The Four Sublime States

...the Wanderling


  1. Metta (sanskrit, Maitri): caring, loving kindness displayed to all you meet.
  2. Karuna: compassion or mercy, the special kindness shown to those who suffer.
  3. Mudita: sympathetic joy, being happy for others, without a trace of envy.
  4. Uppekha (Upeksa): equanimity or levelness, the ability to accept others as they are.

The four sublime states or `maturing emotions', as explained here, may be realized, in practice, as being linked; divided only for the sake of convenient analysis and explanation. They are like different aspects of the same place, different ways of describing heaven. We describe the different aspects to help us to find a way of noticing them so we may express them, play with them, in our lives.

METTA: - kindness - engendered in us encourages us to accept ourselves and others, and so to understand ourselves and others. Understanding implies wisdom. And this wisdom is that which allows us to find the way, to grow beyond, or let go of, that which limits and binds the heart. The kindness expressed to others allows them to accept themselves and others. This is an emotional, gut or heart acceptance that allows the acts of body, speech and mind that are a response to that which is perceived as `other' to be kind; not motivated by not-liking, not motivated by aversion or fear. The effect is unlimited.Metta is radiant and attractive, warming to those that are cold, cooling to those that are hot.

The Golden Purifier

KARUNA: - Compassion - works. It works for us in allowing us to perceive the pain, anguish, affliction, agony, torment and distress of others clearly, through allowing it into our experience also. It is then something that has moved further out of the realm of the ignored or the unconscious into the realm of the included, the accepted, the conscious. Compassion is spacious, allowing the way things are to exist, to change, and to end. Particularly it allows pain to end. This means that it must be patient, not in any hurry to force pain to end or to try officiously to get rid of pain. It is the active side of wisdom and is the Buddha's supreme or GOLDEN PURIFIER. The Buddha's compassion allowed him to realise that there is still something that can be done by a fully enlightened being. It was compassion that motivated him to teach "for the benefit of those with little dust in their eyes".

Within nothingness there is a path
Leading away from the dusts of the world.
Even if you observe the taboo
On the present emperors name,
You will surpass that eloquent one of yore
Who silenced every tongue.

Mercy is a way to think of compassion, a word not often used and yet evocative of the quality of heart that is willing to bear the burdens of others; willing to always help to the best of its ability, listening out for the cries for help and acting. The `cries' may not be loud. It can be as ordinary as helping to clean-up after an event or set up before the event. Whenever we notice that some assistance would be appreciated and are willing to act to give it, we practise karuna.

MUDITA: is usually translated as sympathetic joy. This has meant little to me. The suggestions in the words of sympathy, pathetic and joy suggest an omelette that has a strange flavour. `Sympathy' and `joy' seem to mix easily; it is the addition of `pathetic' by alliteration that jars the palate. Appreciate, joy, enjoy, and bring joy to, are words that evoke from me the qualities of heart that are the opposite of envy and jealousy; the opposite of those qualities that wish to bring someone down to a lower level.

Mudita implies full consciousness. We need to discriminate, to be conscious, to open to the possibility of appreciation. Particularly encouraged is consciousness of the good, the virtue and the wisdom of others. What mudita allows is the arising of an aspiration to do or to be likewise. It has been said that when we can appreciate the beauty of a rose in full bloom, we can be moved by mudita. The suggestion is to practise at all levels. Sometimes when looking at a rose we can be caught by so-called `realism' and just see that the flower will fade; we can be a bit like Scrooge with "bah humbug", a sour response to any suggestion that beauty can be appreciated without falling into desire to possess or hold on to. The balance is provided when upekkha is present.

UPEKKHA: again first the usual translation - equanimity. I prefer serenity, with the implied suggestion of accepting limitation and rising above it. The phrase, "be serene in the oneness of things" has always struck me as a beautiful suggestion to my heart when there is frustration with the pace of life; the limitations of the universe; or the limitations of myself or others. There has to be a conscious acceptance of the limited way things are, to allow the heart to train to transcend that limitation.

The Inter-relations of the Four Sublime States

How, then, do these four sublime states pervade and suffuse each other?

Unbounded love guards compassion against turning into partiality, prevents it from making discriminations by selecting and excluding and thus protects it from falling into partiality or aversion against the excluded side.

Love imparts to equanimity its selflessness, its boundless nature and even its fervor. For fervor, too, transformed and controlled, is part of perfect equanimity, strengthening its power of keen penetration and wise restraint.

