4. The Four Immeasurables

The Buddha taught that selfless dedication to the happiness of others brings great benefits. So fundamental is this teaching that many communities begin their Dharma practices with The Prayer of the Four Immeasurables:

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May they never be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering, and                                                                                         May they dwell in the great equanimity that is free from attachment and aversion.

The four immeasurables, sometimes called the brahma-viharas or divine abodes, include loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In practicing loving-kindness, Buddhists begin by wishing happiness for themselves, because we must love ourselves before we can love others. They go on to wish happiness for someone dear to them, then for someone neutral, then for a difficult person, and eventually for all beings, unconditionally. Buddhists practice the other three immeasurables with the same all-embracing spirit. In this way, they cultivate a good heart, replacing selfish attachments with the wish to benefit others.

None of Shakespeare’s characters practice the four immeasurables formally. Nor do we find them training their minds to expand the scope of their altruistic motivation. And yet in Shakespeare’s plays, we find characters that, in their own ways, practice loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.


A. Loving-kindness

In expressing her love for Romeo, Juliet delivers lines that could serve to describe the vast and inexhaustible quality of loving-kindness.

My bounty is as boundless as the sea.
My love as deep. The more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite. (II.ii.140-143)

As inexhaustible as Juliet’s love is, it is limited to the extent that it involves romantic attachment. But Juliet is only thirteen years old. We want to think that such love lives on, if not in this life then in another. To get a sense of loving-kindness in its fullest manifestation, we might imagine a love as boundless and deep as Juliet’s reaching out to all.

In Shakespeare, loving-kindness usually involves selfless dedication to the happiness of one person. None of Shakespeare’s characters exemplify such loving-kindness better than “the noble and true-hearted Kent,” who occupies himself entirely in extending kindnesses to his old master, King Lear. He risks Lear’s wrath by trying to dissuade him from foolishly disinheriting Cordelia and is exiled on pain of death. Undaunted, he returns in disguise to continue serving him. When Lear goes mad on the heath, Kent leads him to shelter from the elements, and then to shelter from those who would kill him, and finally to the care of Cordelia. Near the end of the play, seeing the dying Lear anguishing over the dead body of Cordelia, his kindness becomes compassion as he wishes him release from pain:

Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass! He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer. (V.iii.380-382)


B. Compassion

Compassion is the natural response of love to the suffering of others. For Shakespeare, as for Buddhists, it is the heart that feels another’s pain and longs to relieve it. At the beginning of The Tempest, we are in the midst of a storm conjured up by the magician, Prospero,and see a ship sinking in the raging sea. This sight brings a spontaneous declaration of compassion from Prospero’s young daughter, Miranda:

O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dashed all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart! Poor souls, they perished.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallowed, and
The fraughting souls within her. (I.ii.5-13)

In these lines, Shakespeare gives us the compassion of an innocent girl with little experience of the world. Miranda’s compassion is a beautiful expression of innate human goodness.

Another tempest takes place in King Lear. Lear on the heath suffers from the storm without while he endures a greater storm of anguish within. When he notices his shivering Fool, he thinks of others feeling the fury of the elements. His selfish heart opens, and he prays:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just. (III.iv.28-36)

While Miranda’s compassion is the compassion of innocence, Lear’s is the compassion of experience. By enduring great pain, he comes to realize that he has been blind to the plight of others for too long. With the opening of his heart, he finds relief from his distress, if only for a moment.

Like loving-kindness, compassion is boundless. The more compassion we feel for the suffering of others, the more our compassion grows. As compassion grows, it displaces attachment, aversion, and ignorance, thereby relieving our pain. Buddhists sometimes describe compassion as a wish-fulfilling jewel that cannot be exhausted, bringing benefits to giver and receiver alike. The inexhaustible nature of compassion is beautifully expressed in The Merchant of Venicewhen Portia appeals to Shylock to spare the life of the merchant, Antonio.[i]

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. (IV.i.168-171)

For Shakespeare, compassion is the spontaneous expression of an innocent child on seeing a shipwreck and the prayer of an old man whose selfish heart has been opened by the distress of another. It is a transcendent virtue, falling from heaven and raining blessings on the giver and receiver alike.


C. Sympathetic Joy

Sympathetic joy is unselfish joy in the goodness and good fortune of others. We rejoice in the happiness, virtues, accomplishments, wealth, and success of others, wherever they appear, and we wish them even greater happiness. As we rejoice in the happiness of others, our happiness grows. The opposite of sympathetic joy is envy, the resentment of another’s good fortune. Envy reflects the false notion that happiness is a limited commodity.

Much Ado About Nothing opens on a note of sympathetic joy at the achievements of young Count Claudio as he returns with Don Pedro and Signor Benedick from a military expedition. They gather at the home of Leonato, Governor of Messina. Hearing that Claudio’s accomplishments have brought tears of happiness to his uncle, Leonato says:

There are no faces truer than those that are so washed.                                                                              How much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at
weeping! (I.i.26-29)

The joy increases as Claudio seeks and wins the hand of Leonato’s daughter, Hero, and they prepare for a wedding. Meanwhile, Benedick and Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, both self-professed bachelors, engage in a skirmish of wit at one another’s expense. Hero, Claudio and others of the party decide to pass the time until the wedding by bringing Beatrice and Benedick “into a mountain of affection the one with the other.” Male characters maneuver Benedick into overhearing a conversation about how much Beatrice loves him, and female characters maneuver Beatrice into eavesdropping on a conversation about Benedick’s love for her. Their scheme succeeds, and Beatrice and Benedick become engaged.

