The Brahma Viharas

Formal Definitions   |  Bodhicitta as Magick

This leads to the obvious question: how do we train the mind to be clear, steady, concentrated, compassionate, loving, joyously appreciative of the goodness and success of others, and equanimous? These are the brahma viharas or “divine abidings”, qualities that often get overlooked in many magickal discussions, but which I assert are the key to optimal magick, meaning the best magick that we could have come up with in that set of circumstances. “Optimal” is a concept that those familiar with these matters will quickly realize is at once totally preposterous due to the absurdity of its naivety and, if we are willing to hold it a bit loosely and transcend our tight-assed existential, entitled, and postmodern objections, is also a very useful goal to strive for. For those not familiar with the brahma viharas, they are:

a. Loving-kindness (metta), which is also accurately translated as “loving-friendliness”: the natural well-wishing for oneself and all beings and the recognition that all beings wish for happiness.

b. Compassion (karuna): the natural wishing that our own and all others’ pain, problems, and suffering will cease, and the recognition that all beings wish not to suffer or experience misery.

c. Joyful appreciation (mudita): the natural appreciation of our own and all others’ successes, good fortunes, abilities, and joys. Mudita is also often translated as “sympathetic joy”.

d. Equanimity (upekkha): the feeling of peace that comes from realizing that all beings are the true heirs of their karma and that their well-being depends on their actions, and not on our wishes for them; it also entails a lack of attachment or aversion to any classes of beings and any individual beings. Note: there are many types of upekkha mentioned in the various traditions, so be mindful of how the word “equanimity” is used in various contexts.

The idea of these four being optimal implies an agent who can make choices. That there is an agent who can make choices is a good working assumption for all moral work. Even those with deep understandings of natural causality and interdependence can adopt the relative paradigm that there is a moral agent who can make choices.

“Optimal” also implies that there is some perfectly defined criteria for “best”, though these cannot ultimately be found. “Optimal” either becomes an article of faith, a meta-perspective, or a vision-logic mode of real understanding, or more often some fusion of both perspectives.[See Ken Wilber’s works for a definition of “vision logic”.]

Still, you may be reasonably be asking, “Why is it that you view the brahma viharas (and their functional applications, such as tonglen) as being the Buddhist answer to the question of meditative training that most likely leads to optimal magick?” Why, thank you, I am glad you asked this:

a. The brahma viharas are generally in the (somewhat inaccurate) category of private magick, and even if you make them public magick by, say, chanting out the phrases in some hopefully appropriate public context, hardly anyone would object or find anything odd in wishing others well or in the other three practices. Still, the category of private magick is a relative one, as the field of causality is unavoidably interconnected. Actions done in your own mind stream are guaranteed to have implications for the rest of the world.

b. The brahma viharas are not specific regarding the question of immediate versus delayed magick, and leaving that question open makes for a more workable situation.

c. Likewise, the brahma viharas are nonspecific, meaning that they do not lay out any criteria for the outcome beyond the most general and fundamental benefit, a quality that nearly always makes magickal workings easier.

d. The brahma viharas are not necessarily unnatural, though many people might be surprised to learn the depth to which we can generate those feelings in the body and some of the other unusual experiences we can have while practicing them, such as experiencing them radiating throughout space as light, etc.

e. The brahma viharas are not likely to come up against anyone’s field of disbelief, since who would really disbelieve that we want to cultivate positive qualities or take issue with our wishing for positive outcomes and balance of mind?

f. The brahma viharas are not likely to lead to moral conflict, except occasionally with the category of the “enemy” (see below), and thus, with this single exception, we can generally proceed in their cultivation completely free from moral conflict, but rather with a deep and galvanizing sense of moral imperative.

g. Since the brahma viharas cultivate what are clearly our deepest wishes and highest aspirations for ourselves and others, they are automatically synchronous, meaning completely in line with the intentions of the object of the practice.

h. Given that the brahma viharas lend themselves to strongly positive feelings, they are positively reinforcing, and being positively reinforcing, they naturally lend themselves to strong single-mindedness, confidence, and concentration.

i. Given that there is no time when the brahma viharas are not a good idea, any time they are practiced they are well-timed, and therefore timely.

j. Given that the brahma viharas require little formal set-up beyond the phrases and the feelings themselves, and given that as part of the set-up it is easy to recognize that these are a good idea, it is hard to imagine easier magick to set up properly.

k. As to plausibility, it is possible that some aspects of our wishes—say for the happiness of all beings to expand and increase—may seem implausible. However, that we wish this for ourselves and others is not implausible at all, and that all beings wish for contentment, freedom from misery, etc. for themselves is also not implausible. This practice is about cultivating the feeling of those wishes, with those positive qualities being their own reward even if you naively imagine that they do nothing other than simply occur “within” “us”, so, properly understood, plausibility is easily met.

