meditation and compassion

When the Buddha quit

Buddha in the style of Shepard Fairey's Obama Hope poster

There’s a discourse in the Buddhist scriptures that’s long intrigued me, and which I think can be interpreted as giving an account of a time that the Buddha quit as head of the monastic community. The discourse itself seems confused and contradictory, which suggests to me that the monks who passed it on weren’t sure how to handle it, and may have tried to tone down what actually happened. On the other hand maybe I’m reading too much into this particular sutta. You can make up your own mind.

The discourse in question is the Cātumā Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya, 67). It tells of a time that the Buddha was on the outskirts of a town called Cātumā, when a large band of monks (500, which just means “a large number’) arrive, creating a great disturbance. The monks are headed by the Buddha’s two main disciples, Sāriputta and Moggallāna.

There were a few things that the Buddha seems to have particularly disliked, and one of them was noisy monks. After telling the monks that they are behaving like a bunch of raucous fishermen hauling in a catch, he dismisses them, saying that he doesn’t want them near him.

Some householders appeal to the Buddha, saying that these monks, some of whom were newly ordained, need his guidance. But the way they phrase their request suggests that the Buddha was being called back to guide the entire monastic Sangha, not just this group of 500:

Let the Blessed One delight in the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One welcome the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One help the Sangha of the Bhikkhus as he used to help it in the past.

There’s no mention of the 500 monks here, but of “the Sangha of the Bhikkhus.” And the Buddha is being asked to help them as he has in the past (odd if this is a group that’s just arrived). This isn’t conclusive, but it makes me think that the Buddha is being asked to walk back a decision a bit more drastic than merely “firing” one group of monks.

Adding to the mystery, the householders now receive backup, in the form of Brahmā Sahampati. This god is the same being who originally entreated the Buddha to teach after his Enlightenment, for the benefit of the many beings who had the potential for awakening. Now, here he is again, but this time intervening on behalf of just one group of monks. Again, there’s nothing conclusive here, but the first time we meet Brahma he’s stepping in for the benefit of all beings. Perhaps originally he was doing the same here.

The Buddha is persuaded. Or, as the sutta puts it, his “confidence is restored.” The monks are called back.

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The Buddha first talks to Sāriputta, and asks him what he had had thought when the Buddha had “fired” the monks. He replied that he assumed that the Buddha would “abide inactive, devoted to pleasant abiding here and now.” And he’d thought he’d do the same. Basically, Sāriputta was glad that of the opportunity just to get on with his practice.

The assumption that the Buddha would “abide inactive” is an odd one if the sutta is to be read literally. Since only 500 monks out of (presumably) thousands have been dismissed, surely the Buddha would have plenty to keep him busy! Sāriputta too, as a chief disciple, would still have plenty of teaching and organizing to attend to. He was, after all, the “General of the Dharma” (Dhammasenāpati).

After reproaching Sāriputta for this selfish train of thought, the Buddha asks Moggallāna what his own thoughts had been. He replies that he’d too thought that the Buddha would “abide inactive”, but that he and Sāriputta would “lead the Sangha of Bhikkhus.” The Buddha approves of this.

This is odd as well. If the 500 monks are no longer followers of the Buddha, what sense does it make that Moggallāna decides he’s going to lead them? Is he going to have his own Order of Bhikkhus, independent of the mainstream monastic Sangha? Are these 500 monks now no longer the Buddha’s disciples but still somehow with the Sangha as disciples of Sāriputta and Moggallāna? Why would the Buddha approve of such a relationship? If your boss tells you that your underling has been fired, then it makes no sense for you to say you’ll keep managing him, or for your boss to approve of you so doing.

Again, I think this suggests that the Buddha had quit, quite literally, “the Sangha of Bhikkhus”—not the 500 noisy monks, but the whole shebang. Only then it would make sense for both Sāriputta and Moggallāna to assume that the Buddha would “abide inactive,” for Sāriputta to think that he’d do likewise, and for Moggallāna to assume that he (and Sāriputta) would step in as head of “the Sangha of Bhikkhus.”

The rest of the sutta is an apparently unrelated teaching about various temptations and dangers that Bhikkhus faced, which might tempt them to return to the household life. It has nothing to do with monks being noisy.

