developing upekkhā in meditation

Image: Standing Nyorai Buddha (Tathāgata), Wood, H 166.7, Heian period 9th century Japan

POSTCARD#426: Bangkok: For those of you who’ve been following Ajahn Sucitto’s text, “Parami, Ways to Cross Life’s Floods”, I had intended to finish with a conclusion here but I discovered still a few more treasures that had to be included.

All the pāramī acquire their full power only when they are grounded in the intimate attention of meditation. Simply speaking, meditation practice develops equanimity in two ways. The first is by steadying the energy of mind. This comes around through calm, mental unification whereby the process of focusing the mind on one theme unifies, smoothes and strengthens its energy. When the mind puts aside external sense contact, and the agitation and fascination that accompany it, the mind’s energy settles and unifies with the energy of the body. Such a mind can then enjoy its own vitality and extend its awareness more widely without losing centre. This is samādhi; and as it deepens, the mind’s composure and ease refines and steadies, leaving clarity and equanimity. This is called developing ‘mind’ – referring to the energy that trembles or tightens, rises up or radiates, dependent on perceptions and feelings.

So in meditation we get to know the energetic aspect of mind, and through developing and purifying it we can rest in that element rather than in all the comings and goings. Then one’s mind remains equanimous: it isn’t pulled out, pushed in or shaken about by events. And accordingly, the mind settles on this elemental ground; in the midst of the world, it still feels whole, healthy and well.

The second way in which meditation practice develops equanimity is through the intelligent and insightful capacity of the mind. This is an aspect of wisdom (pannā) called nāna: a penetrative knowing that knows, ‘This is a thought, this is a feeling, this is a mood. This is liking, this is disliking. This is remembering, this is losing it.’ Such discernment can be trained to be equanimous and unbiased; whilst being touched by thoughts, sensations and mind states, it can be trained not to flinch, fudge, congratulate or blame.

The more we have the capacity to receive and reflect on experience, the more we see it as caused (and therefore subject to dissolution), changeable, and not belonging to anyone. This insightful focus (vipassanā) sees experience in terms of the three gates to the Deathless: desirelessness, signlessness and selflessness. In a way, they all come down to the same thing, a corrected view of how we normally mark or perceive things. Without this corrected view, we unconsciously label things in terms of their desirability, that is their agreeable or disagreeable character. And so we try to get the agreeable and get away from the disagreeable. But in meditation you discover that you can’t get or get away from what arises. The more you want to have peace and stillness, the more agitated and uptight you get. The more you try to get rid of the stupid and ugly mind-moments, the more persistently they assail you. After a while you discover that the only real option is to pay close attention and adopt on-looking equanimity. Then the hot stuff starts to boil off, and as the peaceful intention of equanimity spreads over the mind, a natural inner stillness can be realized.

Deepening into the Signless Mind

Insight furthers this development by penetrating the perceptual process that labels or ‘signs’ everything. Perception is the activity of recognizing an object as something that is known. It is the manager of the tiny mental memos that label things: ‘This is dreadful, this is humorous, this is a threat, this is fantastic,’ and so on. But when we recognize that what we experience is impermanent and changing, then we see that all memory labels are not true in a final and lasting way. In other words, the signing of things as being always this way or that way changes with our moods, our perspectives and the context in which we experience them. So things are desirable dependent on our desire, not innately in themselves. For example, lively music is great when you’re dancing, but terrible when you’re trying to get to sleep. To focus on the impermanent, moment-at-a-time nature of the experience may not get you to sleep straight away, but its equanimity will quell the restlessness and irritation. Insight shifts the signs – to the realization of signlessness.

Sometimes perception, the sign-maker, gets quite frantic: say, in a situation where there’s conflict and the sign-maker wants to designate right and wrong. Then the need to be something gives rise to a need to take a stand and hold a position. This in turn causes us to form strong views; we favour and condemn people as good guys or bad guys. (And of course, we also do this to ourselves). In terms of events in the world, there is always somebody you can lampoon or vilify: the tyrant of the moment or the corrupt minister of the year. And then there are the ones you can cheer, the white knights. Then the next year, it turns around, and the white knights have been found to be flawed by self-interest so they become the villains.

This is the story of politics isn’t it? How the Western powers can seem to be liberating other countries from their tyrannical regimes — and are then revealed as being motivated by economic self-interest. And, how our allies are discovered as indulging in the same kind of corruption as our enemies. We focus on the sign of the good and ignore the other signs, or we do the same with the sign of the bad. But when discernment is equanimous we recognize that perception is affected by self-interest: ‘My people, my religion as against those others.’ Insight reveals the bias of self.

I was given a lesson in signlessness and selflessness whilst attending a sky burial in Tibet. In a sky burial, a corpse is laid out on the ground and slashed open to attract the vultures — who then descend in a flock to devour the flesh. The bones are then smashed to powder and scattered. It’s grim enough when described in words … but in real life, when one sees two or three freshly dead bodies tossed off a cart, there’s a perceptual shock — because the mind ‘signs’ the bodies as ‘people asleep.’ Then when the butchers start slashing them as if they were cutting up a side of beef … and when within a few minutes a flock of eager birds completely covers the bodies in a heaving mass … and then within a few minutes they are gone leaving only a scattered heap of bones … the signs of ‘person,’ (someone’s father or mother), ‘human body,’ ‘meat’ and ‘bones’ flash through the mind with emotional intensity and disappear. All that’s left is a sober and empty clarity.

