Category Archives: Loving-Kindness

Motorbike Crash

Moz 80th card1 blog

A week or two ago my brother, Tim, witnessed a motorbike accident. It was the morning rush hour in Edgebaston, Birmingham, and he was driving his van along a busy duel-carriageway on his way to a carpentry job. Directly in front of him was a stocky, middle-aged man in full leather gear riding a motorbike. This man was no doubt on his daily run to work, just like everybody else. It was a typically ordinary start to a day that would prove to be, for one person at least, devastating.

As is the case with these things, it happened quite suddenly. A woman driver – with her view of the road obscured by an approaching lorry, but being impatient to cross the main road – pulled out. She didn’t see the motorcyclist. He saw her, but it was far too late and he hurtled full-speed into the side of her car. Bones and rubber, flesh and chrome slammed into glass and steel. The momentum of a body flying at 50 mph was halted instantly and the man’s crumpled, shattered form dropped to the road. He might as well have ridden straight into a brick wall.

Tyres screeched. Car doors were flung open. A dozen horrified people dialled 999. Tim ran over to the man. He was alive, but in a state of shock. He moved around – panicking, delirious, desperate to pull the helmet from his head. But we all know that this must never be done, and he was urged to leave it on until the emergency services arrived. How badly he was hurt nobody could tell. The adrenaline that floods the system during experiences such as this appears to charge broken bodies with an almost superhuman power that causes them to run and breathe and beat. But a trickle of blood was issuing from his nose, and that’s never a good sign.

So the man was left in the care of a few, while the rest walked back to their cars to resume their journeys. We don’t know what injuries that man sustained, or even if he survived. But the image that formed in my mind as my brother recounted his experience was of a slightly overweight, unassuming man in a state of pain and shock so unexpected, so totally unfamiliar, that he personified pure suffering.

His entire world had been ripped apart in a moment. His body and his mind became something else, something alien, something terrifying. Every familiar, reassuring feature of his experience had been wiped out, and all that remained was a blank void of desperation. Such total, complete suffering! And out of nowhere! How could one mind bear the intensity of such an experience? People – healthy, normal people – were close to him, speaking to him, reassuring him – but he was far away. No one or nothing could reach him. This experience was for him, and him alone.

That evening, as I meditated, I visualised that man and radiated thoughts of compassion to him. It was easy, because his suffering had been total. There had been no compromising elements to his experience – no self-pity, exaggeration, or cries for attention – that might have diluted true empathy, empathy that welled up within me as I imagined his helpless, terrified face locked inside that helmet. And as I pictured him, I wanted nothing more than to share his pain. I wanted to take it from him and give him back relief.

And that, in effect, is what I imagined myself doing. I visualised his face and the panic in his eyes, and his confused, desperate movements. I tried to empathise with his inner experience – the wrenching pain, the suffocating fear, the mortal panic – so that I might share some small part of it with him and thereby help to soften it. I wanted him to feel that here was a friend, a friend on whom he could offload some of the burden. And then again I imagined his face: but now it was relaxing – the black fear in his eyes was fading, his panicked movements were slowing. He was letting go of the pain. He was not fighting. He was experiencing some relief.

That cold steel barrier of self dissolves when we open our minds to the suffering of others in this way. Their pain becomes ours and we desire to alleviate it as if it were our own. Then it becomes not a matter of my suffering and their suffering – or even of our suffering – but of suffering and the sincere wish to end it.

The cultivation of this heart-felt, selfless empathy is actually only half of the practice. To go further we need to become a kind of alchemist of the mind, where we take the raw experience of pain – our own and that of others – and transform its energy into compassion and letting go. In order for this to be successful wisdom is required. We must understand that pain is not something to be dismissed or feared or fought, but as misunderstood energy with the potential to be converted.

