Guru & Avalokiteshvara: The Four Immeasurables

In our discussion of this practice, The Yoga of the Spiritual Master Inseparable from Avalokiteshvara, we have discussed taking safe direction and reaffirming our bodhichitta motivation, and now we are up to the four immeasurable attitudes, which is a very essential part of this practice. Avalokiteshvara is the manifestation of compassion, so obviously in order to do this practice, we need to have some development of compassion. And so unless we have familiarized ourselves with the compassion meditation so well that we can just instantly develop the feeling of compassion – unless we’ve done that, then we need to gradually build ourselves up to actually feeling compassion. And as, hopefully, you know from the lam-rim teachings, there are two ways of doing this as part of the two different ways of developing bodhichitta:

  1. The seven-part cause-and-effect quintessence teaching (rgyu-’bras man-ngag bdun)
  2. Equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others (bdag-gzhan mnyam-brje).

So let me just explain within the context of one of these, and I’ll try to explain on a little deeper level since I like to do that.

Developing Equanimity

All of this discussion of great compassion (snying-rje chen-po) – compassion being aimed to everybody equally – is based on a firm conviction in beginningless mind when we are working with this idea of everybody’s been our mother. So that’s within the context of beginningless mind. If you think just in terms of everybody being equal, etc., then that’s not so essential. However, if we are thinking in terms of a Mahayana practice – aiming toward enlightenment – since that will undoubtedly take a very long time, then of course we need to think in terms of beginningless mind, beginningless and endless mental continuum.

I don’t want to go into the discussion of how do we become convinced that everyone’s individual mental activity has no beginning and no end. It would take the whole weekend, if not more. But within that context, it makes sense that if there’s no beginning and there’s a finite number of beings, we have had every possible type of interaction with everybody. So this is the basis for the beginning step for both sequences for developing bodhichitta, which is the equanimity with which we are able to rid ourselves of disturbing emotions toward others – attachment to some and repulsion from others.

At times, everybody at some point has been our great friend and helped us. At other times, they have hurt us. At other times, they’ve been strangers. So if you think in terms of no beginning, then everybody has been in this position toward us and we’ve been in this position toward everybody else innumerable times. That levels the ground – I mean, everybody is equal in that sense – because then there’s no reason to really be attached to somebody just because they have helped us or repelled from somebody and not like them because they have hurt us. Because everybody has been like that. Or ignore somebody because we don’t know them in this lifetime. So as they say, if somebody hurt us yesterday and helped us today or another person helped us yesterday and hurt us today, there’s no difference really. So again we go back to “nothing special” about the particular status of somebody with relation to us right now.

Recognizing Everyone as Having Been Our Mother

Now, on the basis of that understanding, if everybody has been everything to us and we’ve been everything to everybody else, then also it follows that at some point they have been our mother and at some point we have been their mother, and not just once but many times. In the usual presentation they just mention that they’ve been our mother, but I think that it’s also helpful to think that we’ve been their mother also.

Remembering the Kindness of Motherly Love

Now, if they’ve been our mother and we have been their mother, then they have raised us with kindness and we have raised them with kindness. So what is the karmic aftermath of that? We have the karmic aftermath of having been their child and them having been our child, right? If we act with kindness towards somebody, that leaves a potential and a tendency, a positive potential and a positive tendency, for us to be able to repeat being kind to them (so this is the basis of how we can be kind to everybody) and for us to be the recipient of kindness (this is the result which is similar to its cause in our behavior and in our experience). So we have the potential, because of beginningless mind, to receive more kindness from them and to be kind back to them. And they likewise have the same potentials and tendencies to repeat being kind to us and also to be the recipient of our kindness.

So if you think about this sequence for developing love, compassion, bodhichitta, there is a karmic basis for it of why it’s actually possible, so the whole thing starts to make a lot more sense in terms of fitting it in with the rest of the teachings. And if you think in the long term, although they sometimes hurt us, everybody has benefited us much more, because we have benefited from whatever work they’ve done – growing food, etc. – even when they weren’t our mothers.

Repaying the Kindness of Motherly Love

In this sequence we have recognizing everybody’s been our mother and then remembering the kindness of motherly love. Then the next one, the third step here, is usually translated as wanting to repay that kindness (drin-gso). That’s a little bit of a tricky way of translating it actually. It certainly does not mean that we should feel obligated to have to pay them back: “I have to pay them back even though I don’t want to. And if I don’t pay them back, I’m really a terrible, ungrateful person, and therefore I feel guilty. So I’m going to help them out of a sense of guilt.” That certainly is not the intention here. But if we think in terms of the karmic mechanism here, then of course we can repay others, because we have that tendency to repeat the type of behavior that we’ve had in the past. So that’s going to come naturally. There is a basis for it. You see, it’s very important, as I was saying with the refuge, the safe direction, to feel that it’s actually possible to do all of this. So it actually is possible to be kind to everybody, because we have that karmic potential from having been kind in the past and from them being kind toward us.

