Sunday, June 19, 2016

Metta Bhavana (Loving-Kindness Meditation)

Ajahn Brahm: full of metta

A wonderful exponent of metta (goodwill, or 'loving-kindness') is Ajahn Brahmavamso, an Englishman who is abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Australia. Ajahn Brahm (as he is affectionately known) is a very popular teacher amongst Buddhists in the Thai forest tradition, and is very skillful in his descriptions of the meditative life - his book, ‘Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond’ is the main source of inspiration for my own meditation practice these days. He has taught extensively on Buddhist teachings including meditation and many other topics such as everyday mindfulness. But here, I want to focus on his directions on how to practice metta meditation.

Ajahn Brahm advises starting off by visualizing a kitten, puppy, baby or any another helpless creature or thing (even a young plant), imagining it as needing our care, our love and attention, as it is not doing so well. We see that it is in a sorry state, and we imagine holding it, feeding it, and caring for it, perhaps telling it how we will look after it and protect it. With the feeling of kindness that we’ve developed, we next turn our attention to someone close to us; our partner, a friend or close relation. Extending the feeling of loving-kindness to this person, we wish them well, extending positive thoughts of goodwill towards them. When this feeling fills the mind, the next subject to receive our careful attention is an acquaintance whom we know but not as well as the previous person. Thirdly, metta is directed to someone that we don’t like, someone that causes us displeasure; an enemy, even, if we have one. No matter what bad things they have done to us, or bad habits they have that we dislike, we overcome our negative thoughts by wishing them well.

Ajahn Brahm next instructs us to emit loving-kindness to the people that we live with or work with, or to our neighbors, before sharing such positive feelings with all beings, as in the Metta Sutta quote: “May all beings be at ease!” Lastly, he tells us to extend metta towards...our own self. For, as Ajahn Brahm points out, how many of us, particularly in the West, have bad or guilty feelings towards ourselves? The one person that many of us don’t really like, at least subconsciously, is our own self, and this is why Ajahn Brahm instructs us to develop metta towards all beings first, filling the world with loving-kindness before turning our attention upon our own being. Having wished goodwill towards all others, we then do the same for ourselves, overcoming any latent self-criticism with the strength of well-developed metta. Ajahn Brahm has taught that metta meditation softens the mind, making full of goodwill as the meditator becomes more selfless and peaceful towards others. He has stated that metta is an emotion that is full of delight and pure in nature. When developed, it takes residence in the heart and the meditator becomes more compassionate with their kindness a source of great joy to all.

Footnote: Years back, I was experiencing difficulties getting to sleep at night. I’d read, or heard, somewhere that practicing metta meditation upon retiring to bed could help such a condition, enabling one to fall asleep and have a sound and comfortable night’s sleep. So I tried it, and it worked beautifully, really quickly. (In fact, I rarely got to extend loving- kindness to myself, as I’d fall asleep long before I got to that point of the meditation.) So,whether for the benefit of others or for oneself, or both, metta bhavana can have great results. Why not try it?

For more on metta, see the following;
Metta / Loving-Kindness

Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Third Experiment in Awareness

Think you know who you are? Think again!

In recent posts, two experiments in awareness have been presented, the first centered on sights, the second on sounds. In this third experiment in awareness, the focus will be on thoughts. This will reveal that what the British philosopher Douglas Harding called ‘seeing-who-we-really-are’ isn't dependent upon the physical senses, despite being so efficacious when applied to them. So, as with previous experiments, please follow the instructions whilst keeping an open mind along the way.

This experiment can be done with eyes opened or closed, although the latter method will probably work best for most experimenters, particularly at first. Take a few moments to quieten down and withdraw attention from the physical world. What are you thinking at this precise moment? Is it a quick succession of thoughts or is your thinking quite slow and steady?

When awareness loses touch with the thinking process gently bring it back to the thought(s) arising at present. Again, analyze the nature of the thinking process; is it fast or slow, is it constructive or rambling? Try to remain with the present train of thought for a minute or so, maintaining aware of its nature. Note that thoughts, although not physical, still have particular ‘shapes’ or forms, and that they are things.

