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The Divine Abidings
Excerpts of a talk given by Ajahn Thaniya at the Insight Meditation Centre, Barre, Massachusetts, in April 1996.
In Pali, the reflection on metta goes, 'sabbe satta sukhita hontu,' which is translated as 'May all beings be well.' The practice of metta is often talked about as if it should be emanated boundlessly across the whole world. In terms of our practice here, I'd like to present it in a slightly different way. For myself, metta implies a well-wishing, a good-heartedness towards all the conditions of our minds and bodies. This is a far more difficult practice than spreading a sentiment across the world. It is far more difficult to rest in this particular moment and to love it.
It is hard to understand loving-kindness until we've received it ourselves, this unconditional well-wishing. For some of us this unconditional well-wishing will come through teachers or through community. They give us a sense that it's not about who we are or what we're like. It's not about our personality. It's just a sense of being wished well in a boundless, unconditional, non-judgmental kind of way. Having unconditional kindness extended towards me has helped me understand it. An instance of this occurred at Chithurst where I am living.
I often work in the grounds of the monastery, and am sometimes rather too zealous about it. I often find myself working on a job that takes a lot of physical energy. To make it worse, the instructions on the can will say, 'This must be completed by nightfall. It cannot be done tomorrow.' This scenario happens to me quite frequently. I have some friends who come past sometimes when I'm on one of these jobs. There was one not so long ago, just before winter. I was working away and they came past. I was soaking because I'd been working with water. They just looked at me as if to say, 'Well here you are covered in water in late autumn. It's not exactly sensible.' What they actually said was, 'The dark and cold are coming.' Then they left. I was still in the middle of this job. It had to be finished that day. It couldn't wait, so I pressed on.
Later, my friends came back. They said nothing. They got some tools and started helping. We silently got the job done, then packed the tools away. The darkness had come and the cold, but they said not a word. This was their response to somebody that they cared about. They simply helped me get finished, because it was obvious that I wasn't going to stop. So, kindness comes, it supports and it helps. It takes no sides. It is an offering, a coming forth from the heart, and it offers itself without conditions.
Having felt what it is like to be cared for in a way that is free of judgement, I am learning how to relate in a similar way to my own life predicament, how to be present with whatever grief there is, or whatever anger, without pretending they are not there. Such kindness is the way to transcend these emotions, because to transcend emotions they have to be felt and known. We have to be present for them.
To make peace with conditions takes time and patience. There needs to be a willingness to give things time. There needs to be patience to gradually come close enough to touch them, to know them for what they are. It takes time for them to be known in accordance with Dhamma. So metta means to be willing to wait for things to unfold in a natural way. To me it's important that we don't use metta as a pink cloud practice, using it to smother what we don't like, and deny our unwillingness to love ourselves and others. You know, Metta is not about sending out some kind of sentiment in this way. It is not about rejecting negativity or unhappiness. If we use it that way, it will just deepen our sense of failure. Metta would then become merely another stick we beat ourselves with.
The Buddha's reflection for compassion is, 'May all beings be freed from suffering.' As with metta, the practice of compassion begins with ourselves. Compassion is the ability to stop and to listen. Often there's no need to say anything. Just having the willingness to be present is enough to liberate suffering; and to be present is something we can do for ourselves. When we see the extent of the suffering in our own bodies, and the suffering of painful mental states like grief, longing, or ill will, if we are willing to feel them, to know the suffering that's present, then very naturally compassion arises. When suffering is felt in this way, then the heart softens. It is like when a three-year old is weeping in the night. When you go in to them, the natural response is, 'Look, love, I'm here.' The practice of karuna is that same softness, whether it is our own suffering we feel, or the suffering around us.
As we start to open to the suffering of birth, and to the suffering of a world that is constantly changing and shifting, as we allow ourselves to feel what life is really like, we stop trying to fill the great void we feel. Slowly we relax our demands on the world and start to turn outwards. Then metta and karuna come to ripeness. As we relax our grip on the world, we begin to ask ourselves, 'What shall I give?' And of course what we give is kindness and compassion.
Mudita: appreciative joy
Mudita is the appreciation of the goodness of others. It seems to me important that we touch the beauty of the world, and the beauty of other peoples' hearts. This acknowledgement nourishes our own hearts, though we may find it difficult indeed to receive other people's goodness. This is something I have noticed in myself.
Many years ago when I was in Thailand, I used to work in the monastery kitchen. I would help the villagers cook the meals. After the meal, because they had their crops to do, I would say to them, 'Well, go home, and I'll look after the cleaning up.' There was one little girl who sometimes used to join us. She was an orphan. The villagers were a bit rough with her, so she used to snuggle under my wing. After the others had gone home she would help me do the cleaning up. After wiping the floor, we would rinse the floor rags, and hang them on the line. One day I had just started rinsing the rags, when I suddenly felt this little girl washing my feet. While she was washing them, I could feel a rising panic, and an urge to stamp my feet; but because she was so small I had to hold still, otherwise I would have hurt her. So I held very still and endured my feelings. When she had finished washing my feet, she started on my hands. She took each of my hands, carefully washed one side, turned it over, and washed the other. At that point, my feelings of resistance vanished. I suddenly understood the gift she was offering me, in washing my hands and my feet, and I saw that the only thing that I could offer in return was the ability to receive it.
In our lives we must similarly be willing to receive, and be willing to be vulnerable. We must allow ourselves to be not always together, not always the best, as if we were telling the world 'We're perfectly alright without you, thanks mate.' If we keep everything safe and controlled for ourselves so that we have everything we need, we will have no space for the miracle of human kindness and generosity. Although we may keep our lives secure and walled off, this walling off means that we will never receive the precious beauty of the world. So to practise mudita, joy, we must allow ourselves to receive it. It goes so much against our conditioning. We can, even here, stop and reflect on where this meditation centre comes from, and feel the respect for people like Sharon and Joseph who twenty years ago, through some great faith, got this whole thing started, and then for all the people who have helped since.
In contemplating equanimity I use the phrase 'not asking for anything.' For me the practice of equanimity lies in not asking for things to be any other way than they are, rather to be able to rest with things just as they are. With upekkha, though we wish well-being, we don't demand that things be well; we understand Dhamma. This helps with metta. It keeps us grounded. It prevents metta from sweeping us away.
It's as if you come upon someone you love sleeping. When people are sleeping, their beauty is usually revealed, and there's a feeling of just wanting to hold there in that moment forever. But if you notice the movement of breath in the throat, you can see that to hold still for ever would be death, because movement, the movement of breath, is life. So the impermanence of things is also their life, their flow and their beauty. Upekkha gives us the strength to hold steady with things, and the strength to let go.
Source: Forest Sangha Newsletter, January 2004, U.K., http://www.fsnewsletter.net
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last updated: 22-09-2004