Friday, December 26, 2008

A Buddhist New Year's Resolution

Buddhas and sentient beings grow out of the One Mind and there are no differences between them. It is like space where there are no complexities, and is not subject to destruction. It is like the great sun which illumines the four worlds: when it rises, its light pervades all over the world, but space itself gains thereby no illumination. When the sun sets, darkness reigns everywhere, but space itself does not share this darkness. Light and darkness drive each other out and alternatively prevail, but space itself is vast emptiness and suffers no vicissitudes.
(Zen Master Huang Po)

All the thoughts, feelings, and events of the past year are gone; now they are fleeting memories in the present moment. Reflecting on exactly where they arise, in the clear void of the Buddha Mind, they resemble sunlight disappearing into the darkness. Look into this Mind, and see its shining clarity at the heart of one’s being. Remaining as this spacious awareness, know the ephemeral nature of all things, including those memories; let them disappear into the void. Now, turn to face the New Year with this facelessness. What better resolution could there be than to rest in this knowing?
The e- book quoted in this article is available for free download at the following location: ‘Manual of Zen Buddhism’ by D.T. Suzuki

Monday, December 22, 2008

Opening the Eye of Dharma

We need to remove the blinkers and look...

The cognition of an external object already presupposes the distinction of outside and inside, subject and object, the perceiving and the perceived. When this separation takes place, and is recognized as such, and clung to, the primary nature of the experience is forgotten, and from this endless series of entanglements, intellectual and emotional, takes its rise.

(From the book ‘The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind’ by D.T. Suzuki)

What Daisetz Suzuki points to above, is the cause of our suffering, our living of a life of conflict between here and there. It is the rise of ego that denies the inherent unity of existence. We can experience this unity if we find a way to see things as they truly are, rather than from the viewpoint of ego. How is this done? Well, one method is to just look and see that right now there is no observable separation between this and that, here and there. On a certain fundamental level, you are me and I am you; being open to accepting the facts of the present moment will lead us to actually see this. This is opening the eye of Dharma.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Eternal Law

When we hold fast to such thoughts as,

“They abused me, mistreated me,

molested me, robbed me,”

we keep hatred alive.

If we thoroughly release ourselves

From such thoughts as,

“They abused me, mistreated me,

molested me, robbed me,”

hatred is vanquished.

Never by hatred is hatred conquered,

but by readiness to love alone.

This is eternal law.

(Verses 3, 4, & 5 from the Dhammapada)

To return hostility to another is a common human response, but it is also indicative of extreme ignorance and suffering. Who is the other but a suffering being, caught in delusion? To fight hate with hate is to be lost amongst the lost. Slowing the mind through meditation practice, so that even when not sitting we can still catch hateful thoughts as they arise, is to begin to release ourselves from their grip. Then, we can return hostility with the love of a peaceful heart, transforming the moment into something much more beautiful. May all beings be happy!

(The above extracts are from a translation of the Dhammapada by Ajahn Munindo, and can be downloaded from the following link:

A Dhammapada for Contemplation))

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Wisdom of Master Yoda

Luke Skywalker: How am I to know the good side from the bad?

Master Yoda: You will know. When you are calm, at peace. Passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence, never for attack.

(From the movie ‘The Empire Strikes Back’)

The wisdom of Master Yoda from the Star Wars series of films is full of Zen. Indeed, the way of the Jedi is not dissimilar in many ways to the Way of the Buddha. A serene and focused mind is vital to the training of both the Buddhist monk and the Jedi knight; in the still heart we can know what is right and what is not. Then, when questions arise regarding the practice of the Way, the answer will come up from the depths of the void within, and, like Yoda, truly wise will we be.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Mindful Way

To practice the mindful way, like the forest monks in the lineage of Ajahn Chah, is to cultivate the wisdom of the Buddha. The forest monasteries are havens to establish and develop a mindfulness that permeates every moment and every aspect of life, revealing the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and selfless nature of existence. What exists beyond these conditioned phenomena is what the Buddha called ‘the unconditioned’, and this is the ineffable truth that the mindful way leads us to. Sadhu, Ajahn Chah. Sadhu!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Stepping Out of Time

Step outside of time just once, and all the years you spent in ignorance and suffering recede into vagueness. They’re only something you seem to remember. Your old small self is gone and all his old enemies and friends and relatives and all his old experiences, bitter or sweet, have lost their power over him. They were like a cinema show…believable while he was in the theater, but not when he came out into the daylight. Reality destroyed the illusion.

In Nirvana you’re neither young nor old. You just are. And who are you? That’s easy. he Buddha.

(Master Xu Yun, ‘Empty Cloud’, p.78)

Time is an integral part of the problem of the suffering of our lives, isn’t it? Time ticks inexorably on, each second bringing Yama, the embodiment of death, ever closer. But, if as Master Yun says, we can step out of time into the eternity of our Buddha-nature, surely we should make the effort to do so before it’s too late. Look at a clock or a watch. Notice time’s relentless march. Now look back at the observer: is it any particular time here, or are you in fact already residing in the timeless zone that is awareness itself?

