Intentions and the Four Immeasurables

I’m going to share with you a meditation prayer that we recite at the Rime Center. I started reciting it in all my meditations at home as well. It goes like this:

May all beings be endowed with happiness;

May all beings be free from suffering;

May all beings never be separated from happiness;

And may all beings abide in equanimity,

Undisturbed by the eight worldly concerns.”

This is how we set our intention to cultivate what is called “the four immeasurables.”


I used to think these kinds of things were silly. But setting an intention is important. It motivates and inspires us. It reminds us what’s important. In my opinion we all spend much of our lives on auto-pilot. Living in a more intentional way is a good thing. When we set our intentions we are helping ourselves to remember what direction we’re trying to go in. In this case we are inclining ourselves toward having open hearts.

In ‘A Fearless Heart’ Thupten Jinpa says, “When we set an intention in the morning, we’re making a choice about what kind of day we want to have. We’re taking life into our own hands instead of waiting for it to happen to us.”

This set of virtues is called “immeasurable” because it’s said to be a list of things that you can never have too much of. They are: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

Thupten Jinpa goes on to say, “We all have these qualities; they’re part of – the best parts of – being human.”

All of these are about wishing it for all beings. That can be hard. It’s easy for us to wish for our own happiness and the happiness of our friends and family. This is much more broad. We are called to cultivate the wish for all beings to have these things because that will build a better world. It’s easy to say, “No one gets left out” but that can be very hard to really embody. If we suggest everyone is deserving of kindness and compassion, this can be a tough thing for us to relate to. Every one of us stops and thinks, “Even that person?” if we’re really reflecting on this. And the answer is yes, even that person. Opening your heart helps you…and everyone else.

May all beings be endowed with happiness

This is what we call loving-kindness. Some prefer the term loving-friendliness and some just call it kindness. The original word is Metta. Jinpa calls it, “The pure wish for someone to be happy.”

May all beings be free from suffering

This is compassion. I imagine some people wonder “what’s the difference between kindness and compassion?” This is it. Loving-kindness is wanting others to be happy. Compassion is wanting others to not suffer. They are not far apart, but they’re a little different. Kindness is wanting good things to happen to people. Compassion is wanting bad things to not happen. The original word is Karuna. Jinpa says, “Our concern, if it comes from genuine compassion, is based on the recognition that, just like I do, this person wishes to be free from suffering.” and also, “In the Tibetan tradition we recognize compassion as both the highest spiritual ideal and the highest expression of our humanity.” This is what makes me like the Tibetan tradition.

May all beings never be separated from happiness

This is sympathetic joy. What if we can really be happy when someone else succeeds? I’m not talking about when we just say empty words like, “I’m happy for you,” because that’s what you’re supposed to say. What if we can take real joy at someone’s success? And I’m also not talking about just your kids or your partner. What if we can apply this kind of joy to everyone? Then there will be no end to where we can feel joy. The original word is Mudita. Jinpa says it is, “Experiencing happiness at someone else’s happiness and good fortune.” To me this is probably the most challenging one of the four to really reflect on and embody.

And may all beings abide in equanimity, undisturbed by the eight worldly concerns.

This is equanimity. It’s our ability to weather the storms of life, to keep it together when things are falling apart. It’s that quality that stops you from freaking out and falling to the floor when there are setbacks in life, as there are for everyone. The original word is Upekkha. Jinpa describes it as, “Staying calm no matter what life throws at us – pleasure and pain, likes and dislikes, praise and blame, fame and disrepute – and it lets us relate to everyone as human beings, beyond the categories of friend, foe, or stranger. With equanimity we are free from the habitual forces of expectation and apprehension that make us vulnerable to over-excitation and disappointment.” Those pairs he listed are called ‘the eight worldly concerns.’ The point of reflecting on those is that we can get carried away by being blamed too much, of course, but we can also get carried away by being praised too much. Equanimity is what helps us keep an even mind whether things are going very well or very badly.

So, these are the four immeasurables. Learning to cultivate these four qualities helps us to open our hearts and deepen our relationships to ourselves and others. They’re sometimes called ‘divine abodes’ which is not a term I like that much. But it does convey that they are considered important things to cultivate.

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The Four Immeasurables

The Four Brahmaviharas, or Divine Abodes, are often translated as ‘the immeasurables’ or ‘the ‘immeasurable minds’.

When these four qualities are cultivated they are said be a powerful antidote to negative mind states.

These teachings are found in several different Buddhist texts, including the Metta Sutra.

A very similar list is found in the non-Buddhist spiritual text “The Yoga Sutras” by Patanjali, which was written a few centuries after the rise of Buddhism.

The Brahmaviharas represent a method for engaging life in a positive and enlightened way, a way that helps us avoid suffering and encourages peace and happiness. They represent a way to overcome our ego.

They are:

Metta (lovingkindness): this is benevolence and kindness. It signifies wanting others to be happy and succeed. It’s often easy to wish for success for our friends and relatives, not to mention ourselves. But, in this case we’re trying to extend this to all beings.

Karuna (compassion): this is wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s easy to say we don’t want others to suffer, but it must be mentioned that this includes people we don’t like as well.

Mudita (empathetic joy): this is celebrating and being happy when others are successful. Congratulating people and telling them we’re happy for them is normal. It’s something we’re taught to do, I think.

Upekkha (equanimity): this is learning to weather the storm of life, learning how to accept loss and gain, success and failure. This might be the most difficult one. It’s certainly hard to keep an even mind when things aren’t going well. It can be so easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged.

In the Metta Sutra they’re listed this way:

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes;
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes;
May all sentient beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss;
May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.

In the Visuddhimagga (path of purification) written in the 5th century by Buddhaghosa, he explains the Brahmaviharas as things you take on for yourselves and then cultivate for others around and then spread out your view to encompass all beings.

you can listen to a guided meditation based on the four immeasurables here:

 


 

 

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*another version of this article appeared on Patheos