Saturday, December 19, 2020

Goodwill Toward Men
(Meditation for Sunday 20th December)

Peace on Earth,

Goodwill Toward Men

 Every year when I was young my mother, brother, sisters and I would head off to the local Primary School Christmas concert. My father would stay home, and when we got back the tree would be up and the living room of our house would be decorated. It always felt magical, and for us children it marked the beginning of our Christmas. It was only as I got older I realized my father's genius in avoiding having to attend the concert!

I am sure that many of you have similar stories, and for those of us brought up in the Christian tradition memories of the carol concerts and nativity plays are burned deep.

Thanks to these I can probably recite the whole of Luke's account of the Nativity off by heart. And a core part of the story is the appearance of the host of angels, who tell us:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
As we head into Christmas it can sometimes seem like this, the central message of the Nativity, has been lost. The world around us appears more divided that ever and the primary Christmas message according to many is whether or not PS5s are in stock.

Of course, there is much going on to be positive and thankful about, whether it is the quiet heroism of front-line workers or the many people who have chosen to ignore the dominant rhetoric and work towards easing the suffering of others.

The word 'metta' is most often translated as loving-kindness. At first it seems a tricky word as the Pali doesn't have a single, simple translation into English. Often we use multiple words - love, friendliness, goodwill - to try to include all of the aspects of metta. As we progress with our practice we learn the subtleties of the word and why it doesn't quite translate into a single word.

Using the word 'goodwill' for metta used to not quite fit for me, as I found it a little weak. However as I practiced more and read more teachings it started to make more sense. This idea that deep down we wish the best for all people, regardless of whether we felt it was deserved, simply because of our shared humanity - that is metta. The teacher Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu explains it beautifully like this:

[...] These different ways of expressing metta show that metta is not necessarily the quality of lovingkindness. Metta is better thought of as goodwill, and for two reasons. The first is that goodwill is an attitude you can express for everyone without fear of being hypocritical or unrealistic. It recognizes that people will become truly happy not as a result of your caring for them but as a result of their own skillful actions, and that the happiness of self-reliance is greater than any happiness that comes from dependency.

The second reason is that goodwill is a more skillful feeling to have toward those who would react unskillfully to your lovingkindness. There are probably people you’ve harmed in the past who would rather not have anything to do with you ever again, so the intimacy of lovingkindness would actually be a source of pain for them, rather than joy. There are also people who, when they see that you want to express lovingkindness, would be quick to take advantage of it. And there are plenty of animals out there who would feel threatened by any overt expressions of love from a human being. In these cases, a more distant sense of goodwill—that you promise yourself never to harm those people or those beings—would be better for everyone involved.

This doesn’t mean that lovingkindness is never an appropriate expression of goodwill. You simply have to know when it’s appropriate and when it’s not. If you truly feel metta for yourself and others, you can’t let your desire for warm feelings of love and intimacy render you insensitive to what would actually be the most skillful way to promote true happiness for all.
When we look at metta in this way we can see how this fits with the angels' message. By generating goodwill for all beings we lay the groundwork for peace.

As we continue through the holiday period I would like to encourage us all to focus on cultivating goodwill for all. The message is an ancient one, but it is as relevant today as it has ever been.

Wishing you all a peaceful holiday,

Chris.

A quick note: I will NOT be releasing a 'metta letter' or linking a meditation for next week - I will be taking a short break. I will next send out one of these the weekend after next (January 2nd/3rd).

For this week a few of us have committed to press 'play' on the guided meditation linked below at 7pm PT on Sunday 20th December. You are welcome to join us if you wish, or you can listen yourself at any time.


 Bible verse from Luke 3:14 (KJV)

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu - Metta Means Goodwill - Retrieved from https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/BeyondAllDirections/Section0007.html December 20th 2020

 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Kindness Starts with Yourself
(Meditation for Sunday 13th December)

 

Kindness Starts with Yourself

 We are once again in the holiday season, and that can mean different things to each of us. For some this is a wonderful time, full of friendship, fun and excitement. For others it can be a time of loneliness. For some the memories of past holidays can bring joy, for others pain.  For many of us, myself included, it is a mix of enjoyment and being overwhelmed. It can be a stressful time whether you love it or hate it.

I always find that I need to take a step back over the holidays and make sure that I am taking care of myself. It is so easy to get caught up in the excitement, stress, over-scheduling, loneliness and excesses. This is supposedly a time of 'goodwill to all men,' yet it is easy to end up feeling personally burned out or low.

When we practice metta - lovingkindness or goodwill - we always start with ourselves. Sometimes this is difficult, in that we understand that we need to love all beings - but loving ourself can be the hardest task of all. After all, we know all of our faults and flaws. And anyway, isn't it bad to be 'selfish?'

True metta for yourself is not selfish. You are a living being like all other beings. You know suffering and you wish to be free from that suffering. So just as I wish you to be free from that suffering you should wish it for yourself too.

So as we go through the holiday season practice being kind to yourself. That's not being selfish - selfishness leads us to over indulge and ignore others. That's not kindness. Kindness is caring for yourself.

In the meditation linked below we practice that kindness for ourselves. By being kind to ourselves we can generate a caring heart that radiates out to all beings.

Whatever the holidays mean to you I wish you to be well, happy, and free from suffering.

Metta, Chris

 

PS a few of us have committed to press 'play' at 7pm PT on Sunday 13th December - you are welcome to join us if you wish.

PPS The eagle-eyed among you will  have noticed that this letter was first sent a couple of years ago - but I felt it was highly appropriate now so decided to re-send it for this year. We can all do with a reminder to generate lovingkindness for ourselves!

