“Brahma-Vihara, Emptiness, and Ethics”
by Christopher Key Chapple
Well, the holidays have passed, and I hope those of you who have been reading Michael Stone’s Freeing the Body, Freeing The Mind with me as part of this ‘virtual book club’ are still sticking with me in this new year!
Christopher Key Chapple is a professor of Indic and Comparative Theology and one who has done much wonderful work on Patanjali and other Yogic texts, so again I was looking forward to reading his contribution, especially as just last year I had written over 7,000 words on the Brahma-Viharas for Yoga Journal. As Chapple begins his chapter, he points out that along with the Viharas, emptiness and ethics are “three points of contact between Buddhism and classical Yoga.”
However, I was much surprised – and a bit dismayed – to find that Chapple takes the Classical Yoga approach to the Brahma-Viharas and implies that this is the same understanding in the Buddhist Yoga tradition. The translation from Yoga-Sutra I.33 he uses reads:
Be friendly with the happy, compassionate toward those who suffer. Celebrate the success of the virtuous, be even-minded toward those who lack virtue.
While I was happy to see how he translates upeksha as “even-minded” instead of the (to my mind) awful “disinterest” and “disregard” favored by many other yogis from the (Hindu) Classical Yoga tradition such as B.K.S. Iyengar and Swami Satchidananda, I felt dismay that he takes that tradition’s contextual conditions as crucial and central to the practice of the Four Brahma-Viharas!
In fact, in the Buddhist Yoga tradition, these four qualities are also often referred to as the Four Immeasurables, and are to be practiced toward all beings, as we see in the translations of people like Georg Feurstein and Chip Hartranft who translate this same sutra thus:
The projection of friendliness, compassion, gladness and equanimity towards all objects -- <be they> joyful, sorrowful, meritorious or demeritorious -- <bring about> the pacification of consciousness. – Feuerstein
Consciousness settles as one radiates friendliness, compassion, delight, and equanimity toward all things, whether pleasant, or painful, good or bad. – Hartranft
I hasten to say that I am not saying the classical tradition is ‘wrong.’ For the Classical Yoga emphasis on one’s own ‘inner peace,’ cultivating these states of mind is a way of restraining or reversing what Patanjali calls vikshepa, the tendency of the mind to be distracted and outwardly directed. Patanjali tells us that when we react haphazardly or callously to what people do around us, inner disturbance is the result. These four attitudes combat that disturbance and bring us closer to a state of balanced equilibrium.
When we see happy people, cultivating a friendly attitude toward them will help forestall feelings of jealousy and envy. When we encounter those who are suffering, we should compassionately do what we can to help—for our own sake as much as for the person who is suffering. "Our goal is to keep the serenity of our minds. Whether our mercy will help that person or not, by our own feeling of mercy, at least we are helped," Satchidananda says.
Appreciating and delighting in the qualities of virtuous people will inspire us to cultivate such virtues ourselves. And finally, when we are faced with those we deem nonvirtuous, the classical yoga tradition teaches that we should strive to have an indifferent attitude toward them. Often, we indulge in judging and criticizing those who we feel are misguided. This hardly helps us maintain a serene state of mind! Commentators in the classical yoga tradition point out that the yogi should not divert attention from his or her own practice in order to try to reform those who are unlikely to heed advice. As Satchidananda points out, "If you try to advise them, you will lose your peace."
However, the broader view is the one emphasized in the Buddhist tradition, where the brahmaviharas, as I mentioned above, are also known as "the Four Limitless Ones" and "the Four Immeasurables," reflecting Buddhist yoga's emphasis on social relationships and the interdependent nature of all beings. Both of these perspectives are valuable; reflecting on the intention and purpose behind each gives greater depth to our own practice. I only wish that in the desire to emphasize the similarities between the two Yoga traditions of Classical Yoga and Buddhist Yoga, we don’t blur, bury or soft-pedal the real differences.
Other than this, I do find Chapple’s emphasis on the significance that the terms for each of these qualities have a feminine ending very interesting! Patanjali is often criticized (most often correctly, in my view) as being male-centric, so it is helpful to see a way in which the importance of the feminine principle can be found in the practices Patanjali offers.
Tomorrow I will post on the section on “emptiness,” but for now, I’d love to hear from those of you who have been reading along any thoughts you have about the Four Brahma-Viharas. For those of you who are interested in reading my articles on them from Yoga Journal, here are the links:
Maitri/Karuna: “Love In Full Bloom”
Mudita: “I’m So Happy For You”
Upeksha: “Calm Within”