The cultivation of four immeasurable thoughts or tsémé zhi (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་) are said to have existed even before the Buddha and incorporated into Buddhism. Because they are said to bring about immeasurable benefits and reach immeasurable numbers of sentient beings, the four thoughts are called ‘immeasurables’. They are also known collectively as catvāri brahmavihārā, or tsangpé népa zhi (ཚངས་པའི་གནས་པ་བཞི་), because the generation of the four thoughts is believed to lead to rebirth in Brahma’s celestial realm. However, some scholars argue that Brahmavihārā refers not just to a heavenly realm but to a sublime state of enlightenment. As a technique for altruistic motivation, Longchenpa recommends the practice of four immeasurable thoughts in order to strengthen the aspiration of enlightenment, or bodhicitta, which is the heart of Mahāyāna Buddhism.
The first immeasurable thought is loving kindness, or jampa. Known as maitri in Sanksrit and metta in Pali, jampa is the wish for all sentient beings to be happy. Just as a single mother wishes happiness for her only child, a jampa practitioner wishes that all sentient beings attain happiness and the causes of happiness. Jampa counters malice and ill will, and wishes that all sentient beings enjoy good health, company, wealth, intelligence, success, and so on.
There are many ways of generating such thoughts. Some traditions instruct practitioners to start practicing loving kindness towards one’s parents, then expanding to other family members, friends, the community, ultimately directing such thoughts towards all of humanity and 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 jampa 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, by imagining one’s breath as one exhales to be a milky, soothing substance of happiness which envelopes the world and fills all sentient beings with happiness.
Visualizing sentient beings and wishing them happiness is a basic practice of loving kindness. It assumes the existence of sentient beings who are objects of loving kindness, of 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་).
There are many benefits attributed to generating loving kindness. 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, which fill the person cultivating it with a sense of happiness, peace and bliss. These are:
(1) The person is endearing to others in both speech and bodily manners;
(2) The person wins peoples’ affection and protection;
(3) Thus, it helps the person avoid physical harm generated 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) It averts harm from poisons;
(7) With good mental and physical health and affection from others, one can effortlessly fulfill one’s wishes and projects; and,
(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.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why We Do What We Do.