So what is the feeling that is generated here on this third step? When we think in terms of the kindness that we’ve received from everybody, the real flavor of this word here is that we have a great sense of gratitude. We are really grateful for that. That’s the emotion that is here, not an emotion of guilt (“I have to pay them back”). When somebody is really, really kind to you, you feel grateful. It’s natural. And of course then we have the potential, out of gratitude, to be kind to them in return.

Immeasurable Love

And when we’re so grateful, then we have what’s called heartwarming love (yid-’ong byams-pa). That’s not counted as a separate step, but it’s described as what will naturally come from this third step. And of course that naturally comes when you feel grateful. “I’m so grateful for your help that it just warms my heart to see you. And I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you.” Then it’s on that basis that we can then have love, the wish for them to be happy. It follows just naturally from this sequence, doesn’t it? So may you be happy:

May all limited beings have happiness and the causes for happiness.

Do you follow how you would actually feel this? It would follow naturally from this sequence of thought, consideration.

With these four immeasurables there’s always four stages for each:

  1. How wonderful it would be if they were all happy.
  2. May they be happy.

These two are like a wish. “May they be happy.” It’s like a wish, and you’re looking up to that as a great goal.

3. I will act in order to make them happy.

His Holiness always emphasizes that. Don’t leave things just as prayer: “May everybody be happy,” like that. That by itself is quite weak. You have to actually act out these wishes and aspirations. And in order to act it out, you have to have this firm decision, which is “I’m definitely going to do it. I’m going to transform this into action.”

And then the fourth step, which is what is going to be taken care of by the rest of this practice, is inspiration.

  1. 4. Inspire me, Avalokiteshvara – Your Holiness, guru, etc. – inspire me, uplift me, to be able to actually do this.

The fact that our mental continuum, our mental activity, can be inspired and uplifted, that’s the third aspect of Buddha-nature.

So we have this enlightening network of positive force. Enlightening means that it’s dedicated to enlightenment. So helping others within this big Mahayana context that we explained this morning, that’s called the obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu). It will transform, in a sense, into the physical bodies of a Buddha, the Form Bodies of a Buddha, like a seed that then becomes the plant. It has to be helped with this deep awareness. And that deep awareness will transform into – in that same manner, seed into the plant – into the omniscient mind of a Buddha and the true stoppings of that mind. Well, I shouldn’t say the true stoppings. That’s something else. But it will transform into the omniscient mind of a Buddha. And the voidness of the mind is responsible for how we have the Svabhavakaya, the nature body, the voidness of the omniscient mind of a Buddha and the true stoppings on it. And all of that, the process of building up these two networks, is something that can be stimulated by inspiration.

So we can gain inspiration from Buddhas, bodhisattvas, so the resultant level. We can gain inspiration by all others. This is very, very inspiring, that all beings, who are suffering so much, and you think of them – that really inspires you and moves you to develop yourself more. And we can gain inspiration by thinking of these Buddha-nature factors – that we have the ability to actually achieve these states. And the spiritual teacher as… There are many levels of seeing the relation between the spiritual teacher and the Buddhas. But if we just think in terms of a representation of what we are aiming to achieve, they inspire us very much.

And these are immeasurable attitudes because they’re aimed at absolutely everybody equally.

Immeasurable Compassion

Now, you want them to be happy and have the causes for happiness, but they are not happy; they’re suffering. So that leads us to the next one, which is immeasurable compassion:

May all limited beings be parted from suffering and the causes for suffering.

Now, there’s a lot that can be said about how we actually do the specific meditations on compassion. But first I should explain what is the difference between what is sometimes translated as analytical meditation (dpyad-sgom) – but I prefer discerning meditation – and stabilizing meditation (’jog-sgom). What most people normally think of as analytical meditation is… Well, there’s actually listening to the teachings and then thinking about them. Meditating is usually this second step, thinking, what people call analytical meditation.

  • Listening is to gain the confidence and discriminating awareness of what the teaching actually is so we have no doubts about what is the correct information about the teaching.
  • Then with the thinking, what you’re trying to do is to understand the teaching, become convinced that it is true, and become convinced that it’s possible for me to actually develop this, that it’s worthwhile and it’s possible. So for all of that, we have to analyze and try to see from our lives, from all the other teachings, how it fits in with the other teachings. This is the thinking process.