 If the audio player above doesn't work for you, please click here.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

 

 

 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

December Already
(Meditation for Sunday December 6th)

 

December Already


Well, here we are and it is definitely, definitively the holiday season. Already. Thanksgiving has come and gone, last week was the first week of Advent, Hannukkah starts on Thursday and both longest-night and Christmas are approaching fast on the calendar. As I was writing some holiday cards with my wife I had to stop and ask her "didn't we just do this last week?"

For me, and I am sure for many of you, the holiday season has snuck up on us fast this year. I guess with the strange times there is the cognitive dissonance of feeling both that so much has happened this year and that we haven't really done anything!

Of course, none of this should be a surprise. The calendar has been there all the time, and the clock has ticked at the same rate. But for me the illusion of time has been that December has come really quickly. Probably for some of you it has been the opposite - that the wait for the end of the year has been interminable. As the great Douglas Adams said, "Time is an illusion - lunchtime doubly so."
 
I am always a little ambivalent about the holidays. There is much I like and enjoy, but I also find that the pressure and materialism can be difficult. I have been fortunate to always have had good family and friends to share with, but I know that many haven't had this luxury and for them this can be an especially hard time of the year. And for all of us this year will be extra challenging, with friends and loved ones missing or distant.

However it has been for you I hope that the arrival of the holiday season can bring you some joy. I have always made a point of using the start of the holidays as a time to remind myself of the importance of Metta - 'lovingkindness' or 'goodwill'.

With everything that is going on we would all agree that this time would be better for us all, more joyful for us all, if everyone had more lovingkindness in their heart and practiced this with every interaction. But - and you know what I am going to say here - the only person I can change is myself. The only person you can change is yourself. And that is why we do the practice.
 
Wishing you all to be well and happy this holiday season,
Chris.

PS: I have linked below a fully guided Metta Bhavana (cultivation of lovingkindness) meditation, and you are welcome to use that if you find it helpful. If you are not familiar with the form this would be a good one to start with. A few of us have committed to press 'play' at 7pm PT on Sunday December 6th, you are welcome to join us if you wish.

 

If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

True Gratitude
(Meditation for Sunday 29th November)

 

True Gratitude

This week in the US we have celebrated Thanksgiving, our annual holiday where we gather together with family and friends to share a meal, and to express our thanks for each other and all that is good in our lives.

At least that is the theory, but this year has of course been strange. Many people have been unable to meet or have taken the prudent step of not gathering. For some people loss of loved ones, health or livelihood has overshadowed what would traditionally be a joyous time. For many others just the sheer frustration of isolation has made this a difficult time.

We are taught that grasping and aversion are the root of our unhappiness. These really just mean holding on to the wish for things to be other than they are. And right now it is so easy to fall in to the trap of focusing so much on our desire for things to be different that we forget to be happy. The antidote to grasping and aversion is gratitude, because along with gratitude comes a liberating acceptance for how things are - even the things we don't like.

We often think of gratitude in a transactional way - Something good happened so I am grateful for that. This is fine as far as it goes, but what about when that thing goes away, or things are not so good? Do we let go of our gratitude (and so our happiness) then?

We all start on our gratitude journey by being thankful for the benefits and blessings we experience. We know that when we are others fail to be grateful for what we have we become bitter. We should all be grateful for the positives in our lives, and express that to others. The harder part is to allow this experience of gratitude to pervade our whole life, even when things are not as we wish.

There are many things that I am grateful for, and I am grateful specifically for those of you who read this weekly letter. I would like to encourage us all to challenge ourselves beyond mere transactional gratitude - dependent on good things happening - to a deeper sense of gratitude that grounds our being.

With thanks, 

Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on unconditional gratitude. You are welcome to listen any time, but a few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday 29th of November. You are welcome to join us then if you wish.

Photo by Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash

 

 

 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

The King
(Meditation for Sunday November 22nd)

 

The King

It has become almost second-nature to talk about division today. The over-riding narrative is that of conflict and tribalism, where people identify with one group or another and assume that their own group is 'right' and the other group is 'wrong' - on everything.

Of course none of this is new, and while in some areas we have seen progress over the years the rhetoric of 'us' and 'other' has been with us from the dawn of mankind - indeed some see this tribalism as an evolutionary trait.

But we should see it as it is, as part of our delusion. The view that we can partition the world into 'me', 'us' and 'other' only occurs because of our wilful refusal to believe that we all share the human experience. History tells us that if we follow this road it leads to to accepting the de-humanization of whoever is the 'other,' and to catastrophic results. We all know this - yet the huge trap is to say "yes, that's exactly what they are doing!" - which is in itself reinforcing the us/them delusion.

It is right to work for a more loving, accepting and inclusive society, but we must me sure that in our words and actions we are not just perpetuating dehumanizing division. As the old Sting song says rhetorically, "I hope the Russians love their children too."

In the Pāli writings there is a lovely short sutta about a King who asks his wife "is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?"

She replies "No, great king. There is no one dearer to me than myself. And what about you, great king? Is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?"

The King agrees saying "there is is no one dearer to me than myself."

The King then contemplates this exchange - and it is worth us contemplating this too. We would agree that we are the most dear to ourselves - but what do we take away from that? Some focus only on that and choose to act selfishly. Others, like the king, realize that the same is true for all beings, whoever they are. The king shares this realization with the Buddha who exclaims:

Searching all directions
with your awareness,
you find no one dearer
than yourself.
In the same way, others
are thickly dear to themselves.
So you shouldn’t hurt others
if you love yourself.