For a review and a link to download the e-book quoted above, please see E-book Reviews & Downloads to the right of this page.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Link: The Middle Way

Wade, my friend over at The Middle Way, asked me to write a piece for his blog on the theme of its title, describing what 'The Middle Way' actually is. My efforts can be read at the following location:

Wade himself writes eloquently about the Buddhadharma on the site, which was one of the first to be put on the blogroll feature to the right of this blog. At some point in the near future, Wade will contribute a post for Buddha Space. In the meantime, please pay The Middle Way a visit.

Khun Por

Khun Por (1948-2008)

Recently, my father-in-law died after a long struggle with both severe diabetes and renal failure, the latter requiring regular dialysis treatment. He was a great man that had a big influence on me, as well as on many, many other people who sought him out for advice on all sorts of things from how to fix their car to how to bring up their children. Khun Por ('Father' in Thai) was the perfect example of how a Buddhist should behave; he was honest in all his dealings, kind and generous, modest, calm and considerate, and didn't use intoxicants. Thank you, Khun Por!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

E-book Review: The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism – Teaism. Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order.
('The Book of Tea’, p. 6)

In this little book of seventy-seven pages we have a wonderful guide to the philosophy of Teaism, as exemplified in the famous oriental tea ceremony. The author eloquently weaves this wonderful beverage's history as it mixed with Taoism and Zen Buddhism, inspired the creation of the tea-room, the lives of the great tea masters, and its relationship to the artistic appreciation of life itself. Reading it is sheer pleasure, and, if like the reviewer, you are already an appreciator of cha, it will only deepen your love for it. Put the kettle on!

To download the above free e-book, please go the following link:
Wikipedia: The Book of Tea

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reflections on the Karaniya Metta Sutta #6

This is said to be the sublime abiding.

By not holding to fixed views,

The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,

Being freed from all sense-desires,

Is not born again into this world.

This is the final part of a series of reflections on the Metta Sutta. Thus far all but the final few lines of the sutra have been contemplated, along with its implications and applications in our lives. We have seen that in these words of Shakyamuni Buddha is found a wonderful guide on how to cultivate metta, or loving-kindness, from which can be extrapolated a system of practice aimed at producing and spreading goodwill to all beings. Chanting, reflection, and meditation techniques have been shown to add to the effectiveness of metta cultivation, not only benefiting others but also the one that develops loving-kindness. All of these results of metta practice are factors in why the Buddha says of it in the sutra that this is said to be the sublime abiding. Moreover, if cultivated in meditation, deep states of concentration can be achieved that bring one closer to enlightenment, helping one to become pure-hearted in thought, word, and deed.

The sutra states that by not holding to fixed views, the pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision, and being freed from all sense-desires, is not born again into this world. This section of the Metta Sutta reveals that the cultivation of goodwill, if perfected, takes the practitioner to the third of four levels of awakened beings, called the ‘non-returner’. The fourth and final level (according to Theravada Buddhism) is that of the Arhat, someone who has awakened to the same degree as the historical Shakyamuni Buddha himself. A non-returner is a being that is ‘three-quarters enlightened’, as it were, and will never be reborn into this world again, but will either realize full enlightenment upon the demise of the body, or will be reborn in a heavenly realm where he or she will become an Arhat.

The path to this state of penultimate awakening is by not holding to fixed views, that is to say transcending the logical mind and penetrating to a deeper (and clearer) aspect of the mind, that could be said to be peace itself. By clinging to the view that this is this and that is that, we restrict the ability of the mind to go beyond its usual self-created limitations. There is no absolute truth, in a dogmatic sense, according to the Buddha Way. Even the teachings of all the Buddhas are expedient means by which suffering beings can be liberated from their delusions. This is not to say that we should become libertines, ignoring the morality and wisdom of the Buddhadharma, but that whilst using them to awaken, we do not cling to them as some kind of ultimate principle. The ultimate principle transcends all principles! On this point, the American Buddhist monk Ajahn Sumedho has said the following:

“When you try to conceive metta as love, loving something in terms of liking it, it makes it impossible to sustain metta when you get to things you can’t stand, people you hate and things like that. Metta is very hard to come to terms with on a conceptual level. To love your enemies, to love people you hate, who you can’t stand is, on the conceptual level, an impossible dilemma. But in terms of sati-sampajanna, it’s accepting, because it includes everything you like and dislike. Metta is not analytical; it’s not dwelling on why you hate somebody. It’s not trying to figure out why I hate this person, but it includes the whole thing – the feeling, the person, myself – all in the same moment. So it’s embracing, a point that includes and is non-critical” (Ajahn Sumedho, ‘Intuitive Awareness’, p.25)

