upekkha bhavana

“Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.” Montaigne

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne.

I’ve been depressed a few times in my life, but only once has it ever got so bad that I felt I had to seek medication. My doctor prescribed me something—I no longer remember what—and after taking just one tablet my depression instantly lifted. This was no miracle drug; these medicines take days or even weeks to have an effect. In fact the medication had nothing to do with my recovery, and the reason I felt better so quickly was, I think, because I admitted I was helpless.

Michel de Montaigne, the famous 16th French essayist, said that although he was not able to govern external events, he was able to govern himself. This beautiful observation embodies a truth that is old, but which we often have to be reminded of anew.

We can’t control what happens to us but we can, if not control, then at least influence how we respond to it. We often think of happiness in terms of providing ourselves with an endless stream of pleasant experiences, with no unpleasantness to mar the perfection of our paradise. And yet we can never achieve such a goal. The conditions that exist in the world are far too complex for us to be able to manage. We may want to have only pleasant experiences, but the world isn’t going to cooperate with us. We’re always going to have a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences

From the Buddhist point of view, the truest happiness comes from not allowing ourselves to be swayed either by the pleasant or unpleasant. This is what’s called “equanimity,” or upekkha. When pleasant experiences arise, we enjoy them, yes, but we don’t try to get more out of them than they’re able to give us. We don’t try to hold onto them, and recognize that they’re impermanent phenomena. When unpleasant experiences arise, we bear with them, knowing that they’re going to pass, not causing ourselves further pain by resisting the discomfort with thoughts like, “This shouldn’t be happening. This is terrible!” We allow all experiences to come and go.

This doesn’t mean that we become inactive and passive, simply putting up with things that can be changed: if the room is cold we can turn up the heat; if there’s injustice in the world we can campaign to right it. But there are always going to be things we can’t control.

My depression was one such thing. I didn’t know at the time what had cause the depression, and I’m not 100 percent sure I do now, but I suspect that what was keeping it in motion was that I thought I should be able to fix it. And the more I was unable to fix my depression, the more depressed I stayed. What might have been no more than a passing mood ended up being with me for weeks. In seeking held and telling my doctor that I had a problem I couldn’t control, I freed myself from thinking that I had to control or should be able to control the depression. Without the internal pressure that came from needing to be in control, my depression had nothing to feed on, and simply vanished.

In this case, “governing myself” didn’t mean “being in control of everything.” No government is ever in total control of its nation. A government is an organ of adaptation. Instead, governing myself meant taking the most appropriate action open to me, which in this case was relinquishing my belief that I should be able to control my experience. Sometimes the best use of our ability to control is surrendering the illusion that we have control.

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Knowing the mind of the Buddha

padmasambhava

A little under two years ago I was on a retreat with other members of the Triratna Buddhist Order, which I’ve been a member of since 1993. We were discussing the visualization meditation practices we were each given at the time of our ordination.

At the time of my own ordination, the practice I had requested and was formally given — the visualization of Padmasambhava — was described as being my orientation toward enlightenment. The visualized form of Padmasambhava — a red-robed figure with a trident and skull cup overflowing with the nectar of immortality — embodied my personal connection with awakening.

“Enlightenment” can be a rather abstract concept. How can we aim to attain a state if we have no feel for what it’s like to experience it? Imagine that you wanted to develop the quality of kindness, but had no examples of kind people to inspire you? Developing the quality of kindness wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be a lot harder. So it’s helpful to develop a clear and embodied sense of what an awakened being is like, so that we can resonate imaginatively and emotionally with it (which is now no longer an “it,” but a “he” or a “she”).

I started my contribution to the discussion without much enthusiasm, because my practice of the visualization of Padmasambhava had fizzled out a long time ago, and I didn’t feel good about that. When I was ordained there was a lot of stress put on doing the visualization practice regularly, and although I’d started off well, I found visualizing to be very hard. I’m actually a very visual person, but I had some kind of block regarding the practice.

Actually, before my ordination, I had a very strong personal connection with Padmasambhava. I had many dreams about him, and sometimes when I looked at pictures of him I’d “hear” him speaking to me — often giving me very useful advice. (No, I’m not crazy; I’m aware this was really me speaking to myself.) I spent months sculpting his trident, which is very elaborate, and then rowed out into the middle of a loch in the Scottish Highlands and offered the trident up to the depths. My connection with Padmasambhava was a big deal for me.

Somehow the meditation practice I was given interfered with all this. Struggling with the visualization made me feel that there was a barrier to communing with Padmasambhava, and gradually that sense of connection faded away, and I stopped doing the meditation practice.

And there was a sense of shame about my lack of fidelity that came up as I talked on the retreat about how I’d ceased doing this visualization practice. But as I continued to talk about how I’d been exploring alternative approaches to awakening that were more rooted in direct experience, I realized that I had never lost my fidelity to an underlying quest, which I expressed that day as wanting to know the mind of the Buddha.

