The traditional term “near enemy” points to some spiritually unhelpful quality or experience that can be mistaken for a helpful quality or experience. The near enemy is a kind of counterfeit of what we’re actually aiming for, and it’s unhelpful because while the genuine article helps free us from suffering, the counterfeit doesn’t.
Each of the four practices we’re focusing on in our 100 Days of Lovingkindness — metta (lovingkindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (joyful appreciation), and upekkha (even-minded love) — collectively known as the divine abidings (brahma viharas) or the “four immeasurables” has a near enemy.
Buddhaghosa, a 6th century commentator, has the following to say about the near enemy of upekkha, or even-minded love, which is translated here as equanimity:
Equanimity has the equanimity of unknowing based on the home life as its near enemy, since both share in ignoring faults and virtues. Such unknowing has been described in the way beginning, “On seeing a visible object with the eye equanimity arises in the foolish infatuated ordinary man, in the untaught ordinary man who has not conquered his limitations, who has not conquered future [kamma] result, who is unperceiving of danger. Such equanimity as this does not surmount the visible object. Such equanimity as this is called equanimity based on the home life.”
You can pretty much ignore the term “home life” here since this doesn’t really have anything to do with living at home, or being a householder as opposed to being a monk or nun. “Home life” is just “monkish” for “spiritually uneducated.”
What this passage as a whole refers to is simply “not caring.” You see a “visible object” such as a suffering person, and you simply don’t care. You may not have aversion for the suffering person (aversion is the far enemy) but for some reason you’re not moved by their plight. Perhaps you lack empathy at that particular time or generally lack empathy. Perhaps you’re cognitively overloaded and can’t take anything else in. Perhaps you’re tired. Perhaps you’re self-preoccupied. Perhaps your mind is moving too fast for you to slow down and pay attention to what you’re feeling. Maybe you have a mindset that other people’s suffering is not your problem. Whatever the reason, you just don’t care. You’re apathetic. You “ignore faults and virtues” because other people’s sufferings and joys just don’t interest you..
You may even think that all this is a virtue! You may think that you’re being “detached.” In fact a lot of people have the view that Buddhism is about detachment, and that you shouldn’t have any desires — even positive desires — if you’re practicing the Dharma.
In fact someone just wrote to me today, saying, in part, “To be free of desire – does that mean we shouldn’t have any goals and objectives for anything. or love our families or pursue any desires because ultimately they are impermanent and will eventually lead to suffering?”
This is as bad a misconception of Buddhism as you can have! The Buddha encouraged us to abandon craving, not desires as such. If we abandoned all desires we’d never do anything. We wouldn’t “strive diligently” for awakening (those were the Buddha’s last words). We wouldn’t develop compassion, since wanting to develop compassion is a desire. We wouldn’t practice compassion, since wanting to relieve another’s suffering is also a desire. Practice simply wouldn’t happen without desire! In fact I’d go as far as to say that you need a huge amount of desire to become awakened and to realize the goal of enlightenment, and that most of us lack that level of desire. For most people, the task is to develop enough desire to develop the desire we need for becoming awakened!
The brahma viharas are mostly defined in terms of desires. Lovingkindness is the desire that beings be happy. Compassion is the desire to free beings from suffering. Joyful appreciation is the desire that good qualities, and the peace and joy that come from them, take root and flourish in the world. Without desire the brahma viharas simply wouldn’t exist.
Equanimity, or even-minded love, is not where we say “OK, all that desire for beings to be happy and free from suffering was great — now I’m going to give it up.” It’s the point at which our lovingkindness, our compassion, and our joyful appreciation of the good reach their fullness. It’s when they become imbued with a keen sense of impermanence. Because things change, happiness won’t last. So we don’t get intoxicated when people are happy. Because things change, suffering won’t last either, so we don’t get disappointed or depressed when people suffer. But what you do do is love, have compassion, and appreciate the good. You “ignore faults and virtues” in the sense that your love is unconditional, but not because you don’t care.
None of this causes us to become inactive. In fact, equanimity, or even-minded love, allows us to be more effective and sustained in our actions, because we don’t demotivate ourselves by dipping into depression or hopelessness or fear — or into not caring, the “near enemy” of equanimity — but are unshakable in our love and in our efforts to help beings.