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Harmonious Living

Ayya Khema


When we chant together there has to be rhythm and harmony in it. We must pay attention to timing and to other people or we will be out of tune. The same is true when we live together. We have to pay attention to others, feel our togetherness, and create harmony. People need that as a foundation for skillful living.

Skillful living often breaks down because we have, each of us, no harmony, no attention to our timing. And what we create in the world becomes a mirror image of what we find in ourselves. The very first step in creating harmony happens within ourselves. It requires no special situation, but can be done whether we sit in the meditation hall, paddle a boat, cook lunch, read a book, or work in the garden. Creating a harmonious feeling in ourselves is dependent upon being contented. Otherwise, there is disharmony.

Contentment must not be dependent on outer conditions, which are never perfect. After months of dry weather, everyone complained about having to water too many plants. Now we have the reverse -- it is too wet and the ground is muddy and slippery. Where can we find perfection in the world? If we’re looking for outer conditions to bring us contentment, we’re looking in vain. We have to find inner conditions conducive to contentment. One of them is independence -- not financial independence, which may bring other hazards, but emotional independence from the approval of others. This entails knowing that we are trying to do the best we can, and if someone disapproves, that’s just the way things are. Not everyone approved of the Buddha either, but the Buddha said, “I do not quarrel with the world. The world quarrels with me.” He accepted the fact that people would voice objections to him or his doctrine. He fully realized that not everybody can agree. To be independent also includes not looking for support from others. Sometimes the best we can do may be very good, sometimes it is only mediocre. That too has to be accepted. We can’t wait for everyone to support us. If we sometimes cannot do as well as we thought we could, that is also all right and no reason for discontent.

Emotional independence requires having a loving heart. If we are looking for love, we are emotionally dependent and often discontent because we don’t get what we want, or don’t get enough of it. Even if we do get enough, we still cannot count on it to fill our needs. To look for love is a totally unsatisfactory and unfulfilling endeavor. What does work, however, is loving others, which brings emotional independence and contentment. Loving others is possible whether the other person reciprocates or not. Love has nothing to do with the other, but is a quality of our own hearts.

Contentment is dependent upon creating a field of harmony within our hearts -- a beautiful, open field, full of flowers, containing love, emotional independence, and self-acceptance. We do not seek love or approval but instead give them unstintingly. It’s simple and it works. This constitutes a generous heart. Usually when somebody wants something from us, our ego feels threatened and fears being diminished. This is very evident on a material level, when we fear losing our possessions. We may feel the same threat when somebody wants our love. If we give love and approval, however, we are neither threatening nor threatened. To love is the only way we can live in harmony with ourselves.

Sometimes we don’t feel well physically. That too is no reason for discontentment. “I am of the nature to be diseased,” the Buddha asked us to recollect. There is no mention of becoming unhappy and discontent because of that. It’s the nature of the body to have some problems. At other times there may be desires in the mind. We can allow that, but we don’t have to get involved in those desires. If we suffer from the dukkha that mind and body generate, there will never be any contentment. Where can we find contentment? Certainly not in buildings, nature, or other people. It has only one resting place: within our own hearts. At its base lies the understanding that the gift of love and approval creates a field of harmony around us, which is also our training field.

It is a training field for skillful living because we confront ourselves in others. We need the reflection of our own being in others in order to see ourselves clearly. When there is disharmony with another person, it is a mirror image of ourselves. There can be no disharmony with others if we feel harmonious within ourselves. A mirror image does not lie. One of the Buddha’s discourses describes three monks who lived together like milk and water. Their ideas and wishes merged completely. There was total harmony because none of them wanted his own way. At least this gives us an idea of what is possible, otherwise we would continue to believe that our negativity is justified.

“Harmony” has many different meanings. Mainly it is the essential core of living happily. Sometimes we get attached to our own dukkha. That’s quite common, but when we see the folly of it, we can stop. Happiness is really what every living being aims for, not only human beings. We try to meditate to become happier, but we cannot sit in meditation all day long. Sometimes it even feels as though meditation brings up buried resentments and hurts, which we don’t particularly want to see. It might feel as though meditation brings more dukkha than we had before, but that is only because we have finally admitted it and seen it clearly. This arouses compassion for everybody, for we see that being a human means suffering. There are different stages of spiritual development, and at the start we are like children. Whether we are in fifth, sixth, or seventh grade, we are all still children in the process of growth.