This is a great time for us all to meditate on this. We are all dear to ourselves, we all love our children, we all wish to be well, happy and free from suffering. In these things there is no 'other,' only 'us.'

Metta, Chris

 I have linked below a fully guided 30-minute meditation on the story of The King (Rājan Sutta). A few of us have committed to press 'play' at 7pm PT on Sunday 22nd November - you can of course listen at any time, but you are welcome to join with us then.

If the player below doesn't work for you please click here instead.

Rājan Sutta Translated from the Pāli by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, retrieved from
https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/KN/Ud/ud5_1.html

 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Strawberry
(Meditation for Sunday November 15th)

 

The Strawberry

 
This week I have been thinking a bit about the old Zen story about the strawberry. You have probably heard a version of this story before, as it has been retold many times, always with different details. I tried to find a more original, authentic version but couldn't find a good source, though many people attribute it's popularity in the west to the teachings of D.T. Suzuki. And so I am going to give my own retelling, roughly following how I first heard it.

Once there was a young monk who was set upon by bandits. He managed to slip away and was being chased by them when he fell into a deep pit. As he fell he reached out and grabbed a vine, and hung half way down the pit. 
As his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he looked down and saw below him that there was a hungry tiger who had also fallen in the pit. He looked up, hoping to be able to climb up the vine and out of the pit, but saw that there were rats gnawing on the vine above him who had nearly chewed right through it. 
He looked to the wall of the pit to see if there was a way for him to climb out and saw a clump of wild strawberries growing from the smooth wall. He reached out and plucked a strawberry and put it in his mouth. 
It was delicious.

Like all good Zen stories or Koans there isn't supposed to be a single 'interpretation,' and it is possible to read this story in a number of ways. I have read people argue that it is a parable of foolishness, though most people view it as a lesson in being present. As I was writing the above it struck me that it would be very interesting to re-tell the story from the point of view of the tiger - it becomes a very different story!

One thing we can all agree on is that the young monk was having a really bad day. And yet, even at that time, with his rather unpleasant demise imminent he could still appreciate the wonderful strawberry.

 It has become common now for us to anthropomorphize the year 2020 as some malevolent being that is throwing bad things at us - the sarcastic refrain 'thanks 2020' has become a bit of a meme. And it is true that for many people this has been the toughest of times.

And yet, here we are. And while, to quote Tom Robbins, "the international situation is desperate, as usual," there are many strawberries still out there to be eaten and enjoyed.

Or, if you are a tiger, monks.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully-guided 30 minute audio meditation on the story of the strawberry. You can listen at any time, but a few of us have committed to press play at 7pm PT on Sunday 15th November. You are welcome to join us if you wish.


If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.

 

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Breathing In Calm
(Meditation for Sunday 8th November)

 

Breathing In Calm

It has been quite a week for everyone. As the counts have gone one way or the other, so people's emotions have followed. Just as a cart follows the ox. And as this has been happening one thought has kept with me. This is what we train for.

This is going to be a short message today, as you are probably all being bombarded with messages from all sides, as even with the apparent resolution there is still an undercurrent of uncertainty and division. All I really want to emphasize is this: This is what we train for. How we each as individuals ride the roller-coaster, how we manage our emotions, how we interact with like-minded and non-like-minded people over this period is important.

And it all starts with our ability to cultivate calm ourselves. Even if there is continued uncertainty, even if we see some around us stirring up division through fear, anger and hatred, this is our opportunity to instead be grounded, loving, full of compassion and calm.

A few weeks ago I shared an article by the revered teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh. In it he encourages us to use the following poem in our meditation.

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.

Now is a wonderful time to practice this. You can of course do this on your own wherever you are, but I have linked below an audio recording of a fully-guided meditation using this poem, and specifically focusing on the first line. You are welcome to listen to that if you find it helpful. A few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday 8th November. Again, you are welcome to join us if you wish.

However you choose to practice, I encourage you to practice cultivating this in the coming weeks. It is only from this place of calm that we can generate the true love, compassion and joy that we can bring to the world.

Metta, Chris.

If the above player doesn't work for you, please click here.
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash









Saturday, October 31, 2020

Zen Ghosts
(Meditation for Sunday November 1st)

 

Zen Ghosts

 

I was going back and forth this week on what to write about. With a historic election coming up and the deep division being created in the country it seems that the practice of Metta is more important than ever. 

On the other hand, it is Halloween and Día de Muertos this weekend and it is always fun to look at Buddhist ghost stories to see what we can learn (and have a bit of spooky fun).

Of course, as is often the case, this is a false dichotomy and we can actually look at a good Zen ghost story and see what we might learn that will help us in what is likely to be a challenging week.

So let's start with the ghost story. There are a number of good ghost stories in the Buddhist tradition but my favorite is the story of the man being haunted by the ghost of his young wife. There are several versions of this out there, but here is a common telling of it:

The wife of a man became very sick. On her deathbed, she said to him, "I love you so much! I don't want to leave you, and I don't want you to betray me. Promise that you will not see any other women once I die, or I will come back to haunt you."

For several months after her death, the husband did avoid other women, but then he met someone and fell in love. On the night that they were engaged to be married, the ghost of his former wife appeared to him. She blamed him for not keeping the promise, and every night thereafter she returned to taunt him. The ghost would remind him of everything that transpired between him and his fiancee that day, even to the point of repeating, word for word, their conversations. It upset him so badly that he couldn't sleep at all.

