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, March 27, 2022

Teddy Bear

Teddy Bear

Today, if I may, I am going to tell you a rather sad story. I want you to promise not to laugh, as there is absolutely nothing funny about the tragic tale I am about to recount.

The events I am going to cover took place in an area of Southwest England called Wookey Hole, just a few miles away from where I lived many years ago. The events in question took place in 2006, a few years after I had left the area.

Wookey Hole is known for a series of spectacular caves and is a well known tourist attraction. The most recent owner of the caves was Gerry Cottle, a larger-than-life circus operator and showman. Think of a modern-day P.T. Barnum with an English accent and you won't be far off.

Cottle was responsible for a great expansion of the tourist attractions around the caves, bringing in a lot of side attractions such as Animatronic Dinosaurs, a Fairy Garden, a Cave Diving Museum, a Paper Making Museum, a Vintage Penny Arcade and a Pirate Island Adventure Golf Course. You know the type of place.

One of the additional attractions is a Children's Museum which has a large collection of vintage Teddy Bears. In 2006 they secured the loan of a Steiff Teddy Bear called Mabel that had once belonged to Elvis Presley. The bear was apparently insured for £40,000 (about $60,000). It was to be the jewel of the collection.

I now want to introduce you to Barney. Barney was a guard dog, a Doberman, who had been working with Security Guard Greg West for around six years. Barney's job was to patrol the attractions at night, ensuring that there were no threats or intruders.

Can you see where this is going? What could possibly go wrong?

Rather than give you a blow-by-blow account of the gruesome events I will just fast forward to the report by the BBC, where they quote Wookey Hole's General Manager, who informed them:

About 100 bears were caught up in this frenzied attack, some were merely little chews, whereas some of them had some quite devastating injuries.

Heads pulled off, arms, legs here and there, it was a total carnage really. I've never seen such a mess, there was stuffing, fluff and bear bits everywhere.

And, in all this carnage, Elvis' bear Mabel lost her head.

The story of this Teddy-Massacre spread quickly, with articles on the shocking events appearing on CNN, The Guardian, China Daily, The New York Times, Forbes and many, many other news outlets. The magazine Psychology Today even wrote a piece with the wonderful title "Toys Are Made for Dogs to Rip: the Wookey Hole Cave Massacre," giving their psychological viewpoint on the wisdom of leaving a dog alone with Teddy Bears.

It's a sad but compelling story, and one that I have recounted to friends many times since I first read about it fifteen years ago.

And, of course, it is a total fabrication.

In 2020, a year before he died, Gerry Cottle gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph where he finally spilled the beans:

At Wookey Hole we opened a teddy bear museum and pretended one of the bears belonged to Elvis Presley and that a guard dog had chewed it up. My friend in Vegas said: “I can’t believe it, Gerry. You’re front page news!”

Yes, it was a completely made-up publicity stunt, so typical of Gerry Cottle. But for a long time I believed it - after all, all those reputable news sources must have done their research, right? It was such a wonderful story, with sadness, humor, a moral and decapitation - everything that a good story should have.

Having realized that one of my favorite stories was just that - a story - I immediately thought of the well known Kalama Sutta. The Kalamas were a people who had experienced a long litany of spiritual teachers passing through, all of whom had espoused different paths and teachings, and who had left the Kalamas feeling confused and helpless. The Kalamas were suffering from an over-abundance of fake teachers.

The Buddha visited the Kalamas, and they aired their issues with him:

Lord, there are some brahmans & contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. And then other brahmans & contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt: Which of these venerable brahmans & contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?

Sounds familiar? I think anyone who has walked into a New-Age bookstore will identify with the poor Kalamas! 

The Buddha replied with this (now often-quoted) teaching:

Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So in this case, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering' — then you should abandon them.

Now this powerful reply is often misunderstood as a kind of 'ignore anyone else, anything goes!' approach to the spiritual path, which is of course the opposite of what it is truly saying. In his Translator's Note to the above passage Thanissaro Bhikkhu gives the following wise explanation:

Although this discourse is often cited as the Buddha's carte blanche for following one's own sense of right and wrong, it actually says something much more rigorous than that. Traditions are not to be followed simply because they are traditions. Reports (such as historical accounts or news) are not to be followed simply because the source seems reliable. One's own preferences are not to be followed simply because they seem logical or resonate with one's feelings. Instead, any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and — to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one's understanding of those results — they must further be checked against the experience of people who are wise. The ability to question and test one's beliefs in an appropriate way is called appropriate attention. The ability to recognize and choose wise people as mentors is called having admirable friends. [T]hese are, respectively, the most important internal and external factors for attaining the goal of the practice.

We are living in a time when we have unprecedented access to a wide range of teachings. This is a blessing and a curse, as it can leave us being buffeted about just like the Kalamas. Fake news is a recent trendy term, but the reality is that there have always been confusing and unreliable voices out there. We need to use discernment with how we consume both news and teachings.

Sadly, the story of Barney was one of those unreliable reports; however we can still learn a lot from the hapless canine.

Metta, Chris.

