NYANAPONIKA THERA on The Four Sublime States

NYANAPONIKA THERA on The Four Sublime States

The basis of meditation practice is familiarising ourselves with the mind, how easy it is to get lost in compulsive thinking, noticing such and gently bringing the mind back to our present experience. This is said to cultivate mindfulness, but doing this mechanistically would reduce meditation to an attentional practice. The Buddhist monk NYANAPONIKA THERA (1901-1994) pointed out in his book on “The Four Sublime States” that although mindfulness is necessary, it is not sufficient, and through meditation, we also aim to cultivate other qualities known as the four sublime states or the four immeasurable.   

The Four sublime states or immeasurable

In his book “The Four Sublime States”, NYANAPONIKA THERA points to us the importance that through our meditation practise, we also aim to cultivate four other mental qualities, which he calls sublime states.  These are the cultivation of love or loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha).

Concerning the sublime states or immeasurable NYANAPONIKA THERA (1958) in their book “The Four Sublime States” tells us;

To love and be kind towards all beings equally without discrimination; to be compassionate towards all beings; to rejoice when others experience success and happiness; and to strive to remain even-minded, steady and calm so being equanimous when facing the vicissitudes or troubles of life.

Thera (1958, p. 5)

These are all qualities we aim to cultivate through our meditation practice. 

NYANAPONIKA THERA strongly encourages to us cultivate and develop such qualities as they have the potential to be transformational in our lives, that of others and the world.  Who can argue against the positive effects that being more kind, compassionate, joyful towards others and clear-minded in the face of uncertainty can bring within our lives and that of others?  

NYANAPONIKA THERA says the following on the four sublime states.

NYANAPONIKA THERA on love or loving-kindness (Metta)

NYANAPONIKA THERA describes love or loving-kindness as:

Love, without desire to possess, knowing well that in the ultimate sense there is no possession and no possessor: this is the highest love.

Thera (1958, p. 14)

So “metta” as love or loving-kindness as described by NYANAPONIKA THERA is the notion of cultivating a deep-seated love that aspires and desires unconditionally without expecting anything back for the genuine well-being and happiness of not only ourselves but also others.  Salzberg and Goldstein (2002) in their book on the practice of “Insight Meditation”, Sharon Salzberg, a contemporary meditation teacher who mainly focus on teaching loving-kindness, says that “metta” is,

Gentle — as in a gentle rain that falls indiscriminately upon everything — friendship — (as in) a steady unconditional sense of connection that touches all beings without exception.

Salzberg & Goldstein (2002, p. 218)
NYANAPONIKA THERA on compassion (Karuna)

NYANAPONIKA THERA says the following on cultivating compassion:

Beings, sunk in ignorance, lost in delusion, hasten from one state of suffering to another, not knowing the real cause, not knowing the escape from it. This insight into the general law of suffering is the fundamental foundation of our compassion, not any isolated fact of suffering.

Thera (1958, p. 16)

If we look closely NYANAPONIKA THERA implies that compassion arises as an insightful response into the causes and conditions that give rise to difficulty and suffering, we might face in our lives.

Sometimes compassion might be compared or confused with pity.  In reality, these are total opposites, and in meditation practice, pity is considered as something that hinders the arising of compassion. This is because pity implies looking at the other person as beneath you, as if from a higher vantage point with the explicitly indicated attitude of “Oh, Poor You”. 

On the contrary, compassion departs from the point of “common humanity” that suffering is an inherent aspect of our experience that we all suffer and want to be free from suffering, and in meeting each other in our shared experience of suffering, we are united.   Therefore, unlike pity, compassion has a sense of meeting each other on an equal footing without an agenda or planed desired outcome.  That is, help is given when and where it is needed unconditionally and indiscriminately.

Reflecting such a statement, the clinical psychologist Gilbert (2010) and creator of “Compassion Focused Therapy” in their book “The Compassionate Mind” defines compassion as,

A deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it.