This was the quest I’d been involved in even before I encountered the Buddha. Even in my teens I knew there was an alternative, more real, and more satisfying way to experience the world. There was a different way to see, and a different way to be. And I wanted to know what that was like. I wanted to experience the world that way — whatever “that way” was.

When I encountered the Buddha’s teachings — and even more when I encountered the Mahayana Perfection of Wisdom Sutras — I was aware of being in the presence of that different way of seeing. And I wanted to know the mind of the Buddha.

Although I’d stopped visualizing Padmasambhava, knowing the mind of the Buddha was always my goal. And my connection with Padmasambhava was just one particular way to seek that goal.

Now, just as mudita is the joyful appreciation of the skillful in others, where the good in us resonates with the good in others, so I believe that upekkha can involve valuing and appreciating the insight that others have. It’s that within ourselves that seeks insight resonating with the insight in others. Upekkha involves wishing the highest possible good — the benefits of awakening — for others. And so we naturally respond with gratitude, respect, and even devotion, to those who embody awakening. And that in fact is the point of the practice of visualizing enlightened beings.

The Buddha himself (or possibly his early disciples) seems to have encouraged this way of approaching awakening, and there was a practice that they called “Buddhānusati” — reflecting on the Buddha and allowing ourselves to resonate with his qualities.

And I think that Buddhānusati can be an important part of our upekkha practice. I discussed a couple of days ago how we have to be engaged in a quest for awakening ourselves before we can really wish awakening for others. And I think that it’s helpful, if we’re on a quest for awakening, to develop a sense of a personal relationship with enlightenment.

This doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of a visualization meditation. That didn’t work out well for me, although perhaps I gave up too soon.

  • It could take the form of having pictures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on our walls, or on our phones or computer screensavers.
  • It can take the form of reading the Buddhist scriptures (many are available free online) and allowing ourselves to get to know the Buddha from the records that have been passed down to us. This may not be an easy thing to do, because much of the depth of the Buddha’s personality has been flattened by centuries of oral repetition. But enough of the Buddha still shines through for us to have a sense of his extraordinary personality.
  • It can take the form of having a Buddha statue on the altar we meditate in front of. Don’t have an altar? I’d suggest putting one together. It doesn’t need to be elaborate.
  • It can take the form of bowing to Buddha images. Bowing doesn’t mean subservience. It’s simply a respectful greeting. And so every time I walk into a meditation hall, I bow. This reminds me of my debt of gratitude to the Buddha.
  • It can take the form of chanting verses. This is done in every Buddhist tradition that I know of. In the Triratna Buddhist Community of which I’m a part, we have a number of texts that we commonly chant together. There are various recordings here. The earliest forms of Buddhānusati seem to have involved chanting.
  • And lastly, you can do visualization practices. This doesn’t have to the done in a formal way, but can be as simple as imagining that the Buddha is sitting beside you when you’re meditating. I often do this. I don’t even necessarily “see” anything, so visualizing isn’t the right word. But just as you can know someone’s sitting beside you when you have your eyes closed, you can imagine someone sitting beside you while you’re meditating. There’s a feeling of a physical presence. And what I often do is to drop in the words “Feel the love of the Buddha.” So not only am I experiencing the Buddha sitting beside me, I feel him as a loving presence. Often this results in a feeling of warm on the skin of the side of my body that’s nearest to him.

So we seek to know the mind of the Buddha, to get close to him and to develop an appreciation and respect for awakened qualities — qualities which we ourselves are bringing into being. And in the upekkha bhavana practice we can wish that those qualities manifest in others, so that they know the peace and joy of awakening.

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Cultivate only the path to peace

BuddhaThe Buddha was a man on a mission, and very single-minded. He said over and over again that his only interest was in addressing suffering:

Both formerly and now, it is only dukkha that I describe, and the cessation of dukkha.

This word “dukkha” is often rendered as “suffering.” I have no real problem with that translation. It’s accurate. But many people have problems with the word “suffering.” As a friend and I were discussing just the other night, many people don’t recognize the suffering they experience as suffering, and so they don’t think that dukkha applies to them. Often people think of suffering as actual physical pain, or severe deprivation such as starvation, homelessness, or being in a war-zone. All those things are of course dukkha, but so are many others, some of which people might be reluctant to apply the label suffering to.

Often people don’t even see that they’re suffering; they’re blind to their pain. They so take it for granted that life is hard, or think that people and things around them are awkward and frustrating, and they don’t even give the difficulties they face a second thought.

The Buddha commented on this reluctance or blindness to dukkha:

“What others speak of as happiness,
That the noble ones say is suffering.”

We often think we’re OK, but actually we’re living at a sub-optimal level — far below our potential.

