Lama Döndrup discusses the power of cultivating the four immeasurable states of love, compassion, joy and equanimity.
WE ARE LIVING IN A TIME when our heart’s ordinary capacity is being stretched on a daily basis. Violence against people of color continues without abate and with little justice being served; the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on every aspect of our lives; wildfires rage in the western US; and hurricanes batter the South. We are challenged everyday by the injustice witnessed, the heartbreak of loss, the loneliness of isolation, and the fear of potential danger. Even when we are able to courageously face the challenges we are presented with, moments of defeat, discouragement, grief, and doubt about our capacity to hold these experiences and remain open inevitably arise.
During our time on the spiritual path, we have engaged in countless hours of prayer, practice, study, and contemplation. Countless times we have chanted a refuge prayer and generated the wish to awaken for all beings. It is in turbulent times like these that we can lean back into the wisdom and the steady, soft, compassionate heart that we have cultivated over the years. This is a moment when we can truly take refuge in the three Jewels: the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and the connection that we have developed with them. We can place our confidence in our innate goodness, the wisdom of the teachings of the buddhadharma, and the bodhisattvas who have traveled this path before us and who are committed to guiding us towards freedom.
A place of refuge that is helpful at all times and particularly during times of difficulty is the brahma viharas. Brahma vihara literally means divine abode. This refers to the four immeasurable states of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. When one genuinely abides in these states, the experience is sublime and boundless. These qualities are the natural outflow of our heart, which is boundless by nature. These qualities of the heart are not unfamiliar to us, but we typically experience them in a limited way.
Our habitual way of being is built on a foundation of experiencing a divide between self and other; seeing ourself and others as separate entities and having transactional exchanges that are often guided by an agenda of some sort. When the heart is moving from this habitual, ordinary point of view, we don’t experience love, compassion, joy, and equanimity as boundless. These awakened qualities flow from the vast, openness of mind, but when we fixate on the stream of thoughts that continuously create this sense of a separate self, we constrict that unimpeded flow and only experience a sliver of the awakened qualities that are available to us. When we let go of our personal agendas and the perceived divide between self and other and turn our mind one-pointedly in the direction of these qualities, we naturally align ourselves with our innate, unbounded heart. We inhabit it and effortlessly radiate these limitless qualities, which are inherent in our being.
All of the Mahayana and Vajrayana practices that we do at Sukhasiddhi Foundation are designed to help us loosen that grip on the small sense of self which then allows us to experience spacious, open awareness, infused with qualities of an awakened heart and mind. The traditional practice of the Four Immeasurables is designed to help us reconnect with our innate awakened heart and guide us from the limited experience of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity into one that is boundless and sublime. This is done through reflection and repetition of aspirations for ours and others’ happiness and well-being.
This Mahayana practice of the Four Immeasurables will be a focus of our first two Fall class offerings. It will be studied as a part of Susan Shannon’s class series, “The Cornerstones of Awakening,” and I will be offering a non-residential weekend meditation retreat as a way to drop into these rich practices for more than a short practice session.
Beginning in October, we will then focus specifically on compassion as it is cultivated in the Vajrayana tradition. Vajrayana practices are brilliantly designed methods to help us uncover awakened qualities that are innate in our being but remain out of our reach because of habitual patterns. They are rich with multiple layers of symbology and engage the practitioner simultaneously at the levels of body, speech, and mind. In these practices, we take the result as the path and assume our awakened nature and engage with other awakened beings through visualization, chanting, mantras, mudras, and music.
In the Fall Sukhasiddhi Sunday Series, the morning sessions will begin with a traditional Green Tara practice. Green Tara is a beloved feminine manifestation of the awakened quality of compassion. Her compassionate activity takes the form of protecting beings from fear and danger. After engaging in this practice, I will be offering an in-depth exploration of Vajrayana theory and method, the various elements of traditional Vajrayana practices, and the symbology of the imagery and its relation to purification. These teachings will then be applied to the practice of Chenrezig, who is a masculine manifestation of the awakened quality of compassion.
With these tools of the Mahayana and Vajrayana, we will be supported in allowing these times of difficulty to be an opportunity to open our hearts with courage, generate wishes for others’ well-being, act on behalf of others, and rest in our indestructible, boundless nature which is inseparable from love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.