Roots of Compassion: Brahma Viharas - 1

Talk 1 - Monday August 27th - Loving-Kindness - Prepared Talk by Tim Burnett © 2018

Talk 1 recording


Talk 1 notes 

[Note that Tim often departs significantly from his notes when speaking but the notes themselves might be valuable to read]

One of the great things about slowing down and practicing is we start getting interested in what things really mean and whether it's all really the wa we think it is. So much flies by unexamined usually. My Zen teacher used to say that "everyone's a philosopher." He meant everyone has their own philosophy of life, their own theory of who and what they are what the world is. So often we take our theories for granted. Assuming everything to be as we think it is. We take lots for granted. It's wonderful to slow down and get curious.

So we call these retreats we do here in August and October "roots" retreats. The roots of compassion and the roots of mindfulness.

So what is a root? What do roots do? Roots anchor a plant in the earth usually. We tend to say "roots go deep" which is sometimes true. Often roots reach out broadly. If you've seen a northwest fir or cedar that's fallen over the roots are a broad fan. So roots of compassion may reach deep and also out broadly in all directions. Stabilizing us with a broader feeling, reaching our awareness out horizontally for support.

Roots take up water and nourishment. So how do the roots of compassion nourish us and hydrate us? That's a question to hold all week I think. How does this practice nourish me? How does it hydrate me?

So here are some teachings from the early Buddhist traditions that are some of the roots of the contemporary movement towards practices and trainings that develop more mindfulness and compassion in us.

We want to focus on a set of teachings called "Brahma Vihara" - and in these talks we will attempt to speak in English and not drift off into the intricacies and terminology of another tradition which was developed in another language. And besides nether Oori or I are really scholars of these old Asian languages anyway but a few terms that are commonly used are helpful to mention.

Brahma Vihara. So Brahma is an Indian god actually. These are religious teachings and there's a God here right away. Brhama can refer to a diety the way we think of a God but also to a principal of godliness. A kind of cosmic principal.

Vihara is hall or a monastery. So we're in a vihara right now.

So these are teachings of the godly, cosmic halls of practice.

The goals of early Buddhism are a little different than our goals might be right now. These are teachings not for feeling personally better, less stressed, kinder and so on, but they are teachings for transporting us to the halls of Brahma. These are teachings for being closer to god in a certain way. They pre-date Buddhism actually.

One of Buddha's great insights was that even though it sounds really great to be hanging out with the gods - to be reborn into a heavenly realm and live in the Bharma Vihara. Actually even though that would be pretty blissful it's would never be truly satisfying. The heavenly realms in Buddhism are richly depicted as full of jeweled trees and delicious food. The lakes are perfumed and the streams are a delicious nectar you can drink. Or actually you have gorgeous servants who take the golden ladles and scoop up the stream water nectar to bring it to you. You are totally blissed out and happy in the heavenly realms. But after a few thousand years it gets old.

And Buddha also deeply saw that everything is changing and impermenant so even the heavens are not permanent. It's a different idea from the Christian heaven which I think is basically a permanent abiding right? Eventually even the gods die. The first sign, I was amused to read recently, is that you start to smell bad and your servants lose interest in you.

So Buddha took a set of teachings that was originally designed to send you to rebirth into the heavenly realm and repurposed them for this great project which is complete release from suferring. Total freedom.

How that actually looks is described in different ways in the different Buddhisms but it's not just checking out into bliss. It's deeply understanding that happiness is not contingent on getting what you want. It's an incredibly deep acceptance and merging with what is. Nothing ruffles you anymore. In some Buddhisms that gives you the freedom to drift away into nirvana and in other Buddhisms is frees you up to be in this messy world with incredible resilience and courage because you truly have nothing to fear.

When you are free, free from wanting to push anything away or cling on to everything, you have total freedom to operate in this world or in any world.

So that's the heavenly realm in Buddhism: not a realm so much as a way of being in any realm. And it's actually a more radical vision than stress reduction or compassion cultivation.

But I myself don't see a conflict in having different goals and thought systems around the same practices. It's good to have a feeling that there's a broader range of understandings implied in these teachings than just feeling a bit better. And meantime what's wrong with feeling a bit better for goodness sakes? And these teachings do help us feel better. They help us become kinder, more generous, more compassionate, and more gounded and balanced. And more free. Free from narrow views and afflictive emotions.