Then you look at your own body and those of people around you: old, young, male, female, fat, thin. And you say, ‘Who is this?’ In itself a body is neither something nor nothing. But it certainly isn’t ‘me’ or ‘mine.’ And when we recognize that an object is not what we label it as, the labelling stops; there is signlessness and non-identification with that object. This also has a profound effect on the mental agent of making signs, that scurrying inner secretary who’s always handing us the name, the opinion — the sign. Busy isn’t it? But when all signs are seen as relative, and when compulsive self-interest is laid aside, then the secretary can take a break. With the sign-maker on holiday, we can get a taste of deep peace. This is called ‘not-making-it-that’ (atammayatā), the realization of the source of the mind. There is no identification, even with the knowing which is the last hideout of self-view. There is no inner need to know and describe anything — and yet there is clear awareness. This is the ceasing of ‘name’ that is synonymous with full Awakening. Equanimity, framed by other perfections and applied to the mind’s reflexes in meditation, keeps releasing the preferences that form our world. When the mind completely lets go, this is atammayatā – the deepest layer of awareness where there is no labelling and no intention. The mind’s energy is untroubled, and its discernment is clear but not making any signs. Deliverance of mind (ceto-vimutti) and deliverance of wisdom (pannā-vimutti) have combined. There’s no trembling to respond to or ward off, and there are no ideas to hold on to. A more fundamental property, the ‘Nibbāna-element,’ is realized.

Evenness of Mind: Upekkhā Pāramī 2

There was the story of the Buddha-to-be sitting under the Bodhi tree and meeting, then repelling, the demons of Mara through calling the Earth to witness the vast store of perfections he had accumulated over past lives. Another description illustrates the part equanimity played in that. In this account (M. 36), the Buddha describes having three successive realizations:

1. His previous lives;

2. The nature of good, evil, and their consequences;

3. The ending of the biases and floods that cause suffering.

1. So first of all, with his mind ‘concentrated and attained to imperturbability,’ his focus widened to include a panorama of his many lives. How can we understand this? Imagine the one life that you can remember and contemplate the twists and turns of its drama: now exciting, now struggling, now a waste of time, now persevering, making  choices, feeling bad with a stroke of misfortune, and then feeling good with a lucky break … and so on. Can you do that without reacting, flinching or getting nostalgic? Can you stop the analyses and pondering, and get past being the victim or the star of the show? If you can keep going and witness all of it with equanimity, can you say this life is good or bad? Or isn’t it just what it is – and isn’t it a learning experience? That’s the first stage of wise equanimity. With that absence of final judgment the mind remains open, and the learning deepens.

2. The second realization of the Buddha-to-be was through the contemplation of all beings going through the ups and downs of their lives as he had done, and reaping the results of their actions. This was the realization of kamma – that any action, even mental, has consequences. This is the law of cause and effect. It is impersonal, and doesn’t apportion blame. The law of kamma says that acts, thoughts and speech lift you up to a bright state or drag you down to a dark state dependent on the ethical quality of the intention that initiates them. Intention chooses heaven, hell or somewhere in between – one moment at a time. And if you get past the reactions and the explanations, you get in touch with the mind’s intention. Then you can investigate and set the right course.

So the intention of equanimity creates an unbiased strength which gives you the chance to see more clearly. And to offer this strength to yourself or others is a precious gift. One time a friend of mine was cheating on his medical prescription and acquiring addictive drugs under false pretences. His wife knew of this and naturally was deeply concerned. But instead of criticising him, she just bided her time, and at the right moment coolly and caringly pointed out to him that what he was doing was going to bring him into deep trouble, in terms of a loss of self-respect, psychological wellbeing, and in terms of the law. But she made clear that the choice of action was up to him. Her unhurried tone and absence of drama and blame penetrated deeply, so with this encouragement to carefully consider cause and effect, he promptly changed his ways.

Equanimity then isn’t about being passive and not assessing actions. Instead, applied equanimity makes us feel less guilty, defensive and reactive. A natural sense of conscience can arise to guide us to what, in our heart of hearts, we know is right and makes sense. A heavy-handed approach merely closes the mind in defence, or sets off a counter reaction. On the other hand a passive approach, in which everything is okay and we suppress wise counsel and feedback, leaves us prey to our impulses and blind habits. The Buddha’s middle way takes in the knowledge of cause and effect while making intention, rather than self, the owner of action. So the Buddha’s teaching offers us calm and clear guidelines that respect our innate moral sense, rather than righteous rants that render us as infants with irredeemable corruptions.

3. However, it takes an unflinching and steady attention of ongoing equanimity to bear witness to all of our actions. So it’s a matter of unconditional self-acceptance: this is what you’ve been, and what you’ve done for good or for bad. No censoring, no justifications – just stay tuned in. Then the mind can operate outside of the continual enactments and parades of self-view. It deepens to see that what each of us experiences as ‘myself’ is actually the current of cause and effect, for good or bad. It is kamma, not blind destiny or a flawed self, that carries the mind along and creates a ‘personal’ history. The Buddha-to-be didn’t rest with that realization, but penetrated deeper. Giving up sorrow or elation about what he had now understood, his mind deepened to review the assumptions that support kamma: the seeking for happiness through gaining and getting rid of; the questing for security through acquiring a philosophical or religious view; the grip that holds the mind as an unchanging self; and the denial of not owning up to the day after day unsatisfactoriness of doing all this. As we have seen, these are the floods of sensuality, views, becoming and ignorance. As he penetrated past these biases, through seeing them for what they are, his mind released from all suffering and stress. This was the third realization.