100 Days of LovingkindnessFor example, any kind of craving is dukkha, whether or not we want to recognize this. Even “pleasant” cravings like longing for a tasty treat, or longing for a new electronic toy are forms of dukkha. Look underneath the excitement of the wanting, and there’s a void that we’re trying to fill. Beneath the wanting is a want.

Anger is dukkha, even when we enjoy getting angry. Frustration is dukkha. Irritability is dukkha. Resenting someone is dukkha. Worrying what someone thinks about you is dukkha. Hoping that the traffic light will stay on green is suffering. Wishing that the driver in front of you would go a little faster is dukkha.

We actually experience dukkha dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times a day. Dukkha is not an uncommon experience that only visits us on rare occasions. It’s woven throughout our experience and often goes unnoticed or unrecognized.

So some translators render dukkha as “unsatisfactoriness,” some as “stress,” some as “unease,” some as “anguish.” The root of the word is obscure, but it may come from dus-stha “unsteady, disquieted.” There’s no word that’s quite adequate. Personally, I find “suffering” to be fine; I just have a very broad understanding of what suffering is in my life.

So the Buddha taught about suffering. He taught about the ways in which we cause ourselves suffering, and the different ways in which we suffer, often without realizing it. And he taught about the cessation of suffering. He taught how to end suffering by attaining awakening.

But what are we left with when suffering has ceased? What is the opposite of suffering?

I suspect most people would think of “happiness” as the opposite of suffering, but “happiness” isn’t quite right. Happiness is not what Buddhist practice aims at. The goal of Buddhism, which is the spiritual awakening of bodhi, isn’t really happiness. I think of it more as “peace.” Think of the goal as the opposite of “unsteady” or “disquieted” — it’s steady, at peace, settled, quieted, calm, untroubled. Happiness may accompany this peace at some times, and not at others. It’s the peace that’s fundamental.

In the Dhammapada, the Dhamma is is said to be the path to peace:

Cultivate only the path to peace, Nibbana, as made known by the Sugata [Buddha].

And the Buddha is described as being supremely at peace:

Serene and inspiring serene confidence, calming, his senses at peace, his mind at peace, having attained the utmost tranquility and poise.

In our lives we’re often seeking happiness in some way or another. And a common assumption is that happiness comes from having pleasurable experiences. Buddhism points out, though, that there’s so much change and instability in the world and in our own beings that we can never guarantee ourselves a constant stream of pleasurable experiences, and so we can never find true happiness that way.

True happiness — or rather peace — comes not from having pleasant experiences, but from changing our relationship with our experience, whether it’s pleasurable or unpleasurable. It’s when we can completely accept pleasure and pain without responding either with craving or aversion that we find ourselves at peace. So this insight changes everything. Most of our pleasure seeking, most of our pursuit of happiness, is actually causing us more dukkha, because we’re aiming to keep at bay unpleasant experiences and hold onto pleasant ones. And both of these aims are impossible, fruitless, and frustrating — dukkha, in short.

Peace and joy come not from the experiences we have, but from how we relate to those experiences. Our experiences are inherently unsatisfactory (another meaning of dukkha), and we need to stop chasing after them or resisting them.

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It’s only learning to accept impermanence, and developing the ability to bear with our experiences non-reactively, that will bring peace.

So we need to remind ourselves of this all the time, so that we can find peace. And we also need to bear in mind, as we’re interacting people or cultivating metta, karuna, mudita, or upekkha for others that they too are often trapped in cognitive distortions — seeking happiness but not knowing how to create it; trying to avoid suffering and yet creating suffering inadvertently. And in the upekkha bhavana we can look out into the world and be aware of beings striving, blindly, for happiness. And we can wish that beings (ourselves included) develop the clarity and wisdom to be able to create peace — genuine peace — the peace that comes from awakening.

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Going all the way… (Day 97)

Stone steps ascendingI’ve been talking about the “divine abiding” of upekkha as being not equanimity, as it’s usually translated, but something that’s much warmer and more compassionate and supportive.

Equanimity suggests standing back, but the word upekkha means “closely watching.” I see upekkha as an intimate identification with beings’ deepest needs, and our desire that they experience the peace of awakening.

Just as mudita is when we want beings to develop skillful qualities and the peace and joy that comes from those qualities, so upekkha is when we want beings to develop insight, and the peace and joy that comes from that insight.

Upekkha is what the Mahāyāna came to call mahā-karunā — great compassion — in contrast to the brahmavihara of compassion, which is a simpler desire to relieve beings of suffering.

Because upekkha means wishing that beings awaken, you might make an assumption that upekkha is something you can’t really get into until you’ve gained some insight or had some deep experience of deep peace ourselves, but I don’t think that that would be a helpful or correct assumption. We can want the peace and joy of awakening for ourselves and for others without actually having experienced it. In fact it’s inevitable that this is the case. We’re always seeking some peace that is not yet ours. We can’t, by definition, know what awakening is like until we’ve experienced it. We don’t even know what is going to bring insight about.

