September 21, 2009
To say that loving-kindness is an important teaching in Buddhism is a monumental understatement. Without loving-kindness Buddhism would not exist. Loving-kindness is, of course, a million miles from what most people call love; the latter being possessive, wrapped up with attachment, and often sullied by lust. Loving-kindness, on the other hand, is free of all attachment. It does not discriminate. It is not undermined by any word or action – no matter how abusive. It is not, as Ajahn Chah said while pulling a soppy face and rolling his head from side to side, all “Kutchi, kutchi, kutchi,” but is capable of administering the bitter medicine. It is therefore strong, fearless and, most importantly, steeped in wisdom. Indeed, without wisdom there can be no loving-kindness. The benefits of possessing a mind resplendent with loving kindness are, it goes without saying, innumerable, and its position among the Four Protections needs little explanation.
Before we contemplate loving-kindness we should spend a moment considering the dangers of anger and hatred. Experiencing hatred is the mental equivalent of swallowing a red-hot iron ball. It burns, it is painful, it is destructive. Blood pressure rises, the heartbeat quickens, the face contorts, the stomach tightens. And if we allow it even an inch it will take a mile and we find ourselves rapidly metamorphosing into a demon, lashing out with our words and fists. How many times has a person got into an argument with somebody when a hammer was a little too close to hand? And then forty strikes and one smashed skull later he’s sitting in a cell contemplating a life-sentence. Hatred kills our own happiness. It kills the happiness of others. It kills.
Which is why I found myself somewhat shocked the other day after coming across an interview between a devout American Christian and the well known and controversial atheist Christopher Hitchens. Ignorant of the extent of Hitchens’ materialistic views I was looking forward to a juicy and intelligent bit of creationism dismantling. Unfortunately I didn’t get it. (It might have come later in the interview but I didn’t stay around to find out.) Hardly had the conversation begun when he launched into a vitriolic attack on the injunction to ‘love your enemy’. Not only did he strongly disagree with this sentiment, insinuating its immorality, but he said that we should actively hate the enemy. I was alarmed. How can an intelligent man think this? Well, intelligence is not the same as wisdom, and the latter is what Mr Hitchens clearly lacks in this respect. If he wants to make the world a better place he’s on the wrong track.
“Hatred does not cease though hatred, only through not hating does hatred cease. This is an an eternal law.” Dhp.1.5
Thus as we remind ourselves of the destructive nature of anger and hatred our mind turns away from them as a hair recoils from a flame. We then reach towards the soft, warm, and healing light of loving-kindness.
Loving-kindness is Steeped in Wisdom
Ajahn Chah’s loving-kindness was legendary. Luckily, we are the inheritors of a vast fund of stories that testify to this…
There was once an English monk staying at Wat Pah Pong who had been teaching English in Thailand prior to ordaining. After having been in robes for some time he received a letter notifying him of the tax he owed on the money he had earned while teaching. Not knowing what to do he mentioned his situation to various people in the monastery and their reactions were as you might expect: they moaned and grumbled and fobbed the tax collectors off. Then he went to Ajahn Chah to see what he thought. I doubt the monk was expecting this classic response: “You must help them,” said Ajahn Chah. “They have a job to do. You must help them.”
So his loving-kindness was all-encompassing. But how often do we read about Ajahn Chah actually teaching us to develop it? I cannot think of many instances at all. What we do find him constantly teaching, however, is the need to cultivate wisdom. This is because loving-kindness depends on wisdom. Without wisdom there can be no real love. Our loving-kindness will only go as deep as our wisdom, no deeper. And what is wisdom? It is insight into the Noble Truth of Suffering.
Some people feel that the term suffering is a little strong as a definition of dukkha. It’s true, we may want to refrain from using it too much when we introduce Buddhism to newcomers. But when we really begin to look at life, when we really see what life actually is, then we find that suffering is a pretty accurate description! We are born, we age, we get sick and we die. We balance precariously on the crest of the wave of impermanence, where every experience rushes by never to be seen again. We cannot hold onto any possession or person no matter how dear, for they are also swept away by this inexorable law of change. And at any time our life or the life of one close to us can be lost in an instant. How often do we see in the news a story about a family who were on their way to the seaside but never arrived? Did they ever think that could happen to them? Do we think that could ever happen to us? On seeing how all beings are oppressed by this same suffering loving-kindness wells up in us and we cannot help but think “May all beings be happy and free from suffering!”
And because loving-kindness sees that we are all of the same kind: vulnerable beings caught in the whirlpool of ignorance, craving, hatred and suffering, it is unconditional. It does not pick and choose. It does not think ‘I will love this person but not that person’. Just as the sun shares its light and warmth with all beings irrespective of race, religion, sex, gender or class, so too loving-kindness shares its warmth and light with all.
Seeing that genuine loving-kindness arises from wisdom, it must therefore be free of attachment. Attachment is a bar to real love. Some people new to Buddhism jump up and down when they hear this. Not long after I went to the monastery a woman whom I had known previously came to meditate with her friend. During tea-time she asked Luangpor this question: “Isn’t it irresponsible to not be attached?” This old chestnut arises because of a lack of understanding of what we mean by non-attachment, as if it is cold, heartless and uncaring. I’ll give an example that involves my mother to show how this isn’t the case.
Naturally she had a hard time accepting my move to the monastery nine years ago. At one point she went as far as saying that I might as well have been dead! But gradually the tables turned and she began to venture here on the odd occasion when I was giving a talk. “Tell me when you’re on,” she’d say. I suspect her interest was not initially in the Dhamma: I don’t imagine she heard a word I said since she was too busy watching me! But her eyes soon closed and the teachings settled in. That, combined with the meditation, inevitably meant changes took place. Then, last November, while driving back from the airport after having said goodbye to my brother before he took off to find work in New Zealand, she was struck by one of those changes. “This is extraordinary,” she thought to herself. “I’m not upset.” She had intuitively grasped the pointlessness of holding on and not letting go. Consequently her attachment had been reduced, and with it her suffering.
Can we say this was an uncaring reaction? Can we say it was cold? Of course not, because it wasn’t. It was a wise and sensible reaction that benefitted both herself and her son. After she had told me this we discussed the nature of attachment and how unhelpful and selfish it is. It is founded on what I want, what I need, how I want to feel, what I want you to do. Attachment is a bar to real love because it centres on ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Loving-kindness in the ultimate sense is blissfully devoid of all notions of self and other.
Under All Circumstances
Are there any circumstances when loving-kindness is to be exchanged for anger and hate? No. The Buddha went as far as to say that even if bandits were to sever you limb from limb with a two handled saw you should maintain a mind of compassion, and that whoever gave rise to a mind of hate would not be following his teaching. This is obviously a tall order: most of us might be slightly put out if we found ourselves in that position! But at least we know where Buddhism stands in terms of retaliation, violence and, especially, WAR. At least we know where to aim in even the most difficult circumstances.
There is a powerful story of the Chinese Master Hsu Yun showing loving-kindness and compassion even in the face of the most brutal of attacks.
He was in his 113th year when his monastery was besieged by a gang of hooligans. Monks were beaten and even murdered as the monastery was raided for money and weapons that the assailants wrongly believed were stored there. The master himself was dragged into a small room and interrogated as to the whereabouts of the booty. Determined to extract a confession the thugs laid into him with their heavy boots and steel poles. As the blows rained down and the old master’s body crumpled to the floor he withdrew into a deep state of samadhi. Thinking the master was dead, the group departed. Immediately his attendants rushed in, and, detecting warmth in his cheeks, sat him up in the meditation posture. On returning the following day the thugs were furious to see him sitting up and so once again the master was pummeled into the ground. When they came on the third day and found him again sitting in meditation they became frightened and ran away. A week or so after that first attack, while patiently watching for a change in the master’s state, his attendants heard a groan. He had emerged from samadhi, only to become painfully conscious of his bruised and swollen body. Later on he was asked why he had come back, why he had not just renounced his life and attained Final Nibbana. His motives were born of loving-kindness and compassion: he couldn’t allow himself to die for it is a terrible karma to kill an enlightened being.
And WAR. Does it really need to be said that Buddhism does not condone WAR? Apparently, yes. Okay, soooo…. the case for a just WAR. On your marks. Get set….
A Buddhist country is under attack.
The very existence of the beacon of wisdom and peace hangs by a thread.
Aware that Buddhism will be destroyed if they do not fight the persecutors, the Buddhists take up weapons.
The enemy is thus destroyed and Buddhism saved.
Or was it?
NO..Of course it wasn’t. It was destroyed along with the enemy.
To die with loving-kindness in mind is better than living with blood on your hands.
The next teaching will be on
The full-moon day, Sunday 4th October (or thereabouts)
From the elements, to compassion, to loving-kindness, to mindfulness of breathing, to the contemplation of one’s purity of virtue: the spectrum of meditation subjects taught by the Buddha is diverse. But why did he teach such a range? For two main reasons, it seems.
Firstly, because people are different. We have different tastes, talents and tendencies, and different obstacles to overcome. As such, one size does not fit all.
In line with this approach, Ajahn Chah’s way of teaching – as with many of the Thai forest masters – was refreshingly open. He compared himself to someone who takes round a bowl of fruit: one person takes an apple, another takes a pear, another takes a banana. In this way, he said, ‘everyone gets fed’.
And secondly, because of our need to work on the mind from a number of different angles; to gain the benefits of a number of different fruits.
The Four Protections
Four of the most popular and nourishing fruits that the Buddha offered us were grouped together in later years and designated the ‘Four Protections’. They are Contemplation of the Buddha, Loving-kindness, Contemplation of the Body, and Contemplation of Death.
Taking time to develop each one of these meditation objects will ensure our practice matures into a well-rounded, balanced and effective one. They are often cultivated as a preliminary to mindfulness of breathing (or whatever our central practice is), though at times we may decide to devote an entire session to them. An individual protection can also be called upon when a particular benefit is required. They are called protections because they protect the mind’s welfare and happiness and ensure that we remain firmly on course for freedom from all suffering.
Contemplation of the Buddha
It is common for newcomers to Buddhism to have misconceptions regarding the presence of Buddha statues in our shrine rooms. They may even be reluctant to go into such a room, thinking that we worship these images as idols. This is understandable, but – as we know – far from the truth.
Venture into any teenager’s bedroom and you’ll no doubt find his walls plastered with posters. There will be Wayne Rooney tearing across the turf, Usain Bolt in a flash of green and yellow Lycra, Neil Armstrong striding over the moon. The child has these posters for obvious reasons: to encourage him, to inspire him, to show him what can be achieved through effort and determination. And if he wants to be a famous footballer or runner they continually remind him of his goal.
And this is exactly why we have statues of the Buddha. And therefore why we contemplate the Buddha: to encourage us, to inspire us, to show us what can be achieved through effort and determination. And to remind us of our goal.
When we contemplate the Buddha we consider what made him the Buddha. Physically he was really no different from you and me: once a person went into a hall full of monks. The Buddha was among them but the visitor couldn’t recognise him. So it was not his physical appearance that made him the Buddha; nor was it his voice or the many unusual happenings that we associate with his life. What distinguished him was his mind. When we contemplate the Buddha we consider a mind that is very different to our own. But also one that we have the potential to emulate.
The Mountain Peak
We can approach this contemplation from a number of angles, in the same way that you might admire the peak of a great mountain from a variety of positions: each view may be slightly different, but they are all of the same peak.
Perhaps our first view of this lofty peak of the Buddha’s mind should be this: its total absence of greed, hatred and delusion. His epithet, ‘Arahant’, means ‘one who is far from defilement’. We can consider this first as it puts before us a very tangible vision of our goal.
Try to imagine a mind where every shade of desire has been abandoned, where each corrosive form of aversion relinquished – a mind that no longer knows these states. When we do this we are beginning to understand the Buddha’s experience. At this point it needs to be said that it wasn’t, as some people seem to think, that he still experienced remnants of desire and aversion but owing to his powerful mindfulness was able to immediately dissipate them, as if his mind were a red-hot metal plate and the defilements drops of water falling on that plate; it was that these corruptions did not arise at all. Indeed, they could not arise – they had all gone, for their root had been destroyed.
A mind devoid of greed and hatred is a mind that cannot be overcome by any sight, sound, smell, taste or feeling. It remains in a state of non-attachment and freedom in all circumstances. There is a story of a Brahman who went to provoke and anger the Buddha. Hurling harsh and abusive speech he only managed to exhaust himself while the Buddha calmly sat there, patiently watching the whole charade. Eventually the Brahman gave up and exclaimed how amazing it was that even as he unleashed this torrent of nastiness the Buddha’s face remained clear and bright.
The ‘One Who Knows’
Greed and hatred we know and see. It is therefore within our reach to begin to contemplate a mind which is no longer disturbed by them. But delusion – the root of those two and of all suffering – is a different kettle of fish altogether. Unlike greed and hatred we cannot see delusion because we see with it. It is only once we begin to lift this veil that we can turn around and say ‘Aha! I was deluded!’, in the same way a fish who has spent his life under water comes up, tastes the air, and says: ‘Aha! I was in water!’ Delusion is not knowing and seeing things as they really are. It is precisely the absence in his mind of this one thing that made the Buddha the ‘Buddha’ – the ‘One who Knows’.
What, then, did the Buddha know? He knew that all things of this world – of all conditioned existence – from mountains, trees, and stones, to palaces, bricks and mortar, to every sight, sound, smell, taste, feeling and thought, to his own body and mind, was – without exception – impermanent, unsatisfactory, and without self, soul or substance.
It is this comprehension of the last of the Three Characteristics – the absence of any self, soul or substance in anything – that I personally find very inspiring. When contemplating the Buddha I might imagine being in the presence of someone whose mind was free of all notions of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’. What would that be like? I wonder.
“The greatest happiness of all is to be rid of the conceit: ‘I am’.” (Vin. Mv. 1:3)
The Ten Perfections and Mastery of Mind
Gazing at the peak from another angle we can consider his mastery of each of the Ten Perfections. For those of you who don’t know, they are: generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, truthfulness, energy, patience, determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity. When contemplating the Buddha from this perspective we reflect that in terms of developing these perfections there was nothing left for him to do. In other words he could be no more generous, no more wise, no more patient, no more determined, no more virtuous, no more loving, no more equanimous. Think about that.
And then we can consider his mastery of the practice of concentration. There is an account of when he was staying in a barn on retreat. While meditating in a doorway a violent thunderstorm tore across the sky. Great claps of thunder pounded the atmosphere and tremendous bursts of lightning electrified the sky. After it had passed a man went to find the Buddha to see if he was all right. The Buddha, on being approached, replied that he hadn’t noticed the storm. Such were his powers of concentration.
And we witness his mental dexterity as he was about to pass away. Having made a prior determination he entered the first jhana and quickly passed through to the second, the third, the fourth, all the way up to the ninth. It is said this final attainment – the epitome of mental concentration – is accessible only to the Non-returner and Arahant. At this point the Venerable Ananda declared that the Buddha had passed away. But the Venerable Anuruddha exclaimed the Blessed One was still alive but had attained the Cessation of Perception and Feeling. Arising from that attainment the Buddha glided through the preceding eight back to the first, from where he again moved through to the fourth. It was here that he attained Final Nibbana.
These states of concentration, it must be said, are extraordinary achievements in their own right. And the Buddha traversed them with the agility of a young child skipping through the playground.
To have a mind like the Buddha’s
We have admired the mountain peak from a number of view points. In the course of contemplating the Buddha you may find other views that are just as breathtaking.
When it comes to actually contemplating the Buddha as a meditation object we can simply recite: ‘The Buddha, the Buddha, the Buddha’, or ‘Buddho, Buddho, Buddho’, or we can imagine a favourite statue or picture, or what it would be like to be in his presence, or we can read his words and the stories about him. And while we do these things we allow our mind to explore and investigate the nature of the Buddha’s mind. Doing this can cause determination and rapture to arise – rapture at the prospect of having a mind such as his, a mind totally free from all defilement, from all sense of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, from all suffering.
In Part 2 we will look at the second Protection: Loving-kindness
which will hopefully appear on:
the new moon day, Saturday 19th September
September 6, 2009
I’m currently teaching a retreat and so Dhamma Diary will be up later today or tomorrow. It will be the first post of four on the Four Protections: Contemplation of the Buddha, of Loving-kindness, of the Body, and of Death.
During the retreats people are free to write down questions and put them in a box. I then collect them up and try to answer them. Sometimes hardly any are asked, at other times it’s the opposite. Last night, before the evening sitting, I picked up the box and gave it a shake. ‘Oh my god,’ I thought. It felt like half a tree was in there. So I sat down and proceeded to empty it. But I was pleasantly surprised as many of them were not technical and obscure but were inquiries about 1. a display in the sitting room that outlines the essential teachings of Buddhism – she wants a copy; 2. the winter retreats, and 3. (my favourite) an enquiry concerning the procedure for taking the five precepts here! If there is one thing that makes me happy it is when someone asks to take the five precepts.
The way to a man is through his stomach. The way to a monk is by asking to take the five precepts!