Thursday, July 17, 2014

Being Buddhist, Being Kind

“Whatever kinds of worldly merit there are, all are not worth one sixteenth part of the heart-deliverance of loving-kindness; in shining and beaming and radiance the heart-deliverance of loving-kindness far excels them.”
(Buddha, Itivuttaka, Sutta 27, Tipitaka)

What is it to be Buddhist? To meditate? To chant? To read Buddhist books? To be generous? To be compassionate? To be kind? To be wise? No doubt a case can be made for all of these and more to be part of what makes a Buddhist. But, when we look at our behaviour as Buddhists, do we actually fit the bill? A Buddhist (by definition) is someone who tries to put Buddha’s teachings into practice in their lives. Simply paying lip service to Buddha & his teachings but without living them isn’t really being Buddhist, is it? It’s acting, playing out a role, a character in a movie called ‘Life.’ Thing is, if this is the limit of our being Buddhist, isn’t it just another form of identification, an aspect of the ego? He’s Muslim, she’s atheist, and I’m Buddhist; it’s what makes me special. Really?

Does being Buddhist make us special when compared to others? Well, surely no more or less special than anyone else! You see, merely being Buddhist through birth or allegiance doesn’t make us special among humans because we’re essentially the same; we are born, we live and we die; and in our lives we all experience suffering (dukkha). Can we say Buddhist suffering is more special than other kinds of suffering? Of course not! Can we say that identifying with being Buddhist as opposed to Christian or Jewish is a special kind of identification? How can it be? Suffering is suffering, whether it be a Buddhist’s or a Hindu’s, and identification is identification, whether it be Buddhist or Sikh.

So, what are the Buddha’s teachings that we should put into practice so that we might be truly Buddhist? Well, this isn’t as easy a question to answer as at first it might seem. For, what version of those teachings are we to follow? Zen, Theravada, Vajrayana, Pure Land, Nichiren, Shingon, Tendai, Huayan, Madhyamaka, Yogacara, or Navayana? And these are just some of the main ones! Moreover, even within these various traditions and philosophies there are different teachings and practices which are not followed by all. Going back to the list mentioned at the top of this article, can we say that someone fails to be Buddhist if they don’t meditate or read Buddhist books, for example? Surely not; there’s something more basic to being Buddhist than such specifics isn’t there?

Looking at Buddhists and humanity at large can help us to see what’s needed by recognizing what’s missing. Returning to that universal truth of dukkha (stress or suffering), we can certainly see what people that are in pain need more of: kindness. Buddha promoted a quality of mind called metta, often translated as loving-kindness, although goodwill is a decent enough English equivalent too. Yes, meditation and chanting have their place, as do the other practices already mentioned, but not all of us can sit watching the mind or recite ancient formulas. But what we can do is be kind. We can be kind to our partners, our families, our neighbours, our work colleagues, strangers and acquaintances alike.

You may argue that though being kind is all very laudable, it doesn’t sound particularly Buddhist. And I’d agree with this, because to be truly Buddhist is to be truly human. It isn’t a label or affiliation that makes us Buddhist, but being true to our human condition, and recognizing the same in others, changing our behaviour towards them so that they suffer just a little bit less. A kind word, a smile, a reassuring gesture; all such deeds are forms of metta in action, and make us more like Buddha, whether we identify with him and his teachings or not. Moreover, what’s the point in claiming to be Buddhist, spouting Buddhist philosophy if our actions lack the most basic level of goodwill? In reality, we are putting Buddhism in a bad light, waffling about all kinds of wise ideas and theories but falling short of these lofty notions in the way we conduct ourselves.

