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, July 31, 2021

Gratitude for What Matters

 Gratitude for What Matters

Over the past few weeks I have written about a couple of meditations that help us to get some perspective on how each one of us is deeply connected to each other, and how even the smallest actions can have wide ranging consequences. The first meditation, on the simple phrase 'how did I get here?' opens our eyes to the many ways our interactions and history shape our present. The second meditation, suggested by Pema Chödrön, asks the question 'does it matter?' for each of our own thoughts and actions.

We can think of these two contemplations as complementary view of the same web of interconnectedness that we are all part of - the one looking backwards to the causes of where we are now, and the other looking forward to the possible causes that our current thoughts and actions might have.

So if one is looking backwards and the other is looking forwards, it becomes natural to ask ourselves the question 'how should we be right now?'

I think there are many good answers to this. The whole point of these insight meditations is to gain a perspective that informs our present thoughts and actions. So I am going to offer one positive way to work with this insight - to have gratitude for the things that have mattered to you.

By examining the things that have mattered to us in our own path, having gratitude for them, and by recognizing that our own thoughts and actions matter to others we can start to 'model' our own behavior on the things that we are grateful for ourself. If we are grateful for the kind words someone gave us when we needed them, we can choose to offer kind words to others.

In his essay 'The Lessons of Gratitude,' Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu starts by quoting from the Dullabhā Sutta:

Monks, these two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful for a kindness done and feels obligated to repay it. These two people are hard to find in the world.

This one short paragraph sums up what we can do beautifully. By being grateful for the things that have mattered to us, we can learn to repay them, or - in the more modern phrase - pay it forward.

You will have noticed that I use Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu's translations and teachings a lot - they are things that have mattered to me, and I am hugely grateful for his rigor, clarity and insight. Many of you probably resonate with that, or have your own teachers that you owe gratitude for. And it isn't just for our teachers. Even the passing smile from a stranger can matter to us at the right moment, and can be the cause for gratitude.

So, as you go through this week I would like to encourage you to be aware of the things that have mattered to you and have gratitude for them. Starting from this place of gratitude provides a strong foundation for your own thoughts and actions.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on Gratitude for What Matters. Feel free to use it in your own practice in any way you wish.

Dullabhā Sutta [Hard to Find] AN 2:118. (Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu). dhammatalks.org. Retrieved from https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/AN/AN2_118.html.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Does It Matter?

 Does It Matter?

A few weeks ago I wrote about a powerful contemplation on the phrase 'How Did I Get Here?' I find this simple meditation opens our eyes to our interconnectedness and what Thích Nhất Hạnh describes as 'Interbeing.' By simply contemplating a few of the myriad of causes that allow us to be in exactly this state at exactly this time we start to break down our delusions of separateness and realize how many thoughts, actions and events have lead us to where we are.

Recently I read Pema Chödrön's "Welcoming the Unwelcome." It's a lovely book with some deceptively simple but challenging teachings. One of the things she recommends in the book is to ask the question "Does It Matter?"

"When we start to ask ourselves, “Does it matter?” we realize how many aspects there are to every situation. We begin to appreciate how interconnected we are to the rest of the world, and how even our thought patterns can lead to a whole series of consequences.


When we ask ourselves, “Does it matter?” we can first look at the outer, more obvious results of our actions. But then we can go deeper by examining how we are affecting our own mind: Am I making an old habit more habitual? Am I strengthening propensities I’d like to weaken? When I’m on the verge of lying to save face or manipulating a situation to go my way, where will that lead? Am I going in the direction of becoming a more deceitful person or a more guilty, self-denigrating person? How about when I experiment with practicing patience and generosity? How are my actions affecting my process of awakening? Where will they lead?"

Again, this is a simple but powerful contemplation. When we ask 'Does It Matter?' before an action or thought we have the opportunity to visualize what the effects and outcomes might be. We can't know the future, but we can imagine what might come about. When we snap at someone, write a snarky email, push past someone - all of these things will have consequences, whether small or large. And it's not just about the low-level aggressions. It's about the good stuff too - smiling at a person, taking the time to listen, thanking them. All of these may have consequences beyond the immediately obvious.

This is where what we learn from 'How Did I Get here?' comes in to play. Having spent time with that, looking backwards into the past, we learn how even the small things may have a direct responsibility for how things are. A throw-away comment someone made, a dream, even the first time your Father smiled at your mother. I exist because many years ago a young man offered to walk a young woman home from church. Did it matter? Obviously, yes.

Contemplating these small things that got you here is how we begin to open up to the web of actions and effects that brought us to where we are. And with that understanding we can start to answer the question 'Does It Matter?' for all of our thoughts and actions. Having contemplated the past we can use that insight to understand the possible effects of our actions. Again, we can't know the future, but we can understand the potential for what we do, say or think to have life-changing effects on others.

So as a pair these two contemplations can be enormously valuable - asking 'How Did I Get Here?' to open our eyes to our interconnectedness and our 'interbeing,' and asking 'Does It Matter?' to apply that understanding to realize the potential consequences of what we do. While this can feel a little overwhelming at first - webs going forward and backward! - overall it opens our eyes and sheds the delusion of our separateness. Which to me is a comforting thing.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on 'Does It Matter?' - you are welcome to use it in any way you wish as part of your own practice.

Quotes from Pema Chödrön, Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World

Photo by Ana Municio on Unsplash

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Master Your Senses


Master Your Senses

For many people their first encounter with Pali Scripture is through the Dhammapada - a collection of sayings of the Buddha. In many ways it is like a Buddhist equivalent of the 'Sermon on the Mount,' in that each one is a collection of teachings that probably were never given together historically, but as a collection they form a good and accessible introduction to the teachings. Originally part of the Khuddaka Nikāya it now has a life of its own and many of us have owned and loved small booklet versions of it.

