Sunday, January 16, 2011

Commentary on the Four Immeasurables (Brahma Viharas)

A man was walking down a beach at sunset. As he walked along, he began to see another man in the distance. As he grew nearer, he noticed that another person kept leaning down, picking something up and throwing it out into the water. Time and again he kept hurling things out into the ocean.
As the man approached even closer, he noticed that the man was picking up starfish that had washed up on the beach, and, one at a time, he was throwing them back into the water.
The man was puzzled. He approached him and said. "Good evening, friend. I was wondering what you are doing."
"I'm throwing these starfish back into the ocean. You see its low tide right now and all of these starfish have been washed up onto the shore. If I don't throw them back into the sea, they'll die up here from lack of oxygen."
"I understand," the man replied, "but there must be thousands of starfish on this beach. You can't possibly get to all of them. There are simply too many. And don't you realize this is probably happening on hundreds of beaches all up and down this coast. Can't you see that you can't possibly make a difference?"
The man smiled, bent down and picked up yet another starfish, and as he threw it back into the sea, he replied, "Made a difference to that one!"
Loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity also known as the Four Immeasurables or Brahma Viharas (Dwellings of God) are one of the most important tenets of Mahayana Buddhism. They are forerunners of Bodhichita, the altruistic intention that seeks enlightenment in order to benefit all sentient beings most effectively. They are called the Four Immeasurables because they are directed to an immeasurable number of sentient beings, (yes, I said it right, to all of them in this world!), and because the wholesome karma produced through practicing them is immeasurable. The beauty of the Four Immeasurables is that you don’t have to be a monk or a nun to practice them; they are open to all of us for practice. Nevertheless, they are the mark of a true Bodhisatva, who lives by these four tenets every moment of their lives! (Bodhisattvas are beings who take vows to work for the complete enlightenment of all sentient beings, closely related in Christian religion as Saints.)
Metta:  Loving-kindness
The first immeasurable, is the wish that all sentient beings without any exception, be happy. We all want to be happy, right?  Then why not wish the same to all beings?  Loving-kindness counters ill will and this attitude of loving-kindness is like the feeling which a mother has for her newborn son. She wishes that he may enjoy good health, have good friends, be intelligent and successful in all that he attempts. In short, she wishes sincerely that he be happy. The truth is we all have the same attitude of loving-kindness for a family member or our best friend only.  However, the meditation on loving-kindness, requires one to extend loving-kindness not only towards those whom one feels close to, but also to others whom one may know only slightly or not know at all or even worse, to that careless driver who cuts in front of us in the highway almost hitting our car. Loving-kindness must be extended to all sentient beings in all the realms of existence. Then, only does the ordinary wholesome attitude of loving-kindness found in daily life reach the state of the sublime or the immeasurable.
 Karuna: Compassion
Compassion, the second of the Immeasurables, is the wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering and it counters cruelty. This Immeasurable is easy to see as is very natural to observe the natural attitude of compassion in the world around us. When a mother, for example, sees her son seriously ill, she will naturally be moved by compassion and earnestly wishes that he may be free from the suffering of his sickness. Most people have experienced the feeling of compassion upon seeing the suffering of a relative, a friend or even a pet. All these are examples of the ordinary feeling of compassion, but to become a sublime state of mind, compassion has to reach beyond the limited group of individuals or beings whom we love or care for. This is the hardest part for us to extend compassion to all sentient beings; even the ones who we feel don’t deserve it (because of our ignorance and lack of equanimity). Only then it becomes an immeasurable.
Mudita: Sympathetic Joy
It is the wholesome attitude of rejoicing in the happiness and virtues of all sentient beings. It counters jealousy and makes people less self-centered. It is like a mother's joy at her son's success and happiness in life. In the same way, almost everyone will have at one time or another experienced the feeling of joy at the good fortune of a friend, when they buy a new car, get a new boyfriend/girlfriend or a new puppy.  These are common examples of appreciative joy. But unfortunately, we only extend this attitude to our loved ones or very close friends and I will tell you why.
