Relative to the Tibetan and other Northern school of Buddhism, compassion and emptiness play a secondary role in Theravāda practice. Happily, Bhikkhu Anālayo’s book Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation is not only an historical treatise, it’s a practice manual that has already profoundly changed my daily practice.
The Abodes of Brahama
The full [brahmavihāra] practice is often truncated to a mere ‘compassion’. Going even further astray, some new age holding hands and singing kum ba yah replaces the hard-hitting early Buddhist brahmavihāras.
These states, literally: the abodes of Brahma (the main god in the local pantheon), are outlooks that practitioners can cultivate. Once you cultivate each state, radiate it through the body: really get used to abiding in this divine realm. Observing the physicality of mental states is a useful tool in general: Next time you are angry or nervous, pay attention to how physical the state is. It’s not for nothing that we talk about nervous stomaches and the like. With negative mental states, you might notice their physical manifestation long before the mental version is gross enough to perceive. This is why mindfulness of the body is critical on the path.
Cultivating these sublime mental states and remaining there for some time is both refreshing and starts to reprogram your instincts. Someone steps on your foot in the Metro—eventually your first instinct will be to compassion rather than anger.
One of the keys to take away from this is that early Buddhism was distinctly non-utopian. These states aren’t about wishing for some blissful dreamworld: Brahmavihāra practice is changing your current relationship to a brutal world. That’s it. There’s no magic here, no woo.
The four states are different enough from typical Western emotions, that they merit a quick overview.
Mettā can eventually become your default feeling: you wish goodwill to everyone without exception. Wishing the best for others doesn’t harm you in anyway, and the happier others are, the less likely they are to turn to violent and harmful behavior.
Karuṇā is the feeling of seeing suffering and wanting to alleviate it. Rather than being repulsed by suffering, you see it for what it is and have a sober desire to heal it.
We lack a neat way to say muditā in a simple English. The main idea is to be happy for the happiness of others. My upstairs neighbor often has her granddaughter visit—rather than focusing on the noise of the girl bouncing around, I shift my focus on how happy the grandmother must be to spend time with her granddaughter.
Upekkhā is often translated as equanimity, but that’s a word I never really used before Buddhism. I think of upekkhā as a sober and mature acceptance of the way things are. I might be in pain, I may find something annoying, but that is the way it is. When you truly accept that, a deep peace arises.
You can cultivate these states both throughout the day: each time something good happens to somebody, feel some muditā; try to actively feel goodwill towards people in the Metro, etc. This can serve as a solid foundation to using these states as meditation objects.
The practice and realization of emptiness is far more complex than a simple blog post can cover. Suffice it to say that Bhikkhu Analāyo gives detailed practice instructions to take you to the point where you no longer see the solidity of the world around you. This makes it much easier to break irrational attachments when everything is ultimately in flux anyway.
The Bottom Line
The book is great if you are looking for an academic background on the brahmavihāras and emptiness in early Buddhism. I find that having such a strong theoretical foundation makes the practice easier, but your milage may vary. The end of the book is devoted to practice, and Bhikkhu Analāyo outlines how to practice everything he talks about in the first part of the book.
It’s easy to develop an unbalanced meditation practice that works way too heavily with the breath and nothing else. Mastering the brahmavihāras is a practical way to broaden your practice without so much of the new age woo that has infiltrated Western Buddhism.