Virtue Meditation

Above is a visual model for a method of combining the four immeasurable virtues in one meditation.

Buddhism has many meditative practices — each with different results. Each tradition emphasizes different practices and adds their own flavors. ” Virtue meditation” or “virtue contemplation” is common to many traditions. In the Vajrayāna tradition, meditation on the four immeasurable virtues is used as a means to cultivate healthy emotions.

You can find many books and websites describing techniques for meditating on any of the “Four Immeasurables” — each virtue is important in its own way. Vajrayāna monk, Matthieu Ricard has a book called “Why meditate? Working with Thoughts and Emotions” which also has superb examples of each of these individual meditations. But what I found most interesting about Ricard’s book was his description of a method which integrates these four meditations into one meditation. This combined method guards from pitfalls from each of the individual meditations taken by themselves.  The pitfall avoidance is done using the sophisticated notion of “near” and “close enemies” in Buddhist psychology.  Finally, the combination meditation illustrates how the two wings of enlightenment (Wisdom and Compassion) work together.   Perhaps a bit confusing is that though “compassion” (the first wing) is one of the four immeasurables, it is also the general term used to describe the state resulting from the mastering of the four immeasurables. .   “Wisdom”, the second wing, is added to the mediation by closing with focus on “interdependence” (緣) which is seen as a primary principle of Wisdom.  Thus, this one meditation skillfully cultures Compassion and closes with Wisdom uniting many Buddhist skills in one meditation.

It is my hope that this diagram captures all these concepts in an easy to remember image to facilitate the practice.  The following Ricard description of the method (pgs 86-7).  I added bracketed brown comments so you can see how my diagram fits his description.

Combining the Four Meditations

Begin with altruistic love [one of the 4 immeasurable virtues -“karuna” in Sanskrit], the strong wish for others to find happiness and the causes of happiness.  If, after a while, this love drifts toward attachment  [which a deceptive counterfeit for altruistic love, thus called a “near enemy”.] move on in the meditation on impartiality [AKA-“equinimity”, another immeasurable] in order to extend your love and compassion equally to all beings–dear ones, strangers, or enemies.

If your impartiality turns into indifference [the near enemy of equinimity/impartiality], it is time to think of people who are suffering and arouse intense compassion [“karuna”, the 3rd immeasurable] within yourself, with the wish to relieve these beings from all their suffering.  But it may happen that, as a result of being continually concerned with the endless misfortunes of others, you may be overcome by a feeling of depression and helplessness, even despair [the deceptive false-virtues springing from compassion — “near enemies”], to the point where you feel over-whelmed by the immensity of the task and lose heart.  At that point meditate on your joy in the happiness of others [Sympathetic Joy, the 4th immeasurable], thinking of those people who possess great human qualities and of those whose altruistic aspirations have been successful.  Rejoice fully in that.

If that joy turns into blind euphoria and distraction [the near enemy of “mudita”], return again to altruistic love–and so on.  Develop the four thoughts in this way while avoiding the pitfalls possible in each of them.

At the end of your meditation, contemplate the interdependence of all things [緣] for a few moments and their lack of autonomous, intrinsic existence.  Understand that, just as a bird needs two wings to fly, you must develop wisdom and compassion simultaneously.  Wisdom is a correct understanding of reality and compassion is the desire for all being to be liberated from the causes of suffering.

1 Comment

  1. Kind

    This graphic is a jewel, thank you. I’ve made copies for our Compassion Group, as it complements well our reading of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong. This book, in my sense, having just begun its study, uses this meditation as a warp through which Ms. Armstrong weaves a weft of the world’s luminary teachings. You’ve portrayed the process with powerful simplicity. Namaste.

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