The Four Immeasurables

This morning a phrase came back to me while I was sitting for my morning 30 minutes, in what I call meditation but which is more often a moving conveyer belt of thoughts, feelings, intentions, and memories.

The phrase that came to mind was “The Four Immeasurable Catalysts of Being”.

Like the majority of my spiritually-evocative reading over the past several decades, this phrase comes from the activities on behalf of dharma in the west of Tarthang Tulku; in this case from a translation of a trilogy by Longchenpa, “Kindly Bent to Ease Us”, Dharma Publishing, 1975; which was translated from the Tibetan into English by a Canadian professor, Herbert V. Guenther.

This phrase may not be immediately evocative to everyone, but unfamiliar uses of language can yield a special quality in their very call for us to enter into the uncertainty that they invoke.

The words “the”, “four” and “of” need no introduction; and “catalyst” is a word that holds a place in scientific vocabulary, denoting any element that allows two other elements to interact chemically.

But what about those two other words: “immeasurable” and “Being”? Keeping in mind that these words are being used to describe love, joy, compassion and equanimity, what can it mean to say that these four qualities are immeasurable in themselves and that they can open a door to boundless “Being”?

The image that came into my mind this morning was of the life of water. More particularly, I was thinking of the Great Lakes which constantly pour their contents into the Saint Lawrence River, from which they make their way back to the Atlantic Ocean. It occurred to me that each and every drop of water is one among many and is always surrounded by other drops. Isn’t there a Biblical promise that not one drop is forgotten: that if our Father in Heaven cares for the smallest sparrow, how much more is he caring for each of us?

But, in this world, don’t some of those drops in the Great Lakes (Superior, Ontario, Huron, Michigan and Erie) get forgotten; don’t some get left by the wayside as their cousins get swept up in the pull of Niagara Falls rushing headlong down 167 feet of misty free fall? Can every being, every dream and hope, every drop of water really be worthy of care in the eyes of some Great Being?

What about at the edges of Lake Huron, in the stillness of an early spring morning? There a moose comes to the edge of the water, dips his antlered head into the waves lapping gently against the shore, and drinks deeply. Is he not stealing countless drops, immeasurable perhaps, from their destiny to return to the sea from whence they came?

What about the young birch tree to his right, its roots probing and drinking from the water table that surrounds every body of water on this earth?

As I take a breath of air and hold it for a moment, I visualize the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide taking place before my next exhalation; my lungs pausing in the borderland between an outer world–where trees provide the oxygen without which I could not live–and an inner landscape, where billions of cells are each a port-of call for those tiny sailing boats passing by. Science tells us that each of those cells is itself transient, so that this flow of the planet’s breath into my body is immeasurable, a mysterious gift from an unbounded universe where every molecule and every heartbeat is giver, recipient, and gift.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning asks (in her Sonnet 43), “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” But that counting amounts to a waving at the edge of a vast sea of being, were that which cannot be counted, measured or captured is constantly washing ashore, and where nothing lasts for longer than the flickering murmuring of our hearts.

Is this not an extraordinary feature of our world and our lives in it? What is most alive and nourishing cannot be captured. We can buy bottles of water in the grocery store, but the water that a moose drinks at the edge of a lake, which waves back in the leaves of a birch tree, and which allows me to look out upon a world–is indigenous to this planet and can never be exiled forever from our Mother Earth.

One comment to “The Four Immeasurables”
  1. Nice thoughts, Michael.

    You probably remember taking our drinking water right out of Lake Babine, when we worked on the tug/barge together, and used that same water for making coffee on the diesel stove. Bad coffee I remember, but no fault of the lake water.

    At one time I noticed tiny red organisms in the water, and talked to the mine safety officer about it, but he wasn’t interested. I don’t think that ingesting them along with the coffee or water hurt us.

    Buying bottled water is such a bizarre thing. There’s a great book on that, but likely not available now:


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