1. Bodhicitta, Boundless View
A series on the Brahmaviharas from Buddhafield's Total Immersion Retreat 2016
We’ve been on a retreat some weeks now, practising the Boundless meditations, the Brahmaviharas. Have you noticed? The leaves on the oaks are no longer that incredibly bright new green. And the ashes which were almost bare when we arrived are now fully in leaf. Suddenly, it's summer. Spring is over. The season turns. Soon the year itself will turn, at the solstice; and the days will again get shorter. The wheel of time turns ever. We are all older and more experienced now. While we have been away from society many things, small and large, will have changed. We have not been with friends as they experienced them. They have not been with us to share this experience. What happens, happens.
What are we doing here? Have we found a right view of the practices? Because always, if we can clarify our view of what we do, those actions will be a lot more effective. What the view is about is quite similar to what the resolution or the vow is about. There’s a momentum, a ripple effect coming out of it. Clarify the view and it makes clear what you want to do with the practice. It sets a momentum going in your being — it creates a positive habit.
One important thing is that we are adjusting to the reality of anatta, non self: that there is no King Ego lording it over us, no one in the control box making the decisions. We’ve realised that decisions simply happen somehow… and that's it. But perhaps like a bunch of wide eyed villagers who've just been convinced through argument, in a pub, that actually there's no King running the show, we still find this a little hard actually to accept. So we’ll need to go back to that issue again and again. In the meantime, it's good to make useful decisions anyway even if we are very unclear as to how our inner decision making happens.
One thing that makes good decisions more likely, as I've been saying, is to cultivate right view and to make resolutions, intentions and prayers. That way somehow beneficial decisions will arise, and later there will be beneficial results.
The practices of goodwill, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity are resolutions like this. They go out to all beings equally, to fill the whole of space. And they will have an effect. What kind of effect you can predict in some ways, in other ways it's uncertain. Someone who doesn’t really get it might blandly say that radiating goodwill is likely to have a ‘smiley’ effect, and not much more. But some smiles are more confident than others, smiles can carry deep conviction. And of course it's not really about smiling. It's about love. It's about wisdom. Above all it is about happiness. But what do we think those things mean?
Because it is about happiness, it is also about the suffering that happiness replaces. But what do we think that means? Our understanding of what happiness is, our view of it, will make a huge difference to the conviction behind our meditation, behind the resolution that this kind of meditation entails.
I should clarify that our view and understanding isn't just of what the concepts mean, it includes our heart response, it is the whole attitude we've built up. Through the Brahma Vihara practice, whatever it is, we aspire for all beings to find happiness, somehow -- that's the basic aspiration.
May they find happiness, whether through their contact with us, with us helping them to become happy, or through others helping them find it, or through their finding ways to help themselves.
That's our heart wish. Obviously if we can, we want to help personally. That is basic Dharma. But often we can't help. Not because of indifference. Often we are just the wrong person somehow: that's OK. And sometimes we can tell our motive is mixed - we are looking for someones approval, we want them to like us or appreciate us somehow.
It's often enough to be kind and supportive. But how much is enough? How little is enough? We have to be careful. We can probably be quite mean in some respects, but then there is the opposite, there are people we know who seem lose their minds, lose their integrity, in their concern for others. Along with cultivating a generous heart, we need to beware being pressured, especially pressured into doing things because of feeling a need to do the right thing socially. Imagined social approval and disapproval is a huge influence in many people's lives.
The Buddha taught quite unequivocally that we need to look after ourselves first. No doubt we can overdo that and become selfish, but that's not what he's suggesting at all.
A quote from the Mādhyama-Āgama:
“If one is not tamed oneself and wishes to tame someone else who is untamed, that is impossible.
[If] one is drowning oneself and wishes to rescue someone else who is drowning, that is impossible.
[If] one has not extinguished one’s own [defilements] and wishes to make someone else with unextinguished [defilements] extinguish them, that is impossible...
If one is tamed oneself and wishes to tame someone else who is untamed, that is certainly possible.
[If] one is not drowning oneself and wishes to rescue someone else who is drowning, that is certainly possible.
[If] one has extinguished one’s own [defilements] and wishes to make someone else with unextinguished [defilements] extinguish them, that is certainly possible.”
Another interesting quote is
“There are four types of persons: one person aids himself without aiding others, one person aids others without aiding himself, one person neither aids himself nor aids others, and one person aids himself and also aids others.
The person who neither aids himself nor aids others is the most inferior person. [If] a person aids others without aiding himself, he is superior [to that]. If a person aids himself without aiding others, he is superior [to that]. If a person aids himself and also aids others, he is the highest; a person like this is supreme.”
So this sets out a helpful principle: if we offer help, it should be because we actually can be useful. Often we can: we can help someone get out of bad situations, give money and time, shelter and encourage, or simply be affectionate to them. Sometimes, apart from willingness, we don’t have what’s really needed.
