Introduction

Our Best Home

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Throughout our lives we long to love ourselves more deeply and to feel connected with others. Instead, we often contract, fear intimacy, and suffer a bewildering sense of separation. We crave love, and yet we are lonely.

Does this describe you? Spend a few moments reflecting on the ways it does.

By uprooting our personal mythologies of isolation, spiritual practice uncovers the radiant, joyful heart within each of us and manifests this radiance to the world. We find, beneath the wounding concepts of separation, a connection both to ourselves and to all beings. Freeing ourselves from the illusion of separation allows us to live in a natural freedom rather than be driven by preconceptions about our own boundaries and limitations.

The liberation of the heart which is love...  Buddha

The Buddha taught a systematic, integrated path that moves the heart out of isolating contraction into true connection. That path is still with us as a living tradition of meditation practices that cultivate love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These four qualities are among the most beautiful and powerful states of consciousness we can experience.

In Pali, the language spoken by the Buddha, these four qualities — lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity — are called the brahma-viharas. This name is translated in a variety of ways. The word brahma is translated in a variety of ways: as “sublime” or “supreme” or “celestial”. One translation I like is "best”. Vihara means “dwelling” or “abiding” or “home”. Taken together, these four qualities known as the brahma-viharas form our best home.

You can come to feel at home in these four qualities.

In the four lessons of this course you will study and practice these four qualities:

Lovingkindness (metta in Pali) is love toward ourself and all others. The practice of metta uncovers the force of love that that can uproot fear, anger and guilt, The culmination of metta is to become a friend to oneself and to all of life.
Compassion (karuna) is the “trembling or quivering of the heart" in response to suffering, whether our own or somebody’s else’s. Compassion is born out of lovingkindness. Compassion is born out of the wisdom of seeing things exactly as they are. Compassion also arises from the practice of inclining the mind, of refining our intention.
Sympathetic joy (mudita) is actually taking delight in the happiness of others, rather than feeling that somehow happiness is a limited commodity in this world and the more there is for somebody else, the less there’s going to be for us. Sympathetic joy is the understanding that someone else’s happiness doesn’t threaten our happiness, it actually enhances our own happiness.
Equanimity (upekkha) may be thought of as the voice or the articulation of wisdom. Equanimity is not indifference; it’s not apathy; it’s not resignation. Equanimity is seeing things as they are. It’s knowing that no matter how hard we want somebody to be free of suffering, we’re actually not in control of the unfolding of the universe. This understanding shouldn’t make us pull away, but rather, can give us the strength to sustain our caring, because it’s not all tied up with our own agenda and our own sense of demand.

These four qualities support and enhance one another. There’s always an interweaving. When we do any one of these practices appropriately or skillfully, in a way, we’re bringing in all four.


Your aspiration

Abandon what is unskillful. One can abandon the unskillful. If it were not possible, I would not ask you to do it. If this abandoning of the unskillful would bring harm and suffering, I would not ask you to abandon it. But as it brings benefit and happiness, therefore I say, abandon what is unskillful.

Cultivate the good. One can cultivate the good. If it were not possible, I would not ask you to do it. If this cultivation were to bring harm and suffering, I would not ask you to do it. But as this cultivation brings benefit and happiness, I say, cultivate the good.
Buddha

By reflecting on these qualities in your life and practicing meditations on love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, you can establish the brahma-viharas as your home.

The brahma-viharas are a gift of love that the Buddha himself realized and embodied, and his gift and legacy is the opportunity for us to practice this path by which we learn to develop skillful mental states and let go of unskillful ones.

Abandoning unskillful states that cause suffering is not something you can do out of fear of or contempt for those states, or out of contempt for yourself for having those states arise in the mind. Abandoning the unskillful isn't accomplished by angrily shoving or pushing away your habits of separation. Rather it comes as you aspire and learn to truly love yourself and all beings, so that love provides the light by which you bear witness to those burdens, watching them simply fall away.

Cultivating an awakened life means aligning ourselves with an expansive vision of what is possible for us. The brahma-viharas are tools for sustaining our real, moment to moment experience of that vision.


Reflections and meditations

In each of this course's lessons you will be encouraged to stop reading and reflect on what you are learning. The goal of this course is to help affect a shift in your perceptions of your self and others and to assist you in nourishing the qualities of the brahma-viharas. To help affect this shift, the reflections focus your awareness on how you habitually think and feel in various situations with other people — and with yourself.


At the end of each lesson you are guided in meditations that help reveal the heavenly abode already inside of you.


Ashoka's inspiration

For some people, a single powerful experience may propel them out of their isolation.

Ashoka was an emperor in northern India about two hundred and fifty years after the time the Buddha. In the early years of his reign, this powerful emperor was bloodthirsty and greedy for the expansion of empire. He was also a very unhappy man. One day, after particularly terrible battle that he had launched in order acquire more territory, he walked on the battlefield amid i appalling spectacle of corpses of men and animals strewn everywhere, already rotting in the sun and being devoured carrion-eating birds. Ashoka was aghast at the carnage he 1 caused.

Just then a Buddhist monk came walking across the battle field. The monk did not say a word, but his being was radii with peace and happiness. Seeing that monk, Ashoka thou^ "Why is it that I, having everything in the world, feel miserable? Whereas this monk has nothing in the world apart from the robes he wears and the bowl he carries, yet he looks so serene and happy in this terrible place."

Ashoka made a momentous decision on that battlefield. He pursued the monk and asked him, "Are you happy? If so, how did this come to be?" In response, the monk who had nothing introduced the emperor who had everything to the Buddha's teachings. As a consequence of this chance encounter, Ashoka devoted himself to the practice and study of Buddhism and changed the entire nature of his reign. He stopped waging imperialistic wars. He no longer allowed people to go hungry. He transformed himself from a tyrant into one of history's most respected rulers, acclaimed for thousands of years after as just and benevolent. Ashoka's own son and daughter carried Buddhism from India to Sri Lanka. The teachings took root there and from India and Sri Lanka spread to Burma and Thailand and throughout the world. Our access to these teachings today, so many centuries and cultural transitions later, is a direct result of Ashoka's transformation. The radiance of that one Buddhist monk is still affecting the world today. One person's serenity changed the course of history, and delivered to us the Buddhist path to happiness.