New Year Retreat 2020, for Sheffield Insight
I hope you had a nice lunch; nutritious, delicious, and warm.
Somebody just mentioned in the chat box to me privately, that during the break they read in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book – it would be a translation of the Therigatha (verses of the Enlightened Bhikkhunis – that there was a Venerable Canda in the Buddha’s day and she wrote a verse in honour of Venerable Patacara. Ven Patacara was the teacher of Ven Canda in the Buddha’s day.
Ven Patacara had a lot of bhikkhuni disciples and at least 500 women were enlightened under her. Ven Canda was a lady who went forth in later life. She was extremely poor, had had quite a difficult life and was wondering around as a recluse but not yet as a nun, trying to seek the truth but not knowing where to look. She came across the venerable Patacara and gained great confidence in her. As a result she became her disciple and also became enlightened. So, there you go, maybe it is a good sign that I’m named after her and that now we now have Ven Patacara’s statue here to inspire! Certainly, she has a lot of serenity and she has overcome a lot more suffering than me.
It is great to have this heritage from the Bhikkhuni Sangha; to have it preserved in the Therigatha and there are various translations of that. I was saying to River earlier because she was wondering whether to read out some of those poems, that there are different translations. Some are more poetically licensed, and others are closer to the actual words that those bhikkhunis spoke. Different things speak to different people, but I really suggest checking it out, if you can maybe go to Sutta Central. There are a few different translations on there of the Therigatha. The bhikkhunis give inspired utterances after their Awakening and they tell their story about what led to that, and the struggles they went through before. There are some bhikkhunis who were prostitutes before; others who were poor; princesses; people from a very high cast family. There were people who went forth in their youth and others who went forth in later life, so it is really nice to see so many people represented there and from the different casts as well. India still has a huge problem with the cast-system – “problem” in the sense that it should not be used to devalue or elevate any human being based on birth or skin colour, but unfortunately it is. In those days, the Buddha made it clear that one can only become noble through the cultivation of their heart, not through their birth, and that a true Brahmin, (which is someone from the highest cast), is someone who has purified their mind from all the defilements. So many people did that from all types of backgrounds and similarly we [people from all races, backgrounds and walks of life] can do that today.
This afternoon I want to talk about loving kindness again. Really, we have been talking about loving kindness over all three days because all these [wholesome] qualities are so interrelated. Somebody asked yesterday whether there is a place for cultivating and developing certain qualities – not only through the way we observe and relate, but as developments of the mind – and of course the answer is: “Yes.” It is the third and fourth factor of Right Effort: to maintain the wholesome states that have arisen and to increase them, bring them to fulfilment. I believe you cannot ever bring metta to fulfilment, in the sense that you can never have too much, so it is something that we can pursue to a great extent. The great teachers in the world – certainly, the ones I have known –are characterised by the power of their loving kindness, by the unconditionality of their love. It is the kind of love that really asks nothing in return. It is utterly amazing to meet people like this, who just give; who just love for the sake of loving; wanting nothing back from you at all, except of course they hope for your happiness. But even if you are not happy after years of them teaching you, they do not get upset, they do not get impatient or complain!
Metta or loving kindness is one of the Brahma Viharas – the others are compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The word brahma in this case is like a divine abiding. The word vihara means abode, so they are like divines resting places for the mind.
I wanted to read out a little quote by Thich Nhat Hanh. He is not someone I consider one of my teachers in the sense that I do not read him a lot, but sometimes I come across these quotes and they are so beautifully expressed. For anyone who is not aware of who he is, he is a Zen Master, very elderly now, he maybe 94, and he may not be alive for much longer. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, so a great monk and an engaged Buddhist. He says:
“Your true home is something you have to create for yourself. When we know how to make peace with our body, take care of and release tension in our body, then our body becomes a comfortable peaceful home for us to come back to in the present moment. When we know how to take care of our feelings, how to generate joy and happiness and handle a painful feeling, we can cultivate and restore a happy home in the present moment. And when we know how to generate energies of understanding and compassion our home will become very cosy and a pleasant place to come back to. Home is not something to hope for but something to cultivate.”
This is the beauty of the mind; because it is malleable, because it is constantly changing, we have the possibility of influencing it and creating the kind of place within – the inner home we feel can be a peaceful abiding, a Brahma Vihara for us to come back to again and again. And, with this cultivation of metta as a quality, I find that it starts to seep into the rest of my life as well and reinforce the right intentions. So, on the one hand you can infuse your awareness with metta and use metta as a way of relating, but also when you cultivate metta intentionally that feeds back into your intentions, that everything you do seems to be more readily coming from the place of metta. During my rains retreat (it was a summer retreat in the English climate zone!), I noticed that I was developing quite a lot of metta and that was translating into a much softer, more forgiving inner dialogue with myself. Maybe other people have noticed this too, but I find when I am a bit on edge or feeling a bit rushed, I tend not to take care of my surroundings as well, the Residence gets a bit messy, things get a bit neglected, whereas when I am in touch with myself and I have got a lot of metta I tend to go that bit further to really take care of myself and my environment. It is nice to notice how much space metta gives you for that, and how taking care of the heart translates into taking care of everything around you, including the people around you as well.
