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, April 24, 2022



I've been going down a little bit of a rabbit-hole recently. Now to be clear, I love rabbit-holes. Any opportunity to learn a little bit more about an obscure or eclectic subject is a lot of fun for me. Whether it is a technical subject related to my work, or a new genre of music, music theory or some historical trivia - I just love diving into the research, and then trying to bring it all together again in a coherent way as I 'resurface.'

One of my recent rabbit-holes has been trying to get a better understanding of the Buddha's teachings to householders. Now, 'householder' is a bit of a catch-all term for the people the Buddha spoke with who were not monks, who had not renounced their daily lives and who were still living with jobs, spouses, children and 'worldly' duties. Some of these people were very rich, some had political power, some were simply tradespeople or business-people. I suspect that most of us reading this would fall into the bucket of 'householder' one way or another.

The thing that is fascinating is that in the Pali writings the level, subjects and even goals of the teachings vary depending on the person receiving the teaching. Often we look at the teachings one-by-one and assume that they are all homogeneous, but they are clearly not so. Conversely, there is often an assumption that teachings for monks are fully appropriate for those of us who are householders - and I think that when we do that we miss a lot of nuance in the teachings.

So that is my current rabbit hole ('subject of enquiry' sounds way too grand!). And it has been quite illuminating. And I was going to write about some of what I was learning in this letter.

The key word there is 'was.' As I started to sketch out what I was going to say I couldn't quite put it together. I feel I have learned a lot, but I can't - at a high level - put that into words, at least not into words that I would feel confident in sharing.

In the Sangaravo Sutta we are told that the Brahman Sangaarava asked the Buddha the following question:

...how does it come about that sometimes sacred words I have long studied are not clear to me, not to mention those I have not studied? And how is it too that sometimes other sacred words that I have not so studied are clear to me, not to mention those I have studied?

I really resonate with this question, and I can feel the frustration in the poor Brahmin's words. In many ways my inability to summarize the learning from my own personal 'rabbit-hole' is a symptom of the above. Some things have resonated and are clear, other things are still opaque. So what was the lesson for the Brahmin?

The Buddha replies by describing a number of imperfect mirrors - a bowl with water that has been dyed with strong colors, a bowl of boiling water, a bowl with moss and plants in it, a bowl with the wind blowing ripples on it, and a bowl of muddy water in a dark room. All of these, we are told, would not allow someone with good eyesight to see the reflection of their own face, as it really was. The simile is that the imperfections in the bowls are like how it is when we hear or read teachings with imperfections in our own hearts. In particular, when our hearts are overwhelmed by any of the five 'hindrances' of sense-desires, ill-will, sloth-and-torpor, worry-and-flurry, and doubt-and-wavering. If, instead we come to teachings with clear hearts it is like we now look at our reflection in clear, still water:

But, Brahman, when a man dwells with his heart not possessed, not overwhelmed by sense-desires... ill-will... sloth-and-torpor... worry-and-flurry... doubt-and-wavering... [now with bowls full of water that is 'clear, limpid, pellucid, set in the open']... then he knows and sees, as it really is, what is to his own profit, to the profit of others, to the profit of both himself and others. Then even sacred words he has not long studied are clear to him, not to mention those he has studied.

So what do I take away from this? Clearly there are aspects of the studies that I have been doing that are still opaque to me, and what this is saying is that I should examine my own heart, my own motivations and what I am bringing to the words I am reading. So that is what I plan to do. I may in the future write more about what I have learned about the teachings to householders, but for today the message is that our hearts dictate the clarity of the 'mirrors' of the teachings we receive.

Metta, Chris.

P.S. I'd love to know if this subject of the specific teachings for householders is of interest to you. Is this something you would like me to write more on (assuming I can get my bowl clear enough!)?

I have linked below a meditation on 'Not Trying' - it seemed an appropriate choice as a meditation to clear our hearts and re-align out motivations. Feel free to use it in any way that helps you in your practice.

"Sangaravo Sutta: Sangarava" (SN 46.55), translated from the Pali by Maurice O'Connell Walshe.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn46/sn46.055.wlsh.html .

Photo by Kevin Bezuidenhout on Unsplash

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Easter - Again

Easter - Again

Happy Easter everyone! It's the day when - according to some complex calculation - the Western Christian Church commemorates the death and resurrection of Christ. It is also, not coincidentally, at roughly the same time of the year as other older celebrations such as the Spring Equinox, May Day, Passover and Ēostre.

