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