We are barely into 2013 and I already received a present from the great Buddhist scholar, the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, in the form of a valuable teaching.  All I did was ask him what I thought was a simple question and he replied with some fascinating insights on kindness and compassion in Early Buddhism.  I received permission from him to post it here.

The question I asked was this:

Honored Master,  I think of my own practice as having 3 pillars: samatha, vipassana and brahmavihara.  In the context of Theravada Buddhism (which I consider the foundation of my practice, though it’s a bit more complicated), I’m surprised the “heart practices” of brahmavihara are not elevated to the same level as samatha and vipassana, and in my opinion, one of the key contributions of Mahayana Buddhism is the elevation / emphasis of the heart practices, specifically of compassion.  My own take is that traditional Theravada made the implicit assumption that the brahmaviharas naturally arise out of samatha+vipassana, and hence, paid no extra attention to it.  What is your opinion on this issue?

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s answer:

Dear Meng,

Complex questions require complex answers. I’ll try to keep my answer fairly simple, though I don’t know whether I will succeed.

First, one must distinguish between Early Buddhism and Theravāda Buddhism. Despite a common assumption that identifies Theravāda with the teachings of the Pali Nikāyas, the two aren’t completely identical. What we call “Early Buddhism” is found in the teachings of the Pali Nikāyas and the corresponding texts of other ancient Buddhists schools, such as those preserved in the Chinese Āgamas. “Theravāda” is one of the schools (or perhaps a group of schools) that emerged during the period of Sectarian Buddhism (部派佛教), which arose after the ancient unified Buddhist community underwent fissures and divisions.

In their origins, these divisions were probably based on nothing more significant than geographical dispersion. As Buddhism spread over northern India, and then sent out tentacles to the northwest and the southeast, monastic centers were established in these different regions and became increasingly autonomous. No doubt, intellectually acute teachers arose in these centers who attracted students and put their own distinctive stamp on their interpretations of the early teachings. In this way, schools of interpretation emerged, which evolved over the next couple of centuries into the different schools of the Sectarian Period. The doctrines of the schools were expounded in treatises they added to the older collections. These treatises, expressing a more systematic and refined understanding of the Dharma, came to be what we call “Abhidharma.”

The first major division was between the Sthaviras (Theras, elders) and the Mahāsānghikas (Majority Sangha). The Sthaviras divided into the Vibhajyavādins and the Sarvāstivādins, mainly over rather technical philosophical issues. Each of these in turn had subdivisions of their own. One subsect of the Vibhajyavādins, probably based in western India (perhaps extending from present Sanchi all the way to the west coast), preserved its canonical texts in a language that we now call Pali.  It was this western branch of the Vibhajyavādins, apparently, that sent missionaries to Sri Lanka to propagate Buddhism on the island in the 3rd century BC. In time, the sub-school of the Sri Lankan Vibhajyavāda that was based at the Mahāvihāra in Anuradhapura evolved into what we now call Theravāda, a word that came into use as a designation for a school only after the 5th century. Up to this point the word, it seems, was used only to refer to “the explanations of the elders,” of the Buddha’s disciples, as contrasted with ācariyavāda, the explanations of later teachers.

While the fundamental texts for the Theravāda are still the Nikāyas and Vinaya, their more specialized understanding of the Dharma derives from their Abhidharma treatises and their commentaries. These commentaries were compiled by Buddhaghosa from older commentaries no longer in existence. Additionally, Buddhaghosa wrote the famous treatise Visuddhimagga, which arranges the teachings of the Mahāvihāra into a comprehensive system.

When we compare the Nikāyas and the Āgamas from other schools, we can see that their contents, by way of doctrines and practices, are virtually the same. Though one collection may include sutras missing from the corresponding collections, it is mainly in formulation and arrangement that they differ. With regard to their Abhidharmas and the doctrinal positions, the differences are more prominent. Of all the early schools, the only one that has survived intact is the Theravāda, and this has gone through a long process of evolution, including (especially around the 6th-8th centuries) absorption of Mahāyāna influence. For example, the second major commentator, Dhammapāla of South India, has written a treatise on the bodhisattva and the paramitas that draws heavily from Asanga’s Bodhisattva-bhūmi.

