We are not currently meeting 'in-person'

We are not currently meeting 'in-person.'
I have made the difficult decision to stop holding our in-person Sunday night meetings - you can read more about this in my post here. I will be continuing to post weekly content here and in our newsletter. Do remember to sign up for the 'Metta Letter' newsletter below as I will be sending out weekly meditations there.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Squirrel Part 1

Squirrel Part 1

You will probably have noticed that this letter bears the suffix 'Part 1,' and as such you are probably expecting that there will be - at least - a Part 2 to follow. And you would be correct. As I was doing some background reading for this letter I realized that there were several points I wanted to cover, and that to do them justice I would be best separating them out. And so we have the first two-part Metta Letter. My goal is to cover the rest of the subject in hand next week. And the rules of dramatic tension say that I should end this letter on some kind of a cliff-hanger. Let's see how I do.

This week I have been reading the Bhumija Sutta, or the Sutta To Bhumija. This is quite a well-known sutta where the Buddha gives some instruction to the monk Bhumija on right view. In the process of doing this he uses some powerful similes on what it is like to act without right view, and how that contrasts with the same actions with right view. These similes are often quoted, which is why the sutta may be familiar to you. I will cover these similes and their lesson next week.

For this letter, however, I am going to take a quick look at the context that the teaching was given in. Now this is something I like to do, to try and understand as best I can the overall picture of what is being described. When I was a kid at Sunday School one of my teachers suggested that when looking at a Bible story you should imagine how you would turn it into a play. That way, he argued, you have to understand the full context of what is going on and not just focus on the familiar bits. Now, I am quite sure he would not have approved of me using his advice to better understand Buddhist suttas, but none the less I find it is a very powerful way to approach them.

Let me start by quoting the first line of the sutta:

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Rajagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrels' Sanctuary.

Now, if you are like me, you will now take fifteen minutes to process the concept of a 'Squirrel Sanctuary.'

While I am sure that this is an artifact of translation, and it really just means the part of the Bamboo Grove where the squirrels liked to hang out, I'm going all in on the notion of a squirrel sanctuary. My play will definitely have some stuffed animals and friendly signs saying 'you are safe here,' and squirrels happily limping about with their legs in casts. If it's a movie, then surely some really cute CGI squirrels caring for each other while listening to the words of the Buddha are appropriate.

Anyway, I digress, and much as I love the idea of a squirrel chorus they probably don't add much to the context here. Or maybe they do, if you have ideas let me know.

The context that is important however is the background to why the Buddha gave his teaching to Bhumija in the first place.

The Venerable Bhumija, we are told, was a monk studying with the Buddha. One day he went out to Prince Jayasena's palace to meet with him (it is possible that Bhumija was Prince Jayasena's uncle). Prince Jayasena had been given some teaching by some Brahmans, and was somewhat confused by it. So, he asked for Bhumija's advice:

Master Bhumija, there are some brahmans & contemplatives who espouse this teaching, espouse this view: 'If one follows the holy life, even when having made a wish for results, one is incapable of obtaining results. If one follows the holy life even when having made no wish, one is incapable of obtaining results. If one follows the holy life even when both having made a wish and having made no wish, one is incapable of obtaining results. If one follows the holy life even when neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, one is incapable of obtaining results.' With regard to that, what does Master Bhumija's teacher say, what is his view, what does he declare?

What the prince had been told was that regardless of whether one has a desire for results from a spiritual practice or not, there is no way to actually achieve anything. I am sure that the teachers who told him this were a bundle of fun and joy. Interestingly the prince doesn't ask Bhumija for his view on this, but instead asks what his teacher (the Buddha) would say about it.

Now I love Bhumija's reply. In reality he does not know exactly what the Buddha would reply, and rather than just make a guess or mislead, he answers in the most honest way possible. He says (i) that he hasn't heard the Buddha speak on this particular subject, but that (ii) based on his own understanding of the Buddha's teaching this is what the response might be.

