Buddhism teaches that there is no such thing as the self as we think we know it: a separate, bounded self, strictly cordoned off from what is “other.” When we are freed from the reactive patterns sprung from the boundaries we live by—good and bad; love and hate—we are not the self we were before. And when the boundaries themselves dissolve, self as we understand it disappears.

Buddhist tradition offers two central paths to disestablish our overwrought, constricting sense of self: enlightened love (bodhicitta) and enlightening wisdom (jnana). The four boundless qualities, enumerated in the early canon’s Mettanisamsa Sutta (SN 46.54) as the “four Brahma dwellings,” further both of them. These four boundless qualities, which literally have “no measure” (apramana), are equanimity (upekkha), love (metta), compassion (karuna), and joy (mudita). By dissolving the boundaries that constrain us, these four qualities expand our capacity for experience.

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Longchenpa Drime Ozer, Tibet, 1800–1899, Nyingma lineage, ground mineral pigment on cotton. Courtesy Rubin Museum of Art.

By practicing the four boundless states, we avoid the fate of T. S. Eliot’s poor Alfred Prufrock, who lamented, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” The ease of equanimity, the full-heartedness of love, the tenderness of compassion, the radiance of joy—these are things we don’t want in meager doses. Let us consider them one by one, with an emphasis on equanimity, as it provides the foundation for the other three.

The 4th-century Indian Buddhist philosopher Asanga speaks of two types of equanimity: a meditator’s own equanimity toward all beings and his or her wish that those beings develop equanimity. The former is limitless because equanimity can develop without end. The latter is limitless because beings are limitless. Longchen Rabjam (Longchenpa), the master Nyingma philosopher and practitioner of Dzogchen who wrote in 14th-century Tibet, taught both. A practitioner’s equanimity toward others, he writes, comes from recognizing that everyone seeks happiness.

Tsongkhapa, the revered founder of the Tibetan Gelug order, writing in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, defined equanimity as freedom from powerful reactions, positive or negative, to another person or an event—the ability to be even-minded toward everyone, no matter how they behave. Longchenpa and the 18th-century Nyingma treasure revealer Jigme Lingpa identify equanimity as the portal to two of the five Buddha wisdoms, the special knowing that characterizes fully developed Buddhahood. An antidote to pride, equanimity opens us to the first Buddha wisdom, the wisdom of sameness: this primordial knowing recognizes that everything is suffused by the same true nature—empty, stainless, and unchanging. Equanimity also relaxes the hard hold we have on things. As grasping eases, ignorance itself is undone. Now the practice of equanimity becomes a portal to the second Buddha wisdom, wisdom of the expansive reality known as the stainless real or basic space (dharmadhatu), the true home of everything, which Longchenpa equates with buddhanature. 

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