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.

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,
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