Story part 1

[Note: Quoted verbatim – story from “I’m Right, You’re Wrong” by Ajahn Amaro]

The more we believe in our opinions, the greater our investment in the rational mind. Indeed, the more logical our thoughts may be, the more tidy our rationale, the more perfectly valid it may seem to be to straighten somebody else out because they’re ‘wrong’. And even if we don’t think of setting someone straight as a sacred duty, we can still have a strong attitude of righteousness.

The basis on which we take action is the element that makes the difference, as illustrated by the following story. In the early days in Ajahn Chah’s monastery, Ajahn Sumedho was the only Westerner living there. He was a very ardent, idealistic monk who took the monastic training extremely seriously and was very committed, as all good monastics should be. But he had grown up in an atmosphere of righteous American conditioning, and had a different way of going about things from some of the other monks in the monastery. A Thai monk who was also living there was very loud-mouthed and outspoken, incautious about his speech. This was extremely unusual in Thailand, where people tend to be much more restrained, non-confrontational or outspoken in average social interactions. The young Bhikkhu Sumedho took great offence at this monk’s behaviour and thought: ‘This is totally out of order, and why isn’t Ajahn Chah saying anything? He lets this guy just carry on and make a fool of himself and upset everybody, and everyone can see he’s out of order but no one is saying anything! This is ridiculous! Somebody ought to get up and … even though I’m a junior monk I really ought to … if somebody doesn’t say anything, I will!’

This went on for some months and he grew more and more indignant. Eventually Ajahn Chah went off to visit a branch monastery for a few days, and it happened that at the same time there was the fortnightly recitation of the monastic rule, after which the teacher gives an instructional talk and then asks: ‘Is there any business that the Sangha wants to bring up?’ With Ajahn Chah away it was thus one of the senior monks leading the meeting who said: ‘Has anyone got any business to discuss?’ Even though Ajahn Sumedho had only been a monk for two or three years and the loud-mouthed bhikkhu was a bit senior to him, he said: ‘Yes. I’ve got something I’d like to bring up. I’m very concerned about the conduct of Bhikkhu X, and … ‘ He had a whole list of different occasions, he had witnesses, he had the evidence, he had all his criteria; everything was lined up. And he was ‘right’: all the things for which he criticized the monk were factually valid – you could see that other people had been upset or they took offence and walked away, and so on. While Ajahn Sumedho was saying this, the offending monk was looking at the floor and everyone else was listening, taking it all in. Finally he got to the end of his Dhammic diatribe and the senior monk said: ‘We’ll just wait till Luang Por Chah gets back and then we’ll bring this matter to his attention.’

[to be continued…]

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Fighting or working for justice?

Friends, I’m off on a pilgrimage to Sri Lanka and will be away from the internet for 2.5 weeks. I’ve scheduled an inspiring and thought-provoking story, in two parts, to be posted while I’m away. It is taken verbatim from Ajahn Amaro’s book “I’m Right, You’re Wrong”, and for me it contains the most memorable lesson in the book. I hope you find it useful, too.

Meanwhile, here is a question and answer from the same book, on a different subject:

Question: How does an activist who wants justice and wants to fight for justice step back from the reptile brain reactions into the ‘response’ place?

Answer: Mindfully. It’s recognizing the feeling: ‘We need justice here. Now, where am I coming from in that attitude?’ Then we turn that reflective quality inwards and say: ‘Okay, this seems unfair and not right. Now, how am I holding that? Where is it in my heart? Where is that feeling coming from? Is it coming from a sense of wanting to benefit the “other” as well as myself? Is there an urge to punish? What’s there? What’s here?’ We try to be as clear and honest as we can. …

The work is both internal and external. We want to make the world a more fair and just place, and at the same time, we don’t want to magnify our own defilements, even though there is an enjoyable aspect to righteous anger. We can avoid being seduced by it!

We need wisdom to find the most effective path to facilitate change in a given situation. We may feel like fighting, we may feel ready to go to war, but if we approach both the internal and external aspects as work instead of a battle, it will likely produce a more beneficial effect.

