I’m always a bit skeptical when people talk about the increasing interest in Buddhism and the numbers of people appreciating the dharma and turning to meditation. It’s like the first week of a romance. When you first fall in love with someone—even if that person has purple hair and all kinds of what we call “extraordinary embellishments”—there’s just the feeling of love. You don’t see the blemishes; you see only the good things.

Yes, meditation and being calm and peaceful and loving, and generating compassion and doing good for others, and being more aware—these are all very good! But in the initial romantic stage, you may be looking through rose-tinted glasses. After that, you will see the hard work involved, hard work that will be done by nobody but you. This is why interest in Buddhism increases at first and then dips—and this dip is steep, because hard work will never make Buddhism very popular.

Moreover, Buddhism is the only philosophy that doesn’t have anyone to ascribe blame to but oneself for what’s wrong. Nor is there anyone but oneself responsible for producing what is good. To be put on the spot like this is not always seen as favorable by the human mind. Our cultures, social upbringing, and the design of our world condition us to hold some person or people or circumstance responsible for our situation. We have politicians to blame; we have God and the prophets, religious masters, and original sin to blame. We have many things to blame, including karma. It is very difficult to come to the point at which you see that blame is not actually logical—that everything depends on you, yourself.

When we speak about this, it doesn’t sound difficult. But when you’re put on that spot, it is. When you come to that crucial point of individual responsibility, it becomes very difficult to begin to walk on the path. The only way to counteract this is to take time, prior to walking on the path, to really think about whether or not what you are trying to cultivate is worth it. Is it beneficial? Do you really understand the value and meaning of what you are undertaking?

Questioning the Four Immeasurables 

I would like to ask you these questions: Do you think it’s worth developing the four immeasurable qualities?

Do you feel a strong intrinsic affinity for the quality of lovingkindness in your own mind—not as a Buddhist, or a religious person, or as anyone in particular but as a thinking human being? Is lovingkindness a quality that you would want to receive from others? Is it an expression of something you’d like to give to others?

Likewise, how do you feel about compassion? Do you see it as just a theory, an object of curiosity, or some kind of experiment? Or do you feel an intrinsic closeness and affection for the quality of compassion as something you’d like to receive and give—if to no one else other than your loved ones?

Similarly, do you feel it’s worth cultivating the quality called joyfulness? There is nothing deep or mysterious here; it’s just about being joyful. Do you appreciate being happy? Do you appreciate having a good laugh? Is this something you would enjoy and like others to enjoy or share?

Then ask yourself about the fourth quality, equanimity. Would you like to be peaceful? Would you like to get a good night’s sleep, or just stay out of trouble? Would you like to just be quiet and still and intrinsically harmonious—and to experience that harmony outside of yourself?

Ask yourself about your own relationship to these words: lovingkindness, compassion, joyfulness, and equanimity. Are they worth exploring, worth listening to and contemplating? Is it worth learning about the benefits of producing these qualities within yourself? Your answers to these questions will determine the journey you will take. If this is not a destination you are really interested in, that will always impact your actual movement on the path of practice.

It is essential to spend time looking into yourself and trying to understand the benefits and worthiness of the qualities called the four immeasurables. This also applies to meditation, and to diving into the cultivation of mindfulness. It is very popular today to say, “Oh, it is good to meditate and develop mindfulness.” Well, it is good—but it may not necessarily be something you’ve thought out very well.

Cultivating the Four Immeasurables 

You cannot just impose lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity on yourself or others when you wish. You cannot just wake up and say, “Today’s a nice day. I’m going to be fully loving and kind to others.” Or, “I’m going to go out and see who needs my joyfulness and compassion.” Or, “I’m going to be one with equanimity.” That is not the approach.

Instead of seeing the four immeasurables as expressed emotions, you could see them as the source of your own basic sanity and awareness.

As the Buddha himself said in the sutra teachings:

 Anyone who is unable to join one’s mind with these four causes, or sources, of human sanity will be constantly bound by the confusion of cyclic existence.

Here, the Buddha talks about cultivating lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity as four “causes, or sources, of human sanity.” Without these qualities the human mind is constantly trapped in the cyclic existence called samsara—one simple definition of which is “an unending game of hope and fear.” Cultivating the four immeasurables works to keep the mind sane. 

Five Necessary Qualities of Mind 

The great masters of Tibetan Buddhism, particularly Longchenpa, describe how the four immeasurables originate in five qualities of your own mind. In fact, you cannot even talk about kindness, compassion, joyfulness, or equanimity without cultivating these five characteristics as their source:

  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 your eye

In other words, it is simplistic to speak about being lovingly kind and compassionate to others without developing within oneself the basic foundation of these five qualities.

