At Bright Way, we’ve been discussing the Brahmaviharas lately, particularly goodwill (metta) and compassion (karuna). One of the main questions we’ve been addressing, naturally, is how to deal with anger and hatred – our own, as well as that of others. When someone is actively causing harm, what does it mean to feel goodwill and compassion for them? (I address that question in detail here.)
Last Tuesday we did an exercise to explore what authentic goodwill might look like when we can’t ignore the fact that someone is presently causing harm. I shared the basic metta prayer (May ____ be free from fear and anxiety, may ____ be at ease, may ____ be happy) and then asked people to call to mind someone for whom they find it very difficult, if not impossible, to genuinely feel goodwill or compassion. Then I asked people to write a short metta-based prayer for that person, praying for things specific to that person; what might inspire or allow the person causing harm to stop?
Here’s some of what people wrote for a person of their choice towards whom they feel resentment, anger, or even outrage:
I hope you will be able to one day slow down and view all that is around you. Truly take in all the wonderful and not so wonderful parts of life. Really get to know the people here and try to learn and understand their points of view. Life is short and this might be your only one. How will people speak of you when you’re gone?
May you know intimately the binds that hold you. May you be free. May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May you discover true affection. May you feel the love of family.
May you deeply appreciate others. May you feel honest respect. May you be kind towards others. May you be filled with understanding and compassion for all. May you help others be successful.
May you see our common humanity. May you want safety from all danger and harm for all citizens of the world. May you experience the intimacy and joy of non-separation from all beings, regardless of what they look like, how they live, or where they come from.
May you feel deep satisfaction. May you truly feel complete.
May you be who you deeply are. May you be at ease with yourself. May you know you are complete and loved even when you aren’t the center of attention.
May you be free of anger, insecurity, and fear.
May you learn the beauty of silence and reflection so your words and decisions may be skillful and beneficial. May your guardianship bring you peace and mental happiness.
May you see the beauty of nature. May your children’s children live and grow in a world where all children can flourish.
May you be at peace.
If our prayers come true, would the subjects of our prayers continue willfully causing harm?
Many Buddhists throughout history have prayed to Kanzeon, the bodhisattva of compassion, for succor. That kind of prayer continues today.
Kanzeon is also known as Avalokiteshvara, Kannon, and Guan Yin. Sometimes portrayed as male, sometimes as female, she’s hands-down the most popular of the Buddhist archetypal bodhisattvas. One of the standard Soto Zen daily chants is called the “Universal Gateway Chapter” (of the Lotus Sutra), which states:
“If floating on a vast sea,
menaced by dragons, fish, or demons,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
the billowing waves cannot drown you.
If from Mount Sumeru’s lofty peak,
someone were to throw you down,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
like the sun you would stand firm in the sky…
If, persecuted by rulers,
you face torture and execution,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
their weapons will thereby shatter to pieces.
If imprisoned in shackles and chains,
hands and feet bound in restraints,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
suddenly you shall be released.”
It may seem strange to some of us to “pray” to Kanzeon as if she’s a deity who’s able to respond to us using supernatural powers. That’s why I’ve somewhat adapted the version of Kanzeon’s “Universal Gateway” scripture we chant at Bright Way (it’s in Full Service B) in order to leave out the most magical-sounding of the verses. (We have brand-new people drop in for chanting on a regular basis, and I feel these verses need some explanation…)
But there’s another way to look at such prayer. Compassion, according to Buddhism, is a force unto itself – a reflection of interdependence and something that functions freely when we simply get ourselves out of the way. Rather than compassion being merely a feeling, something we create, or an ideal for personal conduct, we practice in order to tap into and more skillfully manifest the compassion that’s already inherent in the universe.
