Not sure, part 2 of 2

… continuing from previous post quoting ‘Mai nae’ section in Stillness Flowing:

Luang Por gave this practice the greatest importance: ‘Mae nae is the Buddha himself’, he would say, ‘It is the Dhamma.’ He taught the recollection of ‘mai nae’ both as a means of re-educating a person’s attitude to their life, and also as a specific technique in meditation. As hindrances arose in the course of a sitting, he would encourage the meditator to recognize the hindrance as ‘mai nae’, or ‘changeful’ before returning to the breath. As the mind became more subtle, this accumulated perception of ‘mai nae’ – that whatever arises does not endure – is an exercise of the wisdom faculty that ensures that the mind does not fall into the trap of attaching to joy or to stillness, and is primed to develop vipassanā.

When you see impermanence clearly, you become a true monk. Seeing the impermanence, the instability of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness, the mind does not attach to the five aggregates.

It doesn’t matter what it is – even if something happens that upsets you so much that tears are forming in your eyes – remind yourself, ‘This is mai nae.’ Always bear this in mind, with your sati, with your alertness. Whether you feel satisfied, dissatisfied, think this is good, this is bad – see it all as ‘mai nae’ and you can release the attachment. When you see things as ultimately without value, the letting go occurs automatically. ‘Mai nae’ is the object of vipassanā.

When something arises, call it ‘mai nae’. Don’t forget this word. Don’t let it drop. The Buddha taught us not to grasp on to the good or the bad. Whatever arises, pool your resources in this word. It is the source of wisdom and the object of vipassanā. Make it your constant focus of attention; it will take you beyond doubt … ‘mai nae’ is a tool to uproot attachment to experience. It will enable you to see the Dhamma clearly.

One of the means by which Luang Por sought to inculcate the principle of ‘mai nae’ in his disciples’ minds was by maintaining an element of unpredictability in their daily lives. Changes would be introduced to the monastic schedule without prior warning and with no indication of how long they would last. A monk preparing for the annual Rains Retreat at Wat Pa Pong might be told a day or two before it began that he would be doing the retreat elsewhere, that he should gather his things together, clean up his kuti [hut], and be ready to leave within the hour for a monastery hundreds of kilometres away. It was a style that kept monks on their toes, and it enabled Luang Por to create a singular atmosphere in his monastery, one in which the calming effects of simplicity and repetition were enlivened by a sense that nothing could be taken for granted. Ajahn Jun remembered how plans could change in a single moment:

“He’d say to me, ‘Get your bowl and robes. We’re going to such and such a place.’ By the time I got back again with my things he’d say, ‘Change of plan.’ This happened so often that I got a real feeling for ‘mai nae’ … Afterwards, I came to understand it to mean dividing things up 50/50, maybe/maybe not. I adopted it as my guiding principle in practice.”

[End of Mai nae section]

The entire 800+ page book, Stillness Flowing, may be downloaded for free here:

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Not sure, part 1 of 2

Friends, I am on an overseas holiday for two weeks and in my absence have decided to treat you to a section from Stillness Flowing, a comprehensive review of the life and teachings of Ajahn Chah, by Ajahn Jayasaro. We’ll start with a section titled “Mai Nae” (p. 454), which is a phrase in Thai meaning ‘unsure’, ‘uncertain’, etc. Enjoy!

Mai Nae

In the last five or six years of his teaching career, most of Luang Por’s [Ajahn Chah’s] Dhamma talks were recorded on audio cassette. In this collection of talks, now stored digitally, Luang Por deals with a wide variety of themes, amongst which one frequently repeated teaching stands out – that of ‘mai nae‘. The phrase ‘mai nae’ translates most readily as ‘unsure’, ‘uncertain’, ‘changeful’ or ‘indefinite’ and is an everyday term that all of Luang Por’s audience would have immediately understood. A farmer, for example, asked in the planting season whether he expected to get a good harvest that year, would most probably reply, ‘mai nae. If we get enough rain, it should be all right.’ The phrase ‘mai nae’ here is a simple recognition that things are affected by many variable conditions (e.g., how much rain falls) and are thus never completely predictable.

Luang Por taught his disciples to practise the perception of ‘mai nae’ as a means of cultivating the wisdom faculty. By constantly reminding themselves that both internal and external phenomena were ‘mai nae’, they developed aniccasaññā (the perception of impermanence), and with practice, the associated perception of dukkhā (the inherently flawed, ultimately unsatisfactory nature of experience) and anattā (the conditioned, selfless nature of experience). These perceptions of the ‘three characteristics of existence’ created a pathway for vipassanā, the deep, wordless insight that uproots defilements and leads to the end of suffering.

