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Listening to ourselves – error

Friends. It appears that the cartoon that I embedded in today’s post shrank in the process of being sent as an email. To see the cartoon clearly, please click the link on the bottom of that email or this one.

Very sorry. It’s a mystery.

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Election Day

It’s election day in the USA, and there is tension in the air. Leunig is an Australian cartoonist who sometimes leans towards the misanthropic. I share this cartoon to propose that we find a better way in the future.


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Holistic Kindness

Holistic Kindness is the title of the chapter in Ven. Sucitto’s book, Pāramī, that deals with mettā, the feeling of unbounded kindness and goodwill towards ourselves and others. The feeling arises spontaneously from time to time. Can we learn to establish, sustain, and nourish this freeing mind state?

From Ven. Sucitto: Let’s get to the crunch point. A heart brimming with love is indeed an attractive ideal, but what’s more important is breadth of application rather than intensity of affection.

Some mothers feel unbounded love towards their children, some people towards their pets, others towards parents, mentors, or even lovers (though this can get complicated). Usually, though, this limitless love is associated with particular beings we know; it doesn’t include strangers, i.e, the majority of humanity.

Recent natural disasters have confirmed that when people near or far are suddenly in dire straits, we respond with a desire to help and care for them. When people we know suffer a loss or receive a terminal diagnosis, we naturally reach out to them without reservation. This movement of the heart is mettā, and it is a temporary break from our normal activity of maintaining the boundaries between self and other. We see others’ needs as if they were our own, we want to be close to them, to comfort them, to surround them with love. This is mettā, stimulated by a specific event. What if we were able to sustain this state? To  surround everyone with love all the time?

Mettā is not a desire to remedy everything or enforce justice; it is a free movement of the heart in a positive direction, without a fixed destination. Mettā challenges our normal way of relating to others. We give up fault-finding, we give up the notion that people should be as we are, share our views, etc. Mettā releases others from being the objects of our projections; it recognizes otherness and says “OK.” We don’t need other people to be “on our side” or to fulfil our expectations.

Similarly, if we hold mettā for ourselves, we don’t have to measure up to an ideal. We can just be as we are, making efforts to live in a wholesome way, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, but always being OK. We can forgive ourselves for past mistakes and proceed with a light heart.

The beginning of mettā is  to set aside our judgments of ourselves and others, and simply recognize that even if we are all different, we are all equally desirous of acceptance. We all respond to being enveloped by a kindness that doesn’t ask anything of us.

The full book, Pāramī, by Ven. Sucitto, is available for download here:

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Resolve on what?

At the end of each chapter of his book Pāramī , Ajahn Sucitto has a section called “Quotes and Suggestions”, where he recommends practical things to do to develop each perfection. At the end of the chapter on resolve (adhiṭṭhāna pāramī) he writes the following:

Reflection: To link wise reflection to resolve we might enquire: ‘With a mind that seeks my welfare, how do I shape and sustain a direction in life? How do I let myself down; where are my weak spots? On the other hand, what is a good quality or skill to develop? Which of these obstacles or skills would I point out to someone I wish well who has a similar disposition, or is in a similar situation?

This gets to the heart of the matter: What resolutions are pertinent and useful to each of us, in our particular circumstances, with our individual strengths and weaknesses?  It seems especially helpful to work on both sides of the equation together. What’s our biggest obstacle and what is our greatest strength? So, for me, with aversion (dosa) as my biggest obstacle, I resolve on patience (khanti) again and again, and when kindness (mettā) is present, I try to nourish and sustain it.

It is helpful to ask someone who knows us well to assist in discovering the most promising resolutions. We can ask a trusted person, “What do you consider my best and worst qualities?” If we have no such person in our lives, we can try to reflect honestly on ourselves as if we were someone else, someone we cared about. What do we like best and least about that person (ourselves)? What do we most admire and what blocks the heart?

One of the quotes offered by Ajahn Sucitto: A person has four grounds for resolve…the resolve on wisdom, on truth, on relinquishment and on calm.  -MN 140.11

If we are feeling stuck or aimless in discovering appropriate resolutions, we can investigate these four possible themes: Acting on wisdom? Meticulous truthfulness? Letting go? Developing calm? All of these are deeply admirable qualities to develop in ourselves. Does one of them seem to be calling?


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An on-line course

Dear friends,

If you are interested in going more deeply into studying and practicing the Buddha’s teachings and can afford US$240 for a full year of weekly lessons (both written and audio), please investigate

Registrations will close on 1st October.

If not, sorry to bother you!


