Monday, September 29, 2008

E-book Review: Empty Cloud: The Teachings of Xu Yun

Portrait of Master Xu Yun by Tan Swie Hian

“Chan enables us to transcend our human nature and realize our Buddha Nature.”
(‘Empty Cloud: The Teachings of Master Xu (Hsu) Yun’, p.18)

This short little book (under a hundred pages) is a true gem of Buddhism. In the teachings of Master Xu Yun, it contains the living Dharma of the Buddha as taught in the Chinese Zen tradition. Chinese Zen – Chan – is less regimented in style than its Japanese offspring, although in the lineage of Master Yun this doesn’t mean a lax attitude to monastic discipline and rules. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the various branches of Chan that have this master as a patriarch is an adherence to the Mahayana Buddhist monastic code, combined with an intense approach to meditation and mindfulness.

“Discipline is the foundation upon which enlightenment rests. Discipline regulates our behavior and makes it unchanging. Steadiness becomes steadfastness and it is this which produces wisdom.
The Surangama Sutra clearly teaches us that mere accomplishment in meditation will not erase our impurities. Even if we were able to demonstrate great proficiency in meditation, still, without adherence to discipline, we would easily fall into Mara’s evil realm of demons and heretics.” (‘Empty Cloud’, p.24)

In his introduction to the book, Master Jy Din Shakya, who studied under Master Xu Yun, gives the reader a brief biography of his teacher, recounting how the venerable master helped refugees during the Japanese invasion of China in World War Two, establishing the habit of not eating after midday as in Theravada Buddhism. He later faced communist thugs that nearly beat him to death, and actually did kill at least one other monk at the monastery Master Yun resided in. Surviving all this, he went on to continue his restoration of Chinese Buddhism up until his death at the age of one hundred and one. After his demise, Buddhism along with other religions and traditions were ruthlessly attacked and practically wiped out during the so-called Cultural Revolution. Master Yun had previously had the foresight to send some of his disciples to the West to propagate the Buddhadharma there, including Master Xuan Hua and Master Jy Din Shakya. Of his teacher, the latter Zen master wrote in the preface to ‘Empty Cloud’:

“To be in Xu Yun’s presence was to be in the morning mist of a sunny day, or in one of those clouds that linger at the top of a mountain. A person can reach out and try to grab the mist, but no matter how hard he tries to snatch it, his hand always remains empty. Yet, no matter how desiccated his spirit is, the Empty Cloud will envelop it with life-giving moisture; or no matter how his spirit burns with anger or disappointment, a soothing coolness will settle over him, like gentle dew.” (‘Empty Cloud’, p.4)

As with the life-giving moisture of the Empty Cloud, Master Xu Yun – whose name means ‘Empty Cloud’ – is able to invigorate us with his wisdom, which he shares with a depth of insight that shatters the veil of ignorance. He displays a wit and knowledge of Buddhist tradition that convey the Buddhadharma in an engaging and apparently effortless manner. There’s the personal touch found in his words that livens the teachings and makes them more accessible:

“In Chan we’re not sure of too many things. We only really know one: Enlightenment doesn’t come with a dictionary! The bridge to Nirvana is not composed of phrases. As old Master Lao Zi wrote, The Dao that we can talk about is not the Dao we mean.
So the Buddha spoke in silence, but what did he say?
Perhaps he was saying, ‘From out of the muck of Samsara the Lotus rises pure and undefiled. Transcend ego-consciousness! Be One with the flower!’
There! The Buddha gave a lecture and nobody had to take any notes.”

(‘Empty Cloud’, p.53)

‘Empty Cloud’ is steeped in Chinese cultural history with references not only to the old Zen masters, but also to Lao Zi (the author of the famous Dao De Jing, referred to above), warlords, dragons, and emperors. The book contains chapters focused on various themes such as ‘Chan Training’, ‘Stages of Development’, ‘Wordless Transmission’, and ‘Layman Pang’, the latter being a delightful account of the life and teachings of a famous Chinese Zen layman and his family. For more on this chapter, see ‘Master Xu Yun and Layman Pang’
In the chapter ‘Gaining Enlightenment’, there’s a great explanation of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, with the following words relating to the ever-changing nature of the ego:

“It’s like trying to play football when the length of the field keeps changing; and instead of one ball in play, there are twenty; and the players are either running on and off the field or sleeping on the grass. Nobody is really sure which game is being played and everybody plays by different rules. Now, anyone who was expected to be both player and referee could never find pleasure in such a game. He’d find his life on the field to be an endless exercise in fear, confusion, frustration and exhaustion.” (‘Empty Cloud’, p.31)