To support this understanding of “simplistic,” here’s an image to hold on to. There is a huge enemy army with thousands of forces, well-equipped with all the modern gadgets, guns, missiles, and so on. And I send you into war against this army, by yourself, armed with only a potato peeler. Oh, it’s a very good potato peeler, effective for peeling many potatoes—but there you stand, in front of an army of thousands equipped with modern weapons.

This is the image I’d ask you to hold when you think you have a good weapon against the powerful forces of hope and fear and neurotic habits. What you have is a potato peeler, with the best potato peeler characteristics. You cannot be very confident about winning this battle because your weapon, while good in itself, cannot withstand the forces against you.

Holding on to naive interpretations of any kind is like holding on to that potato peeler. It may be a good thought: lovingkindness is a very good thought, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks about compassion, so let’s all go and be compassionate. But the life span of these nice ideas is, at most, a week. After that, we face that powerful enemy of the self’s neurotic patterns and habits, hopes and fears.

The self has tremendous momentum and power gained through constant usage. And its familiarity is so strong that—even with your wish to be loving, kind, and compassionate—you can’t always withstand the forces of habitual neuroses.

How does one come out of the naiveness of just imagining these good qualities? As the great master Longchenpa says, it becomes necessary to not see lovingkindness, compassion, joy, or equanimity as four distinct qualities separate from you, which you then impose upon yourself. Instead—if your attitude is as vast as space—you can see that lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity are what you are.

First—A Fundamental Attitude as Vast as Space

The analogy of space stands for an attitude that is vast, as opposed to a linear perspective, where everything begins and ends with you—and is all about you in the middle. When your perspective becomes as vast as space, it can accommodate everything: the pure and the impure, the right and not right, things of your own doing and not of your own doing.

Space accommodates all perfections and imperfections. Likewise, the basis of lovingkindness, compassion, equanimity, and joy arises when you can rest within an attitude that accommodates others as they are. Your cultivation of kindness is without demands and expectations; it is especially without strategies or plans for applying that lovingkindness and compassion.

So to cultivate the four immeasurable qualities, first work on your own attitude. With a vaster perspective, the mind resembles space. And just as space is able to hold everything gently, freely, and without demands, your attitude toward others—your friends, family, community, or the whole world itself—is accommodating and without demands based on your own expectations.

What is that attitude, other than lovingkindness? What is it, other than compassion? There is no need to go out and be compassionate; you are compassion. There is no need to remember to apply lovingkindness; lovingkindness is who you are. You are naturally a loving person because your attitude is much more accepting and accommodating of others.

Second—A Mind as Constant as the Depths of the Ocean

Now think about cultivating the second quality, constancy. The nature of your mind is as constant as the depths of the ocean. The ocean depths are never deterred by the waves on the surface. In the same way, your good moods and bad moods, good experiences and bad experiences, your nice days and bad days do not influence the potential for patience and kindness held in the vast perspective of your mind.

Having understood the first quality, an attitude as vast as space, to be a good thing, you now strengthen it. With strengthened awareness and the determination to be gentle in your approach to others, you do not allow that all-accommodating attitude to be overwhelmed by the occurrences of everyday life. This cultivates constancy like the depths of the ocean, and a sense of dependability. You can trust yourself to be a source of love and kindness that others can depend on.

A common problem for many of us is that this constancy doesn’t develop. I think Mahayana Buddhist students, especially, try very hard to develop compassion, lovingkindness, and so on. Your intention is excellent—but your constancy is not always excellent. When your various moods or life experiences occur, self-absorption may overpower the determination to practice lovingkindness and compassion. And at a crucial point, forgetfulness allows habitual patterns to overwhelm your intention.

It is essential, therefore, to cultivate and then strengthen this depths-of-the-ocean constancy within yourself. Then—because it’s one thing to say the mind must be constant as the ocean—the way to make it so is by cultivating the third quality.

charting the four immeasureables 2

Third—Seeing All Occurrences as Mist

The third quality is the insight that sees all phenomena—your inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions, as well as external phenomena in the world—as mists that arise, manifest, and dissolve. This is the insight, or wisdom, aspect that knows the nature of things as they occur.

Keep thoroughly in mind that one of the most powerful characteristics of all phenomena is transformation, or change. It is the impermanent nature of things to arise, manifest, and cease. Where there is something good, it changes; where there is something bad, that also changes. With this clear understanding, know that whatever occurs in the field of your mind’s thoughts and emotions will also change. Problems may not dramatically disappear. But this definitely loosens the tightness with which you hold them to be unchanging and permanent—which is what makes moods, emotions, and external experiences so overwhelmingly powerful.

