The Four Immeasurables and the Six Paramitas

by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche

The Four Immeasurables

The attitude of a bodhisattva is to want to help all beings find happiness and to relieve them of all their suffering. The bodhisattva doesn’t believe there are some beings who want happiness and others who don’t. The bodhisattva doesn’t think that there are some who need to be freed from suffering and others who don’t need to be freed from suffering. He or she realizes that absolutely all beings need to be helped to attain happiness and all beings need to be liberated from suffering. So the concern is for each and every being. In his commentaries, Patrul Rinpoche stressed the need for meditating on impartiality from the beginning of Buddhist practice.

Normally, we meditate on the four immeasurables as they appear in the prayers which is in the order of limitless love, limitless compassion, limitless joy, and limitless impartiality. Patrul Rinpoche stresses the need for meditating on impartiality first because this removes the danger of having partial or biased love, partial or biased compassion. When we begin on the path, there is a strong tendency to have stronger love towards those we like and lesser love towards those we don’t like. Once we have developed wisdom with this meditation, it becomes true love which cares for each and every person without any bias. This is the purest compassion because it cares for everyone.

We meditate first to cultivate impartiality, then we go on to meditate on great love, then on great compassion, and finally on bodhicitta. The first immeasurable, impartiality, means not being influenced by attachment or aggression. Great love means wanting everyone to attain happiness.

Great compassion means wanting to free everyone from suffering. Bodhicitta, however, is more subtle as it is the wish to attain Buddhahood to help all beings. Its very nature is a loving and compassionate mind.

What makes it subtle is that bodhicitta implies the development of wisdom (Skt. praj˝a). Without that wisdom, the love and compassion of the bodhisattva becomes incomplete love and incomplete compassion. With this incomplete love, one may really want to help others, but one may be ineffectual and may even harm the person one wants to help. With incomplete compassion one really wants to relieve the suffering of others and yet one doesn’t know how to free them of their suffering. So, in the development of bodhicitta it is vital to develop one’s wisdom and understanding along with one’s love and compassion. This is the real meaning of bodhicitta which is the reason why it is subtle and hard to cultivate.

For example, suppose there were someone who was very hungry and we didn’t have sufficient wisdom, we might think, “Oh, there’s an easy solution, I can show him how to fish.” We teach him how to fish and then in the short-term his hunger is alleviated and he can care for himself. However, we have shown him how to harm other beings10 and so this act will create negative karma which will bring him nothing but trouble and difficulties in the future. So, even though our motivation was good and we exercised compassion, because of our ignorance, we weren’t helping him at all, but made the situation worse. In other words, we need to act with love and compassion in a way that always brings good to all beings and takes into account the future implications of the act. This is the wisdom of the bodhisattva.

Another way of acting through love and compassion is not harming anyone. This is good in the short-term, but this doesn’t result in lasting benefit. For example, we can give a poor person a gift of food and clothes. Although the motivation is good and it doesn’t harm anyone, there is relatively little benefit because once the food or clothing are used up, the problem returns. What the bodhisattva aims for is a very great and lasting benefit. So when a bodhisattva helps someone, he or she tries always to give that person the very best, which is to establish them on the very best path. If we can show someone how to enter the supreme path, then the benefit is great and will increase not just immediately, but throughout all time. This doesn’t harm others and helps the person develop in every aspect. So the love, compassion, and care that the bodhisattva has brings everyone to the supreme path and is really what is meant by true love, compassion, and the activity of the bodhisattva.

The bodhisattva’s pure motivation is extremely powerful and skillful. For instance, communism also has a view or philosophy, but spreading that philosophy involved great armies, vast amounts of wealth, and a great deal of fighting and violence. Even all those armies and military equipment didn’t really convince people of the truth of communism. In contrast, the Buddha didn’t spend millions to propagate his ideas or employ vast armies with sophisticated weapons to convince people of the validity of what he was saying. He just had a begging bowl and taught. Because of his powerful and pure motivation, his ideas touched millions and millions of people and his teachings are still spreading. When the Buddha taught the dharma, he did it with the greatest love for everyone without any bias. He did it without wishing to bring harm to a single sentient being. He did it with a very pure compassion and wisdom. After 2,500 years all of his teachings are still perfectly intact and are still spreading and touching others without any effort on the Buddha’s part showing the power of his pure motivation.

The bodhisattva’s motivation of the Mahayana is vast, far-reaching, and extremely powerful. Of all the things that one tries to awaken in the Mahayana this motivation is really the key. From the very beginning one tries to develop this very vast and powerful attitude in which one develops love and compassion along with wisdom that is unbiased and a genuine desire to free everyone from suffering. This approach is the very core of bodhicitta, the driving force or motivation. The opposite of this is to have a biased mind and this selfish attitude poisons the environment.