The atmosphere darkens when the envious Don John arrives. Hearing of Claudio’s good fortune, he says:

Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be med’cinable to me. I am sick in displeasure to him, and whatsoever comes athwart his affection ranges evenly with mine. (II.ii.4-7)

Don John is one “to joy at weeping.” He devises a plot to convince Claudio that Hero entertains another lover on the night before their wedding, and Claudio is taken in by the deception. Infected by jealousy, he rejects and shames Hero before the assembled wedding guests. When Hero faints and appears to be dead, the officiating Friar perceives her blamelessness and arranges to hide her away until her innocence is proven. Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel for having killed an innocent lady, but after the bumbling constabulary exposes Don John’s plot, they become friends again. The now repentant Claudio, still thinking Hero dead, agrees to marry her cousin, sight unseen. Then, posing as the cousin, Hero appears in a veil and says:

And when I lived, I was your other wife,
And when you loved, you were my other husband.  (V.iv.61-62)

Beatrice and Benedick join them to make it a double wedding, and the play ends with a dance before the celebration of two marriages. Six of Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding or with an imminent wedding, and what is a wedding but a celebration of sympathetic joy at the happiness of others? What Shakespeare gives us at the end of his comedies is joy piled upon joy. Much Ado About Nothing and The Two Gentlemen of Verona each end with a double wedding. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night each end with a triple wedding. And Loves Labour’s Lost and As You Like It each end with the impending marriage of four couples.

As audience members, we fully participate in the sympathetic joy depicted onstage. We celebrate the marriage of the lovers. We rejoice that those thought to be dead are alive and restored to their families. We delight in the virtues exemplified by the characters. And after the performance, we applaud the accomplishment of the actors. We can even exult in the achievement of Shakespeare, who has been eliciting sympathetic joy from audiences on a vast scale for more than 400 years. For most of us, the feelings of sympathetic joy fade as we leave the theatre, but we would do well to retain, nurture, and extend them to as many beings as possible.


D. Equanimity

Buddhist equanimity has two aspects. The first involves freedom from attachment to gain, praise, fame, and pleasure, and freedom from aversion to loss, blame, disrepute, and pain. Taken together, these are known as the eight worldly conditions, and they are a major source of suffering. The Buddha praises:

A mind that does not waver when touched by [the eight] worldly conditions . . . free from disturbances, purified of passion and finished with sensuality, it is calm and serene, without the storms of desires and the waves of worries.[ii]

Freedom from the eight worldly conditions is what Hamlet commends when he addresses these words to his friend, Horatio:

For thou hast been
As one in suffering all that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks; and blessed are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee. (III.ii.64-74)

Horatio is a model of equanimity. His is “a mind that does not waver when touched by the worldly conditions.” We find similar freedom from attachment in Shakespeare’s Roman plays, including Julius Caesar. When Brutus learns of the death of his wife, Portia, he takes the loss calmly, saying:

With meditating that she must die once,
I have the patience to endure it now. (IV.iii.217-218)

Of course, the freedom from attachment that we find in Hamletand Julius Caesarcannot be traced to any Buddhist source. It is a Roman virtue and reflects the Stoic philosophy known to Shakespeare from his reading of Plutarch. While Roman equanimity involves freedom from the worldly conditions, it lacks a second aspect of Buddhist equanimity, which is to regard all beings with an equal mind.

An equal mind is not an indifferent mind. We practice equanimity when we set aside our attachment for some and aversion for others and remember that all have buddha-nature and want to be happy. With an all-embracing spirit we wish others freedom from obstacles that impede their happiness and obscure their inner goodness. In the words of the Buddha, equanimity is “abundant, exalted, immeasurable.”[iii]It has an open heart as well as an untroubled mind.

In Shakespeare’s plays, we find characters like Horatio, who exemplify freedom from the eight worldly conditions. But we do not easily find characters that exemplify the second aspect of equanimity. As benevolent as Shakespeare’s characters often are, they do not make it a point to regard all beings – friends, enemies, and everyone in between – equally. Nor do we as audience members look on all of Shakespeare’s characters equally. Drama by its nature elicits attachment for some and aversion for others.

And yet, with Shakespeare’s characters, our aversion is usually qualified because we come to know them so well. We are often privy to their innermost thoughts. In them, we can see ourselves, or who we would like to be, or who we fear we might become, or who we could have become under different circumstances. When we experience Hamlet we know what it is to be Hamlet, we know what it is to be Ophelia, and we know what it is to be Gertrude. We may even know what it is to be Claudius. In Macbeth, the title character is both protagonist and villain. We can understand him even as we are appalled by what he does. We can see most of these characters as human beings like us, trying however misguidedly to be happy and avoid suffering, and in this respect, they are the same as us. To the extent we see that others are the same as us, we see them with an equal mind. Even Macbeth, or a real-life equivalent, has buddha-nature and deserves to be included in our practice. When we practice for those who behave wickedly, we are not excusing their wickedness. We are wishing them freedom from the delusions that cause it.

Equanimity in the face of the eight worldly conditions and in our attitude toward other beings requires insight. Insight comes with appreciation of impermanence, mortality, and interdependence, As we will see in the following chapters, Shakespeare has something to tell us about each of these subjects.



[i]Sogyal Rinpoche. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.(Harper San Francisco, 2001), 202.

[ii]Life’s Highest Blessings: The Maha Mangala Sutra. Dr. R.L. Soni, trans. (Kandy Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1956), 86.

[iii]The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Bikkhu Nanamoli trans. (Wisdom Publications,1995). 394.

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