Exactly how Mahāyāna Buddhism arose is still a matter of uncertainty, since the earliest texts we have—the early Mahāyāna sutras—depict Mahāyāna as already a well-formed system. We don’t have texts that depict Mahāyāna taking shape in its “womb”  in the way a sonogram might show a fetus taking shape in a mother’s womb. But there is a general consensus among scholars that Mahāyāna arose within some of the early schools of the Sectarian Period, most likely certain south Indian offshoots of the Mahāsānghikas. Mahāyāna  ideas would have soon been picked up by other schools, and thus a grand synthesis started to take shape leading to the emergence of Mahāyāna as a distinct and self-conscious phenomenon.

You can find these issues treated in much more detail in Venerable Yinshun’s works, 印度佛教思想史 (“History of Indian Buddhist Thought”) and 初期大乘佛教之起源與開展 (“The Origin and Development of Early Mahāyāna Buddhism”). Neither has yet been translated into English.

This should provide a little background for dealing with your comment:

I’m surprised the “heart practices” of brahmavihāra are not elevated to the same level as samatha and vipassana, and in my opinion, one of the key contributions of Mahāyāna Buddhism is the elevation / emphasis of the heart practices, specifically of compassion.  My own take is that traditional Theravāda made the implicit assumption that the brahmavihāras naturally arise out of samatha+vipassana, and hence, paid no extra attention to it.

To address this comment, it should first be said that in the Nikāyas and Āgamas, the brahmavihāras do appear quite regularly. The word “brahmavihāras” is only rarely applied to this set of four practices (always in the context of their being the practice that leads to the brahma world), but the four “divine qualities” can be found throughout the Nikāyas. For example, in the Majjhima Nikāya we find them in MN 7, MN 40, MN 43, MN 50, MN 52, MN 62, MN 83, MN 97, MN 99, and elsewhere. They are mentioned a number of times in the Digha and Anguttara Nikāyas. The practice of metta is encouraged separately a number of times in the Anguttara Nikāya, which speaks of eight and eleven benefits to be obtained from developing loving-kindness. The first few suttas of the Opamma-samyutta, chapter 20 of the Samyutta Nikāya, stress the value of developing metta. The Theravāda Abhidhamma treatise, Vibhanga, has a chapter on the brahmavihāras (chapter 14), referring to them as “the immeasurables” (Paliappamaññā, Skt apramanya).

The exact relationship of the brahmavihāras to samatha and vipassana is not explicitly stated in the Nikāyas, but from the way they are treated we can infer that, taken as meditation practices on their own, they would fall under the heading of samatha, since they lead to concentration rather than insight. Taken as a self-sufficient body of practices, the brahmavihāras are said to lead to rebirth in the brahma-world. The Vibhanga chapter on the brahmavihāras classifies them as “a path for rebirth in the form realm,” and this agrees with the Nikāyas. They are not viewed as a special discovery of the Buddha put as pre-existing practices that the Buddha already found in circulation in the Indian spiritual scene and incorporated into his own system. For this reason, a number of suttas devalue the brahmavihāras, but when they do so, we should understand this devaluation to apply to them when taken as a self-sufficient mode of practice. An example of this is the last part of MN 83, where the Buddha says that the four brahmavihāras, unlike the noble eightfold path, do not lead to enlightenment and nibbāna.

However, other suttas show that the brahmavihāras can be used as a basis for insight. When used as a basis for insight, they can lead all the way to nibbāna, as illustrated by MN 7 and MN 52. In this case, the meditator enters each or any of the four immeasurables and then contemplates its factors as impermanent, defective, and nonself. Through such contemplation he reaches supramundane realization and destroys the defilements.