Painful experience in all its guises is inherently empty; the problem arises when we desire it to be otherwise. When we experience pain the aversion to it is so closely intertwined that the pain appears to be the enemy. There’s depression: we resist. There’s fear: we run. There’s physical pain: we fight. But fighting and running only reinforce and exacerbate these sensations. Reacting gives them a reality they do not truly possess. By letting the pain be – by allowing it, by opening up to it, by putting aside the instinctive, fearful reaction to it – we allow the mind to experience pain for what it is, just as it is. If the painful experience is left alone in this way its sting is removed and its energy harnessed and transformed.

Thus with mindfulness established we draw in our own suffering, and the suffering of others, turn its energy around, and exchange it for loving-kindness, compassion and letting go.

Doing this practice – although deeply moving – appears to be merely hypothetical. The motorcyclist remained completely unaffected as I thought of him. Or did he? In the various Buddhist traditions we do hear accounts of people in distress experiencing some relief and comfort when a person at a distance simultaneously holds them at the centre of a concentrated mind of compassion and loving-kindness. Such is the power of thought. Perhaps this phenomenon can be understood in the same vein as the effect that another’s mental state can have on us when we are in the same room as them: an angry, moody person is like a thunderous black cloud and we feel threatened; a happy person, a ray of sunshine and we feel warmed. How about we regard the world – or the universe for that matter – as a single giant room, one where our focused rays of loving-kindness and compassion can warm people wherever they are?

Well, whatever you think of that, our time spent nurturing the sublime states of empathy and compassion is never wasted. Mind, the Buddha said, precedes all things. Speech and action are merely its flitting shadows. With your thoughts bent on compassion and understanding, with your mind suffused with sympathy and concern, your words and deeds will follow suit, like an obedient pair of tiger cubs trotting along behind their mother. And not only will you be transformed, but so will those beings who come within your sphere of empathy and understanding. You will be a friend, an oasis, a refuge.

And the next time you’re with a terrified man who’s just crashed his motorbike, you will not be afraid, or nervous, or confused: you will hold his hand, look into his eyes, and let him know that his pain is yours.

The Young Monk and His Sleeping Bag

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Lucky bunnies. Imagine having a built-in sleeping bag.)

The other evening a student at Warwick University asked me a now familiar question: Were your early days at the monastery difficult? Yes, I answered, they certainly were. And I admitted that during those unforgettable first few weeks, in that particularly chilly September, I plotted my escape several times. My home was within walking distance; I could have been shovelling down one of my mother’s speciality hot-pots within three hours. But the desire to not give up (and to not be seen giving up) kept my freshly shaven head and flip-flop toting feet within the monastery hedges. It was a close call, but I survived.

A few months later all had changed. And I looked back at those first weeks of manic wobbliness and scratched my head. Had that really happened? Had I really been such a baby? It was embarrassing to think of it. I know that to other people living at the monastery at the time I had borne no small resemblance to a petrified rabbit caught in the raging headlights of a tank.

But still, though teething problems had passed, life as a young and inexperienced monk continued to be challenging and at times downright uncomfortable. Of course, it is precisely this element of difficulty that is the rich and fertile soil in which the full spectrum of virtues – from patience to insight to letting go and peace – will flourish (or so they told me). To a nineteen year old young man, however, the promise of those supreme mental states is taken on trust (with the odd glimmer here and there), and the hard graft of getting through each day is the reality. Up early, sit cross-legged for one hour, cuppa, sweep, go for a walk, sit cross-legged again, one meal of the day, work, sit cross-legged again, cuppa, sit cross-legged one final time. And bed.

Ohhh, my bed. My sweet, sweet bed. And my sleeping bag. My puffy, silky, slidy blue and orange Arctic-weather-give-me-all-you-got sleeping bag. Ohhh, to be warm. To be without crossed legs. To be as secure and untroubled as a little worm curled up a mile down inside Mother Earth. The day was done; the night was ready to swallow me up. And there I was, lucky enough to be blissfully suspended between the two. Ahead of me lay nothing but six whole hours of oblivion, and I hovered in that awareness with divine relief. It was truly sublime. But it was soon over. And I woke up feeling crap.

