Sunday, August 16, 2009

THE FOUR IMMEASURABLES: Love, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity

Sympathetic joy
Long version of the four immeasurables

'Compassion and love are not mere luxuries.
As the source both of inner and external peace,
they are fundamental to the continued survival of our species.'

His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama


The four immeasurables, also known as the Brahma Viharas (Skt.) are found in one brief and beautiful 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 never be separated from bliss without suffering,
May all sentient beings be in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.

The Buddha taught the following to his son Rahula (from "Old path white clouds" by Thich Nhat Hahn):

"Rahula, practice loving kindness to overcome anger. Loving kindness has the capacity to bring happiness to others without demanding anything in return.
Practice compassion to overcome cruelty. Compassion has the capacity to remove the suffering of others without expecting anything in return.
Practice sympathetic joy to overcome hatred. Sympathetic joy arises when one rejoices over the happiness of others and wishes others well-being and success.
Practice non-attachment to overcome prejudice. Non-attachment is the way of looking at all things openly and equally. This is because that is. Myself and others are not separate. Do not reject one thing only to chase after another.
I call these the four immeasurables. Practice them and you will become a refreshing source of vitality and happiness for others."

If you are interested in meditating on these and many other subjects, see the List of Sample Meditations.


The definition of love in Buddhism is: wanting others to be happy.
This love is unconditional and it requires a lot of courage and acceptance (including self-acceptance).
The "near enemy" of love, or a quality which appears similar, but is more an opposite is: conditional love (selfish love, see also the page on attachment).
The opposite is wanting others to be unhappy: anger, hatred.
A result which one needs to avoid is: attachment.

This definition means that 'love' in Buddhism refers to something quite different from the ordinary term of love which is usually about attachment, more or less successful relationships and sex; all of which are rarely without self-interest. Instead, in Buddhism it refers to de-tachment and the unselfish interest in others' welfare.

'Even offering three hundred bowls of food three times a day does not match the spiritual merit gained in one moment of love.'

"If there is love, there is hope that one may have real families, real brotherhood, real equanimity, real peace. If the love within your mind is lost and you see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education or material comfort you have, only suffering and confusion will ensue"
His Holiness the Dalai Lama from 'The little book of Buddhism'


The definition is: wanting others to be free from suffering.
This compassion happens when one feels sorry with someone, and one feels an urge to help.
The near enemy is pity, which keeps other at a distance, and does not urge one to help.
The opposite is wanting others to suffer, or cruelty.
A result which one needs to avoid is sentimentality.
Compassion thus refers to an unselfish, de-tached emotion which gives one a sense of urgency in wanting to help others. From a Buddhist perspective, helping others to reduce their physical or mental suffering is very good, but the ultimate goal is to extinguish all suffering by stopping the process of rebirth and the suffering that automatically comes with living (enlightenment).

The attitude of a so-called Bodhisattva is Bodhicitta: this is the ultimate compassionate motivation: the wish to liberate all sentient beings from the sufferings of cyclic existence and to become a fully enlightened Buddha oneself in order to act as the perfect guide for them.

(See also the page on compassion.)

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The definition is: being happy with someone's fortune/happiness. Sympathetic joy here refers to the potential of bliss and happiness of all sentient beings, as they can all become Buddhas.
The near enemy is hypocrisy or affectation.
The opposite is jealousy, when one cannot accept the happiness of others.
A result which one needs to avoid is: spaced-out bliss, which can easily turn into laziness.
Note: sympathetic joy is a great antidote to depression for oneself as well, but this should not be the main goal.
By rejoicing in others' progress on the spiritual path, one can actually share in their positive karma.
Sympathetic joy is an unselfish, very positive mental attitude which is beneficial for oneself and others. In this case, it also refers specifically to rejoicing in the high rebirth and enlightenment of others.


The definition is: not to distinguish between friend, enemy or stranger, but regard every sentient being as equal. It is a clear-minded tranquil state of mind - not being overpowered by delusions, mental dullness or agitation.
The near enemy is indifference. It is tempting to think that just 'not caring' is equanimity, but that is just a form of egotism.
The opposite is anxiety, worry, stress and paranoia caused by dividing people into 'good' and 'bad'; one can worry forever if a good friend may not be a bad person after all, and thus spoiling trust and friendship.
A result which one needs to avoid is apathy as a result of 'not caring'.
Equanimity is the basis for unconditional, altruistic love, compassion and joy for other's happiness and Bodhicitta.
When we discriminate between friends and enemies, how can we ever want to help all sentient beings?
Equanimity is an unselfish, de-tached state of mind which also prevents one from doing negative actions.

"If one tries to befriend an enemy for a moment, he becomes your friend.
The same thing occurs when one treats a friend as an enemy.
Therefore, by understanding the impermanence of temporal relations,
Wise ones are never attached to food, clothing or reputation, nor to friends or enemies.

The father becomes the son in another life,
Mother becomes the wife,
Enemy becomes friend;
It always changes.
Therefore there is nothing definite in samsara."
The Buddha

"The foundation for practicing the seven-point cause and effect method is cultivating a mind of equanimity. Without this foundation you will not be able to have an impartial altruistic view, because without equanimity you will always have partiality towards your relatives and friends. Realize that you should not have prejudice, hatred, or desire towards enemies, friends, or neutral persons, thus lay a very firm foundation of equanimity."
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from 'Path to Bliss: A Practical Guide to Stages of Meditation'

It is said that the awareness of a Buddha is completely even, like the ocean, taking in equally the joys and sorrows of all people, friends, loved ones, relatives, and those never met. This is the meaning of a statement made by so many of the world's great spiritual teachers,
"Love your enemy."
It doesn't mean love the person you hate. You can't do that. Love those who hate you.
From 'Buddhism with an Attitude: The Tibetan Seven-Point Mind-Training'

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How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were to abide in equanimity,
Free of hatred and attachment!
May they abide in equanimity!
I myself will cause them to abide in equanimity!
Please, guru-Buddha, grant me blessings to be able to do this.

How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings had happiness and the cause of happiness!
May they have happiness and its cause!
I shall cause them to have these!
Please, guru-Buddha, grant me blessings to be able to do this.

How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were free of suffering and its cause!
May they be free of suffering and its cause!
I myself will free them from suffering and its cause!
Please, guru-Buddha, grant me blessings to be able to do this.

How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were never separated from the happiness of higher rebirth and liberation!
May they never separated from the happiness of higher rebirth and liberation!
I myself will cause them never to be separated from these!
Please, guru-Buddha, grant me blessings to be able to do this.


See this extensive article by ven. Sangye Khadro at
See also The four Sublime States from the Access to Insight website; a complete free e-book!
See also the Discourse on Loving-Kindness - a short Sutra, by Shakyamuni Buddha