100 Days of LovingkindnessBut we can have a sense of the direction we want to head in. We can have a sense of what we want to move away from — craving, aversion, and the suffering they bring. We can have an emerging sense of liberation from suffering as we learn to let go, to notice our experience mindfully and non-reactively, and to develop greater compassion. This amounts to a sense of direction, with a destination that’s essentially unknown.

This is one of the odd things about practicing the Dharma; we don’t really know what the goal is. The Buddha certainly didn’t say a lot about what the experience of being awakened was like. He talked about it as being beyond the scope of words to describe, although he did repeatedly describe it as being blissful, joyful, and peaceful. So all we have to go on is hints, and a promise of some experience very different from our own.

Blind faith? Sometimes it might be, but essentially it’s confidence and trust (two words that in some ways translate “shraddha” better than “faith”) based on experience. If you’ve followed the guidance of the Buddha and found that meditating and living ethically have brought more of a sense of meaning, peace, and sometimes joy into your life, then you have some experiential basis for trusting that maybe this guy knew what he was talking about. And if he talked about a goal that’s the ultimate in peace and joy, however obliquely, then there’s some basis for trust — or “faith,” if you like.

And if we want to experience goal for ourselves (so to speak, since it’s not something that can be grasped or possessed), we can compassionately want others to experience that goal.

So we don’t have to have experience of the goal to be in a position to want it for others.

It’s not that we go all evangelistic and start pestering everyone we meet, asking them if they’ve “heard the word of the Buddha” and pressing little tracts into their hands. But we can learn to relate to others on the basis of what they can become, rather than on the basis of whatever constellation of habits and traits they happen to be right now. We can view others lovingly and compassionately, valuing their potential, and being an encouraging presence. This is the “close watching” of upekkha.

We don’t need to have experienced awakening to have upekkha, but one thing we do need is a desire for awakening. You can have lovingkindness for others — wishing for them to be happy — without personally feeling any connection with the goal of awakening, or enlightenment. You can have compassion for others — wishing for them to be free from suffering — without thinking about enlightenment at all. And similarly you can have mudita, and want others to become skillful and experience the peace and joy of a skillful life, without wanting to be enlightened. But I don’t think you can wish awakening for others unless you wish it for yourself.

And this is something that’s often strangely lacking in many Buddhists. Many of the practitioners I’ve met want to be better people. They want to be happier. They want to cause less suffering to others. But their ideals are very much rooted in puñña, or merit — becoming an incrementally better person by developing skillful qualities — rather than in pañña, or wisdom, which is a radical shift in the way we see ourselves. It’s quite common for Buddhists not to think about awakening, not to talk about awakening, and even not to think that awakening is a realistic possibility for them. In fact they might be quite clear that they think they’ll never have an insight experience.

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But awakening is the whole point of Dharma practice. And it can happen to anyone. It can happen anytime. I doubt if there’s a single person in the world who, in the moments before they had an insight experience, was thinking, “OK, I think enlightenment’s about to happen … wait … wait .. right, there it is!” Awakening always comes out of the blue. It’s always a surprise, or even a shock. And we should be open to the possibility of awakening happening to us. Not that we should expect anything to happen, but we should have the general aim of cultivating insight experiences. And we should be doing what it takes to awaken — not just living ethically and cultivating mindfulness and metta, but examining the impermanent, non-self, and unsatisfactory nature of our experience. We should be tilling the soil, planing seeds, and watering those seeds. You can’t make the plants grow through some act of will, but you can aim to grow a garden.

In fact, all this should increasingly become central to our lives. We should see ourselves as Buddhas in training. We should aim to go all the way to awakening. If we don’t have that aim, then how can we have that wish for others, and help them to free themselves from suffering? If we don’t ourselves have the desire to go all the way to awakening, how can we take others with us?

PS You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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The play of causes and conditions (Day 96)

100 Days of LovingkindnessWe adopted my daughter at four months old, and I found it absolutely fascinating to watch her mind evolve. What I noticed first was that happiness was her default emotion; it was only when hunger or pain arrived that she’d become upset. How many people can you say that for — that happiness is their baseline mental state and that they only deviate from that state temporarily? This reminded me of Buddhist teachings that tell us that happiness is fundamental to the mind, and that troubling mental states are disturbances to that inherent sense of well-being.

I watched my daughter exhibit wonder. She’d just sit there and move her hands and look at them and smile, and you could see that she was alive with curiosity and delight. Just the sight and feeling of her hands moving was wondrous to her.

But then things began to change.

She was happy because she had no craving or grasping. When she was small, you could remove something from her hands that she’d picked up, and she wouldn’t protest. She’d just move onto delighting in the next experience. But then craving and grasping started to arise in her mind, and with it arose her first real experiences of self-generated suffering. Because we’d take something from her that she wanted — something she saw as a fun toy but that we saw as a choking hazard — she’d suffer agonies of despair.