I can’t understand this sutta to be saying anything other than “the Buddha quit.” I can well imagine that this would be a difficult message for the reciters (and, later, scribes) who passed on the teachings to take on board. And so I suspect that what had actually taken place was toned down, so that it wasn’t the entire Sangha that was dismissed, but just 500 monks.

There’s a tendency to assume that the Buddha was perfect, and that therefore the kind of scenario I’m proposing couldn’t possibly happen. But the Buddha was far more human than some assume. How human it was for the Buddha, in his later years, to say “I spit on old age.” How human it was that the Buddha experienced self-doubt, in the form of a taunting Māra, at various times in his life, including when he was confined to bed and wasn’t able to teach or to be of use to his disciples. How human it was that the Buddha seemed to find noise physically jarring, as in this sutta, or that he got so annoyed by being misquoted.

I actually feel closer to the Buddha knowing that he was a vulnerable human being. I have respect for him, knowing that he faced, and worked with, challenges and difficulties. I take the fact of his Enlightenment to mean not that he was perfect and free from doubt and irritability, but that he was a big enough being always to overcome these challenges.

And I feel admiration for him, and gratitude too, thinking that he once quit and was open to being talked into resuming the headship of the Sangha.

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Cultivating mindfulness beneficial, proponents say

wildmind meditation newsKimberly Marselas, LancasterOnline: A dozen tattooed and cross-armed teenage boys shuffle into the nondescript chapel at the Lancaster County Youth Intervention Center.

Operating against a backdrop of two-way radio chatter and fluorescent lighting but speaking in hushed tones, Wynne Kinder and Christen Coscia greet each by name.

The instructors with Wellness Works in Schools aim to encourage troubled and neglected kids to open their minds, let go of their pain, and start making better choices. Though they may not tell them this, they want to help the teens develop internal tools they might use to regulate emotions.

And the instructors likely won’t refer …

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How mindfulness can defeat racial bias

wildmind meditation newsRhonda Magee, GGSC: When I was promoted to tenured full professor, the dean of my law school kindly had flowers sent to me at my home in Pacific Heights, an overpriced San Francisco neighborhood almost devoid of black residents. I opened the door to find a tall, young, African-American deliveryman who announced, “Delivery for Professor Magee.” I, a petite black woman, dressed for a simple Saturday spent in my own home, reached for the flowers saying, “I am Professor Magee.”

The deliveryman looked down at the order and back up …

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125 U.S. Buddhist leaders to meet at the White House

wildmind meditation newsMichelle Boorstein, Washington Post: Are we about to enter the era of the political Buddhist?

On Thursday about 125 U.S. Buddhist leaders from across the spectrum will gather in Washington for what organizers say may be the biggest conference ever focused on bringing their faith communities into public, civic life. After the conference, the group will meet with officials at the White House, which longtime writers on U.S. Buddhism say is a first.

The daylong conference represents, some experts say, the start of a civic awakening not only among U.S. Buddhists, …

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Compassion meditation reduces ‘mind-wandering,’ research shows

Clifton B. Parker, Medical Xpress: Compassion meditation focuses on benevolent thoughts toward oneself and others, as the researchers noted. It is different in this aspect than most forms of meditation in the sense that participants are “guided” toward compassionate thoughts.

The research article, “A Wandering Mind is a Less Caring Mind,” was recently published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.

“This is the first report that demonstrates that formal compassion training decreases the tendency for the mind to wander, while increasing caring behavior not only towards others but towards oneself,” said …

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Changing the world and ourselves through compassion

wildmind meditation news

Jill Stark, Western Advocate: Be kind and you will be well. It has been the cornerstone of Eastern philosophy for centuries.

But what if recognising our shared humanity was more than just a sentimental ideal? What if consciously practising kindness could change the wiring of your brain and make you live longer?

This is neuroscience’s latest frontier – a growing body of research that shows compassion could be the key to improved health, happiness and longevity.

Brain imaging reveals that exercising compassion stimulates the same pleasure centres associated with the drive for food, water and sex.

Other studies show it can be protective against disease and increase lifespan.

It proves, experts say, that not only are we hard-wired to be kind, but it is essential for the survival of our species.

“We are seeing a revolution in how the mind works. As little as two weeks of practicing compassion with intention has a positive physiological effect on the body. It can lower blood pressure, boost your immune response and increase your calmness,” Dr James Doty, Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University told Fairfax Media.