What an accurate description of the egocentric state! Master Yun goes on to explain the eight aspects of the Path with equally captivating imagery, including a description of the basic five precepts of the Way. Anyone who thinks Zen is for libertines should think twice! In telling of the second precept, which is to refrain from false speech, he relates the humorous story of two merchants in Tokyo that were always in competition and completely distrusted each other. One day they met at the railway station and the first merchant asked the other where he was going. After the second merchant replied that he was going to Kobe, the first merchant exclaimed,

“You liar! You tell me you are going to Kobe because you want me to think you are going to Osaka; but I have made inquiries, and I know you ARE going to Kobe!”
(‘Empty Cloud’, p.35)

We humans can be really dumb creatures sometimes can’t we? And it’s all down to our own stupidity, wallowing in our egoistic views of the world! Another example of human ignorance is found in the chapter called ‘Mo Shan’, the name of a highly revered female Zen Master (Mistress?). A rather chauvinistic monk called Quan Xi paid Mo Shan a visit to test her knowledge of the Way. In his arrogance he did not kowtow her as he should, simply because she was a woman. After some initial verbal jousting, not uncommon in the annals of Zen Buddhist history of course, Quan Xi asked where the man in charge of Mo Shan was to be found. (‘Mo Shan’ was both the name of the monastery and of the master.) Mo Shan replied that the one in charge was neither male nor female, to which the monk responded:

“‘The person in charge ought to be powerful enough to complete the transformation,’ he challenged, his machismo again getting the better of his brain.
Mo Shan looked intently at Quan Xi. Slowly and gently she said, ‘The One in charge of Mo Shan is neither a ghost nor a demon nor a person. Into what should that One transform?’” (‘Empty Cloud’, p.89)

Finally the penny dropped that he was in the presence of an enlightened master and Quan Xi then kowtowed properly to his superior. Master Yun presented such stories as these in a way that made them easily accessible to his listeners, and in this English translation of his teachings compiled by Chan Master Jy Din Shakya, we have a wonderful collection of Zen anecdotes, meditation instructions, moral lessons, and Buddhist doctrines to inspire the reader for years to come. Appropriately, the last words here will be Master Xu Yun’s:

“Dear friends, be grateful for the Buddha Dharma. Be grateful for the Three Treasures. Never forget that eternal refuge that exists for all is all in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Be thankful for the Lamp that leads us out of darkness and into the light.” (‘Empty Cloud’, p.66)

To download a free copy of the above e-book, please click the following link:
Empty Cloud: The Teachings of Xu Yun

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 façade 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

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Being Metta

“Metta is the Buddhist word for ‘loving-kindness.’ It refers to the emotion of goodwill, that which wishes happiness for another. It embraces forgiveness, because metta says: ‘The door of my heart is open to you. No matter what you have done, come in.’ It is that kindness which does not judge and is given freely, expecting nothing in return.”

(Ajahn Brahm in ‘Using Variety to Freshen Up Our Meditation’, p.2)

In recent posts, Buddha Space has been focusing on the Karaniya Metta Sutta, that wonderful sutra that encourages us to go beyond our selfish habits and viewpoints and flood the world with loving-kindness. The reflections on the sutra have been presented on this blog as an offering to encourage contemplation of the meaning of both the scripture and the cultivation of metta itself. But from an experiential point of view, little has been offered to the reader to help her or him taste the flavor of loving-kindness as it effortlessly breaks down the barriers between us. Hopefully, this post can rectify that, but it will require your cooperation. The following experiment needs to be actually done rather than merely read or imagined; it is only in the tasting that we have the proof of the pudding.

When next in the presence of another human face, say in close conversation, really take a look at the situation. What do you actually see? Are you face-to-face with another person, or is your interlocutor’s face looking deeply into your…emptiness? What is, exactly, at your end of this two-way dialogue? (Is it, in fact, a two-way dialogue at all, or rather a one-way dialogue pointing to your true empty nature?) Be totally honest in your answer to this following question: Are you face-to-face or face-to-no-face?

Well, what did you find? Are you – or have you ever – been face-to-face with other people when talking with them, or have you been associating with an identity that’s not yours? At least not your true identity. It’s not being suggested here that you don’t have a face, for even though you can’t see it, you certainly can feel it; but on present evidence, what lies behind or beyond that face where your center is? Looking at my friend’s face, I see his features most clearly; eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and (some) hair – you get the picture. But what’s here being aware of his façade? Not another face, that’s for sure. Here is an empty awareness that’s capacity for my friend, and anyone else for that matter, to make an appearance. But, you might ask, what’s all this got to do with experiencing metta, let alone being it? Well, let’s return to your experiment with another’s face.

