Category Archives: Perfections

Not my anger

On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Rājagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrel Sanctuary. The brahmin Akkosaka Bhāradvāja, Bhāradvāja the Abusive, heard: “It is said that another brahmin of the Bhāradvāja clan has gone forth from the household life into homelessness under the ascetic Gotama.” Angry and displeased, he approached the Blessed One and abused and reviled him with rude, harsh words.

When he had finished speaking, the Blessed One said to him: “What do you think, brahmin? Do your friends and colleagues, kinsmen and relatives, as well as guests come to visit you?” – “They do, Master Gotama.” – “Do you then offer them some food or a meal or a snack?” – “I do, Master Gotama.” – “But if they do not accept it from you, then to whom does the food belong?” – “If they do not accept it from me, then the food still belongs to us.”

“So too, brahmin, I do not abuse anyone, do not scold anyone, do not rail against anyone. I refuse to accept from you the abuse and scolding and tirade you let loose at me. It still belongs to you, brahmin! It still belongs to you, brahmin!

“Brahmin, one who abuses his own abuser, who scolds the one who scolds him, who rails against the one who rails at him – he is said to partake of the meal, to enter upon an exchange. But I do not partake of your meal; I do not enter upon an exchange. It still belongs to you, brahmin! It still belongs to you, brahmin!” (SN 7:2, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

This is a well-known sutta, probably because it is so often relevant. The question is, can we remember this story when we feel like engaging angrily with an angry person? It can be a mighty challenge.

If we stand back and observe from a distance, an angry person looks deranged. They are in the grip of an emotion that is overpowering their reason and their judgment; they can’t see the consequences of their actions. A wise person will not engage directly with someone in that state.

What quality in us makes it so difficult to allow another person to spew their anger and not have our own anger aroused? We can feel as if we’re being attacked, as if a war has already begun and we must stand and fight. Some of us are so sensitive that even an imagined slight, someone failing to say “Good morning”, can set us off. Others of us can handle anger directed at ourselves but explode if we think someone we care about is being treated unfairly.

What can we do? Best would be to understand that others’ anger belongs to them and that we can choose whether to respond in kind or to take another path of action. For this to be so, we would need to know what our triggers are and try to correct for them when necessary. Can we raise our self-awareness to this level when under duress?

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Filed under Anger, Harmlessness, Mindfulness, Patience, Perfections, Speech

Patience with others’ anger

There’s a story in the Pali canon about a battle between the devas (heavenly beings) and the titans (lower-ranking demi-gods) and how the victor treats the vanquished leader. [The full sutta is here: https://suttacentral.net/en/sn11.4.] Here’s an excerpt in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation:

“One who repays an angry man with anger
thereby makes things worse for himself.
Not repaying an angry man with anger,
one wins a battle hard to win.

“He practices for the welfare of both –
his own and the other’s –
when, knowing that his foe is angry,
he mindfully maintains his peace.

In this case, Sakka, king of the devas, is enduring the rage of the captured Vepacitti, leader of the titans. Sakka’s advisors encourage him to deal with Vepacitti harshly, but Sakka demonstrates how his patience prevents Vepacitti’s fury from harming him. Sakka even says that this is an opportunity to develop mindfulness, to show how awareness helps us to see clearly and to know our own strength.

Patience is a primary remedy for anger, our own and others’. On the surface, it may seem a passive response to a difficult situation; but below the surface, patience has potentially unlimited power. If we can learn to see the range of choices we have when others’ actions provoke us, we can be protected from our own mercurial responses.

We are not victorious kings dealing with angry, vanquished leaders. However, sometimes we are confronted with someone who is in a position of lesser power, in a work or domestic situation, and that person is behaving badly. We may feel like crushing them, putting them in their place, setting them straight – but is that the best way to handle things? Or is this a moment with potential for training? If we can resist our own enjoyment of power and have patience, others may notice our strength, and we ourselves will know that we are free in a way that others who wield their power carelessly are not.

