Boundless Qualities of the Mind

— by Joan Halifax Roshi


"How rare it is to open to the nourishment of basic goodness!"

flower with dew - photo by Jon SullivanA Brahmin once came to the Buddha and asked him how he could enter the Abode of Brahma or the Divine.  The Buddha told him that this was possible by practicing boundless kindness toward all beings, boundless compassion with all beings, boundless joy in the salvation and basic goodness of all beings, and boundless equanimity toward all beings, whether friend or foe.  Practicing thus, the Buddha explained, makes it possible for one to transform the obstacles of meanness, gloating over the misfortune of others, unhappiness, and preferential mind.  This was the way, he explained, that we enter the abode of the divine.

In another sutra, there is a story about the Buddha manifesting these boundless qualities of mind that he taught his Brahmin student.  Once there was a very ill monk.  His body was covered with suppurating, foul-smelling sores that were leaking pus.  No one wanted to care for him because he looked and smelled so terrible.  The Buddha went to the monk’s bedside and cleaned his sores, bathed him, and gave him support and inspiration as well as teachings.  Some time later the Buddha told his followers that if they really wanted to serve him, they should serve the sick with boundless kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.  The Buddha knew that he was not separate from any form of suffering.

The Four Boundless Abodes are lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.  These are qualities of the mind and heart that are inherent to our basic nature.  Buddhism calls these universal virtues the Four Boundless Abodes.  By cultivating them in our activities, we strengthen their presence within us.  As their presence grows stronger, so does their boundless quality.  These abodes are the unconditional treasure that is always available to each of us, even when we are dying.

Generating these four qualities is the ultimate form of self-care.  They connect us to the stream of basic goodness, and they connect us to one another.  They are the qualitative basis for our work in being with dying.  In some deep sense strengthening their presence is the best self-care we can give.

You can practice each of the abodes by directing its energy to yourself, a benefactor, a friend, a loved one, a difficult person, a person about whom you feel neutral, or all beings.  You can also start with yourself and expand the practice by spending a few minutes directing the energy toward each of these parties sequentially until, at the end of the practice, all beings are included.

I begin by sitting quietly and remembering how much suffering there is in the world and how much I would like peace and happiness for all beings.  I remember that someday, sooner or later, I will die and all beings will die.  I want to use this precious human life as best I can.  I then vow to free myself from suffering and help others be free from suffering.

Resting in openness, I bring my attention gently to my breath.  Then I begin my practice with myself, a friend, a loved one, or a relative who is suffering.  This opens my heart and deepens my commitment.  On the inbreath I take in suffering.  On the outbreath I offer one of the abodes.  I often practice with one of the phrases below, directing it to the chosen recipient.  Feeling open and committed, I pay attention to what is arising in my heart and mind during practice and let the practice shift accordingly.  For example, I might find myself resisting inhaling the suffering.  Then I shift the focus to sending compassion to myself.

At the end of a period of practice, I again rest in openness, inviting the feeling of gratitude to be present.  How rare it is to open to the nourishment of basic goodness!  Then I dedicate the merit of the practice to all beings everywhere.


Daisies in Balboa Park, by Jon SullivanHere are some phrases to use in generating the energy of lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.  You can radiate them to yourself, a benefactor, a friend, an enemy, one toward whom you feel neutral, and groups.  Feel free to modify any of these phrases to fit your own situation.

Phrases for lovingkindness: 

  • May lovingkindness flow boundlessly.
  • May love and kindness fill and heal your body.
  • May the power of lovingkindness sustain you.
  • May you be peaceful in body and mind.

Phrases for nourishing compassion: 

  • May you be free from pain and suffering.
  • May you take care of yourself.
  • May you be open to feel the pain in and around you.
  • May all beings be free from suffering.

Phrases for engendering sympathetic joy: 

  • May all beings be happy.
  • May joy fill and sustain you.
  • May your wellbeing continue.
  • May you feel joy in your wellbeing.

Phrases that nourish equanimity: 

  • All of us are the heirs of our karma.
  • Everyone must face his or her own situation.
  • Your happiness or unhappiness depend upon your actions, not my wishes for you.
  • May you accept things as they are.

Next in this series:  Cultivating Lovingkindness.


Joan Halifax Roshi – Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, civil-rights activist, and author – is Founder and Abbot of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As Director of the Project for Being with Dying, she counsels dying people and teaches health-care professionals about the dying process. Our thanks for her gracious permission to reprint a series of chapters from her book Being with Dying:  The Four Boundless Abodes (Prajna Mountain Publications, 2003).