Calling a fully-released person anything is a potentially confusing business, so he referred to himself as ‘Tathāgata’ (Gone Thus), although we generally use the easier word ‘Buddha’ (Awake; Fully-Knowing) as a designation. Not that he personally needed a title to take a stand on. He was pretty cool about  all that. For example, in the Brahmajāla Sutta (D.1) he advised the monks on how to respond when they hear others either disparaging the Buddha, or praising him. His comment was that whether the monks felt angry and displeased in the case of disparagement, or elated in the case of praise – ‘That would only be a hindrance for you.’ The correct response was simply to refer to the disparagement or the praise as either incorrect or well-grounded. There’s no need to defend or affirm a person; such an effort encourages views, identification and conflict. But it’s not as if there’s no assessment, and that it’s all the same; there definitely is assessment and a response. But the response comes from a mind that is equanimous around identity and allows discernment to speak clearly of actions and behaviour, not personality. Things are seen as ‘thus,’ ‘just so’; the ‘Gone Thus’ sees even truth as ‘thus’ without attachment. So equanimity is a deep humility that allows the mind to step out of adopting any identity, any view, any judgment. With evenness of mind the intentions of wisdom and relinquishment make the choice to abandon the cause of suffering, and kindness and compassion encourage others to do the same.

Evenness of Mind: Upekkhā Pāramī

Photo: Locana Buddha, Tang Dynasty, 7th Century, China

Ajahn Sucitto’s presentation of the Ten Perfections [Pāramī] is coming to the end. Next week we will conclude with the Buddha’s three successive realizations: his previous lives; the nature of good, evil, and their consequences; and the ending of the biases and floods that cause suffering. In this chapter we look at the structure and nature of Upekkhā [equanimity]; a situation of suffering, conflict in the mind, resolved by inclusion rather than trying to analyse further or bring it to an end by some other means.

It could seem like a disappointment to find that the last of the pāramī, the highest, the best as far as perfections go, is equanimity, evenness of mind – where the mind refrains from delight and sorrow, ups and downs. This may not sound all transcending, but as a practice it’s deep, attentive and full. And if you consider it in the light of what the mind normally does, and how it’s motivated to get to the pleasant and the exciting, and to get away from pain, blame and loss – then you’ll probably acknowledge that to establish equanimity takes some doing.

The mind receives input in terms of perceptions and feelings that register experience as pleasant or unpleasant — which is natural enough. But then an undeveloped mind adds mental activities and programs of craving, aversion and self-interest on top of that. These are the latent proliferating tendencies (anusaya) that are embedded in the mind’s awareness and that take form as the mind rises into its activities. With these, our heart-capacity and vision shrink. We lose touch with the good fortune we have and of how much worse it could be; we forget and lose empathy for the misfortune of others; and we edit out all the ugly, smelly, rough and tedious aspects of our lives.

So our comfort zone is only a percentage of what is actually going on. The other stuff is on the other side of the border where, as soon as we touch into it, there’s a twitchy reflex, because the mind just can’t be with that fear, pain or inadequacy. And this weakness gets ignored. Instead we tend towards a mind-set that imagines the best, wants the best, and wants to be a winner. That’s the message of the society. And anything that can’t fit those criteria is second-rate, and to be excluded. Society in general tends to exclude the poor, the illiterate and the incapable. So we reject them; then we fear them; so we reject them some more. And that same kind of exclusive mind-set also turns on ourselves. No one is ever good enough, and no one can be good enough when regarded from the perspective of that critical mind-set.

If the mind gets anxious or stressed to the point where we can’t sleep, then crazy moods or suicidal instincts start coming up. And when you think of people who are dying, losing control of their bodies or becoming senile (which is likely to happen to many of us), it’s a disturbing prospect. When loved ones are losing what we know of their minds, losing the ability to form sentences or getting panicky and angry, when you witness human beings falling apart — it isn’t so easy to be philosophical about it all. But it’s through these and like contexts, through feeling the feelings and letting them move through you, that you get a chance to develop and know the value of equanimity.

Even-Minded Empathy

Cultivating equanimity as self-acceptance is one of the ongoing themes of Dhamma practice. For example in meditation: when painful memories or ugly mind states come up, we pause, set aside how things should be, and let go of trying to analyse or fix the mind. In checking those reactions (without judging them) an even-minded empathy spreads over the mind. No need to struggle: ‘I can be with this.’

I like to define this process as having three stages: pay attention; meet what arises; and include it all. That is, feel the thoughts, feelings and emotions as they are; widen the focus to feel how they’re affecting the body; and let empathic attention rest over the whole of it. Don’t get busy, and don’t just wait for things to end – that isn’t a full inclusion. Instead, soften those attitudes and include it all. And let that process continue for whatever arises next. There will be a release – which might not be what you were expecting. However, through following that process, you begin to trust the effect of equanimous awareness. And that’s the real turning point. Because when you have the tools, you get eager to include your whole life as Dhamma practice. You want to see where you get itchy and defensive, and you’re on the look out for the tell-tale signs of fluster and contraction – because if you pay attention, widen, soften and include it all, the movement to Awakening continues.

