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.


Barry said...

Thanks for this series of posts, Gary.

It's probably only in the last line that Mahayana parts from this teaching ("is not born again into this world"). In the Mahayana view, of course, the "freed" person continues to re-enter the world of suffering to help others.

Who really knows what happens when the body dies? And why wait to find out?

G said...

You're welcome!

If we see the Metta Sutta and the Bodhisattva Vows as skillful means to develop such qualities as goodwill and compassion, Barry, then their literal meaning is not actually the crucial point. It's the direction we turn our hearts to that's important, becoming more selfless and less selfish. Isn't it?

In Zen Buddhism, particularly Rinzai Zen, it's made clear that awakening is beyond the finite understanding of the logical, literal-thinking, mind; when we see the meaning of the 1700 koans of Zen, we see that the Truth is beyond the intellect (as well as everything else), and that in this very moment there is rebirth and yet no rebirth, an individual and yet no individual, etc.

As you say, Barry, why wait until we die to find out the living truth of the Buddha Dharma? It is evident right here, right now: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Be well in the Dharma,

Barry said...

Great response!

Thank you,

G said...

You're welcome, Barry!

Thank you,