The 4 Immeasurables: Practices to Open the Heart  – B. Alan Wallace

In the blog category “Book Reviews”, I will review many classic books written by teachers and practitioners of mindfulness meditation. I have been reading such books for more than 2 decades now. I will systematically review these books, one by one, so that it may help readers of this blog make informed decision about purchasing them and learning from them.

Introduction

I stumbled upon this book very recently. I had no idea that Alan Wallace had written an entire book on the topic of The 4 Immeasurables. Visitors to my web site will remember that I have written quite a few blog posts on this subject already. In any case, I was delighted to read this book and found it very inspiring.

Four of the most important virtues within Buddhism are the “Limitless Qualities” because they represent love and goodwill toward all sentient beings, without limit. These 4 prized emotions or mind states give us a framework to cultivate positive behaviors and minimize harmful ones. They are also known as the “Four Immeasurables” or “Four Limitless Ones” or the “Four Divine Abodes” because they are the mind states in which all the enlightened ones reside.

The Four Immeasurables are:

Loving-kindness

Compassion

Empathetic joy

Equanimity

Bruce Alan Wallace

Bruce Alan Wallace (born 1950) is an American author and expert on Tibetan Buddhism. He has written a number of books on Buddhism and Science as well as on Tibetan Buddhism. He founded the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies in 2003, designed to integrate scientific and contemplative exploration of consciousness. Since 1976, Wallace has taught a wide range of Buddhist meditations worldwide and has served as interpreter for many eminent Tibetan lamas, including Dalai Lama in the interface between traditional forms of Buddhist meditation and the mind sciences.

The Book

This book is a compilation of talks, guided meditations and Q&A from a week-long retreat conducted by Alan Wallace in 1992. First published in 1999, this is a very inspiring book where he explains each one of these qualities in detail as well as how they are interweave with one another. I am reviewing the third edition of this book.

The first chapter is an introduction to ethics and the importance of building one’s practice on a foundation of ethics. He elaborates on the threefold training on sila (discipline or ethical living), samadhi (concentration), and prajna (insight or wisdom).

The second chapter focuses on samatha practice. The purpose of samatha meditation is to stabilize the mind by cultivating a steady awareness of the object of meditation like our breath. Over time, practicing samatha meditation makes our minds serviceable. It makes our minds ready and fit for cultivating the heart qualities of the four immeasurables. The third chapter outlines the 9 stages of the path to samatha. Setting the stage for ethics and outlining the 9 stages of the path to samatha takes up the first half of this book.

Loving Kindness

He launches into the discussion on the Four Immeasurables from the fourth chapter onwards. He takes up Loving Kindness, aka maitri in Sanskrit or metta in Pali, as a lead in to these 4 heart qualities. He begins this topic by stating its essential nature as a yearning that all beings be well, be happy and be free from suffering. He states that he very nature of consciousness is a wellspring of metta. We do not need to get it from anyone else. It is within us but it may get obscured. He states that since this is a birthright, instead of emphasizing how to cultivate this wonderful state of mind, we can shift our mindset to ask how to stop doing what we are doing to obscure it.

Compassion

He takes on Compassion, aka karuna in Pali, in the fifth chapter of the book. Just as loving-kindness is the heart that longs for the well-being of oneself and others, the nature of compassion is simply the heartfelt yearning “May we all be free from suffering and the sources of suffering”. He states that compassion is the perfect complement to loving kindness. However, the flavor of compassion is different from the flavor of loving-kindness because it focuses on sentient beings who are suffering rather than on sentient beings finding happiness and joy. Compassion witnesses an individual in suffering. Recognizing the suffering leads to the yearning for that individual to be free from it. It recognizes the possibility for that individual to find serenity, tranquility and freedom. Loving-kindness focuses on the positive side whereas compassion addresses the negative side.

Empathetic Joy

Alan takes on Empathetic Joy, aka mudita in Pali, in the sixth chapter of the book. This is simply the act of rejoicing in the well-being of others. His take on empathetic joy is very simple and direct. In fact, this is the shortest chapter of the book comprising of just 5 pages. He states that cultivating empathetic joy is not a practice with stages to be accomplished, it is just to be enjoyed even though it is very significant and valuable heart quality to develop. This is the easiest way to cultivate the heart quality of delighting in the happiness and good will of others. He also talks about the benefits of rejoicing towards our own virtues by looking back on our own past skillful and wholesome behavior and then just delighting in it.

Equanimity

Alan takes on Equanimity, aka upekkha in Pali, in the seventh chapter of the book. He states that Equanimity rounds off the other three immeasurables – loving kindness, compassion and empathetic joy – and brings them into a profound state of balance. Equanimity is the absence of biased attitudes of feeling close to some living beings and distant from others. According to Tibetan Buddhism tradition, when we meditate on equanimity, it is the wish for ALL beings to be free from their attachment to their close ones and aversion to those who are distant from them.

Alan describes an actual technique for the development of Equanimity that is not esoteric and not technical. Essentially, we reflect on the simple truth “Everyone yearns for happiness and to be free of suffering, just like myself” whenever we encounter an adverse situation involving any living being. Equanimity allows us to stand in the midst of adversity in a way where we are balanced, grounded and centered. It allows us to remain steadfast while keeping our minds and hearts open.

Conclusion

Alan interweaves all these qualities together in the eighth and final chapter of this book. He talks about training our attention in such a way that it empowers our minds. Empowered minds are able to deal with adverse situations in a more skillful and wholesome manner.

Admittedly, this review is very limited compared to the scope of the theories and practice that are present in the book. He presents guided meditation processes as well as Questions & Answers from his retreats. Some portions of the book are hard to understand as a result of which it may not be suitable for beginners. However, this is a reference book that mindfulness practitioners should have in their possessions. The Four Immeasurables are fruits of mindfulness practice but they also serve as its foundation.

If you have any questions on this book or if you would like to seek clarification on some of its contents or if you have your own suggestions to offer me, then please do so by filing out the contact form below. In a blog category entitled “Website content feedback” I will publish my answers to your questions as well as your suggestions wherever appropriate. Thank you !!!