As a perfection then, equanimity is an intention or ‘mental muscle’ rather than a feeling. It’s the big heart that can steadily hold feelings and perceptions in full awareness without getting rocked by them. And it strengthens into a mind state when it is supported by other pāramī. Equanimity allows a feeling to enter, be fully felt and pass. This is what makes it supremely useful: we don’t dismiss the world, but get a heart that’s big enough to embrace it. And with that there also comes the realization that the world — forms, feelings, perceptions, mental activities and even consciousness — is a passing thing that doesn’t own us. So there’s no need to run, and nothing to shut off. Equanimity then is the crucial firebreak that accompanies all the pāramī at that stage when resistance wells up. You know: the mind gets itchy about being patient, or mutters, ‘Why should I?’ about being generous, or whispers, ‘They don’t deserve it’ when cultivating mettā. With equanimity towards those floods, you don’t get caught and swept away by them. Instead this pāramī becomes your ground.

(Continued next week, 18 June 2021)

holistic kindness, metta part 4

POSTCARD#423: Bangkok: Excerpts from “Parami, Ways to Cross Life’s Floodsby Ajahn Sucitto. Click on the link for Wiki Bio Ajahn Sucitto

Ajahn helps us discover and overcome difficulties in confronting negative self-views when clearing the ways that lead to holistic kindness. Also called loving-kindness, it is mettā in Pali, maitrī in Sanskrit; and synonyms for benevolence, friendliness, amity, good will. With the support of other pāramī; Generosity, Morality, Renunciation, Patience, Truthfulness we can emerge from the negative overwhelm of self-view and experience this sense of grace, of receiving compassion that is greater and more boundless than any of one’s personal attributes or efforts – the divine (or sublime) abiding (brahmavihāra).

The ability to generate mettā depends on both willingness and capacity. These may be in short supply. Those who have experienced sustained abuse can find it very difficult to experience kindness for themselves or for others; those who have not had the secure presence of goodwill can be subject to the insecurity that leads to attachment to views and becoming. Our capacity can also be limited by how we’re being affected in the present. Although conditions are always changing, when the mind is affected by visitors such as fear, worry, guilt and passion, it easily becomes fixed in that state. If the visitor is anger, then the mind becomes bristling and volcanic. If the visitor is remorse or guilt, the mind becomes an eddy that chases itself and sinks down. So we need to develop strengths and skills to stop being overwhelmed by these fixating forces.

Hence there’s a requirement to develop pāramī. Generosity and morality are foundations for fellow-feeling. And with renunciation, we practise letting go of the sense of covetousness and selfishness, the ‘me, me, me’ attitude. That, too, is a basis for kindness. With renunciation, we start to let go of the need to be successful or the need for status, and look into the props we use to support our self-image and emotional well-being, which include material things, stimulation, busyness, status and praise. When we start to let go of some of those props, then we notice the blank patches in the mind, where there’s a raw need to be stimulated, and we notice the consequent restlessness. These blank patches

indicate where we must begin filling our emotional body with well-being. The first three perfections — generosity, morality and renunciation — make well-being possible because when one is generous and virtuous, there is self-respect. Because of that good kamma, we have emotional brightness in which the mind can extend itself to other beings in empathic rather than grasping ways. Hence we get fuller and richer in ourselves and can let go of a few more props. As the fear and the need disappear, discernment gets clearer, and we can see where we need to work. This means we begin to recognize where fearful, self-defensive boundaries occur in our lives. Beyond these boundaries we collapse or get incoherent, and in maintaining them we contract or get volcanic. But with the pāramī, we see what affects us at the edge of our sense of self, and then we find the energy to work into that sensitive place.

Extending the mind into sensitive places takes us into the turbulence that the boundary has been created to contain. Often there are emotions and energies that have been pushed aside or repressed, and they lie dormant in the field of  consciousness, for as long as we keep busy or can control what’s going on. But outside of that — when things go wrong, or somebody or something pushes our buttons, or when we meditate — old senses of being intruded on or pushed around or rejected can get activated. Then what arises are generally forms of fear, grief or rage. Somebody has invaded our space; we have been denied or pushed out of warmth. There are of course personal versions of these stories, but those are the basic messages of the turbulence out of which need and depression, anxiety and resentment boil up. And with these, the first intention is of patience, then truthfulness, plus the resolve of kindness. Hold the centre, soften, widen, include it all. Sustaining these intentions — no matter what — leads to the settling and crossing over.

Patience is essential because sometimes it can take a long time staying at the edges before things shift. Truthfulness is required to acknowledge: ‘This turbulence, this sense of intimidation is not him, her, them or me. It’s actually that affect and response.’ So it is: often in our lives we find ourselves going through the same emotional scenarios and the same wounded, ‘dumped on’ experiences — just with different characters doing the dumping or irritating. First you assume, ‘It’s him or her.’ Then you might think ‘It’s me, it’s my weakness.’ But is this really true? You can spend ages attributing causes anywhere you choose along the self-other boundary, but that doesn’t release the pain. Instead you need the resolve to stay with it, to get to the truth behind the self-view. As

you let go of all the discriminations and positions, your mind widens to include it all. This is where the latent tendency that is holding the self-other boundary gets released.