So, according to the great forest monk, when combined with sati-sampajanna (mindfulness and comprehension), metta is a powerful way to let go of our prejudices, even the extreme ones that involve feelings such as hate and ill-will. And yet, it is not by rejecting or fighting such negative emotions that we exorcize them, but through accepting them with a mindset of loving-kindness. For, as mentioned above, it is in the act of letting go of fixed views, whether positive or negative in nature, that we can transcend them all. Metta cultivation is a powerful tool in this liberation of the mind from its own self-imprisonment in suffering and delusion. Being open to my dislike of so-and-so, but not acting upon it, I give it the space it needs to be born, live, and die; it is in this total embracing of the person I dislike and the feelings I have for him or her that metta can work its magic, melting away the destructive emotions. Otherwise, I cling to those emotions and the judgments associated with them, identifying them as me and mine. In truth, the heart is naturally pure, however, and immersing it in goodwill allows its true colors to shine forth, beautifully.

If one has perfected not only the development of metta, but also kept the precepts flawlessly, one can be said to be a pure-hearted one that has the clarity of vision that comes from awakening to the Dharma, the way things are. Having unlimited loving-kindness, combined with a whole-hearted walking of the Path, makes one ripe for the arising of such wisdom. In this state, one can become freed from all sense-desires, first cultivating such states in meditation practice, and then bringing them into every part of one’s life, sharing metta with the entire cosmos. It is sense-desires that keep us in this world of the senses, and whilst we have not let go of such feelings, thy will pull us back to this world again and again, possibly into future states of suffering and ignorance that we can’t even imagine right now. The good news is that the development of goodwill and its emission to all beings leads us to our release from this cycle of suffering.

So, metta cultivation can take us to the very door that opens to the full awakening of a Buddha. As Ajahn Chah pointed out in the second of these reflections, our real home is an inner peace, what we might call our ‘Buddha Space’ that plays host to the myriad sense phenomena that normally cloud our vision of the Dharma. Backed up with the undertaking of precepts, which were emphasized by Master Hua in the first reflection, the generation of goodwill to all beings (including oneself) helps us to open this door in this very life - or at least take hold of its handle! And the way to do this is to combine metta with our meditation routine, filling the mind with loving-kindness to the point that it overflows into universe, spreading in all directions and reaching all suffering beings everywhere. And when metta fuses with mindfulness, everyday situations are transformed into occasions for awakening to the truth of the Dharma, as Ajahn Sumedho has said, as quoted in this sixth reflection. In conclusion, metta development, as promoted in the wonderful Karaniya Metta Sutta, is an antithesis to the suffering in the world, both one’s own and others’, and can lead to the state of being whence one is not born again into this world. The final words then, should be from the sutra itself, in the form of its central message, as revealed by the Buddha over two and a half millennia ago:

May all beings be at ease.

The free e-book quoted in this reflection, ‘Intuitive Awareness’ by Ajahn Sumedho, has a review and link to its location on the right side of this blog.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Space Between Finger & Thumb

Hold out your hand and press your forefinger against your thumb as hard as you can…Notice where the stress is, on present evidence – namely, in those things. And notice where the absence of stress is – namely, in yourself as the no-thing that is taking in those things, along with their shape and colour and opacity. Notice how you are no more stressed by the stress in that hand than you are shaped by the shape of that hand, or clouded by that hand’s opacity.
(Douglas Harding, ‘Head Off Stress’, pp.9/10)

If we take the time to analyze, as Douglas Harding points out above, where the sensation of touch is arising on present evidence, what do we find? In other words, what exactly is it that is aware of your forefinger pressing against your thumb? Closing one’s eyes to focus on the sensation, turn attention around to attend to that that knows all of this. Who is that? What are you, at center – a stressed body that’s pressing finger against thumb, or a spacious knowing that is awareness itself? Please leave a comment and let me know…

‘Head Off Stress’ by D.E. Harding is available from the following website:

The Headless Way

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Reflections on the Karaniya Metta Sutta #5

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.

In this, the fifth of six reflections on the Metta Sutta, we will look at the penultimate section of the sutra, where the Buddha directs us to radiate kindness (metta) in all directions, spreading it upwards to the skies and downwards to the depths. This quality of limitless goodwill, which we studied how to develop with Ajahn Brahm in the fourth reflection in this series, should be sent to every corner of the world, indeed, the universe. Sharing metta in this way, we break down the barriers that perception creates around distance, not only wishing beings well in habitats similar to our own – on land, that is – but also to creatures in the sky and in the oceans, as well as those living underground.

What creatures are found in the skies? Birds, of course, but also flying insects, bats, and people traveling in airplanes; in the depths of the sea we will not only find fish, but also coral creatures, crustaceans, and marine mammals; whilst the earth contains many beings like worms, insects, burrowing mammals and reptiles. All of these various creatures are deserving of our best wishes of loving-kindness, which should be generated outwards and unbounded and freed from hatred and ill will. If the mind questions this, why not try looking at things from one of these creatures’ point of view? Take a worm, for instance. Despite its presumed lower intellectual level compared to (most) humans, and maybe a less sensitive set of emotions, surely a worm does not seek out pain and discomfort? Worms do not want to be eaten, injured or pulled apart by a hungry bird or a curious child playing in the soil. They seek food, a hospitable environment, moisture, and air, but to name a few things that we humans require, too. If we wish all beings well in all directions of the world, it includes these humble little creatures, too, does it not?

