Equanimity in Buddhism


By Justice Dr. Chandradasa Nanayakkara

There are four sterling qualities, or attitudes, in Buddhism, which are collectively called Brahma-viharas in Pali. They are (a) Loving-kindness or universal love (Metta) (b) Compassion (Karuna) (c) Sympathetic joy or appreciative joy (Muditha) (d) Equanimity (Upekkha). Brahma-viharas, as positive virtues, can also be taken as subjects of meditation.

The word Brahma has been interpreted to mean excellent, lofty, sublime or noble, and vihara as states of living. Brahma-vihara therefore means sublime states and some call it divine states or divine abodes. These four attitudes are said to be excellent or sublime because they are the right or ideal way of conduct towards all living beings. They provide the answer to all situations arising from social contact, and conduce to noble living. They level social barriers, build harmonious communities, promote altruism, unity and brotherhood.

The four states of mind, love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity are also known as the boundless states (Appamannyo) as they are virtues extended to all beings without exception, regardless of their caste, race, colour and creed. One who assiduously cultivates these four positive attitudes, by conduct and meditation, is said to become an equal of Brahma. Further, when these positive qualities become the dominant influence in a person’s mind it is said he will be reborn in congenial worlds after his death. The four sublime states are interrelated and interdependent.

Of the four sublime states Upekkha is one of the most difficult perfections to be practised by a layman who lives in today’s ill-balanced world with fluctuating fortunes. The etymological meaning of the term Upekkha (equanimity) is discerning rightly, viewing justly or looking impartially, without attachment or aversion, without favour or disfavour (Narada).

Upekkha

is mental equipoise and not hedonic indifference or apathy, but rather mental imperturbability. Equanimity is a perfect, unshakable balance of mind, rooted in insight and it is not independent of mindfulness. A person who practises equanimity is undisturbed and unperturbed when touched by vicissitudes of life. The virtue and value of equanimity is extolled and advocated by a number of major religions in the world.

Life is not linear, it has its ups and downs. None of us can lead completely uneventful lives. Our life is in a state of flux. It is never static and is constantly subject to change.

There are two universal characteristics that upset the mental equipoise of man, they are attachments to the pleasurable and aversion to the non-pleasurable. It is only by developing equanimity that one is able to eliminate these two possible forces. In other words, equanimity helps us to free ourselves from both excessive attachment and excessive aversion.

All human beings have to undergo the eight vicissitudes of life (Attha Loka dhamma) in the course of their lives. That is gain and loss, good repute and ill repute, praise and censure, pain and pleasure. No one gets through life without experiencing these realities from time to time. These waves of emotion carry us up and pin us down. They are the common lot of humanity. Even great leaders and the virtuous are subject to these worldly conditions and this has been true throughout history. No doubt, equanimity demands a tremendous amount of determination and will power to maintain a balanced mind. Over time and with constant practice, equanimity becomes an effortless process and its practice becomes intuitive.

Looking at the world around us and looking into our own life, we observe how it continually moves between the two contrasts of worldly conditions. No doubt, it is hard to be undisturbed and unmoved when touched by this welter of experience. It is natural for a layman to respond to these worldly conditions with happiness and sorrow, delight and despair, disappointment and satisfaction, hope and disillusionment. But a man who cultivates equanimity is not moved or perturbed. Amidst the vicissitude of life, he is firm and unwavering and stands unmoved as a solid lock. Like a lotus that is unsoiled by the mud from which it springs, he lives unaffected by worldly temptation and vicissitudes of life. A person who cultivates equanimity understands the true nature of human life and its vagaries and sees things in their proper perspective. There will be less frustration for a person who has developed equanimity when things do not develop the way he wishes.

Equanimity has been described as “a state of mind that cannot be swayed by biases and preferences; an even mindedness in the face of every sort of experience regardless of whether pleasure (or) pain are present,” (B. Thanissaro. [1996]. Wings to Awakening: An Anthology from the Pali Canon. Dhamma Dana Publications). Equanimity as a mental state requires practice and manifests as “a balanced reaction to joy and misery,” (B. Bodhi. [2000]. A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma. BPS Pariyatti). It is simply a state of neutrality which “leans neither towards gladness nor dejection” (Bodhi, 2000). When unpleasant thoughts arise, one will not push them away with aversion and denial. Similarly, when pleasant thoughts arise, one will not grasp them or become over excited or addicted to them. It enables a person to interact with the world without reacting based on emotion and he will be free from being caught up in the play of emotion. Though we cannot control worldly unpleasant experiences in life we can control how we react to it.

Equanimity that should be rooted in insight, is the guiding and restraining power for the other three sublime states. What is the nature of the insight contemplated in equanimity? It is the clear understanding of how all these vicissitudes of life (Attha Loka dhamma) originate, and of our true nature. For this purpose, understanding the workings of Kamma or actions, would be necessary to cultivate equanimity.

We should understand that most of the experiences we undergo result from our own Kamma; our action in thought, word and deed, committed either in this life or past lives. In other words, most of the pleasant and unpleasant things we experience in this life represent the ripening of actions performed in past and the present life, because Kamma is an immutable law of cause and effect, we cannot avoid the consequences. We must accept them as our just rewards. Kamma means what we do, we become. We become that because we have acted in a certain way to set up those conditions. Although everything cannot be attributed to Kamma, most of the major experiences in life are the results of Kamma.

In the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha addressing the monks said that these eight worldly conditions revolve around the world and the world revolves around these eight worldly conditions. In the Mahamangala Sutta the Buddha stated how an enlightened Arahant is unmoved by any of the worldly conditions, which he described as a great blessing, Phutthassa loka dhammehi, cittam yassa na kampati. Asokam virajam khemam. Etam mangala muttamam. A mind unshaken by worldly vicissitudes sorrows less.



Thank you

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