Like anything, the words and instructions and stories that the teachings come in are interesting and valuable but they are more like the recipe than the meal. If you rip out the page of the recipe book and eat the paper you it's won't taste very good or be nourishing will it? No, you have to gather up the ingredients and do the careful work of following the recipe and making the dish and sitting down and mindfully eating it. The recipe points to that outcome but the recipe is not that outcome. Sometimes we get a little covetous around getting the right teaching or finding the right teacher or something like that because we are a little too focussed on the recipe.

We're here to enjoy the whole experience in this 5-day compassion cooking school. It's helpful to have good teachings and decent teachers for sure. You also need a good kitchen - good conditions for practice. But most importantly you need to show up and do the work. Work has a kind of narrow and tense valence to it so it's not quite the right word but you get what I mean. Effort is required. Patience is required - if you get halfway through the recipe and say "this is a lame recipe, not enough salt, I'm going to add more salt" you may end up with something edible perhaps but it won't be what the recipe intended. There's a degree of faithfulness to the instructions that's also needed. Even when you doubt them. Even when you doubt yourself - "I don't know how to knead this bread dough properly so I'll just skip this part and stick the dough in the oven" - what do you get then, a flour brick not a loaf of bread.

So the Brahma Vihara instructions are to practice in 4 areas. As early Buddhist teachings we often use the Pali word for each of these areas so forgive us in advance for that. Pali is an ancient language of South India that the Buddhist teachings were first written down in. It's actually not the language Buddha himself spoke or taught in. Interestingly this writing down project didn't happen for at about 500 years after the Buddha's life. Do you think your relatives will be able to accurately tell what kinds of sayings and doings you did 500 years from now? He was a very important relative to be sure and they set out to recite and repeat his teachings very carefully - it was actually one of the main practices of the very earliest Buddhists: reciting the teachings out loud. But still 500 years....

It's good to take all truth with a grain of salt eh? But still to really try it on. To cook the meal. Repeatedly. From the receipes we've received. Regardless of whether they are prefectly right or true or whatever.

I'm a bit famous for my long winded introductions but I think it's important to frame things. Not to be too quick to jump into "this is the thing to do," and internally lock that down. I'm in the Zen lineage of Suzuki Roshi - the author of the great classic book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, and one time a student asked him what the true meaning of Buddhism is. You know what he said? "not always so"! So whatever theory we come up with in our personal philosophy about who we are and who they are and why they voted how they voted or whatever it is we can also inject a little bit of "not always so" - I don't always dislike that. She isn't always like that. A willingness to be surprised by the incredible complexity of this universe is a great thing. It gives us more flexibility and curiosity and makes a lot more room for joy and delight to slip in through the cracks, like in those immortal lines of Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)

That's how the light gets in

The first of the four areas of practice is one we come back to a lot: metta is the Pali term. Loving-kindness is the usual English translation. Or sometimes just kindness. Or kindliness to emphasize that this is not a kind of inherent trait but a practice.

Have you ever practiced Loving Kindness meditation? We'll do several versions of that practice this week. It's a practice to help us nourish our inherent quality of kindliness towards all beings. "All beings" is wonderful Buddhist term too. It means what it says but it's worth pausing on that for a moment. All beings without exception are the recipients of our kindness in the practice of metta, of loving-kindness. That includes ... you fill in the blank ... it's easy for our mind to think of beings whom we don't feel deserve our kindness.

But these are practices not political debates - or even moral debates in that sense of deciding who is deserving and who isn't - and in fact Buddhist ethics have a bit different way of thinking about such things than some of the Western ethical systems but that's for another Roots retreat.

So whether we like the recipe or not we practice metta, loving kindness, towards all beings and little by little we start to actually feel some changes in our orientation towards them. And we include this being here - ourselves!

It can take a while. But this stuff actually does "work". Does it work in the way we might predict it should - this much practice should lead to that much kindness? well: not always so. But it does inculcate change and growth.

The best known source on how to practice metta and the other Brahma Vihara teachings is actually a 5th century CE long commentary by a Sri Lankan monk named Buddhaghosa. So now we're a century after the Buddha's life if you're keeping score.

Buddhaghosa says well the first thing to do if you want to practice loving-kindness is to deeply recognize how much you practice it's opposite: hatred. Hatred sounds very stark. We're all nice people here, we don't run around hating others. If you think that's too extreme you can use a range of other words. Annoyance. Impatience. Grumpiness. Wanting someone to be other than the way they are. That could even come up here at retreat. You might find yourself surprisingly annoyed by someone.