I haven't heard this face to face with the Blessed One, prince, I haven't received this face to face with the Blessed One, but there is the possibility that the Blessed One would answer in this way: 'If one follows the holy life inappropriately, even when having made a wish for results, one is incapable of obtaining results. If one follows the holy life inappropriately, even when having made no wish... both having made a wish and having made no wish... neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, one is incapable of obtaining results. But if one follows the holy life appropriately, even when having made a wish, one is capable of obtaining results. If one follows the holy life appropriately, even when having made no wish... both having made a wish and having made no wish... neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, one is capable of obtaining results.' I haven't heard this face to face with the Blessed One, I haven't received this face to face with the Blessed One, but there is the possibility that the Blessed One would answer in this way.

To me this is an incredibly honest and humble reply. He does his best to provide an answer to the philosophical question without claiming to speak to matters he doesn't fully understand, while still being helpful to the prince in his own search.

I find there is much to learn from Bhumija's approach here, and specifically in his openness when things were outside of his direct experience. I think that many of us sometimes have a bit of a 'fake it till you make it' approach - I know I do - and while there are times that is good, we need to be careful not to claim authority when we have no right to do so. Unfortunately our society often values certainty over truth, when sometimes some good, honest, uncertainty - like Bhumija's - is what is most helpful. Never be afraid to admit to uncertainty.

Which brings us to the big question: was Bhumija's answer correct? Well, you will have to wait until next week's letter to find out...

Metta, Chris.

P.S. I'm not very good at this dramatic tension thing. You can of course read the whole sutta yourself for the details, but what Bhumija said was correct, and the Buddha endorses Bhumija's answer. What the Buddha then says is a vivid clarification of what leading a holy life 'inappropriately' and 'appropriately' really mean. I will cover this next week.

P.P.S. I am still giggling about the squirrels.

P.P.P.S. I have linked below a fully guided thirty minute meditation on right view, feel free to use it in whichever way helps you in your practice.

 

 

"Bhumija Sutta: To Bhumija" (MN 126), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition)
, 30 November 2013,
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.126.than.html .

 

Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash










Sunday, July 31, 2022

Mind-Ass Connection

Mind-Ass Connection

I am not much of a dancer.

Actually, let me start that again. In the history of lousy dancers, I am by far the most lousy. I dream of being good enough to be described as having two left feet. Whatever sequences in DNA are responsible for groove - well I am missing them all.

Now that doesn't mean that I dislike dance - far from it. I love watching people dance and of course enjoy all forms of music. It's just that when I am with a group of people dancing I will be stood off to the side, feet planted firmly on the ground, gently swaying to some other beat.

On Friday I had the joy of seeing the funk legend George Clinton in concert. Now George is 81 years old and still far more in the groove than I was in my 20s. That said, like all smart elder statesmen of music he has surrounded himself with a group of young, extremely talented musicians, and they did all the heavy-lifting. But make no mistake, all of the hard-dancing audience (and the fringe of older swayers like me) were there to see George. And what a wonderful, joyful occasion it was.

George Clinton is known as a psychedelic philosopher, and one of his most famous quotes (and the title of one of his albums) is "Free your mind, and your ass will follow."

Now, when he said that he was thinking more of chemical freeing, but as I was swaying to the music Friday night it reminded me of my root teacher, Ruth Denison. Ruth was a force of nature, and came to meditation with a background in dance. Throughout her teaching she emphasized the importance of working with our bodies as we work on our meditation. Sometimes we can think of meditation as a purely cerebral thing, all happening 'in our head,' but she would warn against this dualistic approach and instead encourage an awareness of both what is happening in our minds and in our bodies. One analogy she used to use was that before embarking on a meditation practice most people were just 'minds on sticks' - with no integration or awareness of their bodies. When interviewed about her own path she said:

The longer I taught, the more I realized the difficulties that the meditators displayed in their meditation; they did not have the cultural and religious background for the ability to simply sit and pay attention to their own living process, body-mind sensations. In focusing so intently on the breath and body parts for long periods of time, people would try too hard.

So I expand the selection of body sensations to keep the meditators engaged, and to foster softness and gentleness within themselves. I experiment with the application of mindfulness to body, breath and sensations in body positions other than just sitting. What evolves is meditation while standing, walking, running, jumping, lying down, rolling on the grass meditation in the entire scope of body's mobility and expression, in yoga ásanas, in dance and laughing, in sound, touch, taste, sight or imitation motions such as crawling like a worm, etc.