“People are much happier and live a better life if they are able to maximise their genetic potential for being compassionate, and it has a significant contagion effect on others, motivating them to be more kind.”

Dr Doty, founder of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education – the world leaders in the science of compassion – is at the forefront of an emerging mental health movement relying less on pharmaceutical interventions and more on innate human traits such as empathy, altruism, kindness and resilience.

Borrowing from Buddhist mind training traditions (Dr Doty’s center was set up with the largest donation ever made by the Dalai Lama to a non-Tibetan cause), compassion practice uses meditation, visualisation, breathing and mindfulness techniques to enhance wellbeing and foster connection by focusing on shared experiences.

Recognising common fears or vulnerabilities rather than differences – be it with a difficult friend, an abrasive colleague or a noisy neighbour – calms the nervous system, boosting feelings of contentment and self worth. Practising self compassion for your own pain, rather than self criticism, is also a key component.

“There is no-one who has not, will not, or does not suffer. By trying to identify common traits which you share it starts breaking down this barrier of defining someone as an ‘other”‘, Dr Doty said. “You can see a dynamic happen when a person walks into a room with a sense of openness, kindness, connection, vulnerability, how the room reacts. It is much more positive than when a person is demeaning, unkind, rude or aggressive.”

Encouraging people to sit silently for 20 minutes a day and contemplate kindness may seem an unlikely money spinner for drug companies but they are looking at compassion science with interest, particularly data relating to the “cuddle chemical”, oxytocin.

Studies have shown this naturally occurring hormone, released at times of nurturing, can induce acts of altruism and increase bonding when administered in a nasal spray. Scientists are excited by its potential to create a kinder society but there are fears Big Pharma, which has been adept at pathologising the human condition, may invent a lucrative market for a perceived “compassion deficit”.

The corporate world, particularly those in the online space such as Google and Twitter are also investing in compassion programs. Facebook hosts an annual compassion research day to develop tools to resolve online conflict – a recognition that making people feel safe and understood is good for business. Medically, Dr Doty’s team have begun using the therapy for war veterans suffering post-traumatic stress, and for cancer patients.

Here, a growing number of psychologists are using compassion-focused therapy in clinical practice.

Stan Steindl, convener of Australia’s first compassion symposium – which will be held for the second year at the University of Queensland in October – believes there is a misconception that compassion is a weakness.

“It is possible if you try to do something good or kind to another person that they might take advantage of it. But it’s not so much in what you get back from the compassion it’s in the giving of compassion that really is the strength and that sense of satisfaction and contentment about living a good life.” Dr Steindl said.

But if being kind is good for us why are we not a more compassionate society? For scholars of compassion science, the answer lies in our evolution from tribal living – in which caring for the members of our tight-knit groups was vital to survival – to a more displaced way of life in which community bonds have been eroded and many of us are separated from family by thousands of kilometres.

Combined with the frenetic pace of modern life, it has led to a stressed out, individualised society with a reduced capacity for empathy. As we remain vigilant to perceived threats to our own small piece of turf, compassion is the casualty.

“Identification with a group gives you social connection. It lowers your level of fear and anxiety and makes you feel safer. If people are in an environment where they don’t feel threat, where they feel comfortable and connected, the vast majority of times they will actually function to be of service to others,” Dr Doty explained.

“If the economy is doing well and people are employed and there are resources for everyone then there’s really never any issues regarding immigration. But as soon as a group feels a threat, especially those on the lower socioeconomic scale, and they are concerned about loss of benefits or opportunity, they will often pick a weak group who can be perceived as taking resources from them. …There has to be an understanding that the old paradigm of us against them is just not viable if we want to thrive.”

But there is hope. Former Sydney marketing executive Jono Fisher is among those leading a charge to cultivate compassion in everyday life. Through his Wake Up Project he has mailed out 250,000 “kindness cards” at his own expense to encourage anonymous acts of giving. It could be leaving a bunch of flowers on a colleague’s desk or paying for a stranger’s breakfast, with a kindness card left to urge the recipient to carry out their own good deed.