One way to tap into compassion is to invoke its power in a prayerful or devotional way. For fun, I tried writing a few new verses for the Universal Gateway Chapter that we might find it easier to relate to. As you read them, see if such a prayer resonates with you, even if you don’t believe in supernatural beings who can intercede on our behalf:
If selfishness and fear lead people to turn their backs
on their fellow human beings who are starving, dying, and without homes,
by mindfully invoking the power of Compassion
those who are suffering and homeless will find succor and safety.
If ignorance and greed cause those with wealth and power
to exploit and oppress those without it, to an extreme degree,
by mindfully invoking the power of Compassion
all beings will be cherished and given a chance for a fulfilling life.
If small-minded people torment others with hatred and xenophobia
because of the color of their skin, or any other arbitrary characteristic,
by mindfully invoking the power of Compassion
human beings will recognize and embrace one another as kin.
If systemic greed results in a planet
stripped of resources and full of poisons
by mindfully invoking the power of Compassion
you shall find a way to heal the world.
Most Zen teachers I know will readily admit to you that when they offer a teaching, it’s usually something that they need to remember as much as anyone. With that disclaimer, then, I can write this post without sounding like I’m criticizing everyone else for being self-centered while I’m so nobly free of self concern!
The Buddhist path, from the beginning, has been called the Middle Way. What that means is we try to avoid extremes, which are generally paired and dualistic, such as asceticism versus sensual indulgence, ceaseless striving versus complacent laziness, or being too caught up in concepts versus being too caught up in rejecting all concepts.
When it comes to self-centeredness, the extremes are:
- Being so consumed with our own individual lives and experience that self-centered matters take up the vast majority of our time and energy.
- Being so determined to prove we don’t care at all about ourselves but only about others, we become a do-gooder – which means our efforts to help are often less beneficial than we’d like to think, and we exhaust ourselves (usually becoming bitter and resentful at some level, despite our intentions).
Now, when we devote ourselves to Zen training, we understand that we need to do a fair amount of internal work. We need to turn the light to shine within, and learn to see through our delusions. We need to work with the precepts in order to live in a less harmful, more compassionate way. This part of our practice is described by the first two pure precepts: cease from harmful action, and do only good. Sometimes this work seems pretty endless. It’s easy to get pretty wrapped up in ourselves – our efforts, struggles, flaws, suffering, and insights, not to mention our daily responsibilities, joys, and challenges.
But then there’s that third pure precept: do good for others. Plus our bodhisattva vow to free all beings, end all delusions, enter all Dharma gates, and embody the Buddha Way. How do we enact this part of our practice in order to avoid the first extreme of self-centeredness, but without going to the other extreme of being an oblivious do-gooder?
If you’re anything like me, when you think of doing good for others, you think of additional activities and responsibilities you should add to your life in order to do more stuff that’s explicitly focused on helping others. That’s certainly an important part of this effort, but when our lives are already so busy, there’s only so much stuff you can add. But maybe we overlook some important things when we immediately fixate on literal service?
Maybe our to-do list doesn’t have to get longer. Maybe, instead, we can recognize in what ways our daily life and practice can be done on behalf of others, instead of just for ourselves? When we show up at Sangha practice, it’s not just about what we’re getting out of it; our presence supports and strengthens others, and the Sangha as a whole. When we sit zazen, we’re not just relieving our own stress and making our life more manageable, we’re also touching a great mystery the world desperately needs in order to heal. When we eat well or exercise, we’re not just doing it because we fear ill-health and death, but because other people love and value us and our life brightens theirs. When we read a book or take a course that challenges our views in a way that makes us uncomfortable, we aren’t just educating ourselves, we’re freeing other beings from the negative results of our ignorance.
I think it matters, though, that we consciously include benefiting others in our intention as we go about these various activities and practices. In an open-handed, non-self-centered way, of course. (It’s not about You going around helping all Those Poor People.) Still, including others in your motivation shifts the whole dynamic; activity and results are engaged in a completely different, brighter way than when it’s all about you.
