The Four Immeasurables

How to deepen equanimity, love, compassion, and joyAnne C. Klein

Article Preview

To access this entire article and all other member-supported
content, join Tricycle as a Supporting or Sustaining Member

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.

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 4th-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 . . .

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Become a Supporting Member

*With Autorenew

  • You Get
  • Tricycle | The Magazine - a one-year subscription to premier Buddhist quarterly
  • Tricycle Retreats - a new online video teaching every every week by a contemporary Buddhist teacher
  • Tricycle | The Digital Edition - web based edition of the magazine
  • The Wisdom Collection - nearly two decades of teachings by the world's most compelling teachers, from the pages of Tricycle
  • Tricycle Gallery - the best in Buddhist art to download and share with friends
  • Tricycle Book Club - online discussions with leading Buddhist authors
  • Tricycle Discussions - teacher-led explorations of dharma in daily life
  • The Tricycle Blog - our diary of the global Buddhist movement
  • Daily Dharma - heart advice delivered direct to your inbox
  • The Tricycle Newsletter - the latest news, teachings, events, and more, every Monday

Become a Supporting Member

Become a Sustaining Member

*With Autorenew

  • You Get
  • Tricycle | The Magazine - a one-year subscription to premier Buddhist quarterly
  • Tricycle Retreats - a new online video teaching every every week by a contemporary Buddhist teacher
  • Tricycle | The Digital Edition - web based edition of the magazine
  • The Wisdom Collection - nearly two decades of teachings by the world's most compelling teachers, from the pages of Tricycle
  • Tricycle Gallery - the best in Buddhist art to download and share with friends
  • Tricycle Book Club - online discussions with leading Buddhist authors
  • Tricycle Discussions - teacher-led explorations of dharma in daily life
  • The Tricycle Blog - our diary of the global Buddhist movement
  • Daily Dharma - heart advice delivered direct to your inbox
  • The Tricycle Newsletter - the latest news, teachings, events, and more, every Monday

Become a Sustaining Member