Question: Can you explain what you mean by the Four Brahmaviharas?
Ajahn Sumedho: The Four Brahmaviharas - metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha - are called the Divine Abodes. They are pure states of mind. They are natural responses of the pure mind. The mind is pure when we free ourselves from selfish interest - greed, hatred and delusion. When the mind is not caught up in these, the brahmaviharas are its natural abiding place.
Metta is a general attitude to living creatures - a sense of patience, loving kindness and the absence of fault finding. Karuna is more like compassion and pity; its about feeling the suffering of others, recognising what suffering is like. This is where we feel compassion and empathy, which is different from feeling sorry for others in a sentimental way. Mudita is translated as sympathetic joy; the joy we find in the happiness of others. The joy we find in the beauty of the goodness of others. It is an antidote to jealousy. Often when we see someone better off, better looking, we feel jealousy. But mudita is the lovely quality of delight and appreciation for the beauty and success of others. And upekkha is the serenity of the mind - the serenity and emotional balance of the mind.
So these are called the divine qualities, and they can be experienced in the human realm. I find it is easy to feel compassion for those who are worse off, the downtrodden, for animals, for beings less fortunate than myself. I never enjoyed harming or bullying others. But my weakness was that I used to feel envy and jealousy for those who were better off, and I used to criticise them, wanting to bring them down. It is very difficult to wish somebody well, when they are better off than you are. So mudita to me is a very important virtue to contemplate. It is very beautiful to delight in the goodness, the beauty and the success of others. So I contemplate it and cultivate it a lot in order to bring this virtue into my life.
Of these four virtues, loving kindness - metta - is a basis, and upekkha - the serenity of the mind - is the result of that loving kindness. Karuna and mudita are responses to the life around us - to the suffering and the beauty of our lives. I used to feel anger and indignation when I heard some terrible news, such as some vicious group attacking some innocent group, or the holocaust or the slaughter of the Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge. I can understand what it feels like to want to get even, to be vengeful in such instances. But in contemplating these feelings, I realise that they are not something I want to act on, because revenge and vengeful feelings keep such terrible things going on. If you hurt me, then Ill hurt you, and when I hurt you, youll hurt me and then Ill kill you. Then your relatives would come and kill my relatives. We can see it in these terrorist movements, like the IRA. They go around seeking revenge and killing each others people - it goes on and on. So it has to stop here.
These divine abodes, the brahmaviharas, are reflections and ways of developing the forgiving mind, the qualities of our life that can bring beauty and perfection to our humanity.