Right now, seeing things clearly for what they are and not how we imagine tham to be, is it not true that you are a wide spaciousness that the one speaking with you appears in? Are you not an borderless void in which he or she lives? Are you not completely open for the other, allowing her or him the space to be, and not hindering their being in any way? In this moment, face-to-no-face, do you not feel the arising of a sense of caring for them? Even if they’re not your favorite person in the world, perhaps someone you’ve never really liked in all honesty, if you’re aware of being this spacious emptiness vacant of self so that they can live in you, do you not now fell some warmth towards them? Is this not the arising of metta, of an unconditioned state of goodwill?

Really taking in the scene before one as it is in and of itself, a sense of quiet kindliness can be experienced. It is not some sentimental emotion, an idealized feeling that we somehow all one, but a natural consequence of seeing things as they are, seeing the Dharma. When emptied of selfhood, broken open for the other to exist in, there is metta. And this metta is not an ideal appearing in the mind, but an outflow of oneself into the other, binding the two into one, and the one into nothingness. In this void, I am you, and our being is metta itself, expressed in the sound of our voices rising and falling in the emptiness. In this light, I will ask you one more time to pay attention to the conversation you have been awaking to:

Listen to your interlocutor’s voice. Is it apart from you or is it sailing upon the same empty sea that his or her appearance is? Taken on its own merit now, and not attaching preconceptions to it, what is your response to that voice and those words? Does the judging mind arise, analyzing everything that’s said, or is there that same feeling of goodwill towards the sounds of your companion? Does it make any difference whether you look or listen, or does metta occur whatever the sense faculty being used?

Of course, for this experiment to reveal genuine metta, it cannot be dependent upon one particular sense, unless we going to suggest that only when we see someone do we feel goodwill towards him or her. This would clearly be nonsense, and the many kindhearted blind people that I’ve met deny such an erroneous conclusion. True metta grows out of a lack of self, a dearth of selfishness or ego. Otherwise, it’s merely the ego hiding behind yet another goody-goody disguise, pretending to be something that we’re not. (And what is the ego if not that?!) That the Buddha could stop a rampaging bull elephant not by some magic power that dispersed the creature, but via emitting loving-kindness towards the confused animal, shows both the depth of the Buddha’s metta and the amazing power of goodwill to transform those that we meet.

Being metta means being space for others to exist. It means not judging them but wishing them well. And it requires that one let go of the judgmental ego that will otherwise blight our relationships with other beings. Being metta is the antidote to identifying with that intellect that wants to classify everything and everyone, neatly pigeon-holing them so that they are kept at a manageable distance. But where metta is concerned, there is no distance, whether in space or time. There is only the here and now, and it is in this present empty moment that we can relinquish the self and open up for the other, realizing in the process that in truth they are no other but the same Buddha that lies at the heart of all. And when we live in the light of this empty Buddha heart, we can say with Ajahn Brahm, “The door of my heart is open to you. No matter what you have done, come in.”

To access the free e-book ‘Using Variety to Freshen Up Our Meditation’ by Ajahn Brahmavamso, please click the following link: Using Variety to Freshen Up Our Meditation

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Reflections on the Karaniya Metta Sutta #1

Whatever 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.

One of the most widely known, recited, and loved sutras in the Pali Tripitaka is the Karaniya Metta Sutta, words of the Buddha that extol the virtues of goodwill, or loving-kindness, as metta is usually translated into English. Goodwill is one of the four sublime states promoted by the Buddha that lead those that nurture them to become better and wiser people. The other three states are compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

Although all four sublime states are important aspects of Buddhist development, loving-kindness has always had a special place in the minds of most Buddhists, being considered a most worthy quality to display. Here, as an introduction to this wonderful teaching, we will explore the broad meaning of the sutra, starting with its name, before taking a look at some of the main themes that the Buddha encourages us to contemplate.

Sutta is the Pali equivalent to the Sanskrit sutra, and as such can be understood to mean a ‘discourse’ or ‘sermon’, given either by the Buddha or one of his senior disciples. This particular sutra is credited to the Buddha himself, and its full name roughly means ‘The Goodwill-to-be Developed Sermon’. It is often simply referred to as the Metta Sutta (although there is at least one other sutra known by that name in the Tripitaka), and in this context may be called ‘The Sermon on Loving-Kindness’.

