Everything in Buddhism seems to have a number attached to it: The Four Noble Truths; the Noble Eight-Fold Path; the Four Metta Phrases; the Five Precepts; the Eight Vicissitudes; the Five Hindrances; the Seven points of posture, etc.
I was assured that there would be no math on this path. As a liberal arts major, I can give you a haiku on the topic:
Buddha was right
Life is always suffering
The Eight Fold Path Cures
…but I am no expert on numbers. That said, the teachings and their numbers operate as a kind of mnemonic device for me.
The Brahma-viharas are an example–there are 4 of them, so (and maybe this is the twisted way that my mind works) I find them easier to recall.
The Brahma-viharas, or 4 immeasurables, are called that because we have them in limitless quantity. They are called the sublime attitudes or transcendent qualities. They are:
- Loving-kindness (Pāli: mettā, Sanskrit: maitrī) is active good will towards all;[1
- Compassion (Pāli and Sanskrit: karuṇā) results from metta, it is identifying the suffering of others as one’s own;
- Empathetic joy (Pāli and Sanskrit: muditā): is the feeling of joy because others are happy, even if one did not contribute to it, it is a form of sympathetic joy;
- Equanimity (Pāli: upekkhā, Sanskrit: upekṣā): is even-mindedness and serenity, treating everyone impartially.
The one that, historically, I have had a problem with is #3, Sympathetic Joy. I used to feel quite put out, jealous and mean-spirited when I heard of others’ good fortune. “Must be nice” sprang to mind much more easily than “How wonderful for you!” I was more of a poster child for Schadenfreude than I was for empathetic joy.
Like Dean Vernon Wormer said in Animal House, “fat drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son”.
The limits on the 4 immeasurables are self-imposed. They have “ego-mind” written all over them. It is, quite frankly, liberating to contemplate on the 4 immeasurables and devote oneself to nurturing them. You spend a lot less time being unhappy.