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Equanimity (Upeksha) - Fourth of the Four Immeasurables

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 27, 2010
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In topic: General Topics in Buddhism
Norman speaks on Equanitmity (Upeksha) the fourth and final of the Four Immeasurables. Norman refers to the book "The Four Immeasurables: Cultivating a Boundless Heart by Alan Wallace.
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Equanimity (Upekkhā) - Fourth of the Four Immeasurables

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 27, 2010

Editor's note: This talk contains guided meditations on equanimity.  You might consider pausing during the reading of the talk to do this practice.  The pauses and bells that end certain stages are indicated in the text.

Let me go on to talk about the last of The Four Unlimited Abodes, Upekkhā, or equanimity.  It's the fourth of the Brahmaviharas, and that word is usually translated as "divine unlimited" or "divine abodes."  These four are divine because they are such beautiful human emotions - divine human emotions.  It's heavenly to feel love, compassion, and joy for others, so they are really heavenly emotions, God-like emotions.  They are considered to be abodes, because they are conceived of as strong foundations, or places, or locales, where we can really take our stand, our firmest stand as human beings.  They are understood as unlimited, in contrast to materiality and afflictive emotions, which are, by definition, limited. 

I have always been fascinated by the definition in Abhidharma of material, physical things.  The definition is, "That which can be abused."  Meaning harmed.  A physical thing, whether it is a body or a stone or a cloud - you can wreck it, break it up.  You can take it apart.  You can't do that with a thought.  You can't take a thought apart or an emotion apart.  But physical matter is that which can be harmed and, in the case of the body, can become ill and will eventually disintegrate and disappear.  So, by nature, physicality is limited.  Afflictive emotions are inherently limited, because they are based on the idea of separation and isolation.  Envy, greed, despair, unrequited desire, anger, aggression, and so on, are based on the certainty that there are limited objects.  There is me and there is you.  Those emotions couldn't exist without that assumption of limits.  But love, joy, compassion, and equanimity ultimately flow from the absolute, empty, unlimited nature of things.  These emotions are conceived of as not just nicer and more pleasant than the afflictive emotions, but as emotions that flow from a completely different basis.  They're grounded in awakening, in the clear understanding of a unified and unlimited reality.  So these four are by their nature unlimited. 

I am saying this in relation to the fourth one, equanimity, because equanimity has a special place within the list of four.  If you remember when we did practices for maitri, mudita and karuna, it was a little different in each case, but it was typical for us to start with oneself.  Then, next, a person that we really appreciated and liked, and then a neutral person or persons, and then we went from there to all beings without limit.  Then we went to a hostile person.  Always, at the end, we returned to emptiness and simple presence.  That was the way we practiced these meditations. 

So equanimity is actually built into the other three practices.  Equanimity is part of loving-kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy.  As you come to develop those other emotions fully and in an unlimited way, you always end up with equanimity-lovingkindness, equanimity-compassion.  Equanimity implies equality - not favoring or rejecting anything, but equally regarding everything. 

This is always a stretch, an aspiration, rather than something we could have claimed to achieve.  But we practice it little by little, extending ourselves with the faith that it is possible to get there, not in some idealistic way, but in some really down-to-earth, practical way.  It really is possible to have equanimity.  But it does take time, and we do have to practice it continuously, and extend it step-by-step.  We all noticed, I think, in the doing of the practice, that it was a lot easier to have love, joy, and compassion for people who we are close with and admire and like, than it was to have those emotions for people with whom we really have problems.

Maybe you also noticed - and maybe it's not true for everybody - that it's much easier to have positive emotions for people that we like and have affection for than for oneself.  It seems like it wouldn't be the case, but actually it often is.  Maybe it is even easier to have compassion, loving-kindness, sympathetic joy for all beings than it is for oneself.  But if you leave out yourself, then you can't really say there is equanimity, because there is still self-clinging.  When the practices of maitri, mudita, and karuna are developed to the point of equanimity, or equality, and when you can love warmly and equally all beings, even an enemy, even yourself, then you are practicing equanimity. 

So, in a sense, you could say that equanimity is not a fourth practice, a different practice.  It is the full development of the other three.  Note, though, that the near enemy of equanimity is stupid indifference, or a kind of neutrality.  A lot of people think of equanimity as a kind of a lukewarm neutrality.  But it's not a neutrality.  It's an active, loving, eyes-wide-open regard for all beings - equally.  Further, equanimity is a strong emotion that even extends beyond one's relationships to other beings.  It extends to our capacity to have equanimity under all conditions that arise within our lives.  Whatever we would meet, even if we were having some pretty adverse situation, we would have this balanced, calm, warm attitude. 