I also feel that metta can be fuelled, enriched, or even caused by gratitude. Gratitude is a beautiful quality that is really encouraged by the Buddha to develop in our heart. Having been alone for the last ten months now in Oxford, hoping that I would have a thriving little community by now, even if only small, I did not have anyone staying who can cook for me [due to the corona virus pandemic]. There has been one lady in the local area, (the same one who goes cold water swimming!) who brings me some food at least once a week and now there is another Sri Lankan lady who comes on a Saturday and she brings lovely Sri Lankan food, but apart from that I manage by cooking for myself. I use a loophole in the Vinaya where the Buddha says that: “In times of danger, difficulty and famine I permit you to cook.” But the nice thing is I have still been able to live on the generosity of others. We have not used a single penny from our bank accounts, from the charity’s funds. We invited people to offer groceries every week and that has been successful and has brought in more people than ever before; people who have never actually offered to the Monastic Sangha and they have really enjoyed being part of that and feeling that they contribute. During my retreat receiving this food every week was so moving for me. Even though I knew it was coming on a Tuesday evening I knew to expect the doorbell, still, every time it manifested, I did not just see food – I saw all these loving intentions – people who didn’t have to give, people who chose to do that really expecting nothing in return other than the joy in their hearts when they contributed, because I wasn’t online to say “Thank you;” I wasn’t sending emails for three months. There was no obvious reward, or anything expected in return. The reason it made me happy was not just that I was getting fed – it was that people are starting to understand what generosity feels like and what an important part it is in the Buddhist Path – and of course the gratitude that I felt really helped me in my meditation because I had an uplifted and joyful heart. When you are being supported by other people there is a certain responsibility that comes with that and you can easily turn it into a guilt trip if you want to, if you do not have enough metta for yourself and think: “Who am I to be receiving all this?!”
At one point I did have that thought. But then I thought “No that is not the point! It’s just a possibility for more goodness to be generated in the world.” [Through your giving] you can inspire me to let go that little bit more, to rejoice in goodness and rejoice in the fact that there are people who not only really value the practice, but who are happy to support someone else’s practice too. Not all of us get the chance that I was getting for three months, but in this way, I felt that other people could participate and benefit from that as well, almost as though I was meditating not only for myself but for all those people who were supporting me. This was incredibly beautiful as an ongoing perception and it also meant that I never felt alone, I never actually felt lonely. I think that would have been hugely different if I would have been a lay person, because as a lay person you would be much more in control of having things the way you wanted and you would be probably doing it more through your own efforts, whereas I was really having to surrender to whether I would be fed as I was depending on others. It became a group effort, a community effort, and I feel it is a great sign that we are at the stage in the project where such a thing can be possible. So that is an example of how gratitude can help to generate metta, loving kindness, and of course looking upon other people with gratitude. Looking upon their qualities, noticing the beauty in their hearts. Even if it is not always visible, you can always remember something, some attribute of that person which is good which is noble, which is pure, or at least which tries its best. And if we look at that, that part in that person tends to grow and we also train our mind to develop wholesome qualities and not to get into this horrible fault finding and bickering, tearing people down. That includes us, because sometimes it is hardest to have love and kindness for ourselves and we expect much more from ourselves that we would ever expect from another person, almost as though we must be perfect, which is simply crazy, because what is perfection anyway? Even enlightened people have their quirks, they have their stupid jokes and sometimes even gender stereotypical jokes, which they get a bit of a look from me for! But that is just the way people are conditioned; it is not necessarily – no names mentioned! – in this case it is not a sign of any kind of impurity there, because there is just pure loving kindness.
This might be a bit off topic, but I got this beautiful book this Christmas from my sister. I just think this is pure dhamma and I do not often have books that are not official Dhamma books, but I would really advise anyone to read this. It is called “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse,” by Charles Mackesy, and I wanted to read out one of these pages because there is only a small amount of writing in each page in calligraphy. Beautiful pictures and remarkably simple, beautiful words. This relates to having loving kindness for ourselves.
So, the little boy says to his friend, the mole:
“Sometimes I worry you’ll all realise I’m ordinary.”
“Love doesn’t need you to be extraordinary,” said the mole.
It’s just so gorgeous! You really need to sit with this book and read a little bit at a time. I found it really touched my heart. Just realising that we are good enough and that we deserve our own love and kindness, the way that other people deserve it, right? Nobody wants to be hurt or harmed.
So, what is metta? As one of the Brahma Viharas (which are known as The Four Protections), metta is a quality that protects. The simile used in the Karaniya Metta Sutta is that even as a mother protects with her life her only child, so we should develop a boundless heart, boundless loving kindness to all beings. This draws on not only the unconditional aspect of love but also the impartiality of loving kindness, because then Buddha is not saying that a mother’s love is loving kindness; he is saying that even as a mother protects her child with her life, so we should develop the same loving kindness to all beings. That is what makes the difference. It is not only to “me and mine;” it is to all beings as though all beings were our child. In this way, it is starting to dissolve boundaries (seema sambheda). Metta dissolves boundaries between self and other, between the ones we like and the ones we do not, the ones who have the same political view, the ones who have different political views, the ones of the same colour or a different colour, same gender, or a different gender. Metta is starting to dissolve those boundaries because it helps us see the universality of human experience – it is looking at the fact that we are all going to age, we are all going to get sick and we are going to die. We are brothers and sisters in birth, old age, sickness, and death and in that sense, it can be a real equaliser and help to undermine prejudice, bias and anything that marginalises others.