As referred to above, the meditation techniques of Ajahn Brahm, designed to cultivate and share metta are an effective way to become a more genuinely loving and caring being. Another way to develop our metta skills is to reflect on specific words or phrases that encourage the production of kindness. In the monasteries and households of Asia, earnest Buddhists have chanted such wise words for centuries, and now in the West, these contemplations are being recited in new temples from England to Australia. One such set of international monasteries is the Western Forest Sangha, headed by the wonderful monk Ajahn Sumedho (currently residing as abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in the UK.) As part of their “Suffusion of the Divine Abidings” chant, they include the following words:

I will abide pervading one quarter with a mind imbued with loving kindness…
likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth;
so above and below, around and everywhere; and to all as to myself.
I will abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving kindness; abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.
(Western Forest Sangha Chanting Book)

This suffusion of the divine abiding of metta is spread in the six traditional directions of North, South, East, West, the zenith and the nadir, thereby reaching every corner of existence. As well as being inclusive of all other beings, this chant also points out that loving-kindness is felt for oneself also, something that many metta meditations emphasize. We shouldn’t forget ourselves when giving out goodwill, for how can we really feel for others if we don’t care for ourselves? The description of the infinite nature of true kindness is beautifully put in the above chant: “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.” In reciting the chant, and others like it such as the Karaniya Metta Sutta itself, of course, the mind can be trained in developing goodwill. Frequent recitation of these words can seep into the heart, gradually filling it with metta whilst wearing away the negative forces of selfishness, self-hate, and ill will. I myself have used the Metta Sutta in this way: it works!

Thus far in this series of reflections on this wondrous sutra of the Buddha, the cultivation of metta has been centered on formal traditional Buddhist activities such as meditation and chanting. The sutra itself has a broader context for the development of goodwill, however, stating that whether standing or walking, seated or lying down, loving-kindness should be reflected upon. This means that we need to generate metta in our everyday activities, and not just when in a temple or at home, sat in contemplation. And, in a sense, this is the proof of the pudding, so to speak, for it is when in the presence of other beings that our sharing of loving-kindness can have its most profound and immediately visible effects. Feeling warmth towards other beings may make us more patient drivers, less prone to bleeping our horns at the slightest error others make. (And let’s not forget that to err is to be human, or words to that effect.) It may also make us nicer spouses, parents, children, work colleagues, etc. But it is only in applying metta to everyday life that we will witness its affect on others, as well as receive the blessings of its cultivation.

Something else regarding one’s own well being and relating to the cultivation of loving-kindness is that it breeds contentment. The more metta one emits, for others as well as oneself, the more at ease one becomes, replacing previous negativity with a positive attitude of mind that revels in the sharing of goodwill. Put simply, being kind makes one happy. Not only that, it helps one get a good night’s sleep. How? Let me explain. Years ago I had frequent trouble getting to sleep at night, and would often wake up in the small hours, sometimes with the memory of a nightmare still fresh. Various methods were tried out that might induce sleep quickly, but none of them worked, including counting sheep. Baa-baa! Finally, I tried metta meditation, as I led on my bed with my wife happily snoozing besides me. I emitted goodwill to a series of people, much as Ajahn Brahm’s method featured in the last Metta Sutta reflection, and it worked. Before completing the meditation I fell to sleep, and didn’t have a nightmare, either. I continued to use this method for some time, finding that I always fell asleep before finishing the meditation, and that I had a sound night’s sleep to boot. So, not sleeping lately? Try metta!

All this loving-kindness practice, whether while seated in meditation, walking down the high street, standing in a queue, or lying down and trying to get to sleep, should be cultivated free from drowsiness, according to the sutra. (Perhaps the above example of metta-induced sleep seems to contradict this, but in fact it is in the clear-minded focus on goodwill in the method that leads to sleep!) As with everything we do as Buddhists, cultivating loving-kindness should be accompanied by mindfulness, the antithesis of drowsiness. To be alert means that we are able to focus our thoughts towards the harmless and open-hearted emission of metta, rather than allowing them to drift off into irrelevant or even counterproductive states of mind. According to the Buddha, one should sustain this recollection of metta in this consistent manner, allowing it to spread through one’s being and actions, as well as in one’s thoughts. In this way, not only does the world benefit from one’s development of goodwill, but so does oneself, even to the extent that sleepless nights are a thing of the past!

A free e-book containing both the Karaniya Metta Sutta & the Suffusion of the Divine Abidings is available from the following link:

Western Forest Sangha Chanting Book

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Namu Amida Butsu!

