|Forest Sangha Newsletter||July 2003|
The Great Escape
When I was young I had a favourite cartoon. Cartoons can often capture succinctly something that would take some time to explain in words - though this one did have a caption to it. It was a drawing of a huge hangar closed in on all sides but with a few small skylights. At one end of this huge hangar was a door, and above the door were the words 'Pork Factory'. In front of the door was a long, very orderly line of pigs, some of them overweight, standing around in the queue to go in through the door into the pork factory. They were reading newspapers and chatting. Up in the top of the cartoon there were these two little piglets who were very heroically climbing up to try and get out through the skylights. One of the middle-aged pigs - somebody probably about my age - looks up from his Wall Street Journal and sees these little piglets and says, 'That's the trouble with the younger generation these days, all they ever think about is running away from reality.' He saw completely irresponsible little piglets getting out through the skylights. But what can seem irresponsible from one perspective can look quite rational and intelligent from another. Of course, if you know what pork is, then you're unlikely to queue up in such an orderly fashion, but most of the people in the world - if you'd like to continue the simile - are pigs that don't know they're pork, and don't know where they're going.
The Buddhist attitude is always one of trying to open up and include all the facts, everything that bears on a situation. It's not a teaching that consists of a number of dogmas that one has to either accept or reject. The encouragement is to look, to re-cognise our situation, our existence as human beings. Ajahn Chah said, 'Time is slipping away. What are you doing right now? How are you living your life?'
What is a good life? We can look at various material things and say, 'Oh, that's a good car; that's a good machine; that's a good work of art.' We have a sense of their quality. But what's a quality life? What does it mean? The Buddha pointed to avijja (ignorance) as the primary condition for the lack of quality in our lives. Ignorance does not mean lacking knowledge of mathematics or physics or chartered accountancy, it means lacking knowledge of the way things are, what our human life is really all about. Vijja (knowledge) means taking a deep interest in our human condition, developing an inquiring mind, really inquiring into this life. What is this body? What is this mind? What are feelings? What are perceptions? What are thoughts? What are emotions? What is sense-consciousness? Where is our individuality?
... just through moment-by-moment seeking to do what is wholesome, kind and useful, this is how the mind becomes cleansed.
|One of the things that assist us in taking an interest in life, rather than just drifting along blindly, is to examine our mortality. There are certain very obvious facts that are irrefutable whether or not we're Buddhists, Christians, Shamanists or Druids. Having been born we get older every day; we'll experience old age - if we don't die before it - and then we'll die. The Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi said, 'Life is like a ship; it sails out into the middle of the ocean and sinks.' This, I would say, is irrefutable. Human life progresses from birth through the ageing process to old age, sickness and death. But the fact is that we very rarely reflect on this unless we're someone very intent on the spiritual path.|
The fact that we don't reflect on these things affects our values, affects our choices, affects the things that we take an interest in and what we give value to. The things that we love and hate are conditioned by our lack of recognition of mortality. People who know Carlos Castaneda will remember Don Juan telling Castaneda that he acts as if he's going to live for a thousand years. He forgets that he's mortal. And it's through remembering that you've got death over your left shoulder that you become a warrior, whose every single action has meaning and dignity. Because your life could end any day, any moment, life has meaning. It's not that life's meaning is taken away through mortality. If we lived for hundreds of years or thousands of years, then where will the urgency come from to remedy anything that goes wrong, to sort out our arguments and alienation from each other? But if we're aware of how short, fragile and precious our human life is, we see that we don't have the time to indulge in petty moods and emotions, silly little jealousies and aversions. When we forget our mortality, forget our imminent death, we allow these things to completely envelop our minds until our whole sense of what is and what is not important is completely distorted.