Another way I like to think of metta is as “widening the circle” of what is acceptable to us. We can widen the circle to include different emotions, different feelings, parts of ourselves that we have maybe rejected or left out [of that circle]. We dissolve the boundaries between the bits we are proud of and the bits we feel ashamed of. We stop stigmatising certain aspects or patterning within ourselves because it is all conditioned. You can trace it back to something – usually in this life and if not then perhaps in previous lives, (if that is the way you understand the world), and as I say: “Nothing is fixed!” You can see that in your own practice and in your own life. We have a possibility to change and to incline towards goodness, increasingly so the more our mindfulness becomes strong and encompassing – unconditional mindfulness, if you like.
You might know that my teacher took part in the first bhikkhuni ordination in the Thai Forest Theravada tradition in Perth, in 2009. Bhikkhunis are ordained by other bhikkhunis, so they were the actual preceptors, but Ajahn Brahm and his Sangha of monks officiated that ordination, so they were involved. Due to that he was “de-listed;” (some people like to say “excommunicated” but that sounds really serious, like there is a pope in charge of all Buddhists!) Basically, what it means is that his monastery is no longer recognised as a branch of Wat Pa Pong. So what?!
It was not very pleasant, so I can see that if someone still had anger or hatred in their heart, or insecurity or fear, or even if he [Ajahn Brahm] would have wavered in his resolve and his value system, at that point he could have backed out and said: “OK I did the wrong thing.” He was actually asked to denounce the ordination and to say that those women were not bhikkhunis after all, but of course he couldn’t do that because it wouldn’t be true, and he didn’t let fear overcome him. Even after he went back to Perth there was still a lot of silly stuff going on. Political stuff happens in every aspect of life – Buddhists are not immune from it! Ajahn Brahm put this beautiful poem on his website and I thought it was so wonderful.
The poem is by Edward Markham and it says:
“They drew a circle that kept me out, rebel, heretic, a thing to flout,
But love and I had the wit to win, we drew a circle that took them in”.
I think that is so beautiful because metta requires that we do keep on extending the boundaries of that circle, making the circumference wider and wider, until it becomes boundless – appamana: immeasurable loving kindness. This is what the Buddha describes as mahagatta citta: the mind gone to greatness, boundless, almost encompassing the whole world. Sometimes when you are practicing metta you may feel as if all sorts of beings want to come into that flow, they may just come to mind at that time and join in, partake of your abundant metta that you are feeling at that time.
Even if you have not experienced such exalted states of loving kindness or that expansiveness of heart yet, do not worry. The Buddha also said that even if you can have thoughts or emotions of pure loving kindness for the time it takes to pull a cow’s udder – so this is in the days of local dairy farming in India – if you have metta even for that length of time, it is more beneficial than giving alms food, or charity to hundreds of people – it is more beneficial than that! That sounds kind of crazy, right? Because surely, it is more important that metta manifests though wholesome actions and you alleviate the suffering of other people. But when I thought about why that might be, I realised: That’s because if you’re really coming from a place of metta, you’re purifying your mind from the root, you’re purifying the motivation of the mind, and if you’re doing that it’s likely that all your actions of body, speech and mind are going to stem from that loving kindness. And so, in the long run there is much more possibility that you will do not only one act of charity but many, many, many acts in all sorts of different ways. So, we are purifying the mind at the root level here, and it gives great encouragement, doesn’t it? To think that in that one moment, you are practicing the Buddha’s teachings; you are keeping the unwholesome states away just by keeping your friends at home, so to speak. The enemies can’t come in and take over the house. I would not normally call afflictive emotions “enemies,” but just for the sake of the analogy, if you keep your mind full of these beautiful friends, the four Brahma Viharas, then other things do not really have chance to come in, and if they come in, you will perceive them as friends anyway. You may not even know if your enemies have come, because your whole perception of them will change!
In the Buddhist Suttas, this morning I read out a bit about how to cope with harsh speech, when we receive the harsh words of others. That was part of a sutta called “The Simile of The Saw.” Many of you may know this simile, but the nice part in that simile, following on from speech, sounds extreme and I wanted to read it out just to make the point – and the point is not that you should let yourself be chopped into pieces! The Buddha says:
“Monastics, even if bandits were to sever you savagely, limb by limb with a two-handed saw, one who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them, would not be carrying out my teaching. Herein [monastics and lay people], you should train thus: our minds will remain unaffected, will shall utter no evil words, we shall abide compassionate for their welfare with a mind of loving kindness, without inner hate. We shall abide pervading them with a mind imbued with loving kindness and – starting with them – we shall abide pervading the whole encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving kindness; abundant, exalted, unmeasurable; without hostility and without ill will”.
