What's Brahma got to do with Buddhism?
Recently I wrote about four dimensions of cultivation in meditation practice. Someone in my Wednesday night class expressed an interest in more on heart-opening practices, and so a couple of weeks ago we took another look at loving kindness practice, aka metta. In this week's class we'll be revisiting the second of the so-called Brahmaviharas, compassion practice, and looking at the role of compassion in early Buddhism.
Before we get to that, though, why are these practices called 'Brahmaviharas' anyway? A 'vihara' is an 'abode' or 'dwelling place' - Buddhist monasteries are sometimes called 'viharas' - so 'Brahmavihara' means 'Abode of Brahma'. But isn't Brahma a Hindu god? What does that have to do with Buddhism?
Let's find out!
The relationship between Buddhism and other Indian religions
Buddhism didn't come into being in isolation. Like everything else, it arose partly in response to its environment. In fact, scholars who've really done their homework have found quite a few places where Buddhist teaching is clearly a direct response to something else which was being taught at the time. On many occasions in the Pali canon (the earliest record of the life and teachings of the historical Buddha), we see a follower of another tradition come to speak to the Buddha, and it's obvious from the Buddha's response that he was well versed in that person's tradition as well as his own.
So when he disagreed with something put forth by another teacher, he wouldn't just say 'No, it isn't like that, here's my teaching instead.' Instead, he'll very often reply in the language of the questioner, but putting a subtle spin on the discussion to reveal the weaknesses in the other person's position. Then, when the other person admitted defeat, the Buddha was well placed to give his own teachings.
We can see one example of this in Majjhima Nikaya 99 (I've included the link so you can read the whole thing if you want, but I'll cite the relevant excerpts below), and in the process we'll find out what Brahma has to do with Buddhist heart-opening practices.
The story begins
Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was staying near Sāvatthī in Jeta's Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika's monastery.
Now at that time the brahmin student Subha, Todeyya's son, was residing in Sāvatthī at a certain householder's home on some business. Then Subha said to that householder, "Householder, I have heard that Sāvatthī does not lack for perfected ones. What ascetic or brahmin might we pay homage to today?"
"Sir, the Buddha is staying near Sāvatthī in Jeta's Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika's monastery. You can pay homage to him."
Acknowledging that householder, Subha went to the Buddha and exchanged greetings with him.
As usual, the discourse begins with 'thus have I heard'. These discourses were preserved in oral tradition for hundreds of years before ever being written down. So they start with an acknowledgement that this is the version of the story received from whoever had previously memorised it, generation after generation. (Remember this - we'll come back to it later!)
The story begins with Subha, a 'brahmin student'. Brahminism was a major religion prevalent at the time of the Buddha, based on the Vedas, the very earliest Indian texts (the oldest of which are thought to date back to 1400 BCE). Brahminism can be thought of as a precursor to classical Hinduism. One of the core ideas in Brahminism is a supreme being, Brahma, who created everything, including living beings; each of us, according to Brahminism, possesses an atta (Pali) or atman (Sanskrit), a kind of fixed, immortal, perfect 'divine nature' which transmigrates from life to life. Conversely, one of the core tenets of early Buddhism is anatta, or anatman - the Buddha said on many occasions that whatever we examine in our experience, through any of the senses, we cannot find this unchanging, utterly reliable 'essence' of selfhood.
Here already we can see a way in which Buddhism was reacting to its environment. Brahmins promoted the atman, but Buddhism was saying 'Nope, ain't no atman to be found, look for yourself.' When modern teachers talk about anatta or anatman, we tend to explain it rather differently, because it's time-consuming to have to explain the classical Indian world view which probably means nothing to our listeners today, only to challenge something that people didn't believe in anyway. But when we go back to the early texts to try to figure out what's going on, it's helpful to know some of this stuff - otherwise it just doesn't really make any sense.
Anyway, Subha, the brahmin student, hears about the Buddha and decides to go and visit him. Subha is pretty confident that Brahminism is the real deal, and so he opens strong, telling the Buddha that the brahmins say that renunciates like the Buddha don't know what they're talking about - which the Buddha effortlessly shoots down, of course. But Subha isn't done - he keeps challenging the Buddha, again and again. This part of the discourse is really, really long, so I've omitted it, but it's worth a read if you like that kind of thing.
Eventually, though, Subha finally cracks.
"Master Gotama, I have heard that the ascetic Gotama teaches a path to companionship with Brahmā. Please teach me that path."
"Well then, student, listen and pay close attention, I will speak."
"Yes, sir," replied Subha.
('Master Gotama' here refers to the Buddha, 'Gotama' being his family name.)
Subha has admitted defeat - he's tried every strategy he can think of to find a flaw in the Buddha, and none of it's worked. And so, as he starts to realise that he's actually in the presence of a pretty wise person, he decides to ask a real question for the first time - a question which is about his own spiritual practice, rather than one intended to expose a weakness in the Buddha.
Now, at least as far as we can see from the Pali canon, the Buddha didn't spend his days talking about hanging out with Brahma. Famously, the Buddha focused instead on one central matter: suffering, and what could be done to alleviate it. Nevertheless, here Subha is showing the first sign of a genuine openness to what the Buddha has to teach, and so rather than shoot him down, the Buddha instead goes with it, and says that yes, he does know a path to companionship with Brahma.