Great Heart

As a Dhamma practice, we sustain and deepen the intent of kindness, irrespective of the various identities and shadow forms that arise in awareness. That’s enough. We establish clear awareness and sustain kindness in the moment where impressions occur and where responses arise. It’s not about conjuring up any great feelings of emotional warmth, but a process of staying in touch, of not blaming oneself or others, and of not going into the past to rehash old issues. The ‘staying at’ that point of the hurt, ill will and pain then begins to carry the awareness across to compassion (karunā) and transpersonal wisdom. Karunā is the kindly eye on the helplessness of our suffering. When we experience this without blame or defence or struggle, compassion arises. And it arises irrespective of the identity or value of the wounded being. Compassion sweeps over judgments of others or ourselves. It knows how terrible it is for anything – even a mass murderer, tyrant, or poisonous snake – to be trapped in pain. When entering into this sphere of compassion, it is not a matter of doing anything, blaming or feeling sad about it, or wishing it were different. Instead, it is about entering that place where one touches the pain directly. Then, through staying in the hurt where the mind can’t do anything, has no remedies, ideas or

philosophies, it comes out of the position of ‘me.’ The small, localized state of mind opens out of the default self-and-other sense into the Great Heart. The non-doing of such a heart has powerful effects. Instead of trying to conjure it up (and feeling frustrated if ‘it doesn’t work,’ or ‘I’m not good enough’), we let the healing happen by itself. Then there is a sense of grace, of receiving compassion that is greater and more boundless than any of one’s personal attributes or efforts. Truly this is called a divine (or sublime) abiding (brahmavihāra). And through contemplating the selfless nature of

this abiding, the mind lets go — not only of ill-will, but also of the push of becoming and self-view. This is the shore of the Beyond.

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)

holistic kindness: mettā, the ninth pāramī

POSTCARD#420: Bangkok: Excerpts from Pāramī, Ways to Cross Life’s Floods” by Ajahn Sucitto. Click on the above link to download the file as pdf mobi or epub. Print copy also available by post.

Click on this link for the Karaniya Metta Sutta

Ajahn begins with mettā as loving-kindness that includes releasing others from being the objects of our projections, lust and idealism – self and other. Mettā allows others to not be the way I want them to be for me. Mettā means ‘recognizing otherness’. We don’t have to make people the same as ourselves or judge ourselves, based on what we think about other people.

It’s valuable to bring to mind that each of us has at some time been on the receiving end of freely given goodwill. So when you’re feeling bitter, anxious or lonely – remember this: at some time you have been seen with a loving and sympathetic eye.

The Mind of Self and Other

Mettā is an extension of the affective and responsive mind or heart. How crucial its alignment is! On the one hand, the mind can get trapped by fear, greed, hatred and delusion, and on the other hand it can extend in generosity and other perfections. The main issue for the mind is how it relates to what happens. Relationship is fundamental, because we are actually never a stand-alone being, but always a ‘being with’ or a ‘being in,’ or even a ‘being with the sense of being without.’

Consciousness is just this awareness of ‘being with’ in the various fields of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching and thinking. And in that process of being with, consciousness automatically establishes the sense of a subject and an object: a seer who sees a visible object, a hearer who hears an audible object, etc. Out of that duality, the sense of self and other arises. That’s the program of consciousness.

Notice that self and other are relative positions that depend on each other. You can’t have an experience of self without an other (animate or inanimate) that is in contrast to it. However for each mind, the emphasis is on the self; the ‘me, mine’ part is the crucial aspect in a world of changing others. Even in your own mind, there appears the self (the subject) as a watcher and the other (the object) as thoughts and emotions. Or the self is how you conceive yourself as being, and other is what you should be, might be, or were.

This is self-view, and it’s the norm for unawakened beings. Self-view rests on the assumption that these dependently-arisen polarities are actually separate and autonomous. It infers a self, despite the inability of that self to own or control the body or mind that it adopts as its own; despite its genetic and psychological inheritance from others; and despite its inability to rest unsupported by sights, sounds, affection and purposeful activity – all of which are outside its dominion. Self-view is blind to interdependency. Consequently, its flooding ignorance sweeps us into a sense of separation and alienation, whilst all the time asserting that this is our empire.

Accepting Otherness

In the practice of kindness, we look into the mind as it is happening, a moment at a time, with the intention to gentle it out of the hold of aversion, depression and anxiety. To support this, the teaching is that, although the sense of self-other happens by default, we can have some say over its emotional and energetic flavouring. Our current intention doesn’t need to be tense, inadequate and critical; it can be uplifted and uncramped. The sense of self-other can catalyse and give occasion for an intention to offer support. This intention is essential for a happy life, because if we don’t use the relational experience in a kind and generous way, then defensiveness, anxiety, fault-finding and grudges are going to haunt our lives and impair the lives of others.

Mettā is non-aversion, but it’s also non-fascination and non-projection. It releases others from being the objects of our projections, lust and idealism. It allows others to not be the way I want them to be for me. True love for another means that you don’t appropriate someone or project your unfulfilled wishes or needs onto them. Instead, mettā means recognizing otherness, and feeling that it’s OK. We don’t have to make people the same as ourselves or judge ourselves, based on what we think about other people. We don’t have to feel we have to win them over, or feel that they should satisfy our emotional hunger. And when mettā is fully developed it can allow us to be with the irritating and the unfair and the messy, so that such perceptions no longer even take hold.

It’s the same for ourselves: when we hold ourselves with the mind of goodwill, we don’t have to feel intimidated and compelled to prove ourselves. We have all been small, weak and stupid. We have all been totally irresponsible infants, awkward adolescents, made a mess of things, lied, cheated and maybe even killed. Yet we changed. These were all visitors and forces that occupied the mind. Now there’s no denying the responsibility for allowing one’s mind to be so occupied, but our current responsibility is one of cultivating virtue, discernment and kindness, not of obsessing and sustaining the burden of guilt and denial. And one of the major healing tools for this process is mettā. With this we take on samsāra with non-aversion and non-projection. We can accept the presence of the petty-mindedness, the guilt and anxiety as visitors conditioned into the mind, and work with them. Then there is nothing to hide from or dread anymore. This is a more useful approach than going through another round of anguish, self-hatred and defensiveness. By stilling these reactions, mettā enables us to penetrate to, and remove, the root cause of ill-will – often towards ourselves – underneath the complexes.

