Sublimity and Power – it is important to clarify these two terms before going into the topic. Sublimity refers to the most exalted and noble human quality of grandeur scale that transcends and rises above the narrow and ugly viciousness in personal and social interactions. And power denotes the rate of doing work or transferring energy. Sometimes a word is better understood by looking into its antonyms. And here are the antonyms – sublimity is antonym to narrow mindedness and myopic view that give birth to vicious selfish wickedness; and power is antonym to weakness or incapacity. Therefore, the title of this piece suggests contents discussing those human qualities that have the transformative power to lead oneself and the society at large – to an all-embracing righteousness of positive energy. This energy is to enjoy life and livelihood with peace and magnanimity of mind and to let that energy permeate to all – in oneness of fellow-feeling for common prosperity and happiness. The necessities of these qualities are better appreciated from the perspective of one’s outlook on personal and social symmetry, stability and harmony. Let us attempt to understand why this is so.
As I have done in some other pieces, I would mostly refer to Buddhist (Gautama Buddha - The Tathagata; 563 – 483 BCE) principles. Delving into Buddhism is sort of a rediscovery for me. This inclination is not because other religions do not teach sublime human qualities – but because of my limited knowledge of them, and my upbringing in a Buddhist family. Perhaps highlighting what the Great Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (304 – 232 BCE) engraved in stone is appropriate: Every religion has the wholesome core of love, compassion and good will. The outer shell differs, but give importance to the inner essence and there will be no quarrel. Don’t condemn anything, give importance to the essence of every religion and there will be real peace and harmony. Truly religious people are very sweet and humble no matter of their allegiance to any particular creed – and they are all good citizens.
Before going further, it would be an interesting attempt to visualize the social upheaval that might have happened during the Buddha’s time:
Among others, writing this piece is inspired by materials gleaned from the following authors, teachers and sources: Anagarika Dharmapala (1864 – 1934); Dr. BR Ambedkar (1891 – 1956); Ajahn Chah (1918 – 1992); SN Goenka (1924 - 2013); TN Hanh (1926 - 2022); His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (1935 - ); Matthieu Ricard (1946 - ); and The Essence of Buddha Abhidhamma, the Buddhist metaphysical document superbly translated and interpreted by Myanmar Buddhist scholar, Dr. MT Mon. I have included an image of the Ashoka Pillar at Lumbini, Nepal – the stone edict on the pillar declaring that Emperor Ashoka visited this place to authenticate that this was the true birthplace of the Buddha.
I like to organize this piece by describing the Sublimities first, then move on to explaining why they are powerful. The Buddha described the Sublimities – numbering Four, as the Brahma Vihara – although they have nothing to do with the Sanatana Dharma god Brahma. Here are some possible explanations why the Buddha did that:
Buddhist scriptures describe the Four Sublimities as: Maitrey (or Metta), Karuna, Mudita and Upekka. In simple terms, the first three represent a generous, benevolent or altruistic spirit of mind to develop motivational inspiration for the happiness of all sentient beings (beings or life endowed with the processes of mind and matter – the Five Aggregates; see the Power of Mind on this page) – sweetened by the fellow-feeling of oneness with them. The fourth says that to be effective – the first three must be cultivated and delivered in calmness of mind. TN Hanh called the deliverance of Sublimities in transformative actions – the Engaged Buddhism. Ven Hsing Yun (1927 - ), the founder of the worldwide movement of Fo-Guang-Shan called it the Humanistic Buddhism. Buddhists always finish their chanting and blessings by wishing Sabbe Sattva Shukina Bhabantu or Let all Sentient Beings be Happy. Buddhists want all to be happy in calmness – irrespective of color, creed or type - including one's own transient self of mind and matter.
The rationality of the necessity for practicing the Four Sublimities – lies in the Buddha’s teaching of the profound realities of the laws of Impermanence and Dependent-origination. In such paradigms of realities it is imperative that one feels togetherness with all and the environment – because all are connected in the same process – in the inter-tangled fluxes of life and livelihoods. The Buddha taught these Four – for all to cultivate in order to develop them as a second-nature – not in an ephemeral sense that rises and falls – for example, one may feel Maitrey or love at a certain time, but does not show any sign of it in another time. Let us attempt to understand all these – realizing from the outset that many Buddhist terms do not have straightforward translatable counterparts in English. I will mainly follow the English translation provided by Dr. Mon.
☼The first Sublimity, Maitrey or Metta has been mostly translated as love or Loving Kindness. It refers to the softness of an individual’s heart for the welfare, safety and happiness of others. It is antonym to hatred, ill will and aversion. It has nothing to do with personal affection or carnal love – because these feelings have roots in high emotional attachments of mind and matter. It is rather an individual’s sweet and unselfish attitude or motive to make others happy – by realizing that others – irrespective of whether they are young, old, wealthy, powerful, famous, average or poor – or of different race and creed – are fighting the similar sort of battle as he or she is. The Buddha elaborated the benefits and the skillful methods of practicing Maitrey in the Karaniya Metta Sutta (or simply Metta Sutta) delivered at Shravasti. In 10 verses he detailed out the standards and methods of moral conducts on how to bestow loving kindness to all sentient beings. He has said that a practitioner – in turn – accrues 11 benefits of peace and harmony, for himself or herself by practicing Maitrey.