It also matters that you interact with others so they have a chance to experience benefit from what you do. What’s important is to share ourselves. After all, that’s one of our precepts as well: Do not be mean (stingy) with Dharma or wealth; share understanding, give freely of self. Many of us neglect to do this generously because we suffer from low self-esteem and assume no one really wants what we have to share, or that we don’t have anything of value to share. Both of these assumptions are terribly untrue and damaging, and if you feel this way, learning to share yourself and challenge these assumptions needs to be a big part of your practice.
Others of us refrain from sharing ourselves because we’re afraid we’ll be diminished by doing so, and won’t have enough resources left to maintain our health and sanity. But maybe, if we think we’ve had that experience in the past, we weren’t sharing in quite the right way? I’ll leave you with that question, and some words from Zen master Dogen’s essay “The Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance:”
“Foolish people think that if they help others first, their own benefit will be lost, but this is not so. Beneficial action is an act of oneness, benefiting self and others together.”
- Dogen, Zen Master. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo (Kindle Location 10262). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
Throughout my teen years and into young adulthood, I felt miserable about the state of the world. You probably wouldn’t have known it if you’d talked to me: I appeared fairly cheerful and well-adjusted because that’s a strong natural part of my character. Underneath, however, I carried an existential angst that threatened to pull me into neurosis and despair.
“How can I enjoy my good fortune,” I wondered, “while so much of the world is going to hell?” Was I supposed to distract myself with the pleasures of my own life while ignoring widespread starvation, oppression, injustice, extinctions, resource depletion, and environmental degradation? Contentment seemed like folly given the preposterous possibility we would destroy the entire planet with nuclear weapons within a day.
I was led to Buddhist practice by my pervasive sadness about the world and my sense of being powerless against the juggernauts of greed, hate, and delusion. Buddhism seemed to promise a way to gain peace of mind no matter how crazy the world was. I hoped to achieve an “enlightened” view of the world that would let me see how things like injustice, starvation, and mass extinction weren’t that big a deal. I hoped to gain a transcendent view of the world which would put all the misery into perspective and make sense of everything.
Fortunately, after many years of practice, I did learn to access a certain peace of mind no matter how crazy the world is. But I didn’t achieve it the way I expected, by somehow escaping the pain of empathy or the conundrum of responsibility.
Instead, I realized at some point that my real happiness would benefit the world.
What Real Happiness Is
At this point I need to clarify what real happiness is, by first explaining what it’s not. Real happiness does not result from the successful pursuit of self-interest, pleasure, power, material wealth, or stimulating experiences. Real happiness is not getting everything you want, although that’s very nice. That’s just conditional happiness, which doesn’t particularly benefit the world except that others don’t need to worry about taking care of you.
Real happiness is deciding to be appreciative and content in the midst of your life, just as it is – and in the midst of the world, just as it is. Real happiness is refusing to postpone the kind of satisfaction you usually associate with achieving all of your dreams. Real happiness is embodiment and direct experience, free from the filters of expectations and self-concern. When we embrace real happiness, we wake up to miracle of life.
In the Soto Zen scripture on the Buddhist precepts, the Kyojukaimon, it describes the treasure of sangha, or community, as “they who release their suffering and embrace all beings.” Isn’t this remarkable? It doesn’t say, “they who transcend their suffering,” or “they who manage to make their suffering disappear.” The sangha jewel is made up of people who quit holding on to their suffering – which of course implies that we are in charge of our suffering! This passage suggests we can learn how to let our suffering go, and thereby benefit others.
These Buddhist teachings about releasing suffering and attaining peace of mind can be easily misunderstood. It may sound like we’re saying, “Suffering isn’t real, so you can just put it out of your mind, achieve internal peace, and that’s good enough.” We’re not saying that at all. That’s actually an anti-Buddhist way of looking at spiritual practice. The Buddhist way is not selfish. It’s about direct experience… and when you actually let go of your suffering and embrace all beings, the result is not what you think.