Desperate, he sought the advice of a Zen master who lived near the village. "This is a very clever ghost," the master said upon hearing the man's story. "It is!" replied the man. "She remembers every detail of what I say and do. It knows everything!" The master smiled, "You should admire such a ghost, but I will tell you what to do the next time you see it."

That night the ghost returned. The man responded just as the master had advised. "You are such a wise ghost," the man said, "You know that I can hide nothing from you. If you can answer me one question, I will break off the engagement and remain single for the rest of my life." "Ask your question," the ghost replied. The man scooped up a handful of beans from a large bag on the floor, "Tell me exactly how many beans there are in my hand."

At that moment the ghost disappeared and never returned.
This is a fun story but also a deep Koan. In the west we sometimes mistake Koans to be 'riddles,' things that needs to be 'solved.' That isn't really the point though - this is a story to be meditated upon, to help expand our understanding. There isn't an 'answer,' or one singular way to look at what has happened. I would encourage you to pause here for a moment to consider the story before reading on.

👻👻👻

There are many things that can be taken away from this Koan, and I hesitate to give my version, but I will point out one way of looking at the story and say something about how it may be relevant for us this week.

One way of reading the story is the fact that the 'ghost' doesn't know what the man cannot underlines that she is a projection of the man's own guilt, fear and grief.

As we go into this week we will likely see a lot of people projecting their own fears and making them 'real.' If we are sensitive and honest then we will also see ourselves doing exactly the same. Going in to this week with a heart of compassion - for yourself and for others - and recognizing the fear, hurt and insecurity that is manifesting the ghosts and demons around us. Seeing the division for what it really is - projections of our fears - allows us to move beyond it.

I hope that you all have a good weekend, however you like to celebrate it - even though it will be a little stranger than usual. May you also find peace and comfort in what may be a testing week.

Metta, Chris.


PS: A Halloween Buddhist Dad-Joke - Where do hungry ghosts get their sandwiches? At Preta Manger!

PPS: I have linked below a fully guided meditation on a different Zen Ghost Koan, so if you would like to work with another one you can listen along with that. A few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday November 1st. You are welcome to join us if you wish.


If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.

Photo by Monkgogi Samson on Unsplash

 



Saturday, October 24, 2020

Counting to Five
(Meditation for Sunday October 25th)

 

Counting to Five

A couple of years ago I came across a great article in Tricycle Magazine by the teacher Ken McLeod. The article, "Forget About Consistency," started with this anecdote:

A Zen teacher was talking with a colleague about a student. “I’m quite puzzled by this one student. I told her to rest attention on the breath and count up to ten breaths and then start again,” said the Zen teacher. “She keeps saying that she can never get past five before she is distracted. As soon as she notices she is distracted, she starts again. In every meditation interview, she says she must be doing something wrong, because she never gets further than five. I don’t understand why she thinks that.”

What is going on here?

From the student’s point of view, she is not succeeding. She is probably thinking, “I place my attention on the breath and start counting, but I get distracted, and I never get past five. I must be doing something wrong.” 
Likewise, the teacher is probably thinking, “She is practicing very well. Every time she notices that she is distracted, she returns to the breath and starts again.”
There are a couple of reasons why this story resonated with me. One is that the form of meditation described - counting to ten with the breaths - is the very first form I was taught when I started out many years ago. I know that this simple form of counting breaths is where many of us started. Because of this there is sometimes a feeling among meditators that this is somehow a 'junior' form of meditation. I have even heard meditators joke about this, criticizing teaching of the form. Which of course misses the point. Our goal is not to 'succeed' in 'acing' a meditation form. Instead we should be continually developing a deeper understanding of our minds - and often that means returning to the basics.

The other reason that this story resonated with me is that it shines a light on what 'success' means in meditation. The student in the story, like most of us, was focused on a form of success that was about reaching ten and re-starting. The teacher on the other hand recognized that by noticing her distraction she was learning about the workings of her mind. Understanding these two different viewpoints on success is essential. If we are focused on only mastering the mechanics of a meditation we may totally miss the true value that the form brings.

As an embarrassing side-note: When I do this meditation I often find I have somehow managed to reach sixteen! Now when I do so I have a choice - to either beat myself up for 'failing' the form or to recognize that my mind had become distracted, acknowledge and accept that and return to the first breath.

So as you continue in your practice I encourage you to question your own views about 'success' and 'failure.' Sometimes we need to recognize that what feels like failure can actually be exactly what we should be practicing. And sometimes to realize that we need to return to the most basic forms of meditation.

Metta, Chris.


PS: If you are a music lover then there is an amazing piece that explores this dichotomy between success and failure in an amusing (and mind-blowing) way. Called "Failing, A Very Difficult Piece For Solo String Bass" by Tom Johnson, it has become a classic part of the Double-Bass repertoire. You can see a video of a performance of it here.

PPS: I have linked below a full-guided audio meditation where we contemplate the anecdote above and practice counting the breaths. A few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday October 25th. You are welcome to join us if you wish.


If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.



Saturday, October 17, 2020

Like an Instrument
Meditation for Sunday October 18th

Like an Instrument


There's a well-known sutta that documents the doubts and eventual enlightenment of the monk Soṇa, commonly called the 'Soṇa Sutta.' It's a fun sutta as it packs in everything, including teleportation, hints on how to become enlightened and some solid guidance on how to meditate when practice is hard.