There are many English translations out there, ranging from the accurate to the 'poetic,' and one I would recommend if you don't already have one is the freely available translation by Acharya Buddharakkhita - not least because of the excellent introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi.

In his book "Teachings of the Buddha" Jack Kornfield offers the following as a quote from the Dhammapada:

Master your senses,
What you taste and smell,
What you see, what you hear. 
In all things be a master
Of what you do and say and think.
Be free. 
Are you quiet?
Quieten your body.
Quieten your mind. 
By your own efforts
Waken yourself, watch yourself,
And live joyfully. 
Follow the truth of the way.
Reflect upon it.
Make it your own.
Live it.
It will always sustain you.

Now this is a beautiful and inspiring set of verses. Sadly, however it can't really be presented as an accurate translation from the Dhamapadda - the verses are a few scattered verses that Kornfield has selected from Thomas Byrom's version, which is more of a poetic retelling than a true translation.

Despite it's flaws I do find the selection useful. I was first introduced to this set of verses many years ago as a passage for meditation and contemplation, and I have used it in this way many times and found it valuable. So I was interested this week to go down the rabbit-hole of 'where exactly did the version I was using come from?'

This proved to be a little more difficult than I hoped, due to the fact that Byrom's version is poetic but loose, and Kornfield jumps around a bit in his selection, but I finally managed to get a 'parallel' translation that is closer to the Pali original. I used the (always excellent) translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, found the corresponding verses and re-ordered them to match:

Restraint with the eye is good,
good is restraint with the ear.
Restraint with the nose is good,
good is restraint with the tongue.
Restraint with the body is good,
good is restraint with speech.
Restraint with the heart is good,
good is restraint   everywhere.
A monk everywhere restrained
is released from all suffering & stress.

Calmed in body,
calmed in speech,
well-centered & calm,
having disgorged the baits of the world,
a monk is called

You yourself should reprove yourself,
      should examine
As a self-guarded monk
with guarded self,
mindful, you dwell at ease.

Dhamma his dwelling,
Dhamma his delight,
a monk pondering Dhamma,
calling Dhamma to mind,
does not fall away
from true Dhamma.

So does all this matter? Am I just being a little anal? Reading the two versions above you might gravitate to one over the other, and you may find value from either or both. Personally I find it important to be clear about what we have - a poetic retelling is fine as long as it is presented as just that, and we are aware we may be receiving ideas from the author that are not in the original. If I want to get close to the original teachings then I shouldn't look for that in the poetic readings. I will probably continue to use Kornfield's selection as a base for contemplation, but with this awareness. What is also clear however is that there are depths and subtleties in the more accurate translation that are simply missed in the poem.

What do you think? I know this is a touchy subject for some and that there is currently ongoing controversy around some recent publications, and I really don't want to be stirring that pot. But sometimes we accept a pithy quote or a beautiful poem without question when we should be looking deeper. What I can say is that when I do look deeper and get closer to the original teaching I always find that the profundity and beauty of the teachings always surpasses any beauty of prose.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation where we use the Kornfield selection as a base for contemplation. You are welcome to use it in your practice in whatever way you feel helps.

The Teachings of the Buddha edited by Jack Kornfield, selected from the Dhammapada translated by Thomas Byrom

 "Bhikkhuvagga: Monks" (Dhp XXV), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.25.than.html . Verses used:  C25, vv 360-361, 378, 379, 364

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Independence and Interbeing

 Independence and Interbeing

Last Sunday was July 4th - Independence Day - and while it was somewhat muted here in the PNW due to fire danger and the firework ban it still was an opportunity to reflect on what independence and freedom mean. These are things I have written about before - see for instance the letter on the idea of 'One Taste.'

When we embark on a meditation path one of the things that starts to fall away is the strong sense of an independent self. We start to move beyond the feeling of 'self' and 'other' and realize that we cannot adequately draw a solid line between the two. This is the realization of 'anatta' - often translated as 'no-self.' However, the realization is not that the self doesn't exist - that is a misconception that often leads to a rather nihilistic reading - but rather that we are unable to separate the self completely from all that is around it. We are all part of a process, not boxes stacked on a shelf.

So when we think about Independence it is a relative thing not an absolute. When a young adult leaves her parents and gets an apartment we say she has become independent - but the causes for her existence, her social and psychological status, her values and attitudes are all still framed and dependent on her experience - even if they are reactions to those experiences. Similarly when a country ceases to be ruled by another there is a level of independence but it is not complete - the country still has to participate in the global order, still has the experiences and traumas of the past and has to build its path in concert with other countries - including the country it became independent from.

One way of understanding our interdependence is to start to think more deeply about things and their causes and connections. In his essay The Heart Sutra: the Fullness of Emptiness Thich Nhat Hanh coins the term 'interbeing' in the following way:

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. We can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, “inter-be.”

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. So we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.

One of the first meditations I was taught is a very simple one where we sit and contemplate the question "How did I get here?".  This seemingly straightforward contemplation opens up our mind to understand how we are not independent entities, that our 'self' doesn't end at our skin and that we are part of a process. The beauty of the question is that it can be answered at many levels, from the mundane ("I came here by car" - how is it that I own a car..?) to the philosophical ("By committing to meditate" - why and what lead up to that..?). I have done this meditation many, many times and every time the realization is different.

It's a powerful meditation and one I would like to encourage you to try yourself. I have linked below an audio recording from last week of a group of us meditating in this way - if you find it useful in your practice I would encourage you to use it however you wish. 

Wishing you all a wonderful week,


P.S. For the music lovers among you I go into a fun story about connections and interbeing here.

Excerpt from The Heart Sutra: the Fullness of Emptiness From “Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries,” by Thich Nhat Hanh.