The four divine abodes (brahma-vihara in Pali) are not actual places as such, where one might find celestial beings, but rather they are ‘places’ or states of mind that are considered highly beneficial when walking the Buddhist Path. They are also sometimes referred to as the ‘boundless states’ (appamanna), because when fully developed they are without apparent limit. Traditionally they are cultivated with specific meditations that are designed to develop these wholly positive mind states one by one. The brahma-vihara are:
- Metta: Loving-Kindness
- Karuna: Compassion
- Mudita: Altruistic joy
- Upekkha: Equanimity
Throughout Buddhist history, these four abodes have been used to counteract negative tendencies that we human beings so often have. So, if one tends to be an angry type of person, cultivating metta will soften you up, melting away those negative thought patterns with a large dose of kindness, directed not only at others, but equally importantly, at yourself. In the same vein, karuna can help to transcend harmfulness and selfishness; making one more sensitive to the suffering others. Mudita is a great alternative to envy and jealousy, feeling happiness at other peoples’ success, rather than wishing it was me and not them. Having equanimity in one’s dealings with people can make one more able to facilitate happiness and wisdom in them, as well as making one’s own life less troublesome. It enables to treat people with an equal hand, not being overly partial towards some and bias against others. I, for one, need to work on this one, as I’m prone to righteous indignation at what I see as selfish behavior in others, losing my cool and not expressing myself as well as I could have otherwise.
When focusing on one of the four divine abodes, one technique is to first ‘grow’ it in one’s heart, usually directing it at someone that one already likes, before extending it to people that one is indifferent to, or even dislike, before projecting towards the world. Alternatively, after the preliminary stage of cultivating the feeling (of metta, for instance), one can then extend it forwards, backwards, left, and right, above, and below, until one is projecting the feeling in all directions to all beings.
The Buddha taught that if one wants to be reborn in the heavenly realm of the god Brahma, one should cultivate at least one of the divine abodes. But even if one doesn’t believe in such a celestial plane of existence, and one’s concern is the here and now, cultivating these qualities is beneficial. Living one’s life full of kindness, compassion, altruism, and equanimity will not only be a great benefit to those one meets, but will also be the cause of immense satisfaction and happiness in oneself.