Next, turn attention to that which is conscious of thoughts. Is it classifiable in the same way as its contents are? Is it fast, slow, systematic or rambling? Can it be said to have any shape or form? Here, I find a clear awareness that is awake to the thoughts that arise in it, but isn’t one of them. In fact, it is nothing like them, because it is not a thing – it is no thing at all!

In response to the previous experiments, the question arose, “What’s the point?” This question is very important, for if there’s no reason to experiment with awareness, then why bother? Well, speaking from my own experience with these techniques, I can vouch that they can be very effective in loosening the bonds of identifying with, and attachment to, the ego-self that I normally take myself to be. Not only is this a more accurate understanding of what we truly are, but it is also conducive to an increase in happiness or contentment.

Allied to the above benefits, which could be seen as somewhat selfish, even though they involve a reduction in self-identification, is the fact that other people may well benefit as well. This is because to practice this form of mindfulness results in the crumbling of the self-made barriers that usually separate human beings. Looking back here and finding nobody home means that there’s no self interest to get in the way of the perception of others. In fact, they are experienced as part of this awareness, and as such are not recipients of the usually self-centered attitudes that color our attitudes and actions towards other people.

These three experiments have featured three different elements of the human experience: vision, hearing, and thinking. There are other senses that can be explored in the light of awareness, which include touching, tasting and smelling. The Buddhist satipatthana mindfulness practices supply more potential subjects for us to view in relation to awareness, which encompass feelings (positive, negative and neutral), the state of the mind (greedy, generous, hateful, loving, etc.), The four noble truths (suffering, its cause, its ending, and the Path to its ending). No doubt you can think of other ways to experiment with awareness and its contents yourself. (For more on satipatthana, click here: 4 Focuses of Mindfulness)

So, all in all, ‘seeing-what-we-truly-are’ (a variant of Douglas’ well known description of this technique quoted above) can be an effective way to practice insight. It can transform our relationship to the world and the myriad beings that we encounter in it. Above all, it gives us a valuable, simple, and direct method to let go of greed, hatred, and delusion, leading to a more awakened life. Give it a go and let me know how you get along.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Second Experiment in Awareness

With eyes closed, listen to your inner buddha...

Following on from a previous post that featured an experiment in awareness, here’s another (albeit brief) exploration of what the British philosopher Douglas Harding called ‘seeing who we really are’. The previous experiment focused on awareness in relation to the visual sense, this one features the auditory sense.

Close your eyes. Listen to an external sound, maybe a dog barking or traffic passing by. Notice its volume level, its pitch, and whether it’s constant or intermittent.

Next, focus awareness on another noise, this time something closer to you; perhaps music, voices, or a whirling fan. Again, take note of the specific characteristics of the sound, observing them one by one.

Now listen to a sound emanating from yourself. Your breath will do, as it enters and exists from your body. How loud is it? What’s its tempo: is it long and slow or short and swift.

Finally, turn your attention to that in which all these various sounds occur in. Can this said to be loud or quiet? Intermittent or constant? Is it fast or slow? Here, all audible phenomena arise in a silence. That they have particular qualities is the very stuff of what they are made of, but the silent awareness in which they are born, live and die is peace itself, a tranquility that hosts everything.

So, as with the experiment in awareness in the last post, if you don’t do it, but merely read about it and think about it, you’ll miss the whole point. If you did do it, but still appeared to miss the whole point, there’s no harm in repeating the exercise, is there?

This experiment is one of many pioneered by Douglas Harding, a wonderful man that I had the pleasure to meet several times in the Nineties. He himself continued to tour the world promoting ‘seeing who we really are’ to anyone who showed an interest well into his own Nineties, passing away at the ripe old age of Ninety-seven in 2007. His vigor and enthusiasm for what he also called ‘in-seeing’ – in this instance ‘in-listening’ might be more appropriate – reflect some of the benefits of practicing this technique in mindfulness.

Buddhists, if we are open-minded to the experiments and their results, can find great use in them. They naturally lend themselves to everyday mindfulness, enlivening each and every moment that the space here is paid attention to, as well as being conducive to meditation practice. Sitting and just looking at the spacious awareness to all that is seen, or listening to all that is heard, is a simple and insight-producing activity. It reveals something about our nature, as it is in this very moment, rather than from reading a book or philosophizing (as useful as these endeavors can be).