What these have in common is that they are all about rebirth, the return to fertility after the winter season. For agricultural communities this was (and is) hugely important as it marks the time when the land can once again be worked. Eggs and bunnies are not-so-subtle allusions to this return to fertility.

For me I like to treat this time of the year as an opportunity to reset and re-start. I have written about this before, in 2015, 2016, 2020 and 2021 - and now in 2022 I am going to do something completely different!

I joke. I'm actually going to do exactly the same thing once again. For me the cyclical, repetitive nature of the return of the seasons is a powerful reminder that we can begin again. And every year I return to the same teaching from Sharon Salzberg:

The critical element in meditation practice is beginning again. Everyone loses focus at times, everyone loses interest at times, and everyone gets distracted over and over again. What is essential, and also incredibly transforming, is realizing that we have the ability to begin again, without blaming or judging ourselves, without thinking we have failed, without losing heart, we can, and need to, constantly be beginning again.

The reason I return to this same passage year after year is that it is so inspiring - and so compassionate. We all struggle with practice sometimes, we all need to re-boot and re-start. Of course that is something we can do at any time, but having the yearly reminder from the turn of the season helps keep it in our minds.

So whether or not you celebrate or recognize Easter - or any of the other celebrations of this season - we can all use the turning of the season as inspiration to reevaluate our practice - and begin again.

Metta, Chris.


I have linked below a fully guided meditation on beginning again. Feel free to use it in whatever way you feel helps.

Photo by Степан Галагаев on Unsplash

Sunday, April 10, 2022



I have been fascinated by all things to do with space and astronomy since I was a small boy, and I love to try to keep up with the latest advances in our understanding of the cosmos. I say 'try to keep up,' as my formal training in physics ended at the end of High School (my physics teacher never forgave me for choosing to major in mathematics).

That said I continue to read all the PopSci books and watch the documentaries just to get a little 'fix' on the infinite. I find that there is little more mind-expanding - and humbling - than learning a little about the vastness and complexity of our universe. As Douglas Adams once observed:

Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.

So this week I was excited to read about the latest discovery in cosmology, where a team of astronomers have observed an object (poetically named HD1) that is 13.5 Billion Light Years away, making it the most distant astronomical object ever observed. To put this in perspective the universe is generally accepted to be 13.8 Billion years old, so we are observing the object as it was shortly after the birth of this universe.

And this, of course, is where things tend to get a bit tricky. When we look at very distant objects we are not seeing them as they are now, we are seeing them as they were when the light left them, which in this case is billions of years ago. Time and distance get intermingled and it is easy to start getting confused - even the distance measures we use - Light Years - are simultaneously a measure of time. When we see an object one Light Year away we are seeing it as it was a year ago. Sometimes it is easier just to accept that the universe is "vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big."

These might seem like very modern concerns, but in  fact people have been asking questions about whether or not the universe is finite or eternal for thousands of years. In the suttas we are told about a monk called Malunkyaputta, who I have to say I identify with personally as he is the classic over-thinker! We are told that while meditating Malunkyaputta realizes there are many deep questions that he has no good answer to, and that the Buddha has not addressed them to his satisfaction. Getting completely wrapped around the axle with these things he decides that he will confront the Buddha with an ultimatum:

I'll go ask the Blessed One about this matter. If he declares to me that 'The cosmos is eternal,' that 'The cosmos is not eternal,' that 'The cosmos is finite,' that 'The cosmos is infinite,' that 'The soul & the body are the same,' that 'The soul is one thing and the body another,' that 'After death a Tathagata exists,' that 'After death a Tathagata does not exist,' that 'After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,' or that 'After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,' then I will live the holy life under him. If he does not declare to me that 'The cosmos is eternal,'... or that 'After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,' then I will renounce the training and return to the lower life.

I recommend that you read the whole sutta, as the Buddha's answer is fascinating as he steers Malunkyaputta away from these complex issues that were holding him back and towards a deeper understanding of the dhamma.

There is a Pali word akaliko, which is usually translated as 'timeless.' Like many Pali concepts it is richer than the simple word 'timeless' as it has connotations of being 'outside of time,' 'not subject to time' or 'immediately effective.'

There's a recurring joke amongst physicists (often erroneously attributed to Einstein) that 'time is what keeps everything from happening at once.' In some ways akaliko is outside of time, happening at all times at once.

