In the Tevijja Sutta (Sutra of the Threefold Knowledges) the Buddha introduces the “four immeasurables” of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity to Vasettha, a young brahmin, saying, “Vasettha, a tathagata arises in the world, a fully-enlightened buddha, and preaches the dharma that is lovely in its beginning, in its middle, and in its ending, in the spirit and in the letter, and displays the perfected and purified holy life. Following the tathagatha’s example, a disciple then goes forth, practices the moralities, and attains the first jhana. Then, with a heart filled with loving-kindness, the disciple fills the whole world, upward, downward, across, everywhere.”
The Buddha continued, “And it is by this meditation, Vasettha, by this liberation of the heart through loving-kindness, that the disciple leaves nothing untouched, nothing unaffected in the whole world. This, Vasettha, is the way to union with Brahma.”
The four immeasurables remind us that we are always in relationship with one another.
The four immeasurables are variously known as the “abodes of Brahma” (brahmavihara), divine abidings, heavenly abodes, or the four sublime or excellent states. They are excellent because, in their manifestation, they are limitless. They are sublime because they point to the most wholesome, most loving, most affirming way of relating to others and ourselves.
Louis Massignon, a Catholic scholar of Islam, said religious historians should, through their scholarship, broaden their perspective on a time and culture to such an extent that they might feel the way the people they studied felt. He called this exercise the science of compassion—a way to “make place” for the other in our minds. This is precisely what the four immeasurables teach us to do: they help us make place for others in our minds and, further, to see others as ourselves.
Yet, as the Tevijja Sutta opens, we see exactly the opposite taking place. Two learned brahmins are arguing about their views, each convinced that the other is wrong. After going back and forth for a while, they decide to present their case to the Buddha, whom they’ve heard knows the way to union with Brahma—the ultimate path to salvation.
They ask, “All these many brahmins preach different paths leading to union with Brahma. Do all these paths lead to the same place?”
The Buddha responds with a question of his own: “Have any of these teachers seen Brahma face to face?”
“No, they haven’t,” admits Vasettha, the more outspoken of the two brahmins.
“Has their teacher or their teacher’s teacher seen Brahma face to face?”
Vasettha says no.
“Well, then,” answers the Buddha, “all these brahmins are teaching a path they do not know or see. It is as if three blind men are leading one another. The first doesn’t see, the second doesn’t see, the third doesn’t see. Does this make sense to you, Vasettha?”
“No, it doesn’t,” says the young brahmin.
“It is like a man approaching a flowing river,” the Buddha continues, “and, wanting to cross it, he stands on the bank and calls out, ‘Come here, other bank! Come here!’ Do you think that all his wheedling and cajoling would make the bank come across?”
“No, it wouldn’t,” says Vasettha.
“Just so, it’s not possible for brahmins who call on various deities like Indra, Soma, or Varuna, to attain union with Brahma through their cajoling and wheedling.”
The Buddha continues offering example after example that the brahmins’ views and rituals are not based on their experience and do not reflect reality. None of them see clearly, he says, yet they all lay claim to the one path, the one way, and disparage the others. The way to actually attain union with Brahma, he concludes, is by the cultivation of the four immeasurables, through the practice of morality and the four jhanas—the deep states of concentration that led to the Buddha’s enlightenment (the Tevijja Sutta mentions only the first jhana, but the version in the Dirgha Agama, says a disciple attains all four methods of absorption before turning to the four immeasurables). In other words, if we want to be liberated, we must cultivate unbounded loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. And to do so, we must first engage the threefold training of morality (sila), concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna).
It’s not difficult to see why this should be so. When our actions create harm, our minds become agitated. We dwell in fear or regret; we struggle with anger or greed or jealousy. There’s very little in this state that leads to the settling required for the development of concentration and wisdom—and even less the ability to make space for others in our minds. But it’s important to remember the Buddha wasn’t saying we need to perfect virtuous conduct before we can extend kindness or compassion toward others. He was simply restating what our experience makes abundantly clear: the more integrated and skillful our thoughts, actions, and words, the more stable and balanced our minds will be. The reverse is also true: the more focused we become, the more likely we are to act skillfully. On the other hand, when we’re distracted or restless, confused or agitated, our good intentions can backfire. We want to do the right thing, but we’re not sure what that is, so we act without clarity and end up creating more harm. Or we give and give and give, and then wonder why we feel burnt out. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this “idiot compassion,” a form of enabling that’s either self-serving or blind.