|There's a nice story from the Indian commentarial tradition from two thousand years ago, the time of King Asoka. Many of you may know that King Asoka was a great warrior king, very cruel and very successful. Eventually he began to see the terribly bad kamma that he was making and turned over a new leaf. He became a great Buddhist Emperor whose rule was truly a noble one that hasn't been emulated since. His social welfare programmes both for human beings and animals were quite remarkable; he set up places for travellers to stay along the roads and also animal hospitals. So King Asoka was an enlightened ruler (in the common sense), and his wise edicts were recorded on Asoka Pillars, some of the remains of which can still be seen today.|
In the story (and just to what extent it's true, I'm not sure), his younger brother was jealous of his elder brother's great power. He dreamed that one day he might have the power of King Asoka, who ruled over a vast empire. He dreamed that he might become the emperor. His dreams multiplied to the extent that he started to think of engineering some kind of coup. He'd go past the throne-room sometimes and he'd find himself being drawn into it like a magnet. He'd look around from side to side and sneak in to sit on the throne and just imagine how it would be if he, rather than his brother, was the emperor of all India. Well, as you know, in palaces walls have ears. Everywhere there are spies behind curtains, so that kind of behaviour was not going to stay unreported for long. Emperor Asoka soon found out about what was going on. He had his brother arrested and escorted in for an audience. 'All your plans have all been discovered and you're to be executed in seven days.' His brother's legs went all weak and jelly-like, and he begged for mercy. King Asoka said, 'Because you are my brother, and because I am a compassionate emperor, I'm going to let you have your wishes for the last seven days of your life. You're not going to have to languish in a rat-infested dungeon and eat chapatis and water, but you can spend the last seven days before your execution as the emperor. I'm going to go on retreat to meditate and have a bit of a rest. You can take over. You can be the emperor for seven days. You can't leave this central area though. There are going to be guards situated at all the doors and entrances but within the realms of the palace it's all yours. The dancing girls are waiting outside and the tambourines, the food is being prepared; everything that you desire is waiting for you. It's yours for seven days.'
"That's the trouble with the younger generation these days,all they ever think about is running away from reality."
|So King Asoka went off and did a retreat for seven days. He came back and his brother was brought into his presence again. 'Well, how did it go? Was it as good as you thought it would be? Did you enjoy it?' His brother looked thin, white and haggard: 'No.... No....' |
'What's wrong? Are the dancing girls not beautiful? The food not delicious? The wine not sparkling? The power not intoxicating?'
'So what was wrong?'
He said, 'Every time I'd just start to enjoy it I'd look up and see one of the stern soldiers with his pike and sword standing at the door or at the window. Then I'd remember, 'Only five more days... Four more days... and I'll have to leave all this and have my head chopped off.' The king said, 'Brother, you've learned your lesson and the execution is called off. You're reprieved.'
The point of the story is obvious, that the remembrance of death casts a totally new light on indulgence and mindlessness. Things which had seemed so alluring, so real and so desirable before, in the light of impending death, suddenly lost their colour and were not desirable.
Although Emperor Asoka's brother was reprieved from his death sentence, he did not get a reprieve from death. His situation was exactly the same. He could have died easily anyway that same day from something else. There're so many ways that we can fall ill, so many ways that we can die. This is a very fragile body that we're carrying around, and it's a very precious one. Far from denigrating human existence, the Buddha and his disciples stressed the value of this human life in that our capacity for pleasure and pain is just on the right level for insight, understanding and wisdom to arise. If we were born in a heaven realm then it would just be like staying at a five-star resort by the side of the sea somewhere - but even five-star resorts start to get boring after a few days. Living in a heaven realm would continually be like the first day of being at a marvellous resort with people running around doing things for you all the time. You can imagine it as like a record with a scratch in it, you just keep coming back to the same beautiful friends again and again and again and again. You have no memory. It's a bit like that. You'd find it very hard to sit and bear with the discomforts of the cross-legged posture, or maintain any inquiry into letting go of your attachments and unwholesome desires. Similarly in a heaven realm, it's just too pleasant. You wouldn't know how long had gone past until suddenly you'd notice that the flowers around your neck were starting to wither, and that the other devas were starting to keep their distance. They'd know what was going on. Your body would start to smell; you'd no longer be one of the beautiful people anymore. Next thing you'd know, you'd lost it and you would be somewhere far less pleasant. A heaven realm is just a sukha-vedana, and the pleasure is just too intense to be wise about it. In a hell realm the pain is just too intense to develop peace of mind and wisdom. But the human realm is a smorgasbord of emotions, all of which can teach us the Dhamma, teach us the truth of impermanence, instability, insecurity, not-self. We have the capacity as a human being to stop, to look, to learn from our experience, and to realise the Truth. This human life is very valuable; we can use it to transcend all suffering and the whole cycle of rebirth. We can respond to its preciousness by giving great care and attention to our actions; to how we act towards the physical world, to how we act in the social universe that we inhabit, how we use our minds and how we use our wisdom faculty.