“The desire is that people see that kindness isn’t soft or syrupy but it’s actually a really powerful force and that if we actually started to prioritise it, not in a sentimental way but in the same way we might go to the gym to keep fit, it can really make a huge difference to people’s lives.”

Australian moral philosopher and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Peter Singer, whose latest book The Most Good You Can Do promotes “effective altruism” – encouraging people to donate money in a way that will produce the greatest good – believes there is a growing thirst for giving as people look to step off the “hedonic treadmill”. “Getting more income and buying more consumer goods brings us very short-lived satisfaction and we soon adapt to that level and then we need to have more of it and the end result is that we’re not really happier than we were.

“Knowing that we’re doing something to help others seems to be something that is more fulfilling, because we can see that other people matter. It gives us a different kind of purpose to our lives.” And while the 24-hour news cycle may make us feel like the world is a scarier place he said a person born today has less chance of dying a violent death than at any other time in human existence. “I don’t think we ought to be gloomy. If we look at the longer trend we are becoming more humane on the whole, rather than less.”

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Taking your hands off the controls

steering wheel and dashboard of vintage car

As living organisms anxious about our existence, we’re all naturally rigged to want to manage our lives with the goal of creating more pleasure and less pain for ourselves. Yet so many things are completely out of our control—aging, sickness, dying, other people dying, other people acting in ways we don’t like, our own moods and emotions…it’s all out of our hands.

Even so, when this automatic habit of controlling takes over, when our whole identity is in the persona of The Controller, we become removed from the qualities of presence, freshness, and spontaneity; we lose the ability to respond from a wiser, more compassionate place.

You might begin to notice this in your own life. For instance when you’re with another person and are feeling anxious, notice The Controller in you who’s trying to be experienced in a certain way. You might notice that the more insecure you feel, the more The Controller will hop into action.

We all have our different ways of becoming The Controller. Sometimes we try to control by framing or presenting things in a certain way to elicit a certain response. Some of us control by withdrawing. For instance, we might find ourselves thinking, “Okay, if you’re going to treat me this way, then I’m going to pull back.”

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Another way we control is by withdrawing from ourselves, by shutting down. One football coach talks about an exchange with a former player: “I told him, ‘What is it with you? Is it ignorance or apathy?’ The player said, ‘Coach, I don’t know, and I don’t care.’”

We also try to control by worrying. It’s completely ineffective, but it’s what we do. We worry and obsess; we think and we plan.

Yet even though wanting to control things is a natural part of our biology, the question is: are we doing it in a way that causes our identity to be completely wrapped up in it? Often, when we’re trying to manage everything, we tend to get locked into an experience of ourselves as a tight, egoist self, and lose sight of who we really are.

In his book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe describes how, in the 1950s, a few highly trained pilots were attempting to fly at altitudes higher than had ever been achieved. The first pilots to face this challenge responded by frantically trying to stabilize their planes when they went out of control. They would apply correction after correction, yet, because they were way out of the earth’s atmosphere, the rules of thermodynamics no longer applied, so the planes just went crazy. The more furiously they manipulated the controls, the wilder the rides became. Screaming helplessly to ground control, “What do I do next?!” the pilots would plunge to their deaths.

This tragic drama occurred several times until one of the pilots, Chuck Yeager, inadvertently struck upon a solution. When his plane began to tumble, Yeager was thrown violently around in the cockpit and knocked out. Unconsciously, he plummeted toward Earth. Seven miles later, the plane re-entered the planet’s denser atmosphere, where standard navigation strategies could be implemented. He steadied the craft and landed. In doing so, he had discovered the only life-saving response that was possible in this desperate situation: don’t do anything. Take your hands off the controls.

It’s the exact same way with us. As Wolfe wrote, “It’s the only solution that you had. You take your hands off the controls.”

Hopefully, you can bypass being knocked unconscious to discover this truth! What you can do is begin to notice whenever you have somehow become The Controller, and just pause, notice what’s happening, and ask yourself, “what is this like?” What does my body feel like? My heart? What is my mind like? Is there any space at all? Do I like myself when I’m identified as The Controller?

This pause gives the possibility of a new choice. You might ask yourself, “What would happen if I just took my hands off the controls a little? What would happen if I simply attended to the present moment, to the experience of being here and now?”

