Four Immeasurables [Snow Lion Sale Copy]
Cultivating a Boundless Heart
By the same author
New/Red dot copies. Alan Wallace presents the four immeasurables of loving kindness, compassion, equanimity and empathetic joy, based on Buddhaghosha's Path of Purification. On these foundational practices of Theravada Buddhism, Wallace brings to bear the insights and approaches of the Tibetan tradition, and expands on the cultivation of mental quiescence.
It is a rich suite of practices that open the heart, counter the distortions in our relationships to ourselves, and deepen our relationships to others. Juxtaposed with the Four Immeasurables, he presents teachings on shamatha meditation practice to empower the mind and render it 'fit for service.` His meditation instructions provide the steps for the complete achievement of shamatha, or calm abiding.
Read an extract of this title
Buddhist practice starts not with a leap of faith, but with a careful observation of our own experience. Among the many facets of experience that we can attend to, Buddhism pays special attention to the phenomenon of suffering: the first Noble Truth. It is a good place to start and it grabs our attention. Most of us can relate to the observation that there is suffering.
The very fertile question is, why? What makes us prone to suffering? If I fall off my bike and scrape my knee, and then ask why I'm suffering, it's a fairly trivial question. But if I am sitting here in one of the most beautiful places on the planet, healthy, with a full belly, and still I'm unhappy, then the question becomes very interesting. What's going on? Why should unhappiness arise? Why is there suffering of the mind? The question also becomes interesting when disharmony and conflict arise in relationships with other people. What causes the suffering of interpersonal conflict or international conflict? Why can't we just get along? It's another way of asking the second Noble Truth: What is the source of suffering?
Although there are myriad conditions that give rise to conflict and internal distress, many of the external factors are not really essential to the suffering that we experience. This is not to devalue the external factors, but the internal factors are more essential. And though many external factors are beyond our control, the internal factors happily offer more possibility for transmutation.
What is essential to this suffering? What is invariably present as a source of the suffering we experience? As the Buddha was pursuing these questions, he drew the conclusion from his own experience that certain fundamental afflictions of the mind are the source of the distress we experience, whether in solitude, or in our relationships with other people and the environment. The most fundamental of these afflictions is delusion. We are actively misconstruing reality, and that messes things up. From this active misconstruction of reality arise other distortions of the mind. The Sanskrit word for mental affliction is klesa. It is related to the word klista, which means to twist or to be warped. As we look out on the world through the window of our mind, somehow the window gets warped. What we are seeing is reality, but a twisted reality, and we respond to it in an unstraightforward way. The Tibetan word for an adept, or highly realized being (drang srong) means straight, not twisted.
The fundamental problem is delusion. As Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."1 He put his finger right on the button: The crucial problem is that we don't know what we're doing. And from this delusion, other twistings of the mind occur: selfish craving, hostility, aggression, and a myriad other derivative afflictions.
Is it possible to be free of these sources of suffering, or are they simply part and parcel of being human? Is it possible to be free of them, not by repressing them or by taking a vacation or respite from them, but by totally, irrevocably eradicating these internal sources of affliction? It is an extraordinary question, a question the Buddha pursued for years. And from his own experience he drew the conclusion: Yes, it is possible. And so we engage with the four Noble Truths: suffering, the source of suffering, liberation from the source of suffering, and finally, the path to that liberation. Thereon hangs the rest of the tale.
If the root problem is delusion, then the root antidote must be something that meets that delusion head on. The root antidote for delusion is probably not loving-kindness. Loving-kindness can serve as the antidote for hatred, indifference, or self-centeredness, but the root antidote for delusion is the realization of insight. Of the two wings of enlightenment, compassion and wisdom, the wisdom of insight is the one that meets delusion head on. This is why Buddhist practice places so much emphasis on the cultivation of insight (vipasyana).
