Excerpts from Bonnie Trudell’s talk on the Four Immeasurable Minds
The Four Immeasurable Minds is one of the clearest and most beautiful teachings of the Buddha. The four elements of true love — love, compassion, joy, and equanimity – are called immeasurable because if we practice them, they will grow in us “immeasurably” every day. We may also know these four as metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha. In the first line of Thay’s book, Teachings on Love, we read that “happiness is only possible with true love.”
The FIRST ASPECT of true love is metta. Some prefer the translation ‘loving kindness’, but Thay simply prefers the word ‘love’. Metta is the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness. To develop our capacity to offer joy and happiness, we practice looking and listening deeply so we know what to do and what not to do to foster happiness in others. Without this deeper understanding, we might offer something that would actually bring unhappiness.
As an example, Thay describes his aversion to the strong smell of a particular Southeast Asian fruit. Although others find it pleasant. Thay says if someone were to say to him, “Thay, I love you so much I would like you to eat some of this fruit,” he would suffer. Without understanding the needs, aspirations, and suffering of someone we love, our love is not true love. An example from my life: it was by honoring the spiritual beliefs of my parents and ancestors that it was possible to offer true love and comfort to my mother in her last days and hours by playing and singing hymns as well as praying with her.
Thay expands this notion of true love beyond relationships with other people to our loving and interdependent relationship with nature. Nature offers us joy and happiness in such forms as air and trees which are essential to our health and well-being. He urges us to offer true love in return by taking the appropriate action or non-action to protect them.
The SECOND ASPECT of true love is compassion or karuna, the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrow. Thay makes the important point that we do not need to suffer ourselves to relieve suffering in another, and that it is necessary to develop compassion for ourselves.
To develop compassion to help transform a situation, we need to practice mindful breathing, deep listening, and deep looking to retain our own calm, clarity, and strength. Then, simply being present with ourselves or another – without doing anything else to “fix” the problem – can bring relief. Thay reminds us that one compassionate thought, word or action can already reduce another person’s suffering.
The THIRD ASPECT of true love is joy or mudita – dwelling happily in the present moment. Our mind of joy will arise naturally when we pay attention to the many wondrous sights, sounds, and experiences in our daily life. Many small things in the present moment can bring us enormous joy, such as the awareness that we have eyes to see the blue sky, flowers, trees; and ears to hear the sounds of wind, birds, song, the human voice.
Some commentators translate mudita as “sympathetic joy” or “altruistic joy”, the happiness we feel when others are happy. Thay believes that meaning is too limited because it discriminates between self and other. He asks, “How can we feel joy for another person when we do not feel joy for ourselves?”
The FOURTH ASPECT of true love is equanimity or upekkha: even-mindedness, balance, letting go of a particular view or expectation, non-discrimination. Upekkha involves the ability to take a wider view. For example, in a conflictual situation, although we may be deeply concerned, we remain impartial in order to understand and to remove boundaries between ourselves and others. With that wider view we are more likely to make skillful decisions.