Apramāṇa

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apramāṇa (P. appammaññā; T. tshad med bzhi ཚད་མེད་བཞི; C. wuliangxin 無量心) is tranlated as "immeasurables," "boundless states," "limitless qualities," etc. These are four subjects of meditation which are widely taught and practiced in both the Pali and Sanskrit traditions.[1][2]

Bhikkhu Bodhi states:

These states are called [immeasurables] because they are to be radiated towards all living beings without limit or obstruction. They are also called brahmavihāras, “divine abodes” or sublime states, because they are the mental dwellings of the Brahmā divinities in the Brahma-world.[3][4]

The four immeasurables are:[3]

  • Loving-kindness (mettā) - the wish for the welfare and happiness of all living beings. It helps to eliminate ill will.
  • Compassion (karuṇā) - that which makes the heart quiver when others are subject to suffering. It is the wish to remove the suffering of others, and it is opposed to cruelty.
  • Appreciative joy (muditā) - the quality of rejoicing at the success and prosperity of others. It is the congratulatory attitude, and helps to eliminate envy and discontent over the success of others.
  • Equanimity (upekkhā) - as a divine abode, is the state of mind that regards others with impartiality, free from attachment and aversion. An impartial attitude is its chief characteristic, and it is opposed to favouritism and resentment.

Meditating on the four boundless states

When taken as objects of concentration and extended in meditation to all beings without limit, these four states become "immeasurable" or "boundless" states.[5]

The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism states:

The meditator is taught to take up each of the boundless states in the same way: starting with the first apramāṇa, for example, filling his mind with loving-kindness, he pervades the world with it, first in one direction, then in a second direction, then a third and a fourth, then above, below, and all around, identifying himself with all beings and remaining free from hatred and ill will. In the same way, he takes up compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. These four factors are taken up as objects of meditation to counter the influence of specific unwholesome states of mind: viz., loving-kindness counteracts hostility (vyāpāda); compassion counters harmfulness (vihiṃsā); empathetic joy counters dissatisfaction or envy regarding others’ achievements (arati); and equanimity counters both the desire and hostility arising from sensuality (kāmarāga-vyāpāda) and the desire to win the approval of others (anunaya).[5]

In One Teacher, Many Traditions, the 14th Dalai Lama states:

The four immeasurables (appamañña, apramāṇa) are spoken of in many Pāli suttas, and the Visuddhimagga devotes a full chapter to this practice. The Mettā Sutta (Sn 1:8) speaks of immeasurable love and is one of the most popular and oft-recited suttas. While meditation on the four immeasurables can lead to rebirth in a material realm (rūpadhātu), the further aim of this meditation is to attain a pliable, concentrated mind—a liberation of mind—that can be used as a basis for insight into the three characteristics.
One way to practice the four immeasurables enriches our relationships with others. Love has the aspect of friendliness toward sentient beings and wishes them to be well and happy. This should be our basic attitude toward living beings. When seeing sentient beings’ suffering, we respond with compassion, thus abandoning fear and disgust, and do what we can to be of assistance. When we witness their happiness, success, virtue, and good qualities, our response is joy− the opposite of jealousy. When our aim for others’ welfare is not accomplished or others are not receptive to our help, we remain balanced and equanimous.
Love “has the aspect of friendliness.… Its proximate cause is seeing others as loveable. When it succeeds, it eliminates malice. When it fails, it degenerates into selfish affectionate desire” (Vism 9:93). The latter is the affliction of clinging attachment, which is often called “love” in society. Genuine love spreads to both those who treat us well and those who don’t. It is firm and does not waver according to our mood or how others treat us. It is ready to help but does not coerce others to fulfill our wishes.
Combining love with the understanding of not-self demolishes any sense of possession. This love knows that ultimately there is no possessor or person to possess, no substantially existent person to give or receive love. The highest love wishes beings to have the highest happiness, nibbāna.
Compassion “has the aspect of allaying suffering.… Its proximate cause is seeing helplessness in those overwhelmed by suffering. When it succeeds, it reduces cruelty. When it fails, it produces personal distress” (Vism 9:94). Compassion enables us to look at suffering in all its tortuous varieties without succumbing to despair. It motivates us to reach out to others directly or indirectly in order to alleviate their suffering. Compassion does not favor some and exclude others: it isn’t limited to those who are obviously experiencing suffering. It does not blame others for their suffering but realizes that suffering ultimately stems from ignorance.
Joy delights at the happiness and good fortune of others and opposes jealousy. Meditating on joy enables us to see the goodness in the world. Joy “is characterized by bringing joy.… Its proximate cause is seeing beings’ success. When it succeeds, it reduces jealousy and boredom. When it fails, it produces overexcitement” (Vism 9:95).
Equanimity is a balanced mind that remains tranquil and steady no matter what we encounter. It is not apathetic indifference that builds walls to protect us from pain. Equanimity allows our spiritual practice to stay on track, without being buffeted around by excitement or intense emotions. Clinging to nothing, equanimity gives space to appreciate everything. Equanimity “is characterized by promoting the aspect of balance toward beings. Its proximate cause is seeing the ownership of kamma thus: ‘Beings are owners of their kamma….’ When it succeeds, it makes anger and attachment subside. When it fails, it produces an unknowing equanimity” (Vism 9:96). Understanding kamma engenders equanimity. People meet with results caused by their own actions. Understanding that there is no I or mine releases craving and other afflictions, allowing equanimity to arise.
Joyous effort (vīrya) is crucial when beginning to practice the four immeasurables. Taming the hindrances by applying their antidotes is important in the middle, as practice continues. Meditative absorption (dhyāna) is essential at the end.[6]