You see, going to bed, for many of us, is not just about recharging our bones and brain cells for the following day’s adventures; it’s about escape. It’s about throwing ourselves under the covers and waiting for sleep to draw its black velvet curtains between us and this exhausting business of life. That’s certainly how it was for me, and that’s why I looked forward to it so much. But the mental state that was behind it all, the overwhelming force that twiddled and tugged at my strings as I raced through bedtime preparations (barely getting undressed sometimes), was destructive. Destructive, because it was, as the Buddha termed it, craving-not-to-be. And that’s what I craved: not to be. To be or not to be, it was an easy question. I had had enough. I wanted nothingness. I wanted not to be, not to be, if you get my drift.

But it was no good. Where there is craving there is suffering; and the suffering from the craving-not-to-be is intense. If I ended the day under its influence I would invariably wake up with the same two words on my lips: ‘Oh God!‘ The craving-not-to-be hadn’t disappeared in the night; it was the morose face staring down at me when I woke up. Although the problem and the cause seem so obvious now, it took me a very long time to actually do anything about it. Each day the prospect of said day’s ending dangled in front of me like a fat juicy carrot and I couldn’t help but drool in anticipation. I’d slog it out with the day, crave the night, drown in sleep, and wake up feeling terrible. And then I’d do it again. It was a viscous cycle from which it was difficult to extricate myself.

Thankfully, however, I did eventually learn the lesson. And it is this: sleep is a journey, and its destination is waking up. And most importantly, as with any journey, it is all about the preparation; if you don’t get that right, you’re done for. If you don’t pack enough oxygen before you scale Everest, you’re done for. If you don’t load up enough food on your round-the-world boat trip, you’re done for. And if don’t pull your suffocating mind out of the craving-not-to-be before you go to bed, you’re done for.

To prepare well, then, is what is called for. So what should we do before we hit the sack? Well, ideally we drop the craving, the regret, the depression, and lift up the kindness, the calmness, the letting go. We drive out the dark; we bring in the light. We might do that by meditating with the breath for a few minutes, or by focussing on loving-kindness, or by reflecting on an inspiring text, or by chanting a few words from the Suttas.

Or we might spend a few minutes casting our minds back through the day and recalling the meritorious deeds, words and thoughts that we performed.

It is precisely this last contemplation that I have used since I recognised the need to prepare well before sleep. It is easy to do, it doesn’t have to take long, and, most importantly, it works a treat. It is the simple and deliberate recalling of our own actions that were good, wholesome, and helpful, and then rejoicing in their goodness. Sound strange? Well, let me ask you this: in a world that is collapsing under the strain of all the hate, harm and rampant selfishness, don’t your little moments of good deserve some praise? Of course they do, and it’s you that’s going to do the praising.

Over here in the West (it’s a bit different in parts of Asia) we are not used to praising ourselves. Modesty and ‘thinking of others’ are the order of the day; and these are not, of course, without their merits. But the flip side is that we often fail to generate a good and helpful relationship with ourselves. We freely praise our best friend and love them to bits, but perish the thought that we might ever utter as much as an ‘it was ok…’ to ourself. It’s no wonder we want to grab the big red switch that says ‘AWAKE’ and flick it off as soon as we get the chance. Spending 16 hours a day with a person who’s always critical and judgemental is bloody hard work. Praising our own genuinely praiseworthy deeds is foreign, it’s unnatural, and it’s something that we absolutely must, must do. Especially before we go to bed.

As I mentioned, it doesn’t have to take long. I suggest that you set aside five minutes before you flop onto the feathers. It helps if you’ve done everything that needs to be done before you do retire: say goodnight to your dog, brush your teeth, don pyjamas, nighty, Bat Man suit, etc. Then sit quietly, close your eyes, SMILE (very important – it will send signals to your brain saying, ‘Be happy!’) and try to recall at least five of your actions that were wholesome. These are the things that you said, or did, or thought that were rooted in kindness, in compassion, in wisdom, in restraint, in patience, or in any of the wonderful qualities with which you are endowed.