It's this latter guidance that is usually brought out. In a nutshell, Soṇa is practicing hard but not really feeling like he is getting anywhere. Sounds familiar? This is how we initially find our hapless hero:

As Ven. Soṇa was meditating in seclusion [after doing walking meditation until the skin of his soles was split & bleeding], this train of thought arose in his awareness: “Of the Blessed One’s disciples who have aroused their persistence, I am one, but my mind is not released from the effluents through lack of clinging/sustenance. Now, my family has enough wealth that it would be possible to enjoy wealth & make merit. What if I were to disavow the training, return to the lower life, enjoy wealth, & make merit?”
You can probably relate. There are times when we all feel like we are making the effort but not making any 'progress,' whatever that might mean. And realizing that this is where Soṇa is the Buddha comes to him and says this:

“Just now, as you were meditating in seclusion, didn’t this train of thought appear to your awareness: ‘Of the Blessed One’s disciples who have aroused their persistence, I am one, but my mind is not released from the effluents.… What if I were to disavow the training, return to the lower life, enjoy wealth, & make merit?’”

“Yes, lord.”

“Now what do you think, Soṇa? Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the vīṇā?”

“Yes, lord.”

“And what do you think? When the strings of your vīṇā were too taut, was your vīṇā in tune & playable?”

“No, lord.”

“And what do you think? When the strings of your vīṇā were too loose, was your vīṇā in tune & playable?”

“No, lord.”

“And what do you think? When the strings of your vīṇā were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your vīṇā in tune & playable?”

“Yes, lord.”

“In the same way, Soṇa, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of the five faculties to that, and there pick up your theme.”
This simple instruction is incredibly profound and can have a powerful effect on our practice. Just like Soṇa and his vīṇā (or lute) we can approach our practice as, well, practice (as an aside here - in England we differentiate between practice the noun and practise the verb, so I could have said we can approach our practice as practise).

I like this shift in focus. Rather than seeing our practice as a chore to be completed, we can see it as an opportunity to explore, to experiment and to grow. I believe that reclaiming this sense of exploration is essential if we are to stay motivated on the path.

And so, having received this encouragement our hero Soṇa returned to his practice in this way:

So after that, Ven. Soṇa determined the right pitch for his persistence, attuned the pitch of the five faculties to that, and there picked up his theme.
I find this expression 'there picked up his theme' fascinating. Having received the instruction he was able to find the right balance in his practice and 'pick up his theme.' It's a wonderful metaphor for how we wish our practice to be.

So for all of us I hope we can find that true balance in our practice and each of us 'find our theme.' Especially when it seems hard to stay with it.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully-guided audio meditation on approaching our practice 'like an instrument.' You can of course listen at any time you wish, but a few of us have committed to press 'play' at 7pm PT on Sunday 18th October. You are welcome to join us if you wish.

If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
Soṇa Sutta translated by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu - https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/AN/AN6_55.html
Photo by Vince Russell on Unsplash

Saturday, October 10, 2020

For Thầy
(Meditation for Sunday 11th October)

 

For Thầy

 
If you ask those following a meditative path who their most influential teachers have been then you will start to see a pattern where a few names come up over and over again. And one of those names will undoubtedly be Thích Nhất Hạnh.

Thích Nhất Hạnh, or 'Thầy' ('teacher') as he is often known has for many of us been one of our most treasured teachers. His insight, compassion and clarity of teaching has been a blessing to us all, and I can personally say that I feel privileged to have been alive at the same time as him. I have never met him, and yet his books and teachings have been deeply important to me - and I am sure many of you reading this can say the same.

This Sunday, the 11th, marks his 94th birthday (or 'continuance day' as some in his tradition say). This week there have been conflicting reports on his health. Six years ago he suffered a brain hemorrhage and has been fragile since. A couple of years ago he returned to his homeland of Vietnam a final time and has been living at Từ Hiếu Temple for "his remaining days."

But for now I want to focus on the great joy and insight that he has given us in his life. Reading all that he has accomplished is special enough alone - but for me the real testament to Thầy is the sheer number of people who have stories about how his teachings have touched them.

For me one of the most influential things he has taught me is a small, simple poem. He introduces it in his book 'Being Peace' in this way:

From time to time, to remind ourselves to relax, to be peaceful, we may wish to set aside some time for a retreat, a day of mindfulness, when we can walk slowly, smile, drink tea with a friend, enjoy being together as if we are the happiest people on Earth. This is not a retreat, it is a treat. During walking meditation, during kitchen and garden work, during sitting meditation, all day long, we can practice smiling. At first you may find it difficult to smile, and we have to think about why. Smiling means that we are ourselves, that we have sovereignty over ourselves, that we are not drowned into forgetfulness. This kind of smile can be seen on the faces of Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
I would like to offer one short poem you can recite from time to time, while breathing and smiling.

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.

 'Breathing in, I calm my body.' This line is like drinking a glass of ice water-you feel the cold, the freshness, permeate your body. When I breathe in and recite this line, I actually feel the breathing calming my body, calming my mind.
 'Breathing out, I smile.' You know the effect of a smile. A smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face, and relax your nervous system. A smile makes you master of yourself. That is why the Buddhas and the bodhisattvas are always smiling. When you smile, you realize the wonder of the smile.
 'Dwelling in the present moment.' While I sit here, I don't think of somewhere else, of the future or the past. I sit here, and I know where I am. This is very important. We tend be alive in the future, not now. We say, 'Wait until I finish school and get my Ph.D. degree, and then I will be really alive.' When we have it, and it's not easy to get, we say to ourselves, 'I have to wait until I have a job in order to be really alive.' And then after the job, a car. After the car, a house. We are not capable of being alive in the present moment. We tend to postpone being alive to the future, the distant future, we don't know when. Now is not the moment to be alive. We may never be alive at all in our entire life. Therefore the technique, if we have to speak of a technique, is to be in the present moment, to be aware that we are here and now, and the only moment to be alive is the present moment.
 'I know this is a wonderful moment.' This is the only moment that is real. To be here and now, and enjoy the present moment is our most wonderful task. 'Calming, Smiling, Present moment, Wonderful moment.' I hope you will try it.
I, too, hope you will try it. I have linked below a short audio meditation using this poem which you are welcome to use if you wish. A few of us have committed to press 'play' at 7pm PT on Sunday 11th October - Thầy's birthday. It seems like a fitting thing to do.
 