Support for bodhicitta

The four immeasurables are an important practice in the Sanskrit Mahayana tradition. "As in the Pāli tradition, they are objects for cultivating the dhyānas, and practicing them culminates in attaining the dhyānas. However, [in the Sanskrit tradition] they also play a strong role in creating the causes to attain bodhicitta and in strengthening bodhicitta when it has been generated."[7]

The 14th Dalai Lama states:

Chapter 5 of the Bodhisattvapiṭaka Sūtra, which is part of the Sūtra of the Heap of Jewels, has an extensive explanation of the four immeasurables. In general, the four are contemplated at the beginning of a meditation session in order to stabilize and increase bodhicitta. The short version of the four immeasurables is as follows:
May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes. (love)
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes. (compassion)
May all sentient beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss. (empathic joy)
May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment, and anger. (equanimity)
The long version:
How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were to abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment, and anger. May they abide in this way. I shall cause them to abide in this way. Guru Buddha, please inspire me to be able to do so.
How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings had happiness and its causes. May they have these. I shall cause them to have these. Guru Buddha, please inspire me to be able to do so.
How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were free from suffering and its causes. May they be free. I shall cause them to be free. Guru Buddha, please inspire me to be able to do so.
How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were never parted from fortunate rebirths and liberation’s excellent bliss. May they never be parted. I shall cause them never to be parted. Guru Buddha, please inspire me to be able to do so.
In the long version of the four immeasurables, each verse has four parts, which gradually serve to intensify the emotion:
(1) a wish (How wonderful it would be . . . ),
(2) an aspiration (May they . . . ),
(3) a resolution (I shall cause them . . . ), and
(4) a request for inspiration (Guru Buddha, please inspire me to be able to do so).
Using love as an example, first we have the wish that sentient beings have happiness and its causes. Focusing our attention on this wish, the wish intensifies and becomes an aspiration that they have happiness and its causes. After that aspiration takes root in our mind, it grows into a resolution to get involved, and we take responsibility to make our aspiration a reality. Because we may feel inadequate to fulfill this grand resolution, we seek inspiration from the Buddha and our spiritual mentor. In this way, we feel supported by the buddhas who have perfected their ability to fulfill this resolution. Our love becomes stronger and more stable, as does our confidence to engage in whatever is necessary so that sentient beings will have happiness and its causes.
In the short version of the four immeasurables, equanimity comes at the end, while in the long version it comes at the beginning. Placing equanimity at the end emphasizes our wish that others enjoy the peace of being free from attachment to friends, anger toward enemies, and apathy toward strangers.
By putting equanimity first, the long version becomes a synopsis of the method of generating bodhicitta called the “seven cause-and-effect instructions,” ... Cultivating equanimity at the beginning pacifies the attachment, animosity, and apathy that all too often constitute our reactions to others. Such partiality renders generating equal compassion for all beings impossible, and such compassion is a prerequisite for generating bodhicitta, the mind aspiring to attain full awakening in order to benefit all sentient beings more effectively. Equanimity — a state free from attachment and aversion toward all beings — is preliminary to the seven instructions.
With a mind of equanimity, we then generate love for all beings. Love is the fourth of the seven instructions and the result of the first three — seeing all sentient beings as our mother, recognizing their kindness, and wishing to repay it. The third immeasurable, compassion, is the fifth instruction. This leads to the great resolve and bodhicitta, the sixth and seventh instructions. With bodhicitta, we work for the welfare of all sentient beings, which includes their temporal happiness in saṃsāra, such as taking fortunate rebirths, and their ultimate happiness — liberation and full awakening. This is the meaning of empathic joy that wishes sentient beings to never be separated from fortunate rebirths or liberation’s excellent bliss. Empathic joy rejoices at their well-being and wants it to arise and continue.[7]