As with most mindfulness exercises, we first turn inward and try to understand and acknowledge “what is here?”, what is the dominant feeling motivating us right now?

In some places, 2017 was a year of protests, heartfelt and necessary. We can look to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela as exemplars of brave, effective, and mindful resistance. Both of these leaders live on in the hearts of many and are still exerting a positive influence on our societies. We would do well to remember them.

The guideline remains in force, regardless of how frustrated we become, regardless of how fed up we are with cruel, negative behavior by others.

Hatred is never conquered by hatred.
Only by love is it conquered.
This is a law
ancient and inexhaustible.
— Dhammapada 5, translated by Ajahn Amaro

If we need help to defuse our righteous anger and find ways to redirect our energy towards positive change, help is available. We can talk openly and honestly with trustworthy friends, exploring options for action that express our wholesome desire for justice and kindness in the world. We can seek out organizations and individuals who are leading with positive intent; we can borrow the wisdom of others.

Fury is not a sustainable emotion; it’s draining and unhelpful. Determination and generosity can be both constructive and sustainable. Let us proceed mindfully and with mettā.

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It’s not magic

Ajahn Amaro, in “I’m Right, You’re Wrong”, says: “I once met a Wall Street lawyer who had started practicing meditation some half a dozen years previously. She said: ‘Until I started to meditate it was one conflict after another, and life was one ongoing struggle. But since I began meditating my relationships have become much more easeful, and my working situation is more relaxed, though I’m still working with the same company and I live with the same people.’ It was as if she thought: ‘This magical visitation has come into my life and taken all my troubles away!’ I said: ‘This isn’t really very magical. It’s more like: you used to get from one room to another by smashing yourself against the wall until you broke though it, and then suddenly you noticed that it’s much easier to go through the doorway. It’s not magic, it’s noticing where the gaps are and aiming for them, rather than just putting your head down and pounding with it until the wall breaks or you fall down unconscious.'”

Venerable Amaro has a direct style of teaching, and in the reported conversation above tries to counter some of the romantic or magical notions people may have about mindfulness. The real miracle is our ability to notice what’s going on around us without making every detail about ourselves. One of the effects of  practicing with mettā (which depends on mindfulness) is that we are no longer the center of gravity in the universe; we become an equal partner in the dance of life. Our joy and pain are connected to the joy and pain of others. Our needs and wants are seen in the context of the needs and wants of others. One small but significant shift in our perception moves us from “It’s me against the world” to “Here we all are”.

The analogy of finding the gaps as we move through life is particularly apt. Rather than setting our hearts on unrealistic views or goals and then bashing away at them, we can look for where our current opportunities lie. We can keep still and notice subtle “invitations” from people or situations, or we can purposefully explore possibilities for development in work or service or ease or joy.

How often, when things are going well, do we attribute our good fortune to something external?  How often, when things are difficult, do we blame the universe or specific people? Perhaps it’s a fine point, but we don’t gain anything by assigning credit or blame for what happens to us. We can be grateful for anything good that comes to us, and we can have patience with trials, regardless of their source. We can trust that by practicing mindfulness as continuously as possible, we are shifting things in a beneficial direction.

With mettā we accept conditions as they arise, and cultivate both gratitude and patience, as needed.

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Non-conflict

I proclaim such a teaching that espouses non-contention with anyone in the world. (Words of the Buddha from MN 18.4)

Wildmind.org recently published a relevant and helpful post titled To be less conflicted with others, be less conflicted within yourself. In it, Bodhipaksa says:

“Our ill will toward another person is really an inability to deal with feelings within ourselves that we find uncomfortable.

…Until we are able to deal skillfully with our own pain, we’ll continue to have aversion to it, and therefore to others. If, on the other hand, we learn to accept our own uncomfortable feelings, we’ll no longer need to have hatred.”

The full post is here – https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/to-be-less-conflicted-with-others-be-less-conflicted-within-yourself

This is useful to consider from our own very personal point of view. When we are bothered by something or someone, our first instinct is to either move away from that person or thing, or to strike out in some way. To argue, to fight, to resist, is one basic instinct we are all subject to. But when this inner conflict is present, there is another approach available.