What exactly does it reveal, however? It shows that beneath (or alongside) all the things that exist in human experience, whether they be visual, auditory, mental or whatever, there is this peaceful knowing that not only is aware of everything, but is also somehow one with them. This means that whatever distracting or upsetting things are happening in awareness, awareness itself remains no such thing; it is the no thing that is host to all things. Isn’t it worth a look – or a listen?

Thursday, May 5, 2016

An Experiment in Awareness

Look at what Arnie's pointing at...and be 'terminated!'

The central way to establish mindfulness in Theravada Buddhism is through the various satipatthana, or ‘frames for mindfulness’, which comprises focusing attention on one of four types of phenomena: the body, feelings, the mind and mind objects. Contemplation of the body includes the well known practice of anapanasati, or ‘mindfulness of breathing’, where one keeps attention on the in and out breaths, developing concentration and insight into the nature of the breath. Another long-established type of meditation is zazen, as promoted in Zen Buddhism. As with mindful breathing, zazen has become a very popular form of meditation in modern times.

An alternative to the above traditional awareness practices, is to turn attention around 180 degrees and look at who or what is experiencing the world right now. This technique, though surely not unknown prior to the twentieth century, was discovered and developed by the British philosopher and writer Douglas Edison Harding. It’s a startling simple and direct way to cultivate mindfulness and insight, and probably for this reason is often overlooked or undervalued.

To have any understanding of this technique does not come from reading about it, however, but arises from actually doing at least one of the experiments promoted by the late Douglas Harding. Here’s one of the simpler experiments:

Point at the scene in front of you, taking note of the size, color, shape and opacity of an object you can see. Next, point to another object near to where you are, answering the following questions: how big is it? What color is it? What shape is it? Can you see through it, or is it opaque?

Next, point at your own feet, asking and answering the same questions as above, before moving on to focus on your legs. Take a look at your torso, also taking the time to analyze its size, color, shape and solid nature.

Now, point your finger at your face – or at least where others see your face. What do you see? How big is it? What color is it? Does it have a shape? Is it an opaque thing, or the exact opposite? Pointing at where others see my face, I see no such thing. Right here, right now, this finger is directed not at a face or head, but at...no thing whatsoever!

All the different sized things on display are in stark contrast to what I see here: they appear in the absence of any such thing here. Ditto colors – there are no colors here other than the colors of the objects arising in awareness. The same is true of shape – the ‘no thing’ here has no shape, as only things have shape, and there’s no thing here to have a shape! As to opacity, all the opaque objects that can be seen right now occur in this invisible no thing: its absence is their being. What do you see when you point at your ‘face’?

Hopefully you did the experiment above, rather than just reading the instructions and intellectualizing about them. Douglas Harding’s experiments are entirely based on doing them, otherwise they probably sound like so much gibberish! If you did do the experiment, but didn’t quite ‘get it’, you can always do it again, this time making sure to accept only the facts of this moment rather than what you imagine to be where ‘you’ are.Why do this particular form of mindfulness? Well, over the years, I’ve found it to be a pretty good technique for getting beyond many of the ego-based emotions and hang-ups that can dominate much of human thought. Looking back here and seeing that nobody’s home, when practiced over years, can alleviate much personality-produced angst, as well as the kind of self-consciousness that blighted my own youth. Also, with less of me here to get in the way, there’s a natural openness to all the people that appear in this naked awareness, with nothing between us to separate 'me' from 'them.'

As I’ve written before, some of the insights that have arisen in this mind in relation to what Douglas called ‘in-seeing’ do differ from some of his conclusions, along with many of his ‘followers’. Being brought up in a strict Christian environment, Douglas later related ‘seeing-who-we-really-are’ to a theistic view of life, describing this experience as seeing (and being) God. As you might expect of a Buddhist, I don’t experience the space here as any kind of deity, as such, but that’s not to say that Douglas’ ideas are completely at odds with my own views. One man’s God might be another man’s Zen, or one woman’s Brahman could well be another lady’s Nirvana. Enlightenment ain't to be found in words!

