Introduction to John Sullivan's new book. . . 


Opening Words

You are a ruby embedded in granite.
How long will you pretend it isn’t true?
We can see it in your eyes.
Come, return to the root of the root of your Self.

There is a teaching — very ancient and ever new: If you would dwell more fully in the present moment, cultivate four powers: love, compassion, joy, and peace. Doing so will lead to a surprising recognition: They are intertwined in such a way that all four arise together. Practicing any one with open heart and mind leads to practicing the others. Each enhances each. Each balances and corrects the others, bringing the quartet back into harmony when disharmony threatens. Together, these powers constitute a fourfold path to health, wholeness, and holiness.

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What can we say about this path, this journey?

First, its goal is fourfold. And that multiplicity makes it communal. Of old, we might have imagined a city on a mountain with four walls and four gates. The goal is partly known and partly not known. We do not have a complete blueprint for the community we seek, but we do know four of its key characteristics. We know that, at our best, we are seeking: (1) an environment that is loving and fosters love, (2) a community that is sensitive to the fragility of life and takes compassionate steps to reduce suffering, (3) a way of dwelling that is grateful for life and responds in joy, and (4) a mode of shared living that prizes inner peace and seeks harmony and reconciliation in outward affairs. This is the ancient and ever-present human dream: a loving community, a compassionate circle of care, a joyful belonging, a peaceable kingdom or commonwealth.

Second, the path to the goal is also fourfold. Process and goal are organically linked. Good seeds become healthy roots. Healthy roots, well tended, produce good fruits. By their fruits you shall know them; and the fruits are love, compassion, joy, and peace. Children play a game where one child thinks of something in the room. Another child tries to find it. “Hotter, hotter, hotter,” say the children as their playmate comes closer. “Colder, colder, colder,” say the children as their playmate moves away from the goal. So the four powers provide not only a glimpse of the goal but also a kind of compass to keep us on track. When we are acting more lovingly and compassionately, more joyfully and more peacefully, surely we are getting closer.

Third, consider again the communal nature of the goal. Call it the kingdom, commonwealth, or “kin-dom” (community of all our kin — humans, other animals, plants, and minerals).(2) Like Avalon, the legendary island of Arthurian lore, this communal reality is always present though hidden. The kingdom or commonwealth of all our kin is within us and also round about us. As the great sages teach, it is both “already present in seed” and “not yet fully realized.”(3) In this paradox there is hope in troubled times: Because the communal life we seek is already present in seed, we can water the good seeds. We can amplify what is already in positive movement. Because the communal life we seek is already present, we need not take on the burden of “making” it appear. At times, we need only let go of our old stories and cultural certainties and see them as the illusions they are. Then the communion of all beings within us and around us will manifest to our wisdom eye. Because the manifestation of the four powers is always in process, what we do and what we release matters.

In dark and difficult times, we are called to go deeper, into the rich soil of the earth. Called to return to the root of the root of ourselves. And, if we see deeply, this includes Self, all our kin in the Circle of Life, and our Mysterious Source.

The Fourfold Path

Among our earliest ancestors, the number four pointed to wholeness. A community safe within four walls, open through four gates. Four directions in space. Four seasons in time. Four primal elements: the fire, the water, the air, and the earth.(4) To speak of “the Fourfold” is to underline this aspect, that the four are not separate but profoundly interconnected. When we practice any one of the four mindfully and insightfully, then we soon see all the others arise as well. This intertwined aspect resonated through the thinking of our early ancestors.

There are also striking modern counterparts; I offer two examples.

In the eighteenth century, William Blake writes:

Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me.

He is writing about levels of consciousness which increase from single vision (a literal way of seeing)(5) to double vision, which sees symbolically as well as literally. Next, he moves to threefold vision (the province of love, dream, imagination) and eventually to fourfold vision (where the dreamtime opens to a fuller reality than hitherto imagined, a waking dream far more real than the collective illusions of conventional life). We might say that, here, the kingdom or kin-dom is vividly before us. Furthermore, each simpler vision is taken up and resituated in fuller ways of seeing and being. The ways of seeing are intertwined.(6)

In the twentieth century, philosopher Martin Heidegger also speaks of a fourfold. His fourfold consists of the Earth, Sky, Gods, and Mortals. A context wide enough and wise enough for the mythic perspective to be reclaimed through poetic power. Again, all four interconnect to form a viable world.(7)

The Fourfold I am exploring — (a) love or loving kindness, (b) compassion, (c) joy, and (d) peace (or equanimity, as it is named in the Buddhist tradition) — is far older than Heidegger and Blake, perhaps as old as some of the native peoples. It arises in ancient India, the matrix of world religions, where it is known by two titles: the Four Divine Modes of Dwelling (or the Four Abodes) and the Four Immeasurable Minds. Let us look at these designations more carefully.