The practise of ‘mai nae’ achieves its power from directly confronting the ingrained tendency of unawakened beings to invest experience with the appearance of solidity. This sense that the things within and without us are real and substantial is founded upon unexamined assumptions. The perception of changefulness became the tool Luang Por most often recommended to challenge those assumptions. Luang Por chose to use the phrase ‘mai nae’ in preference to the more traditional aniccaṃ or ‘impermanent’, to bring a fresh slant on wisdom development. For his disciples, ‘mai nae’ was a familiar, approachable idea, deeply embedded in the culture. It demystified Dhamma practice and made it seem immediately practical.

The specific emphasis of the ‘mai nae’ practice may be examined by comparing it to the comparable phrase ‘this too will pass’. Whereas ‘this too will pass’ reminds us of a future beyond the present experience and so puts it into perspective, ‘mai nae’ points to the nature of the present phenomena itself.

In daily life, Luang Por taught that the ‘mai nae’ reflection was particularly effective in dealing with attachment to ideas and views. In this context, the word might be better translated as ‘maybe not’. Whenever the mind was about to draw a conclusion or jump to one, when it was about to make a judgement about something, he taught the meditator to recall, ‘maybe not’. Maybe that’s not how it is, maybe that’s not how it happened, maybe that’s not what he or she is really like. Whenever the sense of certainty arose, meditators were to temper it with a gentle ‘maybe not’. Even if they were convinced, they were still to reserve a small space in their mind for the possibility of being wrong: ‘Yes, but maybe – just maybe – not’. In this way the mind was to become more careful and nuanced in its attitudes.

Part 2 of 2 to follow…

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What about love?

We are sometimes confused about the nature of love, and this confusion is well-founded, because love and attachment are often (or usually) intertwined. There’s a pertinent sutta in the Middle-length discourses of the Buddha, #87, “Born from those who are dear” or “Born from the Beloved”.

In the discourse, the controversy starts when the Buddha tells a grieving father that our loved ones are a source of sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress. Many people, especially those grieving, insist on the contrary, that our loved ones are a source of joy and happiness. This question goes round and round until it reaches King Pasenadi and his wife, Queen Mallika. Mallika, a devout and accomplished follower of the Buddha, explains:

“What do you think, great king? Do you love [our daughter] Princess Vajirī?”

“Indeed I do, Mallikā.”

“What do you think, great king? If she were to decay and perish, would sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress arise in you?”

“If she were to decay and perish, my life would fall apart. How could sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress not arise in me?”

“This is what the Buddha was referring to when he said: ‘Our loved ones are a source of sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress.’ … (translated by Sujato Bhikkhu – full sutta is here:

So the point is, if our joy and happiness depend on the health, welfare, and presence of others, then we are continually at risk of the pain and sorrow of losing that joy and happiness.  Many of us understand this and have chosen to risk (and probably suffer) great pain to enjoy great affection. This is not an unwise decision.

We want reassurance and reciprocity in our love relationships, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we can tinker with the balance between pure love and the needy kind. The “divine abodes” of loving-kindness (mettā), compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity are also called boundless (mental) states because they flow freely from our hearts and don’t depend on circumstances.

There’s a classic Steven Stills song from 1970 titled “Love the One You’re With”, a title that could be taken as an anthem for the divine abodes. Although the lyrics describe a more romantic form of love, when we’re experiencing mettā, it radiates freely, without picking and choosing its objects.

Wherever we are, we can embody unfettered good will towards all who are present (and absent). We can generate and enjoy a deep wish for the welfare of ourselves and others at any time:

  • when we’re in public among people we don’t know,
  • when we’re with family (even the relatives we don’t admire),
  • when we’re with the one(s) we love best in the world,
  • when we’re alone.

Mettā is similar to deep listening; we accept and embrace people (including ourselves) and circumstances just as they are, with no resistance and no expectations. We can learn to relax into this non-rejecting, non-judgmental feeling by intentionally practicing mettā at regular intervals. Once we have a taste of this divine mindstate , we may choose to visit it often.

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Guardians of the world

Sometimes at Buddhist ceremonies, laypeople are given “protection cords”, bracelets made of thread that we are meant to wear until they fall off. If we ask what the cords are protecting us from, the answer most often given is “from ourselves”. This is not a magic charm that will ward off illness and accident; no – it’s simply a reminder that we are responsible for our actions and that the best protection from future woes is for us to guard our words and actions to keep them from creating harm and suffering.