An important point that I would make as a Buddhist is that ‘the Headless Way’, as this technique is widely known, is not a stand-alone practice. Douglas and his many friends have often seen it as such, referring to religious tradition when it fits in with the ‘headless’ experience, but rejecting conventional spiritual life when it seems to suggest that there’s more to enlightenment/salvation than merely looking ‘home’. Seeing the void at the centre of ‘G’ is only part of the Buddhist Way that I practice however, and many insights have arisen over the years that have come from traditional Buddhist teachings and endeavors, rather than from ‘in-seeing’. The two complement each other nicely, and that’s the Way it works out here.

So, if you got the point of the experiment and saw what Zen Buddhists call “Your Original Face (before you were born)”, why not stick at it for a while and see what insights arise. If you wish for further information on this efficacious mindfulness technique, please click here: The Headless Way.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Shunryu Suzuki on Zazen

Shunryu Suzuki (鈴木 俊隆, 1904-1971)

Today I am sitting in Los Altos. Tomorrow morning I shall be in San Francisco. There is no connection between the "I" in Los Altos and the "I" in San Francisco. They are quite different beings. Here we have the freedom of existence. And there is no quality connecting you and me; when I say "you," there is no "I"; when I say "I ," there is no "you." You are independent, and I am independent; each exists in a different moment. But this does not mean we are quite different beings. We are actually one and the same being. We are the same, and yet different. It is very paradoxical, but actually it is so. Because we are independent beings, each one of us is a complete flashing into the vast phenomenal world. When I am sitting, there is no other person, but this does not mean I ignore you, I am completely one with every existence in the phenomenal world. So when I sit, you sit; everything sits with me. That is our zazen. When you sit, everything sits with you. And everything makes up the quality of your being. I am a part of you. I go into the quality of your being. So in this practice we have absolute liberation from everything else. If you understand this secret there is no difference between Zen practice and your everyday life. You can interpret everything as you wish.
A wonderful painting is the result of the feeling in your fingers. If you have the feeling of the thickness of the ink in your brush, the painting is already there before you paint. When you dip your brush into the ink you already know the result of your drawing, or else you cannot paint. So before you do something, "being" is there, the result is there. Even though you look as if you were sitting quietly, all your activity, past and present, is included; and the result of your sitting is also already there. You are not resting at all. All the activity is included within you. That is your being. So all results of your practice are included in your sitting. This is our practice, our zazen.

(The above is excerpted from ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ by Shunryu Suzuki. A review of this incredible book can be found here.)

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Buddha on Clear Comprehension

"O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu, in going forwards and in going backwards, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in looking straight on and in looking away from the front, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in bending and in stretching, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in wearing the shoulder-cloak, the (other two) robes and the bowl, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in regard to what is eaten, drunk, chewed and savored, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in defecating and in urinating, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in walking, in standing, in sitting, in sleeping, in waking, in speaking and in keeping silence, is a person practicing clear comprehension."
(Buddha, extracted from the Satipatthana Sutta)

*Notes: The satipatthana are the 'focuses of mindfulness,' a group of meditation & mindfulness practices found in ancient Buddhist texts; clear comprehension (sampajana) is a method to develop mindfulness through the day, during everyday activities; a bhikkhu is a Buddhist monk, and as monks are being addressed in this discourse, it is the word found here, but nuns & laypeople are also encouraged to practiced clear comprehension, and can benefit just as much from its use as monks.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Buddha's Feet

Walking meditation reveals our true "buddha-feet"