Ultimately, our actions must not only be based on concentration but also accompanied by wisdom. When we lack wisdom, our concentration can turn cold or harsh. We may be focused and yet unable to truly see who or what it is we’re focusing on. This is one of the most common dangers of intense meditation: without a strong grounding in sila and prajna, our samadhi can become impersonal and detached. In the solitude of our meditation, we may be kind, patient, and understanding. Buffered by stillness and silence, we are able to wish others happiness no matter what’s going on in our lives. Sitting tall and equanimous on the Buddha’s seat, we are not swayed by highs and lows, by our preferences and opinions. Yet, no one lives on a meditation cushion, so the challenge is to carry that kindness and joy, that compassion and equanimity, into our daily lives. The challenge is to practice these four immeasurables even when we don’t feel like it, and to extend them equally in all directions.
May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May all beings rejoice in the well-being of others.
May all beings live in peace, free from greed and hatred.
In this way, the four immeasurables truly become a science of compassion.
Mahatma Gandhi was once asked, “What would you do if a plane was flying over your ashram with the intention to bomb you?” His answer: “I would pray for the pilot.” As the Buddha told Vasettha, a tathagata “arises in the world…and preaches the dharma that is lovely in its beginning, in its middle, and in its ending, in the spirit and in the letter, and displays the perfected and purified holy life.” Yet we need not be heroic, or even particularly advanced spiritually, to cultivate the four immeasurables. Because these excellent qualities are our very nature, we can practice them “as we are.” All we need is to want for others what we want for ourselves.
There’s a story of an elderly man who lived alongside a busy highway. Every morning he’d stand on his porch and wave at the rushing cars, calling out, “Good morning! I hope you have a good day.” And every evening he’d come out of his house and wave at the returning cars and say, “Good evening! Have a safe drive home.”
A reporter, hearing about this, went to interview the old man and asked, “But sir, those drivers can’t hear you. Why in the world are you doing this?”
The man shrugged, “I’m not thinking about whether they can hear me or not. Every morning I wish them a good day. Every evening I wish them a safe drive home. That’s all.”
In the Visuddhimagga, or Path of Purification, Buddhaghosa, the fifth-century Theravada monk and scholar, said that using the four immeasurables as meditation objects leads to entrance into the four jhanas. That is, we can practice them in order to develop concentration and insight, and Buddhist practitioners have done so for a couple millennia. Contemporary Tibetan lama Mindrolling Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche says that when we practice these qualities as a means to an end, we cultivate the “limited” four immeasurables. But we can also cultivate these qualities as dharmata—suchness. In this approach, we practice them simply because we can and because they are.
Fundamentally, we all want to be happy. We sometimes go about procuring that happiness in very unskillful ways, but this doesn’t change that fundamental intent. The challenge we fact as human beings is how to be happy together, how to act so our happiness doesn’t impede another’s. Making space for others through the practice of the four immeasurables is an excellent place to begin.
The fourteenth-century Tibetan master Longchenpa said there are five characteristics we should cultivate in order to practice the four immeasurables: (1) a fundamental attitude as vast as space; (2) a mind as constant as the depths of the ocean; (3) seeing all occurrences, inner and outer, as mist floating in the sky; (4) a compassionate attitude as even as the rays of the sun; (5) sensing negativities to be like specks of dust in our eyes.
First, we must cultivate a fundamental attitude as vast as space. As the Tevijja Sutta illustrates, a narrow view, a tightly-held view, is not conducive to kindness or joy. Right and wrong views, by definition, exclude others. Just as these four qualities are immeasurable, our very attitude must also be immeasurable.