This might all seem horribly abstract and academic, but getting a glimpse of this timelessness can be very valuable to our practice. Ajahn Chah put it beautifully when he said:

In practicing, don't think that you have to sit in order for it to be meditation, that you have to walk back and forth in order for it to be meditation. Don't think like that. Meditation is simply a matter of practice. Whether you're giving a sermon, sitting here listening, or going away from here, keep up the practice in your heart. Be alert to what's proper and what's not. [...]

Ajaan Mun once said that we have to make our practice the shape of a circle. A circle never comes to an end. Keep it going continually. Keep the practice going continually without stop. I listened to him and I thought, "When I've finished listening to this talk, what should I do?"

The answer is to make your alertness akaliko: timeless. Make sure that the mind knows and sees what's proper and what's not, at all times.

We can choose to struggle with complex concepts like time and the universe as Malunkyaputta did, or we can work to make our practice akaliko: timeless in our hearts.

Metta, Chris.

P.S.: I have written before about the notion of the 'spacious present,' which is related to this concept of timelessness or akaliko. I have linked below a fully guided meditation on this idea, feel free to use it in whatever way is helpful to you.


"Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya" (MN 63), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html .

In Simple Terms: 108 Dhamma Similes", by Ajahn Chah, translated from the Thai by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 2 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/chah/insimpleterms.html .

Photo: HD1, object in red, appears at the center of a zoom-in image. Credit: Harikane et al.

Sunday, April 3, 2022



 I went to church this morning. Now those of you who know me well are probably a bit surprised by that, as by my own reckoning I haven't been to a Christian church service for around twenty-five years. And yet today I went to church - voluntarily. I am currently in Philadelphia on business, and my colleague decided that he wanted to go to church and I said I would tag along with him.

The church was an impressive building on Rittenhouse square, and the Episcopalian service was fairly 'high' compared to what I was used to when I was young (Rite 1 if that means anything to you). The people were lovely and friendly and I enjoyed the music - the organist and choir-master clearly loved their C20th classical arrangements with lots of spicy dissonances.

And of course there was a lot of ritual. I was keeping an eye firmly on those around me to know whether I should be standing or sitting. An unexpected godsend of the fact we were masked meant that nobody knew whether I was singing, chanting or staying silent.

Having been brought up myself in the free-church / charismatic movement (much longer story - I am a PK believe it or not) I had been taught that all this kind of ritual was at best 'empty' and at worst deceptive. When in my later years I started to follow a Buddhist path I actually had difficulty initially with the more ritualized elements - I have very strong memories of when I first allowed myself to light a stick of incense for a Buddha statue.

Some forms of ritual play an important part in many sanghas - the exact form and level varies from tradition to tradition. But whether it is chanting suttas, entering the zendo with your left-foot first, the bells or the prostrations, there are many types of ritual that we may follow.

Even in our private practice we might light a candle, ring a bell or even simply make a cup of tea - all of these can be part of a ritual.

So it may come as a surprise to some that a 'belief in rites and rituals' is actually one of the five 'lower fetters,' things that we are encouraged to 'cut off.'

And which are the five lower fetters? Self-identity views, uncertainty, grasping at precepts & practices*, sensual desire, & ill will.

This 'grasping at precepts and practices' is a warning that indeed ritual can be empty, that we can falsely elevate the act of the practice above the purpose of the practice.

So what is the point of ritual? As we practice we work on training our minds, on removing our delusions. The practices are merely vehicles to help with that - my first teacher Achalavajra used to call them 'technologies' - and that is a great way to think of them. The purpose of the rituals - of reciting a sutta, ringing a bell, entering a room mindfully - are to place our minds in a place conducive for us to do the work. It is when we get this wrong, when we mistake the ritual for the work, that we start to 'grasp at the precepts and practices' - which as we know is a fetter and a hindrance on our path.

I have written before about the metaphor of 'leaving the boat' - that having used a practice to help us on our way we need to be prepared to leave it at the far shore. Our rituals may be the boats we will have to leave behind. But for now a ritual may be exactly what you need to help get your mind to the place where you can do the work - even if that ritual is just a cup of tea.

Metta, Chris.

(*) What Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates here as 'grasping at precepts and practices,' Acharya Buddharakkhita renders as 'belief in rites and rituals.'

I have linked below a fully-guided meditation on the metaphor of 'leaving the boat.' Feel free to use it in your practice in whatever way you feel helps.

 "Sanyojana Sutta: Fetters" (AN 10.13), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 4 July 2010,
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.013.than.html .

Photo by Content Pixie on Unsplash