Start with Empathy

If you can regard this mind as it really is, you become compassionate. People’s minds are conditioned and formed around circumstances. You realize that people may not know much about kindness simply because they haven’t received much of it. Hurtful, abusive things may have been done or said to them; appreciation and warmth may have been in short supply. Consequently, such minds can have sour flavourings which attach to their sense of self and others, and which engender aversive or mistrustful responses. The default then is a distorted relational sense in which pleasure and personal security come from besting others, even through making fun of or scapegoating them. A boundary has been created which blocks empathy. And it doesn’t even feel bad at first: getting more than another, putting others down or taking revenge has the same sweet burst to it as a drug. That’s why it takes over.

But it doesn’t have to, all that’s needed is for someone to tell the truth about suffering and the note of empathy is struck: ‘You mean you feel like that too!’  Suddenly the conflict, the ‘you’re so different from me,’ falls away. No one has changed anything except the self-other line up, but in that moment of empathy there is a mutual deepening. The way out of ill-will is not through judging who’s right, but through finding common ground. Kindness, or non-aversion, begins with empathy, the sense that we’re all in this same samsāric ocean together, struggling in the floods.

(Continued next week 21 May 2021 with Holistic Kindness, the Mettā Pāramī) Part 2)

resolve, the eighth pāramī, part 3

Extracts from Parami, Ways to Cross Life’s Floods by Ajahn Sucitto. Ajahn continues with his studies of the Resolve Parami, a close analysis of the smallest mind moments in order to find the way leading to Nibbana.

POSTCARD#418: Bangkok: In monastic life, there is the Rains Retreat, a three-month period every year for more intense practice, and taking on a resolution is a customary part of that. Three months of keeping a resolution is a good effort because what sounds like an inspiring resolution on day one gets to be a tedious burden by day sixty. Therefore you have to bear with it, and this strengthens the power of witnessing the changes of mood and inclination.

During my first Rains Retreat in England, I considered that I was very fond of ideas and I always wanted to have bright and interesting things in my mind. So I determined a few things to work against that trend. Firstly I resolved not to read anything, because I was aware of how much time I’d spend casually reading stuff just to fill the holes in the day and keep the mind stimulated. When I put that habit aside, the hours began to yawn open. This was even more the case, as for this three-month period, I was refraining from conversation. On top of these, the other resolution was the ‘sitter’s practice,’ wherein one resolves not to lie down at any time during the three months. So there were many hours where there was nothing whatsoever to feed the mind, and no oblivion to sink into to get away from its poverty.

Also, because refraining from lying down lessens the amount of sleep you can get — which makes the mind dull and dreamy — a lot of the time I just had to sit and be with inconsequential ramblings of thought and weird daydreams and give up the attachment to bright mind states. I had to learn to hold and work with, and not shy away from, the inconclusive, dribbling, dreary mind. This meant staying with it and attending to it as if it were worthy of attention. This practice was very good for developing compassion.

Compassion is a wonderful idea when you read about it in a book. But meeting one’s personal dreary, muttering mind with an unflinching and tender heart is more demanding than experiencing compassion for the starving people of the world. When one thinks of the starving millions, that readily inspires compassion. But when you take away the worthy cause, you see that the nature of the mind is to need something to engage with. Then you feel what it’s like if there’s nothing interesting or worthwhile to do. The mind gets moody, bored and lifeless. And you have to learn to simply hold it, as you would a baby — holding it, rocking it, bearing with it, listening to it. This is great for strengthening and broadening the heart, building up tolerance, and letting go of conceit.

Of course one can also develop resolve with the wrong motivation — such as trying to prove oneself, or just to get through the tedium of a monastic day. I could sense that to develop the resolve to be with the raggedness, chaos and disorderliness of samsāra without conceit or irritation is in itself conducive to Nibbāna. To open to the woundedness and wackiness of my own kamma as well as that of other people – and to experience compassion rather than judgment – this was the opportunity to further the practice.

Resolve has to be developed wisely. It first strengthens the individual will and integrity, but then if you sustain that in relationship to others, resolve opens the mind into a broad field of wisdom and compassion. It penetrates the isolation of the watchful meditator and reveals what the watchfulness can cover: the rawness that says, ‘I want to be unmoved and not have to get involved.’ The watcher can be affected by the wish to not be here, which can provide a basis for self-view and bias. So although stillness is useful, it too is not to be clung to. Unless stillness furthers letting go, it doesn’t lead to final freedom — the freedom from the biases and standpoints of self-view.

Opening to Compassion

This understanding can really broaden our perspectives. We all want to be happy, and yet normally we get disappointed. This is because we imagine happiness to be a colorful emotion of gratification, but this is not as deeply meaningful and steady as compassion. Compassion is something we can all share, at any time, no matter whether we are up or down, or whether everybody else is up or down. We can all share in it. The happiness that derives from pleasure isn’t something we are designed for as human beings. We can experience little bits of it, maybe, but it’s sporadic. The uplifted attitude of compassion is more our measure. Compassion is the only way to hold the world.