As you slowly begin to take your hands off the controls, it’s important to bring compassion to whatever arises, since, behind the controlling is often anxiety, fear, and sometimes even panic. It can even help to bring a hand to your heart, breathe with it, and feel that your touch is offering kindness to that insecurity.

The next time you find yourself in some way trying desperately to land safely, your compassion might be what finally gives you the courage you need to let go of the controls. In doing so, you might discover that each time you let go, it becomes easier and easier to re-enter the atmosphere of your own aliveness. Gradually you’ll come home to the flow of your own living presence, the warmth and space of your awakening heart.

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You need more than a book to learn loving-kindness

Kira M. Newman, GGSC: A new study suggests that experience trumps intellectual knowledge when it comes to fostering compassion.

If a visitor from another planet arrived on Earth and asked you about the meaning of love, would you point him to Greater Good‘s articles on the subject? Or would you try to do some intergalactic matchmaking?

This question speaks to the eternal debate between book knowledge and street smarts, theory and practice, knowing intellectually vs. knowing experientially.

Now, scholars from the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, and Michigan State University have addressed …

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Seven fun ways to teach your kids mindfulness

Kaia Roman, MindBodyGreen: I taught a mindfulness class at my daughters’ elementary school this week. Unsurprisingly, the kids taught me way more than I taught them.

While I was doing research to develop the class, I came upon a wealth of information about mindfulness programs in schools. For one, I learned that actress Goldie Hawn has been working with neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists and educators to develop a mindfulness curriculum for schools. I was thrilled to find out that their research reported that mindfulness education in schools has proven …

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Study finds being exposed to Buddhist concepts reduces prejudice and increases prosociality

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Eric W. Dolan, PsyPost: Researchers from Belgium and Taiwan have found that being exposed to Buddhist concepts can lead to increased prosocial behavioral intentions and undermine prejudice towards others.

Buddhism contains a variety of teachings and practices – such as meditation – intended to help individuals develop a more open-minded and compassionate personality. Unlike the three dominant monotheistic religions, it does not draw a sharp line between believers and unbelievers.

In three separate experiments of 355 individuals, the researchers found that being exposed to words related to Buddhism could “automatically activate prosociality and tolerance, in particular among people with socio-cognitive open-mindedness.”

The study adds to a growing body of research about priming, a phenomenon in which merely being exposed to certain words or concepts changes the way people think or behave. It was published in the April issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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When Westerners familiar with Buddhism read religious words like “Dharma” and “Nirvana” – which they were exposed to under the guise of completing a word puzzle – they reported lower negative attitudes toward outgroups compared to participants exposed to positive non-religious words like “freedom.”

Westerners with a Christian background also became more tolerant after being exposed to Buddhist concepts, though only among those with a predisposition for valuing the welfare of all people and an aversion towards authoritarianism. Implicit association tests showed that these participants were less prejudiced against African people and Muslims than participants exposed to Christian concepts or neutral concepts.

Westerners with a Christian background also scored higher on measures of prosociality after being exposed to Buddhist concepts. Surprisingly, participants did not score higher on measures of prosociality after being exposed to Christian concepts.

The effect of being exposed to Buddhist concepts was not restricted to cultures in which the religion was seen as particularly exotic, the researchers said. Being exposed to Buddhist concepts also fostered increased tolerance and prosociality, compared with neutral and Christian concepts, among participants living in Taiwan.

“To conclude, we think that this work provides, for the first time, experimental evidence in favor of the idea that in both the East and the West, across people from both Christian and Eastern Asian religious traditions, Buddhist concepts automatically activate positive social behavioral outcomes, that is, prosociality and low prejudice, in particular among people with personal dispositions of socio-cognitive openness,” the researchers wrote.

“Unlike Christian and other monotheistic religious systems that paradoxically seem to encourage not only prosociality but also prejudice, Buddhist ideas favor both prosociality and outgroup tolerance, and these ideals seem particularly efficient (in leading to action) for people with relevant personality dispositions.”

“Emotional (compassion) and cognitive (tolerance of contradictions) mechanisms explain, to some extent, how Buddhist concepts, across cultural and religious contexts, enhance prosocial and tolerant attitudes and behavioral tendencies. Religious and cultural characteristics ‘travel’ and influence people’s attitudes and behavior in a globalized world even at the implicit level of consciousness,” the researchers concluded.

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