We are not currently meeting 'in-person'

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

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Metta Phrases

Metta Phrases

The practice of Metta Bhavana or 'Cultivation of Lovingkindness' is a powerful one, but for most of us the key part is to experience - not just understand - what Metta truly is. I say 'experience' because it's not just about knowing some definitions or having an intellectual understanding of the word 'Metta,' but is about allowing an unconditional form of love to permeate your being.

The word 'love' for us is a tricky one, as it is so overloaded. From the sticky-sweet Facebook meme version of love through romantic love to my love of spicy food - it is used for so many different things that it has become almost meaningless.

For this reason Metta is often translated as 'goodwill' or 'lovingkindness' - but deep down it is simply genuinely wishing the best for someone, regardless of who they are or what they have done. While it is hard to put in words it is something we can all learn through the practice.

The great thing about the traditional form of Metta Bhavana is that it is so practical. It doesn't assume you know what Metta means, nor does it make any assumptions about your situation right now. Instead it invites you to practice wishing the best for yourself right now in this place - and then to see what it is like to wish exactly the same for a number of other people - those you know and those you don't, those you like and those you dislike. And each of these people is a real person, not a generalization. It is all too easy to say 'I wish all beings to be well,' but a completely different proposition to say 'I wish this person who hurt me to be well.' Metta practice is specific, practical and empirical. We learn what it is like to wish a person we can't stand to be well. We learn and explore the edges of our goodwill.

One of the 'tools' we use in the practice are the Metta phrases, prayers or mantras. These are simple sentences wishing the best for yourself or for another. In our group we usually use this simple formulation:

May I be well,
May I be happy,
May I be free from suffering.
These short phrases are fairly traditional, and are a great starting place for beginning to cultivate goodwill. We first direct the phrases to our own self - recognizing the messiness of our lives but none the less practicing unconditional goodwill - not getting caught up in whether we 'deserve' these things but simply wishing them for our self. We then change them to be 'May you...' and work with specific other people - the friend, the unknown, the enemy - and wish exactly the same for them. And, as I often say, if it's hard then we are probably doing it right. It will be hard with some individuals - and sometimes with our self - and that is the practice.

One of the things that is often recommended is that we experiment with these phrases - try differing phrases wishing our self well, and then using exactly the same wish for others. This can be a wonderful way to learn some of the subtleties of true Metta. And once we have a phrase or two that resonates, we can use that phrase in our life as we meet with and interact with others, holding an intention of Metta as we speak and act.

I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation where we explore and experiment with different Metta phrases. Feel free to use it in your own practice if you wish, or to explore different ways of expressing goodwill on your own.

Metta, Chris.

Apologies for the poor audio quality, I am having microphone difficulties!




Sunday, December 5, 2021

Sharing Merit

Sharing Merit

In many meditation traditions it is usual to end a meditation session with a form of 'dedication of merit.' This dedication can take a number of forms - in our local group we use the simple formula of:

May all beings  —  without limit, without end  —
    have a share in the merit just now made,
    and in whatever other merit I have made.
    May they attain liberation,
    and their radiant hopes be fulfilled.

There is a notion in the Tibetan traditions that I think is helpful in understanding why we do this. There is a concept of the 'Three Excellences' (or 'Three Supremes') which gives some simple guidance on how to approach a meditation practice. They are:

  1. To start with a loving heart;
  2. To perform the practice without attachment to outcome; and
  3. To finish by dedicating any achievements to others.

Now, if any of you are Type-As like me you are probably saying "Wait - what about what I want to achieve?" And that is of course the point - if we approach our practice in this way we can avoid just generating attachment to some desired outcome. Instead our meditation is purer and less complicated.

But there is more than that. Sharing is powerful in itself. In the Itivuttaka The Buddha says:

If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving & sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would the stain of selfishness overcome their minds. Even if it were their last bite, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared, if there were someone to receive their gift. But because beings do not know, as I know, the results of giving & sharing, they eat without having given. The stain of selfishness overcomes their minds.
The message here is clear - the act of sharing is important and something we should practice in all forms of our life. When we meditate we recite the dedication, but that is not enough. We should approach our life 'off the cushion' with this attitude of sharing. Whether this is smiling more, approaching people with more love or being more understanding and compassionate. Our practice should be shared in all these ways.

So as much as anything reciting the dedication is a reminder to ourselves that we should continue to practice this sharing.

Metta, Chris.


PS: I have linked below a fully guided meditation on the dedication of merit and the importance of sharing - please feel free to use it in your own practice if you wish. Apologies that the audio has some distortion issues, I have been having some microphone problems.

PPS: Those of you in the Theravadin tradition will recognize the short dedication of merit above as a cut-down version of the Sabba-patti-dāna Gāthā:

May all beings — without limit, without end —
have a share in the merit just now made,
and in whatever other merit I have made.

Those who are dear & kind to me —
beginning with my mother & father —
whom I have seen or never seen;
and others, neutral or hostile;

beings established in the cosmos —
the three realms, the four modes of birth,
with five, one, or four aggregates —
wandering on from realm to realm:

If they know of my dedication of merit,
may they themselves rejoice,
and if they do not know,
may the devas inform them.

By reason of their rejoicing
in my gift of merit,
may all beings always live happily,
free from animosity.

May they attain the Serene State,
and their radiant hopes be fulfilled.

"Itivuttaka: The Group of Ones" § 26.   {Iti 1.26; Iti 18}, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/iti/iti.1.001-027.than.html .