But let me stress that what I do is strictly within the prescribed bounds of Buddha's teachings using the body and its sensations as a vehicle for mindfulness training, for developing awareness for clear comprehension of the present moment, of correct understanding of life's living and dying.
I'm not sure she would have appreciated the analogy (though she might have, she did have a wicked sense of humor), but in some ways what she was teaching was "Free your ass, and your mind will follow."

However you want to think of it, it is important that we don't let our practice become a purely intellectual, cerebral exercise. We are not just freeing our mind but our whole being, including our body. Our awareness, our presence, should be complete.

Unfortunately though it hasn't improved my dancing skills.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on 'whole body breathing,' a breath meditation that encourages our awareness of our whole body. Feel free to use it in any way which helps you with your practice.



Photo: George Clinton (in sailor hat) with Parliament-Funkadelic at Pioneer Square, Portland, July 29th 2022




Sunday, July 24, 2022

Like Butter

Like Butter

Note: There isn't an audio meditation linked to this letter. There was going to be, but I chose not to post one - all of which I will explain later. So there are two parts to this - the message I wanted to discuss, and then a short discussion on my decision not to link the audio. I hope that this "Metta Letter" doesn't become too "meta!"

Earlier this week I was in New York City attending a conference. Like many parts of the country - and the world - at the moment, NYC has been experiencing some high temperatures and the highs were around 100° - not that unusual for the city in the summer but still quite oppressive when combined with the humidity (and the occasional thunderstorms). After the short walk from my hotel to the conference center I was a completely melted blob, and even in the highly air-conditioned conference center it took me at least an hour for my core temperature to return to normal.

Back here in the Pacific Northwest it looks like we are heading for similar weather this week, the summer having finally arrived with a vengeance. This could be a good week to stay in cool places if you can, and for all of us to reflect on the collective foolishness that is driving some of the extreme temperatures we are seeing around the world.

But - back in the conference center - this week I reflected on a common simile that is used when teaching meditation. Rather than trying to struggle in meditation we are told to be like a block of butter in the sun, allowing the sun to melt us. Rather than resisting we can instead be accepting of the environment we are in - hot or cold, noisy or quiet - and be present with that. This isn't a negative passivity but an integration as the butter and the sun become part of the same process.

The simile of melting butter in meditation has also been used as a healing visualization. The Eighteenth Century Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku tells a story of when he was severely ill, and sought out the advice of a Hermit called Master Hakuyu. Master Hakuyu taught Hakuin the following visualization meditation:

Imagine that a lump of soft butter, pure in colour and fra­grance and the size and shape of a duck egg, is suddenly placed on the top of your head. As it begins to slowly melt, it imparts an exquisite sensation, moistening and saturating your head within and without. It continues to ooze down, moistening your shoul­ders, elbows, and chest; permeating lungs, diaphragm, liver, stomach, and bowels; moving down the spine through the hips, pelvis, and buttocks.

You can read the full instruction here, but I am sure that many of you will recognize this as a twist on body awareness meditation. I have found that the vivid imagery of the melting butter is a powerful alternative to the simple 'body scan' meditations we often do.

So, as we head into the hotter weather this week I would like to first encourage you to stay safe and look after yourself (water is good medicine!) and also to use the image of melting butter as an encouragement in your practice.

Metta, Chris.

P.S. So, as a postscript to this I would like to mention why there is no audio recording for this week's letter. I know many of you like to follow along with the recordings. As I was planning this letter I recalled that several years ago I lead a meditation on melting butter, and sure enough I found the recording from 2015. I started to edit it as I usually do. The recordings usually need quite a bit of cleaning up, and as I did so I realized that I had extensively quoted from a well-known modern Tibetan teacher that I have read quite a bit of, where he eloquently describes meditating while visualizing melting butter. Unfortunately since that time it has become public that there are many credible and disturbing allegations of abuse by the teacher. Now, while what he wrote is still highly relevant it has become hard to separate that from his behavior. Now I know that none of us are without darker parts in our life (I'm certainly not), and while it is possible sometimes to separate someone's work from their behavior (I still listen to Wagner), in this case I felt it was disrespectful to the victims and it took away the authority of his words. This wasn't an easy decision and I went back and forth on it, but eventually decided to completely scrap the recording. I also decided that rather than just replacing it with another I would share my thought process with you. I know this is a complex subject and that sadly Buddhism has had it's fair share of these issues (in short, wherever there is a power dynamic someone will abuse it), but hopefully you will at least understand my decision here. I'll leave the last words to Jill Sobule: "Why are all our heroes so imperfect?"













