THE FOUR IMMEASURABLE STATES
Ven. Traleg Rinpoche
of Kagyu Evam Buddhist Institute, Melbourne
All religious traditions emphasise that we should love one another. All of us, whatever we choose to believe, suffer, and all of us want to be happy, and are frustrated that our efforts so often are counter productive.
Over the centuries, practitioners of Buddhism have created a rich toolbox of methods to enable us to love our fellow humans, to drop hatred and become more effective human beings, more capable of knowing our own needs and of actually being of benefit to others.
In the Buddhist tradition each of these four positive attitudes can be developed with precision and clarity, so that we know ourselves well enough to be of real use to others. At the same time we cease imprisoning ourselves in habitual anger and hatred and liberate ourselves, at the same time as being more capable of helping others.
In order to cope better with our own roller coaster of emotions, the starting point is to develop equanimity. In the Buddhist tradition it’s not a question of contriving or manufacturing equanimity. It’s nothing to do with positive thinking, or blotting out the negative, or making affirmations. Equanimity is a discovery. It is discovered to be ever present. Underneath our roller coaster experience of pain, pleasure, happiness and dissatisfaction is the basic ground of our being, which is equanimity.
Equanimity means the absence of evaluation. Usually we are unable to look at the situation or deal with anybody without superimposing our own value judgements or subjective evaluations. We never see situations as they simply are. Our value judgements colour our understanding of the world and other people. Usually when we meet someone, even while we are in the midst of conversation, we are drawing our conclusions. Then we go away with a fixed impression that he is like this and like that. We project onto people rather than relate to them as they are.
From the viewpoint of equanimity, no-one is a downright enemy, or an everlasting friend. There are no real ultimate friends or enemies at all. As long as we look for friends we are bound to have enemies. The two exist simultaneously. We want to possess and have friends, which is why we create enemies. As soon as the communists cease to be our enemies, we make the Arabs into enemies. It is because we have the attitude of enmity towards others, we can have friends as well.
So equanimity is the key which unlocks the whole toolbox of spiritual development. It gives us access to the enormous diversity of tools available to anyone who wants to be more effective, capable, loving and compassionate. Equanimity is the start of the spiritual path.
Equanimity is not apathy, it is not a fatalistic indifference to what is going on. Equanimity is being completely open to reality so we can directly experience things as they are, rather than interpreting everything and making it into a second hand experience.
But equanimity isn’t enough. The next stage, in the Buddhist tradition, is to discover your capacity to love.
Love is the great four letter word. The greatest art, the latest video clips, the most sublime religious poetry are all about love. Our whole culture is driven by the search for love, but we have become cynical, because our experience is mixed up with attachment, possession, clinging, expectation and demands.
In the Buddhist tradition, love is one of the four immeasurably great catalysts of being, along with equanimity, joy and compassion. Love is an indispenable foundation of spiritual practice. Love is the soil in which the flower of compassion may flower, nurtured by the pure water of joy in the shade of equanimity.
Yet we usually find ourselves slaves to love, held in the thrall of an elusive ideal in hope of deliverance from the complicated lives we have created for ourselves. Love so often is the name we give to a euphoric state which perpetuates our habitual lack of genuineness, or authenticity. In the name of love we make so many demands on others, we expect so much, we work out intellectually a whole drama. “Maybe she loves me, maybe she doesn’t.” Intellectualizing the love we think we feel loses touch with it.
The Buddhist tradition is to generate love unconditionally, without exceptions of being loved in return. In Buddhist meditation, the practitioner imaginatively pervades the world with love, in every direction. Start with yourself, filling your heart with loving kindness, abundant, grown great, free from enmity and free from distress. To love yourself is to be able to love all sentient beings, without reserve. There is nothing intellectual about this. There is no story to tell yourself about whom you love and whom you can’t.
You may be able to pause, and imagine someone who is hard to get on with, a difficult person in your life, and remember that they too are driven by the same desire for happiness as is everyone. Make use of your enemy to teach yourself patience, and the ability to love unconditionally.
Love is of the heart. It manifests in the level of intuition rather than intellect. You don’t need to interpret, or make judgements, or give yourself a part in a soap opera version of your own life. The heart directly experiences love. If you love completely then you don’t need to say, “I love you.” Because love becomes you and I. Love actually dissolves the gate between you and I, and between I and the universe.
Unconditional love is without desire to possess, because ultimately there is no possession and no possessor. Love does not take the inborn sense of I, me, mine as the constant reference point. It is spacious, neither selecting nor excluding.
Intellectualizing love creates such confusion you know longer no whether you love the person or hate him. You can no longer differentiate. Then, even when the relationship begins to break up you are still attached, still clinging to how it used to be in the past, still hoping it can magically come good again. You don’t even have enough space for a new relationship, a new space where you could actually appreciate and love someone else. When that happens we have to generate something else – compassion.
If we are to be effective and capable in daily life, if we are to live up to our ideals, if we are to be of actual help to others, we need to train. The Buddhist tradition offers us a wide range of tools we can use to train ourselves. There are specific methods practiced over many centuries, to generate equanimity, to create a little spaciousness amidst our habitual clutter. There are methods to allow us to become more loving. But love can go stale and cold. This is when we need to generate compassion, which has larger connotations than love.
Compassion means openness or spaciousness, opening up to all situations we are in. It means not bogging down in subjective judgements. It means dropping the compulsion to be constantly asking: “How does this affect me? What do I think about this?” We create space, which allows us to sit back and look at everything properly and precisely. We can then see where our attachment comes from, how we colour our view of the world, how things go wrong.
In order to generate compassion one has first to generate warmth, firstly warmth towards oneself. One has to learn how to accept and like oneself, as only then can one like someone else. Unless you know how to have warmth and compassion towards yourself, you won’t be able to have it for other people. When you have it, then you can share it with others. You can’t share what you don’t have.
