The Four Immeasurables
© Tarchin Hearn Wangapeka April/00
edited for Green Dharma Treasury, March, 2009
A fresh look at the meditation on loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and serenity. In Buddhism these are known as the Four Brahma Viharas or Immeasurables or Boundless States. This article was originally written to support a one year retreat on the Brahma Viharas that we did at Wangapeka during the year 2000. It has been modified for Green Dharma Treasury.
In Buddhism, the meditation on the Four Immeasurables is dearly loved and widely practised. These Four Immeasurables are loving kindness, compassion, joy and serenity. In Sanskrit they are metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha. They are also referred to as the Brahma Vihara, the Divine Abidings and the Four Boundless States. The following words may suggest a refreshing and inspiring approach to these meditations. If you find them to be moving, please fit them to the specifics of your own situation. For some, this can be a major contemplative or spiritual practice that hints at a possibility of living that is both intimately connecting and vastly liberating.
Oh my friend, I breathe and feel myself resting firmly on the earth; the womb of becoming. I open my eyes of appreciation and look deeply into the whole of you. All of me reverberating with all of you. I see your mother and father and brothers and sisters. I see your aunts and uncles, your cousins, grandparents and great grandparents. I see your friends and adversaries, your teachers and guides. I see acquaintances and passing strangers. All of these beings; each and everyone of them, have needs, hungers, appetites, feelings of lack, and aspirations; web workings of reaching and becoming.
I breathe and look deeply into you and see the whole world; the universe unfolding in the uniqueness of being that is you. My friend, you are immeasurable.
Even the tiniest or seemingly least consequential part of you is immeasurable, To feel the vastness of your being both giant and small, fills me with immense wonder; awe struck in the face of mystery as big as all the universe. I touch you, touching me, touching all; immeasurable mystery of four precious jewels.
My friend, I feel the tides of breathing and rest, embedded in the wonder of now, drinking in the transience that is you. The tapestry of causes and conditions, each shaping your existence; people changing, societies changing, cells changing, molecules changing, sun sent photons, water cycle, earth and organisms and photosynthesis in the world of greeness; this living wholeness, this mirage-like shimmering, this ever freshening newness that is you. This ‘beginner’s mind’, this unborn brilliance, this continually brightening matrix of being with unexpected colour and possibility. I breathe and look deeply and see an infinity of continuous fresh weaving. Un-pin-downable; the moment I grasp you, you ‘die’ and birth into someone I’ve yet to meet. Indefinable, immeasurable mystery, of four precious jewels.
My friend, the breath of my knowing ebbs and flows with the ebbing and flowing of your breath of knowing. The uniqueness of your being defies comparison. Not like so and so. Not like yesterday. Not better than before or smarter than him or more honest than her. This universal mystery of you is incomparable. You are not like anything that’s ever been and nothing will ever be like you again.
I rest with the fullness of what you are, all judging, all valuing; good, bad, indifferent, dissolving in the vibrant surprise of nowness. You are immeasurable and your boundless mystery awakens, births and midwifes into the world the four precious jewels. The children of our meeting are called Lovingkindness, Compassion, Joy, and Serenity; Four Precious Jewels. Born from looking immeasurably they, in turn, give birth to the knowing of immeasurableness.
Many years ago, some friends gave me a stunning photograph taken through the Hubble Telescope. It showed what looked to be a field of stars, but on reading the caption, I found that only a few points of light were stars and that all the other blobs, ovals and spirals were galaxies, each one of which contained tens of thousands if not millions of stars. Reading further, it said. “This is our universe: layer upon layer of other worlds, as far as the eye – or the Hubble Telescope – can see. Light from some of the galaxies in this view has taken 11 billion years to reach us. The largest white blob at the top centre is one of the nearest, hovering a mere four billion light-years away.”
The picture on it’s own is quite stunning but reading further I found out that the photograph covered an area of sky equal to the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length.
A few weeks later, I was retreating in the upper hut at Wangapeka. I sat in the predawn, bathing in the radiance of countless numbers of stars. As the last ones faded in the morning light, I extended my arm with a grain of sand on the end of a finger and saw that at one arm’s length, a grain of sand covers the area of just one star. I pointed my grain of sand ‘telescope’ in all directions imagining in my mind’s eye the vast number of galaxies that existed, invisible to my eyes. How many grains of sand at arm’s length would it take to blot out the sky? How many worlds, how many sentient beings are there, perhaps even pointing sand grains and wondering similar thoughts?
As the light increased I directed my sand grain ‘telescope’ at a tree. Telescope became microscope and in the mind’s eye were revealed uncountable numbers of cells, organelles, molecules, and atoms. How many sand grains at arm’s length would it take to cover a tree? A bird settled on a branch revealing organs filled with micro organisms which themselves were composed of organs, cells, molecules etc. Moving my sand grain telescope/microscope in all directions revealed a universe that is truly immeasurable. As is described in the Hwa-Yen Buddhist teachings on totality: everywhere one looks are realms within realms within realms, all interpenetrating and mutually shaping each other without obstruction.
Consider the immeasurable mystery of everything. Look at your children. Look at your parents. Look at friends you really like and at people you don’t really care for. Look at flowers and forests, at whole river catchments and mountain ranges. Look at your dog and the fungi growing in the compost and the lichen on the rock. Everywhere are living beings. Look with lovingkindness, genuinely wishing them all that is good. Look with compassion, seeing their struggles, while standing firm, being here for them in any way that helps. Look with sympathetic joy, bubbling with their joy and success without a hint of jealousy or envy arising in your being. Look with serenity, eyes of deep appreciation, knowing and understanding something of the vast complexity and miracle of their lives. Immeasurable lovingkindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.
In the course of each day pause many times, to rest with awareness of your breathing. Allow any tension to soften in the release of the out-breath. Open your eyes along your capacity for generous, heartfelt empathy and look deeply, appreciating and being moved by the immeasurableness of all that you see. May the experience of these four immeasurables, flower in the garden of your experience for the well-being of all of us.
– More writings and methods for cultivating the four immeasurables can be found by downloading “Lovingkindness”, a free e-book from http://www.wangapeka.org/treasury/ebooks/lk.html
– The hubble picture can be found at http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/pr2004007h