Walking meditation is not so very well known in the West, but is a common practice in the traditional forms of Buddhism found in Asia, and is known as kinhin in Japanese and cankama in Pali. In the forest tradition of Northeast Thailand many well-known monks, such as the renowned meditation master Ajahn Mun, have used the latter method to cultivate enlightening mind states. In Wat Pah Nanachat (the International Forest Monastery) in Ubon Ratchathani, walking meditation is used by many of the contemplatives, and is been promoted by its former abbot Ajahn Nyanadhammo in the excellent pamphlet ‘Walking Meditation’ downloadable here. Here’s an instructive extract from this short work:
“In this method, while walking place all your attention at the soles of the feet, on the sensations and feelings as they arise and pass away (this is assuming that you are walking bare footed, as most monks do. Although light soled shoes can be worn if necessary.) As you begin walking, the feeling will change. As the foot is lifted and comes down again into contact with the path, a new feeling arises. Be aware of that sensation, as it is felt through the sole of the foot. Again as the foot lifts, mentally note the new feeling as it arises. When you lift each foot and place it down, know the sensations felt. At each new step, certain new feelings are experienced and old feelings cease. These should be known with mindfulness. With each step there is a new feeling experienced – feeling arising, feeling passing away; feeling arising, feeling passing away.”
Walking meditation is a useful alternative (or complementary) technique with regards to sitting meditation, the classical physical position for Buddhist meditative practice. In ‘Walking Meditation,’ Ajahn Nyanadhammo states that many monks and nuns have realized insight and enlightenment whilst practicing walking meditation. He also says that in the Forest Monastic Tradition every part of life is an opportunity to meditate, not only when doing sitting meditation. So, cankama can be used as an integrated aspect of Buddhist practice, allowing the various processes of life to be investigated and understood as impermanent, imperfect, and impersonal.

I personally find walking meditation effective for establishing mindfulness in the mornings, and in his book ‘Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond,’ Ajahn Brahm states that Buddha himself used cankama early in the mornings (a lot earlier in the mornings than me!). He also tells a story from his own life that illustrates the potential power of walking meditation. Early in his monastic training, Ajahn Brahm was doing cankama and was so absorbed in this practice that he lost track of time and missed the beginning of an important ceremony. Another monk came to fetch him, but had great difficulty arousing the young monk from the deep state of concentration (samadhi) that he had developed, so much so that he took quite some time to come out of the feeling of beauty and peace that had arisen during his walking. Ajahn Brahm states the following in the same book:

“As your mindfulness increases, you will know more and more of the sensations of walking. Then you find that walking does have this sense of beauty and peace to it. Every step becomes a “beautiful step.” And it can very easily absorb all your attention as you become fascinated by just walking. You can receive a great deal of Samadhi through walking meditation in this way. That Samadhi is experienced as peacefulness, a sense of stillness, a sense of the mind being very comfortable and very happy in its own corner.”

There are many variations of walking meditation, but one simple method to begin with is the following:

  1. Find a suitable place for cankama. This can be outside, perhaps positioned between two trees as in the practice of forest monks, or indoors, say in a corridor or longish room. I use the sitting room in my house, which is about seventeen steps long – in the forest tradition it’s often up to thirty paces long.
  2. Do cankama barefooted if possible, as this heightens the sensation of the feet touching the ground, which is usually the main focus of attention.
  3. Establish mindfulness prior to beginning to walk. This can be done by holding one’s hands in anjali (palm-to-palm, as in prayer) and reciting a brief Buddhist phrase, perhaps remembering the Three Refuges of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
  4. Holding one’s hands in front of one’s self walk at a comfortable pace, neither too fast nor too slow, enabling one to be mindful of each step.
  5. Keep looking about a meter and a half in front, avoiding looking at this and that.
  6. Focus awareness on the feet, noting the different sensations as each foot is placed on the ground and then rises from it, much as one might focus on the breath.
  7. When you reach the end of your meditation path, turn around and stand still for a few moments, re-establishing mindfulness before resuming walking.
  8. To begin with, do cankama for about fifteen minutes, longer if it’s comfortable. Eventually, half an hour to an hour will become possible without losing mindfulness.
Using walking meditation this way, we can lay the foundations of a steady and alert mind which can be of benefit away from the meditation path. A sense of beauty and peace may arise that accompanies every step that we take, making the simple experience of walking a deeply pleasurable one. We may find that there is an increase in the general alertness of our actions as well as with regards the feeling of walking itself. Then, wherever we are, we will be walking with Buddha’s feet of wisdom.

The above post is a revised version of a post that first appeared on this blog in September 2009. A review of Ajahn Brahm’s great book ‘Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond’ can be read here.