So, maybe you removed a snail from the busy footpath; or you passed over the bigger slice of Victoria Sponge; or you donated some of your hard-earned pennies to a charity. Or perhaps you steered a conversation with friends away from harmful back-biting; or you diligently kept the precepts for yet another day; or you considered the angry colleague who barked at you, and you realised that he was suffering, and that it wasn’t about you, and that he deserved your sympathy and compassion.

Now good actions bring good results, and with this contemplation we are intentionally drawing a little of the sweet nectar that we deserve. So we recollect, and we praise, and we say ‘Well Done!’ and ‘You’re doing well!’ and ‘That was great!’ And we feel good and we feel happy and then we go to bed.

And then we wake up. And, if we’re well practised, the morose face of craving-not-to-be is nowhere to be seen. He’s gone. But where? Well, how could he be present when he didn’t even go to bed with us?

There is one other wonderful and unexpected habit that you might observe forming in your mind if you persist with this practice. You might just start looking forward to the end of the day. But, hold on! I don’t mean when you melt into the memory foam and say ‘Enough!’, as you did once upon a time; I mean precisely those concluding moments when you will rejoice in your merit. And if you look forward to that, you will concentrate on picking up even more vulnerable snails, and on being even more dedicated to the precepts, as anticipation for the joyful reflection that awaits hovers at the edge of your mind.

And at last it arrives: the time to say ‘Well Done’. Then, with a glowing heart and a smile to meet your closing eyes, you push gently away from the shores of wakefulness and into the healing depths of a Good Night’s Sleep.

 

Blu-Tack is Teaching Us

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(Bend me, shape me, any way you want me.)

You may not have thought of it before, but Blu-Tack can teach us a lot about the practice of meditation. For those of you on foreign shores who might be unaware of this cornerstone of British office stationary, Blu-Tack is a – you guessed it – blue putty-like substance that can be rolled, stretched and pulled apart and is used to stick pieces of paper and the like onto walls, notice boards and other flat surfaces. People even use it to make figurines.

But the thing is, when you first take your piece of Blu-Tack it is distinctly un-sticky: it’s hard, cold and certainly not tacky. And so a little office workers’ ritual is required. You place a small piece of it between the palms of your hands, and then rub them back and forth and round and round, gently rolling and warming the baby-blue putty incubating within. After about fifteen seconds the previously intractable lump will have transformed into a supple, sticky, stretchy ball. The piece of Blu-Tack has now become malleable and is ready for action.

The process of meditation is remarkably similar.  Often we find that when we first sit down to focus on our breathing (or whatever our primary meditation object is) our mind is not yet ready. It’s like the cold Blu-Tack:  unyielding and difficult to mold into a pleasing shape. In short, you want to concentrate your mind, but your mind does not want to be concentrated. You want your mind to hold to the breath, but the mind is simply not willing to be held in place.

So what can we do? Think of the Blu-Tack: when it was in its unsticky state all that was required was a soft, warm embrace. Well that’s precisely what our minds need. So we gently take hold of our mind and give it a little roll between the soft warm hands of metta, of loving-kindness. Metta is the ultimate tool for subduing the recalcitrant mind and preparing it for meditation.

As the Buddha said, when metta is developed: “One’s mind concentrates easily.” (AN 11.16)

PUFF the Magic Metta

There are many ways to practice metta. Cultivating this sublime state is a particularly personal thing and so requires experimentation. I have found, as have many others, the PUFF method very powerful.

With this technique we use four words to develop loving-kindness towards ourselves and others. As we repeat the words we find our hearts and minds gradually relaxing as metta establishes itself within us. After five or ten (or more) minutes of this our minds should be warm, supple and able to focus on the breath with little persuasion, just like a nicely massaged lump of warm Blu-Tack. Lovely.

First of all take up your meditation posture. Relax both body and mind and let all things be. Then recite these words to yourself:

1. Patience, Patience.

2. Understanding, Understanding,

3. Forgiveness, Forgiveness.

4. Friendliness, Friendliness.

We say each word deliberately, slowly, and with care. And we say each word twice. To help us remember these words, if we take the first letter from each word and put them all together we get the word PUFF. Once we have reached ‘Friendliness’ we then proceed to repeat the words in reverse order until we get back to ‘Patience’. And then we begin again.

