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Brahma-vihara: The Four Divine States or Four Immeasurables

Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, Equanimity

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The practice of compassion is essential to Buddhism, and the practice of compassion begins with the cultivation of compassion within. The Buddha taught his monks to arouse four states of mind, called the "Brahma-vihara" or "four divine states of dwelling." These four states are sometimes called the "Four Immeasurables" or the "Four Perfect Virtues."

The four states are metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy) and upekkha (equanimity), and in many Buddhist traditions they are cultivated through meditation. These four states inter-relate and support each other.

Metta, Loving Kindness

"Here, monks, a disciple dwells pervading one direction with his heart filled with loving-kindness, 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 loving-kindness, abundant, grown great, measureless, free from enmity and free from distress." -- The Buddha, Digha Nikaya 13

The importance of metta in Buddhism cannot be overstated. Metta is benevolence toward all beings, without discrimination or selfish attachment. By practicing metta, a Buddhist overcomes anger, ill will, hatred and aversion.

According to the Metta Sutta, a Buddhist should cultivate for all beings the same love a mother would feel for her child. This love does not discriminate between benevolent people and malicious people. It is a love in which"I" and "you" disappear, and where there is no possessor and nothing to possess.

Karuna, Compassion

"Here, monks, a disciple dwells pervading one direction with his heart filled with compassion, 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 compassion, abundant, grown great, measureless, free from enmity and free from distress." -- The Buddha, Digha Nikaya 13

Karuna is active sympathy extended to all sentient beings. Ideally, karuna is combined with prajna (wisdom), which in Mahayana Buddhism means the realization that all sentient beings exist in each other and take identity from each other (see shunyata). Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is the embodiment of compassion.

Theravada scholar Nyanaponika Thera said, "It is compassion that removes the heavy bar, opens the door to freedom, makes the narrow heart as wide as the world. Compassion takes away from the heart the inert weight, the paralyzing heaviness; it gives wings to those who cling to the lowlands of self."

Mudita, Sympathetic Joy

"Here, monks, a disciple dwells pervading one direction with his heart filled with sympathetic joy, 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 sympathetic joy, abundant, grown great, measureless, free from enmity and free from distress." -- The Buddha, Digha Nikaya 13

Mudita is taking sympathetic or altruistic joy in the happiness of others. The cultivation of mudita is an antidote to envy and jealousy. Mudita is not discussed in Buddhist literature nearly as much as metta and karuna, but some teachers believe the cultivation of mudita is a prerequisite for developing metta and karuna.

Upekkha, Equanimity

"Here, monks, a disciple dwells pervading one direction with his heart filled with equanimity, 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 equanimity, abundant, grown great, measureless, free from enmity and free from distress." -- The Buddha, Digha Nikaya 13

Upekkha is a mind in balance, free of discrimination and rooted in insight. This balance is not indifference, but active mindfulness. Because it is rooted in insight of anatman, it is not unbalanced by the passions of attraction and aversion.

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