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--- Dharma Online : Awakening a Kind Heart ---

The Practice of The Four Immeasurables

by Ven Sangye Khadro

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.


How to Develop a Kind Heart

Do you want to be happy? Do you want to have a healthy and satisfying life? This is not an advertisement for a marvelous new health product, but an encouragement to be more kind and loving.

Everyone wants happiness and health, but not everyone realizes that loving-kindness is an essential ingredient for these. Why? Because loving-kindness frees us from self-centredness and self- importance which disturb our peace of mind. Self-centredness is the cause of such problems as hatred for enemies, envy for rivals and clinging-attachment to family and friends. These disturbing mental attitudes, if untreated, can even lead to physical ailments. Loving-kindness helps us to overcome these problems and paves the way for good relations with friend and foe alike.

A kind, loving heart values people more than things. Instead of seeking happiness solely through work, knowledge, consumer goods, sex, travel, entertainment or sports, we devote more energy to the people in our lives. We spend time with them, listening when they want to talk and sharing with them our own thoughts and feelings. In these ways our relationships grow closer and deeper. On the other hand, if we don't know how to give and receive love we won't be truly happy, no matter how many degrees we have, how wealthy we are or how high we climb on the social ladder.

You may think, "Yes, I know all that. I want to have loving- kindness, but it's so difficult." This is true. Selfishness, anger and the like arise as naturally as water flowing downhill, while being kind is as difficult as pushing a boulder uphill. But who ever said it would be easy?

Loving-kindness is difficult but not impossible. We can change ourselves. When I was young, I did not know how to get along with others. I had a bad temper, behaved selfishly, and suffered a lot because I had few friends. I wished to be like my schoolmates who were cheerful, friendly and kind, but it seemed that I was doomed to be always grumpy and unkind.

Later, I discovered Buddhism, which teaches not only that we should be kind, but how to be kind. The Buddha's teachings reveal a rich array of methods--such as different types of meditation, purification practices and devotional prayer--that can be used to free ourselves of negative attitudes like anger and selfishness and develop positive ones like loving-kindness and compassion. It is my experience that these methods work. Not that my anger and selfishness have completely disappeared! They still arise, but less frequently than before, and kind-heartedness arises more often.

Some people are born with an abundance of wholesome qualities. They are kind, peaceful, respectful, considerate of others and take delight in doing good deeds. They are like this because of their familiarity with these qualities in previous lives. Actually, we all have many good qualities, but in some of us they are less developed. That is why in Buddhism, we train ourselves to think and behave in a kind and considerate way. The more we practise being kind and helpful, the more these qualities will arise naturally and spontaneously. It's like learning to play the piano: the more you practise, the better you become.

One of the best ways to develop a kind heart is through contemplating the four immeasurable thoughts: love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. They are called "immeasurable" because they extend to all beings, who are immeasurable, and because we create immeasurable positive energy and purify immeasurable negative energy through developing them. They are also called "the four sublime states" because developing them in our minds makes us like the sublime buddhas, bodhisattvas and arhats who are beyond attachment and aversion.

The four immeasurable thoughts are expressed in the following prayer:

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.

By reciting this prayer slowly and sincerely one or more times, and reflecting on its meaning, we can develop a heart of kindness towards all beings. So let's now take a look at the meaning of each of these immeasurable thoughts.

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Immeasurable Love

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes.

How do we come to love someone? What does it take for love to arise in our hearts? I'm not talking about the sort of love we fall into when we meet an attractive, charming or sexy person. That sort of love does not usually run very deep or last very long. It can disappear at the first disagreement!

The sort of love involved in immeasurable love is a genuine feeling of caring and respect for others. We wish them to be happy and to have whatever they need for a healthy, satisfying life. It can also be called loving-kindness.

Several different factors give rise to such love. One is realizing the important role people play in our lives. For example, we love our parents because they brought us into the world and give us the food, shelter, love and protection we need. They console us when we are sad or frightened and take care of us when we are sick. We love other family members and friends because we share with them the joys and sorrows of life. We love our teachers because from them we learn the knowledge and skills we need to earn a living and deal with the challenges of life.

But do we love the bus driver who takes us to work or school each day? You may think I'm joking. "I don't even know him - he's a stranger!" But remember, love is a feeling of caring and kindness. Loving someone doesn't mean we must have a close relationship. It means we care about that person, appreciate what that person does for us and wish that person happiness.

There are many people who contribute to our well-being without our realizing it. By thinking about what they do for us we can feel loving-kindness for them. For example, the food and drink we consume each day come to us because of the hard work of farmers, lorry drivers, factory workers and shopkeepers. Houses, schools, offices, shopping centres and roads were built by labourers. Many people work to provide us with water, gas, electricity and public services; others produce our clothes and furniture, the books, music and movies we enjoy, and the appliances that make our lives easier. In short, everything we have, use and enjoy comes to us from other people.