So, in answer to the query that opened this article, what it is to be Buddhist, the most basic answer is simply to be kind. Be kind to others and be kind to ourselves. Be kind to humans and animals, for we all have the capacity to suffer, but also the ability to alleviate some of that suffering. Be patient, and don’t listen to gossip nor spread it; forgive as much as you can and don’t wish others harm; see that all wish for happiness and safety – just as you do. If we can do this, then we can claim to be Buddhist, not only in our convictions but also in our actions, which is surely where the essence of being Buddhist is found. And, in doing this, we move closer to all beings, human or otherwise, Buddhist or otherwise. Being Buddhist means being kind.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Karaniya Metta Sutta

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove,
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be,
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short, or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to be born,
May all beings be at ease.
Let none deceive another
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
ShouldThis is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove,
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be,
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short, or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to be born,
May all beings be at ease.
Let none deceive another
Or despise any being in any state.

Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
one cherish all living beings,
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies
And downwards to the depths,
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down,
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed vews,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense-desires,
Is not born again into this world.


The Karaniya Metta Sutta - 'The Loving-Kindness To Be Cultivated Sermon' - is one of the most beloved of Buddhist sutras. It is presented here for our contemplation, for in its short but succinct form, we have a priceless guide to becoming better beings. In the upcoming months, a series of reflections on the sutra will appear on this blog. The translation presented here is from the Western Forest Sangha Chanting Book, which can be downloaded from the following address: Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery

Friday, June 27, 2014

Buddha on Self & Not-Self

Then the wanderer Vacchagotta went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there he asked the Blessed One: "Now then, Venerable Gotama, is there a self?" When this was said, the Blessed One was silent. "Then is there no self?" A second time, the Blessed One was silent. Then Vacchagotta the wanderer got up from his seat and left.

Then, not long after Vacchagotta the wanderer had left, Venerable Ananda said to the Blessed One, "Why, Blessed One, did the Blessed One not answer when asked a question by Vacchagotta the wanderer?"

"Ananda, if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?"

"No, Blessed One."

"And if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: 'Does the self I used to have now not exist?'"

(Ananda Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 44:10, Tipitaka. Notes: ‘Blessed One’ & 'Venerable Gotama' refer to the Buddha; eternalism is the view that there is an eternal, unchanging self; annihilationism is the view that death is the annihilation of self. Buddha’s teaching of anatta (not-self) states that there is no self in the first place to cease existing. This is not to be understood as a doctrine or philosophy, but to be experienced by the meditative mind.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dhammapada Reflections #2

Verses 3, 4 & 5

"He abused me, struck me,
Overpowered me, and robbed me."
Those that harbor such thoughts
Cannot still their hatred.

"He abused me, struck me,
Overpowered me, and robbed me."
Those that do not harbor such thoughts
Can still their hatred.

Hatred is never appeased
By hatred in this world.
By non-hatred alone
Is hatred appeased.
This is an eternal law.

 Hatred is fuelled by negative thoughts. It is a fire that burns on negative sentiments such as feeling verbally or physically abused, or robbed. These thoughts proliferate if not checked, begetting more and more negativity that feeds our hate until we become engulfed in pessimism. People that we perceive as having inflicted such sufferings upon us are viewed with a hatred that is incredibly destructive towards those that we think have done us wrong, seeking to punish them in various ways, often the same ones that they wreaked on us. However, such hatred will also eat us up ourselves, too; we will become victims of our own hatred. Embittered and suffering, we'll be prisoners of self-propagating thoughts in a vicious circle of ruination.

 By contrast, if we don't indulge in hatred, we can experience life in a much more positive way. By letting go of our negative feelings towards others, we break down some of the barriers between us & them, allowing for more fulfilling relationships. We also will feel less distress within ourselves, our minds not continually tossed around by destructive emotions. This is done by cultivating 'non-hatred.' In some translations of the Dhammapada, the word 'love' is used here, but the original Pali wording is averena ca, which is better rendered as 'only through non-hatred.' Non-hatred is not as emotive, passionate word as 'love,' and in the context of Buddhist practice & teaching, it is too vague a term to use here.