Photo by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash

Saturday, November 20, 2021

One's Own Mind

One's Own Mind

The other day I came across an interesting quote from the 11th Century Zen Master Foyan Qingyuan:

It is as though you have an eye
That sees all forms
But does not see itself.
This is how your mind is.
Its light penetrates everywhere
And engulfs everything,
So why does it not know itself?
This really resonated with me - our minds are amazing, can know countless things and can understand or make inferences about so many external things, but our own mind often understands little about itself. We pay little attention to the fickleness of our memory, or the innumerable biases, assumptions, mental habits or delusions that come along with this wonderful capability.

The ability for us to reflect on our own mind - using our own mind - is of course one of the things we cultivate in our practice. This turning around from an outward looking stance to inward is what contemplation is all about. Mindfulness has become a trendy word but at root all it is is knowing our own mind, with our own mind. This reflexive ability is fundamental, and one of the big changes we experience once we start on a meditation path.

In the Sacitta Sutta the Buddha is talking with a group of monks and brings up this exact subject:

The Blessed One said: "Even if a monk is not skilled in the ways of the minds of others [i.e., not skilled in reading the minds of others] he should train himself: 'I will be skilled in reading my own mind.'

"And how is a monk skilled in reading his own mind? Imagine a young woman — or man — fond of adornment, examining the image of her own face in a bright, clean mirror or bowl of clear water: If she saw any dirt or blemish there, she would try to remove it. If she saw no dirt or blemish there, she would be pleased, her resolves fulfilled: 'How fortunate I am! How clean I am!' In the same way, a monk's self-examination is very productive in terms of skillful qualities: 'Do I usually remain covetous or not? With thoughts of ill will or not? Overcome by sloth & drowsiness or not? Restless or not? Uncertain or gone beyond uncertainty? Angry or not? With soiled thoughts or unsoiled thoughts? With my body aroused or unaroused? Lazy or with persistence aroused? Unconcentrated or concentrated?'

Now, I may be projecting here, but I read this passage as having some deep humor underlying it. It is as if The Buddha is saying, "hey - you know how bad you are at reading other people's minds - maybe you should try to read your own?" He then goes on to use a metaphor of an attractive young woman reflecting on her own beauty - which is an interesting one to use with a group of celibate monks! It feels like he is saying that this need for reflection is obvious to others, and yet the monks still need to be reminded of it's importance.

However you read the sutta the message is the same, that we should spend time reflecting on how our own mind is working. Of course this is true when we sit on the cushion, but it should be equally true in all other moments of our lives. Choosing to reflect on how our mind is as we walk, as we read the news, as we talk with a friend - all of these are moments where we can check what is really going on.

When we walk down a busy street we know to have our head up and eyes open to everything that is going on. What is not so obvious is that we should also be aware of what is going on in our minds at the same time - are we attentive or distracted, apprehensive or confident, angry with the crowds or enjoying the energy? Whatever we do there is another world going on in our mind, and self-examination is a critical tool in our development.     

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided half-hour meditation on these passages. Feel free to use it in your practice in whatever way you feel helps.


"Sacitta Sutta: One's Own Mind" (AN 10.51), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.051.than.html .

Saturday, November 13, 2021

All Time Like the Present

All Time Like the Present

I recently celebrated my birthday, the time when - as a colleague of mine used to describe it - "the earth once more passes close to the same arbitrary point in space that it did when I was born."

We all use language that refers to time, and have a vague feeling for it, but beyond noticing that it passes beyond us we don't really have a grasp of it. We may say "I don't know where the time went," but never comment on the fact that we don't know where it's coming from either. We throw around terms like 'Thursday,' but really have no true concept of Thursday-ness. As Ford Prefect observes in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so."

In the Thirteenth Century Dōgen Zenji, the great founder of the Sōtō school of Zen wrote a treatise on time called Uji or 'The Time Being.' In it he lays out a theory of the oneness of time and being, observing that we don't understand time because we don't doubt our experience of it, and so like a fish not understanding water so we don't understand time.

Now I am not going to pretend for a minute that I understand what is taught in Uji, or that I can even begin to scrape it's depths. However, meditation is an empirical activity, and we can in our own practice explore our relationship with time. This is what is meant by 'doubting our experience of it' - not denying the existence of time (which would be foolish) but instead opening up to the fact that our experience and our assumptions may not be the whole story.

In Uji Dōgen says:

Do not regard time as merely flying away; do not think that flying away is its sole function. For time to fly away there would have to be a separation [between it and things]. Because you imagine that time only passes, you do not learn the truth of being-time. In a word, every being in the entire world is a separate time in one continuum. And since being is time, I am my being-time.

What he's saying here is that while the nature of time is to pass, that is not all there is to it. If we focus solely on it's flow, how it leaves us, then we miss the deep connection we have with it. We are beings that exist in time, we are not separable from it.

One of the ways we can explore this in meditation is to choose one of the phases of the breath and use that phase as a place we can dwell in the present, experiencing the expansiveness of that point in time. I find that using the phase between the end of the out-breath and the arising of the new in-breath to be the perfect place for this (what medicine calls the 'expiratory pause'). During this time we can learn to experience our connection with all of time, what some people call the 'spacious present.'

I have linked below a fully guided thirty-minute meditation where we practice experiencing this spacious present. If you find it useful feel free to incorporate it in your own practice. However we experience time, and whether we see viewpoints such as Dōgen's as literal or metaphorical, we can all learn from exploring and questioning our relationship with it.

Metta, Chris.

