Monday, September 22, 2008

Reflections on the Karaniya Metta Sutta #2

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.

In this, the second of a series of reflections on the Karaniya Metta Sutta, we will examine the meaning of the second section of the sutra above. (For the first reflection, see the following article: Reflections on the Karaniya Metta Sutta #1.) As revealed in the first reflection, there’s more to the cultivation of metta, or loving-kindness, than just wishing everyone is well. Morality, along with the state of one’s mind, is an important factor in perfecting goodwill, for if the mind is impure, then the metta that it produces will be stunted and ineffective. It is in this vein that this second part of the sutra continues, exploring the conditions conducive to being a more genuinely kindhearted person.
As in the first section, it is emphasized here that the developer of metta should be peaceful and calm; this is because a calm mind is a solid basis not only from which to emit goodwill to others, but also a clear place from which to understand how to cultivate metta in an effective manner that will really be felt by other beings. An agitated mindset will only encourage negative emotions to grow in one’s heart, and this will have consequences in the world, whether we are aware of them or not. We might think that we are being very friendly towards somebody, and yet they may point out that we have a scowl on our face! In this scenario, underlying negative feelings have been unconsciously expressed upon the face without any conscious decision to do so. If, however, a calm mind is already established, this will be reflected in the facial features that one displays to others. The Thai forest master Ajahn Chah taught about this quality of inner peace:

“Anyone can build a house of wood and bricks, but the Buddha taught that that sort of home is not our real home, it’s only nominally ours. It’s home in the world and it follows the ways of the world. Our real home is inner peace. An external, material home may well be pretty but it is not very peaceful. There’s this worry and then that, this anxiety and then that. So we say it’s not our real home, it’s external to us. Sooner or later we’ll have to give it up. (‘The Teachings of Ajahn Chah’, p.218)

Being wise and skillful follows being peaceful and calm in this part of the sutra, and this is no coincidence. Wisdom comes from a peaceful heart. If the heart is not at peace, it is impossible to develop true wisdom, for any understanding that one has is only intellectual and not reflected in one’s attitudes and behavior towards others. In such a state, it is easy to appear wise, and yet as soon as situations occur that contradict one’s desires, this fa├žade of wisdom is shattered to reveal the unskillful mind that lurks behind the mask. Being skillful requires us to know when to act and when not to. It means acting in both a moral and calm way according to the teachings of the Buddhas and the patriarchs of Buddhism.
Not proud and demanding in nature refers to the humility of the true cultivator of the Way. Pride comes before a fall, and what a fall we will face if we pretend at being a modest Buddhist but then have that pretence blown apart the first time a challenging situation comes our way! To be not proud means that we do not find any work too lowly for us; we will help out when necessary, whether at home, at a friend’s, at work or in the temple. It also means that we are not arrogant in what knowledge we have of the Dharma; we never dismiss another’s insight as inferior to our own, nor do we take pleasure in displaying how much of the Buddhadharma we know.
When we are not demanding in nature we are satisfied with what life gives us. We do not complain when someone has a larger slice of the cake than us, and we don’t resent another’s success, wishing that we were in his or her place. Neither do we always want the best of everything, thinking ourselves too important to receive modest portions of food or attention from others. This latter point is an important indicator in just how demanding we are, for it is not just in our approach to material objects that our level humility will be displayed, but also in how we act towards other people. If we are always seeking the attention of other people, demanding that they listen to our viewpoint or appreciate our wit, then we show that we are truly demanding in nature, and not at all Buddhist in our relations with people.
Let them not do the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove sums up the main message of the sutra to this point, which is that the conduct of the one that intends to cultivate loving-kindness should be of sound morality. Moreover, this virtue should be allied to a calmness of mind that is not easily disturbed by the negative and selfish impulses of the ego. A crucial point to focus on here is that in the sutra the Buddha states that such an aspirant should not do the slightest thing that would be disapproved of by the wise. This suggests an impeccability of conduct born of a consistently moral approach to life, not only in the big things such as refraining from killing or stealing etc., but also in the small things like speaking in a calm and truthful manner that reflects the Buddhadharma. This is because even the smallest of deeds or words an impure heart is revealed, and an impure heart is not capable of sharing the blessings of goodwill with the suffering beings of this world. Everything that we do, say, or think should be in the spirit of the Way, assisting to reduce the greed, hatred, and delusion that all unenlightened beings are subject to.

“Only blessings can arise
from seeking the company
of wise and discerning persons,
who skillfully offer
both admonition and advice
as if guiding one to hidden treasure.”
(Verse 76 from Ajahn Munindo’s rendering
of the Dhammapada)

How we gauge the level of our morality and peacefulness is indicated in the sutra by referring to those that we can check our behavior with: the wise. But, according to Buddhism, just who are the wise? The original Wise One in this tradition is of course the Buddha, he who realized enlightenment over two millennia ago and then shared his wisdom with ‘those who had little dust in their eyes’. To have little dust in one’s eyes means to be humble enough to accept the Buddhadharma even when it points to failings in one. It is not only the historical Shakyamuni Buddha that is fitting to receive our attention where wisdom is concerned; those masters in the great tradition of Buddhism that have penetrated the teaching and realized Nirvana are worthy of our attentiveness. They are also to be considered the wise ones that can judge whether our behavior is in line with the beautiful Dharma or not. So, in the teachings of the Buddha, and in the advice of living Buddhist masters, we find the wisdom that can guide us to being capable of generating true, selfless, metta.
Here, the Karaniya Metta Sutta ends its description of the prerequisites to being able to produce loving-kindness and begins to reveal how this limitless goodwill can be expressed: Wishing: In gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease. In the pure, clear heart of one that has excellent morality a wish should be made. This wish should be treasured as a great gift to both oneself and the world; it is a gift that can create a more peaceful, happy world. Why? Because it comes from a peaceful and happy heart. This wish should be held with affection in the mind, and should penetrate every thought, word and deed. Such a wish is a treasure to the world, grown in a heart that’s without enmity.
In gladness and in safety indicates the conditions needed to be content. Firstly, living beings should be happy. If one is not happy, how can one be content with life? The two are part of each other, the two sides of the one coin. If someone is unhappy, then they will necessarily be discontent, and if someone is without contentment, then they will be unhappy. They will not be glad. Similarly, when we feel unsafe, are we content? If someone is scared that they will be attacked any minute, can they be said to be content with the situation that they are in? No. To be content, we need to be both glad and safe; only in gladness and in safety, can we truly be at ease. This is why the wish of goodwill includes both gladness and safety as the basis of contentment. May all beings be at ease, indeed!

The free e-books quoted in this article are available from the following links:

The Teachings of Ajahn Chah
The Dhammapada: A Rendering by Ajahn Munindo

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