Bodhicitta, on the other hand, is very beneficial for oneself and for all others. So, when someone has bodhicitta, whatever he or she does, is like medicine or healing nectar (Skt. amrita) which brings calmness, peace, and the coolness discussed before. It is very beneficial and is like a great and powerful medicine. It just flows out quite spontaneously and naturally from the presence of one’s bodhicitta. Take the supreme example of bodhicitta: when the Buddha taught, he led a very simple life and everything happened spontaneously around him. These far-reaching effects were a completely natural outflow of this very therapeutic healing, coming from the very pure motivation which he had. This is very special.

If one looks, for instance, at the Catholic church, one can see that it is a very powerful organization and a great deal of effort goes into spreading the doctrine as an organized business. There are missionaries and a definite effort to spread the philosophy and view. Even though there is all that effort and organization, it does not necessarily spread the view of Catholicism. With the Buddhist dharma, in contrast, there is the natural radiance of bodhicitta and the activity of the Buddha which through his very pure mind allows the dharma and its meaning to spread from one person to another in a very spontaneous and natural way.

The two main characteristics of the Buddha’s activity are its spontaneity and its eternity. One can see how various cultures of the past such as the Greek civilization influenced the world and one can see how that influence was very short-lived. The activity of Buddha, however, is spreading and increasing all the time without any break in continuity and is always effective wherever it is. The Buddha’s activity is also always appropriate and fresh. In the first centuries after the Buddha’s passing away, the Buddha’s activity was very appropriate. Even 2,000 years later it is still very meaningful and appropriate.

The view or approach of a bodhisattva to the Mahayana teachings is rooted in the second turning of the wheel of dharma. This second main phase of Buddha’s teachings is called “the second turning” or sometimes “the intermediate turning.” The first turning was concerned with the four noble truths and was the basis for the Hinayana. The second turning was the main basis for the Mahayana. The main topic of the Buddha’s teaching in this turning is what is called voidness or emptiness.11 The Buddha described the empty nature of both outer phenomena of the universe and inner phenomena in the mind of the perceiver. Then later on, in the third turning, the Buddha mainly taught about wisdom (Skt. j˝ana).

When Thrangu Rinpoche was in Germany there was one person who said that he appreciated Rinpoche’s teachings very much, but when it came to the teachings on emptiness, they somehow made him feel depressed and uncomfortable. He said that if Rinpoche taught more about the existence of something rather than nonexistence of something, it would probably make him feel better. Because of this discomfort, emptiness will be explained in terms of the simultaneity of emptiness and interdependence called interdependent origination (Tib. tendrel).

The Six Paramitas

The practice of the Mahayana of the bodhisattva is mainly concerned with the six paramitas. There are in fact ten13 paramitas but six of these are most commonly spoken of. So we will discuss the six paramitas which constitute the bodhisattva’s practice.

The Buddha said that when we do dharma practice, it should be done in a genuine and heartfelt way. This means that when we practice dharma, we must not just do it as an outer show or pretense or like a theatrical performance where actors dress up as kings and ministers even though they are not really kings and ministers. We must practice dharma wholeheartedly and very properly with our body, speech, and mind. When we perform virtuous actions with our body, our mind should be there also working for dharma.

When we say things, our mind should mean it as well. Practicing the dharma whole-heartedly is very important. If we do a prostration, for instance, our mind should also be filled with faith, devotion, and confidence to make that prostration meaningful. But if we just prostrate with the body and the mind is not involved with it, then it is more like theater with us just going through the movements, but the power is not there. It is the same when we recite mantras. If we recite a mantra and at the same time our mind is visualizing, we are filled with certainty, confidence, and faith; then all the power of the mind will be there and it will be a very good practice. But if we just recite the mantras and our mind is elsewhere, then it is just a show and the power is not there. It is not necessarily a bad thing to just do a prostration or a mantra mouthing the words. It just means the power is not there; just as it is not necessarily a bad thing that people pretend to be king and ministers in the theater. So, if we really want to get everything possible out of practice, we need to do it very sincerely and wholeheartedly with our body, speech, and mind.

With this wholehearted approach the bodhisattva’s practice is the practice of the six paramitas. The first is generosity which means giving. There is giving to those who are worse off than oneself such as the poor, needy, and hungry. Then there is giving to those who are better off than oneself which means offering them the three jewels. These are the two main areas of generosity of the bodhisattva. When giving to those who are worse off, what is important is compassion and when giving to those who are better off what is important is faith, devotion, and confidence. So when one gives to the poor, one relieves their poverty and hunger temporarily because of compassion.