If you can purify your mind, then you will become one with Amitabha Buddha. If you can purify your mind, the Land of Ultimate Bliss appears right in front of you. It is especially important that you cut off all desire. All your desirous thoughts, just cut them off so that you think of nothing whatsoever. If you can stop all thoughts of sexual desire, have no greedy, hateful, or ignorant thoughts, then Amitabha’s power is your power as well;

they are two and yet not two; not two and yet two.
(Master Hua, ‘Back to the Source’)

Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu!

Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu!

Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu!

Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu!

Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu!

Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu!

Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu!

Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu!

Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu!

Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu!

Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu!

The source of the above quote is an interview with Master Hua and can be found here:

Back to the Source

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Reflections on the Karaniya Metta Sutta #4

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

Should one cherish all living beings,

Radiating kindness over the entire world:

In this, the fourth segment of the Metta Sutta to be looked at here, we start with an injunction for all those that wish to develop loving-kindness fully, with the Buddha declaring, Let none deceive another. This relates to the earlier statement in favor of those that are straightforward and gentle in speech, emphasizing the factor of honesty in one that shares true kindness. Looked at from the viewpoint of one already established in metta, it can be said that they would certainly not deceive others, always wanting people to know the truth and be able to make the right decisions for themselves. Again, the Blessed One exalts being truthful, for the Dharma is the truth, and to know the Dharma is to know the Buddha, which is the same as knowing the truth of the way things are, which includes the value of truth itself.

Not to despise any being in any state is also a quality of one immersed in goodwill. For, if resentment is retained towards even one being, then the metta that one produces cannot be said to perfected, for it is limited, and in that which is limited there is no perfection. The sutra continues in the same vein of harmlessness with the following: Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another. Here, the Buddha makes it clear that in one whose heart is full of metta there is no room left for negative or nasty sentiments towards others. Metta is all-inclusive, extending to those that we like and dislike, wishing them a life without harm.

The sutra focuses in on this aspect of the metta-developer by using a powerful image of a mother that protects with her life her child, her only child. How does a (good) mother take care of her child? She is selfless, full of love and concern for her offspring, even willing to give up her own life if necessary to protect her child. Moreover, if a mother has two children, perhaps she might hold back on such a sacrifice in the knowledge that she has another child to care for, but here, the sutra uses the example of the love of a mother that has only a single child. She will die for that child rather than see him or her come to any harm. With such care does one imbued with metta wish well being to all beings in existence, not only those that they already know or love.

So with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings, says the Buddha. It’s important to note that the Awakened One is refering to beings here and not people or humans specifically. In Buddhism, we are encouraged to cultivate a kindness that is not only inclusive of all human beings, but all other beings, too. This includes all sentient beings, those that have some semblance of a mind, no matter how big or small their brain, and no matter how intelligent or stupid they may be. Here, again, metta is shown to be a boundless form of love that knows no barriers and is felt for all and every creature in existence. Humans, monkeys, dogs, elephants, snakes, birds, and even insects such as mosquitoes are included in the feelings of loving-kindness that an adept of goodwill produces. Do you love snakes? Do you care for mosquitoes, or do you swat them without thinking twice? If you do swat them, then you should know that from the Buddha’s point of view, your metta is still yet limited and not the genuine boundless article, and your cultivation of it needs further work.

This limitless love is achieved through radiating kindness over the entire world. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But, when you actually reflect on it, a loving-kindness that’s boundless and includes every living being on the earth (and beyond!) isn’t such a simple thing to cultivate, and it’s certainly not easy. Fortunately, in the Buddhadharma there are many ways to develop metta, established by the Buddha himself over two-and-a-half thousand years ago and refined by meditation masters over the centuries since. Such meditative activities are traditionally referred to as metta-bhavana, or ‘cultivation of metta’, and are systematic endeavors built around the production of goodwill.

A modern advocate of metta meditation is Ajahn Brahm, a widely respected monk in the lineage of the famous Ajahn Chah of Thailand. He has promoted both meditation and metta across the world, and has developed techniques combining the two that build on basic Buddhist forms of contemplation. As a foundation to any meditative practice, Ajahn Brahm encourages meditators to establish what he calls present-moment awareness, where attention is focused entirely in the present, neither recalling the past nor imagining the future. This done by totally immersing awareness in a meditation object, such as the breath, and letting go of any thought that takes one away from this moment. To do this, sit in a comfortable position, preferably with legs crossed and hands resting on the lap as in traditional Buddhist style, put attention on the in and out breaths, until the mind consistently adheres to them, established in a peaceful state.