That's really good. Don't just brush past it. Stay with it an study it. Here is anger or annoyance or impatience or whatever you call it. What does it feel like? How does it show up in your body? What's it's energy and what does that energy do. Does it stay the same? Does it change? Is it glue for certain kinds of thinking and emotions? Does is persit a long time? The first step in study of loving-kindess is the study of hatred in all it's forms.

Each of the four areas of practice has a goal or central principal - metta or loving-kindness here - and each of those goals has it's opposities which they call enemies. There are two kinds of enemies: the far enemies and the near enemies.

The far enemies are the opposite thing: hatred is the far enemy of loving-kindness. So first we study hatred, get to know it and there are some techniques for transforming and liberating hatred.

The near enemies are sneakier. Those are qualities that look like the godly brahma quality but are actually not. The near enemy of loving-kindness is greediness. Certain kinds of desires. That makes sense right. You're trying to orient towards someone with kindness but you notice that there's a kind of stickiness to it. You want something from them in exchange. There are strings attached. Sometimes you think you're being quite kind but the universe seems to be giving you feedback that something else is going on. We are often pretty stubborn in our theories about what's happening so that may cause us to blame someone else. "I was really kind to her but she just didn't get it!" Maybe. Or maybe we aren't actually practicing kindness at all but some kind of greedy manipulation that has a surface appearance like kindness.

Back to hatred. In his monumental book Buddhaghosa has several suggestions for us around working with our hatred. I'll just mention a few. If you want to a Buddhist geek later I can send you the PDF of this ancient text and you can work your way through it more thoroughly.

First he says just apply loving kindness practices towards the person you're feel enmity towards. Hold the image of that person in your heart and offen them phrases of loving kindness like "may you be happy and joyful, may you feel safe, may you be healthy and strong, may you live with ease." Whether you feel like it or not. Just do it. Keep it up a while. A few years is a good length, maybe longer.

Then he says if that doesn't work contemplate great example of beings and teachers who respond to hateful things with patience and kindness. He gives a bunch of examples of this from the Buddhas many lives and previous lives where he sacrificed just about everything he could in the service of others. We might think of other examples: Nelson Mandela when he was liberarted from Robben Island forgiving his jailers for example. Ilooked it up he was a prisoner there from 1964 to 1982. 18 years. There are many examples of Tibetan monks imprisoned and even tortured by Chinese authorities who practiced kindness and compassion towards their jailers.

To really bring to mind, and therefor it's useful to learn about the great human capacity for kindness, forgiveness, and non-anger and really complete it. That this is an important part of understanding who and what we are. We learn all kinds of things but how much attention to we pay to this?

It's a kind of perspective taking isn't it? And that happens often on retreat. Your mind gets locked into some view or other - some story - and then eventually your perspective may shift and you're like, "woah that was all wrong! how could I have thought that?" See if this happens. This is another great advantage of the sustained silent practice we do in retreat. It makes room for this.

Then he says well if that doesn't work. Bring to mind the other person's good qualities and times they showed wise restraint and excellent conduct. Really bring that in your heart without any "yeah, but..." in it.

And then if that doesn't work he says recognize how harmful it is to you and to the other person to fan the flames of anger. He gives a list - Buddhism is full of lists - of the ways this happens. You end up saying to him or her, "may you be ugly!" and that makes you ugly. "let him lie in pain!" and that actually gives you pain. "Let him have no fortune!" and those thoughts undermine you own good fortune. "Let him not be wealthy....let him not be famous...let him have no friends!" It all constricts your own life and ends up resulting in your own life being impoverished, ignomious, and friendless.

Here's what it says you might end up saying about the person you're feeling hateful and angry towards:

“As a log from a pyre, burnt at both ends and fouled in the middle, serves neither for timber in the village nor for timber in the forest, so is such a person as this I say!”

But what's that lead to? Buddha told the student:

“By repaying an angry man in kind you will be worse than the angry man and not win the battle hard to win; you will yourself do to yourself the things that help your enemy; and you will be like a pyre log.” and "You will be one who does not carry out the Blessed One’s teaching."

So it's really a quite bad deal practicing hatred and anger. Watch that happening, feel it, maybe you'll be able to cut it out. This is experiential work not just ideas. Don't end up like a shit-covered log in a funeral pyre.