The hot on the heels of craving arose anger: by the time she was two, when she was deprived of something she wanted, she was likely to have a tantrum.

This was a bit of a shock to the system, having my sweet, happy daughter taken away from me and this demonic entity kicking and thrashing and screaming. It was all developmentally appropriate, but challenging!

One of the ways I found myself rising to this challenge was recognizing that what I was seeing was the play of causes and conditions. When she was frustrated and would try to strike me or spit at me, I started seeing her as an eternally-unfolding stream of causes and conditions.

She didn’t know why she was acting this way. She was experiencing new emotions (can you imagine what that’s like?) and having to learn to deal with them. She was struggling to come to terms with moving from complete dependance to relative independence, never knowing where the line was or what her limitations were, going through phases of development as she tried to make sense of the world around her and of herself.

Oddly, I found that I could face her tantrums not just with equanimity, but with love and compassion, when I let go of the assumption that she was a “person” and saw her more as a stream of causes and conditions.

It’s funny, isn’t it? It sounds dehumanizing to regard someone as not being a person. But actually it’s the opposite. When I see her as a “person” I start immediately thinking (even unconsciously, I think) in terms of her having a fixed nature that I have to mold into the shape I want. And that brings about judgments, because molding a living being isn’t easy. There’s “resistance,” and “uncooperativeness” and “bad behavior.” And it’s hard not to be angry when you’re faced with those things (even if they’re just judgments your own mind has imposed on reality).

But when I see my daughter as a stream of causes and conditions, I see her as an evolving being, and instantly I feel compassion for her, because I see her as a struggling and growing being. And my heart opens to her, because deep down we’re all struggling and growing beings. And perhaps somehow my heart knows that the best conditions in which to be a struggling and growing being are love and compassion from other struggling and growing beings.

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If you benefit from the work we do, please consider supporting Wildmind. Click here to make a one-time or recurring donation.

The great teacher 8th century teacher Shantideva talked about how seeing beings in terms of causes and conditions could help us have more patience with them:

I am not angered at bile and the like even though they cause
great suffering. Why be angry at sentient beings, who are
also provoked to anger by conditions?

Just as sharp pain arises although one does not desire it, so
anger forcibly arises although one does not desire it.

A person does not intentionally become angry, thinking, “I
shall get angry,” nor does anger originate, thinking, “I shall
arise.”

All offenses and vices of various kinds arise
under the influence of conditions, and they
do not arise independently.

An assemblage of conditions does not have
the intention, “I shall produce,” nor does
that which is produced have the intention, “I
shall be produced.”

So this is simply an extension of the principles of anatta (non-self) that I’ve been discussing recently. At my best, I don’t indulge in “conceiving” of my daughter having a self. At my best I realize that her tantrums are not her, not hers, and that they are not her self.

I’m at my best when I relate to others not in terms of what I think they are, but in terms of what they can become. It’s not that I have a fixed sense of what they can be, but that I simply don’t assume that what I see is all that there is. When my daughter’s having a tantrum that’s just one particular manifestation of the causes and conditions that constitute her being at that particular time. Minutes later she may be sweet and loving. And who knows what she will become in the future?

Things go best between us when I accept her as an eternally-evolving and undefinable being, and my task as a parent is to be a compassionate presence that encourages the emergence of what is best in her.

So this again brings us to upekkha. Upekkha is not equanimity, but is the desire that beings experience the peace of awakening. It’s also the activity that helps beings to experience that peace. Recognizing that beings are not fixed, but are vortices of conditions arising and passing away, helps us to experience that peace ourselves, and to help them to move toward that peace themselves.

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This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this (Day 95)

dandelion seedOnce I was walking into town when I was hit by what felt like a crushing tidal wave of embarrassment. I’d just had an interview for a podcast that would be heard by tens of thousands of people. And I’d done the interview after about four hours of sleep, because both my wife and daughter had been ill and very restless all night long. So I’d done a pretty lousy interview. My replies were shallow and rather incoherent at times. And walking down Elm Street later that day, out of nowhere came this tsunami of shame, knowing that my incoherence would be broadcast to thousands.

Then an interesting thing happened. I was in the middle of writing my book on the Buddhist Six Element meditation at the time, and a phrase that’s important in that meditation practice — “This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this” — sprung spontaneously into my mind. This shame was not me, not mine. I was not my shame. I was not my performance. A conversation does not define me. I was not my incompetence; my incompetence was just an impermanent phenomenon temporarily manifesting in my being.

And the embarrassment vanished. Instantly. And never came back. Even now, thinking about that incident, I can remember feeling shame but can’t re-experience it.

(Oh, and luckily the interviewer called me back and asked if we could record the conversation again!)

This phrase, “This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this,” is an important tool in learning to recognize the truth of anatta, or not-self.

