The Four Givings

Buddhism’s four immeasurables aren’t just states of mind we can achieve, says Venerable Hui Cheng. They’re gifts we can give to others.

Venerable Hui Cheng
31 January 2024
Illustration by Chad Grohman.

While numerous Buddhist traditions consider the four immeasurables—loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity—an important group of principles and practices, it’s not easy to find consensus on how to apply them.

Do we engage in active contemplation of the four immeasurables as we sit in meditation? Do they refer to a state achieved in meditation? Are they a state of mind we maintain throughout the day? Are they a multifaceted practice to be lived out among other beings? 

All the above is true. The practice of the four immeasurables helps ourselves and others, for only by giving selflessly with our actions, speech, and thoughts do we truly find joy. To understand this, let us first define the four immeasurables:

  • Loving-kindness (metta or maitri) is an attitude of wishing all beings are well, joyful, and happy, now and in the future. 
  • Compassion (karuna) is the wish for all beings to be free of suffering, grief, and misery, now and in the future. 
  • Appreciative joy (mudita) is a state of mind in which we rejoice in the joys and qualities of all sentient beings, and express gratitude for what we have. 
  • Equanimity (upeksa) is the attitude of recognizing all sentient beings as equal and seeing the oneness in all beings.

When we adopt such attitudes toward all living things without distinction or bias—including ourselves, our family members, friends, acquaintances, strangers, and even our enemies—they become immeasurable.

The four immeasurables are also referred to as the four sublime abodes. When we dwell in the four abodes, we dwell in mental states that are pure, virtuous, and free of attachment to the notions of “I,” “you,” and “them.”

As we comprehend that all phenomena and beings evolve in response to continually changing causes and conditions, we recognize that our idea of “I” is not fixed, and that nothing and no one can exist on their own. 

The late Venerable Master Hsing Yun, founder of the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist tradition, underlined the importance of accepting oneness and coexistence among all beings. Oneness is the reality that all beings, without exception, have the same potential to become perfected beings. Coexistence refers to embracing the fact that despite appearing different, all beings are inherently one. When we comprehend this, practicing the four immeasurables becomes second nature. 

When we maintain a mind devoid of attachments to conceptions of “I,” “you,” and “they,” our mind becomes as vast as the universe, capable of embracing all beings, because it’s no longer limited by the fetters of illusory understandings of self and other.

According to the Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra, we practice loving-kindness to remove animosity toward beings, whereas we practice compassion to remove cruelty. It should be noted that indifference to the suffering of others is also called cruelty. To remove dissatisfaction and jealousy toward beings, we practice appreciative joy, and to remove attachment and aversion, we develop equanimity.

Venerable Master Hsing Yun provided recommendations to manifest the sublime states of mind in our daily lives through what he called “the four givings.” Only through intentionally practicing the four immeasurables toward others, not just focusing our practice on ourselves, can we genuinely attain the utopian ideal of benefiting both ourselves and others.

According to the Venerable Master, the four immeasurables correspond to the four givings: to give others faith, hope, joy, and convenience. Immeasurable loving-kindness gives others faith; immeasurable compassion gives others hope; immeasurable appreciative joy gives others joy; and immeasurable equanimity gives others convenience.

Giving Others Faith 

When we give others faith through loving-kindness, we find ways to boost their confidence and happiness. In our everyday lives, offering an amiable smile, an encouraging remark, genuine praise, charitable service, or a friendly gesture can brighten another’s day, make them feel good about themselves, and renew their faith in humanity. 

Giving Others Hope 

Giving others hope based on compassion is the finest act of charity, but it necessitates insightful wisdom. When assisting others, we should see all beings as equal while also addressing the underlying reasons that necessitate our offer of hope. Give a man a carrot, and you feed him for a day; teach him how to grow carrots, and he will be fed for the rest of his life. As such, the dharma is the best gift of hope, since it provides an eternal sanctuary of hope.

In our daily lives, we’re bound to encounter those who are suffering greatly. It’s critical to be aware of people’s circumstances and to offer hope in an empathic manner. Apart from providing tangible help, the most effective way to generate hope is to guide others to realize the impermanence of their circumstances. When we see the fluid nature of suffering, we see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Giving People Joy 

Encouraging words go a long way when someone sets out to do good. Giving people joy with an appreciative mind acknowledges and supports their good deeds, which inspires them to be even more selfless. This is because true dharma can only be discovered when one gives their best to others.

The joy of selflessness can spread like wildfire. We constantly hear about kind people performing charitable deeds and gaining public recognition, which stimulates others to join the cause. Giving others joy is the quickest method to accomplish the utopian dream of a peaceful society in a world of extremes.

Giving Others Convenience 

Giving others convenience based on equanimity gives them an equal chance at success. We must consider all beings to be intrinsically equal while still noting disparities due to various causes and conditions. 

According to Venerable Master Hsing Yun, “Equality means that everyone starts at the same place and progresses at the same rate. This does not imply that everyone should be the same height! What does having the same starting point mean? A child can barely carry five pounds, whereas an adult can easily lift fifty. Allowing a child to begin with five pounds and an adult to begin with fifty pounds is an example of equality at various levels.”

In other words, equality refers to universal potential and equal access, whereas equity refers to accommodating individual variances. For example, the Venerable Master’s Seeds of Hope Project has assisted poor youngsters in gaining equal access to education. This is what equality looks like. Accelerated learning programs for gifted pupils, on the other hand, is equity. This will enable all beings to reach their greatest potential.

One can provide others with convenience by doing things as easy as keeping public restrooms clean so that everyone benefits from hygienic spaces, giving a bus seat to someone who needs it more than we do, or not hoarding at supermarkets so that everyone gets their fair share. 

I invite you to abide in the four immeasurables, free of the shackles that perpetually bind us to the erroneous notions of “I” and “they.” Let us practice the four givings to bring about a good way of life for ourselves and others!

This article is from the March 2024 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine.

Venerable Hui ChengHui Cheng

Venerable Hui Cheng

Venerable Hui Cheng is a Buddhist monk of the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order who’s currently serving at Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California.