Uji quote taken from Dogen on Being Time - https://www.themathesontrust.org/library/dogen-on-being-time

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Feel What's Here

Feel What's Here

In the Tibetan traditions there is a compassion meditation called Tonglen. In it's form it is very simple, but like most forms the simplicity hides a rich and - frankly - difficult practice.

At its base it is a visualization, where we use the in-breath to visualize receiving suffering, pain and hurt from others (or our self), and the out-breath to visualize replacing that pain with healing, positive energy and spaciousness. You can see here where the difficulty arises, as being open enough to breath in the pain runs against our usual aversions.

This form is a very powerful meditation, and there are several modern teachers - most notably Pema Chödrön - who see this practice as an essential meditation for our age.

When we start with Tonglen - indeed when we start with any compassion practice - I always recommend starting with practicing it for your self. Working with the pain of others can be challenging, but working with our own pain is equally so. By starting with yourself, then recognizing the delusion of duality between yourself and others gives us a path to grow in this practice.

I recently came across an interview with the wonderful teacher Tara Brach, where she gives some instructions on practicing Tonglen for yourself:

Tonglen is simple and beautiful. Quite simply, if you're feeling anxious, angry, a sense of shame, whatever it is, breathe in and agree to touch or feel it. Breathing out, offer space and care to whatever's there. If there's blocking to touching it, emphasize the in-breath and stay embodied. Feel whatever you feel in the throat, the chest, the belly. Or if there's a sense of being possessed by the feeling, emphasize the out-breath. Offer the feeling into a larger field where there's space and kindness. It's an art, not a formula. Ultimately, the practice is to breathe in and feel what's here; breathe out and offer it some space.

I think in these few beautiful words she has captured the essence of Tonglen - breathe in and feel what's here; breathe out and offer it some space.

I found these words incredibly helpful, and I hope that you do too.  If you have never practiced this form before then go slowly and gently, but I think you will see how powerful and relevant this is. As we work to cultivate our compassion this is a powerful tool to help us on our way.

Metta, Chris

PS: I have linked below a fully guided meditation on these words and an introduction to Tonglen. Feel free to use it in your practice in whatever way works for you.

Photo by Yoann Boyer on Unsplash

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Ignorance May Be Bliss...

Ignorance May Be Bliss...

If you are reading this it is likely that you are a meditator, or have meditated in the past, or you are considering meditation. If you are already a meditator you probably remember what it was like when you first sat on the cushion and closed your eyes...

In his advice to beginner meditators ("Meditation Takes Gumption") Bhante Henepola Gunaratana gives this warning:

Somewhere in this process, you will come face to face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way, and you just never noticed. You are also no crazier than everybody else around you. The only real difference is that you have confronted the situation; they have not. So they still feel relatively comfortable. That does not mean that they are better off. Ignorance may be bliss, but it does not lead to liberation. So don’t let this realization unsettle you. It is a milestone actually, a sign of real progress. The very fact that you have looked at the problem straight in the eye means that you are on your way up and out of it.

I love the humor and candor that Bhante uses here, and you can probably more than identify with what he says. The 'monkey mind' that he describes is familiar to all of us, and even though practice helps us tame it,  it sometimes makes a re-appearance, often at the most inconvenient times.

However, the part of Bhante's advice I want to focus on here is this:

You are also no crazier than everybody else around you. The only real difference is that you have confronted the situation; they have not. So they still feel relatively comfortable. That does not mean that they are better off. Ignorance may be bliss, but it does not lead to liberation.

The point here is that right from day one - from the very first time we choose to sit to meditate, we start to peel away the delusion and ignorance that we have embraced.

As we progress on our path we continue to strip away at this delusion. Sometimes it is bit by bit, sometimes it is through a major revelation when the 'penny drops.'

This realization - that from the very beginning of our meditation journey we have been working on removing our delusion - is an important one. Wherever you are on your journey this continues to be our endeavor. Ignorance may be bliss, but it does not lead to liberation.

Metta, Chris.

PS: For those of you who live in the area and who join our Sunday night group note that we will not be meeting on October 31st (Halloween) as I will be out of town.

PPS: This also means that there won't be a Metta Letter next week - I will send the next one in two weeks' time

PPPS: I have linked below a fully guided thirty minute meditation on this passage from Bhante Gunaratana - please feel free to use it in your own practice in whatever way helps.

"Meditation Takes Gumption" by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana|, September 15, 2020,

Photo by Simon Infanger on Unsplash

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Skillful Words

Skillful Words

A recurring theme in what I write is that we can all agree that if everyone else was more loving and compassionate in their words and actions then this world would be a better place. Of course the corollary to this is that the only person I can actually change is my self - that at the end of the day it is incumbent on each of us to choose to be more loving and compassionate.

With everything that is going on in the world at the moment it is easy to focus outwards, to concentrate on where we think the blame lies. We see the actions and speech of others and condemn them. This is especially true at the moment when we think of the influence of social media, where continued intentional and unintentional mistruths and divisive words seem to be tearing us apart.

And yes, we can all agree that if everyone else was more truthful and compassionate in their words and actions the world would be a better place. But of course, once again, we each have to take responsibility that it is our own words and actions we have to look at, we can only change our selves.

The good news is that in the Pali writings there is very clear and guidance for how we should post on social media. Yes, you heard that right - some two thousand year-old writings can give us clear guidance on social media behavior.

In the Abhaya Sutta Prince Abhaya asks The Buddha (who here refers to himself as 'The Tathagata') a tricky questions about speech:

...Prince Abhaya took a lower seat and sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, "Lord, would the Tathagata say words that are unendearing & disagreeable to others?"