Instead, the mind can view them as mist. Yes, they do momentarily appear, but they change—just as thousands of experiences and feelings have changed. Knowing this enhances one’s abiding in constancy, which enhances the vastness of one’s attitude.

Having developed a vast attitude as constant as the depths of the ocean, with the ability to see the mind’s various inner emotions and external experiences as transitory as mist, then cultivate the fourth quality.

Fourth—Compassion as Even as Rays of the Sun

The fourth quality is an approach toward others that is genuinely gentle and as even as the rays of the sun. The sun—whether or not it is recognized, appreciated, or even seen—is accessible to whomever might benefit from it. In the same way, determine to be constantly gentle and giving to others, without a strategy, without a plan, and without ambition. Your approach is based simply on how to best benefit others. Then you’re beginning to embark on the path of cultivating the four immeasurables—supported by the most important quality, the fifth.

Fifth—Sensing Negativities as Specks of Dust in the Eye

One can never become a kind, compassionate person while ignoring the negativities in one’s own attitude and personality. Anger, confusion, self-absorption, strong desire and attachments, self-clinging, and particularly jealousy and pride—these should be treated like specks of dust or dirt in your eye. When something gets in your eye, you can’t tolerate it; you do everything you can to remove it. Be just as consciously aware that negativity destroys your relationship with your intrinsic absolute goodness, which is the basis of your sane relationships with others.Khandro Rinpoche

These five fundamental attitudes support and complement one another. To work with the Buddhist concept of compassion, begin by strengthening them. This lays the foundation for the four immeasurable qualities of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

Two Approaches to the Four Immeasurables

The four immeasurables are not called immeasurable because of their size but because their one fundamental quality is unconditional. Unconditional lovingkindness is what makes lovingkindness immeasurable. Unconditional compassion makes compassion immeasurable. Unconditional joy makes joy immeasurable. And unconditional equanimity makes equanimity immeasurable. In the classical texts, the cultivation of these immeasurable qualities is classified in mainly two ways.

The first approach cultivates the four immeasurables with sentient beings as their object. Your objective for practicing lovingkindness, for example, is to benefit all sentient beings. Likewise, you have compassion for sentient beings. You take joy in their happiness. And you rest in equanimity without sentient beings serving as your basis for discrimination and bias.

When the four immeasurables are cultivated with sentient beings as their object, they are called “limited” four immeasurables. The methods for developing these qualities are relative, provisional, or conventional. In simple words, they are for ordinary practitioners.

The second approach—which is much more suited to their unconditional nature—is to cultivate the four immeasurables just because. Now this is not just some puzzled state of mind. For Buddhists, it means cultivating the four immeasurables with dharmata as the objective. If you’re not used to Buddhist terminology, it means you have no particular reason to develop the four immeasurables. You do it simply because you can and you should—because these are your intrinsic qualities.

Take the quality of joyfulness. Do you need some profound reason to be joyful? Do you need to be told that if you are joyful, the Buddha will take you to the Buddha-fields? No. But the stubborn human mind—which stupidly takes great pride in calling itself wise—is conditioned to not let it be simple. Simple in the good way means just as it is.

Likewise, the quality of lovingkindness is simply who you are. You don’t need a reason to manifest your natural state. You can develop lovingkindness just because. You can be compassionate just because—not for some profound reason or because the Buddha or the dharma pushes you into it. You do it because you are able to do it. Why not be joyful just because?

You can remain in equanimity just because—or would you rather run around being biased and partial, clumsily making judgments and having opinions, when there’s no need for you to interfere in others’ lives? It’s your choice.

From the perspective of the Buddhist teachings, the reason you can actually generate unconditional lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity is that these are your natural qualities.

This is the authentic approach to the four immeasurables. The confidence that recognizes this and allows you to bravely be this—for no other reason than it’s your basic nature—is the absolute, or ultimate, approach to the four immeasurables, as correctly understood.

But as much as you may like this idea, you’re not going to do it. You will not be easily persuaded to be nothing but kind without something to obtain at the end of the line—even something as elusive as nirvana, or enlightenment. Because someone on a high seat says the goal of generating lovingkindness, compassion, joyfulness, and equanimity is enlightenment, for that reason alone, most of us have become Buddhists.

I, myself, became a nun and a Buddhist practitioner in search of what we call enlightenment. But the fact is, I have no idea what that is. Somebody, somewhere told me it’s a good thing, and that seemed sufficient—and so far, the wisdom and kindness of the great masters have been playing along. 

Adapted from a talk given by Mindrolling Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche at a weekend seminar in Boston, MA, August 2013.

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