When one makes offerings to the three jewels, one makes an expression of devotion. If one never gives to those worse off, then compassion isn’t there and it is not complete. In the same way, if one doesn’t make offerings to the three jewels, then one’s faith, confidence and appreciation in the meaning of the three jewels isn’t quite right either. So offerings are a very important sign of what is going on in terms of compassion and devotion. Beside cultivating love, compassion, and devotion, the bodhisattva also has to actually practice the paramita of generosity.

The second paramita is moral or virtuous conduct. The very essence of virtuous conduct is that through love and compassion one does not directly harm other beings. If one has love and compassion and yet harms other beings, it is a sign that one’s love and compassion isn’t really there. So, if one is loving and compassionate, one must really never harm other beings. This is the bodhisattva’s approach to love and compassion. Therefore virtuous conduct is mainly concerned with the discipline of practicing right conduct with one’s body and speech so that one doesn’t hurt others directly or indirectly.

Generosity and virtuous conduct depend mainly on oneself. If one makes an effort to be loving and compassionate, it is relatively easy to develop generosity. Also, if one is loving and compassionate, it is relatively easy to maintain high moral conduct because this depends mainly on working with oneself.

The third paramita deals with something more difficult. It deals with how we react to situations arising from others, particularly what we do in the face of physical and verbal aggression from others. This is the paramita of forbearance, often called patience, which is remaining loving and compassionate in the face of aggression. The training of patience is the training of keeping one’s love and compassion in the face of those difficulties which come from other people. So if our love and compassion is incredibly stable, when others hit us, no matter how much they hurt us physically, we never reply in a like manner. Our only response is one of love, compassion, and understanding.

In order to practice generosity, virtuous conduct, and patience in the face of difficulties, one needs the fourth paramita of diligence to implement the first three paramitas and make them increase and become even more powerful factors in our life.

Diligence doesn’t mean some terrible drudge or difficult effort. Rather it is very joyful, meaningful, and vital. If one really thinks something has benefit, one values it, and one will do it very joyfully and out of this there is an automatic flow of diligence and industry. If one thinks something is not very important, then one will think it is a drag and a bore and one will do a little bit and then become lazy and stop. Later one may try to do a little bit more and stop again because of laziness.

Diligence means to practice without falling under the influence of laziness and practicing because one realizes the tremendous value of that practice. Once one has gained an insight into its value, effortlessly there will be joy and keenness to get on with it. Then automatically one will put lots and lots of effort into it to make it a very productive thing. One will become diligent thus increasing the preceding paramitas.

The fifth paramita is mental stability. The Tibetan word for this paramita is gom which is the word for “to meditate.” This is the active word and the word is derived from the root (Tib. khom) which means “to accustom oneself to something.” So to meditate means to commit and to accustom oneself to meditation. It really means to train to settle. Even though we say “my mind,” the mind which belongs to us is not under our control. Because we have not worked on it very much, our mind tends to be very distracted; it switches from one thing to another all the time. For instance, we may decide, “I am not going to get angry anymore.” Even though we decide that in one moment, we don’t have control over our mind and so we fall under the influence of anger a little later. We may promise not to be subject to desires any more and then we lose control and our mind is suddenly full of desires.

So, we think “my mind is under my control,” but when we look at it carefully there is not that much control there. It is not like our hand. If we want the hand to go somewhere, we can put it there. If we want it to come back, we can bring it back. But the mind is not nearly so tamed and doesn’t respond to those commands so well. This is mainly because we haven’t really done much work in bringing it under control. The word “meditation” has this implication of training or habituating our mind so that it does what we want. We habituate our mind by meditating again and again. This is the nature of meditation and the main point of the fifth paramita, mental stability.

The sixth paramita is wisdom or praj˝a in Sanskrit. How much happiness we get out of worldly things depends on how much understanding and wisdom we have. So wisdom is the very root of happiness and joy and determines the value of all other things. In the ultimate sense the benefit that we can get depends very much on our wisdom and understanding. Also the ability to help others depends on the degree of our wisdom. Developing ourselves also depends on the degree to which we have cultivated wisdom. For all these reasons wisdom and understanding are the very root of happiness and out of them joy emerges. How then does one cultivate this wisdom? For a Buddhist it is cultivated by the three main approaches of studying, contemplating, and meditating.

The Three Vehicles of Buddhist Practice

ę Namo Buddha Publications