In the Pali canon, there are two factors called “protectors of the world” or lokapālas.

This term [lokapālas] refers to the personal and social benefits to be derived from this wise sense of shame (hiri) and fear of wrongdoing (ottappa), without which morality would be left groundless and the world more vulnerable. (footnote from Ajahn Jayasaro in Stillness Flowing)

In English-speaking countries the meaning of “shame” has been expanded and complicated. In the context of the Buddha’s teachings, hiri refers specifically to the inner guide that keeps each of us from doing harmful deeds. It has to do with karma, with remembering that all actions have consequences. So shame in this sense has nothing to do with body-shaming or other forms of interpersonal humiliation. It’s our own internal sense that when we’ve done a wholesome act, we know it and feel good; when we’ve done harm, we know it and feel bad. We also know, if we are mindful enough, whether an action we’re contemplating doing is likely to make us feel good or bad. Hiri is a guardian of our self-respect.

The partner guardian to hiri is ottappa, a healthy fear of the consequences of any negative action we might take. This is the external partner to the internality of hiri. If we pick a fight with someone, we may reasonably expect them to fight back, and quite possibly take the fight further than we intended. If we break the law, we live with the fear that we may get caught; and even if we don’t get caught, we are caught by our own sense of what’s right and wrong. Ottappa includes knowing when our actions may bring negative consequences for others. It could be something as apparently harmless as cutting into a line of waiting people or using a parking space reserved for the handicapped (when we’re not in such need). Our actions do affect others, and when we harm others we create regret in our hearts. We create peace and safety for others when we curb our selfish instincts.

All of us can recognize these guardians. If we happen to be on a meditation retreat or in some other protected, wholesome environment, keeping the precepts and living in a non-harming way is easier than it is in a stressful or confusing situation. But these guardians never sleep. They can protect us anywhere as long as we are conscious of our words and actions.

Posted in Causes and results, Dukkha, General, Harmlessness, Karma, Mindfulness, Precepts, Relationships | 1 Comment

Tis the season

It hasn’t escaped my notice that the end of the calendar year is upon us. In most cultures, it’s a time of renewal, of celebration, of gathering, and of joy. How we perceive the activities of the season will vary widely, depending on our personal situations, our historical associations, our energy levels, and other factors.

It’s a perfect time to think deeply, and on a personal level, about merit, purification, and ending grasping. Human nature is made so that when we release clinging, there is a pleasant feeling of lightness and freedom – sometimes even relief. When we give an appropriate gift, when we contact someone who didn’t expect our attention, when we speak kind words to those we meet, each of these can be an experience of liberation – wholesome and happy moments.

When we are kind to ourselves, when we move towards feeling compassion (for ourselves and for others) rather than frustration or sadness, there is peace, there is joy.

Each time we “make merit” by acting with intentional kindness or generosity, we are removing fuel from our inherent greed and aversion. Our hearts move in a different pattern, and it feels good. Often we don’t recognize these feelings of freedom because they can be subtle, or we may be “in a hurry”. But this is the real work and reward of the holiday period.

Often in this season, there is more togetherness than we normally experience and that can create pressure – pressure to have a good time, to have meaningful exchanges, to somehow mark this time as special. For many people, it can become uncomfortable, but these situations are perfect invitations to mindfulness. The only time we’ve got is NOW. We can acknowledge, mostly to ourselves, how we’re feeling as we move through our activities and contacts with other people. In this way, we remain true to ourselves and genuine towards others.

A key to maintaining mindfulness is to be aware of and manage our own energy. Not rushing is always an option, often an underutilized one. Finding time to rest is important. Short, intimate contacts may be preferable to long periods with large numbers of people. What activities bring us joy? Cooking or baking for others? Shopping? Dancing? Writing cards? Talking on the phone or by other media? Visiting in person? Do we know what supports our joy and what we find draining? Which people make us feel happier and which leave us with less energy? Checking in frequently with our physical and mental state will give us the information we need to keep our balance and move in wholesome directions.

Mindfulness can be practiced in any situation, to our benefit, and usually to the benefit of others. Let’s make this our gift to ourselves: renewing again and again our intention to maintain mindfulness now.

Posted in Causes and results, Compassion, Friendships, General, Generosity, Mindfulness, Precepts, Relationships, Speech, Sublime states | 4 Comments

What is merit?

