holistic kindness, the mettā pāramī part 2

Image: Wikipedia. Seated Buddha, Gandhara, 1st-2nd century CE, at the Tokyo National Museum.

POSTCARD#421: Bangkok: Excerpts from Ajahn Sucitto’s “Pāramī, Ways to Cross Life’s Floods”. Click on the link for a download or print copy. We are coming to the end of the text, and I’d like to open up this series on The 10 Pāramī for discussion. Put your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post and I’ll try to reply immediately – please allow for time zone difference: Indochina Time, Bangkok (GMT+7hrs. EDT + 11hrs. PDT + 14 hrs.)

Cultivating a Boundless Mind

The way it works is that you see where development can occur and widen it from there. You keep expanding and deepening the sphere of kindness in all directions. This is because there are near misses. For example, there’s an altruism that seems like kindness, and may carry some of its features, but is mixed with the need to feel that one is being loving and useful to others. We impose a requirement on others that they benefit from our love. This is missionary kindness. It doesn’t always allow people to be the way they are; we want to convert the nasty into the loving and make the sick get well. Now mettā may indeed have such effects, but as a Dhamma practice it’s focused on intent rather than arrival at a specific state. So we don’t practise kindness in order to make others into our idea of what a nice person is. Instead, the practice is to cultivate a conscious field of kindness in which – as aspects of ourselves and others arise in our awareness – they will not be met with fear or negativity. Then we trust the removal of ill-will and self-view to have its effect.

Of course we can’t just bring kindness to others without having felt it in ourselves, which means that our limitations, fears, doubts and pains are an essential part of our fieldwork. So it’s useful to check whether we have mettā for ourselves, and when we lose it. Do we beat ourselves up and feel guilty when we make a mistake, are late, or don’t live up to others’ expectations? Do we feel shadow impressions hovering around us over things we have or haven’t done? Does our conceiving mind create an image of how great somebody else is and therefore how inferior we are? The learning point is that as long as we pick up on, and attach to, particular features as self or other, good or bad, we never arrive at holistic goodwill. With self-view, sooner or later someone’s going to be inferior and someone superior.

Instead, we have to connect goodwill to the experience of self and other as it happens; that is, how I feel about you in the moment. Then we bring the intention of goodwill to the uncertainty, or fear or irritation as we experience it. And we’re also prepared to be affected: we stay open to what’s happening for self and other, without having an answer as to who’s right and who’s wrong.

One of the nuns in the monastery was born and married in Cambodia. At the time of the Cambodian holocaust, her husband put her and the children on a plane, promising to follow them when he’d concluded some business. She never saw him again. She got busy with life in the U.S.A, not only raising three children, but also studying for and gaining a Masters’ degree. She had to, in order to keep her mind away from dwelling on the past. But all the time she could feel hatred for the Khmer Rouge (who had killed her husband) seething inside her. Eventually her intention to help the people of Cambodia rebuild their country brought her into confrontation with that ill-will. How could she bring around reconciliation, when she still hadn’t reconciled herself? Through a series of encounters, she learned about meditation, and started to clean her mind of its hatred. However the real test came when she had to go to Cambodia to meet and work with members of the Khmer Rouge, one of whose leaders was still advocating that the children should be taught to fight to cleanse their country of foreign influence. Looking straight in the eye of the leader of the faction that had destroyed her husband and a quarter of the population of her country, she asked him to pause, and then she asked forgiveness for the hatred that she had felt for him and his faction. She followed that with offering her forgiveness for the pain that they had caused. Some of the assembly wept, some embraced each other. A few remained aloof, but for many the process moved on.

So in working with others as with oneself, we have to go deeply into the mind. In the direct contemplation of what is arising — at the dividing line between what we’re comfortable with and what we’re not — simply note the flavour of consciousness. Is it contracted, defensive, anxious, demanding? Listen to the tones and the energies behind the topics that the mind brings up; tune in to the waves of irritation, fear, guilt, and so on; and extend empathy and non-aversion. It’s about not fighting, blocking or running. Holding our centre, we thus can soften the edginess of the mind. We can open to include the experience of ourselves and others in our awareness. This is the cultivation of the boundless mind; over time, it widens to include it all.

(Continued next week, 28 May 2021, Holistic Kindness, the Mettā Pāramī Part 3)

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