I hope that this finds you all well and happy,
Metta, Chris.

If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
Photo by Duc (pixiduc) from Paris, France.





Saturday, October 3, 2020

Why Metta is Important
(Meditation for Sunday 4th October)

Why Metta is Important


One of the hardest things I am finding writing these messages at the moment is keeping a focus on why all of this is important. It is easy to feel that with everything that is happening right now meditation and the cultivation of lovingkindness is a 'luxury' - nice to have but there are much more important things going on that should be our focus.

Of course we all know that this way of thinking couldn't be more wrong. When things are difficult a focus on generating love for all beings is the most important thing we can do. As I often say after we practice metta meditation, we all can agree that if everyone else was more loving the world would be a better place. The reality is though that we can only make our self more loving. That is what we should strive for.

While it is easy to get carried along with the current narrative of anger, hatred, suspicion and division we have the opportunity to do something truly radical - to stand out and instead speak lovingly from the heart.

We are told this in the Dhammapada:
'He    insulted me,
    hit me,
    beat me,
    robbed me'
 — for those who brood on this,
    hostility isn't stilled.

'He insulted me,
hit me,
beat me,
robbed me' —
for those who don't brood on this,
    hostility is stilled.

Hostilities aren't stilled
    through hostility,
    regardless.
Hostilities are stilled
through non-hostility:
    this, an unending truth.

Unlike those who don't realize
that we're here on the verge
    of perishing,
those who do:
    their quarrels are stilled.
In the current climate this can be challenging - which is why we do the practice. Our days are spent seeing others telling us that we should be angry, that we should hate and blame. Our most important action can be to choose otherwise, and to cultivate metta, lovingkindness instead. Hostilities aren't stilled through hostility but through non-hostility. This is an unending truth.
 
This is something we all have to cultivate. It isn't something that just happens, or that we just declare, it is something we have to work on. As Gospel Singer Graham Kendrick wrote:
Teach me to love the unlovely O Lord
I don’t know how to do it
Teach me to love the impossible people
I really don’t like
I don’t naturally take to some folks
I can’t make out the way that they are
I just don’t understand other people who aren’t like me at all
This is the work we need to do, and it is hard. The practice of Metta Bhavana - cultivating unconditional love for all beings - is a difficult but powerful one. And I can't really think of anything more important right now.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully-guided audio meditation on why cultivating metta is important. If you are new to metta meditation or are rusty then this might be a good one for you to try. A few of us have committed to press 'play' at 7pm PT on Sunday October 4th. You can of course listen at any time, but you are also welcome to join us then if you wish.

Please feel free to share this letter and the meditation with anyone you wish.



"Yamakavagga: Pairs" (Dhp I), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013
Banksy Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Lute
(Meditation for Sunday 27th September)


The Lute

(Or: How Did I Get Here?)

As we navigate through this strange year a common sentiment has been 'how did we get here?' Whether we are talking about the pandemic, police brutality, civil unrest, wildfires, air quality or a divisive election it is natural for us all to want answers. Why is this happening? Who is to blame?

There are may pundits out there who will happily take your money or your clicks and offer you a simple solution, from Chinese markets to bad apples to protestors to conspiracy to... There is no shortage of theories, hunches and guesses as to what 'the one thing' to blame is.

In reality, of course, none of what is troubling us has a simple cause. Everything that happens comes about because of a wide number of precedents. So while any of the events, people or theories may be contributory causes to our situation it is never as simple as 'this happened because of X.' We all know this, but it still feels comforting to be able to explain and solely blame X - especially if X is something or someone we never liked anyway.

This desire to find a single, simple cause and ignore the complexities of a system is not new. The practices of scapegoating and witch-hunts have been around for centuries.

All of this stems from our common delusion that things exist in isolation, and that simple, singular causes can be found for everything. One of my favorite stories that The Buddha told is that of The King and the Lute:
"Suppose there were a king or king's minister who had never heard the sound of a lute before. He might hear the sound of a lute and say, 'What, my good men, is that sound — so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling?' They would say, 'That, sire, is called a lute, whose sound is so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling.' Then he would say, 'Go & fetch me that lute.' They would fetch the lute and say, 'Here, sire, is the lute whose sound is so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling.' He would say, 'Enough of your lute. Fetch me just the sound.' Then they would say, 'This lute, sire, is made of numerous components, a great many components. It's through the activity of numerous components that it sounds: that is, in dependence on the body, the skin, the neck, the frame, the strings, the bridge, and the appropriate human effort. Thus it is that this lute — made of numerous components, a great many components — sounds through the activity of numerous components.'

"Then the king would split the lute into ten pieces, a hundred pieces. Having split the lute into ten pieces, a hundred pieces, he would shave it to splinters. Having shaved it to splinters, he would burn it in a fire. Having burned it in a fire, he would reduce it to ashes. Having reduced it to ashes, he would winnow it before a high wind or let it be washed away by a swift-flowing stream. He would then say, 'A sorry thing, this lute — whatever a lute may be — by which people have been so thoroughly tricked & deceived.'
I love this story both for the humor and the clear message. It is easy to see how we make the same mistakes, how we look for something to have independent existence and simple causes. And this doesn't only apply to current events or challenges in our lives but also to ourselves - recognizing that we don't exist independently from those around us, our culture and our society.
 
