Equanimity suggests standing back, but the word upekkha means “closely watching.” I see upekkha as an intimate identification with beings’ deepest needs, and our desire that they experience the peace of awakening.
Just as mudita is when we want beings to develop skillful qualities and the peace and joy that comes from those qualities, so upekkha is when we want beings to develop insight, and the peace and joy that comes from that insight.
Upekkha is what the Mahāyāna came to call mahā-karunā — great compassion — in contrast to the brahmavihara of compassion, which is a simpler desire to relieve beings of suffering.
Because upekkha means wishing that beings awaken, you might make an assumption that upekkha is something you can’t really get into until you’ve gained some insight or had some deep experience of deep peace ourselves, but I don’t think that that would be a helpful or correct assumption. We can want the peace and joy of awakening for ourselves and for others without actually having experienced it. In fact it’s inevitable that this is the case. We’re always seeking some peace that is not yet ours. We can’t, by definition, know what awakening is like until we’ve experienced it. We don’t even know what is going to bring insight about.
But we can have a sense of the direction we want to head in. We can have a sense of what we want to move away from — craving, aversion, and the suffering they bring. We can have an emerging sense of liberation from suffering as we learn to let go, to notice our experience mindfully and non-reactively, and to develop greater compassion. This amounts to a sense of direction, with a destination that’s essentially unknown.
This is one of the odd things about practicing the Dharma; we don’t really know what the goal is. The Buddha certainly didn’t say a lot about what the experience of being awakened was like. He talked about it as being beyond the scope of words to describe, although he did repeatedly describe it as being blissful, joyful, and peaceful. So all we have to go on is hints, and a promise of some experience very different from our own.
Blind faith? Sometimes it might be, but essentially it’s confidence and trust (two words that in some ways translate “shraddha” better than “faith”) based on experience. If you’ve followed the guidance of the Buddha and found that meditating and living ethically have brought more of a sense of meaning, peace, and sometimes joy into your life, then you have some experiential basis for trusting that maybe this guy knew what he was talking about. And if he talked about a goal that’s the ultimate in peace and joy, however obliquely, then there’s some basis for trust — or “faith,” if you like.
And if we want to experience goal for ourselves (so to speak, since it’s not something that can be grasped or possessed), we can compassionately want others to experience that goal.
So we don’t have to have experience of the goal to be in a position to want it for others.
It’s not that we go all evangelistic and start pestering everyone we meet, asking them if they’ve “heard the word of the Buddha” and pressing little tracts into their hands. But we can learn to relate to others on the basis of what they can become, rather than on the basis of whatever constellation of habits and traits they happen to be right now. We can view others lovingly and compassionately, valuing their potential, and being an encouraging presence. This is the “close watching” of upekkha.
We don’t need to have experienced awakening to have upekkha, but one thing we do need is a desire for awakening. You can have lovingkindness for others — wishing for them to be happy — without personally feeling any connection with the goal of awakening, or enlightenment. You can have compassion for others — wishing for them to be free from suffering — without thinking about enlightenment at all. And similarly you can have mudita, and want others to become skillful and experience the peace and joy of a skillful life, without wanting to be enlightened. But I don’t think you can wish awakening for others unless you wish it for yourself.
And this is something that’s often strangely lacking in many Buddhists. Many of the practitioners I’ve met want to be better people. They want to be happier. They want to cause less suffering to others. But their ideals are very much rooted in puñña, or merit — becoming an incrementally better person by developing skillful qualities — rather than in pañña, or wisdom, which is a radical shift in the way we see ourselves. It’s quite common for Buddhists not to think about awakening, not to talk about awakening, and even not to think that awakening is a realistic possibility for them. In fact they might be quite clear that they think they’ll never have an insight experience.
But awakening is the whole point of Dharma practice. And it can happen to anyone. It can happen anytime. I doubt if there’s a single person in the world who, in the moments before they had an insight experience, was thinking, “OK, I think enlightenment’s about to happen … wait … wait .. right, there it is!” Awakening always comes out of the blue. It’s always a surprise, or even a shock. And we should be open to the possibility of awakening happening to us. Not that we should expect anything to happen, but we should have the general aim of cultivating insight experiences. And we should be doing what it takes to awaken — not just living ethically and cultivating mindfulness and metta, but examining the impermanent, non-self, and unsatisfactory nature of our experience. We should be tilling the soil, planing seeds, and watering those seeds. You can’t make the plants grow through some act of will, but you can aim to grow a garden.
In fact, all this should increasingly become central to our lives. We should see ourselves as Buddhas in training. We should aim to go all the way to awakening. If we don’t have that aim, then how can we have that wish for others, and help them to free themselves from suffering? If we don’t ourselves have the desire to go all the way to awakening, how can we take others with us?
PS You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.