Ven. Nyanaponika Thera
Contemplation on The Four Sublime States
4. Equanimity (upekkha)
Equanimity is a perfect, unshakable balance of mind, rooted in insight.
Looking at the world around us, and looking into our own heart, we see clearly how difficult it is to attain and maintain balance of mind.
Looking into life we notice how it continually moves between contrasts: rise and fall, success and failure, loss and gain, honour and blame. We feel how our heart responds to all this happiness and sorrow, delight and despair, disappointment and satisfaction, hope and fear. These waves of emotion carry us up and fling us down; and no sooner do we find rest, than we are in the power of a new wave again. How can we expect to get a footing on the crest of the waves? How shall we erect the building of our lives in the midst of this ever restless ocean of existence, if not on the Island of Equanimity.
A world where that little share of happiness alloted to beings is mostly secured after many disappointments, failures and defeats; a world where only the courage to start anew, again and again, promises success; a world where scanty joy grows amidst sickness, separation and death; a world where beings who were a short while ago connected with us by sympathetic joy, are at the next moment in want of our compassion – such a world needs equanimity.
But the kind of equanimity required has to be based on vigilant presence of mind, not on indifferent dullness. It has to be the result of hard, deliberate training, not the casual outcome of a passing mood. But equanimity would not deserve its name if it had to be produced by exertion again and again. In such a case it would surely be weakened and finally defeated by the vicissitudes of life. True equanimity, however, should be able to meet all these severe tests and to regenerate its strength from sources within. It will possess this power of resistance and self-renewal only if it is rooted in insight.
What, now, is the nature of that insight? It is the clear understanding of how all these vicissitudes of life originate, and of our own true nature. We have to understand that the various experiences we undergo result from our kamma – our actions in thought, word and deed – performed in this life and in earlier lives. Kamma is the womb from which we spring (kamma-yoni), and whether we like it or not, we are the inalienable “owners” of our deeds (kamma-saka). But as soon as we have performed any action, our control over it is lost: it forever remains with us and inevitably returns to us as our due heritage (kamma-dayada). Nothing that happens to us comes from an “outer” hostile world foreign to ourselves; everything is the outcome or our own mind and deeds. Because this knowledge frees us from fear, it is the first basis of equanimity. When, in everything that befalls us we only meet ourselves, why should we fear?
If, however, fear and uncertainty should arise, we know the refuge where it can be allayed: our good deeds (kamma-patisarana). By taking this refuge, confidence and courage will grow within us – confidence in the protecting power of our good deeds done in the past; courage to perform more good deeds right now, despite the discouraging hardships of our present life. For we know that noble and selfless deeds provide the best defence against the hard blows of destiny, that it is never too late but always the right time for good actions. If that refuge, in doing good and avoiding evil, becomes firmly established within us, one day we shall feel assured: “More and more ceases the misery and evil rooted in the past. And this present life – I try to make it spotless and pure. What else can the future bring than increase of the good?” And from that cer-tainty our minds will become serene, and we shall gain the strength of patience of equanimity to bear with all our present adversities. Then our deeds will be our friends (kamma-bandhu).
Likewise, all the various events of our lives, being the result of our deeds, will also be our friends, even if they bring us sorrow and pain. Our deeds return to us in a guise that often makes them unrecognizable. Sometimes our actions return to us in the way that others treat us, some-times as a thorough upheaval in our lives; often the results are against our expectations or contrary to our wills. Such experiences point out to us consequences of our deeds we did not foresee; they render visible half-conscious motives of our former actions which we tried to hide even from ourselves, covering them up with various pretexts. If we learn to see things from this angle, and to read the messages conveyed by our own experience, then suffering, too, will be our friend. It will be a stern friend, but a truthful and well-meaning one who teaches us the most difficult subject, knowledge about ourselves, and warns us against abysses towards which we are moving blindly. By looking at suffering as our teacher and friend, we shall better succeed in enduring it with equa-nimity.
Consequently, the teaching of kamma will give us a powerful impulse for freeing ourselves from kamma, from those deeds which again and again throw us into the suffering of repeated births. Disgust will arise at our own craving, at our own delusion, at our own propen-sity to create situations which try our strength, our resistance, and our equanimity.
The second insight on which equanimity should be based is the Buddha’s teaching of no-self (anatta). This doctrine shows that in the ultimate sense deeds are not performed by any self, nor do their results affect any self. Further, it shows that if there is no self, we cannot speak of “my own”. It is the delusion of a self that creates suffering and hin-ders or disturbs equanimity. If this or that quality of ours is blamed, one thinks: “I am blamed” and equanimity is shaken. If this or that work does not succeed, one thinks: “My work has failed and equanimity is shaken. If wealth or loved ones are lost, one thinks: “What is mine has gone” and equanimity is shaken.
To establish equanimity as an unshakable state of mind, one has to give up all possessive thoughts of “mine”, beginning with little things from which it is easy to detach oneself, and gradually working up to possessions and aims to which one’s whole heart clings. One also has to give up the counterpart to such thoughts, all egoistic thoughts of “self'”, beginning with a small section of one’s personality, with qualities of minor importance, with small weaknesses one clearly sees, and gradually working up to those emotions and aversions which one regards as the centre of one’s being. Thus detachment should be practised.
To the degree we forsake thoughts of “mine” or “self”‘ equanimity will enter our hearts. For how can anything we realize to be foreign and void of a self cause us agitation due to lust, hatred or grief? Thus the teaching of non-self will be our guide on the path to deliverance, to per-fect equanimity.
Equanimity is the crown and culmination of the four sublime states. But this should not be understood to mean that equanimity is the nega-tion of love, compassion, and sympathetic joy, or that it leaves them behind as inferior. Far from that, equanimity includes and pervades them fully, just as they fully pervade perfect equanimity.