How Real Happiness Benefits Others
When we practice real happiness, we wake up. We notice everything – and not just what we can see and hear in our immediate environment. We notice the state of the world, and the state of our heart. We recognize calls to respond, and then our best response naturally arises. We recognize what’s ours to do, and we’re free to do it because we’re not caught up in our own misery, or in pursuing conditional happiness.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh describes it this way, in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:
“Yes, there is tremendous suffering all over the world, but knowing this need not paralyze us. If we practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sitting, and working in mindfulness, we try our best to help, and we can have peace in our heart. Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse…
“We who have been fortunate enough to encounter the practice of mindfulness have a responsibility to bring peace and joy into our own lives, even though not everything in our body, mind, or environment is exactly as we would like. Without happiness we cannot be a refuge for others. Ask yourself, What am I waiting for to make me happy? Why am I not happy right now?”
It is not necessarily easy to be happy in this real way, at least not until you learn, for yourself, what it really means. Once you know, and once you build familiarity with the practice, all you have to do is bring together body, mind, and heart in once place and trust your awareness. The miraculous, inherently precious nature of our existence is immediately apparent if we just drop all of our concepts about the way life is or should be.
The ability to touch this way of real happiness does not in any way absolve us of responsibility to relieve suffering in the world. It also doesn’t cripple our empathy, or wrap us in a cocoon of cold detachment (things I used to be afraid would happen!). That’s because the way of real happiness is in touch with reality, and in reality, we’re not separate from any other beings, or from the universe itself. In reality we’re embodied human beings with thoughts and emotions. We have time and energy, and we inevitably have to make choices about how to spend them. We can fritter our time and energy away, dedicate ourselves to pursuing comfort or pleasure, or work to benefit self and other in a real way.
The Actual Practice of Real Happiness
I remember walking down the street one afternoon, in the early years of my Buddhist practice, and suddenly realizing my misery and guilt wasn’t doing anyone any good. I thought, “What if I dropped it?” Because of years of practice, I was actually capable of doing that – although it was only for a minute or two. When I “released my suffering,” my world instantly expanded. Instead of feeling like I was wearing blinders that kept me focused on the abstract issue of how I should respond to the sad state of the world, I noticed the trees, sidewalk, birds, flowers, and the crisp, cool air. I noticed my body, walking, breathing, and ready to get to work. I noticed people, and it occurred to me I was available to listen to them in a way I never had been before. I felt as if I had just woken up from a dream. Since that moment, I have understood that my real happiness actually benefits others.
You can recognize the benefit of real happiness from the other side, too – just think of the rare people you encounter who seem to be delighted to be just who they are, doing just what they’re doing. Even if they’re only stocking vegetables in the supermarket, you feel energized, strengthened, inspired, and encouraged when you encounter them. Your burdens feel a little lighter, and your aspirations awakened.
The fact that little daily encounters can let others benefit from your real happiness does not let you off the hook of the bodhisattva vow, of course. We vow to save all beings, end all delusions, enter all Dharma gates, and embody the Buddha way. Only you know if you’re doing your best at honoring those vows. However, don’t postpone your real happiness until you’ve achieved your ideal of bodhisattvahood. That would make sense if real happiness were a reward you have to earn, rather than a practice that’s accessible to you at any moment.
Bodhisattva in the posture of “royal ease.”
Sometimes, when I find zazen challenging or dull, I engage it as a practice of trying to be completely joyful and at ease in this moment – just the way life is right now: in this body, with these aches, bad habits, and unfinished projects, in this moment’s confusing world that is so beautiful and terrible at the same time.
This approach contrasts with practicing zazen in order to achieve joy and ease. When I’m meditating in order to obtain a result (such as relief from stress, greater perspective on my life, a deeper sense of compassion, or spiritual insight), I keep making an effort to let go of discriminative thinking and return my attention to the present moment. I make this effort because it is a tried and true method of obtaining the results I want, even though I don’t really understand why it works. At times this effort is enough, but at other times zazen starts to feel kind of mechanical and boring.