Compassion prevents love and sympathetic joy from forgetting that, while both are enjoying or giving temporary and limited happiness, there still exist at that time most dreadful states of suffering in the world. It reminds them that their happiness coexists with measureless misery, perhaps at the next doorstep. It is a reminder to love and sympathetic joy that there is more suffering in the world than they are able to mitigate; that, after the effect of such mitigation has vanished, sorrow and pain are sure to arise anew until suffering is uprooted entirely at the attainment of Nibbana. Compassion does not allow that love and sympathetic joy shut themselves up against the wide world by confining themselves to a narrow sector of it. Compassion prevents love and sympathetic joy from turning into states of self-satisfied complacency within a jealously-guarded petty happiness. Compassion stirs and urges love to widen its sphere; it stirs and urges sympathetic joy to search for fresh nourishment. Thus it helps both of them to grow into truly boundless states (appamañña).

Compassion guards equanimity from falling into a cold indifference, and keeps it from indolent or selfish isolation. Until equanimity has reached perfection, compassion urges it to enter again and again the battle of the world, in order to be able to stand the test, by hardening and strengthening itself.

Sympathetic joy holds compassion back from becoming overwhelmed by the sight of the world's suffering, from being absorbed by it to the exclusion of everything else. Sympathetic joy relieves the tension of mind, soothes the painful burning of the compassionate heart. It keeps compassion away from melancholic brooding without purpose, from a futile sentimentality that merely weakens and consumes the strength of mind and heart. Sympathetic joy develops compassion into active sympathy.

Sympathetic joy gives to equanimity the mild serenity that softens its stern appearance. It is the divine smile on the face of the Enlightened One, a smile that persists in spite of his deep knowledge of the world's suffering, a smile that gives solace and hope, fearlessness and confidence: "Wide open are the doors to deliverance," thus it speaks.

Equanimity rooted in insight is the guiding and restraining power for the other three sublime states. It points out to them the direction they have to take, and sees to it that this direction is followed. Equanimity guards love and compassion from being dissipated in vain quests and from going astray in the labyrinths of uncontrolled emotion. Equanimity, being a vigilant self-control for the sake of the final goal, does not allow sympathetic joy to rest content with humble results, forgetting the real aims we have to strive for.

Equanimity, which means "even-mindedness," gives to love an even, unchanging firmness and loyalty. It endows it with the great virtue of patience. Equanimity furnishes compassion with an even, unwavering courage and fearlessness, enabling it to face the awesome abyss of misery and despair which confront boundless compassion again and again. To the active side of compassion, equanimity is the calm and firm hand led by wisdom -- indispensable to those who want to practice the difficult art of helping others. And here again equanimity means patience, the patient devotion to the work of compassion.

In these and other ways equanimity may be said to be the crown and culmination of the other three sublime states. The first three, if unconnected with equanimity and insight, may dwindle away due to the lack of a stabilizing factor. Isolated virtues, if unsupported by other qualities which give them either the needed firmness or pliancy, often deteriorate into their own characteristic defects. For instance, loving-kindness, without energy and insight, may easily decline to a mere sentimental goodness of weak and unreliable nature. Moreover, such isolated virtues may often carry us in a direction contrary to our original aims and contrary to the welfare of others, too. It is the firm and balanced character of a person that knits isolated virtues into an organic and harmonious whole, within which the single qualities exhibit their best manifestations and avoid the pitfalls of their respective weaknesses. And this is the very function of equanimity, the way it contributes to an ideal relationship between all four sublime states.

Equanimity is a perfect, unshakable balance of mind, rooted in insight. But in its perfection and unshakable nature equanimity is not dull, heartless and frigid. Its perfection is not due to an emotional "emptiness," but to a "fullness" of understanding, to its being complete in itself. Its unshakable nature is not the immovability of a dead, cold stone, but the manifestation of the highest strength.

Now, for Buddhism, and especially Zen, all of that is a whole lot of words, right? Well, yes and no. It depends on what you get out of it. Your job is to extrapolate the thread weaved through the whole text. Words, Zen, and Buddhism are not always the best bedfellows. For more on how words and Buddhism "work" go to:

Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.






Excerpts from the above article
provided through the graceful services of:
Bodhinyanarama Monastery, NZ
Ajahn Vajiro, Abbot

Buddhist Publication Society
Nyanaponika Thera

Edited and updated for our purposes
here by the Wanderling.