Why we do what we do: The cultivation of four immeasurable thoughts or tshemed bzhi (ཚད་མེད་བཞི་) is a common Buddhist practice. The concept of the four thoughts of loving kindness (བྱམས་པ་), compassion (སྙིང་རྗེ་), appreciative joy (དགའ་བ་) and equanimity (བཏང་སྙོམས་) existed even before the Buddha but was taken up strongly by the Buddhists. Because they are said to bring about immeasurable benefit and reach an immeasurable number of sentient beings, the four thoughts are called ‘immeasurable’. They are also known as Catvāri brahmavihārā or tshangpai neypazhi (ཚངས་པའི་གནས་པ་བཞི་), because the generation of the four thoughts is believed to lead to rebirth in the celestial realm of Brahma. However, some scholars argue that Brahmavihārā refers to a sublime state of enlightenment and not just to a heavenly realm. As a technique for altruistic motivation, Longchenpa recommends the practice of four immeasurable thoughts in order to strengthen the aspiring thought of enlightenment or Bodhicitta, which is the heart of Mahāyāna Buddhism as we discussed in the last issue.
The first immeasurable thought is loving kindness or jampa. Known as maitri in Sanksrit and metta in Pali, jampa is a wish for sentient beings to be happy. Just as a single mother would wish happiness for her only child, a jampa practitioner wishes that all sentient beings attain happiness and the causes of happiness. It counters malice and ill will and wishes that all sentient enjoy good health, company, wealth, intelligence, fame, success, etc. There are many ways of generating such a thought. Some traditions instruct practitioners to start loving kindness towards one’s parents, then families, friends, community, humanity and gradually to all sentient beings. One can first think of one’s mother and the myriad ways in which she has expressed kindness, and then wish to reciprocate her kindness by giving her happiness and the causes of happiness. Gradually, one extends this to other sentient beings. In other traditions, one is encouraged to generate it first towards one’s enemy or a person one dislikes. Yet, in others, one can cultivate loving kindness towards sentient beings indiscriminately moving from region to region or from one direction to another. One can also practice it with one’s breath, imagining one’s breath, as one exhales, to be a milky, soothing substance of happiness which envelopes the world ad fill all sentient beings with happiness.
Visualising sentient beings and wishing them to be happy is a basic practice of loving kindness. It assumes the existence of sentient beings, who are objects of loving kindness, the practitioner of loving kindness, and of the act of generating loving kindness. This is known as loving kindness with apprehension of sentient beings (སེམས་ཅན་ལ་དམིགས་པའི་བྱམས་པ་). When one can generate loving kindness with full awareness of the impermanent nature of things, loving kindness is coupled with insight into the truth or reality of existence. This is known as loving kindness apprehending the truth (ཆོས་ལ་དམིགས་པའི་བྱམས་པ་). However, the highest form of loving kindness is the one which is fully imbued with the wisdom of emptiness. One does not conceive a real person who generates loving kindness, real sentient beings who are objects of loving kindness and a real act of generating loving kindness. Such loving kindness with the awareness of the illusory and empty nature of all phenomena is known as the loving kindness without apprehension (དམིགས་པ་མེད་པའི་བྱམས་པ་).
Generating loving kindness is said to have a lot of benefit. It is claimed to be one of the most effective methods for accumulating merit, which, from the Buddhist perspective, is the true source of happiness. There are eight specific benefits of cultivating loving kindness mentioned in the Buddhist texts. Loving kindness fills the person cultivating it with a sense of happiness, peace and bliss. (1) This makes the person endearing to others in both speech and bodily manners. (2) The person wins people’s affection and protection. (3) Thus, it helps the person avoid physical harm by others. (4) With a composure and calmness, one is free from mental stress thus ensuring good mental wellbeing. (5) It boosts one’s immune system and protects one from diseases, (6) and harm from poisons. (7) With good mental and physical health and affection from others, one can effortlessly fulfill one’s wishes and projects. (8) One is reborn in a higher sublime state of existence. Bhutanese normally cultivate loving kindness by chanting this prayer:
May all mother sentient beings as vast as space attain happiness and the causes of happiness.