"Prince, there is no categorical yes-or-no answer to that."

[1] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[2] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[3] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

[4] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[5] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[6] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings."
Now, as is typical in these older writings, there is a lot of near-repetition here, where just a few words are changed in each paragraph. If you read carefully you will see that there is a clear logic to the words (the programmer in me sees this as a classic IF...ELSE or CASE statement!).  If you find this a little dense then the translator, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, gives a very clear summary in his introduction:

In this discourse, the Buddha shows the factors that go into deciding what is and is not worth saying. The main factors are three: whether or not a statement is true, whether or not it is beneficial, and whether or not it is pleasing to others. The Buddha himself would state only those things that are true and beneficial, and would have a sense of time for when pleasing and unpleasing things should be said. Notice that the possibility that a statement might be untrue yet beneficial is not even entertained.

As I say, this is very clear advice and can be directly applied to all of our speech and interaction with others - and is directly relevant to how we might choose - or not choose - to post on social media. Ask three things - is what I am going to say true? Is it beneficial for the reader/hearer? Will it be pleasing to them?

If the words are untrue or not beneficial then we should say nothing. If they are true and beneficial then we ask whether they will be pleasing to hear. Having determined that, we ask whether this is the right time to say them. Note that something can be true, beneficial and pleasing, but we still choose not to say them. If they are true and beneficial and unpleasing (disagreeable) then we take extra care in what we say. Why? As we are told "Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings" - in other words, we choose whether or not to say something through a sense of compassion. If we are posting from anger or indignation then that is not right speech.

I have done my best to ensure what I say here is true, and I hope that it is both beneficial and pleasant to read. Hopefully I got the timing right too!

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a meditation on being skillful (Kusala) in our speech. Feel free to listen and use it in whatever way supports your practice.


"Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya" (MN 58), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.058.than.html .


 Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash




Saturday, October 9, 2021

Not Just a Happy Place

Not Just a Happy Place

Sometimes, when we are stressed, the ability to sit and calm ourselves can be incredibly healing. When we practice meditation we almost always start with centering, calming and being present in a way that we don't usually experience in our daily life. Of course as we practice the hope is that this calm will pervade more and more of our life so that we can be centered and present even when we are not on the cushion.

But meditation is surely much more than just finding that place of peace, and can offer more than reading The Little Book of Calm can. Finding that point of peace, calm and presence is part of the journey, not the destination. Meditation is not just about finding your 'happy place.' As Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche says in his book "What Makes You (Not) A Buddhist":

Prince Siddhartha, who sacrificed all the comforts and luxuries of palace life, must have been searching for more than passivity and shrubbery when he set out to discover enlightenment.
The key insight we can have, when we find that place of presence and calm, is that 'Things Look Different From Here.' We can in the moment of presence have a clarity of view that we cannot reach when we are distracted.

We live in a time where the most influential words and actions seem come from a place of noise and distraction. People read a Facebook post,  hear a TV pundit or watch a YouTube Video (or twelve) and then shout their received viewpoint. Action comes from an ever-growing snowball of outrage and indignation, and for that reason they only increase suffering.

In contrast, when we are in a place of calm and presence we can instead cultivate compassion, goodwill and wisdom. Having cultivated these we can get clarity - and use that clarity to inform our actions.

Things really do look different from here.


Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided thirty minute meditation on finding Clarity in that place of calm. You are welcome to use it in whatever way helps your own practice.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

I Am Water


I Am Water

The other week I was driving through Portland when we hit some traffic as we were merging on to the freeway. Above us I noticed a piece of graffiti (graffito?) written on a bridge that said, simply:

You Are the Traffic

This simple sentence really got me thinking. I had not come across it before - though subsequent searches showed it is not an original thought, having even been used as a slogan by a GPS company. But it is a powerful one, and one that can teach an important lesson.

When we sit in traffic we usually think about 'us' and 'them' - our car has a legitimate right to be on the road, with an important reason for getting wherever we are going. Everyone else is 'the traffic' and their motives, and the motives of the city planners, are at best suspect. The traffic is bad, and gets in the way of our own desire to be somewhere.

Of course this is obviously foolish, but we have all felt it. This separation of 'me' versus 'traffic' seems very real. Despite the fact that even a small piece of reflection shows that it is a deluded way to think we continue to think that way. For most of us the state of traffic only matters to us when we are in our car, and then we are, by definition, part of the traffic. I am Traffic.

This is a very clear example of the delusion of a separate self. In the concept of anatta (not-self) we see that our concept of our selves as completely independent separable entities is delusion. Not seeing ourselves as part of the traffic is delusion.

In his book "Selves & Not-self - The Buddhist Teaching on Anatta" Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu teaches:

Take an example from your childhood. Suppose you have a younger sister, and someone down the street is threatening her. You want to protect her. At that moment she is very much your sister. She belongs to you, so you will do whatever you can to protect her. Then suppose that, when you've brought her home safely, she begins to play with your toy car and won't give it back to you. Now she's no longer your sister. She's the Other. Your sense of your self, and of what is yours and not yours, has shifted. The boundary line between self and not-self has changed.

You've been doing this sort of thing — changing the boundaries of what's self and not-self — all of the time. Think back on your life — or even for just a day — to see the many times your sense of self has changed from one role to another.

