Before the time of the Buddha, there were the brahmaviharas, literally the “abodes of Brahma”: empathetic joy (mudita), loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), and equanimity (upekkha). These were understood to be the four faces of the god Brahma—his ways of looking out on the world, and also what others saw on encountering him.
Later, the brahmaviharas were incorporated into Buddhism as well; you may have heard of them as the “four immeasurables,” as they’re popularly known.
What do we do with a list like this? The traditional answer is pretty straightforward. First, we listen to it, really let it sink in. Second, we hold it in our minds, try to make sense of it for ourselves, in our own language. And third, we put it into practice. Simple.
So first, let’s listen to what this is saying. We’re being told that the model—originally Brahma, but later Buddha, or we could say the bodhisattva—is able to see in these four ways, to be in these four ways. Such a person embodies, and resides in, these qualities of mind. We’re also told—this is the “immeasurable” part—that these qualities go beyond any kind of metric or human evaluation. They have no limit.
Let’s think about all that. First, the part about the limit—if these qualities define such a person, and if they are beyond measurement, then so is such a person. And if that’s the kind of person you’re supposed to be, then, well—you get it. There may be more to you than you think. That can be intimidating news. Good news, but perhaps a little overwhelming.
We can also look at how they relate to each other. The first three—empathetic joy, loving-kindness, and compassion—are relational. These qualities are not detached or removed; a person embodying these qualities is being defined, in large part, by how they are experiencing others. That’s important. It’s easy, when we hear about lofty inner qualities, to imagine we cultivate them by going inward, by becoming a certain kind of person here, where we are. These aren’t like that. These qualities are cultivated in the messiness of contact with everyone around us. They require us to go over there.
The last, equanimity, stands apart, as it were. That isn’t to say that equanimity is somehow detached; it’s the opposite, a kind of total inclusion of everything and everyone around us. But it also has a quality of rootedness, of being present but unshakeable. The mind of equanimity says, I don’t need to go over there, because there’s nothing I’m resisting right here. Nothing is left out.
And of course, all four are happening simultaneously. We might notice them one at a time, explore them one at a time, cultivate them one at a time, but all four faces are always present, always looking, always making eye contact with the world. We don’t cycle through them; they don’t take shifts.
Last, we put them into practice. One way is to meditate on them directly: sit down with one, or with all of them, and let them wash over you. If loving-kindness feels difficult, take it up in that stillness. Try it on. Empathetic joy? We can experience it anywhere, in any encounter, but we can also see how it arises in memories or when the face of someone we know comes into mental focus.
But we can also go straight to it, in the world. It starts, I think, with just noticing how these qualities are already so present. Watch a child jump in a puddle and you’ll know empathetic joy, if just for an instant. Tell someone to have a good day, or “Good luck!”—just that, with no further expectations, but like you really mean it. That’s loving-kindness. Turn on the news, even for a second, and see the struggles people are facing, in your town and across the world, in every moment. Don’t push it away, even if it hurts (and it will). That’s compassion. And when the world feels chaotic or complicated or like it’s just too much (now, maybe?), take a breath and let it be as it is, without trying to fix it or rearrange it or cut out the parts you don’t like. Breathe it all in, breathe it all out. That’s equanimity.
Above all, don’t make a teaching like this into a big deal—don’t fall into imagining it’s too hard or too rarefied. The brahmaviharas are about where you are. They’re about who you’re with. They’re about you—they’re your true face.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.