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Filed under Anger, Mindfulness, Patience, Perfections

Giving sustenance

“Monks, if people knew, as I know, the result of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would they allow the stain of miserliness to obsess them and take root in their minds. Even if it were their last morsel, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared it, if there were someone to share it with. But, monks, as people do not know, as I know, the result of giving and sharing, they eat without having given, and the stain of miserliness obsesses them and takes root in their minds.” (Itivuttaka 26, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

It may be difficult for us to imagine being hungry, having only one bite of food, and thinking of sharing that bite with someone else in need. All three parts of that scenario are likely to be outside of our experience. But what can we take from this verse? We can notice how we relate to food. Do we eat without thinking? Do we get cranky if we’re served something we don’t like, or if we have to wait longer than anticipated for a meal? When was the last time we actually felt hungry?

When we enjoy food (or anything), are we aware of our good fortune in having enough? Do we remember that there are many people in the world, perhaps not very far away, who face hunger or malnutrition?

A few ways we might share our good fortune are by donating money or food to a local food bank, or by volunteering at Meals on Wheels or at any source of nourishment for those in need. There are also international charities that focus on bringing food and water sustainability to those in dire need – Buddhist Global Relief, for example.

Giving food has a special place in the practice of generosity because it is (along with water) the most essential element for keeping our bodies alive. By giving food, by remembering whenever we eat that others also need to eat, we strike at the heart of our own greedy tendencies.

Conquer stinginess with giving (from Dhp 223, translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Sharing our time and attention are also important ways of giving, and provide similar benefits to our inner life. Whenever we give, we are countering our natural selfishness with the equally natural (and much pleasanter) energy of generosity. We only need to remember (and re-remember) this principle for it to do its work.

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Ways to give

“There are, monks, these five gifts of a superior person. What five? He gives a gift out of faith; he gives a gift respectfully; he gives a gift at the right time; he gives a gift with a generous heart; he gives a gift without denigration.” (from AN 5:148, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The sutta above goes on to list specific benefits of each type of giving. In the first case,  where faith is the motive, giving to virtuous people (maybe especially monks and nuns or other renunciants) one’s faith becomes apparent as a radiant physical beauty. We might recognize this as the inner beauty we easily perceive in people who are generous by nature.

What does it mean to give with respect? We thoughtfully consider the needs or desires of the recipient and select the most appropriate gift or gifts. We can demonstrate our respect by showing that we know and understand the recipient, for example with tuition support, a bicycle for transportation, or regular flowers or cards for someone who is shut-in. When one gives respectfully, one result is that others listen to the giver, and try to understand and apply what they hear. We can observe that respect begets respect.

When one gives at the right time, one of the results the Buddha mentions is that the karmic benefits of the gift will arrive “at the right time”.  One example here is the gift of space for someone who needs to be left alone for a while. Another might be reaching out to a bereaved or neglected person.

“Because one gives with a generous heart…his mind inclines to the enjoyment of excellent things among the five cords of sensual pleasure.” This section is open to interpretation. It could mean that when a person has a generous heart, she is likely to enjoy the less crude and more refined of available pleasures, for example, inspiring entertainments vs. violent ones.

“Because he gives a gift without denigrating himself and others, wherever the result of that gift ripens he becomes rich, affluent, and wealthy, and no loss of his wealth takes place from any quarter, whether from fire, floods, the king, bandits, or unloved heirs.”  The Buddha is referring here not to specific, instant causes and results, but to a larger karmic flow. If we understand that we cannot personally own anything in an absolute sense, then our attitude towards sharing will naturally be free, and we may not feel we have to struggle to hold on to what we have. We will give and receive happily as a normal part of living.

Giving in any of these ways will bring joy to the giver and the receiver.

 

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Even-mindedness

Some of us have been thrown off balance by recent political events. Emotions may roil; we may feel threatened, frustrated, or confused, without having a sensible channel for responding. This seems the perfect time to introduce the upekkhā pāramī, often translated as equanimity.

The only way out is through a different approach: one of developing equanimity as self-acceptance. Cultivating this is one of the ongoing themes of Dhamma practice. For example in meditation: when painful memories or ugly mind states come up, we pause, set aside how things should be, and let go of trying to analyse or fix the mind. In checking those reactions (without judging them) an even-minded empathy spreads over the mind. No need to struggle: ‘I can be with this.’

I like to define this process as having three stages: pay attention; meet what arises; and include it all. That is, feel the thoughts, feelings and emotions as they are; widen the focus to feel how they’re affecting the body; and let empathic attention rest over the whole of it. Don’t get busy, and don’t just wait for things to end – that isn’t a full inclusion. Instead, soften those attitudes and include it all. And let that process continue for whatever arises next. (from chapter Evenness of Mind: Upekkhā Pāramī, in the book Pāramī by Ajahn Sucitto)

There’s comfort and wisdom to be found in Ajahn Sucitto’s words. Upekkhā is (1) one of the perfections, (2) one of the four sublime states (Brahma-viharas), and (3) a description of the fourth jhana (a deep meditative state). And yet the way to practice with this principle is very simple: pay full, empathic attention and reject nothing in our experience. It may seem paradoxical, but we CAN fully accept and acknowledge our confusion, our fear, our hatred, our greed, our generosity, kindness, delight, and all the rest – and see that they all come and go. They rise and they pass away; they are ownerless states of body and mind, common to all humans. Our empathy for the discomfort these states sometimes cause can be extended to ourselves and to other people.

What makes even-mindedness so difficult in practice is that it is subtle. Our fear, greed, lust, and hatred are not subtle. When we feel these emotions, we usually identify with them strongly, and this might make us feel “more alive”. I recall a moment in my early 20’s when this thought took hold of me: “I LOVE these strong feelings, the good and the bad, and I have a sense that they will become less urgent as I get older. This time in my life is the peak of emotional intensity (for me); it will never be this compelling again.” This youthful perspective may not be a universal principle, but it is unlikely to be unique.

I’ve found that just noticing the intensity of strong emotion weakens its ability to take me over. After long and painful experience of being driven by feelings and desires, I’ve come to appreciate the deep peace of letting go. As I’m more and more able to simply “be with this” (whatever it is), life is less stressful and more joyful.

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Filed under Mindfulness, Perfections, Sublime states

Overcoming obstacles to mettā

We’ve been thinking about this marvellous quality, accessible and natural to all of us, mettā. We’ve noticed that it may be present at unpredictable times and places, and wondered how to cultivate it in our daily lives. Once again, Ajahn Sucitto has some wise words to guide us:

The ability to generate mettā [unbounded kindness] depends on both willingness and capacity. These may be in short supply. Those who have experienced sustained abuse can find it very difficult to experience kindness for themselves or for others; those who have not had the secure presence of goodwill can be subject to the insecurity that leads to attachment to views and becoming. Our capacity can also be limited by how we’re being affected in the present. Although conditions are always changing, when the mind is affected by visitors such as fear, worry, guilt and passion, it easily becomes fixed in that state. If the visitor is anger, then the mind becomes bristling and volcanic. If the visitor is remorse or guilt, the mind becomes an eddy that chases itself and sinks down. So we need to develop strengths and skills to stop being overwhelmed by these fixating forces.

Here’s where the pāramīs or perfections support each other. The first three perfections (generosity, morality, and renunciation) make well-being possible, because practicing them generates self-respect and confidence. An emotional brightness can gradually replace whatever ruts we’ve gotten into. It’s not an instant fix, but it is a reliable way to undermine destructive tendencies we may be carrying. So we can always begin again by committing to generosity, morality and renunciation, in whatever situation we find ourselves.

While we’re building our capacity for generosity, morality and renunciation, our best friends are patience, truthfulness, and kindness (mettā). Patience is essential to uncover and examine our internal obstacles. We can attribute our problems to any cause we like, in ourselves or in others or in our fates, but that doesn’t help us escape or transcend them. It’s the resolve to keep looking, especially at the self-other boundary, calmly and persistently, until a new understanding dawns that shows us the way out of our personal traps.

Mettā “is not about conjuring up any great feelings of emotional warmth, but a process of staying in touch, of not blaming oneself or others, and of not going into the past to rehash old issues. The ‘staying at’ that point of the hurt, ill-will and pain then begins to carry the awareness across to compassion and transpersonal wisdom.” (Ajahn Sucitt0). We can’t make mettā happen, but we can create the conditions for letting go to happen. And where there’s letting go, mettā naturally follows.

Dāna pāramī : generosity, giving of oneself
Sīla pāramī :
virtue, morality, proper conduct
Nekkhamma pāramī :
renunciation, letting go
Paññā pāramī :
transcendental wisdom, insight
Viriya pāramī :
energy, diligence, vigour, effort
Khanti pāramī :
patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
Sacca pāramī :
truthfulness, honesty, integrity
Adhiṭṭhāna pāramī :
determination, resolution
Mettā pāramī :
loving-kindness
Upekkhā pāramī :
equanimity, serenity

 

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Filed under Causes and results, Generosity, Harmlessness, Patience, Perfections, Sublime states

Holding our center

Considering how we can curb our aversion and live in a more open-hearted way, we come now to the nitty-gritty. We can do our best to avoid people and situations that aggravate us, but inevitably, we sometimes must confront people and things that are not easy to love.

So in working with others as with oneself, we have to go deeply into the mind. In the direct contemplation of what is arising – the dividing line between what we’re comfortable with and what we’re not – simply note the flavour of consciousness. Is it contracted, defensive, anxious, demanding? Listen to the tones and the energies behind the topics that the mind brings up; tune in to the waves of irritation, fear, guilt, and so on; and extend empathy and non-aversion. It’s about not fighting, blocking or running. Holding our centre, we thus can soften the edginess of the mind. We can open to include the experience of ourselves and others in our awareness. This is the cultivation of the boundless mind; over time, it widens to include it all. — from Ajahn Sucitto in his book, Pāramī, chapter “Holistic Kindness”

When we feel our boundaries rising up, we can try to understand what’s happening. Our first instinct may be to deny our negative feelings, to flee, strike out, or panic. Sometimes our own unwelcome emotions can frighten us. We may feel that we’re faced with a life-or-death confrontation, so strong is the desire to be rid of uncomfortable feelings. But it is possible to step back and observe what’s happening in our bodies and minds. The body in particular is an accurate barometer, and if we look deeply into it we can discover how this biological unit works without taking seriously every signal it sends. By attending to the sensations in our bodies, without acting on what may feel like pressing emotions, we experience the reality of our life, the dukkha, the discomfort that we often waste our energy suppressing. We can breathe and allow these sensations, gradually coming to know them.

At an even deeper level, we can tune in to the thoughts in our mind as if they were a (possibly annoying) talk show radio program. What is the actual content of these words? Is a familiar story being repeated, loudly? Are we busily blaming someone else for our feelings? Is the tone of our inner monologue dominated by righteous anger? Helplessness? Guilt? Embarrassment? Indignation? Starting to identify the nature of our inner chatter can be surprising. We might discover that our triggers were previously hidden and are now, in this uncomfortable moment, being revealed. Once we see and understand the workings of our body and mind, our heart may open with compassion for ourselves, and eventually, others.

One benefit of doing this deep reflection, on the spot, when uncomfortable, unwelcome thoughts and emotions come up, is that we can learn to make ourselves easy to love. We can acquire the habit of forgiving ourselves, and maybe others, as a matter of course. Once our aversion and defensiveness are set aside, kindness is what’s left.

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Filed under Patience, Perfections