Essentially, the sutra describes the qualities that a Buddhist needs to cultivate to achieve the ultimate end of goodwill, the state of a ‘non-returner’, that is, someone who is at the penultimate stage of enlightenment. This is the meaning of the final line Being freed from all sense-desires, is not born again into this world. A ‘non-returner’ will never be born into this world again, but will take up residence in a heavenly state where they can become fully enlightened. This is because they are not holding to fixed views and are freed from all sense-desires through the practice of loving-kindness that loosens the bonds of attachment to the things of this world. More than a guide on how to near enlightenment, the Metta Sutta also reveals the various qualities that any good human would want to perfect, making those who come into contact with him or her happier in the process. These qualities are both psychological and behavioral, and include honesty, humbleness, contentment, peacefulness, freedom from hatred, ill will, and having a boundless heart that is cherishing all living beings just as a mother would protect her only child.

Regarding the development of such wide reaching and boundless kindness, the sutra includes a section that comprises the wish may all beings be at ease, which is stated twice, no doubt to emphasize its importance in the cultivation of goodwill. And it is made clear that there are to be no exceptions to this generous wish, with various types of beings referred to as being the recipients of loving-kindness. These include the weak, the strong, the seen, the unseen, those nearby and those far away. For, is it not true that the most hideous of murderers and torturers have some people close to them that they love and protect? To care for only those that are family and friends is to do what probably ninety-nine per cent of humanity do, including rapists, thieves and dictators, whereas to develop feelings of loving-kindness towards all beings, whether close to one or not, is surely a much more difficult yet worthy achievement. Even those that one has never met; to extend one’s best wishes to them also is to create a love in one’s heart that transcends the usual limits of our selfish love.

And this is the more general point of this sutra: it points the way to growing beyond oneself and beyond the normal selfish motives of our emotions, even the good ones. For, if we analyze our feelings with detachment, will we not see that often we feel love towards others because they make us feel good? Is it not so that we are kind to those that we hope will be kind back to us, and that if we knew someone would never return our goodwill, perhaps even being abusive towards us, we would never be kindhearted to them in the first place? The loving-kindness that the Buddha refers to in this sutra is much greater than such common or garden emotions. It points to a way of interacting with the world that truly transforms us into selfless beings, one step away from Nirvana.

The sutra itself does not prescribe a specific practice with which to cultivate loving-kindness, unlike other discourses by the Buddha in the Tripitaka that give precise guidelines on how to develop particular meditative experiences. Combining the intent inherent in an attitude of goodwill with meditation techniques can have powerful results, however, and in ancient and modern commentaries on the Karaniya Metta Sutta such practices are laid out in detail. Both Ajahn Sumedho and Ajahn Brahm of the Western Forest Sangha have taught on how to cultivate metta in the context of mindfulness and meditation. It will be one of the aims of this blog in the near future to explore some of these techniques to encourage the growth of loving-kindness.

Over the coming months Buddha Space will feature regular reflections on the Karaniya Metta Sutta, taking it line by line, so to extract as much meaning and inspiration from it as is possible within the limitations of a blog. This will be not only a recapitulation of past contemplations on goodwill by the author, but also an ongoing development of this sublime abiding in his own practice, along with the wise words of those Dharma teachers that influenced him. Your thoughts and reflections on this process along with your views and experiences of metta would be greatly appreciated, so feel free to leave a comment or two.

For now, we will turn our attention to the opening lines of the sutra, quoted at the top of this piece. This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness reveals who exactly the teachings herein are aimed at: a person intent on goodness, or being a wholesome and positive being. Cultivating positive attributes is an important aspect of Buddhist practice, and one that is sometimes neglected in favor of more cerebral pursuits, especially amongst Western Buddhists. Precepts, such as the five basic ones of refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants, exist to support the other aspects of the Way like meditation, mindfulness, and metta. A modern Buddhist teacher keen to promote morality and the precepts was Master Xuan Hua:

“Precepts are the rules of moral conduct that Buddhist disciples follow. The precepts stop evil and guard against mistakes. When you maintain precepts, you don’t indulge in any bad actions, but instead you conduct yourself properly and you offer up your good conduct to the Buddha… If you study the Buddhadharma without receiving the precepts, you will be a leaky bottle. To keep the precepts is to patch the leaks. The human body has outflows. It leaks. If you maintain the precepts for a long time, eventually there will be no outflows.” (‘The Shurangama Sutra Volume One’ by Master Hua, pp.16- & 17)

With the word Karaniya, the sutra’s title emphasizes that it contains practices that are to be cultivated in the development of metta. The first line also draws our attention to this, stating that what follows is what should be done by those focused on increasing their levels of goodwill. The sutra is even-handed in that it describes both positive and negative qualities that the Buddhist aspirant needs to be aware of in their metta practice. In doing so, it gives us the data we need to distinguish some basic attributes that will increase our goodwill from those that will hinder our progress. This contrasting of positive-negative factors is a technique used greatly by the Buddha in many sutras, revealing his calm and intelligent insight into both human nature and those practices that lead to either positive or negative results. This even-tempered characteristic of the Buddha and his teachings is, in fact, the second factor that he talks of in the Metta Sutta. For not only should one intent on developing loving-kindness be skilled in goodness, but they should also be one who knows the path of peace, that is to say, is calm in their mind and interactions with other beings.