 We can cultivate non-hated in various. Buddha taught the brahma-vihara (‘divine abodes’) to counteract certain negative human traits. They are metta (goodwill), karuna (compassion), mudita (empathetic joy) & upekkha (equanimity). Metta, usually translated as goodwill or ‘loving-kindness,’ can be developed to cancel out hate. The other three divine abodes can help also, but here we’ll focus on just one. If we feel goodwill towards others, wishing them safety & happiness, acknowledging that these states are wished for by all human beings, then hatred is less likely to get a grip on us. Trying to force the arising of goodwill probably won’t help much, however, especially if left to the last minute when already caught up in hateful thought patterns. The Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm can help us here.

 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. With such a mind-set, the arising of hatred towards that we feel have slighted us will be less likely, instead we might even be able to develop some wisdom with regards to why people do nasty things to each other, and how thus relates to the inherent stress (dukkha) that most of us experience in life.

The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of the Buddha's teachings in poetic form. The first chapter is called Yamakavagga, 'Chapter of Pairs,' and the above three verses are from this part of the book.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Buddha on Skillful Means

“O Shariputra! The real intention of all the buddhas in adapting their explanations to what is appropriate is difficult to understand. Why is this? It is because I have expounded the teachings with innumerable skillful means and various kinds of explanations and illustrations. Yet this Dharma is beyond reason and discernment. Only the buddhas can understand it. Why is this? It is because the blessed buddhas appear in this world for one great purpose alone. O Shariputra! Now I will explain why I said that the blessed buddhas appear in this world for only one great purpose.

 “The blessed buddhas appear in this world to cause sentient beings to aspire toward purity and the wisdom and insight of the buddhas. They appear in this world to manifest the wisdom and insight of the buddhas to sentient beings. They appear in this world to cause sentient beings to attain the wisdom and insight of a buddha’s enlightenment. They appear in this world in order to cause sentient beings to enter the path of the wisdom and insight of a buddha.

 “O Shariputra! For this one great reason alone the buddhas have appeared in this world.”

(Buddha to his disciple Shariputra, from the Lotus Sutra, Chapter 2 ‘Skillful Means.’ Note: Skillful means – upaya in Buddhist parlance – is an important concept in Buddhism, as the various teachings & techniques therein can be seen as skilful means to awaken to true nature & realize nirvana.)



Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Seeing Dharma, Seeing Buddha

Now the Venerable Vakkali saw the Blessed One coming from a distance, and tried to get up from his sickbed. Then the Blessed One said to the Venerable Vakkali: "Enough, Vakkali, do not try to get up. There are these seats made ready. I will sit down there." And he sat down on a seat that was ready. Then he said:

"Are you feeling better, Vakkali? Are you bearing up? Are your pains getting better and not worse? Are there signs that they are getting better and not worse?”

“No, Blessed One, I do not feel better, I am not bearing up. I have severe pains, and they are getting worse, not better. There is no sign of improvement, only of worsening.”

 “Have you any doubts, Vakkali? Have you any cause for regret?”

“Indeed, Blessed One, I have many doubts. I have much cause for regret.”

“Have you nothing to reproach yourself about as regards morals?”

“No, Blessed One, I have nothing to reproach myself about as regards morals.”

“Well then, Vakkali, if you have nothing to reproach yourself about as regards morals, you must have some worry or scruple that is troubling you.”

“For a long time, Lord, I have wanted to come and set eyes on the Blessed One, but I had not the strength in this body to come and see the Blessed One.”

“Enough, Vakkali! What is there to see in this vile body? He who sees Dharma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dharma. Truly seeing Dharma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dharma.”

 (Vakkali Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 22:87, Tipitaka. Notes: ‘Blessed One’ refers to the Buddha; ‘Dharma (sometimes ‘Dhamma’) refers here to the Buddhist teachings)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

To Be Reborn, or Not To Be Reborn?

The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom four solaces are found here and now.

'Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.' This is the first solace found by him.

'Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.' This is the second solace found by him.

