It might be new to some, but the term brahmavihāra actually hardly appears in the suttas. We find it only once in each of the four nikayas: DN 17, MN 83, AN 5.192, SN 54.11.
Thus it joins other terms that gained excessive popularity in post-canonical times (e.g. ‘four noble truths’ or ‘vipassanā’)
Brahmavihāra in SN 54.11 (repeated verbatim in SN 54.12) doesn’t even refer to mettā etc. but to the Buddha practicing anapanassati and the resulting “ariyavihāra, brahmavihāra, tathāgatavihāra”
(the other two terms appearing only here in SN 54.11/12)
Further AN 3.95 has the two components, but not as a compound: “Brahmaṃ, bhikkhave, vihāraṃ tasmiṃ samaye bhikkhū viharanti” (“On that occasion the bhikkhus dwell in a divine abode”)
The boundless nature of mettā
So if brahmavihāra is an inadequate label (see also below) there is a need for a more adequate ebt-label. Sometimes appamāṇa is proposed, i.e. boundless, measureless. In the suttas this is a common qualification of mettā etc., and it additionally connects it with a meditation practice leading to the state.
Thus above, below, across, and everywhere, and to all as to myself, I dwell pervading the entire world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, vast, exalted, measureless (appamāṇa), without enmity, without ill will.
DN 13, DN 17, DN 26, DN 33, MN 7, MN 21, MN 40, MN 43, MN 50, MN 52, MN 55, MN 83, MN 97, MN 99, MN 127, AN 3.63, AN 3.65, AN 3.66, AN 4.125, AN 4.126, AN 4.190, AN 5.192, AN 9.18, AN 10.219, AN 11.16, SN 41.7, SN 42.8, SN 42.13
In fact, ‘measureless’ and ‘mettā etc.’ appear so often together that the occurrence of ‘measureless’ - though sometimes in other contexts - is dominated by mettā… and would allow that label.
Another appropriate name we can derive from these same suttas would be cātuddisa, four-quarter, because of a sentence exclusively used with mettā, karuṇā, muditā, upekkhā:
Then I dwell pervading one quarter with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, likewise the second quarter, the third quarter, and the fourth quarter.
The ‘four-quarters’, as much as ‘measureless’ establish these states as boundless and unlimited in nature. Another expression that demonstrates the high level of the appamāṇā is ‘liberation of the mind by mettā’, (mettā cetovimutti) - with vimutti that is reserved only for the highest doctrinal aspects. (DN 33, MN 52, MN 99, AN 1.17, AN 1.398, AN 3.68, AN 6.13, AN 8.1, AN 8.63, AN 11.15, AN 11.16, AN 11.982, SN 20.3, SN 20.4, SN 20.5, SN 42.8, SN 46.54)
Even though the appamāṇā appear in other contexts too, like “acts of loving kindness towards fellow monks” I suggest to separate between mundane acts of friendliness and the inherently boundless mettā meditation. The implication is that we can’t practice a little bit of mettā here and there (“I felt pressure in my back, so I sent some mettā there”), even less than to practice a little samādhi here and there. The realization and establishment of a appamāṇā state ranks doctrinally, as I try to show below, higher than the establishment of the jhānas and hence should be treated as a rare exalted state, not a casual practice.
Brahma realm beyond ‘divine abodes’
The brahma realm is often translated as ‘divine abode’, an unfortunate translation since ‘divine’ is rooted in divinus, divus, deus --> Skt deva, who in the suttas rather inhabit a realm accessed by jhāna practice and is treated differently than the brahma realm. Whenever we have in the same context jhana- appamāṇā- and arupa-meditation, we find them in a specific order - hierarchical in nature - that shows us how the suttas rank them in subtlety.
In MN 1 (similarly in MN 49) we have 1. devas - 2.brahmas (in ascending order) - 3.arupa-beings (in ascending order).