So how do we develop this insight? The Vina Sutta continues:
"In the same way, a monk investigates form, however far form may go. He investigates feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness, however far consciousness may go. As he is investigating form... feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness, however far consciousness may go, any thoughts of 'me' or 'mine' or 'I am' do not occur to him."
We are encouraged to work with our own thoughts and experience in the same way that the king did with the lute. Not because by doing so we will find the solid answer, but because by doing so we will find that like the music nothing exists independent of everything else.

If you would like to practice this yourself I have linked below a fully guided meditation on the Lute and 'how did I get here?' You are welcome to listen any time you wish, but a few of us have committed to press 'play' at 7pm PT on Sunday 27th September. You are welcome to join us if you wish.

Wishing you all a good week,
Metta, Chris.

If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
"Vina Sutta: The Lute" (SN 35.205), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013
Photo by Kenny Luo on Unsplash

 

 

 

Friday, September 18, 2020

Filled with Joy
Meditation for Sunday 20th September


 Filled with Joy

 
This week I read a beautiful quote from Lama Zopa Rinpoche that I would like to share with you:
There’s Only Space for Joy... 
If something is difficult—think of the benefits. You should take difficulties as an ornament, not a burden. So in life there’s not one second to be depressed, no place, no space – only joy, happiness more than the sky.
With everything that is going on at the moment I keep on coming back to the importance and centrality of joy. I have already written a couple of articles about this, and I guess I will do so again. The more that we are challenged by what is going on around us the more that we need to return to, and choose, the four immeasurable qualities of Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity.

We see around us many people being overcome with fear, division and anger - even turning into outright hatred. It is easy to see why, and I am sure that we have all felt some of this ourselves as we have been challenged by all that has happened this year. It can be hard to be joyful.

Rinpoche gives us a clue to how we should approach this, by only allowing space for joy. We can choose to allow ourselves to be driven into negative states, or we can be so full of joy that we have no space for them.

Of course this is easier said than done, and I know that I am much less than a ray of sunshine some of the time! Yet we can all set an intention to cultivate more joy, even in these times.

The wonderful teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a beautiful piece titled 'This Silence is Called great Joy", which you can read here. In it he contemplates this old Buddhist gatha:
All formations are impermanent.
They are subject to birth and death.
But remove the notions of birth and death,
and this silence is called great joy.
In this piece he speaks directly to how we might work in the current troubled situation. He encourages us to look at things in this way:
So it is crucial to look deeply at your thoughts and your views. What are you holding on to? Whether you are an artist or a businessperson, a parent or a teacher, you have your views about how to live your life, how to help other people, how to make your country prosperous, and so on. When you are attached to these views, to the idea of right and wrong, then you may be get caught. When your thinking is caught in these views, then you create misunderstanding, anger, and violence. That is what you are becoming in this very moment.

When you are mindful of this and can look deeply, you can produce thoughts that are full of love and understanding. You can make yourself and the world around you suffer less.
The story here is the same -- that we can allow negative emotions to arise by clinging to an idea of how things 'should' be, or we can choose love, joy, compassion and equanimity.

As I am writing this (on Friday evening) I have just learned that RBG has passed away. Of course my initial thoughts are sadness at the loss of such an important and inspiring individual. And then comes the fear of what the outcome may be, the ways that this can lead to more division and strife in our country. But I can choose to be filled with joy that she was here on this earth, and for all we have gained from her life and example.

I'm going to choose to be filled with joy. Hopefully there won't be room for anything else.

 Mudita, Chris.
 
I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation on cultivating joy. A few of us have committed to pressing 'play' together at 7pm on Sunday, September 20th. You are welcome to join us if you wish.
 

If the above player doesn't work for you, please click here.

 Photo by Joe Caione on Unsplash

 

 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

All is Aflame
(Meditation for Sunday September 13th)

 

All is Aflame

It is very strange here in the Northwest right now. There are many massive wildfires in the area and the sky is an eerie orange-yellow throughout the region. Many communities have been engulfed or threatened by the fires, with losses of life and property and a threat to the health of all who have to be outside for any reason. And this pattern is repeating in other parts of the country as well. Our hearts truly go out to all of those who have been or will be affected by this latest, additional, challenge.

For obvious reasons my mind turned earlier this week to the well-known 'Fire Sermon' that the Buddha gave. This is a lovely piece that can be read at many different levels, and which contains a wealth of wisdom that is highly relevant to us today.

In a nutshell, the Buddha is talking to a group of seekers who had previously worshiped fire and who practiced a fire ritual. Because of this he uses the metaphors of flames and burning to deliver his message. It covers how our senses and our minds interact with the world and how we then allow our passion, aversion and delusion to ignite. One passage that I think is highly relevant to today says:

The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame. Consciousness at the intellect is aflame. Contact at the intellect is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I say, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.

This is not saying that Intellect and Ideas are bad, or even that they are in themselves harmful. What causes suffering is when we allow ourselves to become aflame with passion, aversion and delusion. We are living in a time when this is front and center in our lives, where we see media of all sorts burning with division, ignorance and hatred. The devil nowadays not only has 'all the good tunes,' but also the best video production values as well. As Stephen Colbert says, we no longer care about the truth, but instead demand that what we see or read is 'truthy' - something that feels like it should be the truth. What becomes popular (and believed) is not that which speaks truth, but that which most effectively evokes our passions.