Other beings are also important from the point of view of our spiritual development. How could we practise ethics--giving up killing, stealing and so forth--without the existence of beings that we could kill or steal from? How could we cultivate generosity if there were no one in need? Even enemies are important because they incite our anger and thus give us the chance to work on patience, one of the most valuable qualities on the spiritual path. These ideas come from a meditation known as "Remembering the Kindness of Others", which is one of the best methods for developing immeasurable love.

Another factor giving rise to immeasurable love is realizing that all beings are the same in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. For this there is a meditation known as the "Equality of Self and Others". We think, "Just as I want to stay alive and be happy, so does everyone else. Just as I do not want to experience pain and problems, nor does anyone else." This thought can be used to overcome fear or aversion for people who look strange or who misbehave. It helps us to understand that they are, at heart, just like ourselves.

Furthermore, every being has buddha-nature, the potential to become free and enlightened. Even those who live unethically and do many harmful deeds have a nature that is pure and good, and one day (probably after many lives) they will attain enlightenment. If we can accept these ideas and keep them in mind whenever we meet another living being, then instead of feeling, "you are different from me," we will feel, "you are just like me" and loving-kindness will arise naturally.

Love also involves wishing everyone to have the causes of happiness. That means we wish them to cultivate positive, wholesome attitudes and behaviour. Giving money, food and kindness fulfils peoples' present needs but doesn't ensure their future happiness. A person may have everything he needs to be happy here and now, but if he does not live ethically and instead acts in a way that harms himself and others, suffering rather than happiness awaits him in the future. Therefore, we also need to help people create the causes of happiness and avoid the causes of suffering.

The love we develop should be pure and unselfish, expecting nothing in return. Pure love is similar to the kind of love a mother feels for her child. When the child is young, the mother is happy to care for all its needs, even though the child cannot give much in return. On the other hand, if we love people as long as they are nice to us but stop loving them when we no longer get what we want, our love is not pure but mixed with attachment and selfishness. This is called "conditional love" because it involves demands and expectations. The less self-centred we can be, the more pure and unconditional our love will be.

Pure love also transcends boundaries. It is not right to think "I love my own children but not other children," or "I love the people in my country but not those in other countries," or "I am a Buddhist so I love Buddhists but not Christians, Muslims, etc." or "I'll be nice to humans but not to animals and insects." To love and help only those of our own race, religion, country or gender is to limit ourselves. If we neglect even one being, our love is not fully developed, not immeasurable.

We might worry that we have enough love for our family and friends but not for every single living being! "If I try to love everyone I'll be exhausted!" But we need not worry about that. Love is an inexhaustible energy. Learning to be more loving is like discovering a natural spring within us: however much love we give, more will always come bubbling up. It is our habitual self- centredness and self-limiting ways of thinking that constrict the flow of love. As we gradually lessen these our ability to love will increase.

We should also be careful to avoid the opposite problem: developing loving-kindness for "all beings" while overlooking the ones around us. It sometimes happens that we have a peaceful meditation on love for all beings, but when we finish meditating we act unkindly to our family members, friends or colleagues! To develop properly, our practice of love should start with the people we live with and meet every day. Gradually we can extend it to beings around the world, in other realms and in distant galaxies!

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Immeasurable Compassion

May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes.

Compassion differs slightly from love. Love wants others to be happy, while compassion wants them to not have pain, problems or unhappiness. Love comes from appreciating others' kindness, or just respecting them as fellow beings, whereas compassion comes from realizing that they suffer.

Our own experiences of suffering are the basis for compassion. We know what it's like to be sick or in pain, to be lonely or have our feelings hurt by an unkind remark, to fear the unknown or mourn the death of a loved one. When we then see or hear of others experiencing these things, our heart opens with a feeling of empathy and a wish to help. This is compassion.

We need to distinguish true compassion from "idiot compassion". We sometimes over-react emotionally at the sight of suffering. We can be so distressed that we weep uncontrollably, faint or run away in horror. Our heart may be moved with pity but our emotions are so out-of-control that we can't do anything to help! In other cases we might do something but because we lack right understanding of the problem or the person experiencing it, our "help" only makes the situation worse. These are examples of idiot compassion. True compassion balances loving-concern with clear wisdom. This wisdom enables us to stay calm and think clearly how best to help, without being carried away by our emotions. For example, if someone in our family suddenly becomes ill or has an accident, we need to act swiftly and objectively to relieve that person's suffering and not get caught up by our own fears, anxiety and distress.