The commentaries, and treatises like the Visuddhimagga, explore the role of the brahmavihāras in more detail. They explain the differences between the four “divine” qualities and give fuller directions for the practice than one finds in the suttas. See especially chapter 9, which is devoted fully to the brahmavihāras. The end of this chapter even states that the bodhisattvas give special attention to loving-kindness, which serves as their motivation for  cultivating the paramitas. This passage might have been formulated under the impact of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

It is possible that, despite the prominent role that the brahmavihāras play in the early texts (like the Nikāyas), in the schools of Sectarian Buddhism, including Theravāda, they came to be displaced by the more ascetic, world-renouncing types of meditation, like the impure parts of the body, mindfulness of breathing, and vipassana. If the brahmavihāras had been reduced to a subordinate role, this may partly explain the arising of the Mahāyāna as a reaction spurred by those monks who placed greater value on the brahmavihāras. These proto-Mahāyānists may have felt that such qualities as loving-kindness and compassion were central to the Buddhist path and had to be given a more prominent role than the early texts and the sectarian schools assigned to them.

The Mahāyānists looked for inspiration, not so much to the old Āgamas, but primarily to the stories of the Buddha’s former lives as a bodhisattva. These were related in the Jātakas and in the more elaborate versions of the “Buddha biography” that were being composed. These texts traced the Buddha’s career back to his encounter with earlier Buddhas. In these accounts emphasis is placed on the bodhisattva’s motivation for passing up the opportunity to quickly attain arahantship and vowing to undertake the long career of a bodhisattva by cultivating the paramitas. The motivation, it is said, was his loving-kindness and compassion for sentient beings, his wish to liberate not only himself and a few other people but to serve as a liberator of the world. Therefore, by taking the Buddha as a model, the early Mahāyāna Buddhists (or maybe “proto-Mahāyānists”) moved these brahmavihāra qualities to the center of  the path and this trend was given literary expression in the Mahāyāna sutras.

As the early Mahāyāna sutras elaborated on the concept of a bodhisattva, they made mettā and karunā the roots for the arising of bodhicitta, the resolution to attain supreme enlightenment for the sake of the world, which is the pivotal event in the career of a bodhisattva, enabling him to embark on the proper bodhisattva path. Therefore, whereas in early Buddhism and the thought of sectarian Buddhism, the intensive positive development of such qualities as loving-kindness and compassion is regarded as expendable—as one choice among a whole range of practices for attaining samādhi and then insight—for the Mahāyāna they become indispensable, the key to the transformation of an ordinary person into a bodhisattva. Again, they are given a more prominent function throughout the path. They sustain the bodhisattva in the practice of the paramitas and come to fullest manifestation with the attainment of buddhahood. Whereas early Buddhism did not emphasize the sustained positive enactment of loving-kindness and compassion after one’s attainment of liberation—except, of course, in the obvious sense that a liberated person would treat others with kindness and compassion, seeking to avoid harming them and to benefit them when opportunity arises—the Mahāyāna sees them as inseparable from the state of an enlightened one. They provide the explanation for the Buddha’s decision to teach after his enlightenment and in their fullness are considered integral to the complete manifestation of the enlightened state.

My own view regarding Buddhist commitments is quite similar to the one you explain for yourself in your blog entry of June 2, 2010. I don’t have much connection with either Vajrayāna or Zen, but I’ve read many of the Mahāyāna sutras, including some of the more obscure ones not translated into English. My opinion is that, while quite a few go to extremes in expressions of faith and doctrine, their emphasis on the compassionate motivation and attitude behind Dharma practice  is necessary to give a more balanced presentation of Dharma than can be offered by a version that overstresses the ascetic and world-renouncing aspects. Both aspects have to keep each other in balance.

Over the past decade my understanding of Buddhism has been especially influenced by the masters whose works I’ve encountered by staying at Chinese monasteries, especially Ven. Taixu, Ven. Yinshun, and Ven. Renjun; the latter was a senior student of Yinshun, with whom I lived for four years at Bodhi Monastery in New Jersey. Thus my two main Dharma pillars are the Nikāyas and the broader Theravāda tradition, and the “Human-Realm Buddhism’ (人間佛教) of these 20th century Chinese masters.


1. The hyperlinks were added by me, in case you find them problematic.
2. Also see: Bhikkhu Bodhi on the Nikayas.