Work through this process of the steps in the bodhichitta meditation – does it make sense? how does it fit (like I was just explaining how it fits with the karma teachings)? and so on – so we actually understand what it’s talking about, we see how it fits in with the rest of the teachings, we are convinced that it is correct, it’s true, what it’s talking about, and we can develop it. Right?

So then we’ve learned how to go through the steps to generate that compassion. Then comes the meditation phase. And now we have, first, discerning meditation. So you try to actually discern – which means to see, perceive – others with this state of mind of compassion. In the beginning we may need to work through the stages and the steps in order to generate that feeling. When we are completely familiar with it, we can develop that compassion in an unlabored manner (we don’t have to go through the steps to generate it). Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can just generate it when actually you don’t, to think “Oh, I don’t have to go through these steps. I can just feel it.”

As we go through these steps, it’s important to actually generate an emotional feeling, but that emotional feeling is one that is based on understanding. So it’s a more stable one. It’s not a destabilizing type of emotion. We were talking about mental stability. There’s also emotional stability. That doesn’t mean you don’t feel anything. It means that it’s not upsetting (when we’re talking about positive emotions). Okay.

Now, what is the difference between discerning meditation on compassion and stabilizing meditation on compassion? His Holiness the Dalai Lama describes it very well. He gives us the key to understand the difference. It has to do with our energy. So it’s very important to have developed already a very quiet mind with which then you are able to be sensitive to the energy within your body. When we are sensitive to the energy in our body, we can deal with it, work with it. With discerning meditation, the direction of the energy is going out, His Holiness explains. With stabilizing meditation, the direction of the energy is going in. So you have to be very sensitive to be able to notice that and control that.

  • So you start here with discerning the suffering of others. You start with the suffering of others, right? First you have to identify that. So of course you have to understand what is the suffering, the three types of suffering, etc. – unhappiness, ordinary happiness, and uncontrollably recurring rebirth (which then makes the basis for experiencing the first two types of suffering). So now with empathy you are discerning. So the energy is going out to all beings, that they have this suffering. And you’re really convinced this is true, that they’re all suffering – these three levels of suffering – having already identified it within ourselves, now you discern it with others.
  • Then to stabilize it, the energy now is no longer going out to everybody. The energy is coming in and staying stable inside: “Yes, they are suffering.” Then you focus on that. And then we are feeling empathy with that, the same intensity as being aware of our own suffering. This is quite different from our wish “May they be free of it.” And that you’d need to discover in your own experience, the difference between discerning and stabilizing. It’s very different in terms of energy.

So you get the general idea? It’s the direction of the energy – the way that our mind is dealing with the suffering of others – that differentiates the discerning from the stabilizing meditation.

Actually we are training throughout the lam-rim process to develop a getting rid of something or being rid of something. This is getting in the direction of true stoppings. So if you think about it:

  • We have the precious human life – we have these temporary respites, temporary freedom from these worst states. We’re thinking in terms of the removal of these worst states. We’re in a state in which temporarily that’s not there.
  • We want to be free of the suffering of the worst states – so again we’re thinking of a stopping of that, a removal, an absence.
  • When the compulsion comes up to act in a destructive way, we’re not going to act it out – so again a removal of that, a stopping of that.
  • Overcoming the disturbing emotions – we imagine a stopping of them, a removal of them.
  • Concentration – we’re working on a removal of dullness and flightiness of mind.
  • Mahayana – we’re working with a removal of selfishness, self-cherishing.
  • Voidness – we’re talking about the absence of impossible ways of existing.

Do you get the general idea of the direction of the energy here? We’re always working with this thing of a removal of something, a stopping of something, that is negative.

So when we talk about compassion, we have this one aspect, the initial thing, which is an empathy, a recognition of that suffering, and then a quite distinct type of energy level of the removal of it (with the same steps as we had with the immeasurable love):

  1. How wonderful it would be.
  2. May it happen.
  3. I’m definitely going to strive to make it happen.
  4. Inspire me to be able to do that.

We do this with the suffering and the causes of suffering. So you not only have to do this twofold process of empathy with the suffering and “May they be removed from suffering” but likewise with the causes of suffering and the removal of that, the stopping of that.

