Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Four Immeasurables - Holiday Baking Without Cups

On Thursday night I went to hear a talk by a Tibetan teacher. It was part of a series of 4 talks on "Trans- forming Suffering". It was easily accessible and I was curious to hear the Dharma from a Tibetan point of view, as the direct teachings I am most familiar with come from a Soto Zen perspective.

The talk was on the 4 Immeasurables which are Love or Lovingkindness, Joy or Sympathetic Joy, Compassion and Equanimity. It was interesting to me that he started his talks here, rather than the 4 Noble Truths (life is suffering, attachment is the cause of suffering, there is an end to suffering, and the 8 fold path is the way to this end.)

If you're not familiar with Buddhism, you will probably twig onto the fact that (as the joke goes) Buddhism is a religion of lists. I always think this is because Buddhism is so logical and things are organized in a way for people to examine and study the ideas that form it's basis. So if you're a list maker, this may be the practice for you!

In my understanding of Zen, you do your practice and these qualities arise. They are not cultivated, per se. At least there were no practices associated with these states of mind in the Sangha in which I practiced. This belief is based on the fact that you can't make these things happen. They take time to develop. They arise naturally as a result of practice. Let me say that I am by far no expert on the subject, this is just my understanding of it. And also, I am not offering criticism but exploring the path. Allan Wallace, in a book called "Buddhism With An Attitude" says: "The treasure is really within your own mind and heart. Teachers, traditions, techniques, all have the single purpose of helping unveil that which is already within you." This is the spirit of my exploration here.

The 4 Immeasurables are based on the fact that we are all connected and the Buddhist belief that in past and future lives we have been and will be closely connected with those who now seem to be our enemies or those to whom we are indifferent. And even if this is an idea you need to put on the back burner or reject completely, it is easy to understand that embracing feelings of love, joy, equanimity and compassion in this life are indeed more pleasant and generally helpful to the world than their opposites.

The love that forms part of the 4 immeasurables is not our traditional idea of romantic love, but the type of love or loving kindness you might feel to your child or someone dear to you. The aim is to extend this outward to others. This is done through a loving kindness meditation in which you first generate love toward yourself and as you become more skilled you radiate it out into the world, working from friends and family, to neutral people and then toward people we have difficulty with, and finally to all beings.

This practice is repeated for the cultivation of compassion in which we generate the wish that beings be free from suffering. Joy or sympathetic joy, which I think is more descriptive, (I have also heard it called appreciative joy) is taking pleasure or finding joy in the good fortune and success of others. It is an extending out of feelings of happiness when things go well for others. It helps in loosening the grip of our habitually self centred feelings. In my mind it expresses the true sentiment of generosity of spirit.

And the last of the 4 immeasurables is equanimity which I think we all long for. Equanimity in my mind is that steady feeling of everything is fine just the way it is, right now. We are neither pushing away what we don't want or chasing after what we desire. We are not overly excited or discouraged. It expresses true peace with what is.

I know that amongst old Zen friends the question would sometimes come up, well if these things don't arise or don't arise for a long time, wouldn't it be good to cultivate them in some way? For me, right now I feel that I would like to spend some time cultivating the weedy parts of my mind, that I would like to explore working with habitual mind sets that don't lean naturally toward joy, love, compassion and equanimity. Maybe you'll have to give me a little poke and see how I'm doing with it.


  1. I always appreciate how you offer such practical wisdom through your understanding and practice of Buddhism - which I find very grounding, btw. And what good timing for me that "Transforming Suffering" was the topic of the teaching you went to hear! hmmmm.....

  2. Hi ZenDot,
    I've been working with the four immeasurables, too. And coming from a zen background I get to feeling "squirmy" with meditations involving ideas, even ideas about loving kindness, compassion, equanimity and joy! I like Ken McLeod's teachings on the immeasurables. He shows how they counteract habitual tendencies, so the immeasurables can be a sort of tool for "cultivating the weedy parts" of the mind. Hey! This could be an interesting painting! Weeds in the mind! I rather like weeds— some are so beautiful I let them grow in my garden...
    Warm regards, Kris

  3. Thanks both for your comments. It's always heartening when friends stop by!

    Kris: I know what you mean about the meditating on "things". Several years ago a friend was telling me about her Green Tara practice and it just seemed so difficult to me. I will have to check out Ken McLeod. And I'm looking forward to the picture of those weeds popping out of the top of a head, perhaps winding their way out an ear or curling out an eye. EEk I'm making it sound kind of gory!