So that is quite amazing and I am not sure if or to whom that might be possible, if you’re actually being tortured and tormented, although there are plenty of cases like that among Tibetan Buddhists who’ve been imprisoned in terrible conditions. They have been tortured and they come out saying they have no hate in their heart. So, this is not saying that we should just let ourselves get cut up into little pieces, it is not advocating passivity in that way. You try to stop people performing unwholesome acts as best you can and you encourage wholesome acts, but the point here is that if you allow hatred into your heart, you are not practicing loving kindness, because loving kindness is the antidote to ill will – it is impossible for hate to enter if you have a mind of love. But the other reason I think the Buddha makes this point is because even though in the most incredible of tortures, you are suffering intensely it is something that is transitory. That torment, that torture will pass and if you do not make negative kamma by reacting with hate, in the long run and in the spiritual sense, that does not have to be an obstacle on your path. Whereas if you develop hate then you are planting seeds for more hatred to arise in the future. So, it is really important to take care of the quality of our mind (and hopefully avoid being in such a situation!) But just to point out the actual potential of this practice, from the cow’s udder, all the way to being able to bear with unpleasant words and even abuse, even torture. With abuse I would say, if you are in an abusive situation and you can remove yourself from that and you have the support of others around you then please try to. Sometimes it can take a long time to have the courage and the support to be able to do that. Nobody is saying that because you are Buddhist you ought to be able to forgive – I mean, forgive is different – but that you ought to put up with anything that’s harming you, because the Buddha said: “Loving kindness should go to all as to oneself.” You are no different from anyone else; you do not deserve to be treated any worse than anyone else either – so to all as to oneself. Oneself is often the place we often make compromises, and we think: “Nah! I don’t really have to look after myself that well ‘cos nobody else is going to complain if I don’t,” but it’s really important.
I wanted to talk about one of the benefits of loving kindness, which is that it helps you enter samadhi. As one with a mind of loving kindness easily enters samadhi and I think the main reason is – there are a few reasons – but one reason is because it gives you such a sense of wellbeing and ease, and the mind needs to be relaxed and calm, full of wellness and wellbeing, to enter samadhi.
Another reason is because metta is an incredibly happy and pleasant abiding and the proximate cause for stillness (samadhi) – which is usually translated as “concentration,” – and this also makes you wonder if concentration is the right word – the proximate cause is actually happiness: “Sukhino cittam samadhiyati.” Samadhi – stillness or so-called concentration – arises from a happy mind, not from a tense or a tired mind or a mind that is full of ill will; not from a mind that is going: “Come on! Come on! Get on with it! Get into deeper meditation!” That does not work – samadhi comes from a happy mind. And so again, develop that contentment.
Of course, a third reason is because to enter the deep meditations we must overcome the hindrances, and ill will is really at the root of most of those hindrances – ill will and craving are just two sides of the same coin. Other things like restlessness, doubt and tiredness are based on ill will – the negativity of the mind – not wanting to be where you are, being confused, being a bit restless, not wanting to stay with what is in front of you.
These are all ways that loving kindness can help you in the samadhi practice and I often practice by beginning my session with metta and practice it quite a lot to generate feelings of happiness and ease. When that is already there, sometimes I turn to the breath. So, I’ll give you that opportunity in the guided meditation. I will start you off with some metta, but then it’ll be up to you whether you want to continue practicing metta or whether you want to just take that quality of metta into whatever you’re aware of next, whether that’s a more broad and expansive awareness or whether it’s more directed to a particular object like the breath or the body sensations. There are all kind of different ways to practice, so see how you feel about that.
Lastly, I want to also say that metta can lead to insight as well. It is not only a “feel-good” factor and a samadhi practice. Metta is also a practice that engenders a lot of wisdom and there are various ways that this is discussed in the suttas. The main way is that samadhi does help us to see things as they really are, because those hindrances are not distorting the truth and the mind is “soft.” The Buddha said when you have purified from the hindrances, the mind is malleable, soft and fit for work, which means you can direct it into any area of experience that you wish to. The analogy he makes is like melting gold. The gold at first is full of these impurities, these five hindrances i.e., other types of metal: lead, tin, copper, etc. So, you melt down that gold and remove the impurities and at that point when the gold is molten, soft, you can make anything you want out of that gold. In the suttas it says that at this point, you can direct the mind towards impermanence, suffering and non-self; you might choose to direct your mind towards past lives – and I know plenty of people who have done that, so this is something real. There is also the possibility to direct the mind towards beings arising and passing and notice that beings come into existence and pass away due to causes, so we get insight here into the Four Noble Truths – into causality, dependent arising. This is obviously a very high stage of practice and I can’t claim to be doing those things myself or not doing some of those things anyway.
But there are other reasons that metta can lead to wisdom, and one is that we learn that letting go leads to joy. The more we can let go, the more we can get out of the way, the more joy starts to arise, because metta is a less conditioned state than the states of aversion and clinging. The states of aversion and clinging always revolve around someone wanting something or not wanting something, so they tend to be very solidified states where there is a very strong sense of self involved: “I want; I don’t want.” But when those hindrances start to be overcome, the sense of self starts to dissolve. You are not so solid anymore. People can come and say things to you that might normally upset you and you just shrug and say, “never mind.” Or you could even laugh and say: “That’s true, I do have that tendency!” and that is OK, if you’re really at ease with yourself. It is OK – you can admit it as well.