Of course, having laid out the problem that all is aflame, the Buddha goes on to explain how we can move beyond that and extinguish these flames If you aren't familiar with the piece you may be surprised with how we are taught to extinguish the fire. We are told that a person manages to extinguish the flames by doing the following:

 He grows disenchanted with the intellect, disenchanted with ideas, disenchanted with consciousness at the intellect, disenchanted with contact at the intellect. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect, experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain: He grows disenchanted with that too. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, 'Fully released.' He discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'

Now when I first read this I found it strange, that we would be exhorted to become 'disenchanted.' It seemed strange that we should be cultivating what comes as second-nature to every teenager! But looking deeper, what it is saying that we need to let go of our enchantment with our ideas, our intellect our feelings. The truth is that we become enchanted by our beliefs, by our passions - and that we need to become disenchanted in order to stop them having a hold on us. This is the path to freedom.

I hope that you all manage to stay safe and healthy over the coming week. And maybe a little disenchanted, too.

Metta, Chris.

For our meditation this week I have done something a little different. Rather than linking a previously recorded session I have recorded a new meditation. In the recording I read the full Fire Sermon, and then we do our usual 30 minute meditation. I read the passage again during the meditation. Hopefully this will allow you to meditate on the piece. Let me know what you think of this slightly different approach.

A few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday 13th September. You are welcome to join with us then if you wish.



"Adittapariyaya Sutta: The Fire Sermon" (SN 35.28), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013
Photo by Yaoqi LAI on Unsplash


Saturday, September 5, 2020

Nothing to Achieve
Meditation for Sunday 6th September

 

Nothing to Achieve

 
Earlier this week I was listening to a radio comedy (the wonderful Cabin Pressure) and one of the characters started singing the old song "We're Busy Doing Nothing." You probably know it, but the lyrics go:
We're busy doin' nothin'
Workin' the whole day through
Tryin' to find lots of things not to do
We're busy goin' nowhere
Isn't it just a crime
We'd like to be unhappy, but
We never do have the time.
As a kid I loved this song, but something about it always felt a little, well, subversive. As a fully paid up member of the Type-A club I was taught (and believed) that happiness came from industry and application. Singing about doing nothing felt quite 'naughty.'

The problem with the way we focus on achievement is that we are always striving. This in itself is a form of clinging - to some unknown future state where we will be 'improved.' This is most famously expressed in the story of the Fisherman and the Businessman, where the businessman exhorts the fisherman to work hard to grow his business into an enterprise so that he can - eventually - retire and enjoy exactly the life he has right now.

We can make the same mistake with our meditation, by striving for some kind of achievement and clinging to an ideal of a state we want to get to. We might see others who we assume are further along on their path and be envious of their achievements. We might beat ourselves up that somehow we haven't achieved the level of calm that we think we should have. In short, like the businessman, we cling to some imagined future and ignore where we are right now.

So our best approach to meditation is to let go of the focus on achievement and to just 'be' with how we are and where our mind is. To sit and enjoy the now.

With this long weekend I'd like to encourage you all to achieve nothing. You never know, by doing so you might not have the time to be unhappy.

Metta, Chris.

Below is a fully guided audio meditation on having Nothing to Achieve. A few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday 6th September - you are welcome to join us if you wish.


Saturday, August 29, 2020

Dantikā Sees an Elephant
(Meditation for Sunday August 30th)


 Dantikā Sees an Elephant

 Recently I was introduced to a beautiful book of poetry by Matty Weingast called The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns. It's a poetic retelling of the verses in the Therīgāthā or Poems of the Elder Nuns. This is a collection of short poems, dating from around 600 BCE to 300 BCE and first written down around 80 BCE. What is so fascinating is that we get a beautiful and intimate view onto the lives of the nuns at that time - and it won't surprise you to know that many of their joys, struggles and achievements feel fresh and relevant to us today.

One of the poems that struck me in the book was "Dantikā and the Elephant." Here is Ajahn Ṭhānissaro's translation of the same poem:

Coming out from my day’s abiding
on Vulture Peak Mountain,
I saw on the bank of the river
an elephant
emerged from its plunge.
A man holding a hook requested:
“Give me your foot.”
The elephant
extended its foot.
The man
got up on the elephant.
Seeing what was untrained now tamed
brought under human control,
with that I centered my mind—
why I’d gone to the woods
in the first place.
There is so much to learn from this small but deep poem, and I would encourage you to meditate on it for a while. What struck me first was that having spent much time meditating on the mountain it was a mundane observation that caused her insight. Now for you and I if we walked in the woods and saw an elephant that would be a huge deal! But I am assuming for Dantikā it wasn't so unusual. What struck her was the relationship between the man and the elephant. And having spent the day meditating the insight of the relationship she had with her mind was particularly enlightening. As she says, this is why she'd gone to the woods in the first place.

We often think of the meditation cushion as a special, separate place where we can work with our minds. And of course, in many ways it is - but just as important as the cushion is what happens when we get up off of it. In the woods Dantikā learned about her relationship with her mind from observing a man and an elephant. Our learning, our insight continues when we go to the woods, go to the store or walk down the street.

Wishing you all insight in the coming week,

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation on working with our thoughts. You can of course listen at any time, but a few of us have committed to press play together at 7pm PT Sunday 30th August. You are welcome to join with us if you wish.



If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
 

Photo by Felix M. Dorn on Unsplash