100 Days of LovingkindnessThe Buddha did not teach, incidentally, that there was no self. The word “anatta,” which is often translated as “no self” is invariably used in the Buddhist scriptures in the context of saying “This is not myself. That is not myself.” It’s never used, as far as I’m aware, to say “there is no self.” And in fact when the Buddha was asked flat out if he taught that there was no self he refused to answer, and he also said that there was no view of self that would not lead to suffering: including the view that there is no self. I do sometimes say there is “no self” but what I mean by that is that there is no self that exists as we think it exists: separate and permanent. That kind of self doesn’t exist.

The Buddha’s teaching of not-self was intended to free us from attachment to the view that there was anything that could be taken as the self, or that could define ourselves. Self-definitions are chains that limit and bind us. So…

Your body is not yourself.

Your emotions are not yourself.

Your thoughts are not yourself.

Your awareness is not yourself.

What’s left? Well, nothing. But that doesn’t mean there’s no self, or that there is something else you should take to be your self. Rather, the Buddha’s approach was for us to cease identifying anything as our selves so that we can simply stop obsessing about the whole issue! We come simply to live without reference to a self. We live spontaneously and effortlessly, just allowing life to happen. (There’s a lot of hard work and discipline needed to get to that point, by the way!)

So this is another way into experiencing the liberation of bodhi — that freedom from the burden of self that I wrote about yesterday. This is another way into experiencing the peace of awakening.

And upekkha — our current theme — is wishing for all beings this freedom and peace that comes from insight. We wish this for ourselves; and more than simply wish for these we actively cultivate insight so that they may manifest in our lives. And we wish them for others; but more than simply wish for them we live our lives in such a way that we help others to realize insight, peace, and freedom.

So this is what we wish in the upekkha bhavana practice:

  • May all beings let go deeply.
  • May all beings find awakening.
  • May all beings dwell in peace.

The exact words do not matter; but this is the spirit of upekkha. The upekkhaful mind is the midwife of enlightened qualities. The upekkhaful mind recognizes the innate potential for bodhi in all beings, and helps that potential to come to fruition. The upekkhaful mind compassionately does what it can to help others attain the profound freedom and peace of awakening.

PS You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Looking into the heart’s depths (Day 92)

Homme et MéditationThe four brahmavihāras (divine abidings) are a progressive series of skillful qualities and the meditations in which we cultivate them.

So here’s my “yes, but” guide to how these four brahmavihāras of lovingkindness (mettā), compassion (karunā), joyful appreciation (muditā), and the desire that beings experience the peace of awakening (upekkhā) are related to each other.

Lovingkindness

So we start with the most fundamental brahmavihāra, which is lovingkindness. Lovingkindness grows from an awareness that our deepest desire is to be happy, and a humble recognition that happiness is often quite hard to find. So often we’re excited about something new in our lives — a new car, a new phone, a new relationship — and expect to be happy, and yet find that the course of our lives is bumpy, unpredictable, and often disappointing. Happiness comes, happiness goes, and we often don’t seem to have much control of it.

Reflecting on this sense of inconstancy, fragility, and unpredictability can lead to a sense of feeling vulnerable. And although this feeling is distinctly uncomfortable, it’s very real and very healthy, because it’s recognizing our desire for happiness and the difficulty of attaining happiness that allows us to recognize that others, too, have the same desire and the same difficulty. Desiring happiness and finding happiness to be elusive are fundamental and universal human experiences. Seeing this in others allows us to resonate with them; more and more we naturally want to do nothing to obstruct their happiness, and do what we can to help them be happy.

So basically, in lovingkindness, we wish others well and wish that they be happy.

Compassion

Yes, we wish that beings be happy, but still beings suffer. It’s when lovingkindness and an awareness of others’ suffering come together than compassion arises. That in fact is the very definition of compassion.

So we become aware of others’ suffering, and wish that they be free from that suffering. And as we train in compassion, increasingly we act in ways that help beings to avoid suffering.

We actually need a bit of upekkha — in the sense of closely watching (the root meaning of upekkhā) our feelings in a non-reactive way — as we cultivate both lovingkindness and compassion. We have to be prepared to accept things not being the way we ideally would want them to be, because we’re wanting beings to be happy and to be free from suffering, and yet so often they’re not happy and keep encountering suffering.

Joyful Appreciation

Yes, we wish beings to be happy and to be free from suffering, but they keep doing things that destroy their own happiness and cause them suffering. Well, don’t we all?

So we need to appreciate, rejoice in, and support the things beings do that actually do lead to peace and joy. From a Buddhist point of view, it’s skillful actions, words, and thoughts that lead to true peace and joy. Skillfulness is that which genuinely leads to happiness and freedom from unnecessary suffering.

So we rejoice in and encourage the development of qualities like courage, patience, mindfulness, kindness, compassion, and persistence. And we rejoice in the peace and joy that they bring.