When it comes to helping someone who is suffering mentally, even greater wisdom and skill are required. Let's say a friend comes over to see us, upset because his girlfriend has just rejected him. With compassion we listen to his outpour of grief and anger, sympathize with what he's going through and offer kind words to console him. But it would not be right to think that we must solve his problem for him, or to become as depressed and angry as he is. Instead, we should use our wisdom and skilful means to help him come to terms with his problem. For example, we can explain to him that it's not helpful to be angry and revengeful, but that these attitudes will only increase his suffering. He can try to work things out with his girlfriend, but if it looks like the break is irreparable, it's best for him to accept what has happened, forgive and forget, and get on with his life. Throughout our talk together we should try to remain calm, show our concern by listening attentively, avoid preaching or giving unwanted advice, and think clearly how best to help him work out his own solution to the problem. If we can balance compassion with wisdom in this way, he will feel better and we will be able to walk away without carrying his problem on our shoulders.

It is easier for compassion to arise towards some than towards others, but this is only because we have a limited idea of how beings suffer. For example, it is natural for compassion to arise when we see a beggar or a disabled person, but when we see a well-dressed lady driving a Mercedes, we are more likely to feel envy than compassion. That is because we don't realize that she also has suffering. Physically, she has a body that experiences hunger, thirst, heat, cold and tiredness; that gets sick, ages and will one day die. Mentally, she probably has more suffering than a poor person. She must worry about how to maintain her money, position and glamorous image. She may also have problems with her husband or boyfriend, with parents or other family members. She may have a bad-tempered boss, uncooperative employees and jealous rivals trying to harm her. Is it wise to envy such a person?

Moreover, this lady, like all the rest of us, is trapped in the cycle of death and rebirth. Compassion wishes all beings to be free not only from suffering but from its causes as well: karma and disturbing attitudes that keep us in this cycle, or samsara. If we want to envy anyone, why not the buddhas and arhats, who are free of death and rebirth, free of all suffering and its causes? Everyone else--even the wealthiest people, even the beings in the highest heavenly realms--has problems and therefore deserves our compassion.

Compassion stops us from harming others. When we see a cockroach in our kitchen, our first impulse might be to squash it out of existence. But stop and think, "This is a living being, who, because of unfortunate karma, has been born in the body of a cockroach, living in dirty places, eating garbage, trying to avoid being stepped on or doused with bug-spray. It wants to stay alive as much as I do. In fact, I could be like that in my next life!" With this understanding, we're more likely to let it live. (If we don't want it to live in our kitchen, we can catch it in a container and take it outside.)

How can we have compassion towards someone who harms us or our loved ones? Compassion involves understanding the situation of others. It asks us to put ourselves in the other person's shoes. "What is he thinking? How does he feel? What makes him behave like this?" If we do this with an open heart, we'll realize that the other person is not happy, that he is not in control of his own mind but rather that he is under the control of his own delusions, which only cause him suffering. This will help us to understand that it is more appropriate to respond with calm patience than with anger and the wish to retaliate.

Being compassionate doesn't mean we have to be passive, weak and say "yes" every time we are asked to give or do something. It's all right to say "no" if we feel that the request is unreasonable, if we feel we are incapable of fulfilling it, or if the person is simply trying to use us for her own selfish ends. It's also OK to speak up or take action against harm done to ourselves or others, provided we do so with compassion, not anger and aggression.

If we think that an attitude of compassion and non-retaliation is a sign of weakness, some of the great spiritual figures of the past have shown us by their own example that this is not so. For example, Shakyamuni Buddha overcame the negative forces that tried to disturb him on the eve of his enlightenment with the power of his loving-kindness. Jesus Christ compassionately forgave the men who tortured and killed him. Mahatma Gandhi and his followers won India's independence through non-violent activities, even at the risk of death or imprisonment. In this way, they showed us that meeting harm and injustice with compassionate non-violence is far more noble and courageous than fighting back.

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Immeasurable Joy

May all sentient beings not be separated from
sorrowless bliss.

Immeasurable joy is wishing all beings to have pure happiness, not only in this life but in the future as well. We wish that as long as they are in cyclic existence, they may take rebirth in fortunate states as humans, or devas (celestial beings) or in pure realms. Beyond that, we wish them to attain the sublime peace and happiness of liberation, never again to suffer death and rebirth. To be able to attain that, they must follow the path to liberation, which consists of ethics, concentration and wisdom. Therefore, we wish all beings to learn, understand and practise the Dharma, the path.

Joy also means taking delight in others' success, good qualities and positive actions. For example, we share in the happiness of friends or family members when they pass exams, win contests, get promoted or bring a child into the world; and we admire those who work hard to help others in the community or to advance their spiritual practice. This attitude is known as "rejoicing" and it is the best antidote to jealousy.

