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.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Plans

Plans

It was my plan to send out this letter on Sunday. I had a great theme in mind, and the time to write it - but...

Well you know. As the famous first line of Burns' poem goes:

The best laid plans of mice and men...

Only it doesn't. It's actually not the first line - it's right in the middle of his poem 'To A Mouse,' and the actual words are:

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men

OK, so not so far off. And of course we all know the next line, don't we? Don't we? It's a favorite pub-quiz question after all. And it's on the tip of your tongue... I'll give you the actual next line later in this letter.

But back to the subject in hand. Plans. Or my lack of discipline in executing my plan. Truth be told, I empathize with the great author Douglas Adams when he observed:

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

So here I am on a Wednesday morning, writing what should have been (and could have been) written on Sunday - and writing it just before I have to head out to the airport to get on a plane.

There's a great TED talk by Tim Urban called "Inside the mind of a master procrastinator." It's a really funny and insightful talk, and I highly recommend watching it. I am going to spoil it a bit by telling you the main points of the talk: firstly, that we tend to put things off until a big enough, scary enough deadline (such as a flight out the country) comes up; and secondly that some things never get done because there doesn't seem to be a deadline. But, as he points out, our true deadline for all these things is our death - we just aren't acknowledging this. His cure for procrastination? Awareness of our mortality. Sound familiar?

When we think about plans we need to separate the effort to work on our plans an the outcome of that effort. The effort is within our control, we can choose how much or how little we put in to the endeavor. The outcome, however, is not within our control, and we need to learn how to let go of attachment to outcome.

For example, as I travel today I can put in the effort to do my part - to be at the airport at the right time, with the right documents and with a positive attitude. The actual outcome - whether the flights run on time or if the journey is chaotic - these things are outside my control. I need to put in the effort, but not be attached to the outcome. That is the key to sane travel.

So, as the great poet Burns wrote:

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,

You knew that, didn't you?

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully-guided meditation on why there aren't 'Merit Badges' to achieve in Metta Meditation. Feel free to use it in any way that helps you in your practice.




Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash







Sunday, September 11, 2022

Sonder

Sonder

In a previous job I used to travel a lot, taking an flight somewhere most weeks. It was fun for a while but got old fairly quickly - especially when I was going back to the same locations over and over again. But there were some times that were special - like the time when I got to see the same sunset twice in Cincinatti (I saw it first when on the plane waiting to take off, then once more after the plane was in the air), or the times when I got to see a 'glory' (circular rainbow) in the clouds beneath us, with the shadow of the plane perfectly distinct within it.

One of the beautiful feelings I often got was seeing the lines and lines of city lights when leaving or approaching a city at night. It was most pronounced when flying over the suburbs of Los Angeles, where the seemingly endless grids of yellow lights stretch out for as far as the eye can see and it is difficult not to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of humanity that is out there. It's a strange feeling that is both melancholic and affirming. There really is no good word for it. Or is there?

I am currently reading "The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows," a book by John Koenig. It is laid out, as the title might suggest, as a dictionary and consists of made-up words to describe emotions that the author feels we don't yet have good words for in English. Now, the linguists among you will point out that all words are made up, and that I should be using the description 'neologisms,' but I think that 'made-up' is closer to the case here. These are words that one man has made up to fill a very specific need - he struggled writing poetry because he could not find the right words to express his emotions, so he started making up words to fit. This became a website and a YouTube Channel and finally the book I am reading.

There are several words that he coined that have become popular, and which people have started using more broadly. One of these is the word sonder, that has been used as the title of a video game, a mental health start-up, more than one music album and even a bike brand. It clearly has resonance with a lot of people. Koenig beautifully defines the meaning of 'sonder' as:

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
When I flew over the miles and miles of lights over LA, part of the complex feelings I was having was 'sonder' - the realization that there were millions of people below me, each one living out their own life, their own story unfolding.

In our Metta practice we run through four specific people and practice feeling lovingkindness and goodwill. The four people are: our self; a friend; a 'neutral' (hardly known) person, and; an 'enemy.' It is tempting sometimes to think of them ranging from 'easy' to 'hard,' but it doesn't take long before we realize that this is far from the case. Sometimes it is hard to feel positively to ourselves, sometimes the well-known flaws of the friend stand out, and sometimes it is hard to identify with the neutral person.

I have written before about how the neutral person can be the key to true unconditional lovingkindness. We have to be able to say that our feelings for them would not change if we were to learn more about them. As I often say with the neutral person we have to come to a place where our goodwill towards them would not change if we discovered that they worked selflessly to help the needy, or if they had a confederate flag on their truck, or both. Our lovingkindness to them would be the same.