As to the influence clouds that emanate from the wishes of other beings, given that the brahma viharas at their core automatically resonate with the deepest wishes of all beings, no better natural resonance and amplification could possibly be found.

l. As to luck, I am perhaps being a bit magickal and optimistic in my thinking here, but it is easy to imagine, should there be any such thing as luck, that luck favors these most fundamentally beneficial workings. The workings of karma are imponderable, but the conditioning within the agent during the practice of the brahma viharas is extremely meritorious and therefore beneficial.

m. The last factors are to make the brahma viharas familiar and to practice them in a conducive setting. The first is simply a question of repetition, and the latter is realizing that any setting may be a good place to practice these qualities that are so needed in this aching world.

n. In short, the brahma viharas naturally meet all the criteria that make for the most powerful and beneficial magick, and it is hard to come up with anything else that does this in quite that way other than turning attention to directly comprehending the true nature of all sensations, as is frequently mentioned at the end of texts that deal with magick, such as “The Fruits of the Contemplative Life” (DN 2).

o. In summary, it is highly recommended that you make some time for the brahma viharas.

Given that you are now completely inspired to try these (or further develop them if you are already familiar with them) by the amazing power of this airtight logic of staggering rhetorical force, it is worth knowing how to practice them. Excellent instructions can be found in:

a. The Visuddhimagga, by Buddhaghosa, chapter nine

b. Buddhist Meditation in Theory and Practice, by Paravahera Vajiranana Mahathera, chapters twenty and twenty-one

c. Path to Deliverance, by Nyanatiloka, pp. 101–110.

A summary of the basic instructions appears below:

a. Pick one of the brahma viharas, specifically:

i.Loving-friendliness: that feeling of heartfelt well-wishing

ii.Compassion: that wish for the end of suffering for all beings equally

iii. Joyous appreciation: that gladness for and delighting in what is good in the lives of others

iv.Equanimity: that impartiality and peaceful acceptance that helps counterbalance the first three brahma viharas and is its own reward.

It is recommended that these be practiced in the order presented, but there is no harm in choosing the one that seems most appropriate to the time and going back and filling in with the others later. It is also highly recommended to practice them all, as they tend to balance aspects of each other that otherwise can become imbalanced if we practice them selectively.

b. Pick a comfortable meditation posture if possible.

c. Reflect on the dangers of the quality of mind that the chosen brahma vihara most directly opposes.

i.Loving-friendliness directly opposes hatred. Reflect on the dangers of harboring hatred.

ii.Compassion directly opposes cruelty. Reflect on the dangers of harboring cruelty.

iii. Joyous appreciation directly opposes jealousy and envy. Reflect on the dangers of harboring jealousy and envy.

iv. Equanimity directly opposes both grasping and hatred. Reflect on the dangers of grasping (greed or not letting go) and hatred. Equanimity helps counterbalance getting overwhelmed by the feelings that the first three can sometimes bring up. It also helps prevent the other brahma viharas practices from becoming exercises in unskillful sentimentalism and codependency.

d. Each of the brahma viharas is associated with a specific phrase that is used to cultivate the sentiment until the feeling of the brahma vihara can itself be taken as the meditation object, and so the next step is to learn the phrases for that brahma vihara. The phrases may be modified to suit your inclinations, and appear in various forms in various places. Each phrase is used to extend the quality of the brahma vihara to various categories of beings, so a blank is included in the phrase that we fill in with the appropriate category as we progress through them. Here I render them as:

i.For loving-friendliness:

May _____ be happy. May ____ be peaceful. May _____ be safe. May _____ live with ease.

ii.For compassion:

May _____ be free from suffering. May their suffering finally cease.

iii. For joyous appreciation:

May the happiness and good fortune of _____ always increase.

iv. For equanimity:

____ is/are the true heirs of their karma. ____’s happiness depends upon their actions and not upon my wishes for them.

e. The phrases in the short form of the practice and then their resultant feelings are extended towards various beings and classes of beings in this traditional order:

i.Towards ourselves first, e.g., May I be happy, etc. Equanimity is the exception, as directing this type of equanimity towards ourselves is philosophically problematic.