Normally we create a sense of self as a strategy for gaining happiness. We look for what abilities we have in order to gain a happiness we want. Those abilities are then ours. The hand we can use to reach for the object we want is our hand; the loud voice we can use to scare off the bullies threatening our sister is our voice. This is why the element of control is so essential to our sense of self: We assume that the things we can control are us or ours. Then we also try to think about which part of ourselves will live to enjoy the happiness we're trying to gain. These things will change depending on the desire.
This idea of our shifting sense of self, dependent on what we believe will bring happiness is exactly what is going on when we separate our self from the traffic.

There is a widely-quoted saying from Thích Nhất Hạnh that says:

Enlightenment, for a wave in the ocean,
is the moment the wave realizes it is water.
Thay often used this analogy of the wave and the water, especially in the context of our limited life spans. The analogy speaks to how we are all part of many processes, and how having a sense of self that separates us from those processes is a delusion. We are traffic, we are our neighborhood, we are society, we are our family, we are sangha- we are water.

Metta, Chris.

PS. I have linked below a fully guided meditation on traffic, water and how we cannot separate ourselves from the process we are part of. Feel free to use it in your own practice if you wish.

PPS. The Thích Nhất Hạnh quote is widely quoted on the internet but I was unable to identify the original source. Normally I do not use quotes that I can't definitively source but in this case there are many examples of Thay using the same or similar analogies that I could source. I take sourcing seriously, so if you know exactly where the quote I used came from please let me know - I would be very grateful! As Abraham Lincoln said, you shouldn't believe everything you read on the internet.

"Selves & Not-self: The Buddhist Teaching on Anatta", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition),
30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/selvesnotself.html .

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Wisdom and Compassion

Wisdom and Compassion

In the Tibetan or Vajrayana traditions it is common to see the symbolism of the Bell and Dorje. You may well have seen these on Tibetan shrines or, commonly, for sale in Nepalese market stalls. If you are not familiar with them the Bell is a small hand-bell and the Dorje is a double-ended dumbbell-like object. The Dorje represents a lightning bolt or jewel (both of which are commonly known by their Sanskrit name 'vajra').

The objects are always treated as a pair. The bell represents wisdom (I have had it explained to me as the sound coming from the emptiness of the bell), while the dorje represents compassion (or compassionate action). The pair also represent feminine and masculine aspects, with the bell representing the feminine and the dorje masculine.

What is useful about these symbols is that they are designed to be contemplated together - wisdom and compassion, compassion and wisdom. They represent how the insight and understanding we develop goes hand in hand with the emotion of compassion that we cultivate. Wisdom and compassion together can be powerful drivers of growth for ourselves and those around us. Compassionate action without wisdom can be unskillful ('akusala') while wisdom without compassion can be cold or merely intelectual.

In his essay 'Head & Heart Together - Bringing Wisdom to the Brahma-viharas' Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu teaches:

If we think of the heart as the side of the mind that wants happiness, the head is the side that understands how cause and effect actually work. If your head and heart can learn to cooperate — that is, if your head can give priority to finding the causes for true happiness, and your heart can learn to embrace those causes — then the training of the mind can go far.

...if you get your head and your heart to respect each other, they can take each other far. Your heart needs the help of your head to generate and act on more skillful emotions. Your head needs your heart to remind you that what's really important in life is putting an end to suffering. When they learn how to work together, they can make your human mind into an unlimited brahma-mind. And more: They can master the causes of happiness to the point where they transcend themselves, touching an uncaused dimension that the head can't encompass, and a happiness so true that the heart has no further need for desire.

I think this is an important teaching - that as we cultivate compassion and lovingkindness we should also develop wisdom. It is wisdom that allows us to move beyond the emotion of compassion to actual compassionate action.

As you go through your week I would like to encourage you to contemplate what it means for wisdom and compassion to go hand in hand. If you come across someone who is suffering, or if you are experiencing suffering yourself, then practice both wisdom and compassion together. For example, there is a lot of homelessness around us at the moment. Many people are reacting with fear and anger. Even if we move beyond these negative emotions it is sometimes easy to feel just pity - the distancing emotion that is the 'near enemy' of compassion. Or we can ask ourselves 'what does it mean to have both compassion and wisdom here?' Compassion sees the person as a person, and acknowledges their suffering. Wisdom recognizes that the situation is an outcome, not a cause - that the situation says more about us as a society than it does about the individual. I'm not saying that this realization alone can 'solve' anything, but it can be the foundation for true compassionate action. Meeting suffering with both wisdom and compassion changes our relationship with the world.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation on the Bell and the Dorje, and how they can remind us to cultivate both compassion and wisdom together.

 "Head & Heart Together: Bringing Wisdom to the Brahma-viharas", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 17 April 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/headandheart.html .

Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash




Saturday, September 11, 2021

Find Your Theme

Find Your Theme

When we talk about our meditation practice and our path we often use the analogy of 'The Middle Way" - so much so that the phrase has been co-opted by many other groups and used to describe political doctrines, military strategies and industrial compromises. Often there is a fundamental misunderstanding that taking the middle way is at best a compromise or, at worst, weakness.

Of course taking the middle way is anything but weakness - it is a path of wisdom, not compromise. It's not trying to thread the needle between extreme passion and indifference, instead it is the recognition that those are both unfruitful approaches, and that they are not the only choices. It's an active choice of finding balance, not a failure to commit.

My favorite example of this active choice is the story of the Venerable Sona. Sona was a monk who, we are told, meditated with such ferver that 'his feet bled.' Sona becomes discouraged, as despite his extreme effort he feels like he has made no progress. Sound at all familiar? He thinks to himself that he was well-off before he became a monk, and wonders if he should return to that lifestyle. The Buddha suddenly appears to him and they have the following exchange:

The Blessed One said to him, "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 fermentations... What if I were to disavow the training, return to the lower life, enjoy wealth, & make merit?'"