Still hateful and angry? Consider this - and here we need a minor world view shift - if all beings are subject to rebirth. Being reborn over and over and endless cycle, then the person you angry with was most definitely in different relationships to you in past lives. And in one of those past lives he or she was definitley your mother. It just stands to reason. That must have happened.

In our context we might also play with our perspective by bringing gratitude for the many many people and beings who have helped us be who we are. Eventually that broadens out to include even the person we think of as an enemy.

Or just turn towards whoever it is and say to yourself, "he was once my mother who cared for me, how could I now repay that kindness with hatred and anger." Why not?

And if none of this and several other ideas to boot helps with your hatred and anger with this great block to loving-kindness then he says contemplate deeply the great advangated of loving-kindess practice. There are 11 advantages:

1) you sleep well

2) you wake up happy

3) you dream no evil dreams

4) you're dear to human beings - people really love you

5) you're even dear to non-human beings

6) the gods watch over you

7) fire and poison don't affect you

8) your mind is easily concentrated

9) the expression on your face is serene

10) you die unconfused and content

11) and it says if you "penetrate no higher" you are reborn in heavenly Brahma realm, meaning if you don't really go all the way on the path of Buddhist liberation in freedom at least ou get to hang out in heaven for a few millenia and bliss out.

Some of this seems very quaint to us and the language, in translation especially, is not what we're used to but what's it all pointing to?

If we practice loving-kindness towards all beings we become content. We sleep well, we're relaxed and happy and in accordance with the forces in the world, our mind is more settled, we're just doin' fine. And when it comes time to die - and we don't know when that is do we? - when it comes time to die we die without confusion and suffering.

This is huge. Actually when I was thinking about the turning off your phones and trusting that messages will arrive from the camp managers to us quickly I was thinking of a time during walking meditation outside when I had to deliver a message to a participants that her father had suddenly taken very ill and was in the hospital. She left for home immediately and was able to be with him before he died, but only just. We don't know when we or our loves ones will pass from this earth we really don't. If we allow an awareness of this truth into our hearts doing these practices takes on a little more urgency doesn't it?

And the amazing thing here is that we really can change our inner patterns and believes and reactions to things. These practices really do "work" as I was saying. Sometimes the pattern in which it unfolds is surprising. It's usually non-linear. A great story from the meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg who's a great advocate of loving kindness practice is early on she was gung ho about practice but also really doubtful about it actually working. She doing an intensive monastic practice - a retreat like his for for months in Burma - over and over all day doing loving kindess practices. Bringing up a loved one and within them well, bringing up an acquaintance and wishing them well, bringing up an enemy and trying to wish them well, and bringing up herself and trying to wish herself well. That step - wishing happiness for herself and actually meaning it she found the most difficult. It all seemed to forced. Just going through the motions. But she was determined and kept at it anyway.

Then there was some crisis or other back home and she had to leave the retreat and fly home to Ameria. Very frustrating. Soon she's back in her parent's home. Then at some point she knocked over a vase or something and smashed it to the floor. Out of her mouth came some familiar words, "oh Sharon you are so clumsy" or probably some ruder words too. But then, out of somewhere deep, came more words that really surprised her: "but I love you anyway."

So that's the really important thing. The practices of loving kindness and the way they support and are supported by the other 3 big areas of practice the Buddhists talk about in these Brahma Vihara teachings do change us. It can be slow. It can be frustrating. It can be hard to believe but even in a world full of anger and confusion and criticism and destruction we can also realizing - from our gut, in our bones, that "I love you anyway."

Here's a poem to close:

Rosemerry Trommer - One Morning

One morning

we will wake up

and forget to build

that wall we’ve been building,

the one between us

the one we’ve been building

for years, perhaps

out of some sense

of right and boundary,

perhaps out of habit.

One morning

we will wake up

and let our empty hands

hang empty at our sides.

Perhaps they will rise,

as empty things

sometimes do

when blown

by the wind.

Perhaps they simply

will not remember

how to grasp, how to rage.

We will wake up

that morning

and we will have

misplaced all our theories

about why and how

and who did what

to whom, we will have mislaid

all our timelines

of when and plans of what

and we will not scramble

to write the plans and theories anew.

On that morning,

not much else

will have changed.

Whatever is blooming

will still be in bloom.

Whatever is wilting

will wilt. There will be fields

to plow and trains

to load and children

to feed and work to do.

And in every moment,

in every action, we will

feel the urge to say thank you,

we will follow the urge to bow.

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