By John Lee Pendall
The Four Immeasurables pre-date Buddhism, but they’re so handy that the Buddha taught them as well.
Just as a primer, the Four Immeasurables are loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha). Siddhartha recommended that we make these qualities central aspects of our lives, and that we meditate by focusing on them until they seem to extend boundlessly into space and time.
Through that, we realize and actualize all the other Buddhist teachings and methods as well.
Loving-kindness meditation is popular these days, and it’s been formalized to a degree, but there aren’t any rigid guidelines to it in the Suttas—the dogma comes from the commentaries.
I vouch for a feel your own way through it approach. Think love. Speak love. Eat, drink, walk and crap love. Everything we’ve ever felt (and will feel) is only one moment away from us—all we need to do is bring it forward.
The Dhammapada says that, “All things are preceded by intention (citta).” Intention is our will, but it’s also a kind of aboutness or directionality in our minds. Sorta like which direction we’re facing in a room. We see different things depending on where we look, and where we look depends on where we’ve looked before.
An architect is going to notice structures and angles more than someone who doesn’t give a fuck about architecture. A parent is going to be more attuned to the sound of kids playing than someone who isn’t a parent. Each experience is packed full of stimuli that our brains filter out. Willpower, filtering and choosing are what Buddha meant by “intention.”
Bodhicitta means choosing awakening—or in this case, the Four Immeasurables—which is always present, just un-attended to like the numerous sights and sounds we’re ignoring right now. Once we get used to working with the Immeasurables, we start to see them everywhere, just like a botanist seeing a world of plants.
All that sunny shit aside, there’s a “dark side” to the Immeasurables, and to Buddhism in general.
We dress it up a lot so that we don’t scare people off, but that causes a lot problems too since it sets up false expectations.
Loving-kindness means wishing all beings well; compassion means seeing that all beings are unwell. Compassion is sorrow or sadness, but not the type of sadness that plunges us into hopeless despair. It’s a kind of sadness that—rather than hindering love or making us shy away from it—completes it. The love the Immeasurables point to is impossible without sadness.
Feeling sad is part of being healthy. Running from sorrow, or thinking that Buddhism cures it, is a dangerous misunderstanding. Buddhism gives our sorrow context and puts it to work so that we can bring a little light into the world.
My grandma has Alzheimer’s. Like a lot of people with the disease, she despises taking showers. It’s always a battle, and it usually takes several people to convince her to do it. She lashes out each time with a rage that I never thought humanly possible. She doesn’t get angry just to get angry. Things don’t just happen, they depend on other things. She gets angry because she’s afraid of slipping and falling, and she gets angry because she feels sad, belittled, and humiliated.
If I didn’t see that, then I’d get angry right along with her. But when I do see it, it’s sad as hell, and that makes it possible for me to love her and be kind to her in those moments.
So, if you’re practicing Buddhism so that you can overcome sadness, then you’re shit outta luck, because compassion is sadness. But, instead of being caused by love—like ordinary sadness is—it causes love, and love causes it.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Were you moved by this post? You might also like:
- A Buddhist Stuck in the Wheel: Can We Be Buddhists without Leaving Home? - July 19, 2021
- Perspective and Morality: Sometimes It’s all Relative - July 13, 2021
- Death of A Question Mark: Living Without Understanding - June 29, 2021