This is where I find the concept of sonder to be helpful. Recognizing that the people we know nothing about are - just like us -playing out their own stories, with their own struggles, failures and successes. This is the antidote to tribalism and a key to opening up our hearts to all people.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation where we focus on the Neutral Person - you are free to use it in whatever way helps you in your practice. If you have never practiced Metta Bhavana before, or if you need a refresher, this might be a good place to start.



Photo by Benni Talent on Unsplash




Sunday, August 28, 2022

Tick, Tick...


Tick, Tick...

Last night I saw a local theater production of Jonathan Larson's "Tick, Tick... Boom!". This is a short, semi-autobiograpical musical where Larson explores the feelings of 'Jon,' an as-yet unsuccessful composer of musical theater just about to turn thirty. If you are unfamiliar with the piece then I can highly recommend the recent movie adaptation (available on Netflix). As you can imagine the piece goes through the artist's conflict of being dedicated to creating his art, while at the same time fearing that his work is futile, having reached the dreaded age of thirty without success.

In theater and writing there is a concept of dramatic irony, which according to Wictionary can be defined as "A theatrical effect in which the true meaning of a situation, or some incongruity in the plot, is understood by the audience, but not by the characters in the play." In the case of Tick, Tick... Boom! we have an extra level of dramatic irony, as the audience today knows two extra pieces of information that even the writer did not - namely that:

  1. Larson was to go on a few years later to write Rent, one of the most successful and influential Broadway shows ever - one that redefined musical theater for the next twenty years; and
  2. Tragically, Larson was to die suddenly the day of the first preview of Rent Off-Broadway. He never got to see it reach Broadway or know of its huge success.

This extra information makes the whole of Tick, Tick... Boom! even more poignant and moving, as we know that part of the protagonist's anxiety (whether he could create great, successful art) was unfounded, while the other side - his fear of his mortality and time slipping away - was not.

In our culture we don't like to face our mortality head-on - somehow we feel that it is an unsavory topic or worse that it is morbid and even unlucky. But ignoring our mortality is foolishness. I have no way to know, but I do wonder if Larson's awareness of his mortality spurred him on to stick with his art and to achieve the towering success that was Rent - even though he was never to see it.

In the Bhaddekaratta Sutta (An Auspicious Day), The Buddha tells us:

You shouldn't chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
    is left behind.
The future
    is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
       right there.
Not taken in,
unshaken,
that's how you develop the heart.
Ardently doing
what should be done today,
for — who knows? —  tomorrow
    death.
There is no bargaining
with Mortality & his mighty horde.

Whoever lives thus ardently,
    relentlessly
    both day & night,
has truly had an auspicious day:
so says the Peaceful Sage.

There is no bargaining with Mortality & his mighty horde. That said, we should face it and we should be ardently doing what should be done today. I for one am glad that Larson did what he felt needed to be done. The question for all of us is what should be done today?

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully-guided thirty minute meditation on 'Showing Up.' Please feel free to use it in your own practice if you wish.



"Bhaddekaratta Sutta: An Auspicious Day" (MN 131), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.131.than.html .


Photo by Swag Photography on Unsplash







Sunday, August 14, 2022

Squirrel Part 2

Squirrel Part 2

Note: If you didn't read "Squirrel Part 1" from last week don't worry, you don't need to have done so before reading this as I will fill in the necessary background. However if you would rather read that first you can find it here.

One of the perks of my day job is that I get to work with some of the most cutting-edge computer and software systems. One of the systems I have been playing around with lately is DALL-E 2, a state-of-the-art Artificial Intelligence (AI) system that has been causing quite a stir in both the arts and the computing communities since it was released a few months ago. What it does is take an English prompt and creates a picture (a photo, drawing or piece of 'art') that matches the prompt. If you are interested you can find a load of great examples here.

Those of you who did read the first part of this letter last week will know that I was enchanted by the concept of a "Squirrel Sanctuary," the location for the particular sutta that we have been looking at. So I could not resist entering the prompt "a drawing of a group of squirrels in a squirrel sanctuary listening to the Buddha in a bamboo grove" into DALL-E 2, and the picture above is what it produced. Not bad, eh? The drawing reminded me of the beautiful (and sometimes disturbing) Jataka Tales - a collection of moral stories from the Buddha's past lives which often involve animals. Because of this they are often thought of, and presented as, children's stories - but they are much more than that. Maybe I will do some letters on some of those stories - let me know if you would find that interesting. And maybe I will ask DALL-E 2 to help illustrate them as well!

Anyway, let's get back to the Squirrel Sanctuary in the Bamboo Grove, where the sutta we are reading - the Bhumija Sutta - takes place. Last week I talked about the events that lead up to the more famous part (which we will cover today). In the build-up the monk Bhumija went to visit his nephew Prince Jayasena. The prince asked him a question that had been troubling him. Basically some brahmans had visited and had told him that regardless of motivation, it was not possible to gain results from spiritual practice. He asked Bhumija what the Buddha would say, and Bhumija replied that he hadn't heard the Buddha talk on this subject, but based on his own understanding of the teaching then if the practice was followed appropriately then there would be results - whether or not there had been a desire for results in the first place.