Sunday, July 17, 2022

Skillful Acts

 

Skillful Acts

This week there has been a lot of chatter in the news about a TikTok phenomenon that has gone somewhat sour. There are several influential young TikTok creators who have devoted themselves to performing 'random acts of kindness' on their channels, and sharing video of them doing so in order to inspire others to do the same. The 'random acts' range from giving strangers compliments, flowers, money or even more substantial gifts. Some of the channels have millions of followers, who are enthralled by all of these acts. Sounds very positive, what could be wrong with doing nice things for people and encouraging others to do the same?

Well, the problem here of course is that for some of these it's not just about the kindness, it's about the clicks. The goal often isn't to do something nice but to get good footage to engage your followers. And many of the recipients of the kindness don't like being used in this way, and can feel ambushed and dehumanized in the process. They may receive an unexpected (and possibly unwanted) bunch of flowers, but their likeness and reaction is then used for the benefit of the content creator. This has lead to much discussion on the ethics of these so-called 'random acts of kindness.'

As I was reading all of the discussions on this many things arose in my mind, a couple of which I will share with you here. Turning intentions of kindness into action is remarkably hard, and it is so easy for things to go wrong.

One of the first things I thought of was the well-known example of when the late chef Anthony Bourdain was filming in Haiti. He and his crew had stopped to film at a roadside soup stall, and after filming him trying the food he recognized that they were a bunch of rich Americans eating while a group of young kids were starving around them. So they paid for the whole of the day's food at the stall and allowed the children to have some free food.

Which all sounds wonderful and noble, but it soon got quite ugly. Bigger kids, who were equally starving, arrived and pushed away the younger ones, and then came the adults, who were also starving, and very soon the 'act of kindness' turned into a full blown riot with violence and people getting beaten. You can hear Anthony Bourdain reflecting on this experience here - it is worth listening to as it shows how a well-intentioned act can have very negative results.

 A number of years ago I attended a weekend retreat with Sharon Salzberg and she shared a teaching that was very helpful for me, and I hope it will be helpful for you too. It speaks to exactly these issues and gives us a bit of a roadmap for how to navigate the tricky issue of how to turn Metta - lovingkindness or goodwill - into action. And - I want to be clear on this point - action is important. It isn't enough to just have warm and fuzzy feelings for people. If we are truly filled with Metta we will be drawn to somehow reducing the suffering of others. And that is tricky, which is why I found Sharon Salzberg's teaching so powerful.

She encourages us to think about action as having three parts - intention, execution and outcome.

Starting with intention, our actions should start from a place of love and compassion, of a genuine desire to bring joy to or alleviate the suffering of the other person. While it is not for me to judge the motivations of the TikTok creators, there is clearly a possibility for an impure motive, that the desire for clicks, likes and monetization is the true driver rather than the desire to actually bring joy. In Anthony Bourdain's case it feels like the motivation was truly one of compassion for the starving kids (it is possible that it was from pity, the near-enemy of compassion). On the surface at least it seems like the intention was positive. So what went wrong?

The second part of outcome is execution, and this is where things get interesting. We are taught that we should actually perform acts with skill (kusala) - and to use our best skill. Part of this skill is having the wisdom to know whether we have sufficient skill. It is possible to have the most compassionate and noble of intentions, but to perform the action without the necessary skill. This is what happened in Haiti, he didn't understand the dynamic, that the depth of starvation around him meant that the well-intentioned act would have seriously negative consequences. With 20-20 hindsight it can be seen that this wasn't a skillful act, though I am not at all sure that if I were in the same position I would have been able to predict the outcome either.