Two basic kinds of unsatisfactoriness cry out for aid. One is circumstantial: someone's body is in pain; life has become extra challenging. There, maybe we can actually help. The other kind of unsatisfactoriness is the fruit of someone's karma. In other words it is the unsatisfactoriness that naturally builds up because of our actions and responses. Due to being insubstantial non-self beings we are becoming something different, someone different, all the time as habits build up, often causing more unsatisfactoriness.
They build up in reaction to our circumstances. If those are pleasant, we might become arrogant or complacent. If they are painful we might become angry or anxious or devious or envious. Both of these kinds of reaction just add more unsatisfactoriness to the original circumstance and often it's like adding fuel to a fire. Someone receiving some bad news about their health, or having an unpleasant neighbour moving in next door is certainly bad. But then when they get extremely angry and think angry thoughts all the time about it, the pain will become much worse. Someone having a house worth a million and a half might seem OK. But if because of that they start becoming very anxious or very insincere it's going to be painful for them - and for everyone around them.
That added-on kind of unsatisfactoriness is actually the worst because it has the potential to harden people's lives in the kind of solid patterns we see in most of humanity. I don’t mean to minimise the first kind of pain; circumstances certainly can be very very bad. But the tendency to react with habitual negative responses has the power to make someone's life even more, far more painful.
It's helpful to see this very clearly, because we can be mixed up about it. Suffering easily confuses us because it stirs up our own pain.
A few months ago in West Hampstead we saw an old woman on a Zimmer frame crying her eyes out by the side of the road. She was bent double with age. Her tiny body was racked in sobs and she just kept crying. Yashobodhi gave her some money, not a small amount, and tried to find out what it was. She didn't speak English. It looked like she'd just now been evicted, or that day lost a child, or her husband. Her suffering seemed terrible. We thought about her a lot that day after just walking on. I woke up in the night thinking maybe we should have done more. I thought, how come we just left it at that? Since then I’ve seen this lady often when I walk down to the centre. She comes along in the early morning, sets up her Zimmer frame by the zebra crossing, puts down an old cup, and then just starts shaking and crying - she can keep it up all day!
There's nothing like urban living for reflection on unsatisfactoriness…
Overall the brahmaviharas are about cultivating an awakening response to unsatisfactoriness and its causes. Metta is a simple positive response to people, but then we know people are suffering — so we quickly get into karuna which is the most positive, awakened kind of response to unsatisfactoriness. Mudita is the best response to joy, but we also know that joy doesn't last — so even there, the awareness of unsatisfactoriness gets in! The thing is, a sense of imperfection and unsatisfactoriness is going to persist so long as we aren't fully awakened beings. There are highs as well as lows, and yes let's really celebrate and enjoy the highs, but don't let any of that temporary enjoyment blind us to the basic need to wake up, and maybe on that basis we can even learn to enjoy some of what we previously thought of as lows. Finally upekkha is the ultimate, super constructive and sustainable response to unsatisfactoriness — learning not to react, learning not to create karma that will add on that second, extra unsatisfactoriness.
Our understanding of all this comes from really looking into our experience of life. You can't learn it from a book, or a talk, you have to reflect and observe over your life. We have of course already done lots of that, often without even knowing it, but it will be mixed up and wrong in places — because this stuff is emotional. So we need our view to be refined and made much more real through the kinds of tests that meditation brings to our experience. In this way our heart understanding, our developed maturing attitude around the nature of unsatisfactoriness - what I've called our view - makes all the difference to the significance and the final value of these practices.
So we should reflect on the big picture. The Buddha said that all conditioned phenomena are dukkha, not ever offering complete satisfaction. That includes nice things; includes very, very nice things that entail a huge degree of satisfaction sometimes, but in the end nothing that lasts or can be relied on. This universal reality does not have to be viewed as some kind of problem; we should just rely on what can be relied on and enjoy life as it comes. Our nature is realisation and there's a joy in that which goes far beyond any ordinary temporary joy.
With that, reflect on the Bodhicitta, the ardent desire or the passion for realisation. People are getting enlightened here, at least more realised than they were before. Reflect that all beings throughout space are like our own mothers and fathers, vulnerable to suffering and to adding on much more extra suffering. They are wandering in samsara, through the six realms of suffering; now enjoying incredible good fortune, now becoming defensive and competitive about that; now enjoying a good human life, now getting a bit stereotyped and animal like; now getting stuck in harmful addictive patterns, now falling into hellish suffering. The wheel is turning round and round for us all.
Reflect that all these beings have some potential for awakening that isn't so very far away for them. Reflect that there is very little we can actually do to help them see this. But let's do what we can. Reflect that the best thing we can do for others is to exemplify what they could do for themselves. If we awaken ourselves, others can see the possibilities by seeing us.
Exemplification, walking the talk, is what is transformative. If we aren't awakening ourselves, we can help a few people with the unsatisfactoriness of their circumstances. But if we really are awakening ourselves, we help many people with their added-on suffering — the unsatisfactoriness that really matters.