In the Buddha's teachings we have a threefold training of sila, samadhi and pa––a - the training of conduct, the training for the mind, the training of wisdom. This is an education of our whole life, something we carry on right to our very last breath. We constantly endeavour to speak and act in ways that express goodness, wisdom and compassion, and to develop these noble qualities in our heart.
The four cardinal qualities that the Buddha taught to be developed within our hearts we call the brahmaviharas. Firstly there is metta, the sense of kindness and wishing all beings well. Metta doesn't mean that we have to love everybody. Even if we took that as an ideal, I think you'd find that it would be extremely difficult to do, to have this emotional feeling of love equally for everyone. But the sense of goodwill, wishing others to be happy, that's something that can be developed. To be able to hold dislike, for instance, and not to grasp on to it, but to accept it as just one more thing to express goodwill towards. Goodwill is resisting the wish to smash and destroy and get rid of, having a sense of solicitude for all that lives. This is an ennobling quality of the heart.
The more we understand suffering, the more we're able to look at it, and to open up to the pervasive nature of suffering, the more that karuna (compassion) arises. Compassion isn't wanting there to be no suffering. Compassion doesn't find suffering threatening or frightening. And it's not a condescending kind of pity. Compassion arises naturally from a penetration of the pervasiveness of suffering in life.
Mudita is the ability to rejoice in the goodness and success of others. It's opposite is feeling oppressed by, threatened by, affronted by this goodness. How does it feel when you see the things that you aspire to in your life expressed by others more perfectly and more beautifully than in yourself? It can be quite natural to feel jealous of that. In the untrained heart that's very often the case. But it doesn't have to be. We can cleanse that kind of reaction and meanness of heart through this quality of mudita; we can have joy in how wonderful it is that someone should be so kind and should be so wise and should be so intelligent and should be so articulate and should be.... We can use that as a meditation, and see that the good qualities and accomplishments of others enrich every one of us. They do not diminish us, we're enriched. When you can see that then all the mean pettiness and jealousy can just dissolve.
Upekkha in this context is an evenness of mind. We can compare it to the neutral gear in a car - before you can shift into a positive gear you go into neutral first. We may have a sincere wish to make others happy or to reduce or to eliminate their suffering but find ourselves unable to do so for some reason. It may be that the situation is not right, or the person doesn't respect us enough to take our advice, we might express ourselves poorly or be clumsy in our efforts to help by not choosing the right time and place - for some reason it doesn't work out. When someone shows ingratitude or contempt when we try to help them, it can be very hurtful. In those cases we can dwell in equanimity - which is the recognition that we are all the owners of our actions and born of our actions; that we can't take anyone's kamma away from them but we can remain ready. Whenever the situation does change, whenever we are in a position where we can do something positive, we will. But in the situation where action would only make things worse we can rest at peace with ourselves in equanimity. It's not a dull indifference, saying, 'OK, if that's the way you think, you just go your way and I'll go mine.' It's a humble recognition that right now we can't do anything. But there is an alertness and a willingness, a basic generosity of heart, which is prepared to make the sacrifice and do what needs to be done when it can be done well, for the benefit and happiness of all involved.
Sometimes Buddhists are accused of being overly passive: 'They're in the midst of incredibly unjust situations with suffering all around them and all they do is just sit, close their eyes and think, "May everyone be happy.' They think that's it, that they've done what needs to be done." I feel that this is unfair for a number of reasons. Firstly, I certainly would not negate the power of the kind of activity which that view denigrates. There is an incredible influence created by wholesome intention and that kind of meditation. I was told that in California now, in certain insurance companies, they will actually reduce health insurance premiums if you can prove that someone will pray for you when you get ill. There are prestigious institutions that have proved that it actually does have an effect, even if you don't know that someone is praying for you.
