The Four Immeasurables

From The Fearless Heart by Thupten Jinpa.

“May all beings attain happiness and its causes.

May all beings be free from suffering and its causes.

May all beings never be separated from joy that is free

from misery.

May all beings abide in equanimity, free from bias of 

attachment and aversion.”

“I fondly remember waking up as a child in smoky tents in a remote part of northern India, near Shimla, to the undulating sound of my mother chanting these lines, among other prayers, as she churned Tibetan butter tea for breakfast. The churning of butter tea inside a dongmo, a vertical wooden tube held together by copper bands, with the up-and-down motion of a long stick attached to a wooden disk, makes a soothing, repetitive gushing noise. The tent camps where my parents lived as road workers would move sites, but the children’s village where I was boarding would arrange for us to visit our parents a week or two at a time. Later, growing up, I came to treasure these memories of my mother, and her chanting of the Four Immeasurables prayer made those memories all the more meaningful.

The Four Immeasurables 

Compassion is one of the “four immeasurables,” as reflected by the second line of this prayer: May all beings be free from suffering and its causes. The other three are loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Informally speaking, these are the qualities that, according to Buddhist psychology, you can never have too much of. As with compassion, we all have these qualities; they’re part of – the best parts of – being human. So, while you may not be familiar with all the terms, you know what they are: Loving-kindness is love with no strings attached, just the pure wish for someone to be happy (not least, ourselves) – May all beings attain happiness and its causes.  Sympathetic joy is experiencing happiness at someone else’s happiness or good fortune – May all beings never be separated from joy that is free of misery. Equanimity is staying calm no matter what life throws at us – pleasure and pain, likes and dislikes, success and failure, praise and blame, fame and disrepute – and it lets us relate to everyone as human beings, beyond the categories of friend, foe, or stranger. With equanimity, we are free from the habitual forces of expectation and apprehension that make us so vulnerable to overexcitation and disappointment. The Buddha made a telling mudra, or gesture, as he sat under a tree becoming enlightened, in which he touched one hand to the ground to signal that whatever storm of troubles raged around him, whatever provocations came at him, he would hold his spot. This is the picture of equanimity. May all beings abide in equanimity, free from bias of attachment and aversion. 

Each of these qualities, also known as the “sublime abidings,” has an opposite, or “far enemy,” that is obvious enough. For compassion, it’s cruelty. For loving-kindness, ill will or harmful intent; for sympathetic joy, envy or jealousy. … Equanimity has a few opposites: greed, aversion, and prejudice, which together cause so much agitation in our mind and undermine its equilibrium.

Less obvious are the “near enemies,” or mental states similar enough to the immeasurables that they can easily be confused, but they are equal causes of needless suffering. As we cultivate the good qualities, we must be on the lookout for these impostors. Loving-kindness’s near enemy is selfish affection or attachment, as when we love someone for what we think they can give us. Sympathetic joy’s near enemy is frivolous joy, which grasps at pleasant but meaningless experiences. Equanimity’s near enemy is indifference or apathy, with the critical difference that equanimity is engaged – we don’t stop caring, but we do stay calm. 

Compassion’s near enemy is pity. Unlike genuine compassion, pity implies a sense of superiority. So, unlike compassion, which connects us with the object of our concern because we identify, pity distances us from the other person. Compassion includes respect: We honor the other person’s dignity as a fellow human being. Our concern, if it comes from genuine compassion, is based on the recognition that, just like I do, this person wishes to be free from suffering.

In traditional Buddhist meditations on loving-kindness and compassion, which are often related, we typically begin by connecting compassionately with our own experience, especially the experience of suffering, and with our natural aspirations for happiness. Then, focusing on a loved one, we consciously wish him or her joy, happiness, and peace, by silently offering phrases such as “May you be happy; may you find peace and joy.” From there, in an ever-expanding circle, we wish joy, happiness, and peace for a neutral person, then for a difficult person, and finally moving toward the largest circle, wishing joy, happiness, and peace for all beings. In meditation on loving-kindness we wish others happiness; in meditation on compassion we wish others to be free of suffering. Then, to counter our tendencies toward envy or discomfort at other people’s good fortune, we cultivate sympathetic joy. Finally, to rise above our biases rooted in attachments and hostility (“I like this…I don’t like that…I like her…I don’t like her…”), we cultivate equanimity. ” (69-72)

1 comment

  1. What I really enjoyed about this is how you made a distinction between compassion and pity in that pity does imply an idea of superiority while compassion does not. It is also interesting to think about how these qualities are immeasurable, though intrinsic in everyone whether they know it or not. Regardless of their immeasurability, you can always tell when someone has these qualities

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