Unit Six: The Four Immeasurables

buddhist studies for secondary students

Everyone wants to be happy, but happiness cannot be achieved in isolation. The happiness of one depends upon the happiness of all and the happiness of all depends upon the happiness of one. This is because all life is interdependent. In order to be happy, one needs to cultivate wholesome attitudes towards others in society and towards all sentient beings.

The best way of cultivating wholesome attitudes towards all sentient beings is through meditation. Among the many topics of meditation taught by the Buddha, there are four specifically concerned with the cultivation of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. These four are called the Four Immeasurables because they are directed to an immeasurable number of sentient beings, and because the wholesome karma produced through practising them is immeasurable. The four are also called the sublime states of mind because they are like the extraordinary states of mind of the gods.

By cultivating the wholesome attitudes of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity, people can gradually remove ill will, cruelty, jealousy and desire. In this way, they can achieve happiness for themselves and others, now and in the future. The benefit in the future may come through rebirth in the fortunate realms.

(a) Loving-kindness

Loving-kindness, the first immeasurable, is the wish that all sentient beings, without any exception, be happy. Loving-kindness counters ill will. The attitude of loving-kindness is like the feeling which a mother has for her newborn son. She wishes that he may enjoy good health, have good friends, be intelligent and successful in all that he attempts. In short, she wishes sincerely that he be happy. One may have the same attitude of loving-kindness for a particular friend or for others in one’s class, community or nation. In all these cases, one wishes that the person or persons concerned enjoy happiness.

The extent of loving-kindness in the instances mentioned above is limited to those for whom one has some attachment or concern. The meditation on loving-kindness, however, requires one to extend loving-kindness not only towards those whom one feels close to, but also to others whom one may know only slightly or not know at all. Finally, one’s loving-kindness is extended to all sentient beings in all the realms of existence. Then only does the ordinary wholesome attitude of loving-kindness found in daily life reach the state of the sublime or the immeasurable.

(b) Compassion

Compassion, the second of the immeasurables, is the wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering. It counters cruelty. People can observe the natural attitude of compassion in the world around them. When a mother, for example, sees her son seriously ill, she will naturally be moved by compassion and earnestly wishes that he may be free from the suffering of his sickness. In the same way, most people have experienced the feeling of compassion upon seeing the suffering of a relative, a schoolmate or even a pet. All these are examples of the ordinary feeling of compassion. To become a sublime state of mind, compassion has to reach beyond the limited group of individuals or beings whom one loves or cares for. Compassion has to be extended to all sentient beings in all the realms of existence before it becomes an immeasurable.

(c) Appreciative Joy

The third immeasurable is appreciative joy. It is the wholesome attitude of rejoicing in the happiness and virtues of all sentient beings. It counters jealousy and makes people less self-centred.

People in their daily lives may experience appreciative joy. It is like a mother’s joy at her son’s success and happiness in life. In the same way, almost everyone will have at one time or another experienced the feeling of joy at the good fortune of a friend. These are the commonly experienced forms of appreciative joy. When one meditates on appreciative joy and extends it to all sentient beings and not just to loved ones only, one then experiences appreciative joy as a sublime state of mind and as an immeasurable.

(d) Equanimity

Equanimity, the last of the four immeasurables, is the attitude of regarding all sentient beings as equals, irrespective of their present relationship to oneself. The wholesome attitude of equanimity counters clinging and aversion.

Equanimity can be experienced in common forms in daily life. When a grown-up son settles down with his own family, he begins to lead an independent life with responsibilities of his own. Although his mother still has her feelings of loving-kindness, compassion and appreciative joy towards him, they are now combined with a new feeling of equanimity. She recognises his new independent and responsible position in life and does not cling to him.

To become a sublime state of mind, however, the attitude of equanimity has to be extended to all sentient beings. In order to do this, one needs to remember that one’s particular relationships with one’s relatives, friends and even enemies, are the result of previous karma. Thus one should not cling to relatives and friends while regarding others with indifference or hatred. Moreover, one’s relatives and friends in this life may have been one’s enemies in a past life and may again become enemies in the future, while one’s enemies in this life may well have been one’s relatives and friends in the past, and may again become one’s relatives and friends in the future.

Select and discuss a story from:

Meditating on the Four Immeasurables

Various methods have been taught for practising the meditation on the Four Immeasurables. They are designed to help one extend systematically, the wholesome attitudes of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity to all sentient beings by beginning where it is easiest to develop them. To practise the meditation on loving-kindness, one should begin with oneself. One should cultivate the wish to be happy. Gradually, this practice will enable one to eliminate unwholesome attitudes and actions that produce unhappiness in one’s life. When one has developed a feeling of loving-kindness towards oneself, one should go on to develop it towards a close relative or friend. When this is accomplished, one can move on to the more difficult task of developing loving-kindness towards strangers and even enemies. One then extends this attitude to all members of one’s community and nation and finally to all sentient beings in all the realms of existence.

To develop compassion, one may begin with an individual whose suffering naturally arouses a feeling of compassion. Once compassion has been aroused in this way, one can go on to develop it step by step towards relatives, friends, strangers and even enemies. Finally, like loving-kindness, compassion can be extended to all sentient beings without exception. When cultivating appreciative joy, one begins with a fortunate friend. Thereafter, one can extend one’s attitude of appreciative joy to relatives, strangers, enemies and then to all sentient beings. In cultivating equanimity, however, one is advised to begin with a stranger because one is naturally free from strong feelings of clinging or aversion to him. Then, having aroused the wholesome attitude of equanimity, one can extend it to relatives, friends, enemies and all sentient beings.
Developing wholesome social attitudes through practising the meditation on the Four Immeasurables will bring about a change in one’s personal and social life. To the extent that one can free oneself of ill will, cruelty, jealousy and desire, one will experience greater happiness with regard to oneself and in one’s relations with others. One will find that at home, at school and at play, one can experience a new sense of harmony with all. Later, these wholesome attitudes will help one to relate successfully to others both in one’s career and in one’s social life. Even after this life, the wholesome karma gained by cultivating the Four Immeasurables will lead one to rebirth in more fortunate circumstances.


All life is interdependent. Therefore the happiness of one individual depends upon that of others. The Buddha taught the Four Immeasurables – loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity – in order to remove ill will, cruelty, jealousy, clinging and aversion.

In meditation, the Four Immeasurables are extended to all sentient beings. Through cultivating the Four Immeasurables, people can achieve happiness now and in the future.

Secondary Level Unit 6: The Four Immeasurables

Multiple-Choice Questionnaire

Activity Box

Buddhist History & Culture: Buddhist Timelines, Scriptures, Women, Countries, Deities, Culture, Statistics.

The Meditation Class: Instructions in Insight and Loving-kindness meditation – showing techniques in sitting and walking.

eBook Library: Nine Maha (Great) Buddhist Crossword Puzzles.

Online Research Projects: Choose a topic from nine suggested research projects.

The Buddha, His Life and Teachings: Salient features of the teachigs.