Mettā sutta – part 2

The next part of the Mettā sutta describes a form of blessing. It is a wish, not a demand; we recognize the place in our heart that wishes others well, and we give it space and encouragement to grow into our central desire.

… wishing: In gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease. Whatever living beings there may be, whether they are weak or strong, omitting none; the great or the mighty, medium, short or small; the seen and the unseen; those living near and far away; those born and to-be-born; may all beings be at ease. 

The aspect of mettā being emphasized here is its universality. We can cultivate mettā for a particular person or situation, but here we establish an intention to exclude no one.

It’s not clear whether our scope of concern is all sentient beings or all beings of any kind. It may be simplest to first think of all human beings, since that is the category we tend to divide up into “us and them”, or at least those we consider deserving and those we think are not.

If our heart is open, then mettā radiates as if we were a glowing furnace. The heat is not directed at any individual more or less than any other; whatever the intensity of the energy, it isn’t impeded by any judgment or preference. Even people with various forms of power, with whom we might strenuously disagree – they are included as well.

If we can start by imagining a form of love that is indiscriminate, that is unbounded and endless, then we can build on that feeling. If we can set aside (temporarily) all forms of clinging, then the sublime mental state of mettā is available to us. It is a type of super-power; it can penetrate our doubts about ourselves and our aversions to others.

Sometimes we find it difficult to experience mettā even when we want to. Rather than force the issue, we can repeat some phrases that have meaning for us to help us remember our intention. For example:

May I be well, may I be happy,
May I be free from harm and suffering.
May all of my good purposes be fulfilled.

If it’s easier, we can direct our good wishes towards a specific person: “May s/he be well…” etc.

Eventually, this can be expanded to all beings: “May all beings be well, …” etc.

For clarification, the last line refers to all of our good spiritual purposes. It’s not about fulfilling any material desires or plans, but about purifying the heart and all the beneficial actions and words that come as a result.

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Mettā sutta – part 1

The Mettā sutta (from the Pali language) has been chanted for millenia, by many people, in many languages. In the next few posts, I’ll be looking at it in sections (in English) and reflecting on why it is so important in the Buddha’s teachings. The translation I’ve chosen is one that was collaboratively arrived at decades ago by a group of nuns and monks in the Ajahn Chah tradition. It begins:

This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness, and who knows the path of peace. Let them be able and upright, straightforward and gentle in speech; humble and not conceited; contented and easily satisfied; unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways; peaceful and calm and wise and skillful, not proud and demanding in nature; let them not do the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove. 

All these instructions are a preamble describing what our attitude and conduct should be before we bestow our blessing (mettā) on others. The first sentence says that we should be living ethically (according to the five [or more] precepts) and have cultivated a calm(er) mind.

“Able and upright, straightforward and gentle in speech” refers to a pervasive sense of honesty, directness, and gentleness in our relations with others.

“Humble and not conceited” means what it says – to not hold ourselves to be special or “in charge” or in any way superior to others. Humility can be learned at deeper and deeper levels. And “contented and easily satisfied” is a reminder to orient our lives towards simplicity, not to spend our energy arranging for our own comfort and entertainment as a central concern.

“Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways” — Many of us need to heed this advice more closely. Being busy is highly valued in most of our cultures; “doing nothing” is looked down upon. However, to cultivate a peaceful mind requires time and space, so if that’s what we want to do, we need to be “un-busy” for periods each day. This phrase encourages us to look inward rather than outward.

“Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful, not proud and demanding in nature” — If we are practicing mindfulness and setting aside as many material concerns as possible, we will, as a consequence, become more peaceful and calm, which sets the stage for wisdom to arise. With wisdom, we are likely to be more thoughtful and less likely to require attention and praise from others.

“Let them not do the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove.” With this last descriptor, we’re encouraged to be our own judge. We can ask ourselves, “Is this action we’re contemplating for the benefit or harm of myself and others? Is it something we would approve of if someone else did it?”

It seems that some purifying of our minds and behaviors is a pre-requisite for practicing mettā in the way the sutta describes.