Gilbert (2010, p. xiii)

Therefore, as Gilbert and Choden (2014) point out in their book “Mindful Compassion”, compassion has a two-part process to it: that of turning towards meeting ones and others suffering with a genuine unconditional wish to try to alleviate it without belittling oneself or others.

NYANAPONIKA THERA on sympathetic joy (Mudita)

NYANAPONIKA THERA tells us the following on the quality of sympathetic joy:

Life, though full of woe, holds also the sources of happiness and joy, unknown to most. Let us teach people to seek and find real joy within themselves and to rejoice with the joy to others! ……. Noble and sublime joy is a helper on the path to the extinction of suffering.

Thera (1958, p. 19)

As NYANAPONIKA THERA implies, although life might be full of challenges within it, we also encounter moments of deep-seated joy as if welling out of nowhere. In moments like this, we might notice how brighter and more vivid it feels to be alive.  Such that when we experience and cultivate this sense of unconditional joy, we might find that it helps us navigate the ups and downs of life with more ease. 

Further, NYANAPONIKA THERA points to another quality of the sympathetic joy we are aiming to cultivate through our meditation practice.  A joy that is unselfish or a joy from which feelings of warmth and happiness that arise come from experiencing and rejoicing not only in the happiness or prosperity of ourselves but also others unconditionally.  That is an altruistic joy that stems from the realisation that we all want to be happy and that our own happiness is intrinsically tied to that of others.

NYANAPONIKA THERA on equanimity (Upekkha)

While NYANAPONIKA THERA describes being in a state of equanimity as follows

Equanimity is a perfect, unshakable balance of mind, rooted in insight.

Thera (1958, p. 20)

It has to be mentioned that equanimity is often misinterpreted as being in a state of indifference or calm detachment.  On the contrary, equanimity is being in a state that cares equally for all things in our experience, not pushing away or pulling onto anything but holding our experience in a balanced awareness.  

In fact, the Pali word for equanimity is “upekkha”, which translated means “to look over”.  For example, equanimity could be compared to being on top of the peak of a high mountain and having the ability to look down, seeing the vastness of what lays beneath you.  It refers to the ability to look at things and situations with clarity for what they are and not be distracted by what we observe or caught up in any particular aspect of our experience.  

Nairn et al. (2019) in their book “From Mindfulness to Insight” comment that,

Equanimity is traditionally compared to the love of a grandmother for her grandchildren. The grandmother dearly loves her grandchildren but, given her extensive experience of raising her own children, she is less inclined to get caught up in the ups and downs of her grandchildren’s lives. She stands back and looks at them all with the eyes of love and understanding.

Nairn et al. (2019)

Therefore, if we go back to NYANAPONIKA THERA description of equanimity as an unshakable balance of mind, rooted in insight and the above example we could say that equanimity has to it the aspects of clarity of mind and inner balance together through which we begin to recognise our interdependent connection. 

Such insight rooted in the other sublime quality of compassion gives rise to the realisation that – just as we suffer, so too do all beings suffer; just as we want to be happy and free from suffering, so too do all beings wish for to be happy and free from suffering and the wisdom of equality – that we fundamentally we are all the same and wish for the same things despite our many superficial differences.

Finally, it is these qualities that we bring into mindfulness meditation that take the practice and the cultivation of mindfulness beyond the simple development of concentration and attention to an authentic contemplative practice that promotes the well-being not only of ourselves and other but humanity and the world as a whole.

What are your thoughts, and how do you yourself cultivate such qualities of loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, compassion and equanimity not only on your meditation cushion but in your daily life?  Comment below.   

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Gilbert, P., & Choden. (2014). Mindful compassion. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Guilbert, P. (2010). The compassionate mind: A new approach to life’s challenges. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Nairn, R., Choden, & Regan-Addis, H. (2019). From mindfulness to insight: Meditations to release your habitual thinking and activate your inherent wisdom. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications Inc.

Salzberg, S., & Goldstein, J. (2002). Insight meditation: A step-by-step course on how to meditate. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Thera, N. (1958). The four sublime states. Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.

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