Next, all thought is to be let go of, not by repressing it, however, but by focusing the mind on the breath to such an extent that not only thoughts of the past and future are no longer arising, but also thoughts of the present. One is so immersed in watching the breath that there is no longer the whining voice of the inner commentator, the moaner that constantly complains, “I’m cold. I’m hot. My back aches, my head aches, and I’ve a terrible itch on my nose!” Of this inner voice Ajahn Brahm has said

“Sometimes it is through the inner commentary that we think we know the world. Actually, that inner speech does not know the world at all! It is the inner speech that weaves the delusions that cause suffering. It is the inner speech that causes us to be angry at those we make our enemies, and to have dangerous attachments to those we make our loved ones. Inner speech causes all life’s problems. It constructs fear and guilt. It creates anxiety and depression. It builds these illusions as surely as the skillful commentator on T.V. can manipulate an audience to create anger or tears. So, if you seek for Truth, you should value silent awareness, considering it more important, when meditating, than any thought whatsoever.” (Ajahn Brahm, ‘The Basic Method of Meditation’, p.5)

Ajahn Brahm considers this silent present moment awareness a prerequisite to development of more complicated meditations such as metta-bhavana. For, having achieved a silent, calm mind, it is ready to focus entirely on the task of generating genuine feelings of goodwill. His technique to establish the mind in metta involves the use of visualizations, which help to concentrate loving-kindness on an object of awareness log enough for the ‘kindle’ of metta to be fully burning. In the following extract, he talks of exactly how to achieve this state of mind:

“Keeping your eyes closed, imagine in front of you a small kitten or a puppy or a baby or whatever you find easy to generate loving-kindness towards. (I personally like using a small kitten.) Imagine it to be abandoned, hungry, afraid, and in your mind open your heart to it. Take it up gently, in imaginary arms, and use inner speech to say: ‘May you not feel so afraid. Be at Peace. May you be happy. I will look after you, be your friend and protector. I care for you. Whatever you do, my heart will always welcome you. I give you my love unconditionally, always.” Say those words inside (or similar ones that you make up) with full meaning, even though it is to a being only in your imagination. Say them many times until you feel the joy of Metta arise in your heart like a golden glow. Stay with this exercise until the feeing of Metta is strong and stable.” (Ajahn Brahm, ‘Using Variety to Freshen Up Our Meditation’, p.3)

After establishing metta in your heart, exchange the imaginary being for someone that you actually know, a friend or work colleague that you like, but are not in love with. (We don’t want to generate amorous feelings here, just kindly ones!) Extend the same feelings of goodwill towards them that you did the imaginary recipient, until you are full of metta for your associate. Do the same with another associate, before moving on to all the people that you live with, your neighbors, and all the beings in your local vicinity. Project this warm feeling of loving-kindness outwards in all directions to all beings, filling the world (and universe) with metta. Finally, turn this goodwill around and direct it towards your self, perhaps imagining your face in a mirror and wishing yourself well, just as you did for all other beings earlier. After you have developed metta in this way, take a few moments to reflect on how you feel. Generating goodwill in this way can produce intensely blissful feelings; that’s why it’s called a divine abiding, as it’s like living in a heavenly realm.

When you have practiced metta-bhavana in the above manner several times, and feel that you are succeeding in spreading loving-kindness towards the various beings in your meditation, you can take it a step further by issuing metta to someone that you actually dislike. After focusing on a friend or colleague as shown above, you can then turn your heart in the direction of a neutral person, as a kind of preliminary prior to concentrating on the one you are averse to. A neutral person is someone that you know, perhaps vaguely, but have no real feelings of warmth or dislike towards. It might be someone you encounter whilst commuting each day, a neighbor you don’t have much contact with, or a shop assistant that sells you the newspaper every morning. Whoever it is, learn to flood them with the same feelings of goodwill that you developed towards your friend previously, overcoming any indifference you may have towards them with loving metta. Next, you may bring to mind the person that you actively dislike. Obviously, don’t dwell too long on your negative feelings for them, but picture them in your mind’s eye and then wish them happiness and safety in the same manner as before. Over time, perhaps after many such meditations, you will find that your animosity towards this person will diminish, maybe gradually, maybe quickly, dependent on the strength of your previously negative feelings. In time, you may grow to care for this person as much as you do your friend; maybe practicing metta meditation will enable you to make a friend of this person. Anything’s possible with the power of metta! Ajahn Brahm views it thus:

“By accepting even an imaginary being like the little kitten or little puppy exactly as it is, you embrace forgiveness. This is acceptance. When you can develop this acceptance toward a little puppy or a kitten or a flower, you find that when you do other meditations, even the meditation on the breath, you can be much more accepting and not so critical of the process. You won’t be so faultfinding towards the moment. You’ll find you have much more contentment. You’ll be able to embrace the moment as it is rather than being aware of so much that is wrong in the moment. The whole attitude of mind is changing. ‘The world is the world.’ It’s what we add to the world that creates the difficulties. We can add the faults to the world or we can add acceptance to the world. It’s really up to us.” (Ajahn Brahm, ‘Using Variety to Freshen Up Our Meditation’, p.7)

In such a state of mind as described by Ajahn Brahm above, one really is radiating kindness over the entire world, as the Metta Sutta puts it. Being so immersed in loving-kindness is a liberation from those negative mind states like hatred and ill-will that the Buddha warned us against in the sutra. In this liberated state, no one is our enemy, and all beings can be seen to be suffering in the ocean of ignorance and rebirth. Metta simply wishes all suffering beings release from the round of pain and anguish, which naturally includes such beings becoming harmless and more metta-centered themselves. In such a world, we would all wish each other happiness with the feeling of goodwill dominating and directing our thoughts. It’s up to us to make such a world. It’s up to us to cultivate metta.