[The full translation of the Mettā sutta is available from a link to the right of this post.]

Posted in Causes and results, Compassion, Karma, Mindfulness, Relationships, Speech, Sublime states | 3 Comments

Weather dukkha

It’s easy to notice how much extreme weather is affecting all parts of our planet recently. Humans have always been close observers of weather patterns, but something seems to be different now. Perhaps it’s that we have better measurement tools, or that communication of danger and disaster is so swift and visually striking. For many of us, intensifying weather patterns are just one indicator of global climate changes that are already affecting the health of our planet. How can we manage forces so powerful and complicated? Plainly, we can’t; and yet we sometimes have powerful emotional responses to our predicament.

The first of the Buddha’s four truths is dukkha; not getting what we want and getting what we don’t want. Usually we adjust when things don’t go our way, but it takes a large scale adjustment when forest fires foul the air with smoke for weeks on end, or when floods compel us or our neighbors to leave their homes. When extreme cold or heat forces people to stay indoors indefinitely, it can feel apocalyptic. In several major cities in the Asia-Pacific, the air is harmful to everyone’s health on more days than not. We humans are adaptable, but there are limits.

Sometimes we’re concerned for ourselves and those close by, sometimes for friends or family in distant places, and sometimes for whole populations we have no personal connection to. All of these feelings are natural, but when they become intense, we need to recognize them and mindfully manage them.

One possibility is to use the R.A.I.N. approach, that is:

(1) Recognize what is happening – Maybe we’re watching the news or reading an article and having a strong reaction.

(2) Allow life to be just as it is – Take a deep breath and let go of our physical and mental resistance to what appear to be facts. It is what it is.

(3) Investigate inner experience – What does our skin feel like? Our heartbeat? Our breath? Is our jaw clenched? Are there tears? What is registering within the body?

(4) Non-identification – This is the tricky step. If our heart is pounding, how can we NOT take it personally? First, breathe. Then notice that breathing continues regardless of how upset we are. If we turn our attention to what is actually happening in our bodies and minds – the physical and verbal contents – and sustain that attention, we will perceive that the phenomena we’re experiencing are changing. Rather than reacting to external information, we can bring our awareness back, again and again, to the direct experience of our bodies.

Of course, when we’re in a calm state, we can investigate possible avenues for positive action, local or global, and schedule planned communications or activities into our days.

In any moment, we can turn our attention towards compassion; compassion for ourselves, for people affected by weather dukkha, for folks we can help and those we can’t. Real compassion doesn’t require a particular result, it just flows freely over the deserving and the undeserving; it doesn’t stop and start, it radiates.

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Freedom

Freedom is one of those words that can be used in different contexts to have very different meanings. The type of freedom most often spoken of is freedom from constraints of various kinds, i.e., license. Yet each of us lives within an economic, cultural, and social context in which all freedoms are not equal. The boundaries of personal liberty vary widely depending on our circumstances.

Bhikkhu Bodhi proposed a radical re-definition of freedom, as spiritual autonomy. (from https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bl071.html)

Spiritual autonomy is an internal freedom, not dependent on external circumstances. Much as we might rail against the unfair acts of others, our own unwholesome roots are more confining. Our greed, hatred, and delusion are chains that, if we can loosen and escape them, offer the greatest potential for unshakeable freedom. Paradoxically, this greatest of freedoms requires discipline and vigilance over our own behaviors of body, speech, and mind. The demands are great and the rewards are commensurate.

“Just as in the great ocean there is but one taste — the taste of salt — so in this Doctrine and Discipline (dhammavinaya) there is but one taste — the taste of freedom”: with these words the Buddha vouches for the emancipating quality of His doctrine. (Bhikkhu Bodhi)

If we commit to keeping the five precepts (harmlessness, non-taking, sensual restraint, truthfulness, refraining from intoxicants) we’ll experience a significant level of freedom. The regrets and ramifications of unwise actions will be left behind. If we go further and undertake to study and practice the Buddha’s 8-fold path (skillful view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration), our understanding can open up and more freedoms become ours. Whether we are a struggling layperson or the most cloistered of monastics, we can walk the same path and experience the bliss of freedom to whatever degree we practice.

There’s a sutta that may be relevant here (S 2.26). In it, one of the gods, Rohitassa, says to the Buddha: “When I was a human being in my last life I was a yogi and I had the ability to walk through the sky, I was a skywalker. I could walk from one side of India to the other in no great time. I made a vow that I would walk until I reached the end of the world. But even though I walked through the sky non-stop for many years, still I couldn’t reach the world’s end.”

The Buddha replied: “Yes, Rohitassa, that is how it is — you cannot reach the end of the world by walking. But I tell you this: if you don’t reach the end of the world you won’t reach the end of suffering. The world, Rohitassa, is in this very fathom-long body with its thoughts and perceptions – in this body there is the world, there is the origin of the world, there is the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the world.”  (Translation by Ajahn Amaro).

Ajahn Amaro explains: “So, in this very life, within the sphere of this living experience, the world can be known.” And I would add: the end of suffering can be known.

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Useful questions

We ask ourselves and others questions all the time. Can we sort out the useful questions, the ones that will lead to greater clarity, from the useless ones?

I’m a long way from my 20’s, but I remember how confusing it was to try to figure out what I should be doing with my time. Several young relatives and friends remind me that it’s not easy to grow into our potential; there’s no guide that suits everyone; all the discovery work is original with each of us.

By the time we get to middle age we’ve met people we admire and people we don’t; we’ve read or otherwise taken in a lot of information about the world, and we’ve deduced some things about our opportunities. We may be more familiar with our strengths and our flaws.

Whatever stage of life we’re currently in, it is useful to be clear about what questions we’re working on finding answers to, both long and short term. Some of the questions will have to do with work or study, some with relationships, and some with who we are now. What are the principles we base our actions on? What is worthy of our concern and what isn’t?

One useful question is “What lens are we looking through?” Is our main focus on figuring out what we, as individuals, want and how to get it? Is it trying to please a parent or mentor or friend? Is it attempting to fit into a pattern of how we think things should be? Each of us is in a continuous process of developing our view of life and our place in the scheme of things.

The Buddha described four types of questions: “There are these four ways of answering questions. Which four? There are questions that should be answered categorically [straightforwardly yes, no, this, that]. There are questions that should be answered with an analytical (qualified) answer [defining or redefining the terms]. There are questions that should be answered with a counter-question. There are questions that should be put aside. These are the four ways of answering questions.” (from https://suttacentral.net/an4.42/en/thanissaro)

We can use this model in considering questions asked of us by others and also those we pose for ourselves. Is the question a yes/no one? Or more complicated? Is further investigation needed? Is it an unhelpful question, to be set aside?

We can spend our time on questions that will have no bearing on our words or actions, for example: “What happens to us after death?” or “Why does evil exist?”.

Closer to home, some practical questions might be: “Should we say yes or no to this specific request?”, “Is it time for us to speak or keep silent?”, “How can we find out more about X (person, situation, or choice)?”, and “Would the expected result of this (planned) action be beneficial or harmful (to ourselves or others or both)?”.

Throughout our lives, we have the power to direct our energies, using skilful questions.

 

 

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What is delusion?

We can experience greed and hatred clearly, but what about delusion? The third of the classic “unwholesome roots” usually remains hidden from us.

Delusion can be considered ignorance or the opposite of wisdom. Delusion means not recognizing our greed and hatred for what they are; it’s believing that anything we experience can be permanent and unchanging; it’s thinking that lasting satisfaction can be gained from sensory experience, or that things will happen as we wish they would. Delusion includes blithely assuming that sickness and death won’t come to us or people we care about; it includes our fantasies about the future and imagined punishments we could impose on others.  Delusion sustains and solidifies our me-centric view of the world and traps us in ignorance.

These words are from an article by the editors of Tricycle Magazine: The first of the Three Defilements, Greed, drives us to cling to or hoard the things we want, and hate drives us to avoid and resist what we don’t want. Delusion is the folly of thinking we can get what we want to the exclusion of what we don’t want. It’s an attempt to split up circumstances into categories of our own devising. But reality is not divisible in that way, and the irony of such a delusion resides in a failure to recognize that greed and hate are psychologically one and the same. (from https://tricycle.org/magazine/three-defilements/)

Delusion is present when we tune out and drift because nothing is grabbing our attention.

From an essay by Bhikkhu Bodhi: These three mental factors are lust (raga), repugnance (patigha), and ignorance (avijja), psychological equivalents of the unwholesome roots of greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha). When a worldling, with a mind untrained in the higher course of mental discipline taught by the Buddha, experiences a pleasant feeling, then the latent tendency to lust springs up in response — a desire to possess and enjoy the object serving as stimulus for the pleasant feeling. When a worldling experiences a painful feeling, then the latent tendency to repugnance comes into play, an aversion toward the cause of the pain. And when a worldling experiences a neutral feeling, then the latent tendency to ignorance — present but recessive on occasions of lust and aversion — rises to prominence, shrouding the worldling’s consciousness in a cloak of dull apathy. (from https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bl071.html)

What stimulates delusion/ignorance in us? Inappropriate attention. Any time we spend mindlessly following whatever is in front of us, we leave ourselves open to delusion – to creating and inhabiting a world that is not real.

When we apply mindfulness to our experience NOW, our view can clear up. What is the sensory experience? The mental experience? What (if any) meaning do we assign? Are we looking through the “me first” lens or the lens of the Buddha’s four truths? Can we see how our likes and dislikes are limiting our vision?

Desire and aversion are part of the fabric of life. The challenge is to see them as they are, as seducers into delusion.

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Is kamma true?

Since I’m still overseas, here is another (partial) section of Ajahn Chah’s teachings from Ajahn Jayasaro’s book, Stillness Flowing. This section is simply called “Kamma” (p. 596):

Much of Luang Por’s [Ajahn Chah’s] Dhamma teaching was devoted to instilling confidence in the law of kamma, the central constituent of Mundane Right View. Most frequently, he expounded upon the simple formulation of that law familiar to all Thai Buddhists: ‘Do good, get good results. Do bad, get bad results.’ While the brevity of this version of the formula makes for easy memorization, it also gives ample room for wrong views to accumulate. A common cause of doubt amongst lay Buddhists was that the teaching seemed to contradict everyday experience. So many people who did a lot of good things never saw any good come from it, they said, whereas people who did bad things seemed to prosper everywhere you looked. Luang Por never tired in explaining how the good that results from good actions is not be be understood in terms of worldly notions of good fortune. If someone was disappointed that an act of generosity had borne no good results, then the act itself must have been performed with a desire for some reward.

If you give something away with a wish for something in return, then it’s not true giving.

Luang Por explained that people who doubt that good actions lead to good results simply don’t understand what the Buddha means by ‘good results’. On one occasion, Luang Por said:

In my life, I’ve never once got a bad result from a good action. At the moment that I’ve done anything good, I’ve always got a good result immediately, there and then.

In other words, the wholesome qualities of mind present in a good action were strengthened by the act, and that strengthening was the immediate reward.

I’ll give you an example. Suppose you have a friend who is poor and you take him in, look after him, give him money, an education, until finally he is able to get a job, support himself and, in time, gain success in his career. Sometime later you fall onto hard times and become impoverished. This fellow doesn’t come to visit you and makes no attempt to help you out and repay you for your kindness to him. You feel angry about this and you think, ‘I performed a good action but received no good results from it. Why on earth did the Buddha teach that good actions have good results?’

That would be a foolish way to look at what happened. In helping out that man, your mind was good and just and noble, and the growth in those good qualities are your reward. The fact that he doesn’t repay your kindness is his own affair. It’s nothing to do with you, it’s his own bad action. You’d be a fool to take the bad action of someone else into your heart. No good can come from that.

I’ll be back in time for the next post. Thank you for your patience.

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