And what is that path?
Seeing the world as Brahma does
“And what is a path to companionship with Brahmā? Firstly, a mendicant meditates spreading a heart full of loving kindness to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of loving kindness to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. When the heart's release by loving kindness has been developed like this, any limited deeds they've done don't remain or persist there. Suppose there was a powerful horn blower. They'd easily make themselves heard in the four quarters. In the same way, when the heart's release by loving kindness has been developed like this, any limited deeds they've done don't remain or persist there. This is a path to companionship with Brahmā.
Furthermore, a mendicant meditates spreading a heart full of compassion …
They meditate spreading a heart full of appreciative joy …
They meditate spreading a heart full of equanimity to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of equanimity to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. When the heart's release by equanimity has been developed and cultivated like this, any limited deeds they've done don't remain or persist there. Suppose there was a powerful horn blower. They'd easily make themselves heard in the four quarters. In the same way, when the heart's release by equanimity has been developed and cultivated like this, any limited deeds they've done don't remain or persist there. This too is a path to companionship with Brahmā."
These are our familiar heart-opening practices - loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, equanimity. But whereas in other places they're called the 'heart's release through loving kindess' (etc.), here the Buddha presents them as a 'path to companionship with Brahma'.
Isn't this deceitful? Is this really a 'path to companionship with Brahma'?
The Buddha was a big fan of upaya, 'skilful means'. He believed that there was no one-size-fits-all teaching, but instead each person had their own unique obstacles in spiritual practice, and thus a range of techniques and presentations were required to reach everyone. Sometimes this meant giving one practice instead of another, and sometimes it meant dressing up the Dharma in different language.
This kind of 'Trojan horse' approach could perhaps be seen as deceitful. On the other hand, when we're deceitful, it's usually because we're looking to get something out of it. Perhaps you could make the case that the Buddha's looking to get a new student out of it, but the Buddha would most likely have countered that he was simply intending to help as many people as he could to find the end of suffering.
This is a big topic, and one which I'm not going to resolve in this article - maybe I'll come back to it in the future. For now, though, we might consider how it would be to dwell with Brahma, to see the world as an omnipotent being like Brahma might. Because if we can learn to see the world the way Brahma does, that's a form of companionship - right?
An omnipotent being would have no need for hatred, cruelty, jealousy or agitation - no need to protect 'me and mine' from threats, because when you're omnipotent, nothing can threaten you. So we might imagine that a being like Brahma would instead see the world through a lens tinted with the opposites of those qualities - loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. By dwelling in these states ourselves, then, we too can come to see the world as Brahma might.
And if you want to know what it's like to see the world that way - well, head over to the Audio page and try the guided meditations!
So how does Subha respond to this bait-and-switch?
When he had spoken, Subha said to him, "Excellent, Master Gotama! Excellent! As if he were righting the overturned, or revealing the hidden, or pointing out the path to the lost, or lighting a lamp in the dark so people with good eyes can see what's there, Master Gotama has made the teaching clear in many ways. I go for refuge to Master Gotama, to the teaching, and to the mendicant Saṅgha. From this day forth, may Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone for refuge for life."
He seems pretty satisfied with what he's heard. The discourse ends with Subha going home, meeting people along the way and telling them how great the Buddha is.
A closing note on compassion
Compassion can be a surprisingly slippery notion. I've written about it previously, so I won't go into too much detail here, but to recap briefly, compassion is the recognition of suffering in oneself or another, coupled with the earnest desire to alleviate that suffering. It is not the same as pity (which distances us from 'that poor person over there'), nor an excessive empathy for others (which leaves us overwhelmed with their emotions), and it doesn't always mean 'being nice to people' (which in some cases may actually perpetuate their suffering rather than alleviating it).
Compassion is a very big deal in Mahayana Buddhism, the later tradition of which Zen is a part. Sometimes, though, it can seem like compassion is not such a big deal in the early teachings. Later writers have portrayed the early Buddhist path as one leading only to personal liberation from suffering - and to hell with everyone else.
I don't see it that way, though. Starting right at the beginning, we have the example of the Buddha. According to the Pali canon, in the immediate aftermath of his enlightenment, he briefly considered cutting himself off from the noisy, troublesome world of people and simply enjoying the bliss of enlightenment for the rest of his life. But he didn't - clearly not, otherwise we wouldn't have a 2,500-year-old Buddhist tradition today. In fact, the Buddha devoted the rest of his life to sharing his path, trying to help people find an end to their own suffering, devising numerous practices and skilful means in an attempt to reach as many people as possible.
Furthermore, if his followers really had only been interested in dealing with their own suffering and didn't care about anyone else, there would have been no reason to preserve the tradition. Remember I said that these discourses were preserved in oral tradition for hundreds of years - that's many generations of people dedicating themselves to memorising inconceivably vast amounts of information by modern standards, and finding enough people in the next generation to ensure the continued survival of the teachings. This is also a form of compassion - it might not look like exactly the compassion of a charity aid worker flying into a conflict zone, or whatever might come to mind when you think of 'compassion', but these are people dedicating their lives to a path leading to the end of suffering, and I personally feel immense gratitude toward them for doing so.
May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!