One of the things I love is that when you spend some time hanging out with a practice, you often start to see it in new ways. This has happened for me with each of the four brahmavihara practices we’ve been exploring — lovingkindness, compassion, joyful appreciation, and also equanimity, which is what we’re currently focusing on. I see each of these practices differently after practicing them regularly and reflecting on them, but I’m also starting to see things about the brahmaviharas as a whole that I’d never noticed before.
I’m noticing a kind of progression, suggesting an underlying framework that crops up over and over again in the Buddha’s teachings. It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this progression, but I’m now seeing it in a new way.
By way of background, many of the Buddha’s overviews of the path can be seen as consisting of two synergistic activities, which it’s tempting to call “stages” although that terminology is a bit misleading, since it tends to assume that the first stage is “lower” and less important than the second. In a synergy, both factors are crucial, and it’s not possible to say that one is more important than the other because each depends on the other for its fulfillment. These two synergistic activities that crop up over and over again are different ways of doing what I call “unselfing” — that is, reducing the sense of separateness that causes us to suffer.
These synergistic activities are found, for example, in the categories of puñna and pañña, or merit and insight. “Merit” is where we “unself” by developing skillfulness. We change our emotional and cognitive habits so that we think, speak, and act more skillfully. We replace greed with contentment, letting go, and generosity. We replace ill will with love and compassion. We become less selfish and less self-oriented, and more in tune with other people. This aspect of practice is like knocking down weeds and planting flowers. Insight is where we uproot the very cause of greed and ill will, by closely examining our experience and realizing that because everything that constitutes “us” is constantly changing, we don’t have the kind of separate and unchanging self that can be defended by ill will or bolstered by greed. So this is a more radical form of unselfing, where we learn to see through the delusion of separate selfhood.
Puñña and pañña — together — help us to abandon selfishness and self-view.
And these two, puñña and pañña, are mutually supportive. We can’t develop insight until we’ve done substantial work on ourselves to reduce our negativity and to become more open and positive. So puñña supports pañña. But as we begin to develop more appreciation into the impermanent nature of our experience, and of our selves, we find that we naturally become more skillful. So pañña supports puñña.
And this pattern of synergy can be seen in the terms samatha (calming) and vipassana (clearly seeing), and in the formula of the three trainings (ti-sikkha), where ethics and meditation correspond to puñña, and wisdom to pañña. And this can be seen in many other teachings as well, where there’s often a pattern of skillful qualities giving rise to concentration, which allows us to make a breakthrough into insight, which is sometimes described as “seeing things as they really are” or simply as “equanimity” (but here talking about the equanimity of the awakened mind, and not as the brahmavihara, although the one can lead to the other).
The brahmaviharas follow the same pattern, but in a particularly interesting way.
Metta and karuna (lovingkindness and compassion) are where we wish that beings be happy and free from suffering. We recognize, though our ability to resonate (anukampa) with others, that all beings wish to be happy and don’t wish to suffer. We all share these deep drives. And when we really recognize the universality of these drives, we find it harder and harder to stand in the way of others’ happiness, or to cause them suffering. Just knowing this intellectually isn’t enough, of course. We have to train our ability to resonate, and we have to train our ability to be kind and compassionate. (And we also have to train to be less selfish, grasping, and antagonistic). So this is a puñña activity, where we’re changing our habits and becoming less selfish.
Then there’s mudita, joyful appreciation. Now this is often described as us feeling joyful when we see joy in others. And seen that way it’s a mirror image of compassion, which is what we feel when we see pain in others. But mudita is far more than being empathetically joyful. It’s appreciating the skillful in others and appreciating the joy and peace that comes from those skillful qualities. It’s recognizing the operation of karma — how our actions affect our happiness, for good or bad — and so it’s really an insight practice. But it’s an insight practice that focuses on the arising of puñña in others. Mudita is when we appreciate, rejoice in, and support the arising of the skillful in others, because we clearly see that these qualities lead to true peace, joy, happiness, and freedom from suffering.
Upekkha is of course an insight practice too. It’s an insight practice where we ourselves cultivate and experience a loving peace. We experience peace as we learn that painful experiences and pleasant experiences come and go. We experience peace as we recognize that selfish clinging and ill will can never bring happiness, and because we’ve recognized that letting go can. We experience peace as we recognize the limits of our own abilities, and so there’s no clinging to unattainable outcomes (“I must save all beings!”) and no despondency and aversion when we’re not able to help others (“Some of those idiots just keep on causing suffering for themselves!”) We experience peace as we recognize that we can do what we can do, but ultimately all beings are the owners of their own karma (actions); ultimately they are responsible for their own happiness. We can help others. We can empathize with them. We can point the way. But as the Dhammapada says, “You yourselves must strive; the Buddhas only point the way.” And to the extent that we ourselves have any skill in pointing toward awakening, we have to recognize that others may not be interested in following that direction.
But we’re also wishing this peace for others. Even if we haven’t developed much peace ourselves, we can still wish that others attain to peace. We can wish that they come to recognize impermanence, and that they come to see the arising and passing of experiences with balance and equanimity. We can wish that they learn to let go of the desire to change that which cannot be changed, and that they increasingly see letting go as the path to peace. So really, we’re supporting the development of insight in others.
So mudita, joyful apprecaition, is an insight practice in which we recognize the workings of karma in others, as they bring about peace and joy through the cultivation of skillful qualities. On the other hand upekkha, or “closely and lovingly watching over others” is an insight practice in which we recognize the workings of karma in others as they bring about peace and joy by recognizing and realizing impermanence.
Mudita and upekkha are not just things we feel, however. They are intentions that lead to actions. Mudita leads to our rejoicing in the good we see in others, and upekkha leads to us appreciating and supporting any insight we seen in others, so that we help them to let go whenever we can, of any grasping that causes them to suffer. Having unselfed ourselves, we help others to relax their own sense of self, so that they too can become unselfed. Tomorrow I’ll talk more about putting upekkha into practice in our lives.
PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.