Whether standing, walking, sitting or lying down,
We abide in loving-kindness, compassion,
Sympathetic joy and equanimity,
For this is the most noble way to be in this world.
In the Sutra of the Threefold Knowledges, the Buddha introduces the Four Immeasurables Minds of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The four immeasurables are variously known as the “abodes of Brahma” (brahmavihāra), 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.
The way to actually attain union with Brahma 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. 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. Finally, 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 equanimeous 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 immeasurable even when we don’t feel like it, and to extend them equally in all directions.
In this way, the four immeasurables truly become a science of compassion. 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. 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 face 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.
Vanessa Zuisei Goddard, Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Nov. 26, 2019