It’s not that compassion is always about doing something. Rather, it’s the intention to replace the contraction and agitation we experience around pain with openness. Sometimes there are things we can do, sometimes there aren’t. But when we’re identified with action and responsibility, there’s a stress in the heart, and the sense of having to make things work. When we get it right in a holistic way — with regard to self and others, and towards Nibbāna — we can avoid the pitfall of getting stuck in trying to be good and dutiful.

In my own case, identifying with covering a lot of duties around the monastery makes me get functional, busy and intense. And that isn’t what people want from a Buddhist monk. (Continued next week 07 May 2021)

Image details: Seated Buddha, Gal Viharaya, Polonnawura, Sri Lanka 12th Century. Photo by Bernard Gagnon

resolve, the eighth pāramī, part 2

POSTCARD#417: Bangkok: Continuing our series of texts on the Parami Ways to Cross Life’s Floods, Ajahn Sucitto  describes the role Resolution plays in monastic life – the renunciate, living as a mendicant (dependent on other’s offerings). The Resolve required in having only one meal per day before noon. Resolve that carries the practitioner through the vortex of feelings to that emptying out of desire where there is stillness and peace.

Resolve, when it’s aligned to other perfections, helps us look at daily scenarios and mundane tasks in a more Enlightened way. For example, cleaning the floor doesn’t seem interesting, but taking on a task for the welfare of the situation as a whole helps to widen attention. And it activates giving, energy and patience. In general, Enlightenment begins as a shift of focus to a more ‘nonself’ view, and to long-term results rather than short-term moods.

Another example: in the monastery, when we refrain from eating in the evenings, we can reflect on this restraint as being for limiting our own appetite and also out of global concern. If one simply thinks, ‘I can’t have anything to eat tonight,’ then it becomes a problem. Yet when one considers the number of people who are starving or hungry, who don’t have enough to eat, one feels, ‘People are giving me enough food for a day, so yes, I can go without an evening meal,’ because one’s heart is touched.

The focus shifts as you consider, through resolve and wise reflection, the amount of food that is wasted by people eating more than they need; or all the animals that are needlessly slaughtered; or the land that is being ravaged. Then making a determination to limit that instinct feels appropriate. The resolve of renunciation serves to check the instinct in the mind that says, ‘I want this. It’s my right to have it, and I want it now.’ After all, in a shared world, where is that attitude going to take us?

There are also resolves to pick up and encourage a course of action. In my case, when I first came to the West from Thailand, I saw that the bhikkhu training in terms of renunciation, honesty, harmlessness and modesty was a good thing to have going in this confused world. It felt good to look at living in a way that would be for the welfare of others and how one could be part of a scenario that offered calm, attention and a quiet grace for whoever could benefit from them.

Resolutions align themselves to how one can intend for the welfare of other beings: this renunciate life is of value; it brings forth tenderness, strength and trust. And to be part of that is both an honour and a way to shift out of personal obsessiveness. It’s a small Enlightenment, a lightening of the burden of self importance, not some personal statement about how great and wise I am.

Applying Wisdom to Resolve

Mendicant life, in which one has little say over what material resources will come one’s way, automatically provides opportunities for meeting difficulties with resolution. For example, when I arrived here, I only had light-weight tropical robes and a pair of open-toed sandals. Soon it was wintertime, and it began snowing. Lay people gave boots to some of the monks, but not to me. I determined just to bear with the difficulties and not to ask for anything. I resolved to make it a principle not to seek out requisites, because I noticed how the mind whinged and complained, and I wanted to stand firm against that petty voice. It wasn’t my concern; giving was their business; mine was to receive what was offered and give up jealousy and complaining. So I made it a practice to be content with what was offered, with the resolve: ‘If it’s not offered then it is not needed.’

Arguably, to walk three miles on alms round through the snow, one did ‘need’ boots. But I didn’t have any, and so … I could use the opportunity to be here with that, witness what came up and let it all pass — and it wouldn’t kill me. Then the resolve would take me through the vortex of feelings to that emptying out of desire where there was stillness and peace. That felt really good and worthwhile. It was actually more useful than having the boots — because to find the way to the still point was what I was dedicated to, not to warm dry feet. Moreover, learning contentment made life easier and richer. After that, any room, any place to live, and any food was OK. I realized that the body and mind are adaptable, and that we can adapt. And that gave richness to ordinary life. It encourages one to look for opportunities for resolution. One can get over-zealous. I have determined some extreme practices in my life as a bhikkhu, but the most useful ones came through wise reflection on where my attachments lay.

(Continued next week 30 April 2021)

truthfulness, the seventh parami

POSTCARD#414: Bangkok: This pāramī highlights the capacity to be truthful, a quality that can be understood in two ways: truthfulness, as an aspect of morality and truthfulness as it refers to perception, the ability to see or know things in an undistorted way. To free the mind from distortion, tunnel vision or blind spots takes more than a moral sense. For this we need to examine the nature of our thoughts, attitudes and biases through introspection and meditation.

When we can find a stable abiding place in awareness, we begin to feel the pressure our preferences and expectations create – and how to get free of that. We can witness moods, feelings and impulses changing. That is their truth; and that is the truth of all conditions. We are not in their grip. They’re not me, not mine, not self. They arise and pass in awareness, and are what they are. We can act upon them or let them pass, with a clear understanding of consequences. So through being filled with the truth of awareness, one acts in terms of truthful behaviour. This full truthfulness, its brightness and peace, is what is meant by terms like ‘realization,’ ‘seeing things as they are,’ and ‘Awakening.’

