In these past days, sitting in a hospital room with my dearest one very ill, I have frequently recollected these words from Suzuki Roshi:
“You don’t really know what it means to sit in meditation until there is some great difficulty in your life. Not until something happens like the grave illness of someone you love. And then you are tearing your hair out and pacing back and forth in the corridor of the hospital and there’s nothing you can do. And finally you take a seat in the midst of your fears and your sorrows and thoughts and worries. And you just sit in the middle of it all. And that’s the moment that you begin to understand the power of your practice.”
Contemplation and experience of these words have deepened understanding that practice can be most easily developed when there is no present great disaster or catastrophe in our life. When we are in the depths of difficulty, cultivation and development of the equanimity needed to meet the exigencies of life may seem impossible. Yet, if we are consistently diligent and dedicated, no matter our present experience, our love of Dhamma and that consistency and dedication bring great power and sustain us, as Roshi says, “in the midst of our fears, sorrows, thoughts and worries.” This is our foundation and our omnipresent support—the great power of our practice. Having practiced, equanimity (balance based on wisdom) incrementally and surely develops, sustaining us through the inevitable undulations and exigencies of this human life. May it be so for you.
Metta (loving-kindness) is the ninth parami, or emanation of an awake being. What we call “love” is usually based on desire and attachment. This “love” is unreliable because it is usually based on grasping, conditioned on what we get from the “beloved.” At first, the attraction and even the grasping may feel exciting, obscuring the underlying suffering of grasping.
There is another kind of love, called metta. The Pali word “metta” can be translated as “friendliness” or “gentleness,” like a gentle rain that falls indiscriminately upon everything. It is an attitude of universal, unconditional, infinite love—the basic wish for all beings, without exception, to be safe, peaceful, healthy and at ease—without bargaining or condition. The beauty and purity of it is non-discrimination—no one, including ourselves, is excluded from the domain of our metta. This attitude is a wonderful refuge for us, based on the wisdom of the complete interconnectedness of all beings. The Buddha first taught it as an antidote to fear. For the beloved is not a stranger to be feared and fear is antithetical to the heart of love. It is a steady sense of patient, fully inclusive relatedness, connection, warmth, radiance and abundant generosity of heart, independent of conditions.
Metta may seem pollyanna-ish or out of reach. But that steady sense of patient, all embracing connection, can be successfully cultivated. If it were not possible, the Buddha would not have taught it. Can you imagine a world in which we encounter everyone with the attitude of metta? Will you start now?
The eighth parami (quality of Buddhamind) is Resolve or Determination, the capacity to set a direction in life and pursue it with courageous energy and patience despite obstacles to its attainment. It is the unshakeable spirit in us that calls us to stick to our course with the kind of dedication the Buddha had on the night of his enlightenment, when he vowed not to arise from his seat until he came to see the cause of suffering in his own heart and in the world, and come to freedom from it.
Resolve encompasses four qualities: discernment—setting reasonable goals and knowing the causes that will lead to their fulfillment; truth—being true to intention and determination; relinquishment—willingness to relinquish what needs to be relinquished; and peace—keeping the mind calm and easeful while working steadily to fulfill our vows.
Our determined sitting practice is a wonderful metaphor for the development of resolve in the midst of difficulty. Gradually, we learn to sit and open to sadness, restlessness and pain with compassion for however long we have vowed. To practice in such conditions is like pouring soothing balm onto the ache of the heart. Marshalling that spirit, we discover how to tenderly create and nourish our capacity for persevering.
Having the determination to stay the course, like the Buddha, we trust in the freedom that is the fruit of practice and develop true strength. The great forces of greed, hatred, and ignorance in us are met by equally great determined courage of the heart. Steady on!
As the Buddha lay dying, he said to his disciples, “Be a lamp unto yourself, be a light, let yourself shine.” With Truthfulness, the seventh parami (emanation of an awakened being), we vow to illuminate our lives through discovery and openness to the truth.
To follow the path of meditation is to open our eyes and our hearts to see and sense clearly the naked truth of our lives in a new and open way.
Close your eyes for a moment. Sense, as you sit quietly, your breath, this life, and this body. Sense your desire and capacity to see the truth, to tell the truth, to know and live the truth. Listen quietly and attentively. Ask yourself: “what truth in my life needs to be told?” What truth do you need to admit—about your body, your heart, your mind and relations in the world around you? What do you know is true that it is time to acknowledge, honor, listen and attend to? Sense your capacity to rest in the truth, in the very center of your being, to open to and live in it.
This is the spirit of the perfection of Truthfulness, the basis of spiritual life. When our practice is based on fierce love of the truth, we’ve begun the journey, stretching the mind and heart to include tenderly all aspects of experience: the “good,” the “bad” and the “ugly.” When we see truthfully the work to be done, it may be difficult, but immeasurably rewarding and onward leading.
Patience is the sixth Parami, or, emanation of the awakened being. Patience comes when we appreciate how it is to rest and wait, allowing that which arises to pass in its natural rhythm. From the TaoTeChing: “The wise … those who understand, have no mind to fight the Tao … but instead, rest in the rhythm of life and nature.”
Dancing the rhythms — what’s the hurry? Life is not like a piece of music to play faster so you can play more. It’s to be unfolded at its inherent and wonderful rhythm.
When there’s something that’s difficult to face, to be with, to rest with, such as pain, boredom, aging, hurt, we don’t want to stay with the difficulty, we want it to hurry and change, even as we understand the salutary effects of presence. We can choose to sit, breathe, listen and see, here and now, within the movement of life in and around us. Resting our muscles, our ideas and our hearts, the spirit of wonder, our capacity to rest in and trust the mystery, naturally reveals itself and wisdom appropriately moves our words, thoughts and actions. We put our bags down and not hurry elsewhere, all the while trusting that in the natural unfolding we are carried to our destination.