If you wish, as you repeat these words, you can picture yourself just as you are now: not how you’d like to be, but as you are at this very moment, warts, ill-will and all. Hold yourself in the warm, caring attitude of loving-kindness. Just keep on patiently repeating the words over and over, gradually allowing the qualities you are invoking to permeate your body and mind.

It shouldn’t take long before your mind is nicely warmed. If not much appears to have changed, don’t worry: some lumps of Blue-Tac are tougher than others! However, once you are ready, bring the breath to the forefront of your attention and continue to be mindful of that instead. You can even combine the two practices by repeating the words in unison with the breath. Hopefully your mind will now stick to the breath like a freshly rolled ball of Blu-Tack to the wall.

Of course, metta can and should be developed wherever possible: on the bus, while waiting at the doctors’ surgery, while laying in bed after a bad day.

And always remember: whenever you are feeling rotten, just go outside for a quick PUFF!

 

Half-Moon Day: Noble Friendship: The Whole of the Holy-life

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Following this path is not easy. Anyone who has done so for more than a week will know that. Not only do we have the grimacing mountain of greed, hatred and delusion to conquer, but we also have to climb it in the midst of a society that is founded on those same defilements.

So our task is not an easy one. But wouldn’t it be a thousand times more difficult if we were climbing this mountain alone? I don’t know if many of us could do it. The doubts would probably engulf us: ‘Is this path right? Why is no one else following it? Am I mad?’ And even if the commitment remained, there are many wrong turns we might take. Our attempts at discovering the truth could thus be very easily snuffed out, and the mountain’s grimace would grow even wider.

But luckily, we are not alone. We have our fellow Dhamma strivers – wherever they may be – committed to forging a way that is different from that of the masses; a way that is dedicated to the practice of harmlessness, non-attachment and to the discovery of truth. Associating with these people – even knowing they are around – is a tremendous source of inspiration, strength and wisdom. And when we recognise how easily we are influenced by everything and everyone we encounter, then associating with the right people becomes a matter of necessity.

The Buddha understood the importance of noble companionship. Once, the Venerable Ananda said to the Buddha that he believed noble friendship to be half of the holy-life. But the Buddha said that this is not so: “Noble friendship, Ananda, is the whole of the holy-life.”

It doesn’t take much to see how a good Dhamma companion helps us. They will encourage us when we say the path is too steep. They will keep us in check when we proclaim it’s downhill from now on. They will nudge us to the left when we have gone too far right. And they will nudge us to the right when we have gone too far left. And, when we are chugging along nicely, they will chug along nicely with us.

But they will also affect us for the better in ways we do not always appreciate. Living in a monastery it is very easy to take for granted the steady stream of support that flows naturally from being among virtuous people. It is only once I step outside of these walls that I recognise its value: ‘Ha!’, I think, ‘What a difference it makes living with people who do not lie, who are always sober, and who are dedicated to doing no harm!” I recognise this because I see the opposite at work. Many people easily lie; they can’t understand why anyone would not want to get plastered at least three times a week; and they are careless with their words and actions. A tight circle of Dhamma friends will thus provide you with support, often in ways you only notice when you are outside of it.

There is one particular thing that a noble companion can do for us, something that is of inestimable value, and something that – by its nature – cannot come from ourselves. That is the ability to see our blind-spots. And then, at the right time and with loving-kindness, to point them out.

A friend in the Dhamma is thus indispensable. For some people, however, that friend might be a hundred miles away. In these cases we move to the phone, the pen, the web, books and newsletters. Just reading about others who are practising the Dhamma pulls us a little closer to the goal.

A word of warning though: we have to be careful. Unenlightened people are prone to spout rubbish, myself included. Look at many of these online Buddhist forums (or don’t): tangled thickets of views, opinions and misinformation! Sometimes they can be useful, but exercise your wisdom and don’t be dragged down the plug-hole. I personally wouldn’t touch them with a barge-pole.

