An explanation of the four immeasurables
An explanation of the four immeasurables
The four immeasurables—so called because we generate equanimity, love, compassion, and joy towards an immeasurable number of sentient beings—are an integral part of Tibetan Buddhism. As thought-feelings that open our heart towards ourselves and others, they are forerunners of bodhicitta, the altruistic intention that seeks enlightenment in order to benefit all sentient beings most effectively. The following verses are taken from the practice of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion.
How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were to abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment, and anger. May they abide in this way. I shall cause them to abide in this way. Guru Chenrezig, please inspire me to be able to do so.
How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings had happiness and its causes. May they have these. I shall cause them to have these. Guru Chenrezig, please inspire me to be able to do so.
How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were free from suffering and its causes. May they be free. I shall cause them to be free. Guru Chenrezig, please inspire me to be able to do so.
How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were never parted from upper rebirth and liberation’s excellent bliss. May they never be parted. I shall cause them never to be parted. Guru Chenrezig, please inspire me to be able to do so.
The key word in the four immeasurables is ALL sentient beings. “All” is a short word with great meaning. We don’t simply think, “May my friends, relatives, and everyone who loves me have happiness and its causes.” Even animals wish for that. But, as human beings, we try to extend the limits of our love and think, “May the jerk who cut me off on the highway have happiness and its causes. May that doctor who screwed up my prescription be freed from suffering and its causes. May the person who hung up on me, may the person who complained about me, may my friend who won’t speak to me, may my cousin who doesn’t invite me to her parties—may all these people have happiness and its causes and be free from suffering and its causes.”
When our compassion becomes strong, we will be able to think and feel, “May Timothy McVeigh, Sadam Hussein, and George W. Bush have happiness and its causes and be free from suffering and its causes. We must try to gradually extend the scope of our equanimity, love, compassion, and joy, spreading them out to all sentient beings, not excluding even one.
If our hearts shut down when thinking of one sentient being and we can’t bring ourselves to include them in “all,” we should stop and observe what’s happening in our heart/mind. With compassion for ourselves, we ask, “What in me is resistant to this? Am I hurt? Angry? Prejudiced?” When we become aware of what we’re feeling then we apply the appropriate Dharma antidote. For example, think of Osama bin Ladin when he was a baby. Doing this, we realize that he didn’t come out of the womb as a terrorist, but due to conditioning in this and previous lives, his mind was overwhelmed by confusion and hatred. He’s acting in the way he is because he’s trying to be happy and doesn’t know the real method to find happiness. Thinking like this, we let go of our anger and bias. Then contemplating the kindness of others, we open our heart and wish them well.
Each of the four immeasurables has four parts—a wish, an aspiration, a resolve, and a request for inspiration—and each part progressively leads our mind to a deeper, more committed state. Going through each step slowly, thinking of specific people or situations, and making examples from our life is very helpful.
The first immeasurable is equanimity. First we wish, “How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were to abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment, and anger.” That is, may we and all others have this impartial, caring attitude. Then we aspire, “May they abide in that way.” Third we resolve to act, “I shall cause them to abide in that way.” Fourth, we request Avalokiteshvara’s inspiration so that we will have the strength of mind and the courage to continuously work to help sentient beings be free of bias, attachment, and anger and to abide in equanimity.
The second immeasurable is love. “How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings had happiness and its causes.” Meditate on that wish for a while and then aspire, “May they have these,” and generate that feeling. This aspiration is stronger. We’re not simply wishing for sentient beings to be happy, but strongly feeling that we want them to have happiness and its causes. Then we resolve to get involved to bring this about. Here we’re committing ourselves to work towards this aim. Recognizing that our selfishness is great and that this noble aim is hard to actualize, we request the inspiration and blessings of Avalokiteshvara, “Guru Chenrezig, please inspire me to be able to do so.” Here we feel that we are not alone, but are supported by our own buddha nature and by all the buddhas and bodhisattvas. We feel—or imagine we feel because it takes a long time to completely transform our attitude—the courage to joyfully work for the happiness of all beings, without getting exhausted or discouraged.
The third immeasurable is compassion, wishing sentient beings to be free from suffering. We progressively meditate on the same four steps here. Compassion is extremely important: it is a strong motivation for us to practice Dharma and it is a source of all goodness in the world.
The fourth immeasurable is joy, wanting sentient beings never to be separated from happiness. Here happiness includes:
- temporal happiness, which is the happiness that exists as long as we’re in cyclic existence—for example, fortunate rebirths—and
- definitive goodness—the cessation of all suffering and its causes—liberation and enlightenment.
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.