The Four Immeasurables

National Headquarters  |  February 1, 2019
Photo Credit: Peter Lin

In Buddhism, the Four Immeasurables (Sanskrit: apramāṇa) – also known as the Four Infinite Minds and the Brahma-viharas (lit. “abodes of brahma”) are a series of sublime qualities and practices to cultivate them. These boundless virtues further the development of wisdom and compassion, the central paths towards enlightenment according to Buddhist tradition. The Four Immeasurables are:

  1. Loving-Kindness (Sanskrit: maitrī)
  2. Compassion (Sanskrit: karuā)
  3. Joy (Sanskrit: muditā)
  4. Equanimity (Sanskrit: upekṣā)

Cultivating the Four Immeasurables while serving others selflessly is at the heart of the Tzu Chi Path, which can encompass a vow to be a bodhisattvaone who aims to save all sentient beings. Dharma Master Cheng Yen offers guidance on this path and why cultivating the Four Immeasurables is an essential part of it:

When we vow to walk on the bodhisattva path and be a bodhisattva, we vow to cultivate a heart of loving-kindness. What is loving-kindness? Loving-kindness is the spirit of working for the benefit and wellbeing of all. We learn to reach out to total strangers and help them meet their needs. We learn to pray for the wellbeing of all people and actively do good deeds. This is how we nurture loving-kindness. When challenges appear, we must strengthen our vow, always keeping the welfare of sentient beings at heart and not getting discouraged in doing the work of a bodhisattva. This is the loving-kindness we need to cultivate.

The second of the Four Immeasurables that we need to nurture is compassion. To cultivate compassion, we must develop empathy and tolerance, and form good affinities with others. To help people in need, we should be able to feel whatever pain and suffering they’re going through. When our loved ones fall ill or are in trouble, we naturally try to do all we can to help them as we can feel their suffering and see their distress. Similarly, when we’re helping the poor, the ill, or those enduring hardship, we should imagine them as our own family members, and feel their pain and suffering as if they were our loved ones. By taking their pain and suffering into our heart, we develop empathy. 

To carry out acts of compassion, we also need to nurture tolerance. If we’re to carry out the Bodhisattva work of helping people, we can’t do it alone; we need others to join us and make it possible. However, people have all sorts of personalities and different views. Some are even difficult to work with. How can we work together to accomplish the goal? We must develop tolerance. For example, if someone raises their voice when speaking to us, instead of getting angry, we should learn to be understanding and perceive things in a positive way, “He’s speaking loudly since he’s concerned I might not catch everything if he speaks too softly. It takes lots of energy to talk, and he’s willing to expend energy talking to me, so I should be grateful.”

By being understanding, we broaden our heart and become more accepting. If someone appears unfriendly or has an attitude, we need to be kinder to them. They may just seem so because they don’t have a smile on their face. Don’t hold this against them; instead, offer a smile and form a positive affinity. As we’re aspiring to be a bodhisattva, we must constantly remind ourselves to be loving, kind, and compassionate. 

The third of the Four Immeasurables that we need to develop is joy. A bodhisattva needs to nurture a heart of joy each day. We shouldn’t lose our bodhisattva aspiration and become emotional or angry due to the bad attitude or negative habits of one or two people. We need to stay cheerful. To accomplish the work of a bodhisattva, we need many people to happily join the cause. Thus, we must learn to interact and deal with all kinds of people in a joyful way. 

Moreover, along the bodhisattva path, there are bound to be challenges. We should expect challenges and be ready to tackle them. Part of our cultivation is to overcome difficulties, so how to face them with joy is something we need to learn. As we travel this bodhisattva path, everyone we encounter is like a living sutra [Buddhist scripture] for us to learn from. Some people will give us an easy lesson, while others will give us a hard one. No matter what kind of lesson, they’re helping us to develop wisdom. So, let’s accept challenges and difficulties with joy. With joy in our heart, we’ll be less affected by worries and emotions, and our mind will be at peace.

The last of the Four Immeasurables that we need to nurture is equanimity. We need to reflect on the love we give and learn to treat everyone equally. On the Tzu Chi Path, we often talk about helping people unconditionally, without asking for anything in return. We strive to help the poor, those suffering, and those in need. We help people who are strangers to us, and feel grateful to them for giving us the opportunity to serve and nurture our compassion. In a way, we pay more attention and give more love to people in need than our own families and fellow volunteers. To give with equanimity is to give our love equally and impartially to all, whether they are the poor, the suffering, our loved ones, or our friends. 

As a bodhisattva, the spirit of the Four Immeasurables loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity is something we need to cultivate in our heart each day. If we can do this, we’ll be able to bring that spirit to the people around us and our environment. 

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