ii.Towards a friend (try to avoid those for whom you feel sexual attraction, as that tends to distract from the practice, though if we get better at this we might try to sort those out later on)

iii. Towards a neutral person

iv. Towards a hostile person or one towards whom you bear ill will (traditionally called the “enemy” or, perhaps a bit more generously, the “worthy opponent”)

v.Towards all beings everywhere; the long, monastic versions of these practices go into great detail about the categories of beings in various directions and are a mighty fine time.

f. When working with the categories in this way, it is traditional to stick to the easy categories first, developing them until the feeling is strong, and then shifting to the harder categories when we feel confident. This is in keeping with the magickal principles of familiarity and confidence.

g. We may also extend the feelings in various directions:

i.In front

ii.In back

iii. To the sides

iv. Above


vi. All around pervading everything everywhere. [For a great summary of the primary suttas that deal with metta, see “Wheel #7: The Practice of Loving-Kindness (Metta): As Taught by the Buddha in the Pali Canon”, compiled and translated by Ñanamoli Thera. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,]

h.As we repeat the phrases, we try to connect to the fundamental feeling indicated by the words.

i.We must guard against both the far enemies (emotions like greed and hatred listed above that the brahma viharas directly oppose), and the near enemies, which are facsimiles of the brahma viharas that are not the genuine quality but instead problematic impostors. These are:

i.For loving-friendliness, the near enemy is grasping desire, attachment, or lust.

ii. For compassion, the near enemy is pity.

iii.For joyous appreciation, the near enemy is also desire.

iv.For equanimity, the near enemy is indifference.

j.As the feeling of the brahma vihara grows, we turn that feeling into an object of shamatha practice, such that we take that feeling and develop it directly, working with it, expanding it, gently coaxing it through any blockages or sticking points we find, extending it through our body until it pervades our whole body, and finally expanding the feeling everywhere. This is good advice for any jhana practice.

k.In this way, we may use the first three brahma viharas to attain up to the third jhana, as they still contain a pleasant feeling of some sort. We can take this type of equanimity to the fourth jhana and beyond, as equanimity is the basis of the formless realms.

l.As barriers, distractions, or issues arise during the practice, we open, we soften, and we connect with the deep and fundamental feeling of the chosen brahma vihara, and slowly extend that one through whatever blockages we encounter to reach everyone and pervade everywhere.

m. Much additional accessible material may be found in Sharon Salzberg’s Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness which, while not mentioning how to develop metta into the deep jhanic states, still outlines many useful aspects of the practice. It is my deep wish that you, the reader, fully excel in all these practices and thus benefit tremendously from your labors, realizing that your happiness ultimately depends on your actions.

One of the remarkable things about the brahma viharas is that their practice can automatically start to do what I advocated in the chapter “Harnessing the Energy of the Defilements”, in which I recommended finding the skillful aspects of emotions that we might otherwise label as unskillful. It turns out that enough good brahma vihara practice can begin to show us the hidden tendencies towards kindness, empathy, compassion, and equanimity that underlie other, more difficult emotions. We notice that these beneficial qualities cultivated by the brahma viharas are what those unskillful emotions were trying to accomplish in some way, and so the brahma viharas can help transform our hearts to connect more naturally with some of the most skillful magick there is. I highly recommend spending at least a few minutes every day with at least one of the brahma viharas. They can be done in nearly all circumstances of daily life but, as always, be careful when doing any meditation while performing a task such as driving or using dangerous equipment.

Loving-friendliness practices are also among what are called in the Theravada “the four guardian meditations”, sort of the Theravada meditative equivalent of a magick circle of protection. For the actual source of the practice, check out the Sutta Nipata 1.8 (SN 1.8), as well as chapter nine of the Visuddhimagga or chapter eight, section five of the Vimuttimagga, which have great instructions on all the brahma viharas. The other three guardian meditations are “reflection on the positive qualities of the Buddha” (to inspire faith), “recollection and contemplation of death” (to inspire effort and reduce attachment), and “reflections on the loathsomeness of the body” (to counter lust, attachment, and vanity). As you can see, the Theravada has no fear of the dark aspects of life, and these practices, which may initially ring a bit oddly to the contemporary ear, can be quite beneficial when done properly. Some Pali chanting of some or all of these was part of the daily ritual in most of the traditional Theravada retreats I attended in traditional monasteries, and I have learned to appreciate these practices. Similar protective meditations exist in the other Buddhist traditions also.

Formal Definitions   |  Bodhicitta as Magick