There’s no question that this practice will challenge us to be much larger than we ever thought possible. To wish happiness and joy to the one who harms or opposes us, the one who avoids or disregards us—including all the many hostile versions of ourselves in our own minds—is not an easy task. That’s why, as we practice the four immeasurables, we always start with ourselves.
May I have happiness and the causes of happiness. May I be free of suffering and the causes of suffering… This may seem selfish at first, but as Buddhaghosa says in his commentary on the four immeasurables, by establishing happiness within ourselves, we naturally encourage the wish that others be happy to arise in our minds. Furthermore, the kind of love on which the four immeasurables rest can never be selfish because it cannot be contained. It is immeasurable.
Next, we must have a mind as constant as the depths of the ocean. The depths of the ocean are not affected by whatever is happening on the surface. In the depths of our minds, we’re not taken in by our fickle moods or our changing circumstances. Held firmly by the anchor of awareness through the power of our concentration, we ride the waves of our minds without getting shipwrecked by our strong emotions or others’ opinions. No matter how fierce the storm, how seemingly uncertain our footing, we know we’re safely moored all the way down in the depths of our being.
This quality of practice is closely connected to the next one: seeing all occurrences, inner and outer, as mist floating in the sky. Whatever we’re thinking, whatever we’re feeling, whatever is happening, it is going to change. Thoughts, feelings, conditions, are all like mist. They are insubstantial. That’s why holding on to them requires so much effort. It’s like trying to grab fog with our bare hands. In the middle of a painful situation, we can remind ourselves that we will not always feel the way we do now—guaranteed.
Neurobiologists have found that emotions last about ninety seconds. It is our reactions to them that keep them going. See all occurrences as floating mist, says Tilopa, thus letting your mind remain constant and vast.
We must also have a compassionate attitude as even as the rays of the sun. This is the length and breadth of our loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. This is their immeasurability. The sun doesn’t strategize how much light it will give or when. It doesn’t pick and choose whom it will shine on. It just shines.
The Lotus Sutra tells of a bodhisattva called “Never Disparaging” whose practice was to greet all those he met with bows and the words, “I would never dare disparage you, because you are all certain to attain buddhahood!” Incensed, the people he praised turned on him, saying they had no time for such irresponsible predictions. Some criticized him, some cursed him, some threw sticks and stones at him. But Bodhisattva Never Disparaging just ran away and yelled out his praise from a safe distance: “I would never dare disparage you, because you are all certain to attain buddhahood!”
In the same way, our wish that all beings be happy and free extends everywhere, without bias or inclination.
Finally, we work on sensing negativities to be like specks of dust in our eyes. When something gets in our eyes, it’s torture. We’ll do anything to remove the irritant. Just so, we can’t develop loving-kindness, compassion, joy, or equanimity without first dealing with our own negativity—our anger, pride, jealousy, resentment. When we acknowledge that our negativity affects our vision, we are in a better position to work with it so we can truly be vast, constant, and compassionate.
Ultimately, the four immeasurables remind us that we are always in relationship with one another. My actions affect you. Your actions affect me. So, like the golden rule, the four immeasurables present us with an ethic of reciprocity.
A Jewish story says that Rabbi Hillel the Elder was once approached by a man who said he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the whole of the Jewish teaching while standing on one leg. Humbly, the rabbi did as the man asked. He stood on one leg and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah; everything else is only commentary. Go and study it.”
Likewise, the four immeasurables encourage us to wish that others be free from suffering, just as we would like not to suffer, to be as joyful about another’s happiness as we would be about our own. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” says the Gospel of Matthew. But the four immeasurables also go a step further. They ask us to see others as ourselves and treat them accordingly. Reciprocity becomes unity. Relationship transforms into identity. What I do unto you, I do unto me. There is no gap because we are one vast, unified body. This is the union with Brahma that the Buddha promised. This is liberation of the heart through these sublime qualities that leave nothing untouched, nothing unaffected, in the whole world.
As a “science of compassion,” the four immeasurables do more than just help us make space for others in our minds. By cultivating undivided, boundless, excellent loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, we are able to see ourselves and others as we truly are—indivisible.