In class this week, we did something we rarely do: we studied the Buddha’s own words as recorded in the Pali Canon. Why did we do that and why don’t we do it more? We don’t usually do it because the wording, even in the most modern translations of these ancient texts, can feel like a bit of a slog for some and off-putting for others. The Buddha himself was not a scholar but an experientialist, learning by trial and error how to cultivate inner peace, compassion, equanimity, and an expansive penetrating view of the nature of being. All his teachings guided his followers and us today to meditate and discover for ourselves. But those teachings, when written down, do form the only record of the Buddha’s words, as repeated through generations of Buddhist monks and nuns, and written down 500 years after his death. How is it possible that his words have not been corrupted in that process? We know from our own experience that if we sit in a circle and one person whispers in another’s ear, and that person repeats what they heard into the ear of another, by the time it gets all the way around the circle, it’s been turned into nonsense. So why does the Pali Canon still ring true? Because those same monastics and all students of Buddhism since then, have not just been repeating meaningless dogma, but have been steadily doing the proscribed practice of meditation. In this way, the teachings stay true. They are reaffirmed in every moment by everyone who sits and uses wise intention and wise effort to cultivate wise concentration and wise mindfulness. This steady practice provides insights into the nature of being that the Buddha’s words help inspire and put into context, thus accessing wisdom.
We are in a most fortunate period of blossoming in Buddhism, where this ancient wisdom is born anew with every breath and given expression through living stories of the dharma in our daily lives. But even teachers who rarely share the words of the Pali Canon, know its value.
In the previous post I wrote that none of us needs fixing. Yet we look around and see a world full of bad behavior. And we look within and see the ways we have erred and how often our thoughts, words, and actions cause discord in our lives and the lives of others. Just because we don’t need fixing doesn’t mean we are always wise. We are living beings in a constant state of growth, flux, and renewal. But our ‘fix it’ mentality is part of the same heartless faultfinding habit that causes us to make enemies of others, the world, and aspects of ourselves.
So let’s find a different way to look at ourselves and the world. The traditional Buddhist invitation is the Metta Sutta. There are various translations from the Pali. I prefer this one from Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Sn 1.8 PTS: Sn 143-152
Karaniya Metta Sutta: Good Will
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu*
This is to be done by one skilled in aims
who wants to break through to the state of peace:
Be capable, upright, & straightforward,
easy to instruct, gentle, & not conceited,
content & easy to support,
with few duties, living lightly,
with peaceful faculties, masterful,
modest, & no greed for supporters.
Do not do the slightest thing
that the wise would later censure.
Think: Happy, at rest,
may all beings be happy at heart.
Whatever beings there may be,
weak or strong, without exception,
seen & unseen,
near & far,
born & seeking birth:
May all beings be happy at heart.
Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or irritation
wish for another to suffer.
As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.
With goodwill for the entire cosmos,
cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, & all around,
unobstructed, without enmity or hate.
Whether standing, walking,
sitting, or lying down,
as long as one is alert,
one should be resolved on this mindfulness.
This is called a sublime abiding
here & now.
Not taken with views,
but virtuous & consummate in vision,
having subdued desire for sensual pleasures,
one never again
will lie in the womb.
Pause and notice how reading this ancient text, feels in your body. Notice the thoughts and perhaps emotions that come up. In our class there was a wide variety of reactions, including unwanted reminders of religious childhoods forced to endure readings and sermons, bristling over the ‘should’ nature of the wording, the advice to have few duties clearly aimed at monks not working parents, the seeming censuring of sensuality, but also for a few, a curiosity about the Pali Canon and a desire to explore more. This made for a lively discussion that went on even after class was over. So it wouldn’t be surprising if you have strong reactions, too, maybe similar, maybe quite different. Just notice.
I chose this particular sutta to share, the Metta Sutta, because metta is a practice that we do regularly in class, and hopefully in our own meditations. I have seen the power of the practice of metta to transform lives and especially relationships. The act of well-wishing that through regular practice helps us come home to a way of being in skillful relationship to all that arises in our awareness.
