied that she should feel about and act towards those who had violated her and her niece as she did to the members of her family and her dearest friends, a complete impossibility.

This is what I said to her: “Who could blame you for feeling the way you do? I would probably feel exactly the same if that happened to me. Given what you have been through it is only natural that you should feel hatred. Don’t make excuses for it, don’t feel bad about it, but see it for what it is and call it what it is. In time it will begin to calm down a bit, and when it does consider this. Continually harbouring anger and rage will probably damage you in the long term. You may well end up hurting yourself as much as those people hurt you. Simply suppressing your feelings probably won’t help either. See if you can do this. See if you can develop an indifference, an equanimity towards them. See if you can get to the stage where you are mentally and emotionally unmoved when you think of them or see them. If you can do this you will have made the first step in healing yourself.”

When I had said this the woman broke down and wept. Collecting herself somewhat she told me she how relieved she was to know that in being unable to “love” the people who had so grievously hurt her and her niece she was not being a “bad” Buddhist. Of course if she had been able to have equanimity towards her violators she would have been loving towards them, because equanimity is how mettā expresses itself towards wicked or evil people.

We can express mettā towards a difficult person or one who has injured us by trying to soothe any resentment or ill-will we might have. If we can do this and then develop a degree of equanimity, in time we may even start to feel genuinely sorry for them and regard them with compassion. When compassion comes, forgiveness and pardon usually follow. Eventually we may even be able to have a reconciliation with them. However, we must keep in mind that a person might have been so grievously hurt by another that they want no contact with them. It would just be too painful and would reawaken distressing associations. If equanimity and forgiveness have dissipated all the old hate, that is sufficient. The reality is that the deeper the wounds, the more time they take to heal. The road from hatred to freedom from hatred may be long but its mile posts are all marked “Equanimity”.

And incidentally, equanimity towards those who have harmed us is not just being loving towards them, it is also being loving towards ourselves. A humble acceptance of being in the grip of anger and rage is many times more kindly than scolding ourselves for not being perfect. We try to have patience and understanding towards other people’s unpleasantness, so why should we not try to be like this towards our own?


  1. D.I,220. [back]
  2. D.I,235-51. [back]
  3. Matthew 5,48. [back]
  4. Mahā Niddesa 2.488. [back]
  5. M.I,46. [back]
  6. A.III,378. [back]
  7. A.III,168. [back]
  8. M.II,980. [back]
  9. M.I,23. [back]
  10. M.I,21. [back]
  11. Jātakamāla XXVI,42-44. [back]
  12. S.II,198. [back]
  13. A.I,103. [back]
  14. Vism.167. [back]