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

The Basic Method of Meditation

Using Variety to Freshen Up Our Meditation

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Pavarana Day & 'Buddha Space'

On Pavarana Day, it is the tradition of Buddhist monks to confess any misdeeds that they have done over the previous months of the rains retreat, when they have been primarily practicing in the confines of a monastery and not traveling. This is usually a positive occasion for the monastic community when they let go of recent shortcomings and start afresh in their practice of the Way.

All Buddhists can take inspiration from this monastic example. We can look back at our thoughts, words and deeds of recent times and reflect on them, considering whether they were skillful for a Buddhist, and if they were in line with the living of the Buddhadharma or not. More than this, however, there is another approach to past activities that can benefit us, and this is to see who, or what, it is that actually had them, and what the current condition of this who-or-what is right now. When you have some spare minutes to spend, please carry out the following exercise and see what conclusions arise from it.

Bring to mind recent thoughts, speech or actions that one felt might have been inappropriate from the viewpoint of your particular moral code or approach to life. Consider the ins and outs of what you thought, said, or did. Without making a snap decision as to whether it was acceptable or not, reflect on it thoroughly; does it contradict your ethical outlook on life, and if so, how? Don’t become caught up in any powerful emotions that may arise in response to all this; merely note them. Now, turn your attention to that which is having all these thoughts and feelings. What are they occurring in - a person or a brain? Can you locate or identify that in which these reflections are happening, or is it more of an indefinable awareness? Here, thoughts and emotions exist in a clear awareness that notes them but is not caught up in them. It is spacious clarity. Is it not true that even at the time when the occurrence that you’re considering happened, it took place in this same naked knowing? Is there a person here to be found to identify with these specific events, or is it in truth an emptiness that’s awake to its contents?

When thoughts, words, and deeds are examined in the context of their existence, what we might term ‘Buddha Space’ is revealed, that spacious awareness that lies at the origin of all experiences. This voidness isn’t merely an absolute nothing as such, for it is awake (Bodhi), being alive to the comings and goings of the mind and the world. This doesn’t negate the relevance of previous karma (action), for it will have an effect on the individual level. What it does do is reveal the knower, that which is ultimately untouched and unaffected by its contents and their results. This is the natural Dharma from which the Buddhadharma grows, and it teaches us that what we do on the human level matters, and yet at the same time, the myriad things and events of this life cannot color what we truly are beneath these psychophysical masks.

So, in recalling something that you did recently that was inconsistent with your own ethical standards, it is right that on the human level a sense of shame should arise, and that this should lead to the intent not to do what is harmful and unwise again. At the same time, to maintain awareness of this ‘Buddha Space’ that remains untarnished by previous actions is to open the door to enlightenment, which the sages have told us is beyond good and evil. In essence, the Way can be said to consist of following the precepts whilst becoming awake to that which is awake: the awakened one (Buddha) within. Living in this awakened state allows those negative and harmful thoughts, words, and deeds to drop away, leaving the naked truth that can teach us the natural Dharma. And what is this naked truth? Turn around your attention and see!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Reflections on the Karaniya Metta Sutta #3

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.

In this third section of the Metta Sutta, it makes absolutely clear who is to receive feelings of loving-kindness – every living creature in existence. Whatever beings there may be emphasizes this general point that the heart producing true metta knows no boundaries, and does not pick and choose who to have goodwill for and not. If I feel kindness towards my family, friends and colleagues, how is that different from any run-of-the-mill person that cares for those close to them? Moreover, is it that different to the positive feelings that a despot or serial killer might have for the special people in their lives? Metta is greater than this: it is a love that is inclusive not exclusive, shared with whatever beings there may be in this world or any other.

Following this general point that metta is meant for all, the sutra next goes into more detail, giving examples of the various beings that make up potential recipients of goodwill, starting with the great or the mighty. Now, the great could mean those that are great in size, or those great in their achievements or social standing, such as famous entertainers, politicians, scientists, or religious types. Mighty can have similar connotations also, of course. In the context of the sutra, where the following words refer to those that are medium, short, or small, we might take it that the Buddha was referring to physically big and powerful beings. But, as the wisdom of a Buddha is without bounds, we can also interpret his words to mean those considered great and mighty in societal terms, and, in the all-inclusive spirit of metta, those not so great.

It is common for human beings to respect or even idolize those people that we consider great and mighty. We may revere an actor such as Tom Cruise, a political figure like Nelson Mandela, a scientist such as Albert Einstein, or a religious figure like the Buddha. Having feelings of goodwill to successful and influential people like these can be very easily cultivated, and hero-worship is a common phenomenon in human society, where amazingly diverse figures can be the recipients of people’s devotion and goodwill, modern examples being the Dalai Lama, Hillary Clinton, Roger Federer and Celine Dion! All great in one sense of the word or another, and all readily cared for by their followers. But true goodwill also cares for the less famous and not so mighty.