Bhumija returns to the Buddha at the Squirrel Sanctuary and recounts to him what has happened:

Answering in this way when thus asked, lord, am I speaking in line with what the Blessed One has said, am I not misrepresenting the Blessed One with what is unfactual, am I answering in line with the Dhamma so that no one whose thinking is in line with the Dhamma will have grounds for criticizing me?

I can imagine Bhujima being a bit nervous here - he clearly wanted to answer the prince in a way that was helpful, but worried that his answer might not have been an accurate reflection of the Buddha's teachings. Fortunately for Bhujima the Buddha answered him like this:

Certainly, Bhumija, in answering in this way when thus asked, you are speaking in line with what I have said, you are not misrepresenting me with what is unfactual, and you are answering in line with the Dhamma so that no one whose thinking is in line with the Dhamma will have grounds for criticizing you. For any brahmans or contemplatives endowed with wrong view, wrong resolve, wrong speech, wrong action, wrong livelihood, wrong effort, wrong mindfulness, & wrong concentration: If they follow the holy life even when having made a wish [for results], they are incapable of obtaining results. If they follow the holy life even when having made no wish, they are incapable of obtaining results. If they follow the holy life even when both having made a wish and having made no wish, they are incapable of obtaining results. If they follow the holy life even when neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, they are incapable of obtaining results. Why is that? Because it is an inappropriate way of obtaining results.

Some of you will probably recognize that the inappropriate approach mentioned here - wrong view, wrong resolve, wrong speech, wrong action, wrong livelihood, wrong effort, wrong mindfulness, & wrong concentration is the exact inverse of the Noble Eightfold Path - right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, & right concentration. These are the qualities, the disciplines, that lead to liberation from suffering which is the core of the Buddha's teaching. If these are new to you (or you need a refresher) then I highly recommend this short book by Bhikkhu Bodhi you can read here.

So what the Buddha is saying here is that yes, if practiced inappropriately there will be no results regardless of your desire. But if practiced appropriately - with right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, & right concentration - then there will be a result and that result is the ending of dukkha - suffering, stress or 'unsatisfactoryness.' I have written before about this concept of dukkha in the letter "Not What We Want" that you can read here if you wish.

Now, as many of you know, I have a tendency to find a lot more humor in the Pali Canon than some others do. I don't know if that is just me projecting, but the Buddha often has what to me is a mischievous turn of phrase, and I can often imagine the monks laughing along with him (or sometimes squirming) when he uses a particularly outrageous simile. Whether or not they were meant to be funny, I am sure they were chosen to be memorable. And in this case the Buddha gives Bhumija a number of quite extreme examples of people behaving quite foolishly.

Suppose a man in need of oil, looking for oil, wandering in search of oil, would pile gravel in a tub and press it, sprinkling it again & again with water. If he were to pile gravel in a tub and press it, sprinkling it again & again with water even when having made a wish [for results]... having made no wish... both having made a wish and having made no wish... neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, he would be incapable of obtaining results. Why is that? Because it is an inappropriate way of obtaining results.

I can imagine Bhumija laughing at this - of course such foolishness wouldn't reap results! How could it? It would be foolish to expect results, no matter how much you wished for them.

The Buddha goes on to describe three other scenarios - trying to get milk from a cow's horn, trying to get butter from water and trying to get fire from wet, green wood. All of these are of course futile, and will not generate results, no matter how much we might desire the results. So what is the answer?

Suppose a man in need of oil, looking for oil, wandering in search of oil, would pile sesame seeds in a tub and press them, sprinkling them again & again with water. If he were to pile sesame seeds in a tub and press them, sprinkling them again & again with water, even when having made a wish [for results]... having made no wish... both having made a wish and having made no wish... neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, he would be capable of obtaining results. Why is that? Because it is an appropriate way of obtaining results.

Of course! Oil comes from sesame seeds!  Likewise milk from udders, butter from curds and fire from dry wood. Regardless of desire, it is going about things the appropriate way that generates results. In some ways you can think of the lesson here as the 'anti-Secret' - it doesn't matter how much you desire results if you go about things the wrong way!

And we are taught the right way is to practice right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, & right concentration. It's not easy, but it does get results.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided half-hour meditation on the concept of Dukkha, 'Not What We Want.' Feel free to use it in your practice in any way you feel helps.

 

 

"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 .

Picture generated by OpenAI's DALL-E 2 system, using the prompt: "a drawing of a group of squirrels in a squirrel sanctuary listening to the Buddha in a bamboo grove"















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