Let them be able and upright, says the Buddha, again bringing attention to the moral aspect of the Way. For, if we are highly skilled in the teachings and philosophy of the Buddhadharma but do not balance this with a pure attitude of the heart, we have yet to reach true wisdom, as that is partially built upon being a good, moral person. Indeed, in traditional Buddhist countries, morality is the first aspect of the path to be taught to children, giving them the sound foundation required to develop wisdom later in life. Otherwise, a person that has only knowledge and understanding of the teachings is liable to nurture unskillful emotions that not only hurt other living beings, but also do harm to their own ability to become wiser Buddhists. This is crystallized in the famous stanza from the Dhammapada, that ancient collection of sayings of the Buddha, where it states:

To avoid all evil,
To cultivate good,
And to cleanse the mind;
This is the Buddhas’ teaching.
(Dhammapada verse 183)

Those who wish to increase their metta rate should also be straightforward and gentle in speech, fulfilling another side to virtuous living that encompasses our words. If we are generally good in our actions yet are dishonest and hurtful in the things that we say, then our morality still has some way to go. The so-called ‘Freudian slip’ when we blurt out something we didn’t consciously mean to say, revealing the inner state of our mind is bad enough when we say untrue or inappropriate things, but when we deliberately lie and say something to offend others, then we really are veering far from the path to wisdom. For, if we are truly humble and not conceited, our speech will naturally reflect this wholesome state of mind, whereas if we have yet to let go of the likes and dislikes of the ego, then at some point our words will show our true colors. A modicum of insight can assist us here, for if we can see that other beings wish for happiness and well-being just as we do, and that arrogant and self-centered behavior will (eventually) bear negative fruit for the perpetrator as much as the recipient, then perhaps we will humble ourselves and behave in friendlier ways that benefit all parties.

The follower of the Way is someone that is contented and easily satisfied; being contented with what one has reduces one’s suffering, and also lessons the drive that causes us to over compete with our fellow human beings, which causes them much pain. Being easily satisfied is an important attribute that means we have a less destructive influence on both the environment and those around us, as we demand less and use up a minimum of resources that are needed by everyone alike. Again, our outer demeanor and actions will reflect our inner state; showing dissatisfaction a lot we display our lack of contentment that is fired up by desires that have yet to be reigned in. Wanting everything to go our way and wanting people to do what we want them to do and then being upset when they follow their own natural course is a sign of both an discontented heart and an unwise mind.

Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways, practitioners of the Buddha Way do not avoid their duties to society, family, friends and Buddhism, but see them in perspective, thereby avoiding being overwhelmed by them. We all have duties, don’t we? Parents have duties to their children, to feed them, dress them, teach them and protect them well; likewise children have responsibilities to their parents later on in life. Spouses have duties to their husband or wife, to love, respect, and care for them through thick and thin. Employees have duties to their employers and vice versa; lay people have duties to the monks and nuns, and the latter also have their responsibilities to householders. Being unburdened with one’s duties means fulfilling them with a happy heart, knowing that one is playing one’s various roles in life, but that they are not the be all and end all of one’s existence. There is more to life, and this is the Buddhadharma that leads to an inner freedom untouched by the responsibilities of human life. Frugality means being unattached to material possessions, freeing the mind and body to focus on the more valuable threefold treasure of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Simply wishing people the best in life is a good thing to do: there’s no disputing that. If done with an immoral, aggressive, dishonest, discontented, extravagant and burdened mind, however, such wishes will have little impact on the world, especially when contrasted with the negative effects that all the above unwholesome characteristics will produce. Virtuous, honest, and peaceful people are bound to have a more positive influence on those around them, and their commitment to the cultivation of loving-kindness will be more successful as it is done from a pure heart. In realizing this and changing the way we live to fit in with the Way of the Buddha, we are already developing the attributes required to becoming truly kind and wise beings, and the effects of this on the world will be there for all to see.

The free ebooks quoted in the above article are available from the following links:

The Shurangama Sutra Volume One
The Dhammapada: A Rendering by Ajahn Munindo