So a noble friend will ensure our eyes remain fixed on the mountain’s summit, and that we are not too perturbed when our defilements and the pressures of a culture that basks in the burning glare of greed, hatred and delusion try to knock us off.

I’d like to finish with a little story. It relates an occasion last year which helped me to realise how indispensable friendship on this path really is.

Following on from the success of our Mount Snowdon expedition of 2007, we thought we’d organise another arduous walk. So, four of us slipped on our boots and went and had a reconnoitre of the local Battlefields Walk, a twenty mile slog that leads through and skirts three sites of major historical battles: the Battle of Edgehill, the Battle of Cropredy Bridge, and the Battle of Edgcote. A strange route for Buddhists, you may think. Well, we thought we’d turn it into a walk of loving-kindness, by stopping and radiating thoughts of metta at each of those places that had seen so much blood and had heard so many screams.

After about fourteen or so miles one of my knees gave in, but I struggled on. Then, as we were hauling ourselves up this long and steep hill, I looked around me and saw my three companions. It was as if we were all connected by an invisible cord – each of us helping to pull one another up. And then it hit me: ‘Doing this walk is tough. But how much tougher would it have been if I was on my own!’

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The next teaching will be on:

the New-Moon Day, Tuesday 17 November.

Following this path is not easy. Anyone who has done so for more than a week will know that. Not only do we have the grimacing mountain of greed, hatred and delusion to conquer, but we also have to climb it in the midst of a society that is founded on those same defilements.
So our task is not an easy one. But wouldn’t it be a thousand times more difficult if we were climbing that mountain alone? I doubt many of us could do it. The doubts would probably engulf us: ‘Is this path right? Why is no one else following it? Am I mad?’ And even if the commitment remained, there are many wrong turns we might take. Our attempts at discovering the truth could thus be very easily snuffed out, and the mountain’s grimace would grow even wider.
But luckily, we are not alone. We have our fellow Dhamma strivers – wherever they may be – committed to forging a way that is different from that of the masses; a way that is dedicated to the practice of harmlessness, non-attachment and to the discovery of truth. Associating with these people, even knowing they are around, is a tremendous source of inspiration, strength and wisdom. And when we recognise how easily we are influenced by everything we encounter – especially the people we are in contact with – then associating with the right people becomes a matter of necessity.
The Buddha understood well the importance of  noble companionship. Once, the Venerable Ananda said to the Buddha that he believed noble friendship to be half of the holy-life, such was the significance he ascribed to it. But the Buddha said that this is not so: “Noble friendship, Ananda, is the whole of the holy-life.”
It doesn’t take much too see how a good Dhamma companion helps us: they will encourage us when we say the path is too steep. They will keep us in check when we proclaim it’s downhill from now on. They will nudge us to the left when we have gone too far right. And they will nudge us to the right when we have gone too far left. And when we are chugging along nicely, they will chug along nicely with us.
But they will also affect us in ways that we cannot always appreciate. I only become aware of the steady undercurrent of support that a virtuous community provides when I venture outside of these walls. ‘Ha!,’ I think. ‘I really do take it for granted that my companions will not lie to me, are dedicated to sobriety, and are only concerned for my welfare. How valuable that is!’ I recognise this because I see the opposite at work. Many people lie easily; they can’t understand why anyone would not want to get plastered at least three times a week; and they aren’t aware of how easily a stray word or action can cause harm. A tight circle of Dhamma friends will thus provide you with support, often in ways you only notice when you are outside of it.
One virtue of a noble companion is particularly powerful. It is something that, by its nature, cannot come from oneself. It is the ability to see our blind-spots. And then, at the right time and with loving-kindness, to point them out. A friend who does this is the greatest of them all.
For some people, however, the nearest Buddhist is a hundred miles away. In these cases we move to the phone, the pen, the web, books and newsletters. Just reading about others who are practising the Dhamma pulls us a little closer to the top of the mountain.
A word of warning though. We have to be careful. Unenlightened people are prone to spout rubbish, myself included. Look at many of these online Buddhist forums (or don’t): tangled thickets of views, opinions and misinformation! Sometimes they can be useful, but exercise your wisdom and don’t be dragged down the plug-hole. I personally don’t touch them with a barge pole. (In this monastery they are actually out of bounds.)
So a noble friend will ensure our eyes remain fixed on the mountain’s summit, and that we are not too perturbed when our defilements and the pressures of a culture that basks in the burning glare of  greed, hatred and delusion try to knock us off.
I’d like to finish with a little story. It relates an occasion last year during which I realised how indispensable friendship on this path really is.
Following on from the success of our Mont Snowdon expedition of 2007, we thought we’d do another tough trek, and so four of us went and had a reconnoitre of a local well-known twenty-mile hike. It is the Battlefields Walk, and it leads through and skirts three sites of major historical battles: the Battle of Edgehill, the Battle of Cropredy Bridge, and the Battle of Edgcote. A strange route, you may think. Well, we thought we’d turn it into a walk of loving-kindness, by stopping and radiating thoughts of metta at each of those places that had seen so much blood and had heard so many screams.
After about twelve or so miles one of my knees gave in. Then, as we were ascending this long and steep hill, I looked around me and saw my three companions. It was as if we were all connected by an invisible cord – each of us helping to pull one another up. And then it hit me: ‘Doing this walk is tough. But how much tougher would it have been if I was on my own!’

