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, 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