Friday, January 7, 2011

Book Club: Brahma Viharas, Emptiness and Ethics by Christopher Key Chapple

“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:


  1. Hey Frank!

    Glad to be posting again after a bit of a lull. Something here about recommitting, which for me links in with your current explorations of sitting practice. Each day that I get up and sit I am recommitting to practice and the values that are inherent within that. In some way I feel a little like that with this blog. It requires commitment from me. Just like sitting practice if I hold it too lightly it will get lost amidst the thousand things of life. So it requires some commitment and it bears fruit, I can feel it as I write, how good it is to be exploring, studying, practicing dharma in this way again!!! Thank you for your tremendous commitment to this blog. You show up active or inactive, this is really inspiring!

    In terms of our current chapter, I found the historical information quite fascinating. I missed responding to Sarah Power’s chapter and would like to briefly refer to it here. What I loved about Sarah's writing was that it was applied theory, we got the theoretical context of what she was exploring, the rationales for doing things but we also got very clear explanations of how to work with these in practice; practical and useful. I have found a couple of the chapters of this book so far to be highly historical and not very helpful in practice, information quickly forgotten. In some ways this chapter, so far, could fall into that category, intellectually stimulating but not practically that useful.

    Christopher clarifies that the classical texts with their ‘lists and categories’ are not presented for ‘their own sake’ but ‘to provide a frame for organizing ones experience of the world.’ And how grateful I am for all the wisdom that has been passed down through the ages, from the wider sangha really and yet, and this is personal I know, I think this wisdom needs to be re-contextualized for the modern reader.

    With regard to the Brahma Vihara’s, to categorize people in the ways that Christopher says the classical texts suggests, seems a bit reductive. ‘Travelling’, if you like, ’the path of dharma, I am aware of the Brahma Vihara’s, when I meet others, aware, mindful of my own and their behaviors I can make choices specific to that situation as to how to apply myself. How to be in the ‘vihara’ abiding within compassion or sympathetic joy or whatever, perhaps a merging of the four in one moment. This arises from a receptivity to that moment and an intention to live well rather than a set of conceptual rules.

    It’s interesting that before I read your current book club post a friend and I were talking about how difficult it can be to abide in sympathetic joy. That at times when one is experiencing discontent the good fortune of others can amplify the sense of discontent. For me at times it requires intentionality to manifest this abiding in my life. My friend and I agreed that it is expansive and opening to rejoice in the gifts and good fortune of others, inspirin,g whereas the opposite, envy or jealous can lead to a shrinking of oneself, a contracted identification with a sense of oneself and ones life as not enough.

    For this reason I enjoyed the Christopher’s emphasis on Patanjali’s affirmation of:

    ‘the importance of ongoing engagement with and purification of ones involvement in the world.’

    As you pointed out and I’ve heard the Dalai Lama say, ones inner well-being is so precious, the Brahma Vihara’s really help us to cultivate a greater sense of well-being and ease in life when remembered and practiced.

  2. I'm still on board and have really enjoyed reading this chapter on on the three points of contact between Buddhism and classical Yoga. I am learning quite a bit by the comparison and this blod with your comments helps with the attention to specific points that you find important. I have been learning the sutras one at a time and comparing various interpretations and it's so interesting how differnt they read. Joseph LePage's interpretation of 1.33 is "a gift of grace" - "Kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity (in relation to pleasure and pain, good and evil) are naturally cultivated through glad acceptance of all life offers as a gift of grace." It is so interesting to view Patanjalie's sutras as influenced by Buddhism. I'm not sure that I could explain what Brahma Vihara is from this chapter but have a sense that it is a system that defines a path. He mentioned that it is 2-fold. First step back and see the company that you keep, use caution, take a 2nd look and "confidence can be gained in regard to the best path to pursue". I found it also interesting that while I was reading it, I was thinking of other in my life that could benefit from these words and your comments about "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."
    I see others suffer from hate, selfishness, and misguided thinking.... it's hard not to want to share this advice. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Rosie! Wonderful to see you back here! I always enjoy reading and learning from your comments. I agree that Sarah's emphasis on application (I love that she used her experience of 'hot flashes,' so intimate yet after all, so applicable to just over half the population!) is so relevant and useful.

    Your comment on 'mudita,' which I prefer to translate as 'empathetic joy,' is a real challenge. I don't know if you read my Yoga Journal piece, but I begin with an mention of the Smiths' song "We hate it when our friends are successful." As I wrote there, the flip side is that schadenfreude we feel at others' failures. We can even feel this when it's someone we love! A recent article I read says that pleasure centers in our brain fire with this emotion. Another example of why the Buddha calls practice, "Going against the stream."

    Thanks again!

  4. Sally, I am delighted that you are "still on board!"

    "Brahma Vihara" means abode of Brahma. Cosmologically, in the Buddhist Yoga tradition there are over 30 heaven realms. A whole class of devas are known as "Brahmas" so it's not limited to the creator god Brahma of Hinduism. The four realms of the brahma gods are psychologically equated with the states of metta (friendliness, often translated as 'loving-kindness'), karuna (compassion), mudita (empathetic joy) and upekkha (equanimity).

    Chapple offers the classical yoga approach of seeing these as four attitudes we should take with four different classes of beings and experiences. The Buddhist tradition sees them as relevant for all beings.

    Another real difference between the Yoga-Sutra and the Buddhist tradition, is that all Patanjali says is these are attitudes we should take in order to maintain our own peace of mind. Yet, he really doesn't offer any advice on HOW to take such a position. Perhaps this is what he would later expound on to his students, and all we have are his 'lecture notes!'

    However, in the Buddhist tradition, there are practices, interestingly enough, called "bhavana," or cultivation. The most familiar is metta-bhavana, a contemplation that is designed to cultivate a friendly attitude and relationship to all beings, great and small, seen and unseen (as the sutta says).

    As for your final comment, while I agree we can end up wasting a lot of breath and still not change those we give advice to, I don't think we should take this as a suggestion that we become 'indifferent' or 'disregard' those who cause themselves and others suffering. The life-koan becomes, 'How do we act in the world from a place of love, joy and patience?'


  5. I am thankful for this blog to learn so much more about these teachings. The links you posted to the journal articles you wrote were most helpful. Coming to this with "fresh" eyes...I didn't "get much" out of reading the essay until I went back and read your links in the Yoga Journal. Then ...voila!...the essay made sense! :-)
    So if it seems sometimes that no one is listening or reading...remember that we are and that this book of essays would be rather "dead" to me without this forum.
    I especially liked your article "Calm Within" on equanimity. I never realized how I lived like a ping pong ball reacting by bouncing one way and then the next. I don't think others ever viewed me that way.....but it seems clear as the light of day to me now. Unfortunately...I don't usually see the impulse to react until after I've already done it...but still I'm seeing that now. Maybe that will turn into seeing the impulse to react and just stopping to breath for a minute.