I’ve always suspected that the Buddha had a hard time expressing himself, not because of any lack of ability of his part, but because the language that he had available to him was very limited. Actually all language is limited, but the Buddha was trying to express teachings that were very profound and subtle. He said he’d doubted whether it was possible to communicate the insights that he’d realized:
This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise.
Fortunately “he saw beings with little dust in their eyes” and decided it was worth trying.
And he was trying to express something subtle in quite an earthy language. To give you an example, there’s a word “gocara” that’s often translated as something like “sphere,” as in “the sphere of the Awakened One.” The word gocara is a compound term, with “go” meaning “cow” and “cara” meaning “faring” or “wandering.” So the “sphere of the Awakened One” is more literally “the Buddha’s cow-pasture.” It has a pleasant, earthy ring to it, even more so than when we similarly use the word “field,” as in “his field is nuclear physics.”
Anyway, our own language has its limitations too, and we’re also trying to understand in our language something that was said in another. So we’re dependent on scholars and translators and their work, and on tools like dictionaries, which were also created by scholars and translators. The problems in all this are particularly evident when we’re discussing something like equanimity. In discussing upekkha we’re really struggling to understand what the Buddha meant — and we should bear in mind that the Buddha was probably struggling in having to use the word upekkha to cover several different kinds of mental quality. I’ve already pointed out the dangers of misreading equanimity as “not caring.” But even interpretations that avoid the error of thinking that equanimity is a neutral and indifferent state can be wide of the mark.
What if upekkha is really love plus insight? Let’s take love to mean the desire to help beings be all they can be, so that they can maximize their experience of peace and joy. And let’s take insight to mean seeing deeply into the nature of the mind, so that we really understand, on a very profound level, how peace comes about through an appreciation of impermanence. And so equanimity becomes about helping beings to become awakened.
There’s an old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for a lifetime.” How about if we had sayings like “Be kind to someone and they’re at peace for a day; teach someone to be kind to themselves, and they can be at peace for a lifetime”? Or something like “Recognize that you have no permanent and separate self, and you can behave toward others in ways that bring them joy; help someone to see that they have no permanent and separate self, and they can create their own joy”?
I’m struggling with language too, but I hope you get my point.
I think upekkha (equanimity as a translation seems almost entirely to miss the point) is really about helping others to become awakened because of your compassion. Let’s remember that “upekkha” is from a root meaning “to closely watch over.” It’s not directly about “balance” or “even-mindedness” at all. Those qualities are present in it, because if we’ve found the deep peace that comes from recognizing impermanence then we’re at peace. But I believe that upekkha is actually about wanting to share our insight, and the peace that arises from it, with others. It’s thus a close parallel with mudita (joyful appreciation) which is about wanting to see others developing skillful qualities, so that they can experience the joy and peace that comes from them.
Now you might be thinking something like, “Wait a minute, I’m not enlightened. I don’t have any insight to share.” But what I said above is only an approximation of the practice. I believe that when we’re cultivating upekkha, we’re both seeking insight ourselves, and wanting to see it develop in others too. All of the brahmaviharas have this dual nature; for example in developing metta we’re wanting to develop love ourselves, but we’re also wishing that others be well and happy. And when are beings well and happy? It’s when they’re experiencing metta. So we’re wishing for others what we’re developing ourselves.
So in upekkha bhavana we’re exploring impermanence, and trying to come to terms with it in order to experience the profound letting go that brings peace, and out of our love and compassion for others we wish them also to come to terms with impermanence and to experience that same letting go into peace. We want to be enlightened; we want others to become enlightened. We want awakened qualities to manifest in the world.
And it’s partly through our speech that we’re going to be able to help others develop insight. Possibly it’s going to happen in teaching situations, or where we’re studying with others, but it could also take place in therapeutic situations on in friendships.
The Buddha, in talking about skillful communication, held helpful speech and speech that brings harmony to be the highest forms of communication. For example, here’s how the Buddha describes spiritually helpful speech: “He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, and the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal” (emphasis added). And rather than speak in divisive ways, we should speak in ways that create harmony: “Reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he is impassioned for peace (samagga), delights in peace, rejoices in peace, speaks things that create peace.”
I don’t want to suggest that it’s only speech through which we can put our upekkha into action, nor do I want to suggest that we should be continually pointing out to others that things are impermanent or that they have a mistaken view of their selves! There’s a right and a wrong time for everything. But I’d suggest just carrying around this view, as a practice, in the background of your mind, that you want to be awakened. And as you think about others, or see them, or interact with them, call to mind that you want them to be enlightened as well, so that they can experience the deep peace of awakening.
PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.