It is very hard to do this practice because of our own attachments made us jealous of others and that is a very common behavior of us human beings.  To prove my point I dare you…take a minute right now and search your feelings… tell me how do you feel when you see somebody at a red light, with a brand-new sports car, the one that you  always wanted and could not afford  (and you  mockingly make the comment of him being in his midlife crisis) or when you go to a restaurant and you see a beautiful couple, flowers on the table, champagne flowing and both caressing each other  and  having a fantastic time  (and you say she is his mistress because she looks too happy to be his wife) or even better… somebody you know won a lot of money (and of course, they don’t need it)  or  somebody got  the promotion that you wanted and you say he doesn’t deserve it. We all had been there, haven’t we? Yes…
Do you notice most people never smile or even look away when they see somebody enjoying something that we don’t have?  It is very easy to be compassionate to others, but it is a lot harder to have sympathetic joy!
When one meditates on appreciative joy and extends it to all sentient beings and not just to loved ones only, one then experiences sympathetic  joy as a sublime state of mind and as an immeasurable.
 Upekkha:  Equanimity
Equanimity is the last of the four Immeasurables and is the attitude of regarding all sentient beings as equals, irrespective of their present relationship to oneself. The wholesome attitude of equanimity counters clinging and aversion.
Equanimity can be experienced in common forms in daily life. Again, using motherly love as an example, when the grown-up son settles down with his own family, he begins to lead an independent life with responsibilities of his own. Although his mother still has her feelings of loving-kindness, compassion and appreciative joy towards him, they are now combined with a new feeling of equanimity. Because she recognizes his new independent and responsible position in life and does not cling to him.
To become a sublime state of mind, again, this attitude of equanimity has to be extended to all sentient beings. We should not forget that our particular relationships with our relatives, friends and even enemies, are the result of previous karma.  We should not cling to relatives and friends while regarding others with indifference or hatred.   On the same token, if we have such a big attachment to our egos, we will see ourselves always better than others and will never be able to reach equanimity.
Let me give you an example. Have you notice how uncomfortable we feel when we are driving in a part of town where the houses are smaller, run down or with abandoned cars? How about when we sit next to people with different skin color, dressed differently or speak another language? Does it feel the same to buy your coffee at the corner Macdonald or to buy it at Starbucks? Coffee is coffee, but you rather pay $5.50 dollars for a Cappuccino in Starbucks that paying a single dollar at MacDonald because people there don’t dress or talk like you do? Rigth?
If we continuously discriminate in what we believe are friends or enemies or “not like me” how can we ever want to help all sentient beings?  Equanimity is the unselfish, de-tached state of mind which also prevents us from doing negative actions.
The practice
I know… these Four Immeasurables seem very hard to practice while some people think they are too easy. Actually, they are very hard to practice because to be able to love this way, with equanimity and without attachments to all sentient beings is a monumental task. Yes, it can be done, but like everything else, it is better to start the practice one step at the time. On the other hand you maybe thinking that they are very easy to practice, but maybe you think so because you are not practicing sincerely, you are not putting your heart on it.
The truth is, this practice is very hard but not impossible but in order to succeed, you must make a conscious effort to try. The easiest way to practice is to select one of the Immeasurables and then during the day make the conscious effort to actually perform it. Not just the action, but to feel it from the bottom of you heart,   sincerely. Only then, you will be able to practice them all of them every day. Get in the Boy/Girl scout mentality and perform a good deed daily. You will be surprised!
For example, one day we can choose to practice sympathetic joy. Every time we see somebody getting a promotion, a raise, or buys a new house or win something, we will feel very happy too, happy that he / she is being so fortunate and happy.
By cultivating the wholesome attitudes of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, we can gradually remove ill will, cruelty, jealousy and desire. In this way, we can achieve happiness for ourselves and others, now and in the future. The benefit in the future may come through rebirth in the fortunate realms.
May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May all beings rejoice in the well-being of others.
May all beings live in peace, free from greed and hatred.
Yes, we can all make a difference…..


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