The Near Enemies of Buddhism
The near enemies in Buddhism are a way for us to honestly assess whether or not the intentions behind our speech, thoughts and actions are in accordance with the Four Virtues, or if we are in fact acting from selfishness. This is no easy task as it requires us to be completely honest with ourselves about how we’re feeling and what exactly is driving us; we must first develop skills of self-reflection as the near enemies can be difficult to spot. Our self-concern or pride may be exceedingly subtle, and convincingly appear as though we are acting out of compassion or care for others where really our self interest is leading us.
The far enemies are those reactions which are complete opposites to the virtues, and will be much easier to spot as they arise.
1. The near enemy of loving-kindness (Metta) is selfish affection. Selfish affection is directed at only a limited number of people, and is based on our attachment to them (or simply our self-created image of them). Selfish affection means that we will want someone to act according to our own desires and expectations, and can give rise to other emotions such as possessiveness, jealousy, fear of loss, or pride. Loving-kindness as one of the four virtues, however, is both directionless and limitless. All sentient beings are welcomed in the light of loving-kindness regardless of our own selfish desires or preferences towards them. Loving-kindness is a kind of freedom for both the giver and receiver - those that give it are free from the trappings of their egotistical desires that limit their happiness. Those who receive this kind of love from another will be taken purely as they are, free from the expectations or pressures placed on them in normal relationships. The far enemy of loving-kindness is ill-will or hatred.
2. The near enemy of compassion (Karuna) is pity. This one can be especially difficult to see, because they can often appear together. Compassion as a virtue is a genuine, heart-felt emotion which is free of the selfish pull of ego, such that we empathise deeply with another being in a way which does not pull negatively at our own mental stability, nor does it involve our arrogance or pride. Compassion is to approach the suffering (or happiness) of another in a place of complete equals, where ideas of differences of self or station are disregarded in favour of seeing the foundational sameness of all beings. Pity, on the other hand, is a movement of ego where difference of self and other are the baseline for response: it can sometimes involve levels of contempt, pride or patronisation for the receiver. Although pity can be felt deeply, it is not the same as the selfless care of compassion. The far enemy of compassion is cruelty and intentional harm.
3. Joy for others (Mudita), or sympathetic joy, can quickly morph into its near enemy: exuberance. Normally exuberance is seen positively such as when one is approaching work or tasks, but exuberance is an overly-excited state where one loses their mindful equinimity. It is a state where we revel in our own happiness, rather than allow for the arising of joy directed at others. The far enemy of sympathetic joy is jealousy or resentment.
4. The final near enemy is indifference, which arises in place of the virtue of equinimity (Upekkha). Equinimity is a state in which we maintain our internal peace regardless of what happens. No emotion, thought or physical event can destabilise our internal calm (though thoughts and emotions, both positive and negative, continue to arise). Equinimity is achieved through the practices outlined by the Buddha, such as meditation and mantra, as well as through the resultant deepening in understanding about the fundamental nature of ourselves and phenomena. When we see the world as it truly is, we are less prone to reactions based in ignorance or self-concern and an ocean of calm develops within us. Indifference is quite different: where equinimity allows for an open hearted approach to the world - a kind of courage where all things are welcomed equally- indifference originates in a closing-off of the heart. We shut ourselves off from life in an attempt to shield ourselves from suffering. Where in equinimity everything is felt, in indifference a kind of numbness creeps in. Because indifference is based in fear and self-concern, it is ineffective at preventing suffering and instead gives us many difficulties. The far enemy of indifference is clinging and desires.
When it comes to the Four Virtues and the Near Enemies, the key is to understand that in training with such, we do not need to judge, demonise or berate ourselves when near or even far enemies arise. We undertake such practices because they lead to liberation and happiness for ourselves and others, there is no sin or wrongness. The path is undertaken for the benefit of sentient beings everywhere, and that includes ourselves.