Considering the great or the mighty to mean big beings, along with medium, short, or small, it can be seen that the Buddha encourages us not to judge potential recipients of our metta by their physical stature, any more than by how successful we consider them to be. Feeling loving-kindness towards an elephant or a dog is pretty commonly found amongst humans, but how many of us can say we have wished all the best to an ant or a microbe? When being buzzed by a bee or a mosquito, how would you respond? With metta, or with a swipe and a curse? True loving-kindness is felt for even the tiniest, most annoying insect, not just a cute poodle or a majestic elephant. “May all gnats be at ease!” is not something heard often, but in the light of the teachings of the Buddha, perhaps it should be!

Nor should our development of loving-kindness be restricted to those beings that we come into contact with. Both the seen and the unseen are included in the sutra’s list of those deserving of metta, as are those beings that are living near and far away. Again, it’s easier to feel kindness towards those people and other beings that one has met or seen, but those that are unknown to one are less comfortably incorporated into the development of metta. Not knowing their appearance, their characters, or even their species, can make it difficult to generate loving-kindness for them. But, if one’s metta is to be truly transcending, then it needs to be boundless, traveling across the space that divides us, extending to the possible creatures that dwell on other worlds. Like the boy Elliot in Stephen Spielberg’s movie E.T., we can even care for extraterrestrials, if our cultivation of goodwill is great enough!

Genuine loving-kindness isn’t limited to those beings presently in existence, however, for those to be born should receive our goodwill, not only those already born. So, time as well as space is to be no hindrance to true metta; all future beings are to be included in the expansive scope of one’s kindly wishes.

But, what of the actual wish may all beings be at ease, often translated as “may all beings be happy”, which amounts to much the same thing; what form should or could it take. Well, obviously the way the Buddha himself presents in the sutra is just fine for the purpose of generating feelings of goodwill to limitless beings, but if one wants to be more specific in what one is actually wishing for all these creatures, there are examples found in Buddhism. Many, many, generations of followers of the Way have reflected on metta and come up with various elaborations and variations on the sentiments the Buddha describes in the Metta Sutta. One such variation that is recited on a daily basis by Buddhists across the world is found in the Reflections on Universal Well-Being:

May everyone abide in well-being, in freedom from hostility, in freedom from ill-will, in freedom from anxiety, and may they maintain well-being in themselves. May all beings be released from all suffering, and may they not be parted from the good fortune they have attained. (From the ‘Reflections on Universal Well-Being’ in the Western Forest Sangha Chanting Book)

Here, metta is expressed as the heartfelt wish that all beings should experience “freedom from hostility” and “ill-will”. Such negative attitudes come in many forms of course, all of them debilitating and causing much suffering in the receiver. Hostility can be both verbal and physical; it can also be both active and passive. A hostile glance can be just as hurtful as harsh words, and no one would deny the damage done both in body and in mind by a serious physical assault. In the above wish, it is hoped that beings may be freed from such suffering.

Anxiety and a lack of well-being are important aspects to a happy and content life, as well. If we are in constant worry over our safety, money matters, or matters of the heart, we will suffer. Being anxious can eat away at our sense of well-being, not only causing psychological problems but also affecting our physical health. Having a healthy body can be a source of great contentment, just as having a sound mind. If we are unwell in our body we can suffer mentally as well; it is a commonly heard modern piece of wisdom that mind and body affect each other, sometimes with dire results. Of course, in such traditions as Buddhism, such knowledge has been known for millennia, but we moderns are only recently catching up with this knowledge of our forebears.

“May all beings be released from suffering” lies at the heart of this daily reflection, and indeed forms the essence of the cultivation and sharing of metta for the Buddhist. This is because suffering has been emphasized from the beginning of the Buddha’s teaching of the Dharma to the present day. It is because beings suffer that we feel for them, and because of the Buddha Way and such practices as sharing metta that we have a way to help them and ourselves move away from suffering and its hold on our lives. The ultimate goal of the Buddhist, Nirvana, is the very transcendence of suffering. In this light it can be seen that this reflection on metta is actually wishing that all beings realize Nirvana.

There is also a reference to karma in the above reflection on loving-kindness, too, with the wish that beings are “not parted from the good fortune they have attained”. Here “good fortune” means the results of positive karma or actions from the past reaping positive effects in the present or future. That karma and its fruits are referred to in this reflection is important, for it is partially in the context of past actions that the present, including at least some of the suffering that we experience, takes place. Although Buddhism is not, as some might think, a fatalistic religion, it does recognize the relationship between the past and the present and the present and the future. Cause and effect are central to the Buddhadharma, and this is where metta comes in, for in producing loving-kindness one is creating good karmic results for both oneself and others.

A free e-book containing both the Karaniya Metta Sutta & the Reflections on Universal Well-Being is available from the following link:

Western Forest Sangha Chanting Book