This is where Chandrakirti’s presentation comes in very nicely:

  • So we think that one cause of suffering, namely the so-called suffering of suffering, is because of destructive behavior. “Just as I have acted destructively, they have acted destructively. May they be free of that as a cause of their suffering. And of course to be able to help them, I have to rid myself of destructive behavior. I’m not going to hurt them.”
  • Then we think in terms of impermanence. “They have brought about so much suffering on themselves because they haven’t understood impermanence – the impermanence, for instance, of the suffering of change, that their ordinary happiness is not going to last.” So we have to think in terms of our own situation, in which we have had so many problems because of not understanding impermanence – and so we’ve become attached to the worldly happiness that we have, which of course is never going to last, never going to satisfy, etc. – so we can empathize with them, see with them, how they’re creating so many problems for themselves because they don’t realize the impermanence, the ephemeral nature, of whatever worldly happiness they have or strive for. And then “May they be free of this.” And of course we have to be free of it in order to be able to actually help them. This has to do with the so-called worldly feelings, the transitory phenomena: If they’re not doing well, you’re not going to get depressed. If they are doing well, you’re not going to get all excited. We can rejoice, but we’re not talking about this type of overexcited, making such a big deal out of it.
  • Then we think in terms of how their suffering, the all-pervasive suffering of continuing rebirth, is due to their not understanding voidness. So recognize that in ourselves, empathize – see it with others – “May they be free of this.”

When we do meditation on compassion in each of these steps, we do it with this discerning way (the energy going out), first to recognize, empathize, and then “May it be away.” And with each of these, stabilizing (the energy coming in). Right? To stabilize means to add more and more certainty to it.

This is the way that we meditate on compassion in a fuller type of way. So we can see that it is really quite a full practice; it’s not just an indistinct feeling based on understanding. Okay, so then we have immeasurable compassion.

Immeasurable Joy

Then we think of the next one, immeasurable… What is it called? Bliss, I think, something like that.

May all limited beings never be parted from the happiness that is without any suffering.

This is referring to – the Mahayana way of doing this – not just that “May they be happy, and may they be free of suffering” but “May they attain enlightenment,” basically, which is the happiness that is without any suffering.

The Hinayana practice of this is quite different. Here, in the Hinayana context, you’re talking of overcoming jealousy. So you want to feel happy and rejoice at other people’s happiness: “May you be happy, and I’m not going to be jealous about it.”

But here in the Mahayana context, it has quite a different interpretation. This is leading us more toward the bodhichitta aim: “May they not only be free of all this suffering and be happy, but be happy to the extent of enlightenment. And may they be free of suffering in terms of all the limitations of being a so-called limited being (sems-can)” – what’s usually translated as a sentient being. Buddhas are not sentient beings, so the connotation is someone with a limited mind (non-omniscient, non-all-loving).

Immeasurable Equanimity

And then we think “But why aren’t they enlightened already?” And the reason that they’re not enlightened already is because they’ve never developed even equanimity. So then we wish them to have equanimity:

May all beings abide in equanimity, parted from the dualistic (feelings) of close and distant, attachment and repulsion.

There are two types of equanimity, and both of them are mentioned here:

  • There’s the equanimity that is shared in common between Hinayana and Mahayana, which is the basic equanimity of being free of attachment and repulsion, because – particularly if we want to attain liberation – we have to free ourselves from the disturbing emotions. So the disturbing emotions – attachment, repulsion, indifference (indifference is not mentioned here, but it is to be included when you do it more fully).
  • Then the specific Mahayana practice of equanimity is overcoming the feelings of close and distant. Because of beginningless life, mind, and so on, sometimes we’ve been close to others and sometimes we’ve been distant to others. So when we want to help everybody equally, we have to overcome any feeling of favoritism. We’re not dealing specifically here with a disturbing emotion as such.

Both stages of equanimity are included here in this verse. And again all of these have these stages:

  • How wonderful it would be.
  • May they be.
  • I’m going to actually help them to achieve these states.
  • Inspire me to do that.


You need to be aware that there are many, many variants of the practice of these four immeasurables. In some versions, the order is changed – the equanimity comes first. In some versions, the equanimity is speaking in terms of gaining the equanimity of being free of the eight worldly feelings toward transitory things – being overexcited when things are going well, depressed when they’re not going well, being overexcited when we’re praised, depressed when we’re blamed, etc. So don’t be surprised when you come across variants. Almost everything in Buddhism can be done in several different ways, and all of them can be correct. It’s not that only the way that I have been taught to do it is correct. That fits in with the Buddha’s general principle of teaching, which is to use skillful means – to be skillful in terms of knowing what is the method that will be most suitable for each individual person.

[See: The Four Immeasurables in Hinayana, Mahayana and Bon]

That brings us to the end of the four immeasurable attitudes. I think that these two small sections here, the refuge and bodhichitta and then the four immeasurables, are extremely important. We find them at the beginning of all these sorts of practices in tantra and in general Mahayana. They are not to be trivialized or just rushed through as quickly as possible, because they set the whole mental framework and emotional framework for the entire practice.