Jealousy is a very painful feeling that makes us tense and closed to others. We cannot be happy when we're jealous. Rejoicing, on the other hand, is a beautiful feeling of sharing in others' joy and success. It brings us closer to others. Jealousy is self-defeating. It makes us miserable while others celebrate, and it can lead us to behave in a childish way that attracts criticism rather than the respect we seek.

How do we overcome jealousy? We can reason with ourselves like this: "Whatever happens is due to causes and conditions. If so-and-so did better than me in an exam or competition, it could be because she was more prepared, better disciplined. Or it could be that she has more natural ability, which is due to karma from previous lives. She must have previously created the causes for her success."

It is karma that accounts for differences in intelligence, attractiveness, health, talent and personality. If we are lacking in certain qualities, it is because we failed to cultivate those qualities in previous lives. Being jealous won't change anything. However, if we can accept ourselves as we are with our faults and limitations and then get on with the work of self-improvement, things will change for the better.

Rejoicing actually helps bring about this change. To appreciate others' positive qualities and deeds is to encourage ourselves to be like them. When we feel, "How wonderful if I could do what he's doing", we are mentally steering ourselves in that direction. Furthermore, rejoicing is a positive attitude that plants positive seeds in the mind, and that's just what we need to gain qualities and success in the future.

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Immeasurable Equanimity

May all sentient beings abide in equanimity,
free of bias, attachment and anger.

Equanimity is an attitude that involves having equal respect and concern for every being regardless of where they stand in relation to us. In this prayer, we wish all beings to develop the state of equanimity. Practically speaking, however, we must start by developing it ourselves. This involves gradually overcoming the three attitudes that run counter to it: possessive-attachment, uncaring indifference, and anger and ill will.

One of the best ways to overcome possessive-attachment to loved ones is to meditate on impermanence. Everything changes, nothing lasts. One day death will separate us from the people we love. Separation could occur even before that if one of us is posted overseas or if we quarrel and come to hate each other. The more attached we are the more pain and stress we will suffer at this separation. Therefore it is wise to give up attachment. But that doesn't mean giving up love! We can love people without being attached to them by living with the awareness of our inevitable separation. We can appreciate and care for them now and at the same time be ready to say goodbye to them when the time comes.

To overcome uncaring indifference towards strangers, those who are neither friends nor enemies, we can reflect on the same meditations that are used to develop immeasurable love, such as thinking about the kindness of others. We can think, "Without others, I would have no food, clothes, shelter or public services. Without others, I could not develop ethics, generosity, patience and the other positive qualities necessary for spiritual growth. Without others, my life would be empty and meaningless."

It is also good to reflect that a stranger may not always be a stranger. When a person we don't know comes to our aid or rescues us from danger, he or she becomes a lifelong friend.

To overcome anger and ill will towards enemies (an enemy is somebody who hurts us or who we don't like), we can reflect on the possible causes and conditions of the harm they give us. "Have I done anything to provoke him? Could it be some flaw in my personality he doesn't like? Perhaps I harmed him in a previous life and he's simply repaying that harm? Maybe his mind is under the control of delusions and he can't help but act this way. That happens to me too, so I should understand what it's like. He must be suffering a lot and he'll suffer more in the future from the negative karma he's creating." Thinking this way, we can generate compassion and patient acceptance towards enemies.

Another way to develop equanimity is to remind ourselves that our present relationships will not last forever. From one life to the next, a friend can become an enemy, an enemy can become a friend, a stranger can go either way. Even in this present life our relationships can turn 180 degrees! This happens because our minds are possessed by self-centred attachment, anger and indifference rather than equanimity. Realizing this encourages us to generate the strong wish for ourselves and all beings to abide in equanimity.

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This is a brief explanation of how to awaken a kind heart by using the four immeasurable thoughts: love, compassion, joy and equanimity. Each of these four verses is short and can be easily memorized and recited from time to time during the day to remind ourselves to have positive thoughts for the people we meet.

One last word of advice: don't forget to have loving-kindness for yourself. You are also a living being who deserves, who needs love and compassion. In fact, you can't really love others until you learn to love yourself. That doesn't mean being selfish and egotistical. It means being a friend to yourself, accepting yourself as you are with your faults and limitations, knowing that you can change and grow.

It is no use hating ourselves because we are not the way we would like to be, or beating our heads against the wall every time we make a mistake. Doing this only adds more problems to what is already there, and does not help us to improve. But having a kind heart towards ourselves lightens the pain of failures and faults, provides the space in which we can grow, and lays a good basis for loving relationships with others.

-- Extracted from "Awakening a Kind Heart" by Ven Sangye Khadro, Amitabha Buddhist Centre, 1996.

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