New Moon Day: The Four Protections Part 2: Loving-kindness

The Fourth Protection: Loving-kindness
To say that loving-kindness is an important teaching in Buddhism is a monumental understatement. It is one of the things that Buddhism is most famous for. Loving-kindness is, of course, a million miles from what most people mean by love – the latter being sullied by attachment and possessiveness and often tainted with lust. Loving-kindness, on the other hand, knows no attachment. It knows no discrimination. And, when perfected, it cannot be undermined by another’s word or action – no matter how abusive. Loving-kindness is therefore a powerful and fearless state of mind; it is no pushover. It is not, as Ajahn Chah said while pulling a soppy face and rolling his head from side to side, all “Icky, icky, icky,” but it is capable of administering the bitter medicine. Most importantly, loving-kindness is steeped in wisdom. 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.
Hatred
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 that stinks of urine 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.) Fairly soon into the conversation 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.
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.
Non-Attachment
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, soon after my brother had left for Australia to find work, she unexpectedly discovered one of those changes when she saw how relaxed and cool she was on his departure. She was not overwhelmed by emotion. She didn’t wallow in a flood of self-pity. In other words, her selfish 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 stupid 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 wonderful 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 believed were stored there. The master himself was dragged by a group of thugs to a small room and interrogated as to the whereabouts of the booty. But as their accusations were baseless he could only say that there was nothing for them to have. Determined to extract a confession the men pummelled him with their heavy boots and steel poles. As the blows rained down and the old master’s body crumpled to the floor he entered samadhi to escape the pain and to preserve his life. Thinking the master was dead, the group left him sprawled on the floor. His attendants then rushed in, and, detecting warmth in the cheeks of his battered face, sat him up in meditation posture before quickly departing. On returning the following day the thugs were furious to see him sitting up and so the boots and poles began to fly once more. When they came on the third day and found him again sitting in meditation they became frightened and fled.  A week or so after the first attack the attendant monks heard the master groan. He had emerged from his state of samadhi only to become conscious of his pain-racked mangled 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 loving-kindness and compassion: he couldn’t allow himself to die for it is a terrible karma to kill an enlightened being.
War
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.

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.

Hatred

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.

Non-Attachment

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.

WAR

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.

 

Full Moon Day: The Four Protections Part 1: Contemplation of the Buddha

When full moon day was a distant memory: The Four Protections: Part 1
Picture a brilliant rainbow in a clear sky. Now cast your eyes over that great arc and you’ll see a tremendous range of colours: from deep blues, to violets, to scarlets, to oranges, to yellows, to greens. In the same way when we cast our mind over the Buddha’s teachings we find a comprehensive array of meditation techniques: from mindfulness of breathing, to contemplation of the body, to loving-kindness and compassion, to contemplation of one’s moral purity. Why did the Buddha teach such a range? Because he understood the diversity of people’s temperaments: their different tastes, tendencies, abilities and obstacles. As such we require different methods to nurture our strengths and extirpate our faults.
Ajahn Chah’s approach to teaching, as with many of the forest masters, respected this refreshing openness. 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’.
In contrast we sometimes hear of teachers saying that the method they teach is ‘the only way!’ This approach may inspire confidence in their followers but for some of us it seems quite dogmatic and belies the Buddha’s own approach.
The Four Protections
The Four Protections is the name given to a group of some of the most important meditation objects. Taking time to nurture each one will ensure our practice matures into a well-rounded, balanced and effective one. The four are usually developed together, often as a preliminary to mindfulness of breathing, though at other times one or two will take centre stage when a particular benefit is required. They are called protections as they protect the mind’s welfare and happiness. They guide us away from delusion and towards wisdom. The four are: Contemplation of the Buddha, Loving-kindness, Contemplation of the Body, and Contemplation of Death.
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.
Go 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 green and yellow lycra, Neil Armstrong gliding across 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 also 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, what it was that set him apart. Physically he was really no different from you and me: once a person entered a hall full of monks and among them was the Buddha. The visitor could not 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 poisons. 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, for their root had been destroyed.
A mind free of greed and hatred, and consequently of fear and all other derivatives, is a mind that cannot be overcome by any sight, sound, smell, taste or feeling. It remains unperturbed and detached under all circumstances. There is a story of a Brahmin who went to see the Buddha in order to provoke and anger him. 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 than even as he unleashed this torrent of nastiness the Buddha’s face remained clear and bright.
We can begin to grasp what it might be like to have a mind where greed and hatred are no longer active. This is because we know and see them. But of delusion most of us know very little. We cannot see it as we see with it. It is this total absence of delusion that truly set the Buddha’s mind apart. Greed and hatred would still have been operating had he not uprooted the Big Daddy of Dukkha that is delusion. The word ‘Buddha’ literally means the ‘One who Knows’. What did he know? He knew that all things of this world, of all conditioned existence, from the mountains, trees, and stones, to palaces, bricks and mortar, to every component of his mental and physical makeup, was, without exception, impermanent, unsatisfactory, and without self, soul or substance.
It is this comprehension of 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?You would see his body; yet in his state of knowing there would be no delusion that that body possessed, or was possessed by, a self. You would know that in his mind there would be feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness; yet in his state of knowing there would be no delusion that these mental factors possessed, or were possessed by, a self. What would his mind have been like? – I wonder. If any goal is worth pursuing it is this one: to be free of all notions of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’.
“The greatest happiness of all is to be rid of the conceit: ‘I am’.”
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. Entering the first jhana he quickly passed through to the second, the third, the fourth, all the way up to the ninth – which is the cessation of perception and feeling. It is said this final attainment is accessible only to the Non-returner and Arahant. It is the epitome of mental concentration. At this point 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. He then arose from that attainment and glided though the preceding eight back to the first, from where he again moved through to the fourth. He then 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. There are of course others but I think these are the most 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 even what it would be like to be in his presence. 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.

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.

Full Moon Day: There’s an Elephant Behind You

Kilesa

I’m not sure how it happened, but the Forest Hermitage’s email address has been sucked up by a local new-age group and so we now have the pleasure of receiving their e-newsletter. I glanced at the contents of one and quickly decided to condemn it and its successors for ever more to the spam bucket.

It was all right, I suppose. It was full of love, light and peace, maaan. (Plus a bit of sex.) And so it could have been a lot worse – talking about love, light and peace is not a bad thing, obviously.

But so often when people emphasize the good they ignore the bad. They pay no attention to the greed, hatred and delusion that is writhing beneath the surface of their minds. And of course this is not healthy, nor is it wise, because the bad needs to be addressed. For if it isn’t it will fester and grow and end up bursting through that positive veneer with little provocation.

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