Apart from the very tangible and now increasingly accepted power of the concentrated mind, the criticism is also ill-founded because it's based upon a rather superficial study of the Buddha's teachings. They are very often misrepresented because they're taken out of context, and his teachings were always in context.
There is another group of dhammas that correlate with these four inner qualities, and these are the ways in which those inner qualities are expressed in the world. The first is the quality of dana (giving) - giving material goods, sharing one's wealth or whatever one may have. As a layperson one perhaps has money and possessions that one can share with those suffering and less well off. As monks we don't have very much that we can share, but within our community when we do have things offered to us, we share them between us. The intention to give and to share is important. There's also the giving of forgiveness for those who have harmed us, intentionally or unintentionally, to our face or behind our backs; being willing to give up any sense of grudge or negativity we feel. And when we forgive them, then they'll forgive us. I think it's a really deep truth that we can experience.
We also give knowledge, skills that we've acquired, things we've studied and learnt that will be of benefit to others. We don't just keep it for ourselves. 'I know all these things that others don't know. I've been a monk for twenty years. I'm not going to teach anyone else so I can maintain my position at the top of the heap.' If I were to think like that, I would be a pretty shameful figure, wouldn't I? But the Buddha himself said, 'I have no closed hand, no closed fist. I share everything that I know will be of benefit to you.' The highest giving is the giving of Dhamma, the giving of understanding of ways to overcome defilements and develop wholesome qualities for the realisation of Truth. So this is the first quality, the quality of dana.
The second quality is piyavaca (loveable speech): speech which is a pleasure to listen to, which is a treasure, goes to the heart, is gentle, kind, timely, truthful and wise, words that people cherish and remember. It's a wonderful thing if someone comes up to you and says, 'Do you remember when you said that to me three years ago? I've never forgotten what you said that day. It meant so much to me.' Maybe you have had an experience like that. That's piyavaca, speech from the heart to the heart, timely and considered, full of loving-kindness with the wish that the person who hears it will benefit.
Atthacariya is social service: acts of benevolence, expressing goodwill in terms of a community, doing things without needing to be asked. So seeing something that needs to be done and very quietly doing it without the need for anybody else to know. Not seeking praise, not seeking recognition, but just taking joy in doing something which is of benefit to the group, of benefit to the community, to one's family, to the monastery or whatever. It doesn't have to be anything heroic; it can be very small, very thoughtful, considerate actions. These are the drops, the 'drop by drop' in which this jar of wholesome qualities, goodness and kindness builds up, just through moment-by-moment seeking to do what is wholesome, kind and useful, this is how the mind becomes cleansed.
The last of these qualities is sama––ata - behaving in the correct and appropriate manner in any community. The things that are the obstacles to this are this sense of conceit (atimana) which is thinking you know everything - 'I've forgotten more about this than you'll ever know.' You think you're superior. You think you're right and they're wrong, you know it all and they know nothing. This is an obstacle to harmony, social cohesion and to a wholesome atmosphere in a community. Then there's the ordinary conceit (mana) - 'I'm as good as you are. Who are you to tell me what to do? We're all equal!' Attaching to that sense. Or there's, 'I can't do anything. Everyone's better than me. I daren't do anything that anybody else might see because they'll just make fun. I'm so hopeless.' This is another kind of conceit. So there's superiority, equality, inferiority conceits, which prevent us from conducting ourselves as full and complete members of our society. We let go of these ideas of who we are, of being anything in particular, of 'I'm this,' and 'I'm that.' We see that they're based on a mistaken way of looking. Can you really point to any particular quality, any particular character-trait and say, 'That's who I really am'? When we stop and investigate we see that, 'I really am hopeless,' 'I really am great,' 'This is who I really am in my essence,' 'I'm this,' 'I'm that,' that all these are just conventions.
In Buddhism we practise to bring the inner and the outer being into harmony. The inner is the development of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. These are then expressed externally as acts of benevolence and kindness, in loveable speech, through social service and by an evenness of expression and an appropriateness in our conduct according to who we're with and in what particular situation. We are guided by sensitivity to what is appropriate and right and true, rather than reacting to conditions and false ideas of who we are and how we should be perceived.