'Suppose evil (results) befall an evil-doer. I, however, think of doing evil to no one. Then, how can ill (results) affect me who do no evil deed?' This is the third solace found by him.

'Suppose evil (results) do not befall an evil-doer. Then I see myself purified in any case.' This is the fourth solace found by him.

The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom, here and now, these four solaces are found.”

(Buddha, Kalama Sutta)

 In the popular sutra (discourse) of the Buddha called the Kalama Sutta, the rather confused people of a town called Kessaputta ask the Buddha how they are to discern which teachings are true when many different spiritual teachers have taught them divergent views. Moreover, these people, known as the Kalamas (hence the title of the sutra), aren’t sure whether there is rebirth or not. Being wise, the Buddha teaches the Kalama as if there isn’t rebirth, describing four solaces that we can have if we practice according to what is wholesome and has wholesome results.

 Do the Kalama people seem familiar to you? Aren’t many in modern western society (and those under its influence) in a similar state of affairs as those unfortunate Kalamas? For them, there were many spiritual teachers and teachings available to them, between which they could not discern which one was the right one to follow. Some taught reincarnation, some rebirth, some materialism, some theism, some polytheism, some that there are no (karmic) results of our actions. In a series of questions he puts to the Kalamas, the Buddha elicits from them that the elimination of greed, hatred & delusion are spiritually beneficial, and then teaches them that to propagate kindness, goodwill, sympathy & equanimity to all beings is also a profitable endeavour which leads to the four solaces quoted above.

 So, for us moderns who are presented with so many different theologies & philosophies about the way things are, perhaps these words of the Buddha can help us, as they did the Kalama people. Perhaps we find the supernatural beliefs that lie at the core of most world religions unacceptable in the modern, scientific age. The ideas of God or gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles and the like seem as likely as the existence of dragons, pixies and fairies to many these days. But, we are told, Buddhism doesn’t centre itself on such beliefs; sure, there are references to deities, demons, heavens, hells, etc. in Buddhist scripture, but these do not lie at the core of Buddhist teachings in the way that God does in Christianity or Islam, for example.

One of the central teachings found in Buddhism is that of rebirth; that after death certain aspects of the mind reappear in subsequent births. Mainstream modern science (currently) denies that rebirth takes place, and this belief is seen as supernatural. On the other hand, many Buddhists argue that the belief in karma & rebirth is essential to Buddhism, and without it Buddhist practice ceases to be truly Buddhist. However, the Buddha himself seems unconcerned with holding such a view (and, in other places in Buddhist scripture the Buddha is said to be one that is free of all views). As the quote above shows, he stills sees it as worthwhile teaching the Kalama people even if they don’t believe in rebirth, stating that there are still benefits to be had from ceasing unwholesome actions and taking up wholesome ones in this very life.

 These benefits include being “free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy” and that by not doing harmful acts any harmful results thereof will also be avoided. These are pretty worthwhile aims in this life, so even if the ultimate objective of nirvana seems far of, there are still worthwhile advantages in practicing Buddhism. Who doesn’t want to be free from hatred & malice, to feel safe & be happy? Personally, I can vouch that by following these principles an increase in confidence & happiness can follow. Furthermore, if practiced in conjunction with other aspects of Buddhist practice such as meditation, a genuine, deep sense of calm contentment can arise, allied with a conviction that life is being lived in a worthwhile way.

In conclusion, then, the question, “To be reborn or not to be reborn” doesn’t seem quite so crucial to Buddhist practice. There’s no need to reject it out-of-hand and attach to the belief that rebirth is impossible, but neither is a lack of belief in rebirth a block to progress on the Buddhist path. In the end, Buddhist teachings exist as upaya (skillful means) to assist us to lead more wholesome lives and in our progress to the realization of nirvana. We should use those teachings and techniques wisely, and, simply by living what the Buddha describes as a wholesome life, we will reap the benefits in this very life… and maybe beyond!