An important part of what we are taught in the Kalama Sutta is this idea of surrounding ourselves with 'admirable friends,' the wise mentors that we intentionally bring into our lives. This is one of the things that we do through being formally or informally part of a sangha. I have linked here a fully guided meditation on having gratitude for these 'admirable friends' - feel free to use it if you wish in your own practice.

"Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas" (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013,
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html .

Photo by Oxana Lyashenko on Unsplash

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Mustard Seeds

Mustard Seeds

While I was out driving earlier this week I passed a farm called "Mustard Seed Farms," and it made me think of how evocative the humble mustard seed is. Small and perfectly round the mustard seed is a pungent spice and will grow into a plant with striking flowers and edible leaves. There are records of its use dating back nearly six thousand years. I suspected that the name of the farm was a reference to it's use in the synoptic gospels as a metaphor for faith, and a quick search later confirmed that this was the case.

The humble mustard seed is also used in the early Buddhist commentaries in the well-known but heart-wrenching story of Kisa 'Skinny' Gotami. In the commentary we are told that Gotami had a young son, who "running back and forth and running all around, while playing met his end." Gotami, understandably, was so distraught she went into what we, in modern times, would call denial:

Under the influence of her sorrow-to-the-point-of-madness,
she took the dead corpse on her hip and
wandered in the city from the door of one house to another
pleading: "Give medicine to me for my son!"
People reviled her, saying "What good is medicine?"
She did not grasp what they were saying.

Eventually someone took pity on her and suggested she talk with the Buddha, so she went to find him at the monastery and said:

"Blessed One, give medicine to me for my son!"
The master, seeing her situation, said,
"Go, having entered the city,
into whatever house has never before experienced any death,
and take from them a mustard seed."

And so, of course, she went door to door looking for a mustard seed from a house that had never experienced death. Now the interesting thing here is that in this story the mustard seed medicine is not a metaphor, but more of a MacGuffin. The mustard seed was a cheap and common spice, and most households would have had plenty - and we are told that all the households she went to were willing to offer some to her. So getting the seed wasn't the issue. The thing was, as Gotami soon realized, there wasn't a household in the city that had not experienced death.

Realizing this Gotami took her son and laid him in the charnel ground. Having done this, she returned to the Buddha:

Then the master said to her,
"Have you obtained, Gotami, the mustard seed?"
"Finished, sir, is the matter of the mustard seed" she said.
"You have indeed restored me."

Now, there's quite a lot to unpack in this familiar story, and it is worth spending time contemplating it. It could be argued that the Buddha's action, sending a poor grieving woman on a fruitless search, seems a little cruel. In reality the Buddha did have compassion, but knew that for her to come to terms with what had happened she needed to open her eyes, to gain some wisdom as to how the world is. I have written before about the way that wisdom and compassion go hand in hand, and I think that the story of Skinny Gotami is a beautiful example of this.

And, we are told, Gotami soon went on to become enlightened. The tragedy of losing her son was real, but the wisdom she gained was the most compassionate gift that could be given.

 Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on how Wisdom and Compassion go hand in hand. Feel free to use it if you wish as part of your practice.

"Skinny Gotami and the Mustard Seed" (ThigA 10.1), by Andrew Olendzki.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/noncanon/comy/thiga-10-01-ao0.html .

Photo by Joshua Lanzarini on Unsplash

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Cats and Frogs

Cats and Frogs

I live with a monster.

An incredibly cute, furry little monster, but a monster none the less. She is at one with her cat-ness, doing the kind of things that only cats can do. She is the ultimate arbiter of which things are allowed to be on shelves and tables, and which things need to be gently coaxed over the edge and onto the floor. And, should you dare to pet her for five seconds more than the perfect amount you will lose an arm.

Like all cats she spends at least seventy percent of her time asleep, especially now she is getting older. I was watching her sleep earlier this week, and was wondering what she might be thinking. It struck me that while I could never know exactly what she was feeling and thinking, I could be fairly sure of what she wasn't doing. She wasn't worrying about what she had achieved in life, she wasn't thinking to herself that she needed to be doing more. I've never known a cat worry about getting a promotion, becoming famous, owning the best house or creating the perfect work of art before they die.

Of course, as humans we have the extra gift of having an awareness of our own mortality. We tend to channel this into worry about whether we have achieved enough. It is the classic case of our focus on what we have done, versus what we are. Doing versus being.

In the Dhammapada we are given a clear instruction of what an awareness of our mortality should inspire us to do:

There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

Note carefully what this is saying, what this says about our priorities. Recognizing our mortality means that we should work on our relationships with each other. Not stress about our achievements, not worry about what we have made or bought, but simply make sure that we have no ill-will or 'bad blood' with anyone.

Even in our practice we can make the same mistake of focusing on achievement rather than just dwelling in the practice. As I was contemplating the lesson from the cat I was reminded of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi's well-known analogy of the frog. Addressing a group who might have thought that they were doing something 'special' in zazen (meditation) he says:

But look at the frog.  A frog also sits like this but it has no idea of zazen.  And if you watch what he does…if something annoys him he will do like this (making a face).  If something to eat comes he will eat (imitating a frog snapping at an insect) and he eats sitting.  Actually that is our zazen.  We are not doing any special thing.  We should think that we are doing some special thing.