AN 4.190 has jhānas resulting in a deva attainment (devappatto). Then appamāṇā practice resulting in brahma attainment. Then arupa practice resulting in ānejja attainment. And finally the understanding of dukkha etc. resulting in ariya attainment. Since ariya is obviously the highest attainment, we have to conclude that the closest is arupa-practice, then appamāṇā-practice, then jhāna-practice.
AN 5.192 defines brahmins of descending purity, starting from 1. brahma-brahmins and appamāṇā-practice, followed by 2. deva-brahmins and jhanā practice, followed by 3. traditional non-meditative brahmins, 4. caste-mixing brahmins and 5. brahmins who intermix and do lesser works.
AN 11.16 (and MN 52) again in ascending order has jhāna-practice, appamāṇā-practice and arupa-practice
The only place I could find where the realms are intertwined is SN 46.54. Here the liberation of mind by the appamāṇā are still beyond the jhāna-realms but culminate in the arupas:
- mettā cetovimutti has the beautiful (subha) as its culmination.
- karuṇā cetovimutti has the base of the infinity of space as its culmination
- muditā cetovimutti has the base of the infinity of consciousness as its culmination
- upekkhā cetovimutti has the base of nothingness as its culmination
However this is a single unusual claim in a single sutta, so I wouldn’t take this connection too seriously, but still note that it connects vimutti with appamāṇā and arupas, but not the jhānas.
I don’t want at all to denounce the jhānas. It has been sufficiently shown that they function as a stepping stone on the path, leading to the knowledges, liberation etc. But when it comes to subtleties of mind - be they necessary for fruition or not - I think it can be shown that there are states beyond the jhānas, specifically appamāṇā and the arupas.
Brahma - god or adjective?
Usually I’m fine with special terms left untranslated. In this case I want to argue in favor of translating ‘brahma’ as the substantivized adjective it I believe originally was.
As an example, in old Hebrew we have the adjective ‘kadosh’ which means holy, sacred. With an article it turns to ‘ha kadosh’ - ‘the Holy One’. In case of the bible it would be an editorial mistake I believe, to leave it untranslated. It would unnecessarily create an exotic vibe while actually having a specific meaning.
In later times, no doubt, Brahma was an established god in the Hindu pantheon, but at the redaction of the Buddhist canon this was still in transition. So unfortunately it’s been an established practice to leave brahma, brahman etc. untranslated in cases when it has the original adjective meaning.
Brahma / Brāhma / Brāhman can be rendered as “holy, sacred, ineffable”. So when Brahma Sahampati appears in front of the Buddha, rather than appearing like a Jinn I would render it ‘The Holy Sahampati’. After all Brahmas are the highest perceivable beings in the complex Buddhist cosmology and it’s appropriate to acknowledge it by a literal translation.
As for another example, in several suttas the Buddha sets in motion the Brahma wheel, brahmacakka (MN 12, AN 4.8, AN 4.23, AN 5.11, AN 6.64, AN 10.21, AN 10.22, SN 12.21, SN 12.22) An unusual expression (we never find ‘ariyacakka’ btw) with an obvious adjective meaning. The commentaries translate ‘brahma’ here as “best, supreme, pure”. Again, I would opt for the literal meaning of ‘holy’, resisting the anachronistic temptation to de-religionize Buddhism.
In several other contexts it’s clear that ‘brahma’ takes a unique spot, e.g. AN 7.69: “… the cry spreads as far as the brahma world. This is the spiritual majesty of a bhikkhu whose taints are destroyed.” Because of the culturally unrelateable ‘brahma’ it might as well be “as far as the blabla world”, it simply makes not much of a difference to us, whereas a translation changes the tone: “… the cry spreads as far as the holy world. This is the spiritual majesty of a bhikkhu whose taints are destroyed.”
As a tentative conclusion I suggest to carefully check and more often to translate brahma rather than not. I plan a separate essay on ‘Brahma as god or adjective’ since it’s a difficult topic to disentangle, but I hope so far it’s some food for thought.