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The dukkha of thinking

When we think of the Buddha’s first truth, the truth of dukkha, it’s easy to understand physical pain as an example. But day to day, by a wide margin, the largest proportion of dukkha is produced by our thinking.

Consider the innocence of a young child at an adult party, who asks the group of adults what they would do in this situation: “Imagine you are surrounded by hungry tigers with a cliff behind you. What would you do?” Each adult comes up with a different creative solution, but the boy just shakes his head. So they turn to him and ask, “What would you do?” The boy smiles and says, “I’d simply stop imagining.” (from Chapter 6 of Shift into Freedom by Loch Kelly)

This story points to the primary way in which we cause difficulty for ourselves and others. Consider these possible imaginings:

  • We think we can be the perfect friend/hostess/relative and hold ourselves to an impossible ideal, guaranteeing failure.
  • We think we cannot stand to be in the same room with a particular person – maybe not even in the same universe.
  • We imagine that others are judging our every action and thought.
  • We imagine that a particular action or inaction will result in apocalyptic disaster (any exaggerated consequence can fit here).
  • We think that if we don’t get on to Dean’s list or the [whatever] team or any other “in crowd”, we will simply die.
  • We think that if we disappoint someone, it will mark us forever as bad.
  • We decide to take responsibility for outcomes that are beyond our control. The scope of what is “our fault” widens.
  • We think that others are wise and accomplished and that we are faking it and will soon be exposed as a fraud.

Each of us can conjure up imaginings that we live with and suffer from.

While sometimes these thought habits are difficult to perceive, they all have one thing in common: we cling to them. We have an idea and (sometimes unconsciously) make it an organising principle for our plans and actions, which then leads to frustration. If we can, for a moment, drop everything else and remind ourselves to take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, our attention can turn inward in a different way. Rather than measuring ourselves, we can widen the scope of awareness and ask “what do I know to be true?” and “what don’t I know?” What is the source of our dissatisfaction? It is always some form of clinging, usually to an idea or thought of how things (our how we ourselves) should be. When we see this process clearly in our direct experience, we have the power to release our clinging and entirely eliminate this particular form of suffering. Poof!

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Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of AN3.48, “Mountains”:

Bhikkus, based on the Himalayas, the king of mountains, great sal trees grow in three ways. What three? (1) They grow in branches, leaves, and foliage; (2) they grow in bark and shoots; and (3) they grow in softwood and heartwood. Based on the Himalayas, the king of mountains, great sal trees grow in these three ways.

So too, when the head of a family is endowed with faith, the people in the family who depend on him grow in three ways. What three? (1) They grow in faith; (2) they grow in virtuous behavior; and (3) they grow in wisdom. When the head of a family is endowed with faith, the people in the family who depend on him grow in these three ways.

Just as the trees that grow
in dependence on a rocky mountain
in a vast forest wilderness
might become great “woodland lords”,
so, when the head of a family here
possesses faith and virtue,
his wife, children, and relatives
all grow in dependence upon him; 
so too his friends, his family circle,
and those dependent on him.

Those possessed of discernment,
seeing that virtuous man’s good conduct,
his generosity and good deeds,
emulate his example.

Having lived here in accord with Dhamma,
the path leading to a good destination,
those who desire sensual pleasures rejoice,
delighting in the deva world.

In the Buddha’s time, it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone that a family could live depending on a female head of the household, but for us this is often the case. So, please read the above sutta as genderless, acknowledging that whoever leads a household, whether man, woman, or partnership, the influence intrinsic in that position is vast. The potential for harm and for good is essentially unlimited.

For parents, it’s particularly important to know the power and subtlety of one’s influence. In others’ families we can see for ourselves the results that a particularly truthful, loving and kind parent (or grandparent or step-parent) can have, and conversely how difficult it is to overcome the damage done by a neglectful or bullying parent.

Whether there are children or not, a household radiates good will (or ill will) throughout the neighborhood, to friends and relatives and even to strangers. We may think that we are keeping to ourselves and not affecting anyone else, but this can’t be so. We are all connected, through our presence or absence. The smallest actions can produce profound, and sometimes unexpected, reverberations.

The last verse above refers to the law of karma that virtuous behavior in the human realm will result in rebirth on a happy plane of existence, or possibly, if the attachment to pleasant sensual experiences is not too strong, to liberation (non-return to any plane of existence). Most of us are not accustomed to thinking in these terms, and may safely ignore the idea of various planes of existence. But the principle stands that wholesome behavior brings desirable results and unwholesome behavior brings unhappy results.

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