Compassion fulfils the needs of situations, as they arise. It is a readiness, an openness to respond properly and precisely, spontaneously, without the selfish agenda, without being so needy that the self gets in the way.
Compassion is the opposite of passion. Passion is egocentric. It is demanding, it makes demands on people. Compassion is open space, it’s undemanding, it’s generous. Compassion is direct, spontaneous. It is felt, rather than manufactured. It requires no investment of your identity or personality. It may take a bit of practice, but it is a natural capacity.
But then compassion can also go askew. You get involved with someone, trying to help them, but you judgement is tinged with sentimentality. It becomes part of ego’s game. You try to help someone, only they don’t respond as you want them to. You can’t rescue them, and that is frustrating. They insist on learning the hard way. No matter how hard you try to help him or her, they don’t change. You feel terrible and get depressed. You feel it would have been better if you hadn’t taken up the practice of compassion. At that point, you need another spiritual practice, which is to generate joy.
As an old Buddhist prayer says:
May all sentient beings enjoy
happiness and the root of happiness.
May they be free from suffering
and the root of suffering.
May they not be separated from the
great happiness devoid of suffering.
May they enjoy the great equanimity that is
free from passion, aggression and prejudice.
Buddhist tradition teaches us equanimity, love, compassion and joy. These four attitudes can be developed, with practice. They are helpful in daily life, and are the root of the spiritual life.
How does one cultivate joy? First, let’s be clear about what we mean. Joy is not the momentary elation of backing a winner. Joy is the steady appreciation of the qualities and potential of others without envy.
The basis of joy is self acceptance. I may be confused, I may suffer from conflicting emotions, and from intellectual perplexity, yet basically I recognise my capacitay to attain liberation. Joy arises from recognizing that your confusion is not inherent, your sufferings are not inevitable, that you do have choice. Your anxiety is not your human nature, it is merely a passing cloud, which will pass from the sky of its own accord.
This historic Buddha was a human being, who awoke to reality, and to his actual nature. He isn’t a god to be worshipped but a person whose example can be followed. What he did, is open to each person to do. None of us is a terrible person, or beyond redemption. No-one can save us from ourselves, but each of us can save ourselves. There is no person who does not have the capacity to become enlightened.
With that attitude one begins to have joy, which is the ability to look at things without being overwhelmed by emotion. Joy is the ability to appreciate the attributes and abilities of others, to rejoice in their beauty and strength, rather than become envious or judgemental. Joy is the antidote to competitiveness, Joy unlocks our ability to relate to the social world.
Joy is a sense of richness, of unboundedness, of not being necessarily a prisoner of the past. It is the opposite of a poverty stricken attitude, which is always comparing oneself, judging, ranking, criticising myself as better or worse than others.
But joy can also beome a prop. a reassurance that things aren’t so bad after all. Joy can become elation, you begin to congratulate yourself, which is nothing but an ego boost. Elation is just as irrelevant as feeling depressed.
It’s a highly emotional, unstable state, and it’s not the same as a quiet, steady joy.
When joy becomes elation, it’s time to go back to equanimity, to the practice of accommodating everything as it is in actuality. You accommodate your depression, elation, joy, happiness, dissatisfaction. You can actually sit back and accommodate everything without judgement. You aren’t trying to force anything. You can accomodate your own emotional ups and downs and the whole universe. This isn’t some mystical process of becoming one with the universe, or that you identify yourself with the universe, but you actually are the universe, and you realize that.
Equanimity, love, compassion and joy are four specific attitudes which Buddhists cultivate so as to enter the path of spiritual development.
The beginning of spirituality is facing up to the reality of personal experience, which is the kaleidoscopic mix of pain, suffering, happiness, dissatisfaction. There must be more to life than alternating pleasure and pain.
Our usual way of dealing with suffering and pain is to try to possess pleasure and happiness. We try to fight off whatever is unpleasant.
Buddhist spirituality asks of us that we awaken, that we wake up to our selves, that we recognize that there is no such thing as one hundred percent pleasure or one hundred percent pain.
When we experience pleasure or happiness there is always a fraction of suffering at the same time. Without suffering, we cannot experience one hundred percent pleasure. That applies the other way round, to suffering as well. Suffering and pleasure both help us to exist, and confirm our existence. Suffering, pleasure and pain exist simultaneously. It’s a basic fact of existence, like a dog having hair or the sun radiating warmth, we can’t have one without the other. So we don’t have to condemn pain, or anything else that happens.
We simply accept our experience as a message that comes from our Buddha Nature. That everything requires courage, the courage needed to deal with everyday life.
Usually we feel we are going to be overwhelmed by our emotions. We become depressed or unhappy, and then defensive and avoid looking into things as they are. We fail to learn how depression comes about, from where depression actually comes. So we need courage to face situations as they arise, without becoming alarmed or defensive.
Courage to face life comes from the practice of developing equanimity, love, compassion and joy. These four attitudes are the first steps on the great path of spiritual development which, in the Buddhist tradition, culminates in enlightenment. The courage to face life is practical and immediate, yet it is also a necessary preliminary to the process of mental cultivation as practiced over many centuries by Buddhist meditators.
Enlightenment may seem like a far distant goal, but Buddhists have always stressed that we all possess the seed of enlightenment, whether we are aware of it or not. In fact, enlightenment isn’t really the right word, it would be more accurate to speak of awakening, or of wakefulness.
There is no-one to turn to who can wake us up. It is up to us to do it for ourselves. We are not woken up by anything divine, or magical or mystical. Enlightenment is not a hypotheses, it is not a theroy or a dogma, it is born from personal experience.
With equanimity, love, compassion and joy we are ready to fully wake up.