The Mandala of the Brahma Viharas by Ratnavandana

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The Brahma Viharas are a set of practices that together create a mandala which is whole and complete in itself. Everything we experience can be found in this mandala, either through the positive quality of the Brahma Vihara or through its near or far enemy. This is an ideal way to look at them and to work with them. You can of course spend time focussing on any one of them as needed, but working with them as a mandala gives you the complete picture. Metta is the fundamental Brahma Vihara and the source of them all. It takes on a particular flavour dependent on what it meets, so if it’s suffering it becomes compassion, if it’s another’s happiness, good qualities, good will then it becomes Mudita. Upekkha brings its understanding, its wisdom eye as, through your practice of Metta, Karuna and Mudita, you come to see more clearly the way things are and realise the futility of resisting reality.

Using the mandala as a map to orientate yourself Just as a map is a very useful thing to help know where you are, and how to get to where you want to go, so too is the mandala of the Brahma Viharas. It can do the same thing on an internal level. Firstly you need to know where you are, which means you need to be awake to your present experience to know that, and then you can see where it fits in the Mandala. So firstly, once you are connected and aware of what is happening right now, you then look to see if your present experience relates to Metta, Karuna, Mudita or Upekkha’s positive qualities, their near enemies or somewhere on the spectrum of the far enemies. Like any map, it helps to spend some time getting to know the territory, becoming familiar with making the connection between what is going on with you right now and where it is on that Brahma Vihara map. Sometimes it’s very easy and straightforward – you’re irritable/far enemy metta. You’re envious/far enemy Mudita. You’re with someone who is suffering and really able to bear witness to that/Karuna. You are in a rather cosy ‘bubble’ with your dear friend and you realise your attachment/near enemy/metta. This kind of thing is quite easy to spot and name. Often there is a more complex mix of things going on and it requires a bit more examination and reflection to know where it fits in the Mandala but it's worth spending the time because once you know where you are you can find your way forward. Ideally this investigation will be done with kindness, interest and understanding, wanting to unravel the more unhelpful states and build on the positive ones.

Traditionally one of the ways the Brahma Viharas work as a Mandala of Practices is that when you find yourself in the near enemy of one particular Brahma Vihara you look to the next one to restore balance.

Sentimental Attachment- near enemy of Metta - go to Karuna to restore balance It can be very effective to go to Karuna if you find things getting a bit sticky when doing the Metta practice, a bit like a bucket of cold water thrown on you, breaking you out of the rather warm cosy state you’ve been in! Just contemplating the suffering in your dear friend’s life changes everything. Horrified Anxiety/Sentimental Pity-near enemies of Karuna - go to Mudita to restore balance Finding yourself caught up in the near enemies of Karuna is not an easy experience but moving to Mudita can really help to let go of the difficulty and regain perspective. Recognising the good qualities of the person, their happiness, their good fortune relieves the tension that truly facing the suffering sometimes brings.

Vicarious Enjoyment/ Intoxication-near enemies of Mudita - go to Upekkha to restore balance It can be hard to resist the near enemy of Mudita sometimes, particularly if it’s a bit intoxicated, but it’s not real and needs to come back down to earth, so moving to Upekkha really helps to restore balance. Just reflecting on the worldly winds, the way things really are brings perspective. Luke warm neutrality-near enemy of Upekkha - go to Metta to restore balance.

If we find ourselves cruising along in that neutral state without much or any engagement, going to Metta can get us back in touch, get us connected again. Metta is the root Brahma Vihara and as such provides the fuel for our engagement with these practices.

For this to work effectively we need to familiarise ourselves with these near enemies – sometimes it easier than others to recognise them – its pretty obvious when we’ve fallen into horrified anxiety instead of compassion, and intoxication too is easy to spot, but sentimental attachment (pema) isn’t so easy – it takes real courage to really face up to our attachment, which operates just as fully within the ‘spiritual’ context of our lives as in the more mundane aspects. The thing here is to acknowledge what is there whilst bringing understanding to bear, it’s natural in our unenlightened state to get attached, we all do to some extent, to some degree. By being really honest with ourselves we already start to let go a little bit, it’s power to influence our behaviour weakens whereas if we refuse to see it, it goes on gaining power and influencing our lives in unseen ways.

It’s often not easy to spot luke warm neutrality either – we can think we are being equanimous – really going with the flow of things and not getting blown about by whatever happens, when really we are not even engaged. From my own experience of working with these practices we can extend their beneficial activity beyond just helping us out when we are in the near enemy of one of them. I’ve found that whatever is happening, by just orientating myself on the Brahma Vihara map, understanding where I am, and it immediately becomes clear what is needed. It’s so obvious in a way, but sometimes one can’t see whats right in front of you, but using the map in this way really helps. SOME TIPS FOR THE STAGES OF THE PRACTICES Doing each practice, contemplating the quality and deepening your understanding of it really adds something to your experience of the others. One of the things most people say after a Brahma Vihara retreat is that they have a better, stronger understanding of Metta. This is because having done Karuna and Mudita in particular, they broaden as well as deepen our sense of what Metta really is. Upekkha adds another dimension which completes the picture. This deepening of your experience and understanding applies not only to the four practices but to each stage too. It is very different to see your difficult person through the eyes of Karuna, Mudita and Upekkha as well as metta – perhaps facing for the first time that this person suffers – but getting much more of a whole perspective on them as well. It really helps to use the same person in each stage for all the Brahma Viharas. Your experience of someone can change a lot through doing this throughout the retreat. The only person who might need to change really is the neutral person and that’s because if you are using people on the retreat, which is what I would recommend, they don’t stay neutral for long. But otherwise use the same dear friend, the same difficult person. Decide up front who these people are going to be, don’t dither about, trying this one or that. It is truly beneficial to do all the stages, so try not to skip, there is so much opportunity in the neutral and enemy stages, as well as when you bring all four (or five in Karuna and Mudita) together. But try to keep it real – taking it slowly and maintaining awareness of what is happening within as you do the practice – with body, heart and mind. If you are getting stuck just rest in awareness for a while and begin again, maybe using another Brahma Vihara to help you or one of the Jinas if that helps. These practices are giving us the opportunity to go beyond ourselves, to really ‘see’ the other person as they are, rather than seeing them with our own assumptions and judgements. As they are incompatible with hateful states of mind, as Nyanaponika

Thera says, doing them really highlights our own ego clinging, our resistances, our preferences whilst drawing us onwards with their transforming power. It’s important to recognise that these practices are not about pleasant (or indeed unpleasant) vedanas, although of course they may be there, but that they are skillful volitions, kusala samskaras which will gradually replace our unskilful tendencies so that in time the Brahma Viharas can indeed become our true home.

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