☼The second Sublimity, Karuna – mostly translated to Compassion, represents the pain one feels seeing the suffering of others. It is antonym to cruelty and wickedness. It does not encompass passionate grief – because grief has roots in high emotional attachment. Compassion is different from charity – because some charitable acts arise from sympathies that are not respectful to the sufferer’s conditions and circumstances. Compassion must come from one’s feeling of oneness with the sufferer or victim. The victim can be oneself, therefore one must not forget to be compassionate to himself or herself – in order to ride over difficult times – to be courageous to correct and reorient oneself toward the Right direction of happiness.
☼The third Sublimity, Mudita mostly refers to the happiness and joy one feels at the success and prosperity of others. It is antonym to sadness and despair. It does not equate with exhilaration because of high emotional response in such a feeling. Similar like compassion, one must be happy and joyous to enjoy one’s own success of accomplishing wholesome thoughts and deeds.
☼The fourth Sublimity, Upekka mostly translated to Equanimity, represents calmness, even-mindedness or impartiality of judgment – with neither attachment nor aversion. It is antonym to both passion and callousness. Equanimity is a state of balanced or unwavering mind in conflicts of praise and blame, pain and happiness, gain and loss, repute and disrepute. The Buddha advised his followers to meditate on each of the Four Sublimities – the one for Equanimity is famously known as Samatha meditation – the practice that leads to relaxation, and calmness or tranquility of mind.
The attention of the first three Sublimities can be oneself, or others: a single sentient being, a group or an entity. Karuna (compassion) and Mudita (joy) are kind of similar – both are tied to something (like an incident) that happened to the subject or the object. Both of them let one get connected with the object – Karuna is feeling the same pain as the sufferer – and Mudita is feeling the same joy as the object. In contrast, Maitrey (love) is not tied to any incident – it is a global or universal motivation or wish for happiness of all. Although I have used the word feeling – in reality it refers to one’s Bodhi or Bodhicitta (the stable, altruistic and enlightened consciousness). The virtues of Metta, Karuna and Mudita attain great power to a grandeur scale – in calmness and serenity – when the Six or Ten Perfections or Paramitas (see The Tathagata) to Bodhi are mastered.
Good. Let us now move on to the most difficult part of explaining why the Four are powerful – difficult because when one thinks about power – one always equates it with the powers of sword, military might, economy, technology, etc:
And the powers of Sublimities? How on earth Love, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity could have power? And why do we have to look back to 2.5 millennia BP for our present day problems? Why do we need them anyway? Before answering these questions, one must remember – it is only the past that can define a better future if we learn from it intelligently – it is like valuing and utilizing our experience. More separate answers to each of these questions are possible – but for the sake of brevity, let us attempt to see them in another way.
A counter-question to the above would be: are we better than in the past – in terms of social cohesion and other personal and societal problems? The answer to this question is definitely: we are not. True, we have advanced far beyond our past – in science, technology, comfort and gadgets. But one has many reasons to say that our social conditions – in alleviation of mistrusts, conflicts and violence, have not inched forward in parallel with material progress – if anything, some conditions might have worsened.
On the other hand, the Four Sublimities have the power-par-excellence, because they do not give birth to divisiveness, mistrusts, hatred, cruelty, jealousy and abusive temperament. The Jayamangala Gatha cites instances of 8 encounters – in which the Buddha prevailed over the evil destructive forces by the radiant power of his righteousness and Sublimities – in each case, the evil yielded to his sublime power by realizing the malice of their activities and renouncing the unwholesome pursuits. Well – if this is so, why don’t we practice them en-masse regularly? The answer is simple – people are easily attracted to and get swayed by theories and doctrines that promote short-term gains at the cost of disregarding their long-term adverse consequences.
Let us have a glimpse of some more to understand the power of Sublimities better:
For teaching the benefits of the Four Sublimities – Buddhists affectionately address the Buddha as the Mahakaronic or supremely compassionate Buddha. They cite many examples to indicate the reasons – four of them are: (1) young prince Siddhartha (the future Buddha) saving the life of a bird in pain arrowed down by his cousin; (2) denial of the cruel Vedic caste system by embracing all castes and untouchables into his fold – one of his favorite Dharma-proficient disciple Ven. Upali was born in a low-caste family; (3) saving the life and showing the path to liberation to the misguided and fearful rogue Angulimala; and (4) accepting the courtesan and social outcast Amrapali as his disciple.
While approving his son Rahula’s ordination and entry into the Sangha (Buddhist community of monks), it is said that the Buddha told him to practice the Four Sublimities first. The reasons were thought to be that – his son could still have the arrogance of royal perks and privileges in his mind, and also that he might face difficulty in socializing with, and befriending monks because he was the Buddha’s son. It must have been a great expectation of the Buddha from his young son.
This piece ended up being the longest in WIDECANVAS. In the light of religions that came into the discussion, I am tempted to finish this piece by highlighting what Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) has said in 1939 while opening the Mahabodhi Society Buddhist temple in New Delhi: It is my deliberate opinion that the essential part of the teachings of the Buddha now forms an integral part of Hinduism. It is impossible for Hindu India today to retrace her steps and go behind the great reformation that Gautama effected in Hinduism. By his immense sacrifice, by his great renunciation, and by the immaculate purity of his life he left an indelible impression upon Hinduism, and Hinduism owes an eternal debt of gratitude to that great teacher.
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- by Dr. Dilip K. Barua, 10 April 2019