"Yes, lord."

"Now what do you think, Sona. Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the vina?"

"Yes, lord."

"And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too taut, was your vina in tune & playable?"

"No, lord."

"And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too loose, was your vina in tune & playable?"

"No, lord."

"And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your vina in tune & playable?"

"Yes, lord."

"In the same way, Sona, 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."

"Yes, lord," Ven. Sona answered the Blessed One. Then, having given this exhortation to Ven. Sona, the Blessed One — as a strong man might stretch out his bent arm or bend his outstretched arm — disappeared from the Cool Wood and appeared on Vulture Peak Mountain.
This analogy is a wonderful way to think about the middle way. It's not that having the strings too taut or too loose are reasonable choices - they are not. The vina (often translated as 'lute') is unplayable in these states. Tuning the vina correctly is not weakness or compromise but wisdom. There is a place where the strings are perfectly in tune - and this is the only state that will allow the instrument to make beautiful music.

I love the translation Thanissaro Bhikkhu uses here: "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 idea of Ven. Sona being able to 'pick up his theme' once he has found the right level of effort for his practice is both poetic and practical - after all, aren't we all trying to 'find our theme?'

Sona did manage to find his theme - we are told:

So after that, Ven. Sona determined the right pitch for his persistence, attuned the pitch of the [five] faculties [to that], and there picked up his theme. Dwelling alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, & resolute, he in no long time reached & remained in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing & realizing it for himself in the here & now. He knew: "Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for the sake of this world." And thus Ven. Sona became another one of the arahants.

It's easy to get discouraged in our practice, and we would all love to 'pick up our theme.' Finding the middle way in our practice is not a matter of some weak compromise between ardent fervor and indifference, but is instead working to find a point of perfect tuning in our practice and in our lives.

 Metta, Chris

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on the stroy of Ven. Sona and the Lute. Please feel free to use it if you wish in any way that supports your practice.

"Sona Sutta: About Sona" (AN 6.55), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an06/an06.055.than.html .



Saturday, September 4, 2021

Not What We Want

 Not What We Want

 There's a lot going on in this world, and for each of us there's a lot going on in our own life. Big stuff. Small stuff. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. And with everything that is happening it's easy to feel overwhelmed.

A common feeling is that things aren't how we would want them to be - a wish that things were different, that things were 'otherwise.'

The First Noble Truth describes this situation succinctly:

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

The words 'stress' or 'stressful' here are translations of the Pali word dukkha, which is often translated as 'suffering,' but which has a more subtle meaning than that. People sometimes use the rather awkward 'unsatisfactoriness' or the more colloquial 'suckiness.' However we translate it we can all resonate with this feeling. When we are separated from what we love or when things go wrong we are stressed and it feels like things suck.

The Second Noble Truth explains the cause of this stress or sufferings - not from the things themselves but from our clinging and wish for things to be otherwise. And we are then taught that the way to overcome this is to move beyond that clinging. This is important, we don't move beyond stress or suffering by removing the unpleasant things, we move beyond it by removing our clinging to things being 'otherwise.'

This seems counter-intuitive at first - if my pain is causing me to suffer, then I should free myself of that pain, right? Instead what this says is that root of our suffering is not the pain but our desire to be without the pain. And what is freeing about this is that the desire - the cause of our suffering - is within our control - even if the cause of the pain is not.

Pema Chödrön explores this distinction further in her book "The Wisdom of No Escape: How to Love Yourself and Your World":

There is a common misunderstanding among the human beings who have ever been born on earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same. A much more interesting, kind and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our curiosity is bitter or sweet. To lead to a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is. If we are committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we’re going to run; we’ll never know what’s beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing.

I find this incredibly freeing. I cannot control what is happening in the world, or the ageing of my body, or how others treat me. I can, however, realize that I am stressed and suffer not because of these things but by my wish for things to be otherwise. And I can, as Pema Chödrön suggests, use that awareness to live a more full, kind and joyful life.

Metta, Chris.

P.S. One of the ways we can work with this in our meditation practice is by cultivating awareness of bodily and mental sensations as they arise. As we become aware of a sensation we identify it as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Then we let go of it, practicing not clinging to the pleasant sensations and non-aversion to the unpleasant. I have linked below a fully guided 30-minute meditation where we practice this. You are welcome to use it in your own practice.

P.P.S. I do want to add that the equanimity we cultivate in this practice is not the same as indifference. We can recognize pain in our leg without aversion, but still move our leg with compassion. In the same way if there is injustice we can practice acceptance - and at the same time work compassionately for the removal of that injustice. It is not an either-or.



Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion" (SN 56.11), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html .


Photo by Trym Nilsen on Unsplash




Saturday, August 28, 2021

The Empty Boat


The Empty Boat

Last week I wrote about how we can have a gentle awareness of our breath - or whatever object we are using in our meditation. This 'gentle awareness' contrasts with the tendency we sometimes have to grasp at our breath - to concentrate as hard as we possibly can. As I was doing some background reading for that I came across this quote from Lama Yeshe which I found particularly appropriate:

Many meditators emphasize too much on concentration: if you are squeezing, then there is no control of anger if someone disturbs you. The beauty of real meditation is, that even if you are disturbed, you can allow space and time for this.
What struck me about this was not only that he warned against the kind of grasping concentration we are discussing - or 'squeezing' as he calls it - but that he outlines a specific danger of this - that we open ourselves up to anger.