We need even more upekkhā here, so that we don’t blame beings for not “obediently” being skillful! We want them to be happy and not to suffer, and yet they keep doing things that cause themselves and others to suffer. So this has to be handled with patience and forgiveness.

The Desire That Beings Experience the Peace of Awakening

Yes, we rejoice in the skillful, but it’s not possible for beings to become completely free from suffering by acting, thinking, and speaking skillfully. There are deep roots to our unskillful behavior. Unskillfulness is rooted in fundamental views we have about ourselves — false views — about our imagined separateness and permanence. And to uproot our unskillfulness (and the suffering it causes) we have to radically change the way we see ourselves and lose those false views.

In particular we have to cultivate a radical appreciation of impermanence (anicca) , so that we see that there is nothing for our “self” to cling to. In fact we come to see that there is no permanent or separate self to do any clinging in the first place. We can also appreciate that our experiences — even our actions — are not truly ours and are not us (anattā). We can’t hold onto them. We don’t really create them. This is hard to appreciate (your mind is probably rebelling at the concept) but I’ll explain this in a future post. We also develop a radical equanimity, which recognizes that it’s not our experiences that bring us happiness, but the way we relate to our experiences. Our experiences are inherently unsatisfactory (dukkha).

These kinds of reflections lead to a profound shift in our perspectives, which we call “insight.” And it’s this insight that leads to irrevocable peace.

So in upekkhā bhāvana meditation we’re wishing the peace of awakening for ourselves and others. We recognize that if — to go back to mettā and karunā (lovingkindness and compassion) — we wish beings to be happy and free from suffering, then we ultimately need to do what we can to get ourselves and others to the point of spiritual awakening.

Upekkhā is often described as the consummation or pinnacle of the earlier brahmavihāras, and as a loving state it’s in no way cold or detached. When we penetrate deeply into lovingkindness we find a passionate desire to bring beings (ourselves included) to full awakening, or bodhi.

Upekkhā is the fulfillment of the other brahmavihāras. It’s their perfection. It’s the deepest form of love. How much more love could we have for beings than to wish for them to be totally free from the three toxins or greed, hatred, and delusion, and the suffering that they cause.

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“May all beings dwell in peace”: A guided meditation (Day 91)

handThis meditation is a recording of a Hangout I did on Google+ with members of Wildmind’s community. It’s an upekkha bhavana meditation, which is not really the “cultivation of equanimity” at all — or at least so I believe. To me, upekkhā is not equanimity. It doesn’t even mean equanimity in its etymological root, but something more like “closely watching.” Upekkhā is when we wish that beings attain the deep peace of awakening through accepting impermanence, or the arising and passing of things, or that everything changes (the exact words don’t matter much).

We are of course seeking the peace of awakening ourselves, and so at the beginning of this sit I encourage you to notice the constantly changing nature of your experience. We notice and accept that everything is changing, and this can lead to a profound sense of letting go in which we realize that there is nothing to hold on to, and in fact no one to do any holding on.

And this change is experienced in a loving and compassionate way, since this is, after all, an extension of the mettā (lovingkindness) practice.

I suggested then dropping in the following phrases:

  • May I accept the arising and passing of things.
  • May I find awakening.
  • May I dwell in peace.

These phrases are optional, but they can sharpen and clarify our desire for the peace of awakening, or bodhi.

And then we with the peace of awakening for all beings, starting with a neutral person (someone we don’t have a friendship or conflict with), then a friend, and then someone we do have difficulty with. Lastly, we extend our upekkha to all beings:

  • May all beings accept the arising and passing of things.
  • May all beings find awakening.
  • May all beings dwell in peace.

In the discussion at the end of the sit I discuss how upekkhā is not equanimity, but is the desire that all beings be liberated, and is exactly the same as the mahākaruṇā (great compassion) of the Mahāyāna. I suspect that the Mahāyāna may have used the term mahākaruṇā to distinguish this desire that all beings be liberated from karuṇā as a brahmavihāra, which is a simpler desire that all beings be free from suffering.

Enjoy!

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The big turn-around (Day 88)

100 Days of LovingkindnessI started this 100 Days of Lovingkindness just after our new year drive to get people meditating regularly — our 100 Day Meditation Challenge — was coming to an end.

Naturally there was a lot of discussion on our Google+ community about what we were going to do to follow on from our first 100 days, and many people were keen on exploring mindfulness, using a wonderful book by Jan Chozen Bays, called How to Train a Wild Elephant. But I really wanted to explore lovingkindness practice and the other Brahmaviharas.

There are no doubt many reasons for this. One is that I’d lost my temper a couple of times, and although I’d been able to let that pass very quickly I was aware that I still had a lot of work to in deeply imbuing my mind with love, patience, kindness, and compassion. I needed to rewire my brain for love, at a much deeper level than before.