First, these four ways of being and doing are called divine dwellings.  When a Hindu Brahman came to the Buddha and asked what he must do to live with Brahma (“Brahma” being the name of God in his tradition), the Buddha is said to have answered: “Practice the four Brahmaviharas” (Brahma meaning “divine”; and viharas, “dwellings”). Practice the Four Divine Dwellings. Thus, these ways of dwelling open us to the divine dimension. And as we explore them and allow them to take root in us, we notice something else. We see that each is limitless.(8) Each is beyond measure. Each is open to “the more and ever more.”(9) There is no end to love or compassion, or joy or peace. Practicing them is enacting the goal (already present in seed) and also taking steps that are congruent with the goal, namely acting lovingly, compassionately, joyfully, and peacefully.

The Buddha recommended that this Hindu gentleman practice a fourfold way of dwelling already present in his Hindu root tradition. What a beautiful moment! Here we uncover a teaching older than the historical Buddha — a trans-religious treasure, ancient enough to have deep roots, basic enough to be found in all wisdom traditions. And, because the four are seen as mutually modifying one another, they help us to break the spell of separateness. They help us to reimagine life as profoundly interconnected. To feel the resonance with many traditions, let one of the traditions speak. “By their fruits you shall know them,” says the young rabbi from Nazareth.(10) And elsewhere it is written: “What the Spirit produces is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”(11) Love, joy, and peace show up explicitly, and adding “compassion” — so dear to the Buddhist tradition — is hardly a stretch.(12) So we have assurance we are on to something central, so central that it is a touchstone of healthy and holy living.

Love, Compassion, Joy, and Peace

Let us clarify these four realities in two ways: First, lessons from language will help us stay flexible in the way we name the four powers.  Second, lessons by contrast will help us to clarify the four by noting their opposites and what are called their “near enemies.”

A. Lessons from Language

As nouns (as in the listing above), the four appear as qualities of character, capacities, and dispositions. There are twin dangers here: We may see them as static, unchanging, and fixed. We may see them as qualities that only individuals possess. In fact, they are dynamic realities — and they manifest at interpersonal, institutional, and planetary levels.

As verbs, the four are tasks or missions:

  1. to love — that is, to practice loving kindness or, alternately, to seek the well-being of the relationship and those within it,
  2. to acknowledge suffering and alleviate it,
  3. to receive life as gift and — being grateful — to rejoice in it, and
  4. to be at peace and to promote peace.

As adverbs, the four accompany and modify all we do, reminding us to do whatever we do (1) lovingly, (2) compassionately, (3) joyfully, and (4) peacefully.

As modifying one another, the four remind us that all features are present whenever any one of them is present. Because the four mutually modify one another, they are a simple yet profound introduction to a key feature of the new ecological age — namely, interconnection, interdependence, interbeing.

B. Lessons by Contrast

We can sharpen still further our understanding of the Fourfold Path by focusing briefly on the opposites of these four powers and on what is called, in the Buddhist tradition, their “near enemies.” The near enemies are clever counterfeits, close enough to cause the unsuspecting to accept the close facsimile for the real thing.(13)

Consider the opposite of love as greed.(14) Greed wishes to take — at the expense of others. Love seeks to give — for the well-being of others. The near enemy of love is possessiveness.

Consider the opposite of compassion as hate. Hate seeks to have others suffer. Compassion seeks to be sensitive to suffering, to reduce suffering when we can, to bear suffering together when we must. The near enemy of compassion is pity.

Think of the opposite of joy as a sorrow that moves to despair — to a place where trust and hope in the meaningfulness of life fade away, and we are left as if dead. The near enemy of joy — especially being able to take joy in the good of another — is comparison.(15)

Think of the opposite of “being at peace and fostering peace” as a state of deep opposition issuing in violence, injustice, and exploitation. The near enemy of equanimity — what I am calling being at peace and promoting peace — is indifference.

These opposites are all ultimately anti-life; whereas, the four aspects of wholeness support life.

The Fourfold in a Context for Our Times

Because the Fourfold Path emphasizes interconnection, it addresses urgent needs of the new Ecological Age,(16) inviting us to expand our field of practice in an ever-widening, multi-layered circle.(17)

First, we expand our hearts to include all peoples as our brothers and sisters. And as our Human-to-Human relationships broaden and deepen, we find ourselves invited:

  • to stand with the prophets of every age for justice among peoples,

  • to recognize that “All people are my brothers and sisters,”(18) and

  • to realize that we live in them, and they live in us.

