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Amitabha practice: The four immeasurables

Part of a series of short commentaries on the Amitabha sadhana given in preparation for the Amitabha Winter Retreat at Sravasti Abbey in 2017-2018.

  • How the four immeasurables are found in every religious tradition
  • Defining love, compassion, joy, and equanimity from a Buddhist viewpoint
  • How we can eliminate bias from our thoughts of all sentient beings

We started looking at the Amitabha sadhana yesterday. I wanted to talk about the second verse, which is the four immeasurable. It reads:

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes
May all sentient beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss
May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment, and anger

These four are called “Immeasurable” because we try and create them to an immeasurable extent and spread them out to an immeasurable number of other living beings.

These four thoughts of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are found in all of the world’s major religions. Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, all the world’s major religions teach these same values of love, compassion, rejoicing at others’ good qualities and virtues, and having equanimity and forgiveness in the face of harm or disturbance and things like that.

  1. From a Buddhist viewpoint when we talk about love we want sentient beings to have happiness and the causes of happiness. This could be temporal happiness: food, friendship, safety, things like that. It can also be the ultimate happiness of spiritual realizations that we’re wishing. Not just for the people we like and love but for all living beings.

    Sometimes we say, “Why should I wish for happiness for those people who are terrorists, or those people who do this and that?” If we think about it, people who are doing aggressive and harmful actions are doing it because they’re unhappy. If they were happy people they wouldn’t be acting like that. So it makes perfect sense to wish those people who are doing things that we don’t approve of or that disturb us or the world, it makes perfect sense to wish them happiness because if they were happy they wouldn’t be doing those things.

    See what I mean? We have to get over this mind that says, “Well these people harmed me so I don’t wish them happiness,” because if they continue to suffer they’re going to continue to do harmful actions. Nobody does harmful actions when they’re happy. The only do them because they’re miserable.

  2. The second one, compassion, is wishing for others—again, everybody—to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. This could mean temporal suffering: breaking your leg, falling sick, being mentally unhappy. It can also be wishing them to be free of the suffering from spiritual angst. Or just the whole situation of being in a body that gets old, and sick, and dies, and having a mind that we can’t control so well, that flares up in anger and gets overwhelmed by attachment and so on. Really wishing people freedom from the un-free states that our body and mind are currently in.

  3. The third one, joy or rejoicing, is being happy at other people’s good qualities, at their virtue, at their opportunities. This one is the opposite of jealousy. When you’re jealous of somebody the last thing you want to do is rejoice at what they have because you’re so jealous and you want them not to have it because you want it. That attitude of jealousy just makes us unbelievably unhappy and it doesn’t change the situation at all. Whereas if we really train our mind to rejoice in people’s good qualities and their virtuous deeds, and things like that, then our mind is happy and they’re happy as well. It’s no sweat off of our back to rejoice at other people’s good opportunities. In fact, they say that it’s the lazy person’s way to create a lot of goodness, a lot of merit. Without even doing the actions, if you just rejoice that other people are doing good things it enriches your own mind. It makes your own mind happy, too.

  4. The fourth one, equanimity, wishing that ll beings abide in equanimity, free of attachment to friends; aversion, hatred, anger at who we consider enemies; and apathy towards everybody else. The purpose here is to, in our minds, level out the playing field in the sense that we care about all living beings and having equal, open-hearted concern for each and every one of them, no matter how they treat us.

    Ordinarily, someone treats us well we get attached to them. Then when they do something we don’t like we get angry at them. Then when we lose contact with them we don’t care about them anymore Our minds become like emotional yo-yos. “I like. I don’t like. I don’t care.” All of those are rather afflicted states of mind because actually, if we can step back, all living beings are the same in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all see them that way and then care about them equally instead of playing favorites, instead of being partial.

That’s the practice of the four immeasurables. It’s good to really stop after you recite each line and really think about it very, very deeply. Don’t rush through those. If you find that your mind has attachment, or anger, or apathy, or you’re really mad at somebody, then really stop and focus on one of the four to try and correct your attitude, change your emotion. If you’re really angry then meditate on love—it’s the opposite—and wish that person happiness. If you’re really jealous meditate on sympathetic joy, rejoicing. If your mind is up and down and up and down meditate on equanimity. If you’re really feeling spiteful and you want somebody to get run over by a truck then meditate on compassion and wish that person to be free of suffering. Then they will behave better and the relationship with them will be better.

Spend some time with those four. If you do, your relationships with people on a day to day basis is really going to change because those four will impact how you see other people and how you feel about them, and thus how you relate to them. Cultivating those four is a wonderful method for making our own mind relaxed and joyful.

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.