Delusion takes various forms, but key to them all is an illusion concerning our own existence-who we are. A fruitful hypothesis (not dogma that we must believe) is that we are falsely construing ourselves as something existing independently, autonomously, separately from the environment and from other sentient beings. This little ego struggles through life, reaching for all good things and pushing all bad things away. Insofar as we buy into this false construction of reality, then implicitly we have already bound ourselves to conflict. If I-the independent, autonomous Alan-approach another person, I do so not as a static rock, but with a lot of desires concerning my own well-being and the fulfillment of my happiness. And if the person whom I approach has a similar program, we have a conflict right from the start. If there is a whole room full of people, the problem increases proportionately.
We would be happier without that delusion, and insight is a way to cut right through it. It doesn't happen through faith in any dogma or belief system, but it is something we can know experientially without any shadow of a doubt. Insight is a mode of experience that cuts through the delusion incompatible with that experience, and the cutting edge of Buddhist practice in meditation is the cultivation of insight. What kind of insight? The emphasis is on realizing the nature of self. If we don't exist in autonomous, self-sufficient isolation, then how do we exist? And how can this become more than simply a philosophical conclusion? How does it become an insight?
We cultivate the insight through a very close inquiry into the nature of our own being and experience. Mindfulness is essential here. This careful exploration leads to a vivid, unmediated experience of phenomena: of our own mental states, our feelings and desires, our perception of our body and the environment. It leads to a realization that this "I" we have been clinging to for so long doesn't exist at all. It's not that we do not exist-that would be a silly conclusion-but that this particular "I" that we sense as separate and autonomous is simply nonexistent. This little ego does not exist: the one that tries to be in charge and has a real hard time, the one that gets so fearful and tries to plug down its emotions. The sense of it definitely exists, most grossly when we feel egotistical or arrogant, but this sense has no more referent than if I truly believed I were Napoleon and expected everyone to salute me as such. The sense we have of our own selves is just as deluded, because there is no referent. The idea is to inquire carefully into our own experience, our own will, mental states, feelings, past history, future desires, our whole sense of who we are-and see for ourselves whether there is any substantial referent to this sense of "I." And if we do realize that no such self exists, where are we then?
There is a story told of Tsongkhapa, who lived in fifteenth-century Tibet. He was teaching to a group of monks about just this understanding of the emptiness of ego, and among this group was a monk from the district of Narthang who was listening very attentively. Sometimes, if there is a certain rapport between teacher and student, it's possible that just hearing the words can have a very great power for transformation. Tsongkhapa was just homing in on his point, that the self as we sense it does not exist, when the monk suddenly grabbed his collar as if he'd been hit by a jolt of electricity. Tsongkhapa saw this gesture, picked the man out from the crowd, and said, "Aha, this fellow from Narthang has just established his conventional self on the basis of his collar." The story may date from the fifteenth century, but what happened to the monk is neither ancient history nor very exceptional. It is not uncommon, when you start meditating, to experience a sudden sense of disorientation that makes you grab for something to hold on to. This fellow found his collar. I remember a person who was meditating very earnestly and intently, under the guidance of quite a realized teacher, and had a very profound realization with a radical shift of experience. It scared the living daylights out of this individual, and the experience then became something that had to be repressed. We have enough trauma in our lives without seeking out spiritual experiences that we then need to repress.
When you perceive your very self as identityless-as an experience and not just as a philosophical position-this realization can come as the most precious of all possible treasures, utterly transformative and beyond compare. Or instead, you may perceive it as a loss of the greatest of all possible treasures. To meditate arduously only to find that you have lost your most treasured possession-your self-seems like time not very well spent. The difference in these two experiences is really a fork in the road, a sheep-and-goats division; and the difference depends on the context in which you perceive the realization. Some groundwork is needed to ensure that you can welcome and embrace deep insight when it occurs, so that it enriches your life rather than giving you a sense of existential impoverishment. We can help ourselves to move toward the more fruitful of these two directions by gradually loosening our grip on our separate and autonomous sense of "I," not just intellectually but in our emotional lives and the choices we make.