That’s when I change things up. Fortunately, there are many different ways to approach zazen, because my body-mind finds ways to resist any particular one after a while. It seems to me all the different approaches – concentration, koans, metta – ultimately lead to the same place, which is something we can experience but not very accurately describe.
I think Zen master Dogen would approve of engaging zazen as practicing great ease and joy. In his Shobogenzo fascicle “Zazen-gi,” or “Rules for Zazen,” he states, “Zazen is not learning to do concentration. It is the dharma gate of great ease and joy.”
Note that Dogen says “the dharma gate OF great ease and joy,” not “the dharma gate TO great ease and joy.” Now, I realize that Dogen wrote in Japanese, and that language isn’t nearly as fussy about prepositional relationships as English is. Still, respected translators have chosen “of” instead of “to.”
I interpret this to mean the dharma gate IS great ease and joy, and this resonates with my personal experience. When I sit and practice feeling joy and ease in my life just as it is, my body-mind starts to settle. All my habitual thinking dies down because there is less compulsion to leap mentally out of the present moment. I access a sense of stability, patience, and peace.
Now, the key is that my ability to practice ease and joy is not dependent on conditions, the way I usually assume it is. When I sit ease-and-joy zazen, I notice where I am not completely joyful and at ease. I notice where I am worried, or anticipating things, or holding dissatisfaction. I notice a voice inside me that suggests I can’t be at ease “until…” I notice a resistance to taking joy in life just as it is “because…” Then I try to let those things go, just as I have learned to let go of discriminative thoughts. My myriad reasons to postpone sincere satisfaction and peace of mind have no inherent reality; if I stop giving them energy, they pass away.
This is nothing other than the realization of Shakyamuni Buddha: our experience can be utterly transformed by changing our own minds. Conditions certainly affect and influence us, but the inevitable challenges of life do not preclude great ease and joy.
Another Buddhist teaching highlighted by ease-and-joy zazen, at least for me, is the teaching that enlightenment is essentially understanding or embracing impermanence. Subjectively, I experience this as never, ever reaching a point of rest or resolution. The vast majority of things going on in my life and in the world are either in process or inevitably fated to change. Without realizing it, much of the time I live in anticipation of elusive point of completion and perfection where I will have earned my ease and joy. When I sit zazen, I wake up to the fact that this point will never come, so I had better give up making my peace of mind contingent on achieving it.
I like ease-and-joy zazen for a couple of reasons. First, it’s direct. It’s simply practicing enlightenment without any methods or shortcuts. It may sound hard, but the methods and apparent shortcuts aren’t easy either. Second, it appeals to my heart by identifying the essence of my longing, rather than highlighting mind-states or insights along the way that will theoretically lead to ease and joy. Finally, in the moments when I feel greater ease and joy in my life right-here, right now – well, let’s just say those are moments of my life in which I am awake.
Of course, next week I might be using a different approach to zazen, but I still think this one’s pretty neat.
 Translated by Dan Welch and Kazuaki Tanahashi, from Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, North Point Press, New York, 1985.
Photo by Wonderlane
Much of the time we observe the world around us and pass judgement on it. Something we observe may appear good, bad or neutral, but we usually feel like we are simply drawing a conclusion from the data of our experience. We may qualify our judgement by acknowledging it is “just” our opinion or preference, but usually we have a sense that we can’t do much about our opinions and preferences. We either like something, or we don’t. We believe people can usually be trusted, or we don’t. We are convinced the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, or we aren’t.
When someone suggests the “power of positive thinking,” we may think it is something we are supposed to do in our minds to make ourselves feel better. We may think it involves choosing to take a “positive spin on things” rather than listening to our discriminating wisdom when it says something is amiss. Correspondingly, we usually figure that this effort to draw positive conclusions instead of negative ones doesn’t change the reality outside of us, except when we interact differently with that reality because of our new, positive attitude (which, of course, is no small thing).
The Buddhist view on the relationship between positive mind-states and reality is different. Buddhism acknowledges the effect of positive mind-states on our subjective experience; it is more pleasant and less stressful, for example, to feel relaxed than it is to feel angry. When we feel grateful, our chests feel warm and energy flows through us, but when we feel suspicious and stingy, our chests feel tight and our body feels tense. So there’s a good argument for cultivating positive feelings over negative ones if you can. But feeling good isn’t all there is to it.
In the Buddhist view, when we are able to consciously transform the way we relate to an experience, we can change the very nature of that experience. This is because “reality” doesn’t have the hard edges we usually think it does. For me there is no reality “out there,” separate from my mind; I will never be able to perceive a thing without the involvement of my mind. And what is the use of any reality “out there” that can’t ever be perceived? In a sense, reality is born as we perceive it. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean nothing exists except what sentient beings have perceived, as if only the subjective is real. Rather, it is that reality arises in the encounter between subject and object.
This may seem overly philosophical, so here is a concrete example. Say a woman butts in front of me in line at the grocery store. She’s busy talking on her cell phone and clearly in a big hurry, and takes the opportunity of a few extra, ambiguous feet of space to nudge her cart into the line in front of me. It is possible she just didn’t notice me, but that hardly seems like a good excuse. My first reaction is to get angry and defensive, and to curse the woman’s selfishness and self-absorption. My own self-concern arises, and I press my cart in a little closer, to guard against any other people who might want to get ahead of me.
Then I try the Buddhist exercise of imagining that each person I encounter has, in a previous life, been a kind, nurturing mother to me. And I recall the Buddhist teaching that all beings just want to be happy and avoid suffering (even if they go about seeking what they want in ignorant or destructive ways). Now I notice how anxious and tense the woman in the grocery line is. I know what it feels like to be in a hurry and overwhelmed, and I have no difficulty imagining that in certain circumstances I would at least be tempted to act like she just has. I feel a certain connection with her, and certainly some compassion for her. After all, is it likely she would be so pushy if she was spiritually at peace? Some of my anger and tension dissipate.
Now, what is reality in this example? A selfish, pushy woman butted in front of me? A suffering sentient being, just like me, acted out the age-old drama of seeking happiness and avoiding suffering? Is “reality” only the objective observation that a woman pushed her cart into a few feet of space in front of me in a line? Or all of the above? Reality turns out to be fairly flexible, or at least full of possibilities.
Fortunately, Buddhist mind training does not involve denying or suppressing experiences or reactions we might categorize as “negative.” I don’t have pretend that it isn’t rude to butt in front of someone at a grocery store. I don’t even have to pretend I don’t care about someone butting in front of me. Without turning away from any aspect of our experience (internal or external), we have some options about how to relate to that experience. We can follow trains of thought that take us deeper into emotions like anger or despair, or we can get creative and apply some other techniques and tools.
Another example of a technique aimed at “positive thinking” is to give something away when you are feeling a sense of lack. It’s best if you give exactly the kind of thing you feel you are lacking, such as paying some personal attention to someone else if you are feeling rather unappreciated by the people in your life. Your generosity will probably be appreciated and will generate some connection and warmth, which might be nourishing for you. For a moment you step out of a sense of powerlessness, waiting for the attention of others, and into a position of strength, where you have something valuable to offer others. This is not a panacea for relationship problems (if there is a real issue to be addressed it will still be there after your act of kindness), but it could get you into a better space for dealing with problems. Or it could jar you out of a neurotic, pessimistic habit of mind that is primarily about your skewed interpretation of the actions of others.
I will close with the Buddha’s own words on this very challenging Buddhist practice of positive thinking, from the Dhammapada:
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.
“‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me’ – in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.
“‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me’ – in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.
“For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love – this is an old rule.” (translation by Max Müller)