With the Roman playwright Terence we can affirm: “I am a human being and nothing human is alien to me.(19)

Second, we expand our hearts — beyond humans only — to include all beings that co-inhabit this planet with us. What is being enlarged and expanded here is the sphere of “Human-to-the-Natural-World” relationships where we are invited:

  • to regard all things as our companions;

  • to view the Great Family of all beings as our extended family;

  • to find our place in a communion of all our kin — humans, animals, plants, minerals; and,

  • to realize that we live in them and they live in us.

In the past, we were much more attuned to the natural world; we knew in our bones that all things were and are our companions. St. Francis of Assisi praised Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire, Mother Earth — even Sister Death.(20) Francis expands the sense of family to include the Great Family of all creatures great and small.(21)

As we expand the spheres of our relationships — both “Human-to-Human” and “Human-to-the-Natural-World” — how we relate to this enlarged circle of beings changes subtly. In Thomas Berry’s words, we view the beings no longer as “a collection of objects,” but rather “a communion of subjects.”(22) This means we care for all we meet and that we listen to and learn from them as well. They are in us and we in them.

Third, we expand our temporal horizon to include the beings of the three times — past, present, and future. In doing so, we respond to an invitation:

  • to find our place in the greater community that spans generations — a communion of the living, the dead, and the yet-to-be-born, and

  • to realize that the ancestors, contemporaries, and children-yet-to-be-born live in us and we in them.

The Navajo remind us that we stand in the midst of seven generations: between the ancestors and the children yet-to-be-born — of all species. Before we act, the Navajo advise us to ask two questions: “Will this honor the ancestors? Will it serve the children?”

This opens a trans-generational context — the community of the living and the dead and those yet-to-be. One artist sees this community as a Cosmic Fish swimming through the universe, with every scale, a face.(23) Christian mystics speak of “the Communion of Saints.” Suppose we expand this to include all life forms over eons of time — all holy. The ancestors, the contemporaries, and all those yet to be — of all species.(24) We are in them and they in us.

Consider the much-loved poem of Edwin Markham:

He drew a circle to keep me out
Rebel, heretic, a thing to flout.
Love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took him in.(25)

So the context for working with the Fourfold Path is an ever-widening one, until we include the Circle of all Life, our deep Self, and our Mysterious Source.

An Intertwined Practice

A friend and I were talking. She was distressed because of recent conflicts between her son and his father. Finally, she said to me, “All I know to do is to increase my love.”

This is our clue. In following the Fourfold Path we are increasing our love, increasing our compassion, increasing our joy, and increasing our peaceful presence. Surely in doing so, we are on solid ground, contributing to community at every level.

In difficult times, we need a middle way — between fight and flight.(26) Returning over and over to the Fourfold Path provides that middle way.

We are called to hold to what increases love and compassion, joy and peace, but to do so without becoming oppositional. This puts the energy of fighting into greater service. We are called to release from roles and beliefs that are “too small to live in,” but to do so without fleeing the world as our precious home. This transforms the energy of flight to greater service.

So the invitation is to expand the circle, return to the root of the root of everything and engage in the Fourfold Path. This book is an invitation to explore that path more deeply and to live that path more fully. When we work at the roots, we nurture soul and spirit. When the roots become the branches, all benefit.  The insights become practices and the practices bear good fruit.   So, as we move through these chapters, let us do so in the spirit of the poet and mystic, Rumi, taking to heart his invitation:

Come, return to the root of the root of your Self.


1 Quoted from Rumi’s poem, “The Root of the Root of Yourself,” translated by Kabir Helminski. For the full poem, see Kabir Helminski, Love is a Stranger (Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1993), pp. 16–17.

2 I came across the term “kindom” in reading a book by a colleague, Rebecca Todd Peters, In Search of the Good Life: The Ethics of Globalization (New York: Continuum, 2004). Professor Peters writes: “I embrace Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s transformation of the concept of ‘kingdom’ and its patriarchal, hierarchal connotations to the concept of ’kindom,’ which represents the ’kinship of all creation and the promise of a just future.’ See Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-first Century (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 103 n8.” The comments occur in Peters’ book on p. 33, endnote 16 to chapter 2. I choose to hyphenate the word as “kin-dom.”

3 In a Christian context, the kingdom or reign of God that Jesus proclaims is already present at the depth and ever in process of being realized in the manifest world. For a striking exposition of this “already” and “not yet,” see Jay G. Williams, Yeshua Buddha (Wheaton, Ill: Theosophical Publishing House, 1978).