This may seem a little strange at first, but it is worth contrasting the control we have when practicing gentle awareness versus the lack of control we have when we grasp or 'squeeze' at the object. When we concentrate as hard as we possibly can our minds are unbalanced. The slightest thing can send us off, and we open ourselves up to negative emotions such as anger. When we have gentle awareness and our minds are balanced we can meet disturbances and interruptions with equanimity.

As I was reading further around this I was reminded of the story of The Empty Boat that Thích Nhất Hạnh tells:

A monk decides to meditate alone. Away from his monastery, he takes a boat and goes to the middle of the lake, closes his eyes and begins to meditate.

After a few hours of unperturbed silence, he suddenly feels the blow of another boat hitting his. With his eyes still closed, he feels his anger rising and, when he opens his eyes, he is ready to shout at the boatman who dared to disturb his meditation. But when he opened his eyes, saw that it was an empty boat, not tied up, floating in the middle of the lake...

At that moment, the monk achieves self-realization and understands that anger is within him; it simply needs to hit an external object to provoke it.

After that, whenever he meets someone who irritates or provokes his anger, he remembers; the other person is just an empty boat.

Anger is inside me.
This story, which I believe is a re-telling of a story from the Zhuangzi, is really interesting. When we realize that our reactions - whether we allow anger to arise or not - depends on an unknown, then we learn something about that anger. We say 'that person made me angry' - but what if there is no person? Think of it as Schrödinger's Boat - If there's a cat in it we get angry with the cat, otherwise we don't get angry. Contemplating this allows us to strip away the delusion that anger is external to us, that it is something others enforce on us, and instead allows us to own our anger. Once we own it, we can choose to move beyond it.

In his essay "Happiness and Peace are Possible," Thích Nhất Hạnh gives us the following advice for how to approach our meditation:

You don’t have to struggle with your breath. You don’t have to struggle with your body, or with your hate, or with your anger. Treat your in-breath and out-breath tenderly, nonviolently, as you would treat a flower. Later you will be able to do the same thing with your physical body, treating it with gentleness, respect, nonviolence, and tenderness.

Like Lama Yeshe he is showing how this gentle approach to our meditation carries over to our day-to-day lives, and allows us to approach this world with equanimity and kindness.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on the story of The Empty Boat. Feel free to use it if you wish in your own practice.


Photo by Oliver Cole on Unsplash




Saturday, August 21, 2021

Gentle Awareness

Gentle Awareness

When I was a kid I tried meditating. I didn't really know what meditation was, but I knew it somehow involved concentrating as hard as I could on something. For me the 'something' was a candle. After a few goes I gave up - nothing really happened, the candle was the same and I just felt frustrated. My first meditation experience probably lasted all of three minutes, and it would be a few decades before I tried again.

I laugh at this nowadays, but at the time my attempt was sincere. What I hadn't realized - and nobody told me - was that meditation didn't in fact start with straining to concentrate on something. Instead our meditations start with a simple, gentle, awareness.

The Pali term for simple breath meditation is anapanasati - literally the 'recollection of breathing in and out.' 'Recollection' is an interesting term here and can seem strange at first but it is a great place to start. Instead of concentrating as hard as we possible can on the breath we instead just recall that we are breathing. When we recall something we bring to our mind something that we know, but had not been conscious of. It's not that you didn't know you were breathing, it's that you did not have that fact in your consciousness.

The great thing about meditation is that it is empirical, that we can experiment with it and see for ourselves the effects of changes in approach. And part of that is experimenting with the lightness of touch of our awareness. As we progress in our experience we can make that awareness ever more gentle, lighter and more subtle.

Even though awareness of breath is for most of us the first form of practice we learn it is important not to see it as a 'basic' or 'junior' meditation. It is often used as the foundation of other forms, but we shouldn't skip past it and rush to those other forms. The calmness, centering and presence we can cultivate from a gentle awareness is not something to be rushed past but something to be experienced.

Sometimes it's good to go back to the basics, and a gentle awareness of the breath is a beautiful place to return to.

Metta, Chris.


I have linked below a fully guided meditation on cultivating a gentle awareness of the breath. You are welcome to use it in whatever way helps you in your practice.



Photo by Eli DeFaria on Unsplash





Saturday, August 14, 2021

In Silence


In Silence

I first learned to meditate many years ago at a small center in Bristol, England. The room where we were taught was a small one on the second floor above a store on a busy road from the City Center. It was on a main bus route and people would mill around outside waiting. The buses that stopped there were double-deckers and from the windows we could see the people in the upper decks. In the summer the center's windows would be open as there was no air-conditioning, and the noise from outside would be loud and often raucous.

One could say that it wasn't an ideal place to learn to meditate - but I would disagree. In many ways it was perfect. You couldn't get angry with the sources of the noise, they had as much or more right to be there than we did. It was an urban meditation center and we quickly got to realize what that meant. We learned to accept the noise, and the people shouting and the deep growling sounds of the diesel engines (and the fumes) simply became part of our meditation.

I have been thinking a lot about silence lately. We like to think that when we meditate we go into a quiet room and shut out all the noise - but of course we can't always do that, and even when we can we quickly find we are simply replacing one kind of sound with another.

In 1952 composer John Cage wrote his most famous work, a piece called 4'33". The score is in three movements, with the instructions for each movement being simply "Tacet" - don't play your instrument. So for the duration of the piece (which happened to be 4'33" for the first performance) the performer, or performers, play nothing on their instrument.