Feeling an affinity to metta, infinite lovingkindness, we can receive this sutta as an invitation to cultivate the habit of open-hearted mindfulness toward ourselves and all beings. But what about the rest of this sutta? Let’s look more closely:
In the first line of the sutta, “This is to be done by one skilled in aims, who wants to break through to the state of peace”, can we recognize that ‘Skilled in aims’ is another way of saying wise intention? That’s one of the aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path that helps us find ease and joy in our lives.
And the wording ‘breaking through’ is an acknowledgment that something is getting in the way. It is not saying we are bad and need fixing, is it? It’s saying that if we cultivate wise intention, we can find peace if we recognize that there’s something blocking our way that needs breaking through. We have found this with the veils, haven’t we? With wise intention and wise effort, we learn to pay attention to what’s arising and to recognize that they are simply patterns of thought threads that distract and blind us. No matter how tightly they are woven, the veil they create is permeable.
When in the sutta we are instructed to be ‘capable, upright, & straightforward, easy to instruct, gentle, & not conceited, content & easy to support’, instead of feeling overwhelmed by a laundry list of how we should fix ourselves, we can recognize how these are the natural expressions of our regular metta practice as we engage in life. The qualities mentioned as desirable describe the behavior of a person who is not lost in a tangle of veils, but present and open to life. These are not labels to earn or strive to achieve but simply characteristics of someone unburdened and unblinded by knotted veils.
If we bristle at them, it’s only the habit of judging ourselves, comparing ourselves, and believing that we don’t measure up to some ideals we have woven tightly into our veils. Even the instruction to ‘not do anything that the wise would later censure’, though it may bring up in our minds a panel of stern judges, is simply a reminder that our lives are infinitely more pleasant when we stay rooted in the wisdom of the Noble Eightfold Path, using wise speech and wise action so that we don’t get entangled in the patterns of self-recrimination that are so often present in the veils of people of conscience. It’s saying ‘save yourself all that misery!’ How? By having a regular meditation practice that trains the mind to stay present and cultivate compassion. Always beginning with ourselves, because we can’t share what we don’t have, what we haven’t opened to. As the lovingkindness grows within us, filling us full to overflowing, we quite naturally share it from our bounty. We become conduits for it. But we never bypass receiving it. Without that, whatever we share comes from a sense of duty or wanting to be seen as nice. Accessing and sharing metta In this way, we give ourselves the gift of living from our own authentic aliveness, filled with lovingkindness and compassion.
The veils of thoughts and difficult emotions that activate unskillfulness may weigh heavily. But our mindfulness practice, and especially our metta practice, helps us to soften, lighten and even release these veils. As we have experienced in past explorations, we can unveil, and then don the veils with a new understanding, carry them lightly, and even dance with them.
The sutta offers instruction on how to live in a way that is easier to see through the veils. Aren’t you happier when you’re not multi-tasking and not chasing after your to-do list? When you don’t fall into the habit of believing that buying more stuff will make you happier? Where in your life could you live more simply?
The main part of the metta sutta of course is the blessing itself. The wording may seem a bit different from what we do in class, but the heart of it is recognizable. And especially as women, we can appreciate and relate to the reference to that maternal kind of love, whether we are mothers or not, because the oxytocin that is activated when we care for another being of any species, is what is being cultivated. (In our Zoom class, we have a number of beloved dogs and cats in attendance who occasionally appear on screen to the delight of all.)
A very important part of the metta instruction is contained in the words “without exception”. People struggle with this quite a bit, feeling that not all beings, certainly not all people are deserving of this blessing. But metta is not a reward for good behavior. And sending metta to ‘difficult people’ is an important part of the practice. (Read more about difficulty sending metta.)
Then again at the end of the sutta, we are reminded to release the veils of misperception when it says, “Not taken with views, but virtuous & consummate in vision.” Views, like our metaphoric veils, blind us. Through our practice of meditation, we cultivate the ability to see through them, beyond them, and even let them fall away.
Having read these few notes on the sutta, has anything shifted in your understanding or attitude? If you don’t find the Buddha’s words compelling, not to worry. I am not a Buddhist scholar and will not be exploring suttas in this dharma blog. But if you did find it interesting, you may want to explore more through this rich list of resources. And of course I always welcome your comments below.
*Karaniya Metta Sutta: Good Will” (Sn 1.8), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013