So, letting go leads to joy and metta is less fabricated. Then after spreading metta the Buddha says in one sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya, that the best thing to do is to contemplate the five khandas as suffering, affliction, and alien- the aspect of “not mine.” They are disintegrating, which is related to impermanence; they are empty and non-self. I think it is particularly important to note the order here – that it is after spreading metta you can do that. Your mind is already resourced, it is already at ease – if you like there is some cushioning in the mind – so you that you are not going to be broken by these realisations; if anything, it’s going to lead to further letting go, peace and release.
The last thing I found in the suttas, where the Buddha talks about insight arising through metta, is that you can see even the states of metta themselves as conditioned and volitionally produced. So, although they are less conditioned than states of suffering and aversion – states where the five hindrances are involved – they still in are conditioned realm, they are still “an abiding,” they are still planes of existence. The Buddha says that at that time we can reflect that they are volitionally produced and therefore it is not the end of the Path, yet! There is yet something more to be discovered. In Buddhism we are always digging deeper, digging deeper, all the time.
I wanted to practice some metta with you and just go over very briefly how it is normally done. Generally speaking, we start metta practice using thought – a discursive method – we choose some phrases that resonate for us, which capture our well-wishing towards ourselves or another person. I could offer you some or you could find some other ones for yourself. I usually choose positive words rather than “free from suffering” or “free from fear” because all words have an energy and I think the mind knows. If you say the word “content” or “happy”, it just tends to – for me anyway – incline my mind in a slightly more wholesome way. So, I usually say: “May I be happy, may I be free” (that implies from suffering) – “May I be healed” – to me that means mentally and physical – and “May I be at peace.” I like the sound of those words because they rhyme as well, and it’s become – not like a mantra – but something that my mind instantly recognises: “Oh! Now she is practicing metta!” It is nice when you have something that works for you, something that you bring up and your mind makes an association with and finds a slightly quicker way in. You do not have to have four, it is up to you. You might just want: “May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be liberated,” or something similar. One teacher that I know, Bhante Sujato, he just uses: “May I be happy,” that is all: “May I be happy, may I be happy, may I be happy…” …and he has been using that for nearly thirty years; that is his main practice.
So, it starts in that discursive way, but the point is not the words, the point is where those words are leading to, it is the meaning behind those words. We make a pause between each phrase and we just allow the meaning, allow the vibration of those words to resonate as though inviting the mind to follow in that direction – not intentionally, but just wait and see, just listen in to your heart. How does that feel? You are keeping connected to your body and then you put in the next phrase and you listen, put in the next phrase, so you are engaging with the phrases. It is not happening automatically – you are not becoming disconnected from the meaning of those words. You are staying embodied and you may notice over time if the mind starts to calm down, that you need to say these phrases less often, there might be bigger gaps between the phrases, or even you might move towards just a single phrase or word. You do not have to [reduce the words] if it works for you to carry on repeating those phrases, but if it starts to feel like too much effort, too much talking within, just drop it down a bit or keep more silence in between.
So, there is the element of the words, the aspect of the feeling in your heart or in your body, keeping aware of whatever arises, and then the third aspect is the person who you are generating loving kindness towards. If it is yourself, it is sometimes harder to visualise yourself and you do not really need to, but you can inwardly smile at yourself. If it is a loved person – and I want to practice with the loved person today – then we bring up their face or a sense of their energy in front of us or around us, it depends on whether you are visual. Some people are very visual, you can easily see a person’s face – you do not have to hold all the features really clearly in mind but just to have a sense that that person is the object of your metta. If you cannot visualise easily, just bring to mind that person’s presence, how you feel around that person, a general sense of who they are. You are repeating these phrases, you are connected to your body and you are also seeing or feeling that person.
You use their name for example: “May Alison be happy; may Alison be free” or whoever it is. And imagining them receiving, treat it like a real thing that is happening between you both, because it is incredible how these qualities of loving kindness can spread beyond what we understand as this physical world that we experience right now with our senses. Metta has a powerful effect. My first teacher and preceptor in Burma had such powerful metta – I used to know when he was sending me metta – it had a certain quality to it that I became very familiar with and it was very clearly his metta. That was tested out by my fellow nun at the time because once when he was away from the monastery for several days. We were both sitting incredibly long hours in those days, for four or five hours at a stretch, before coming out of meditation. This one time, I said to her: “About halfway through that did you feel something?” and she replied: “Yes I felt Sayadaw’s metta.” I said: “Yes, I think he came back that time,” and of course, he did. Metta is powerful, and we practice step by step.
So, shall we practice some metta for half an hour or so? And if it does not work for you, please do not worry, just relax the words, relax the effort and keep making peace with whatever arises in your body and mind. Sometimes the opposite of metta can arise because we encounter blockages to metta; we contact our irritation, frustration, even our anger towards that person. If that happens do not worry – just turn your metta towards the anger, towards the frustration and towards yourself, OK? Remember that we are widening the boundary of what we can accept, of what we can let into our heart.