Buddha sat without argument, without rejection, studying the rhythms, the possibilities of mind and heart, how the world arises and passes away, until he opened to the great mystery, holding it all in the great heart of compassion. Who could benefit from such patience now?
On the night of the Buddha’s awakening, he vowed: “I shall not give up my efforts until I have attained liberation by perseverance, energy and endeavor.” This demonstrates the quality of virya, courageous energy, the fifth parami (manifestation of the awakened mind). The Buddha’s awakening demonstrated the power of indefatigable energy arising from spiritual urgency—the recognition that now is the only reality.
Practicing the Path to liberation demands unremitting effort in the mind to abandon unskillful mental qualities and develop the skillful. Through this vitality, stillness comes. Through diligent attention, the grace and mystery of life are revealed. By this effort, we do not seek to “improve” ourselves. Rather, we open our minds to understanding what qualities of heart keep us bound and suffering and those that lead to freedom. This is a radical shift that requires profound compassion.
Exerting courageous energy is not striving and pushing to make something happen. It calls for balance—neither too much effort nor too little. We see when effort is tight and we relax. We see when it is flagging and we arouse energy, with equanimity.
Then, we can see when we’re caught, asleep, attached, or frightened and make the effort courageously to let go that which obstructs clear seeing. Doing so, we awaken to the unvarnished truth of experience. Through our effort to be present in body, mind and heart, presently the invisible is made visible. Will you arouse effort, energy and vitality in your practice, with urgency?
Wisdom, the fourth parami or emanation of an Awakened Being, is not accumulated by long periods of study or linear thinking, or attained by amassing power. We’ve all met people who are intelligent and powerful, and yet not wise.
The heart discovers wisdom when, through direct reflection and experience, it rests in the inexorably changing nature of the seasons of life. Wisdom knows truly and deeply that we are given pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute, so lets go of struggle, resting the heart. Thus, it discerns what is universally true in all circumstances—the difficult and painful, the beautiful and joyful.
This parami of wisdom comes to life with “don’t know mind” seeing the eternal laws—that the only constant is change, and that the quality of our heart creates how the world will be—that if we act from anger, hatred and vengeance, that will be returned to us, and if we act with love and compassion, that will grow in us. Wisdom knows that sorrow is caused by grasping, anger, fear and confusion and that true happiness grows from generosity, loving kindness, patience and spaciousness. The heart of wisdom sees and responds lovingly, fearlessly and appropriately. Knowing our interdependence, it responds to suffering with compassion; to happiness with joy; it provides medicine for the sick, food for the hungry, and acts and speaks out against injustice, with love and kindness.
The wise awakened heart lives fully and dies unconfused, in peace.
Renunciation is the 3rd Parami or emanating aspect of an Awakened Being. Learning renunciation is key to freedom, it appears to the worldly mind as depriving ourselves of everything we love, the pleasant and enjoyable. This is understandable, as it is the way the worldly mind conceives of letting go. But renunciation is actually an attitude, a way of approaching life, that invites us to give up what binds us—the mentally fabricated condition that to be happy or fulfilled, our experience must conform to our ideas and expectations or exhibit certain pre-ordained desirable qualities. Instead, our energy can be directed to understanding experience itself, however it is. Life unfolding is the constant opportunity to understand more deeply that whatever forms or flavors arise are Dhamma, offering surprise, delight and deepening wisdom and compassion.
Renunciation is not denouncing or getting rid of anything, but moving towards non-contentiousness, rest and ease—not manipulating, controlling, evading, suppressing or maneuvering experience. What a relief to give up that struggle! Deeply engaged in the conventional level of reality—society, justice, identities, relationship, livelihood and the marketplace, we know that if we grasp at and expect them to offer complete fulfillment, inevitably they will disappoint. Is this true of your experience?
Renunciation can seem like passivity, a dreary “door mat” philosophy, but it is the opposite. The ability to respond wisely, appropriately and compassionately naturally arises in the non-attached and consequently clear mind. Whole-hearted wise engagement and letting go harmoniously co-exist, unbinding the heart.
Sila—ethical conduct, or integrity—is the second parami. We are invited to do no harm through wise speech, wise action, and wise livelihood. We resolve to act, and do act, in wholesome and skillful ways, consciously choosing to refrain from behavior that causes fear, confusion and suffering. The Buddha said such ethics have freedom from remorse as their purpose. Imagine a life without remorse!
Speech is a strong conditioning force in our lives. The Buddha cautioned against four unskillful ways of speaking: false speech or lying, angry or aggressive speech, gossip, and frivolous or useless talk. That covers a lot of what is said in modern life! Words have tremendous power to harm and to heal. We can communicate in a way that facilitates openness and freedom rather than constriction and suffering. Wise Action is synonymous with the Five Precepts, which are to refrain from killing, stealing, sexual harm, harsh speech and intoxicants. Of Wise Livelihood, the Buddha said: “These five trades should not be taken up: trading in weapons, living beings, meat, intoxicants, poisons.” These guidelines are for practice—to infuse our words, actions and work with integrity. We will reflect on them over the coming weeks.
This week, strengthen by practice your intention for acting from a wise and compassionate mind-heart. With mindfulness, practice carefully, to know the motivation before acting and to refrain until grounded in integrity (I acknowledge this is often complex and sometimes difficult). Steadfastness takes practice and patience with incremental rather than wholesale change. You can do it!