Some people are able to deal with their dukkha better than others. One unskillful way of dealing with it is trying to run away from it. When we run, dukkha has a habit of coming along. Dukkha doesn’t live in a certain place or a particular situation, it lives in our own hearts. It rides on the same airplane, boat, or car with us and goes wherever we go. Trying to escape from it by running away is clearly impossible.

Another unskillful way that we have all tried is blaming some other person, situation, or thing. That means that we do not accept responsibility for our own lives. A third unskillful way of handling dukkha is becoming depressed and unhappy about it. That’s our most common reaction. Then resignation follows until something nice comes along to release us -- a birthday cake, ice cream, or praise -- and our mood lifts.

These ways of dealing with dukkha keep us on the seesaw of desire and rejection. The only really skillful way of dealing with dukkha is to look at it as a learning experience and remember that the Buddha teaches dukkha as the first of the Four Noble Truths. Obviously he knew humanity’s difficulties.

The second Noble Truth is the cause of dukkha, which is craving: wanting something that we don’t have or wanting to get rid of something we do have. There are no other causes of dukkha. If we see dukkha within and don’t become involved in it, but accept it as a reality, as part of life, we can also find the cause for it in ourselves. Then we can say, “That’s right, that’s the way it is.” If we can affirm the first and second Noble Truths, then we can assume that the third and fourth must be true as well. The third Noble Truth is the actualization of the cessation of all dukkha -- nibbana, total liberation -- and the fourth is the Noble Eightfold Path leading to complete freedom. The first two truths are easy to prove -- we can experience them many times each day. All we have to do is pay attention.

Dukkha arises continually and will not cease until all craving has been eliminated, when one becomes an arahant, fully enlightened. Why should we be surprised when dukkha arises? It would be more sensible to be surprised when dukkha doesn’t arise. If we’re surprised when dukkha arises, this means that we are still hoping to find total satisfaction and fulfillment in the world.

To have inner harmony we must accept dukkha as an integral part of being human. If we dislike and reject it, our resistance makes it worse, and escape from it becomes a priority. Usually that includes trying to change people, situations, our work, or whatever else comes to our minds. We can never eliminate dukkha like that, but only through the abandoning of craving -- that is the Buddha’s teaching. At this stage in our lives we can take his words as guidelines for practice. There already seems to be a glimmer of hope that we can verify some of the things he said, and we can take the rest on trust to try them out.

When dukkha arises, we can realize that something we want isn’t happening. We can find the desire and let go of it, since there is no other way of avoiding dukkha. The more craving we abandon, the more harmony we have. Craving disrupts harmony. Imagine that we’re chanting together and one person wants to be heard above all the others, or another wants to chant faster. All harmony is disrupted.

Contentment in our hearts is rooted in emotional independence, in giving love and approval rather than trying to get them. We need to realize that all dukkha depends on craving and that we must therefore let go of desires. That is the path and the teaching. We often forget these basic truths. Why do we forget so easily? Our ego identification and affirmation is foremost and reduces everything else to unimportance. Our minds are concerned with “me” and “mine,” and since everyone thinks in this way, the world is a disharmonious place. We can find harmony only in our own hearts; nobody else will hand it to us. The Buddha showed us the way through loving-kindness (metta) meditation, loving-kindness conduct, meditative absorptions (jhana), and insight meditation (vipassana). These are all means toward liberation and not ends in themselves. Our goal is the penetration into impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and corelessness (anatta) -- into the nature of constant change, into life’s inherent difficulties, and into the games that the ego plays, disturbing peace and harmony. There are only problems when I am having them. If there’s no “I,” how can there be a problem?

Harmony is togetherness with others but also togetherness within oneself. Becoming a whole person brings harmony. The word “holy” is rooted in the word “whole.” We need not be holy, just whole and complete in ourselves. It’s the most difficult and the most worthwhile work we can do. When we know that there is nothing lacking in ourselves, nothing that we have to find somewhere outside, contentment and peace begin to fill our hearts.

Ayya Khema
("Be an Island - The Buddhist Practice of Inner Peace")

Source: Wisdom Books, http://www.wisdompubs.org/

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