Transcription of Ajahn Brahm’s address at the meeting by Lia Lalli, edited by Ven Canda.
Sunday, 8th November 2020
“I have been teaching meditation for almost fifty years now. One of the first meditation teachings I gave was when I was a twenty-two-year-old high school teacher in Devon where I taught children between the ages of eleven and eighteen. I was asked to do the morning assembly and I got permission from the school Principal to teach meditation there every day before class. I taught six hundred and fifty children anapanasati – how to meditate on the breath – and it was a wonderful thing to share. Many years later I met one of those students who told me that learning how to meditate had changed his whole life. I tell this story to emphasise how important service is. However small and insignificant we feel our service may be, it can literally change other people’s lives. Service is key to any community.
Now I will lead a short meditation to imbue a sense of peace and quiet to the meeting and as a gift to all of those who work hard looking after others.
[20 minutes meditation]
I don’t know about you, but it was hard for me to come out as I was enjoying myself and I hope you enjoyed it too! With regular meditation the practice becomes second nature, and we know exactly what to do and how to relax our bodies. Every time we teach meditation you get the message and little by little, you will know exactly what to do, just like when you learn to drive. In the beginning you need a driving instructor to make sure you don’t crash the car, but after a while you don’t need an instructor anymore; driving becomes an automatic process. You can even have a conversation with the person sitting next to you, or daydream, and still drive safely.
Learning how to meditate is a remarkably similar process. The job of a nun or a monk is to be a meditation instructor. In the beginning you need us to guide you through the various stages of meditation and then little by little you know exactly what to do, you can sit down and your mind does the meditation.
One of my favourite similes about meditation is one which I got on an aircraft from the inflight magazine, where a pilot was predicting the aircraft of the future. In this future aircraft, only two beings will be allowed in the cockpit: the pilot and a dog. The job of the pilot will be to feed the dog; the main task of the dog will be to bite the pilot if s/he touches anything. Everything about the aeroplane’s functionality will be automatic and much safer – no human will need to interfere. This is so like meditation: the more you let go, the more the mind and body know what to do. You just watch, going deeper into meditation, until it becomes an automatic process. You become an observer watching all these amazing things occurring. You realise that all these beautiful, peaceful, deep states of mind can only happen when you disappear and get out of the way.
Meditation is key to the path and I love talking about it, but today we are here to talk about the joy of service and how central and helpful service is to the Path. To emphasise this, I will tell you a story that goes back to the time when I was a young monk in Thailand and we had to make our own robes. Back then this was extremely hard work. It could take days to make a set of robes, particularly because there was no electricity. You had to cut small pieces of cloth and sew them into robes on one of those old-fashioned sewing machines, operated by a little foot pedal. You would have to get your coordination right to be able to sew in a straight line and therefore the process of sewing would take about twenty hours. Afterwards the cloth needed to be dyed and for this we would use the jackfruit tree. When jackfruit trees in the forest were dead or when a branch fell off, we would collect it and chop the tree into little chips. This was done with a machete which we had to sharpen ourselves and was quite dangerous work. Once the chips were ready for processing, we had to get water from the well. All we had were buckets and a piece of bamboo with a hook on the end. Many buckets fell in the well and were lost that way and because it was a poor monastery, if we lost a bucket, we would have to get a rope and climb into that well to rescue it! I remember going down many time to rescue buckets and sometimes there were snakes in those wells. However, no monk ever got bitten by a snake, even though they were all over the forest, as we were used to living with snakes; the monks and the snakes were kind to one another.
The water was put in a big basin with a fire underneath and when the water started boiling, we put the chips of the jackfruit tree in and boiled them over a long period of time. Through this process, the wood chips released the sap which was the dyeing agent for the robes. The dye was concentrated and when ready was put on the white cloth which was pounded quite vigorously for a long time so that the dye would be absorbed. In order to avoid streaking, the cloth had to be turned constantly. The whole process was extremely hard, and it took about three or four days of continuous work without any rest. Three monks were making their robes and after one or two days they had not slept at all, so one evening I broke the rules. Even though this was their test and I was supposed to let them make their robes themselves, I went to the dyeing shed after the evening meeting and told them to go and take a rest, I would take over that evening. They took up my offer and I carried on with their work overnight without resting myself. The bell went at 3:00AM the following morning and when I went to the morning meeting at 3:15AM I could not believe the amount of energy I had! I hadn’t had any coffee or tea but had all this energy and didn’t know where it came from! I was meditating with a straight back and with no tiredness, even though I had not slept all night, and my chanting was energized and in full force.
On the way back from alms round that morning, I confessed breaking the monastery’s rules to some monks. They told me that on this occasion, breaking the rules didn’t matter, as I had acted out of kindness. I asked them why I had so much energy despite not having slept all night and the monks told me something which I remembered – and practice to this day. Because I served and cared for others with compassion, that beautiful gift of kindness gave me “instant kammic rewards;” the rewards of energy, meaning and joy.