Now many people interpret this as 4'33" of silence, and consider Cage a fraud and/or the piece a joke, but of course this is not the case. Simply because the instruments aren't being played doesn't mean that there is silence. Instead the sounds that come to the fore are the ambient, environmental sounds. And because of that the piece sounds different when played on a piano, or by an orchestra, or by a death-metal band.

One way to look at what Cage is saying is that when we strip away the intentional sounds of the instruments, there is still sound. It will come as no surprise to you that Cage's inspiration for the piece came from his own practice of Zen Buddhism.

When we sit on the cushion we usually chose to be away from intentional sounds, from people talking and from music. But sounds are still there - whether they are the normal ambient sounds or the buses on the street. And part of our practice is to be able to have awareness of these sounds but to not cling to them. To be aware of the sensation of hearing the bus but not to get caught up in our mental formations of buses.

We can also go deeper. When we strip away (or avoid) the intentional sounds we are left with the ambient. What is left when we strip away the ambient? What is left is the sound of our own bodies, our own ears, of our internal psycho-acoustic mechanisms.

There is a meditation form, known as nada-yoga (practice on the inner sound) that works with these sounds. There is a wonderful overview of this form by Ajahn Amaro called "The Sound of Silence," which I highly recommend reading. In it Ajahn says:

To detect the nada sound, turn your attention toward your hearing. If you listen carefully to the sounds around you, you’re likely to hear a continuous, high-pitched inner sound like white noise in the background. It is a sound that is beginningless and endless.

There’s no need to theorize about this inner vibration in an effort to figure out exactly what it might be. Just turn your attention to it. If you’re able to hear this inner sound, you can use the simple act of listening to it as another form of meditation practice, in the same way one uses the breath as an object of awareness. Just bring your attention to the inner sound and allow it to fill the whole sphere of your awareness.
He does give some words of caution that are worth repeating for those of you who may suffer from tinnitus or similar:

In a small number of people, the inner sound is oppressively loud, usually for an organic reason. In these cases, inner listening is unlikely to be helpful as a meditation practice, since the subjec­tive intensity of the sound makes it less useful as an object to encourage peace and clarity.
So, if this practice bothers or upsets you then it is best to avoid this as a practice. However if that is not the case for you then it can be eye-opening (or ear-opening?) to meditate on these sounds. It allows us to center on a phenomenon - like the breath - that is always with us but seldom brought into our awareness.

Whatever level you wish to meditate on we can raise our awareness of all the sounds we experience - the intentional sounds, ambient sounds, and the subtle nada of our own bodies and minds.

As I delved into the subject of silence over the last weeks I learned and became aware of many things that had been below my awareness - more than I can put in this short newsletter but things I will maybe write more about in future. In the meantime I'd love to encourage you to experiment with more subtle awareness of sounds in your own practice.

Metta, Chris.


PS. Sadly John Cage is mostly remembered nowadays for the controversial and misunderstood 4'33". I don't want you to think that was all there was to him - he wrote a lot of wonderful music, some challenging, some beautiful, some both. Here is one of my favorites.

PPS. If you would like to follow a fully guided nada-yoga meditation please use the link below.




Saturday, August 7, 2021

For Our Mentors

 For Our Mentors

The last few weeks have been a difficult time for our family. Last Sunday my Father-in-Law passed away after a few months of illness. Obviously there has been much sadness, but as always there is the accompanying joy and gratitude of having had the opportunity to know this wonderful man.

For me I have great memories of the times we spent together - the most memorable of all being the times that the two of us would stay up late after others had gone to bed, drinking excellent Scotch and generally setting the world to rights. The subjects would always be a combination of spirituality, religion and politics - often to a soundtrack of Jazz, C20th classical, electronic and generally weird music. I loved those times, and looking back on them now I realize how formative they were to me over the years as I developed my own ideas and viewpoints.

You can probably relate and bring to mind the people in your own life who have had similar effects on you. Not exactly teachers, but people who have been influential by who they are, what they said and how they caused you to question and think. We often use the word 'mentor' or 'influence' for these people. As we discussed last week, having gratitude for those who have had a positive influence on our life is an important part of our path. Without gratitude we play into the delusion of our separate self. With gratitude we realize the myriad events and influences that make up our present being.

When we practice Metta Bhavana - cultivation of lovingkindness and goodwill - we often use four specific people to practice with: Our self; A friend; A neutral person, and An enemy. In the older forms of the practice (which goes back to around the 5th Century c.e.) there is an extra person to include - the 'benefactor.' This is a person who has, one way or another, helped you on your path. For a monk it was explicitly the person who had provided financial support to allow them to practice. For us the benefactor can be thought of more broadly as our mentors - those who have supported us on our path. Again, this is more than just your teachers and can include all those who provided insight or support that contributed to your own evolution. It can be the person whose kind words kept you on the path. It could be the person who welcomed you to your Sangha. It can be the person whose dedication to practice was an inspiration. It can even include those secular authors who have made you think and question things that should be questioned (GNU Terry Pratchett).

So I would like to encourage you this week to think about your own mentors and benefactors, and express gratitude for them. If they are still with us maybe express that gratitude to them. If they are no longer with us then hold that joy and gratitude in your heart. That is what I will be doing this week.

Metta, Chris

 I have linked below a fully guided Metta Bhavana meditation where we focus on generating metta for our Mentors. Feel free to use it if you wish in any way that helps.


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash