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The Four Boundless Qualities AKA the Four Immeasurables by Lama Tsomo

I’ll let you in on a little secret. All four of these practices, Loving Kindness, Compassion (Tonglen), Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity, are avenues to one goal: feeling affectionately connected to all and everyone. We already feel closely connected to the ones we love, for example those we call “my dog,” “my cat,” “my child,” “my best friend.” Notice what those terms all have in common. Yes, that first cousin of “I” (“ego” in Latin): “my.” So even though we feel love, compassion, and sympathetic joy, it’s limited to our favorite people and critters. Do we feel those things just as strongly for people and other creatures that we don’t know? And how about people who have caused us problems? These four practices are called “Boundless” because, through regular practice we can expand our circle of loving connection to include everybody—eventually even people who bother us! Honest! Now, let’s take a look at each quality.

Boundless Equanimity (Immeasurable Equanimity)

four boundless qualities equanimity

You might wonder why I’m starting with the last Boundless Quality. As I’ve said, without this one, the others won’t be Boundless. So we need to cultivate this one first—and in practicing the others—so that as we practice them over time, we’ll feel increasingly connected to all and everyone. This is the correcting of the habit of mind that theoretical physicist David Bohm was referring to.[1] It has its own direct reward as well. As the Zen saying goes, “Enlightenment is easy . . . for those who have no preferences.” How do we cultivate this open-minded, open-hearted perspective?

In this particular application of equanimity, we aren’t referring to preference of one flavor of ice cream over another. While in Buddhist thought, equanimity in that more general sense is seen as a key capacity, here we’re focusing on one particular application of it. In Boundless Equanimity we’re specifically referring to feeling as strongly and lovingly connected to all beings as we are to our favorite ones.

If you accept the phenomenon of reincarnation, then you can imagine that in the countless lifetimes since beginningless time, you, and the others around you right now, have played every imaginable role with each other.

Today’s friend was our enemy in some other life. Our child was our murderer. And before that, we murdered them. If we do the math, we could figure that, in an infinite number of lives, every single being in all of Samsara was our parent, caring for us like those baby birds (which is why, as I’ve mentioned before, Buddhists often refer to other beings as our “mothers”.)

And because everyone has been our parent at some point, everyone we know now has been that caring to us in some lifetime–maybe more than one. And, of course, we care a LOT about those who have nurtured us—we care whether they live or die, are suffering or happy, are in turmoil or at peace. So, even though some of you may not feel that way about your (current) parents—you might be love mixed with resentment, annoyance, and other conflicting feelings—there’s surely somebody you do feel that way about. Who might that be?

In a class I was teaching, one woman said she couldn’t think of anyone she felt such affectionate for. I don’t know why but I said, “Do you have a cat?” She did! Of course, she melted as she thought of her cat. After billions of lifetimes, odds are you’ve felt that way about every being, human or otherwise.

Many of you may not be so sure about reincarnation. (Understood. I’m sure that in some of my previous lives I was skeptical about reincarnation, too!) But you don’t have to factor in reincarnation in order to cultivate Boundless Equanimity. Just look at this lifetime. Strangers have become friends; friends have become estranged; allies have become enemies and vice-versa. We care deeply for friends and family, but they can also be a distraction that keeps us from practice, not to mention other beneficial opportunities. Or they can turn on us, inflicting our greatest pain and suffering. On the other hand, our enemies can be the most help to us. The Buddha was thankful toward Devadatta, his lifetime nemesis, because the challenge of working with Devadatta’s attacks spurred the Buddha on in his practice.

If we think in this broader way, hopefully it helps us to expand the usual boundaries we have around who we care about and how much we care.

My friends from other countries have noticed that the news in the U.S. is very American-centric. In an international disaster we often only hear about the number of Americans killed. I assume this is because American media know that Americans care much more about fellow Americans. And the more the news reports in this American-centric way, the more Americans become American-centric. Eventually we might even want to make it official and build a wall.

This idea of “my” country, “my” people is a natural consequence to the idea of “I,” or ego. Yes, there’s that old troublemaker again. If we only care (feel connected with) “my people,” then our hearts are already smaller and, well, more disconnected. This isn’t going to help our poverty of heart. These Four Boundless practices gradually erode that habit and replace it with something both real and deeply satisfying.

What about the check-out lady at the grocery store? She means nothing to you now. If you accept reincarnation, then in some lifetime she was probably your parent or your child. Even in this lifetime she could possibly marry your brother or sister. And in this lifetime, for sure, she feels just as much suffering as you do when bad things happen, and just as much happiness at the good things. She’s a sentient being, just like you or me.

If you work in concentric circles, you can train in Equanimity, eventually making it truly Boundless by including all your fellow sentient beings in your circle of caring, loving connection. I think you’ll find that in spending that caring, love, and compassion on the check-out lady, you haven’t lost anything. You’ll actually feel a deep, rich sense of expanded love/expanded heart.

Boundless Compassion (Immeasurable Compassion)

four boundless qualities compassion

The next Boundless Quality is Compassion. I’ve said a whole lot about that already, in my book  “Why Is The Dalai Lama Always Smiling?”, and you already have an excellent method for practicing it—Tonglen. What more could there be to say?

Well, a little. Okay: maybe a fair amount. I want to share a couple of stories that always touch me. I think of this first one when I feel overwhelmed with strong compassion. Sometimes all we feel to do is sit and cry. Sometimes that’s just the thing to do. Joanna Macy, a famous Buddhist environmentalist/activist, believes that if we bury/hide from our grief over the world, we won’t be energized to get up and DO something about it. When I look at the need for action in the world, and how many of us go about our days without doing much, I can see her point. Sometimes grief is appropriate.

We each have our own talents and leanings, not to mention karmic leanings and opportunities. Some people are very persuasive and can change the world the way Bill Wilson and Bob Smith did in starting Alcoholics Anonymous. Through the brave and strategic efforts of many demonstrators and media people, the war in Vietnam was stopped. I mentioned Joanna Macy, who has spent most of her nine decades working tirelessly and strategically to ward off the worst environmental disasters. The Buddha was a gifted teacher, but he didn’t stop there. In his time, he singlehandedly started a movement that ended the caste system for many centuries. It’s worth mentioning that at another time in his life, all he did was meditate for years at a time.

Which brings me to an important point. Sometimes it’s time to do inner work; sometimes work in our close community; sometimes in the larger world. Without doing inner work, our relationships will probably suffer. Without healthy community we’re probably not going to be as effective out in the world. We may not even pick the best strategies for outer work without doing inner work. Around and around it goes; those three areas supporting each other in order to have a satisfyingly meaningful life.

Inner work (including perhaps, some psychology) will help you aim your outer efforts better; fueled by wisdom and compassion rather than by old frustrations disguised as righteous causes. And the outer work will bring merit (positive karma and habits of mind) that will help you on the cushion. I’ve believed this for a long time, based on my own experience, so I was happy to hear Rinpoche say the same thing.

Working on the community level helps in both directions because we learn a lot about ourselves in community. In the outer direction, we have exponentially more power to change the world if we do it in healthy partnership with others. And I don’t know of many people who have sustained a meditation practice without doing it in community sometimes too.

Long before we ever get within a mile of enlightenment, we can see our loved ones, co-workers, and others with purer vision and more open hearts. I remember talking with one longtime Dharma student who shook his head and mused, “After practicing Dharma we can master worldly life … but by then that’s not our goal.” He was pointing to the fact that we get better at worldly life after all this practice, but by that time what we really want to do is to wake up out of it, altogether.

Boundless Sympathetic Joy (Immeasurable Sympathetic Joy)

four boundless qualities sympathetic joy

This one is a nice balance to the previous Boundless Quality, Compassion. After you’ve done a lot of Tonglen, it’s refreshing to practice Sympathetic Joy—and I recommend it! Now, instead of suffering-with, you get to be joyful-with! It’s really still about feeling the truth of your underlying non-separateness from others.

As with the other Boundless Qualities, GET SPECIFIC. That’s the best way I know to keep it real. If your thinking is vague, your feelings will be too. Pick someone and something specific (a dear friend getting over a terrible disease, vocational success, the birth of a relative’s child, friendship, knowledge, art, the bonds within a particular community … anything you wish) to feel joyful about. You might keep that particular theme, as you step it out to others, in that day’s practice.