In many cultures, an essential part of Buddhist practice is “making merit” by doing good works, serving the ordained sangha (monks and nuns), and giving money to worthy (not exclusively Buddhist) organizations. Overwhelmingly, making merit is seen as putting currency into an imaginary karmic bank account, which can magically erase any bad karma we’ve generated. However common this approach may be, it is not what the Buddha taught or intended.

When we do good, generous things, merit is made in the form of lightening our hearts, of supporting a wholesome habit of giving up whatever we’re clinging to. It is a form of purification, which wears away the universal unwholesome roots of greed, hatred, and delusion. This purification, in turn, gives us a better chance of deepening our wisdom and therefore breaking the causal chain of experience right where the grasping (taṇhā) happens. So these three ideas – merit, purification, and ending grasping – are inseparably connected.

In the words of Ajahn Jayasaro: ‘Making merit’ is the most popular religious practice of Thai lay Buddhists, and as such, has, over the centuries, been the most misconceived and most subject to distortion. To this day in Buddhist communities, the knowledge that puñña [merit] means ‘that which cleanses the mind’ (in most cases equivalent to ‘good kamma’) is far less widespread than might be expected.

The Buddha taught that cleansing of the mind takes place through three main activities: acts of generosity (cleansing the mind of attachment to material possessions), moral virtue (cleansing the mind of the intention to harm self and others) and mental cultivation (systematically cleansing the mind of defilements). This last was considered by far the most powerful source of purification. A single moment of deep inner peace was said to create more merit than an offering of alms to the Buddha himself.

So, whatever dedication we have to cultivating mindfulness, of training our minds towards clarity and away from a narrow or rigid concept of self, is a powerful support for the growth of wisdom.

In general, it’s true that the more time we spend thinking about ourselves, the less happy we’ll be; and the more time we spend considering the needs of others and acting in virtuous ways, the happier we’ll be. We cannot become free of suffering only by focusing on ourselves and our perceived needs.

The instructions about how to ‘make merit’ are clear: act generously, behave in an ethical way, and practice whatever form and level of mindfulness we’re capable of. Ideally, we practice all three forms continuously. We can eliminate the grossest obstacles by avoiding petty, selfish acts; monitoring our behavior for its ethical content; and doing at least five minutes a day of whatever mindfulness training we can. There is no entry fee; we can start right now, just as we are.

And what’s the benefit of these activities? Nothing less than entering the path of clarity, joy, and freedom.

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Developing mindfulness

Through all our discussion of the hindrances, the common tool we’ve been pointing to is mindfulness. Here at the end of the year, it will be good to pause and assess how well-developed our mindfulness is. Some of us have a regular, integrated practice so that we can look back over a year (or years) and see how much less stressful and more “true” our experience seems. All of us can step back and answer for ourselves: “Are my mindfulness skills continuing to develop? Are they stagnant? Is my training not yet initiated?” Think of it as an early New Year’s resolution/question: “What can I do to establish or grow a meditation practice?”

A checklist might include:

  1. Keeping the precepts: [1] harmlessness, [2] taking only what’s been offered, [3] sensual restraint, [4] truthfulness, and [5] refraining from becoming (even mildly) intoxicated.
  2. Committing to a daily meditation practice (sitting, walking, chanting, or other suitable form)
  3. Reflecting on the Buddha’s teachings, especially the eightfold path: Wise view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, mindfulness, and concentration. (See the page listing in the right column of this web page)

There are many other ways to develop our mindfulness to the next level, but we’ve got to start where we are and choose a method or technique or course of study that we are ready and willing to undertake.

For those who have yet to establish a regular mindfulness training, I’m recommending a comprehensive guide from the NY Times:

Please read the article through to the end, coming back later to the audio parts that you are curious about. The full article gives an excellent overview of how to practice mindfulness, and will alert the reader to practical tips and common pitfalls.

The guided meditations in the article are spoken by Tara Brach, a respected teacher from the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, DC. Tara’s teaching has launched many people onto a path of life-changing mindfulness meditation practices. It is a realistic and supportive place to start.

Of course, if you have an opportunity to learn from and practice with a living teacher, please give it a try. As with most things, it gains power from doing it in community rather than in isolation.

Taking an 8-week, standardized Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course is another helpful way to launch a meditation practice. The context of the Buddha’s ethical and wisdom teachings is removed from this methodology, but MBSR is a way of learning that suits many people, at least to begin with.

Making mindfulness our priority can affect every part of our lives. Letting go of what we cling to is unlikely to be easy, but by training our attention in an open and serious way, wisdom will gradually blossom in us.


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