Clear Awareness is Deep Honesty

Truthfulness as behaviour, and truthfulness as understanding and realization, are related. But so are dishonesty and confusion. We may find ourselves being dishonest simply because it’s more convenient that way, unaware of how our words and deeds affect others. So we adopt assumptions, in line with our preceding assumptions. Even if the assumptions are not based on truth, it seems as if they will fend off results that we fear. But what if there’s nothing to fear and you find that being straightforward and truthful gives you a quiet strength; and, that most people will respect and sympathize with your honesty?

As long as we don’t use truth, we let ignorance make us insecure and fearful. But there is the realization that the agent of events, of virtue and vice, is intention (or impulse) and perception, not self. And we can be aware of and investigate the feel of attraction, repulsion, defensiveness, and see they’re not fundamental states – they’re not self; they are as they are, and there’s no one behind them to defend or approve of.

So the real issue is not one of being affected, but of proliferating tendencies and assumptions of fear, irritation, lust or guilt; latent tendencies in how the programmed mind forms our experience. That voice in the brain or that surge in the heart is so familiar and habitual that it may seem like the real me. But what is it that witnesses it? Which is the ‘real me,’ the thought or the watchfulness? Maybe neither. No thought or mind state is there all the time, so how can any of them be a permanent aspect or possession? And if none of these can be possessed or under one’s control, what kind of possessor or controller lives in our mind? In truth, there’s not some self in charge of all this; nor do we seem to be able to be apart from this changing show. It all arises dependent on causes and conditions.

(continued next week 09 April 2021)

patience the sixth perfection part 3

POSTCARD#413: Bangkok: Join Ajahn Sucitto as he walks us through the various mind states arising from the application of Patience, the Sixth Perfection. Cultivating Patience “Encourages us to see that the unskilful or grasping energies the mind adopts can be borne with and released. And because we can let go of these impulses, we know there is an awareness that can come through the heat and pressure.”

The full text I have summarized here can be obtained from Amaravati Publications as a free download in PDF, Epub, or Mobi – a little over 200 pages. Also a print version can be sent to your address, also free of charge. Click on the link to get through to the book page: Pāramī Ways to Cross Life’s Floods

Building Patience Around One Point

At the core of our suffering is the place where we don’t want emotional pain. Our resistance leads to doubt and the feeling that we are useless. The mind creates either a self who is the victim or a self who is to blame. We blame others, we blame ourselves – we search for scapegoats to carry the pain. All this is caused by the mind resisting that painful feeling. And in this process, the mind loses the strength and clarity that would enable it to bear with and even let go of the feeling.

On the other hand, if we can find a place at the source of our suffering, where we can work and assemble our skills around this pain (rather than trying to find a way away from it), we can sense that the feeling has no intention; it has no aim to hurt us, it’s just doing what feeling does. Feeling feels. It’s not self; it has no aim, and belongs to no one. Why not let it go and keep the heart free from it? If we do that, even if the physical feeling remains, the mind can be serene. That which is painful, embarrassing or tedious can be used as a tool to purify and strengthen the mind.

To be patient one has to apply energy, the Fifth Perfection (viriya) – it’s not a passive response. Patience requires a courageous and full-hearted willingness to experience one’s mind and its reflexes. Resolve (adhitthāna) the Eighth Perfection strengthens the support structure – we need to be held by commitments. But as you may have noticed, things start out being attractive, interesting or inspiring, but eventually the wish will arise to change direction and get out of that commitment. But if you bear through the tides of feeling to get to a deeper source of wisdom, you begin to cross over your world.

When we cultivate patience within the floods, it encourages us to see that the unskilful or grasping energies, the desires that the mind adopts, can be borne with and released. And because we can let go of these impulses, we know that they aren’t the mind in and of itself; we know that there is an awareness that can come through the heat and pressure. But this realization depends on the patient fortitude to keep holding the mind steady so that it doesn’t adopt craving or aversion, fear or despair as a true thing. Which, even after a degree of realization, it will do. More patience! The reality of Dhamma practice is that, as much as we would like to be pure and free, we have to learn to develop patience with our attachments and passions, and our views and opinions about them. Then out of the crucible of these pāramī, deep compassion flows, and the mind broadens and opens so that its wisdom can penetrate.

Recognizing Patience Teachers

Living with other people, in families, relationships and communities, can be an occasion for developing patience. This is certainly the case in monastic communities: you’ve left your own space and following a discipline that operates independent of your wishes and moods; sometimes you’re in a foreign country, and living with people whose personalities you wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to live with.

During the yearly summer retreat period in the monastery, which we call the Rains Retreat, it’s customary for the samanas (monastics) to take on resolutions. One year, I decided to not allow my mind to complain about anyone or anything. So with this resolution, I had to develop patience: patience with what my mind could do noticing all kinds of inner struggles. ‘You can’t complain!’ said the voice of resolution in my mind. So instead I had to watch the irritation.

Just putting up with it didn’t really take me across the floods. I could put up with things and become a patronizing old grump who puts up with things. But instead, as the practice of patience deepened, it took me to that point in the mind where I could feel the chafing, the tension, the disappointment – and the wanting to get away from it. At that point, where there was no excuse and no alternative, there was also no condemnation. After all, no one likes suffering. And we’re all in this together – wanting peace and harmony, but disappointing and irritating each other nonetheless.

And from there, my mind began to open into love and compassion for all of us. It shouldn’t be like this, but it is – and we have to support each other. I could realize, ‘There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re my patience teachers; they’re helping me to cross over the flood by getting me to jettison my demands, impatience and narrow-mindedness.’

(continued next week 02 April 2021)