I use this experience as motivation to serve. I do so as much as I can at every opportunity; a lot of service for other people and projects. Not only do I serve Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project, but I also serve all over the world: in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, Sri-Lanka, Hong Kong, and beyond. I am spiritual director, advisor, and patron of many institutions and my responsibilities continue to grow. People ask me why I do it – they say I shouldn’t take on any more responsibilities or service – but I believe that one can always do some more because beautiful giving is energizing. It makes one’s meditation glisten, it imparts power, joy and stillness. That is the reason why many of you have done lots of service already and continue to serve, in small and big ways. You are all important to this project.
Maybe you don’t realise just how few really good monasteries for women there are in this world. There are not many at all – and you are building one in England! There is a long way to go, but so much has been done so far. There will be a time when you wake up one morning and you will see, it is there! It’s happened! I have been in Australia almost forty years and sometimes when I get up in the morning and get out of my cave and look at the monastery I helped to build and which I live in, and I can’t believe it’s there! I ask myself how it happened, and it was because of all the wonderful service and kindness over long periods of time. They say that when you plant a tree you may never be there to see it in its maturity, but your children and grandchildren will, and that’s enough. This beautiful service which you are giving to our world in enough, in and of itself. Just like planting a tree, getting involved in creating a wonderful Anukampa Bhikkhuni Monastery gives rise to so much joy, because you can see it in your mind and can almost visualise how in the future it won’t be just one nun living in a house in Oxford, but it will be the opportunity for many women to live the Buddhist monastic life to its fullness. When you see all these bhikkhunis in a beautiful monastery which you are responsible for – something which you have done in this life, which you’ve served and given to – it will bring you amazing meditations.
Before rounding up the talk, I’d like to tell you one last story about Visakha. Visakha was an amazing woman who was the chief female lay disciple of the Buddha and at the beginning of the rains retreat she asked the Buddha for a special privilege. She asked if she could be the one to offer cloth to monks and nuns who meditated outside during vassa, to give monastics their first meal when they arrived at Savatthi and to help them out if they were sick. The Buddha told her that he couldn’t give all that responsibility to her alone, as other people wanted to give and serve too. He asked her why she wanted him to give her all this opportunity. And then this amazing wise woman answered “If I am given this privilege, then when any of the nuns or monks staying at this monastery for the rains retreat experience these deep meditations called jhana, any stage of enlightenment, or even get free from the bondage of Samsara, I will know that I must have given them a robe, fed them, or served them in whatever way I could! When I think of that I will get so much joy – the beautiful joy and inspiration deriving from having helped someone else on the path to liberation. With that joy, my mediation will get so deep, peaceful and insightful that maybe I will also break through to the jhanas and the liberating insights!”
When I read this, I was so impressed with Visakha’s answer that I now repeat it to as many people as I can, because it sums up the reason we serve. The Buddha realised from this answer that Visakha understood an important part of the path: it is not just about going into solitude for years at a time, but it’s a balance using the inspiration of our good kamma and our service. By harnessing that inspiration, the mind gets incredibly powerful and still.
What is service other than letting go of what we want and what we need, for something which is much more beautiful? By serving Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project you will be doing something remarkable for women who haven’t had much of a chance in Theravada Buddhism or in any other type of Buddhism for that matter. The overwhelming lack of nun’s monasteries has made it near impossible for them to have a chance to shine and have their place to teach. Venerable Canda is a wonderful teacher and to listen to a bhikkhuni give such a good talk, to hear the depth of kindness, inspiration and beauty in her teaching – to hear the Dhamma explained by someone who is actually living it to the best of her ability – is incredibly inspiring.
Maybe there can be other women who can join her and make something really inspiring in the UK. Nowadays when we look for images, for people who really inspire us in our home country, who can we look to? Who – just by their lifestyle, example, care, and their teaching – can really make us feel that this life has a lot of meaning? I doubt that the British political elite can be a source of inspiration. However, I’m going to mention someone who has been a great source of inspiration recently: the newly elected Vice President of the USA, Kamala Harris, who, being a woman, born to an Indian mother and black Jamaican father and raised in the USA, had everything stacked up against her. Despite this, she managed to become the Vice President of the United States. So, everything is possible!
I too have come up against barriers. Sometimes people feel that barriers are too difficult to overcome. I believe that through service, barriers can be broken and things can be changed. This gives our lives meaning and when you get old, you can look back on what you have done, achieved and been part of and this will be a great reason for joy. If I were living in England as a lay person, I would get involved in Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project simply because it is unique and amazing. The Buddha said it is good kamma – and I can feel it is good kamma – so let’s make it happen!
Even though it is hard work, it is worth it. When you serve like each one of you have, in large ways and small ways, it is valued by others. Not only does the organisation value you, but you should also value yourselves and your goodness! When you meditate you should practice caganussati; meditation on your goodness, generosity and giving of time; of being there for somebody. When you’ve done some good work please reflect on it, bear it in mind. You have done great service, enabling Buddhism to rise to its heights by strengthening it for women and bhikkhunis. This weekend in Perth we had nine bhikkhunis come to our city centre. Nine bhikkhunis and four monks (bhikkhus). The lay people were delighted to see so many monks and nuns walking together on alms round in order of seniority – not just the monks in the front and the women in the back, none of that stuff (!) – because it was inspiring. It is making a difference in people’s lives.
