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Years ago I did a mountain navigation training over the course of two weekends. As part of that we had to bring an Ordnance Survey map of the area and, more excitingly, a fancy compass that included a magnifying glass, twirling dial and ruler. I was impatiently looking forward to using said compass - probably having visions of myself as a cross between a detective and a code breaker. To my surprise we seemed to spend much more of the time standing at the top of the mountain looking around us and trying to figure out where we were. It was instructive to note how much you can discover from just using a map and your own powers of observation.
Today Ratnavandana provides us with a map of the vast and splendid territories of the Brahma Viharas. The summit of Metta, Karuna, Mudita and Upekka; the treacherous cliffs of hatred, cruelty, envy and cold indifference - and the false peaks of sticky attachment, sentimental pity, horrified anxiety, intoxication and neutrality… These are all laid out before us. This map is particularly helpful for identifying when we might be in a ‘near enemy’ of the particular Brahma Vihara we are trying to cultivate - something that looks a bit like it, perhaps from the outside, perhaps if we don’t look within properly, but is not it. Feeling pity for someone is not the same as compassion. Nor is being bored or disengaged an experience of equanimity. Sometimes having a map like this can be very useful. It can help us identify where we are - and where we are not - and once we know that, we can figure out how to respond. This is always the first thing to do in any terra incognita.
Of course, this map analogy is helpful but it is important not to take this too literally. And, in fact, ideally we are trying to go ‘beyond the map’, and inhabit the experience, just be in the realm, or ‘live in the mandala’ of these blissful abodes of love, compassion, joy and equanimity. Just like, when you are hiking up a mountain, you don’t want to spend the whole time buried in the map, counting contour lines, and not actually enjoying, or noticing, the scenery or the feel of the sun on your face. So don’t get too worried if you can’t pinpoint exactly where you are at any one moment.
Speaking of maps may make it sound as if there are specific coordinates for each destination - that Metta is at X metres above sea level, Y degrees North and so on. In actual fact, after a certain point, the image of a map helping us to get us on the right course, is superseded by another image: that of a portal into another world - the realm of the five Buddha mandala, the archetypal Buddhas who represent the qualities of imperturbability, clarity, generosity, abundance, love, fearlessness, energy, wisdom - all aspects of enlightenment. None of which can be pinned down. Is there an end to the potential of love? Where do the borders of generosity begin?
One of the things I have been most struck by in the recent conversations with Ratnavandana is how she’s been emphasising the fact that the Brahma Viharas are an insight practice - by which we mean a practice that draws out how things really are, how Reality is. In Buddhist terms we speak of the characteristics of conditioned existence: that all conditioned things are impermanent, unsatisfactory and have no fixed essence. And it’s true: the more time you spend in the mountains of the Brahma Viharas, the more you pay attention to the landscape, really inhabiting it, the more clearly you can see that there is nothing fixed: not you, not your friend, acquaintance, enemy - you can see, and feel, how there are no boundaries, and all is simply radiant blue sky.
Explore the Mandala of the Brahma Viharas
Ratnavandana speaking about the working with the near enemies of the Brahma Viharas