4 For a beautiful treatment of the four elements, see Christine Valters Paintner, Water, Wind, Earth and Fire: The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2010). I shall later propose a way of moving back and forth between the fourfold presented here and the four elements. I correlate (a) love with fire (ever-present, ever-changing); (b) compassion with water (capable of absorbing what it touches, dissolving barriers and allowing empathy to emerge); (c) joy with air (capable of entering into us through breath, capable of diffusing itself like celebration); and (d) peace with earth (capable of fertility, stability, harmony, and renewal).

5 Blake minces no words, writing: “May God us keep from Single Vision and Newton’s sleep!”

6 For Blake, see Harold C. Goddard, Blake’s Fourfold Vision — Pendle Hill Pamphlet #86 (Lebanon, PA: Sowers Printing Company — originally given as a lecture at Swarthmore College, October 1935; copyright Pendle Hill, 1956; Library of Congress catalog number 56-7354).

7 On Heidegger, see Martin Heidegger’s essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” in his Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Alfred Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1971; Colophon paperback edition, 1975), pp. 145–161.

8 On the Four Abodes, also called the Four Immeasurable Minds, see Thich Nhat Hanh, Teachings on Love (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1998), pp. 1–9, and also The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (New York: Broadway Books, 1999), pp. 169–175. For another rich treatment, see Sharon Salzberg, Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Boston: Shambhala Press, 1995).

9 I borrow this lovely phrase from the work of Brother David Steindl-Rast.

10 Matt. 7:20.

11 Gal 5:22.

12 In the other Religions of the Book, a motif is mercy. Justice and mercy in Judaism: “What does the Lord require of you but that you do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). And each chapter (save one) of the holy Qur’an begins with the phrase: “In the name of Allah, The Compassionate, the Merciful.”

13  The near enemies appear in the text below. For an overlapping treatment of the near enemies, see Jack Kornfield, A Path with a Heart (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), pp.190–191.

14  Here I am following David Brazier. See his Zen Therapy (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995), pp. 93–94, and also chapters 17 and 18. I realize that there is also a case for considering hate as the opposite of love. As the Buddha said: “Only love can overcome hate. This is an eternal law.” See the Dhammapada.

15 When we choose to believe that we live in scarcity rather than sufficiency, when we falsely believe that power, possessions, and prestige define us, then others appear as threats to diminish our worth. We live in a world of pernicious comparison. Even when we reject superiority and inferiority, we mistake equality for a kind of “keeping score.” Such comparison does not allow us to take joy in the good of others.

16 For a fuller treatment of this move from modernity with its spell of separateness to an ecological worldview emphasizing interconnection, see my Living Large: Transformative Work at the Intersection of Ethics and Spirituality (Laurel, MD: Tai Sophia Press, 2004).

17 The circle is multilayered in that it does not simply encompass individuals. The four powers are forces for wholeness and find expression at all levels — interpersonal, familial, institutional, regional, national, international, and planetary.

18 The phrase comes from the West Wall Inscription from the office of Chang Tsai, an eleventh-century administrator in China, which reads: “Heaven is my father and earth is my mother and even such a small creature as I find an intimate place in its midst. That which extends throughout the universe I regard as my body. That which directs the universe I regard as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters. And all things are my companions.” See William Theodore de Bary, Wing-Tsit Chan and Burton Watson, Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. I (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 469.

19 The quote: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto” is from Terence’s play, Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor).

20 See his “Canticle of the Sun.”

21 I take the name “The Great Family” from Gary Snyder’s poem, “Prayer for the Great Family,” which he tells us is “after a Mohawk Prayer.” In the poem, Snyder expresses gratitude to Mother Earth, to Plants, to Air, to Wild Beings, to Water, to the Sun, and to the Great Sky. See Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (New York: New Directions Books, 1969, 1974), pp. 24–25.

22 In many places, Thomas Berry urges us to relate to the natural world — “not as a collection of objects but as a communion of subjects.” See, for example, his The Great Work (New York: Bell Tower, 1999), pp. 16 and 82.

23 This image was a favorite of my mentor, Frederick Franck. See, for example, Frederick Franck, A Little Compendium on That Which Matters (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993) and his The Icon Reborn, with photography by Luz Piedad Lopez (New York: Pacem in Terris, 2005).

24 Think also of the Cosmic Christ, the Kabbalah’s Great Tree of Life, the Mahayana Buddhist teaching on the three bodies of the Buddha.

25  The poem is called “Outwitted.” See Edwin Markham, The Shoes of Happiness and Other Poems (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1915).

26  I first noticed this idea of going beyond fight or flight in Richard Rohr’s book, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (Cincinnati. OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001). The particular formulation used here is my own.