We all experience responses to our environment — people, situations, even the weather. Some of our responses are positive and some negative. These scenarios play out uncontrollably, without any breaks, all day long. What would happen if we accepted our own responses, positive and negative, without giving them purchase? Without reacting immediately with grasping or rejection? What if we could simply know that a response is registering in our bodies and minds and watch it for a time, noticing that it is an energy in motion, and that it will pass if we leave it alone?

It has to be caught in that first moment, before we run away or strike out, before we say something irretrievable. This is the time we should be on high alert for danger, from ourselves more than from others. Our ability to take a deep breath and notice what’s happening in our body and mind is our super-power. This is mindfulness in action, a unique opportunity to investigate ourselves in the act of clinging. Are we strong enough to do nothing, at least for the duration of three breaths? This is how we work with the first noble truth, the truth of dukkha, of things we don’t like. We learn, somehow, to acknowledge and allow dukkha and to know that its release is in our power. The grasping that causes dukkha and the ability to let it go are both within us.

This is our work, and if we take it on, we can remove a massive obstruction to living in mettā; we can live in that state of non-contention and loving-kindness recommended by the Buddha.

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Sublime abidings

Mettā is a Pali word that doesn’t translate well into English. Some words/phrases that come close are: loving-kindness, loving friendliness, benevolence, radical acceptance, non-aversion. For our purposes, we can accept any or all of these meanings and we will be within the functional scope of mettā. 

Mettā is one of the four brahmavihāras or “sublime abiding places for the heart”. The Buddha is recorded as having spoken of the four boundless dwellings (kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity) many times, to many different audiences, both ordained and lay.

Ajahn Amaro is a well-respected monk, abbot, and teacher of the Buddha’s wisdom. A year or two ago, a series of booklets based on Ajahn Amaro’s teachings on the brahmavihāras was published. The first of these, titled “I’m Right, You’re Wrong”, is available for free download in three forms (including pdf) here:  https://www.amaravati.org/dhamma-books/im-right-youre-wrong/

We’ll be using these books for reflection and contemplation and (I hope) deepening our own understanding of how these mental (heart) states can be developed and sustained. “The vision for the series is to explore these sublime abidings via the somewhat oblique approach of looking at their opposites.” (from the preface to I’m Right, You’re Wrong). Another way to say this is that we’re invited to consider what obstacles we place in the way of our own mettā, and how we might reduce or remove those obstacles.

Ajahn Amaro starts with a quote from MN 18.4, (the “Honeyball” sutta):

I proclaim such a teaching that espouses non-contention with anyone in the world.

Ajahn Amaro then says: The phrase “I’m right, you’re wrong” is the archetypal expression of our tendency to attach to views and opinions: “If I think it, it must be true, and if you think differently, sorry, but you’re wrong. You might be a good person, but you’re just wrong.”

A light-hearted corrective to this position was posted in the kitchen at the Bhavana Society many year ago. It said, in a lovely script: “Don’t believe everything you think”. This is an important and often overlooked point. We tend to think and think and never bother about whether anyone else would agree that what we’re thinking is factual or included in consensual reality. We build and rebuild a unique world view, often without reference to anything beyond our own likes and dislikes. We don’t habitually question our opinions by thinking “I wonder if others have a different perspective?”

We can start our exploration by investigating how tightly we hold to our opinions. Do we feel that our opinions, which come from our unique experience of the world, are true and correct for everyone else? That the only reasonable way to view something is our way? Which opinions do we feel define who we are? And do our actions consistently reflect our deeply held views?

 

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Knowing ourselves through others

17th century author Francois de la Rochefoucauld once wrote “We forget our faults easily when they are known only to ourselves”. This quote became the title of a blog post by Bodhipaksa on his website, Wildmind Buddhist Meditation, part of which is shared here:

Just as we can’t see what we look like unless we encounter a mirror, often we don’t know what we’re like in terms of our behavior and attitude unless those things are reflected by other people.