Of course, it is not just me who makes these things happen but everyone else who helps and serves who makes this possible. Inspiring acts do not just happen through kindness; there is a word from Kamala Harris’s acceptance speech that stuck in my mind: “Audacity.” Just like Joe Biden had the audacity to nominate a black woman as vice president, I had the audacity to ordain women as bhikkhunis, the audacity to put them there in front. This word emphasises how ground-breaking and necessary some actions are at times. It needs to be done and we are going to do it, to make it happen. That is where the joy and the bliss of service come up – not just any old service, but serving a marvellous, inspiring cause which will change so many people’s lives, especially in the UK but also in the rest of the world. We did it first in Australia; we now have a wonderful nun’s monastery with so many nuns, fully ordained… and now in the UK please let’s make it happen!”
[Ven Canda now invites everyone to introduce themselves and the group discuss many ideas and ways of taking things forward with Anukampa]
Last meditation together before saying goodbye (Ajahn Brahm):
“Whatever is right in front of your mind in this moment, you always must add compassion to it, kindness. I have been impressed by all the kindness of the people who are here this morning. And that kindness and stillness together create a powerful force of innovation, growth and harmony. So, we start with harmony with this moment, then harmony with our friends and harmony with all our enemies. They are not enemies anymore; they are all our teachers. We embrace all things with kindness and then we find we do have energy to serve, inspiration to help and beautiful warmth in our heart. We understand the meaning of our lives: to serve, to give, to be free.
Now I’ll be quiet for a minute and end with a blessing for you all.”
4th July – 4th October 2020
From Saturday 4th July until Sunday 4th October Ven Canda will be on a three month silent retreat. This will be the first time in history that any Theravada Bhikkhuni is spending the vassa (traditional monastic “rains retreat”) supported as a bhikkhuni in a designated bhikkhuni dwelling in the UK.
The set up is the result of over four years of dedicated hard work and will offer enormous potential for guarding the five senses, continuous Kindfulness in all activities, contentment and physical seclusion ~ the foundations for deep meditation practice.
We hope that knowing Ven Canda is taking such steps in the Dhamma will be of great inspiration and encourage you in your own practice.
We look forward to seeing you again in October to share insights from this special practice period, whether in person of online.
In the meantime, to support you on your journey, you can find many Dhamma teachings from Ajahn Brahm, Ven Canda, Ajahn Brahmali and more on our Youtube channel here.
We are living in extraordinary times. As we are in our various phases of unlocking lock-down, depending on our geographical location and personal situation, we are also entering the fourth week of the largest anti-racist movement in living memory. Large and overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations are happening across three continents, in the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd ~ and hopes run high for systemic change. Whether we are involved in activism, policy change, anti-racism training or examination of our personal relationship with racism and race, a capacity to listen to ourselves and each other with a patient, open heart seems key to lasting change.
A recent article in Tricycle Magazine notes that the Buddha was adept at using skillful and persistent questioning to address and unravel the wrong views underlying prejudice and supremacist ideology. In the Assalayana Sutta (M.N. 93), the Buddha brings about a change in a brahmin student through activating that student’s own capacity for intelligent reflection.
When young Assalayana declares to the Buddha: “Brahmins are the highest caste, those of any other caste are inferior; brahmins are the fairest, those of any other are dark; only brahmins are purified, not non-brahmins…,” the Buddha counter questions him incisively and with great humour, pointing (out among many things) that people from all castes are born in the same way, bathe and get clean the same way (!) experience the same kammic results of ethical action, and have the capacity to develop the immeasurable liberation of mind through loving kindness.
Venerable Pannavati Bhikkhuni
Venerable Pannavati, a black bhikkhuni ordained in the Theravada and Chan traditions, gave one of the most healing, inspiring and deeply compassionate talks I have heard on the need for self-honesty as a starting point in the conversation around race and unity in this outstanding Dhamma talk hosted by the Tilorien Sangha on June 19th. In it she says:
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t like where you are, what’s rising up in you,or what you see ~ it takes a radical kind of honesty to find yourself. Every time I’m looking at someone else, pointing my finger, I’m seeing where (in some ways) I’m just like them. In some ways I’m thinking certain thoughts that are unreasonable, that are hostile, that are cruel; that don’t speak for what I say I believe in and I embrace….It’s not about “Who are they?” ~ it’s about “Who am I?” What do I bring to this pivotal moment in time? What wisdom can I share [and embody] from the Dhamma that will elevate and lift us; that will point us where we want to be as a society, as a people, as a species? That is the question. Who do I choose to be in this world?“
You can read more about this incredible bhikkhuni here.
“Monk on a Motorbike,” as Danny Hill introduces himself, spends a good hour with Venerable Canda, discussing Dhamma, Venerable Canda’s path, women’s ordination in Theravada Buddhism, and much more.
Listen with a cuppa in installments if you wish! The whole podcast can be found here: