Category Archives: Compassion

Questions and answers

In Buddhist traditions, as with many other religions and cultures, debate holds a special place. Part investigation, part competition, it is common for people to engage in back and forth conversation in an attempt to sharpen their wits and prove their points. The Buddha was often challenged by the proponents of other paths. In the sutta quoted below, he lists four specific types of questions and the appropriate ways to answer them.

Bhikkhus, there are these four ways of answering questions. What four?

(1) There is a question to be answered categorically, e.g. Q: ‘Is the eye impermanent?’ A: ‘Yes.’

(2) There is a question to be answered after making a distinction, e.g.  Q:’ Is the impermanent the eye?’ A: ‘Not only the eye, the the ear, nose, etc. are also impermanent.’

(3) There is a question to be answered with a counter-question, e.g. Q: ‘Does the eye have the same nature as the ear?’ A: ‘With respect to what?’ (with respect to seeing – no; with respect to impermanence – yes).

(4) There is a question to be set aside, e.g. ‘Is the soul the same as the body?’ 

These are four ways of answering questions. – from AN 4:42, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, with examples from the commentaries (taken from footnotes to the AN)

Much of our public conversation at present is characterized by artificially constructed “yes or no” questions. These guidelines may help us talk with each other in ways that bring more clarity and (perhaps) less volatility.

If someone says “You’re either with us or against us”, we may well ask, “Who is ‘us'”? If someone asks how the universe could have been created without an underlying intelligence, we can put that question aside as unbeneficial. When someone categorizes people as “lifters or leaners”, we might ask whether we haven’t all been both lifters and leaners at different times in our lives.

We can also practice mindfulness by not reacting to every scrap of news (every tweet) that floats across our awareness, at least not right away. An enormous percentage of the daily “noise” of the news turns out to have no consequence by the next day. It’s liberating to realize that we can let things pass by, can take our time deciding what to allow into our consciousness, and what to respond to.

As with many of the practices involving speech, we can always consider the option of listening, of waiting and reflecting before we speak. With practice, we can recognize questions that can and can’t be answered with a yes or no. Even if the questioner’s intention is provocative, we can reply with seriousness. We can use a question to reframe an issue to the benefit of those open to conversation. In this way, we can increase the level of harmony in whatever company we find ourselves in.

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“You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things.”
― M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans (a novel)

Forgiveness is related to gratitude, but more complicated. To cultivate gratitude, we only have to direct our attention to blessings being received. To forgive, we have to see that our pain is part of damage on a broader scale.

The Stedman quote above comes from the mouth of a character who is violently persecuted for being German in Australia during WWII. The clear choice not to take the persecution personally comes as a blast of counter-intuitive fresh air. It is true that to resent requires constantly refreshing our own anger, and that we do have the choice to give that up.

We are inclined to see the world in terms of aggressors and victims, but there is another view. The following quote is taken from a recent column by Washington Post advisor Carolyn Hax (edited by me):

Q: [Having been raped,] how is forgiveness actually possible?

A: Carolyn Hax – To my mind, forgiveness is not about absolving. I see it more as a matter of bringing a broader understanding to what makes people do bad things to each other. So, the perpetrator did something bad, it was that person’s choice and fault–but who comes to such an awful choice without something horribly wrong in that person’s life?

So your pain is not isolated, it’s part of a continuum of pain and of human frailty–and in that is where, speaking only for myself here, I find the stirrings of forgiveness. It’s the start of a decision, counterintuitively, not to bundle up your anger at the perpetrator as part of your own pain, but instead to release the perp to his own pain: “This wasn’t about me, I was just unlucky to be there–this was about a broken person who must live the consequences of that brokenness.” That in turn releases you to be about you, and healing.

The change in perspective that Carolyn Hax describes may be very difficult to arrive at on one’s own. Any trauma deserves to be treated with the help of a skilled and caring therapist.

The “truth and reconciliation” process that was undertaken in South Africa started with the confessions of the aggressors. Healing came from confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is rare that the full process can be realized; perpetrators of harm rarely confess and ask for forgiveness. And yet we would do well to attempt to free ourselves from the prison of resentment.

A good working principle is that everyone is doing the best they can with their currently available resources and understandings. Many of us do things that we think will make us happier or better off and then discover that they don’t. We can’t know what goes on inside other beings.

Many of the hurts we carry with us are small ones. Perhaps we can start by forgiving the momentary annoyances and perceived slights. While trying to keep ourselves out of harm’s way, we can come back to gratitude for what we have, fortified by forgiveness as needed.





Filed under Anger, Causes and results, Compassion, Relationships

An open letter

This is a guest post. The author is a dear Dharma friend, a long-time practitioner and leader, Lloyd. His letter (below) is in response to a proposal recommending actions that Dharma communities and followers might take in response to the political turmoil in the USA post-election.

Dear Friends:

It’s clear that David’s sangha member is well intended in his suggestion, and I fully agree with the need for Insight Meditation sanghas around the country to be ready to more publicly witness our core values and take non-dual social action when it seems wise and needed.  Healing must begin, and we should certainly be a visible part of it.

However, there seem to be some assumptions imbedded in this particular suggestion that for me are a little problematic.  The first is that the sanghas are uniformly and monolithically politically progressive.  This is not necessarily the case at the Insight Meditation Community of Denver.  In addition to being at least a little bit ethnically diverse and a little more with regard to age, we are also at least somewhat politically diverse, including some libertarians and others I’m pretty sure may have voted for Mr. Trump.  My/our goal at the sangha is to make sure it’s a safe space for everyone, including those who do not necessarily regard themselves as politically progressive.

The second, related problem I have with the suggestion is that it assumes an “otherness” of those people who are unlike “us”.  As members of our sangha help those facing food emergencies, homeless vets, and others in need, I don’t know whether it’s occurred to us to wonder how those we are helping voted in the election, if they voted at all.  Chances are that a good many of them who did vote voted to blow up the system, which is what Mr. Trump promised to do.

For that reason, in our sangha we don’t dwell much on political positions or views in our talks and discussions, although we do stay keenly focused on issues of human rights, and on helping those most in need.  Personally, I think the most important form of witnessing Insight Meditation sanghas can do at this point in time is to stand up for and stand with those who are suddenly quite vulnerable in our society.  And one important way to do this is to come into alliance with other faith communities in other religious traditions.

For instance, a few months ago when there were bomb threats and some vandalism at the Colorado Muslim Society compound, faith communities joined together to form a symbolic protective cordon around their mosque, as a means of signaling that we are with them.  And the UU church where we meet and to which we contribute dana [financial gifts] periodically provided sanctuary for several months to a Mexican immigrant who’d lived in the US for years, and was about to be torn from his family and forcibly deported without adequate due process.

I don’t think we should assume that everyone who voted for Trump shares his bigoted views of ethnic and religious minority groups.  We might in fact eventually find that there is some common ground on human rights issues.

A few weeks after the Democratic National Convention, I heard an interview on NPR with Khazir Khan, the Muslim American immigrant whose Army officer son died protecting his troops in Afghanistan, and who gave such a powerful speech at the convention.  The interviewer asked him if he knew that he and his wife would be subjected to the kind of backlash they suffered after his speech, from insults by candidate Trump himself to death threats and vicious hate speech.  He said he did, and then he added this: “At the end of my life, when I stand before my Maker, I need to be able to say that when the time came, I chose to comfort the frightened heart”.

As Buddha Dharma sanghas, in my view some of the most important work we can do going forward into an uncertain and perhaps politically dangerous future is to comfort the frightened heart of the most vulnerable among us.  It is not easy work, and sometimes requires more than a little courage.  And in my experience both as a combat veteran and spiritual seeker, courage is not an absence of fear (which is fearlessness).  Courage is reposing in faith and equanimity in the presence of fear.


Filed under Compassion, General, Harmlessness, Relationships

Patience with the practice

Forty years ago, when I was setting out on the path of practice, there was a lot of confusion, but my goal was clear: enlightenment or bust! I was vague about what enlightenment was, but I understood it as the possibility of knowing everything and never suffering again. I believed that by putting all my effort into this project, I could finish it quickly, much as a five-year-old believes if she runs flat out, she’ll be faster than any other living person. Partly this naivety was caused by the blindness of youth, and partly it was a matter of not getting good information in the early days.

Ambition was a primary obstacle in my practice for a decade, and it played into my impatience with everything, especially with myself. I was on the fast track to “god”, although what I mainly encountered were my own flaws.

I confess this now in hopes of saving someone the time it took for me to realize my mistake. I was trying to acquire enlightenment so that I (I/me/my self) could live without discomfort. After years, the truth started to come into focus: there is no escape for ME, for the ego-identified self that was propelled by ambition. By tracing back the eagerness to the ego behind it, it dawned on me that here was the problem. Such a paradox! The thing I wanted more than anything was unavailable to my ego-identified self.

Even after the situation became apparent, a total shift in world-view was required to move in the desired direction. The emptiness I felt was not a hole that could be filled, it needed to be accepted and understood, and it was possible to dissolve the surrounding framework that made the emptiness feel like a problem.

Each of us is unique, but there are some important truths that we share with all living beings. (1) Everyone who is born must die, and we don’t choose the timing or the manner of our death. (2) All of our actions, for good or ill, have an impact on other living beings. (3) Of all the things we acquire over a lifetime, nothing material will last or can be taken with us. Our actions are our only significant legacy.

Those of us brought up with competition as a primary mode may have difficulty altering how we view the world and our place in it. In my experience it’s a terrific relief to be nobody special, at least for periods of time. It makes me feel secure to remember that each action matters, and that now is the only time we have. The Buddha’s teachings point the way to living with an understanding of impermanence, dukkha, and ownerlessness (or not-self). It’s not an understanding that can be reached conceptually, we have to re-train our minds, our words and the actions of our bodies. The good news is that we don’t have to do this alone.


Filed under Causes and results, Compassion, Patience, Perfections

Patience with oneself

Another aspect of patience that bears considering is being patient with oneself. It is likely that if we are impatient with ourselves we are impatient with others. Perhaps the key to having patience with others is to start with ourselves.

After decades of meditation practice, I find that my own imperfections, though somewhat reduced, are more visible than ever. I see with more clarity each time I lose patience with other people, going from zero to one hundred (figuratively) in a heartbeat.

Impatience is a member of the dosa family of impulses or patterns of behavior, along with hatred, resentment, anger, fear, and resistance. This is one of the three unwholesome roots that cause trouble for everyone except the fully awakened. For some, perhaps most of us, this is the biggest obstacle to freedom. For others, anger and hatred are muted, but greed is dominant. And for yet others, delusion – the mistaken idea that we know what’s happening – leads the way. All of us carry some portion of all three unwholesome roots, but it may be most productive for each of us to work on the one that creates the most problems for us. Patience will be useful in understanding and uprooting all three unwholesome roots in our hearts.

There are two main areas where we can develop patience with ourselves: our bodies and our minds. In both cases, we can bring the same compassion to ourselves that we would show to any friend who is struggling.

As we age, if we are sick, or if we carry the burden of chronic illness or disability, we have an opportunity to practice patient endurance. When we’re young and healthy, we may feel immortal; we’re strong and beautiful (enough) and what could possibly go wrong? The first wrinkles and grey hair or hair loss, remind us that everything that is born decays. Eventually we are forced to acknowledge our mortality, and facing this reality can elicit denial or panic. As with any dukkha, meeting it head-on is the only way to know its nature, and this may take compassionate persistence.

Our minds can be even harder to have patience with. We have some thoughts and feelings that we wish we didn’t have. Sometimes we try to push them aside or ignore them, but until we face our unwanted thoughts, they will keep on coming back like a whack-a-mole game.

When anger or resentment or irritation arises in the mind, rather than directing our frustration at others, we can make the attitudinal U-turn to examine the phenomenon precisely as it is. We can observe the fact: “irritation is arising”. It may seem very difficult to make the switch, but feelings and thoughts change so quickly that if we fully engage with what is happening, we will be able to watch it metamorphose into something else. Investigating in this way will eventually expose our dark sides to enough light to cause them to wither. In this way, we replace unwholesome habits with wisdom.


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After taking refuge – what next?

At a practical level, when we take refuge, we are simply remembering what is important. We do our best to keep in mind that our words and actions matter, try to minimize harm and maximize kindness. Our efforts are rarely completely successful, but if we keep the intention alive, gradually it comes to feel more natural. A teacher I heard recently described this process as running our self through a filtering (or purification) process over and over again, becoming slightly more refined each time.

Meditation or other mindfulness practices are a helpful support to our wholesome intentions.

Often, we can’t tell if our efforts are bearing fruit until a significant amount of time has passed and we start to notice changes. We might find that someone who has annoyed us for years suddenly looks like a person deserving of compassion. Or we manage to think about politics without getting upset. Or we miss a transportation connection and rather than blowing a fuse, we relax and enjoy the suddenly available time. Any real spiritual growth will eventually manifest in a way that we and others can perceive.

The first precept about not killing or harming sentient beings is one “filter” we can use. By noticing and restraining our actions and words, eventually a change of heart comes about.  The internal impulse to strike out becomes less automatic and starts to feel unpleasant. A friend and I recently recognised that “snarky” comments are attempts to snuff out someone from our world. The impulse in the mind comes from an evolutionarily necessary protective mechanism. The difference is that it’s only our hyper-alert sense of self that is threatened, not our lives.

Difficult, ungentle people are everywhere. When will we stop expecting that to change? Do we really enjoy feeling besieged? Can we accept the situation as it is and respond with compassion and kindness rather than indignation and resentment? At least sometimes?

How we think of and work with the training to refrain from killing or harming other beings evolves over time. We start by seeing and acknowledging when our “kill that threat!” instinct is in play. While I still feel annoyance when drivers are careless or aggressive on the road, I am no longer surprised by it and see my task as getting out of the way, to try to establish a zone of safety. What triggers our killer instinct may surprise us; it is rarely rational. What pushes your anger button?

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Filed under Causes and results, Compassion, Precepts

Mettā practice

Mettā is not a superman’s love; it is the very ordinary ability just to be kind and not dwell in aversion towards something or someone.
– from The Practice of Mettā, a talk by Ajahn Sumedho

An important and much-misunderstood way of cultivating mindfulness is the practice of mettā. In recent decades, the practice has come to us (in the English-speaking world) almost as a mantra meditation; when we repeat certain phrases, our hearts are meant to automatically open. I confess that this approach has never worked for me. It often felt like more of a chore than a helpful exercise.

Earlier this year I was introduced to a new way of looking at mettā practice. Ven. Analayo said that when the hindrances (greed, aversion, agitation, sloth, and doubt) are in abeyance, then mettā is present. He recommended simply being aware of this calm mental state, which resonates throughout the body, and allowing it to radiate indiscriminately. No need to send it to a particular person or group; no need to send it at all, just allow it to radiate in all directions, unobstructed, at whatever strength you find it. Because we have a pleasant sensation when the hindrances are in abeyance, if we make space for the feeling and don’t interfere with it or judge it, it will naturally grow.

So how can we hold the hindrances at bay? Good question, and I only have partial answers. When we calm ourselves, we withhold nourishment from the hindrances. When we let go of clinging, in any form, the hindrances recede. If we start paying attention to whether or not the hindrances are present in our body/minds, we might notice that sometimes they are just naturally quiescent.

The disturbances created by the hindrances may be external forces (other people or situations) or internal (our own worries, concerns, self-criticisms, etc.). Recognizing these as impersonal, seeing that we don’t have to grab them and identify with them, allows us to let them go. It starts with observing the energetic state that our body and mind are in, right now.

Mettā can be practiced in any posture, but a relaxed and alert energy is recommended. Once we identify this specific way of feeling, the mental state of mettā, we can cultivate it in any place at any time.

Later in the published talk referenced above, Ajahn Sumedho says:
Wisdom arises when we begin to accept all the different ‘beings’ both within ourselves and outside, rather than always trying to manipulate things so they are convenient and pleasant for us all the time, so that we do not have to be confronted with irritating and troublesome people and situations. Let’s face it, the world is an irritating place! …We can still be fully aware of imperfections and not dismiss them or be irresponsible; the practice of mettā means we don’t create problems round them by dwelling in aversion. We can allow ourselves to flow with life.

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