The Four Immeasurables
by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron©
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.
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 Chenresig, 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:
1) temporal happiness, which is the happiness
that exists as long as we're in cyclic existence--for example, fortunate
2) definitive goodness--the cessation of all
suffering and its causes--liberation and enlightenment.