A Zen Meditation on the Four Abodes

A Zen Meditation on the Four Abodes October 5, 2021



James Ishmael Ford

When it is stripped to its essentials, I find the good of the Christian religion boils down to one thing. Love. It attempts to bridge the gap between humanity and the pain of humanity and some mysterious force that calls everything together. And that force is love.

When I look at Buddhism, the place where I find the closest analog is in loving-kindness. Really in the whole of the Brahmaviharas, literally the “abodes of brahma.” They are the cardinal virtues of the Buddhist way. In fact, they’re older than Buddhism. But the Buddha adopted and adapted them to his own purposes. And they’ve continued a central part of our Buddhist way.

And they’re a pretty good description of the mess that I am reaching for when I say love.

It seems it was Buddhaghosa who first mapped out a formal meditation discipline based on these four abodes in his fifth century classic, the Path of Purification, the Visuddhimagga.

For many of us the Vajrayana nun Pema Chodron and the Insight meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg have been the principal interpreters of loving-kindness as a spiritual practice.

The abodes are metta which is most commonly translated as loving-kindness, karuna, mostly translated as compassion, mudita translated as sympathetic joy, and upekkha as equanimity.

These terms can be further unpacked. Metta invites a forest of translations. These include friendliness and benevolence. I think these terms invite shading to the English neologism loving-kindness. Karuna is almost always translated as compassion, although I’ve found empathy once or twice. Which, again, adds shades to the word. “Sympathetic joy,” like “loving-kindness” reveals the difficulties when there is no precise translation. Although I found it really helpful when I read Stephen Batchelor explain mudita as the opposite of schadenfreude. Upekkha invites a term at the edge of common usage in our culture in equanimity. The only other word I’ve seen is even more obtuse, “equipoise.” We’re looking at balance, harmony.

What I find interesting about these abodes is how they can be seen both as descriptive of the awakened mind, and as practices in that lovely dual sense of preparation and doing.  Like love itself, they are dynamic. They also inform each other, and taken together present the unfolding mystery of creation. At least as we can experience it.

They also have “far enemies,” which are their opposites. And they have “near enemies,” which seem similar to the abodes, but which do not bear healthful fruits.

Far enemies, as I said, are opposites. Every conditioned thing, everything in this world this and that, of high and low, of every form of dualism has an opposite. So, the far enemy of loving-kindness is hatred. The far enemy of compassion is cruelty. The far enemy of sympathetic joy is envy. And the far enemy of equanimity is prejudice.

I think of hatred, cruelty, envy, and prejudice as the demonic side of our personalities. These are the poisons of our human condition. To me their naming is reminiscent of two other demonic beings, the two children sheltered by the spirit of Christmas present in Dicken’s Christmas Carol. The boy “ignorance,” and the girl, “want.” The Spirit warning Scrooge, they are man’s children. And “Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy…”

Warnings piled upon warnings here.

However, reality is complicated. And so, there are things that are similar to a thing, but not it. Instead think tawdry substitutes. In the matter of love, in the matter of the wise heart, in the matter of the abodes, fool’s gold, if you will. The near enemy of loving-kindness is attachment. The near enemy of compassion is pity. The near enemy of sympathetic joy is euphoria or over-excitement. And the near enemy of equanimity is indifference.

Actually there are many more than these. But they’re pretty good stand ins for all the near misses of our spiritual lives. As an example Pema Chodron notes that the near enemies of compassion not only includes pity, but also helplessness, and what she calls “idiot compassion.”

Idiot compassion was coined by the disgraced Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa for when we try to help but forget ourselves and our needs in the equation, causing our own suffering. It makes me think of the Giving Tree, the once wildly popular children’s book where the tree gives and gives, even its own life, to make the child then man happy. Who, I noticed, never is. Think doormat. Doormat is not compassion. But sometimes people think that’s what they’re called to do when called to compassion.

That there are larger lists noted, let’s consider these particularly seductive near enemies of our practice and our awakening.

First, attachment and detachment. This is a seductive one. In fact, it sometimes the whole of the Buddhist project seems to be to arrive at some state where you don’t care. This is not the point of the great project. First, off trying to detach from the world and what exists in the world is to try and detach from yourself. This only leads to more hurt. And, second, it violates the whole bodhisattva vow.

What we’re actually invited to do here, is to let go of our grasping at the things that prevent us from being present to how things actually are. It is an invitation to not turn away and into some fantasy or other idea of the world that actually presents to us. As the Zen teacher Domyo Burke explains, we’re invited to “stop resisting the way things are” and to “act in the world without tying everything back to our sense of self.”

Next, pity. For me it immediately calls to mind the tenth case in the Gateless Gate.

A student of the intimate way came to the master Caoshan Benji. He said, ‘My name sis Qingshui. I am solitary and destitute. Please give me alms.’” What is the right response? How do we meet the needs of the world?

There are many needs, and finding the right way to meet them is critical. Sometimes we’re talking about actual hunger and thirst. The needs of our bodies. How do we meet them? What can do we do? And how do we see what we cannot do? A sandwich? Working to change a social policy? What part of our own life goes to this?

And what about spiritual needs? What about the thirst of the monk, Qingshui? What about the alms he needs? We need?

Compassion demands that we turn toward, not away.

And then there’s euophoria. There’s an oft quoted observation from the Zen missionary Shunryu Suzuki. “Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” In the original manuscript for what would become Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the phrase is given context. He speaks of how his teacher died, and that he was forced to leave Eiheiji, the major training temple, and return to succeed his teacher as priest of a small country temple.

“For us,” he commented. “It is necessary to keep the constant way…” There’s a pause. Then, “(N)ot some kind of excitement, but we should be concentrated on the usual everyday routine. If we become too busy and too excited our mind will become rough – rugged. This is not so good for us. So, if possible try to be always calm and joyful and keep yourself from excitement. That is the most important thing for us.” He adds how hard it is to do that. How chasing after some excitement or other simply leads us astray.

To be honest, I read this, and I felt a hint of wistfulness. It seems clear he did not want to leave Eiheiji, although I’ve never heard anyone use the term excitement for the rigors of that famous and infamous training hall. Instead, he bowed to duty.

And well, duty has a place in our practice.

I think more directly to the point euphoria is a seductive thing. And there is nothing wrong in the moment of joy, of excitement. The problem is when we need it. When we chase it. When it substitutes for the world we actually live in.

And, then indifference. It’s an old saying mostly attributed to Elie Wiesel, and he did say it, but so have others. “The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.” Indifference is a terrible thing. And as with most of these near enemies, it’s as easy as pie. That’s why Dr Martin Luther King Jr preached into our hearts, “Let us not just think justice prevails simply because we choose not to hate. We also have to choose against indifference.”

An important point here is that any practice we undertake, from silent meditation to koan introspection has opposites and near enemies. The opposites are usually easy to see. Near enemies, however, much less so.

And, worse, near enemies can be seductive. They’re often easier than embracing the more healthful and ultimately helpful practices.  They are the stones in that road which leads to perdition.

On the Intimate way, we need to keep our wits about us.

And the secret to the way is humility…



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