Explanation of names

Why the states are called apramāṇa (immeasurable, etc.)

The 14th Dalai Lama states:

[These four states] are called “immeasurable” or “boundless” (apramāṇa, appamañña) for several reasons. First, they are directed with a mind free of prejudice or partiality toward an immeasurable number of sentient beings. In addition, they are ideally to be practiced in states of dhyāna in which the limited intentions of desire-realm minds have been superseded. Although meditators may have been born in the desire realm, their minds become form-sphere consciousnesses when entering a dhyāna with one of these four as its object. A form-realm consciousness is not limited by the five hindrances (āvaraṇa) that interfere with the cultivation of concentration: sensual desire (kāmacchanda), malice (vyāpāda, byāpāda), lethargy and sleepiness (styāna-middha, thīna-middha), restlessness and regret (auddhatya-kaukṛtya, uddhacca-kukkucca), and deluded doubt (vicikitsā, vicikicchā). Dhyānic states also are imbued with the five dhyānic factors: investigation (vitarka, vitakka), analysis (vicāra), joy (prīti, pīti), bliss (sukha), and one-pointedness (ekāgratā, ekaggatā) that render them boundless.[7]

Why the states are called brahmavihara (divine abodes)

The 14th Dalai Lama states:

The four immeasurables are also called “brahmavihāras” or “divine abodes,” after Brahmā, the deity who is the ruler of one of the dhyānic realms where beings’ minds are pure, smooth, and gentle. In the term “brahmavihāra,” “brahma” implies pure because these four are free from attachment, anger, and apathy. They are also the best — another implication of the term “brahma” — because they are beneficial attitudes to have toward sentient beings. The four are called “abodes” or “ways of living” because they are peaceful resting places for the mind, in that they are virtuous mental states that help us to live in constructive ways that help ourselves and others.[7]

Alternate translastions

The Sanskrit term Apramāṇa is translated as:

  • immeasurables (Thubten Chodron, et al.)
  • boundless states (Princeton Dictionary)
  • limitless qualities (Princeton Dictionary)
  • unlimiteds (Princeton Dictionary)
  • illimitables (Comprehensive Manual of Abhidamma)

Notes

  1. Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2014, s.v. Chapter 11: The Four Immeasurables.
  2. Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2020, s.v. Chapter 1: The Four Immeasurables.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. Chapter IX. Meditation Subjects.
  4. Bhikkhu Bodhi translates the term appamaññā as "illimitables".
  5. 5.0 5.1 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. apramāṇa.
  6. Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2014, s.v. Chapter 11:The Four Immeasurables.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2020, s.v. Chapter 1:The Four Immeasurables.


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