As ever, start with yourself, or one very close to you and then yourself, and go out from there. At first you might pick specific people, then eventually whole categories of beings. Then share joy with, yes, those who cause you trouble. Eventually you’re sympathetically joyful for all beings everywhere. At some time or another, they’ve all had moments of joy, and will again. Since linear time is an illusion, be happy with them now. In the process, wish them even more joy, as soon as possible. Then feel into that and feel your own joy in sympathy with theirs.

Let’s get specific, right now, with this particular Boundless Quality. For example, you may be feeling really happy from a recent visit with an old friend. You had a really good talk or two. How lucky, that you have such a friend, that you can sometimes feel the closeness that comes from having shared so much together. You imagine hugging each other hello, basking in that love. As you sit in that warm feeling, allow yourself to savor and celebrate it. “I just had a great visit with Dave!” Under that focus, the feeling of joy will probably grow quite naturally.

For starters, you can extend that feeling to Dave, who probably also feels joy about your visit. You’re equally happy for him. Lucky guy!

Now you think of someone else you know and love who also has that same feeling of closeness with someone they love. You imagine their smiling face as they meet with their loved one. You could imagine them hugging. You can’t help but smile in Sympathetic Joy. Now you see more people you know, feeling connected with their loved ones. You celebrate that connection for each and all of them.

Then you let the tide of Sympathetic Joy roll out to the next ring. You imagine whole classes of beings feeling the joy of connection: mother dogs with their puppies, licking each other on the mouth (ew!) after the mother was gone for a few minutes. They love it! You smile at their joy. Then the tide of joy rolls out to lovers . . . then all mothers and babies . . . fathers and babies . . . as many groups as you can think of. Your heart is positively glowing with Sympathetic Joy!

If you feel ready, you could next push the envelope a little, and imagine someone who’s caused you problems. They must have friends and family they love too. They’re bound to feel joy when they meet them after being away. Imagine them hugging their loved one, smiling, laughing. Now that you have this big tide of Sympathetic Joy going, you can feel Joy in Sympathy with them, just in this moment. In this moment, they’re simply another sentient being, and they’re feeling joy. In this moment, that’s all that matters.

This is a good time to again remember what Neem Karoli Baba said: “Never throw anyone out of your heart.” It accomplishes nothing but making your own heart smaller. That’s a big price to pay for indulging—yes, indulging—in feeling righteous (and almost all our feelings of righteousness are really self-righteousness). Let your heart expand and allow it to feel real joy in this being’s joy. Now that’s an indulgence that’s neither “illegal, immoral, or fattening”!

Now you can extend that Sympathetic Joy to all sentient beings. At one time or another, they all have felt that joy of meeting with a loved one.

We’ve all done terrible things and we’re all happy to be hugged by someone we love. We all are happy to eat a good meal, or behold a beautiful sight, listen to our favorite music, help someone, get a hug from a loved one, or just take a good rest after a long day. We can pick those kinds of things, which are pretty universal. Also, remember that you are probably expanding outward from your own feelings of joy: if you felt joy at hurting someone or doing a bad deed, you would have some work ahead of you!

Now that you’ve gotten a handshake introduction to the Four Boundless Qualities, you’re ready to begin using them to expand your capacity to connect with your fellow sentient beings in a meaningful, satisfying way. In addition to your practice on the cushion, doing a workout for your heart (No, not cardio!), also take the time to look once in a while to see if your increasing capacity is also showing up in everyday life.

Opportunities to Meditate on the Boundless Qualities (Four Immeasurables)

If you’re ready to get to practicing these qualities, enjoy these guided mediations. 

Loving Kindness

Tonglen: Compassion Practice

Sympathetic Joy

[1] David Bohm (1917-1992) David Joseph Bohm FRS was an American scientist who has been described as one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century and who contributed unorthodox ideas to quantum theory, neuropsychology and the philosophy of mind. See: David Bohm, “Hidden Variables and the Implicate Order,” in Quantum Implications, ed. Basil J. Hiley and F. David Peat (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 40.

[2] Sometimes spelled “Sang-Ngag”