Which brings us to the third part of taking action - the outcome. The first two parts are within our control. We can examine our intentions and motivations, and question their purity to better ensure that our actions stem from a root of love and compassion. Having done that we can develop and work on our skills, and be sure that when we take action we are using our 'best skills,' and that we have the wisdom to know when our own skills are lacking. The third aspect, the outcome, is however outside of our control. We can never know fully the complexity of what is going on for the other person, where they are in themselves and how they are feeling. Sharon Salzberg teaches us that if we have examined our intentions, and acted with our best skill, then we have to let go of any attachment to the outcome. It needs to be a true gift - one where we attach no control or even desire as to how the gift will be used.

I find that viewing compassionate action in this way, with these three simple steps, is extremely useful and also explains why sometimes things go wrong. I hope that it is useful to you too.

Metta, Chris.

P.S. I would like to thank all of you for your patience over the last few weeks as I was away for a number of reasons. And special thanks for those of you who wished me well for the vacation part of my absence - yes I had a wonderful, relaxing time in CDMX and came back refreshed!

P.P.S. I have written before about how Wisdom and Compassion go hand in hand, and the above is an example of how important it is to develop both. I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation on the Bell and the Dorje, and how they can remind us to cultivate both compassion and wisdom together.


 

 

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Father's Day, Redux

 Father's Day, Redux

 
I'd like to wish all of you who are Fathers out there a happy Father's Day - I hope that the day has been one of relaxation and joy.

Last year I wrote a short piece on both the joy and dangers of how we celebrate Father's Day (and Mother's Day). I have reproduced it here below as I feel it is still very relevant, no matter who you are and whether or not you have children.

I also wanted to let you know that I will be taking a few-week break from sending out these messages as I will be traveling. I am planning that my next 'Metta Letter' will be sent out the weekend of the 19th of July. Just a reminder that if you would like to read more of these in the meantime then we keep an archive of all the essays on our website. Also, you can find all of the fully-guided audio meditations on my Soundcloud account.
 
I do have some interesting topics in mind for future letters, including understanding the teachings to householders that I mentioned the other month. As part of that I hope to be exploring the question "Would The Buddha play chess?" Some of you may already know the answer to that one (spoiler: No he wouldn't), but what we should take away from that is a little more complex and nuanced. This is an area that is fascinating to me at the moment.

Thanks to all of you for your continued readership, it really means a lot to me.

Metta, Chris.

Father's Day


This Sunday is Father's day, a day I look forward to for several reasons - it's a day I get to spend with my family and also one on which I fondly remember my own father.

But - and this is a big but - Father's Day is a day where we need to be careful. Unfortunately nowadays, like all holidays and celebrations, the day has been commercialized and idealized. The commercialization is obvious - that it is yet another compelling reason to buy stuff now! - but the idealization is probably the more sinister aspect of it.

What I mean by idealization is that the media and advertising around us tout one, single 'right' way to think about your relationship with your father (of with your children if you are a father). That there is an ideal we should all assume. That there is one and only one way to celebrate - usually by giving your smiling, loving father an expensive piece of electronics or a new grill. What the fluff news pieces and advertising don't acknowledge is the complex and highly individual nature of our relationships with everyone, especially our closest family. Of course this isn't only true of the idealization of our relationship with our father - in many ways the idealization of Mother's Day is even worse. Freud would have a field day with modern advertising copy!

While everyone biologically has a father, not everyone has known him. For those that have known or do know their father the relationship may have been wonderful, painful, traumatic, distant, loving, or - very often - a complex mix of those things.

The important thing here is that all of our relationships are deeply complex and personal. When we use broad brushes to define them, or when we make assumptions about how they 'should' be we can marginalize, alienate and hurt those whose experience doesn't match the prescribed standard.

In our metta (lovingkindness, goodwill) meditation we learn to practice meeting people where they are - not with assumptions about how they should be but where they actually are right now. If we approach someone who is suffering then we generate compassion. If we meet someone who is joyful we share in their joy. And we have the wisdom and equanimity to understand that this is how the world is, that people experience both suffering and joy, and that all these things are impermanent.

So I would encourage you as we celebrate the holiday to recognize the richness and complexity of our relationships. If your own experience with your father includes painful elements have compassion for your self. Don't assume those around you have cookie-cutter relationships with their close family, and be prepared to meet them with joy, compassion and equanimity.

Metta, Chris.

Below you will find a fully guided audio meditation following on from the above ideas of generating metta for the people you will meet - wherever they are.