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The Four Sublime States

A good meditation teacher may start a disciple off on contemplating one of the Four Sublime States as an antidote to balance unwholesome, harmful states such as anger, hatred, greed, passion, or lust, which cause distraction within mundane states. 

In a booklet of the same name, The Four Sublime States, (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1994, Wheel Series 6) Venerable Nyanaponika Maha Thera explains that the Buddha taught the four sublime states, also known as the four immeasurables, which are:

1. Loving-kindness (metta)
2. Compassion (karuna)
3. Sympathetic Joy (mudita)
4. Equanimity (upekkha)

These states are said to be sublime because they are the right moral way to behave toward other living beings. They represent the right way to react in all situations of external contact. 

To quote Ven. Nyanaponika: “They are the great removers of tension, the great peace-makers in social conflict, and the great healers of wounds suffered in the struggle of existence. They level social barriers, build harmonious communities, awaken slumbering magnanimity long forgotten, revive joy and hope long abandoned, and promote human brotherhood against the forces of egotism.” (Access to Insight)

These four sublime states, when fully developed, are incompatible with their opposites. One can feel one or the other, but one cannot feel both at the same time. Meditation on these sublime states precludes their opposites. As they become dominant in the mind, mundane contacts can no longer gain access. 

Such sublime states can sometimes just be temporary places, visited on rare and infrequent occasions, or, as we develop, they can become more frequent abodes or long-term dwelling places. “Long-term dwelling” means that the mind is saturated with love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, and we can dwell in that state for a long time before we come out of it. How long we can stay depends on certain conditions and our skill in long-term practice.

“In all positions,” Ven. Nyanaponika tells us, “when walking, standing, sitting or lying down . . . let him establish mindfulness of the sublime states of love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity in which their perfections are boundless because they cannot be limited in range but are boundlessly extended. They are all-inclusive and impartial and cannot be bound by personal preferences and prejudices. A mind that has attained to such a boundless state will not harbor any national, racial, religious ,or class hatred.” (Access to Insight)

It is a wonderful thing that the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and the Four Sublime States can be practiced simultaneously, because one, who is prone to the loss of mindfulness due to anger, hatred, envy, or lust is constantly distracted in his concentration. 

As a soothing alternative to breath meditation, one can consciously start to practice loving-kindness, for example, which will serve to cool one’s mind and help to still the dormant harmful states which are still working within one’s consciousness. Both forms of practice can be complementary to one another in helping to free us from unsettling attachments to the six senses. Such simultaneous practice can help us to equalize the balance of energy in our minds on a plane between mundane and sublime states.

Instead of constantly hammering away at yourself—blaming and scolding yourself for a lack of mindfulness in breathing meditation—you may turn away, temporarily, from that particular form of frustration and mental distraction, and instead practice meditating on loving-kindness as an antidote to the shame and blame you may be laying on yourself. This works equally well with concentration on compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. There is more than one form of meditation, and you should, with time, try them all to see which are most advantageous to your practice and development. 

To quote the Ven. Nyanaponika again, in a more specific context:

Generally speaking, such meditative practice will have two crowning effects: First it will make the four qualities sink into the heart, so that they become spontaneous attitudes, not so easily overthrown; second, it will bring out and secure their boundless extension, the unfolding of their all-embracing range. 

“In fact, the detailed instructions given in the Buddhist scriptures for the practice of these four meditations are clearly intended to unfold gradually the boundlessness of the sublime states. They systematically break down all barriers restricting their application to particular individuals or places.

(Access to Insight)

In the case of loving-kindness, for example, one begins with loving-kindness toward oneself, thinking or saying: “May I be well and happy . . . ,” and so on, and then extending the same sense of loving-kindness to those near to one, to those who are neutral to one, and finally to all living beings in all the world. 

Some quotations from the discourses of the Buddha are as  follows: 

“Here monks a disciple dwells pervading in one direction, with his heart filled with loving kindness . . . compassion . . . sympathetic joy . . . equanimity; likewise the second third and fourth directions; so above below, around; he dwells pervading the world everywhere and equally with his heart filled with loving-kindness, abundant, grown great, measureless, free from enmity and free from distress.”

(Access to Insight)

Here, another quotation:

“Love without desire to possess, knowing well in the ultimate sense that there is no possession and no possessor: This is the highest love.

“Love without thinking and speaking of ‘I, knowing full well that this so-called ‘I’ is a mere delusion’

“Love embracing all beings, small, great, far-and-near, be it on the earth, in the water or in the air.

“Love but not the sensuous fire that burns, scorches and tortures, that inflicts more wounds than it cures, flaring up now, at the next moment being extinguished, leaving behind more coldness and loneliness than was felt before.”

(Access to Insight)

The highest manifestation of love is “to show the world the path leading to the end of suffering, the path pointed out, trodden and realized to perfection by Him, the Exalted One, The Buddha.” (Access to Insight)

See more

The Four Sublime States: Contemplations on Love, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity by Nyanaponika Thera (Access to Insight)

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