It also helps to develop a sense of ourselves in relationship to others. I am my parent's child, I am a spouse, I am a teacher, I am a student, I am in a community, I am interrelated. The patchwork quilt of who we are derives from many sources: what others have told us, how people respond to us, how we relate to solitude. Our very sense of who we are is itself a dependently related event. It is fairly easy to understand cerebrally that we exist in relation to others, but as we lead our lives and follow our aspirations, are we doing so as if our own well-being were totally unrelated to that of anyone else? If so, then we are living a fraud and our hearts don't know what our minds are saying. As we start to live with the sense not only that we exist in interrelationship, but that our very well-being exists only in relationship to other people, then "my well-being" simply becomes a mere convention. Insofar as this becomes real and not just an assertion, then our grip on our autonomous ego softens. And insofar as we take into account the well-being of others, their sorrows and joys, and the fact that every sentient being wishes for happiness just as we do-insofar as we start to live this, it becomes our reality. As William James said, "our belief and attention are the same fact. For the moment, what we attend to is reality...." The previous reality of "my" desires, "my" joys and sorrows, doesn't get snuffed. Rather, it becomes part of the larger family. It takes on a broader context.
Imagine really embodying this quality of attending carefully from the heart and mind to the well-being of others, even as we continue to attend to our own. This is not self-negation, but rather self-contextualization. Imagine living life as if we already knew that we exist in interrelationship, with this norm as a platform from which to seek a realization of the absence of our autonomous, controlling ego. The realization then becomes an affirmation of our way of life. The chances become better and better that the realization will entail finding the greatest treasure and not losing it.
There is another reason, too, for laying a strong foundation. In practicing any meditation designed to yield radically transforming insight, whether in the Vipassana, Zen, or Tibetan Buddhist traditions, it is possible to get tantalizing glimmers that drift away elusively. It's like smelling something wonderful cooking in the next room. You try to track it down, but you hardly catch a little taste before it flits off, because the mind is not stable enough to enter into the insight and rest in it. Again, some groundwork is needed before we can sustain our realizations so they are not reduced to mere episodes in memory. So many people have an experience of tremendous value, but they cannot get access to it again. A year goes by, ten years, twenty years; it fades. It's better than if it had never happened, but if it was worthwhile at all, how much better to enter into it repeatedly, deepen it, and let it saturate your experience.
If we want to enter into very deep realization and new modes of experience, we should be well equipped to do so with stability and continuity Insofar as we can do this, the realization has the greatest possibility of saturating our experience, our beliefs, our emotions. If we can abide in such realization with continuity and clarity, it will be radically transformative. Otherwise it's merely a flirtation.
That is the reason, from the top down, why we would want to cultivate both quiescence and the Four Irnmeasurables. The cultivation of quiescence and the Four Immeasurables lays a foundation so that the experience of insight will be favorable, with a deeply transformative value. Insight practice alone might be adequate if we were living in complete isolation from the environment, but that is not true. We are already embodied as full participants in life, with all of its tremendous diversity and its vicissitudes. It is possible to do a meditation retreat with great sincerity, earnestness, and determination; to develop some degree of stability and vividness; and then coming from that experience, to engage with people once again with conflict and hostility, completely blowing away everything you have accomplished. All that effort is shattered with one burst of anger, let alone the machine-gun bursts of repeated anger, craving, and jealousy.
For better or worse, our spiritual practice takes place within the context of our life; and for better or worse, our life entails a lot more than formal spiritual practice. It entails having children, spouses, parents, jobs. The quality of our behavior can be very destructive, unraveling any progress we have made in our formal spiritual practice. The bedrock of our practice does not lie in any meditation technique; the bedrock is our lives. The quality of how we spend our waking, and even our sleeping hours needs to be a fertile ground, so that once we start to grow and mature in our practice, the roots can go deeper and the sprout can come to fruition.