There are two Pali words for equanimity, and they both express aspects of what I am talking about.  The one I used before, upekkhā, literally means "to look over."  It's interesting.  The literal root meaning of equanimity is "to look over."  I think it implies being circumspect, being able to see the whole picture in its fullness.  To see all reality accurately.  To see the interconnected, non-separate nature of our lives clearly. 

The far enemy of upekkhā is attachment or aversion.  In other words, a partial seeing.  Not looking over everything, but just seeing only parts of it.  Partial feeling.  Feeling for some over here, but not feeling for others over there.  Seeing some over here in a positive light and not seeing others over there.  Equanimity is exactly impartial.  It sees and feels in a whole way, not partially.  Seeing and feeling parts is fragmented.  It's isolating.  It's painful.  Ultimately painful.  It may not feel painful at the time, but ultimately it's painful.  Seeing and feeling whole is calm and peaceful and balanced.  So equanimity has that flavor; it has that feeling tone.  It's non-agitated. It's calm, but it is not a calm based on ignoring something or avoiding something.  It will include love or sorrow or pain, but with a feeling of calmness and understanding, that holds these feelings in a balanced way.  So there is always some happiness in accepting conditions patiently.

Another Pali word often translated as equanimity is tatramajjhattata, a little more obscure word, but also one that translates as equanimity.  The word tatra means "there." And maja means "middle," as in the Majjhima Nikaya, The Middle Length SayingsTata is the same as Tathagata.  In Pali it means "to stand."  In Mahayana Buddhism it means "to exist or to be in a pure or ultimate sense."  To appear with full integrity.  So equanimity would mean "to be fully present, fully alive, right in the middle of things."  To take one's stand in life right in the middle of things, so that one is not subject to being pushed or pulled to either side. 

Equanimity, then, is inherently generous and trustworthy and supportive of all of reality, without taking sides.  It's in the middle.  It stands in the middle of things - not to either side.  Again, this doesn't mean stupid neutrality, because actually standing in the middle of reality, in the middle of our lives, is the only place you could stand and maintain full integrity.  Otherwise, you would be biased; you would be unbalanced; and therefore, you would be vulnerable.  You would eventually suffer and cause others to suffer. 

Now let me step back and say something that goes to everything we have been saying this month.  The teachings of the Four Unlimiteds are given in two different contexts, in Theravada Buddhism and also in Mahayana Buddhism.  I know in my own case - and I think this is true for most of us - we think of them as being Theravada Buddhist teachings, because mostly we hear of them from the American Vipassana movement or from Theravada monks and teachers.  But it is also the same teaching and has a Mahayana perspective. 

In Theravada Buddhism there is a fairly detailed discussion of the Four Unlimiteds, and here the focus is the Four Unlimiteds as a basis for a concentration practice.  The main point of Theravada Buddhism is reaching the goal of freedom or nirvana.  In order to achieve freedom or nirvana, we have to let go of our afflictive emotions and our afflicted views, not only consciously, but also unconsciously.   To give up them up consciously may be fairly easy to do; but compared to giving them up unconsciously, in places where we don't even know we have them - you have to develop the Four Unlimiteds as a concentration practice.  To have freedom, we would have to purify ourselves at unconscious levels, and concentration is the only thing that would go deep enough to the unconscious levels of the heart.

So that is the reason why, when we were practicing these things over the last couple weeks, we would start first with phrases and intentions that we would say over and over again.  Then I said to forget the words and just practice with this nameless feeling as a physical feeling in the breath.  I said forget about wishing people loving-kindness and just feel the love in the breath.  Feeling love in the breath is at the level where you develop concentration.  Concentration is not developed through intentional language; it is developed through an immediate, somatic practice. 

The point is that through deep concentration, through the Four Unlimiteds, eventually we would purify ourselves of all of the emotions that come from self-clinging.  Then we would have an unlimited, positive feeling for all beings.  Then - and this is why I am mentioning all of this - the last stage of this development would be that we develop equanimity.  There is usually some shadow of partiality in loving-kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy.  It is sort of built into all those practices, until you come to the end in which there is impartiality.  So equanimity is the last broom that sweeps away the last vestiges of attachment or affection, in the negative sense of affection as clinging or grasping.  So we would develop these concentrations as a way of sweeping out our hearts.

I was studying this today in the Visuddhimagga, the great textbook of Theravada Buddhist practice.  The Four Unlimiteds are considered as a hierarchy of concentration stages.  Each one is more refined and subtle than the previous one.  Each one takes you, step-by-step, into what is called the Four Formless Concentrations, the deepest concentration states - the ultimate meditation practices.  So when you really achieve concentration on loving-kindness, this brings forth the concentration called beauty.  You see the loveliness of the world.  The way it works is that, after the initial elation, you then begin to notice the faults of that concentration state, and so you go on to the next state that purifies those faults.  The next state, in this system, is compassion.  When you concentrate on compassion, it brings forth the concentration of boundless space, because that which is boundless goes beyond beauty to awesomeness.  But then you notice, after the initial thrill of feeling that, the limitations in boundlessness.  There is some basis for attachment, so you move to sympathetic joy, which brings forth the concentration of boundless consciousness.  This is deeper and more subtle than the state of boundlessness, because space has inside and outside, has here and there, but pure consciousness collapses these distinctions.  So this implies that somehow joy in others' joy is a more potentially pure emotion than either of the previous two.  Then you finally advance to equanimity, which brings forth the concentration on nothingness or nothing, which is beyond consciousness.  With nothingness there is no self, there is no other, there is no consciousness, there is no suffering, and there is no alleviation of suffering.  Just as the Heart Sutra says, everything is empty, and so there are no fears, there are no troubles.  So these are stages of development of concentration in Theravada Buddhism, and how they align with the Four Unlimiteds. 

In Mahayana Buddhism the goal is not freedom or nirvana.  The goal is - and some might debate this - bodhicitta, this vow to practice endlessly for the benefit of others.  That's actually the heart of the commitment in Mahayana practice.  So we are not actually seeking freedom and liberation for ourselves.  We really think that that is a limited goal.  Instead, we are seeking to have the passionate feeling of wanting to practice.  This would include all sorts of benefits for ourselves, of course, but the point of these benefits would be that we could be of benefit to others.

In a sense, in Mahayana Buddhism, the Four Unlimiteds are seen not as means to an end, but as ends in themselves.  So in Mahayana Buddhism the discussion of the Four Unlimiteds doesn't center on concentration practice too much.  Instead, it centers on the vow to love others equally and unconditionally, with the recognition - this is always repeated - that the only way that this would be possible is to embrace and understand the nature of self and other as being empty; that is, empty in the sense of radical interconnectedness.  So in reality there is no self or other.  No things, even.  No suffering.  There is only love.  You would realize that the thing this world actually is and ever was is love.  So compassion, kindness, and insight become the same thing. 

Zen is very much inclusive of both of these points of view.  In our discussion this month, I have been mixing and matching, putting this together in one kind of Zen synthesis.  Of course, typical Zen literature does not do that, because it classically does not give very many direct teachings about these things.  The idea was that when Zen practice began, it was assumed that people knew and practiced all these teachings.

So equanimity teachings are implicit always in Zen, but you almost never hear that in classical Zen.  These teachings in Zen have the addition of a cautionary element that has to do with questioning language, so as not to be caught in conceptual snares.  Because even good teachings like the Four Unlimiteds can become traps as soon as we conventionalize them, and we lose our beginner's mind and make them into another thing that we are supposed to be doing.  Right?  We all know how we can do that.  We do that all the time.  You can take anything and make it into an oppressive something that we are doing to ourselves.  So Zen is always cautioning against this. In Zen the idea is that you see the point of the teachings, and you don't get stuck on the concepts and words.  You get the point that the concepts and words are pointing to. 

Let's end with equanimity practice.  It is a little bit involved, but I think we're ready for this.  So we will do what we have done before.  I'll ring the bell once, and we'll start with the body and breath, and then I'll ring the bell once at the end of each step, and twice at the very end. 

[Bell]

Return to the feeling of your body and your breathing.  [Pause]  Feel the awareness.  [Pause]  If there are thoughts coming into the mind or the mind is dull, notice the space around the thoughts, around the dullness.  Be with the awareness itself, and use the body and the breathing as a way of staying with the awareness itself.  [Pause]  The first step is to practice with the word "inseparable" - just drop that word into the awareness.  And breathe with that word: inseparable.  And then you can let go of that word and just breathe with that feeling. 

[Bell]

Next, let's breathe while contemplating this thought, "Whatever arises - every thought, every word, every deed, every appearance - arises from causes and conditions.  There are only causes and conditions. [Pause] Whatever arises - every thought, every word, every deed, every appearance - arises from causes and conditions.  There are only causes and conditions."

[Bell]

Now we will continue to sit, contemplating this thought, "All beings are just like me.  They want to be happy.  They don't want to suffer." [Pause]  All beings are just like me.  They want to be happy.  They don't want to suffer.

[Bell]

Next steps are a kind of discursive, analytical meditation.  I am going to speak to you and ask you to follow along with these thoughts as best you can.  In this step we begin by bringing to mind someone that we really love - an uncomplicated love and positive regard.  Let ourselves really feel the warmth of that love and attachment we feel to this person. [Pause]  So where does that positive, wonderful feeling come from?  It comes from your interactions with that person, which have been mostly positive and beneficial for you.  It comes from the feelings that you have inside, based on those reactions and experiences.  But where did all that come from?  It came from causes and conditions.  If causes and conditions did not bring you and this person together at the same time and the same place, if these causes and conditions didn't apply, you wouldn't feel this way.  It could have been other causes and conditions, and the person that you now feel so affectionate toward would have been another person.  This is not to take away the positive feeling.  Just reflect on the true root of these positive feelings.  It's not really the person, it's love itself - the endless play of causes and conditions that make up the world.  That's the actual cause of your positive feeling, not the person.  The cause is the love that is the world, that is in you, and that is reality itself.  This is equanimity. 

 [Bell]

Now let's take a neutral person that could be a sangha friend, someone you know and appreciate, but are not particularly close to.  It could be the clerk at the post office or the grocery store.  Somebody you work with.  In other words, somebody you have a general good feeling about, but no extra or special affection.  So why isn't there an extra or special affection for this person?  It's because of causes and conditions.  Maybe some years from now the causes and conditions will be different, and this person could become one of your dearest friends.  It happens.  But if something really drastic happened, like something that might happen on a TV show, and you found yourself trapped somewhere with this person, and there was just the two of you there, and you only had each other for company, and you only had each other to depend on, and you could only escape to safety based on each other's cooperation, you would become very close to this person.  You would have a deep, human bond with this very person who is now just a casual person in your life.  You would never forget this person as long as you lived.  And you could have chosen any one of a number of people.  It could have been anyone.  Because causes and conditions create a bond of love between us.  This is equanimity. 

[Bell]

Now think of a hostile person.  Somebody you really don't appreciate.  Maybe someone you know now; maybe somebody in your past; maybe somebody from years ago.  Really let yourself feel your enmity for this person.  Your disgust, your dislike.  Don't hold back.  Just feel what you feel.  If you are avoiding this one, don't avoid it.  Take a breath and plunge in, even though we don't like feeling close to this nasty person.  So what is the cause of this icky feeling?  It isn't some essence in this person.  It's things he or she did.  Things he or she said.  It's deeds, words, thoughts.  And where did they come from?  How did they appear?  They are the result of causes and conditions.  They are the natural fruits of causes and conditions.  Things happened in that person's life that led them to say and do the kinds of things they say and do.  Disliking the person for these behaviors is like getting mad at the stick for beating you, instead of being mad at the person who is wielding the stick.  Your being mad at the stick makes no sense.  You should be mad at the person who is wielding the stick.  So in the case of this person that you don't like very much, maybe who hurt you, the real object of your dislike or antipathy is not the person, who in the analogy is like the stick; it's the bad causes and conditions that have given rise to these behaviors.  That's the problem.  If there had been other causes and conditions, this same person might be your good friend, like the first person that you thought of, who you are so dear with.  But if this person had those causes and conditions in your life and his or her life, it might have been a good thing for you.  So transfer whatever enmity or dislike or fear you have from the person to the causes and conditions.  Vow to yourself to use the energy of that dislike, that enmity, that fear, to overcome such causes and conditions, first in yourself, and then in all others you meet.  Use the very energy of your hurt and your dislike to overcome these bad causes and conditions in you and everybody else that you meet.  May all beings be happy.  May all beings be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.  May all beings, without exception, and all beings equally, enjoy loving-kindness, joy, and compassion.  May I personally dedicate the rest of my life and beyond to see to it that this wish comes about.  That it becomes real.  Even though I can't hope to accomplish this now, this week, this month, this decade, or even the rest of my life, I am determined.  Even after my life is over, my life energy will go on to continue to contribute to this goodness, as long as time will last.  Until the job is done.  Make that vow to yourself, if you can.  This is bodhicitta, the ultimate equanimity. 

[Bell]

Finally, come back to breathing and posture.  Let all of that go.  You can feel how just in sitting here with your own awesome presence, it's all still there, and it was there before.  It doesn't really need any of the words, any of the ideas.  It's there anyway.  Just feel it.  Breathe it.  Enjoy it for a moment or two. 

[Bell]

Thank you very much.  Equanimity is the best!