Every now and then it is good to remind ourselves that life - and our practice - is not about what we do, or what we achieve, but about what we become. Recognizing our mortality means that we ensure that our relationships with others are loving and compassionate. Like the cat and the frog, we have comfort in our own being, without stressing about what we have - or haven't - achieved.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully-guided meditation on 'Achieving nothing.' If it is useful to you feel free to use it in your practice.

"Yamakavagga: Pairs" (Dhp I), translated from the Pali by Acharya Buddharakkhita. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition),
30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.01.budd.html .

Photo by u/TheTacoWombat on www.reddit.com/r/buddhistcats

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Two Battles

Two Battles

With everything that is going on in the world right now I thought it would be instructive to look back at some early accounts of what the Buddha said about war, and those who go to war. In the Samyutta Nikaya there is a story of two battles, which I believe can speak directly to our response to the current situation.

The battles in question were between King Pasenadi of Kosala and his nephew King Ajatasattu of Magadha. Pasenadi was a follower and acquaintance of the Buddha, but was still a king and did king-y things, including going into battle.

In the first battle of our story Ajatasattu raised an army and attacked his uncle. A fierce battle followed and Pasenadi's troops were overwhelmed. Defeated, Pasenadi retreated back to his capital.

Now this was before the age of social media, so news of Pasenadi's defeat first came to some of the Buddha's monks as they were out in the city collecting alms. I like to imagine them scurrying back to the Buddha with some great gossip to share!

Having heard the news the Buddha replied:

"Monks, King Ajatasattu has evil friends, evil comrades, evil companions, whereas King Pasenadi has fine friends, fine comrades, fine companions. Yet for now, King Pasenadi will lie down tonight in pain, defeated."

That is what the Blessed One said. Having said that, the One Well-Gone, the Teacher, said further:

Winning gives birth to hostility.
Losing, one lies down in pain.
The calmed lie down with ease,
    having set
    winning & losing

Here the Buddha clearly comments on the moral distinction between the attacker and the one attacked, but observes that both the 'winner' and the 'loser' are both harmed - the loser in pain, the winner now shrouded in hostility. He shows that the more noble way is to set aside winning and losing, that those who have done that are the only ones truly at ease.

This wasn't the end of the story, because there follows another battle. Once again Ajatasattu raises an army and marches against his uncle Pasenadi. Pasenadi raises another army to counter-atack and this time prevails, defeating the invaders and taking all of the troops and equipment hostage, together with Ajatasattu himself. Pasanadi considers what to do with the captured Ajatasattu, but eventually decides that the more noble thing to do is to allow him to leave with his life.

Again, the monks find out about all this while they are in the town, and again scurry back to tell the Buddha the latest news. Having heard this the Buddha says the following:

A man may plunder
as long as it serves his ends,
but when others are plundered,
    he who has plundered
    gets plundered in turn.

A fool thinks,
'Now's my chance,'
as long as his evil
has yet to ripen.
But when it ripens,
the fool
        into pain.

Killing, you gain
        your killer.
Conquering, you gain one
        who will conquer you;
insulting,     insult;
harassing,     harassment.

And so, through the cycle of action,
    he who has plundered
    gets plundered in turn.
It's hard not to see the parallels in these two stories with what is playing out on the global stage right now. For me, the key part of the response is the Buddha's observation of the 'cycle of action' - that aggressors only set the stage for further aggression, and may well become the victims of that aggression. To wage war and assume that there is an end, that it can be won and that's it, is pure foolishness. Aggression only generates suffering, to both the victims and - eventually - to the aggressor. As the Dhammapada says:

As long as evil has yet to ripen,
the fool mistakes it for honey.
But when that evil ripens,
the fool falls into
So what are we to make of this, given what is happening right now? It is obvious that we should be extending compassion towards the victims of the aggression we are seeing in the world. That is easy to see, and easy to understand, and is naturally our first reaction. Somewhat harder is to recognize that there are those nominally on the aggressor's side who have been dragged into this and will also be suffering - the citizens and even the soldiers. Most hard is to recognize that those who have actively chosen and caused the conflict have set in motion a cycle that will only cause their own pain, and to have compassion for them.

As I mentioned in last week's letter feeling compassion for the aggressor may be over the 'edge' for many of us right now as we see what is happening. However, learning to have compassion for those who are suffering - and for those who caused that suffering - should be our intention. Even if it's something that is hard to do right now, we can recognize that they have started a 'cycle of action' and will eventually fall into pain themselves.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided Karuna Bhavana (cultivation of compassion) meditation where we practice generating compassion for both those who suffer and those who cause that suffering. Feel free to use it in your own practice if you think it will help.

 "Sangama Sutta: A Battle (1)" (SN 3.14), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition),
30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn03/sn03.014.than.html .

"Sangama Sutta: A Battle (2)" (SN 3.15), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition),
30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn03/sn03.015.than.html .

"Balavagga: Fools" (Dhp V), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition),
30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.05.than.html .


Photo by Sahand Babali on Unsplash