In my role as a teacher [Bodhipaksa speaking] I’ve often heard from people (usually men) who say things like “After meditating for a few weeks I don’t think I’ve changed, although people who know me say I’m much easier to be with.” To me this suggests our tendency to externalize our mental states, so that rather than see ourselves as impatient we see others as being too slow; instead of seeing ourselves as untrusting we see others as untrustworthy; instead of seeing ourselves as unkind we see others as needing a good kick up the behind, and so on. And so when we change, for example by becoming a bit more relaxed, we don’t necessarily notice that fact, and we interpret this change, perhaps in terms of other people being more cooperative, and so on.

The full blog post is here: https://www.wildmind.org/category/blogs (dated November 22, 2017), and I recommend reading it through. It is a useful pointing out of one common delusion. We take our own perceptions to be the standard, and if others’ perceptions are different, we think they’re just plain wrong. How can we wake up to this delusion? We can start by recognizing that all of us continuously act within and respond to our environments, and that we can learn a lot by closely observing this process.

Some of us complain that we are not appreciated or understood, that others misread us, etc. If someone pointed out that this was our pattern, how would we react? We can only look to ourselves; how well do we know ourselves? What would we list as our virtues and flaws? Do we know how we have changed over time? Can we honestly note which of our actions elicit positive responses from others and which do not?

Bodhipaksa offers the metaphor of a mirror. Our environment continuously gives us feedback on how we’re affecting others. Are we watching? Do we “look in the mirror”? Some people value “not caring what others think”, but this attitude has its limits. We can never keep everyone happy, but if we tend to ignore the feedback that’s coming our way, we’ll be limiting our growth.

Trusted friends make the best mirrors; sometimes they know us better than we know ourselves. We can listen to and learn from our trusted friends, if we are willing to (at least temporarily) drop our defenses and observe ourselves with an equanimous eye.

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Truthfulness

We’ve come to the end of our consideration of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony, and when I contemplate it all together, it strikes me that truthfulness is the foundation of social harmony. Without truthfulness, all other virtues are unsupported.

“Truthiness”, coined by Stephen Colbert in 2005, was selected as word of the year by more than one organization in 2005 and 2006. Perhaps that was the beginning of our recognition that some mass media had lost touch with the difference between facts and words that could possibly be facts but aren’t. This has had a devastating effect, not just on public discourse, but on public trust.

I find myself sympathizing with Senator Al Franken of Minnesota:

I don’t know why dishonesty has always gotten under my skin. My parents taught me to tell the truth, but come on, whose parents didn’t? … Part of it is that I’ve always been an incredibly literal person. … [About Rush Limbaugh] I couldn’t believe it. Who was this guy? Why would anyone just lie like that? What made him think he could get away with it? And I could not let it go. It made my teeth itch. … All of this is to say that I care a lot about people in politics telling the truth. And even considering all the horrible things Trump got away with during the campaign … I still can’t believe he got away with lying so much. … I’ve always believed that it’s possible to discern true statements from false statements, and that it’s critically important to do so, and that we put our entire democratic experiment in peril when we don’t.
–Very selected readings from chapter 45 of Al Franken Giant of the Senate by Al Franken.

It’s not only politicians’ lying that is causing our societies harm. When we restrict ourselves to information that agrees with our pre-conceptions and prejudices, we are blinding ourselves to the facts. We must be brave enough to question our own mind-set, to listen and look for corroboration or contradiction from other sources. We can listen with discernment to those who have proven to be reliable and who have admitted to mistakes. We can prefer kindness and understanding to cruelty in our interactions, both public and private.

We can choose to spend time with people who are committed to being as truthful as possible, who have more interest in facts than opinions. We don’t need to correct every obvious falsehood, but we can move away from people and information channels that have proven themselves unreliable, and we can commit to being truthful ourselves.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to admit the limits of our knowledge; there’s a lot more we don’t know than what we do know. In the context of this humility, we can energetically bind ourselves to truthfulness. We need this clarity if we are to grow in wisdom.

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