The Four Immeasurables
The four thoughts expressed in this prayer are called "immeasurables" because they extend to all beings throughout the universe. Each line is a meditation in itself and invites us to develop awareness and concern for others.
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.
Common to all Buddhist traditions, the four immeasurables are love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Generating these four thoughts toward other beings is a prelude to generating bodhicitta. They permeate many aspects of our lives: our daily lives and relationships, our rebirths, our liberation, and our enlightenment.
"May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes."
- The key word is "all"—not just my friends, my relatives, and those who are nice to me.
"May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes."
- Again, it's "all" sentient beings—not just me and those I care about.
- Also, we don't want to wish suffering on our enemies.
"May all sentient beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss."
- This refers to wishing for all sentient beings to have upper rebirth.
- Also, "sorrowless bliss" refers to nirvana—the ultimate peace of having freedom from ignorance, anger, and attachment.
- Joy is the antidote to jealousy.
- Jealousy is wanting what others have; it's the opposite of being happy (joyful) for others' good fortune.
- Jealousy is a very painful state of mind, and we're not happy when we feel it.
- This pain gives us some energy to oppose it by applying the antidote—rejoicing in others' good qualities and good circumstances.
"May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment, and anger."
- May everybody have an impartial mind, not a biased mind that feels close to some and distant from others, that wants happiness for some and wants suffering for others.
- May we really open our hearts with an equal feeling of care and affection for everybody.
- When we perceive people, we think we're perceiving them objectively; this is a "good" person from his/her own side, this is a "bad" person from his/her own side, or this person isn't anything, so who cares?
- In reality, we're always evaluating people by how they relate to the center of the universe, "me."
- We're not perceiving people objectively; we're filtering everything they say and do through the filter of "me."
- Thus, we create our friends, we create our enemies, we create our strangers, because we are the ones who put them in these categories. So it's not from their side, it's from our side, that they end up in these categories.
- It's hard to justify our attachments, aversions, and indifferences towards people, because when we analyze it, these are all completely subjective, based on "me."
- We can practice looking at everybody as though we're all equal.
- We all want to be happy and free of suffering.
- There's really no good reason to cherish one being and ignore another. Notice how often we change our mind even about the same person, e.g., how they can go from "friend" to "enemy."
- So a lot of our bias towards people is unnecessary, causes problems, and is unreasonable. If we can drop this, and instead look and see how everybody's the same in wanting happiness equally and wanting to be free of suffering equally, whether we know them or don't know them, whether we like them or don't like them, then we can open our heart and find some warmth for them, some communication with them, some way of relating to them instead of blocking them out.
- Make some examples in your own life, and begin to let go of some of the attachment, some of the aversion, and some of the apathy you hold towards others.
When reciting the four immeasurables, it's nice to pause after each one and reflect on how different the world would be if everybody had these four thoughts in their own hearts. You can start off thinking just how different your own life would be if you felt these four consistently. Here we really get a sense of how happiness comes through transforming our minds, not through controlling the external situation.
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