Not long after that I was leading an online Dharma Study group one night, and we were exploring the Buddhist precepts and the basis of Buddhist ethics. (This group meets in a Google+ Hangout, which is a form of videoconferencing.) And as part of our studies we explored the following passage, which is from The Ten Pillars of Buddhism, a book Sangharakshita wrote on Buddhist ethics. Take a deep breath — it’s a long quotation and it includes other quotations.

Killing is tantamount to the rejection of the most basic principle of ethics, just as the cultivation of love represents this principle in its positive form. As Shelley so finely says:

“The great secret of morals is love, or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his own species must become his own.”

In the Bodhicaryāvatāra, or “Entry into the Way of Enlightenment,” Śāntideva gives this principle what is probably its highest expression in Buddhist literature. In his chapter on “Meditation,” after describing how a man stills vain imaginings and strengthens his “Will to Enlightenment” (Bodhicitta), he proceeds:

“First he will diligently foster the thought that his fellow creatures are the same as himself. “All have the same sorrows, the same joys as myself, and I must guard them like myself. The body, manifold of parts in its division of members, must be preserved as a whole; and so likewise this manifold universe has its sorrow and its joy in common…I must destroy the pain of another as though it were my own…I must show kindness to others, for they are creatures as I am myself…Then, as I would guard myself from evil repute, so I will frame a spirit of helpfulness and tenderness towards others.”

…I will cease to live as self, and will take as myself my fellow creatures. We love our hands and other limbs, as members of the body; then why not love other living beings, as members of the universe?…Thus in doing service to others pride, admiration and desire for reward find no place, for thereby we satisfy the wants of our own self. Then, as thou wouldst guard thyself against suffering and sorrow, so exercise the spirit of helpfulness and tenderness towards the world.”

Avalokitesvara_BodhisattvaThis is what is known as the practice of equality of self and other, and the substitution of self and others. Blake gives succinct expression to the same principle when he declares “To put another before you is the most sublime act.”

I’d read this book several times, and this particular passage even more often, but I found myself more receptive to it that night than ever before. And I thought, Yes, I want to live a life that embodies and exemplifies compassion. I want compassion to be the main thing I do.

And so I proposed that we do 100 Days of Lovingkindness, and fortunately it turned out to be the more popular of the two options. (Bear in mind though that we’ll start to explore How to Train a Wild Elephant when the current 100 Days is over.)

The Mahāyāna, a Buddhist movement that began a few hundred years after the time of the Buddha, strongly emphasized compassion. Śāntideva, who is quoted above, wrote passionately about developing compassion, and saw it as being central to the path of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is one who is not only set on enlightenment, but whose deepest wish is to help others attain the peace of enlightenment too.

The compassion that Śāntideva describes, and that was central to the Mahāyāna, is actually identical to upekkha. Now that statement makes little sense if you take upekkha to be “equanimity,” which is the standard translation. But upekkha literally means “closely watching” and is a brahmavihara, which means it’s a loving quality. The peace or equanimity of upekkha is what we experience when we closely watch our own experience, and peace is what we wish for others. In other words, in upekkhā bhāvanā our deepest wish is to help others attain the peace of enlightenment. The compassion that the Mahāyāna teaches is actually a bit different from the compassion of the brahma viharas. It’s deeper, more far-reaching. It includes an acute awareness that the only way we can help someone to be completely free of suffering is to help them become awakened. It’s more closely aligned with insight, as upekkha is.

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As Buddhism developed, somehow the loving and compassionate nature of upekkha as a brahmavihara became overlooked, and the quality of even-mindedness or equanimity was seen as being its defining characteristic. This gave the impression that in the brahmaviharas we start with love, then develop compassion, then develop joy, and then cool everything off by becoming equanimous. The word equanimous has a “straight from the fridge” coolness, or even frostiness, about it that can be very off-putting. It’s hard to be inspired by the ideal of equanimity.

But upekkha isn’t fundamentally about equanimity. It’s closely watching other beings and guiding them to the peace of awakening. And that is inspiring.

There’s a mythic Bodhisattva (Bodhisattvas can be people like you and me, but sometimes they are human images of enlightenment) called Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara literally is “The Lord Who Looks Down” with compassion upon beings, although I like to think of him as the Lord Who Watches Closely Over beings with compassion. So I see upekkha and the Mahāyāna take on compassion as being the same: closely watching over beings with the desire that they find the peace and equanimity of awakening. And that’s not a cold quality at all; it’s warm, and loving — and wise, and it brings about in ourselves and others the biggest turn-around you can have.

Om manipadme hum.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Radiating peace (Day 87)

100 Days of LovingkindnessUpekkha involves closely (upa) watching (īkś) ourselves in order to develop insight, and the calm that follows from insight, and it also involves wishing that peace for others in a compassionate and loving way — which means wishing that others attain insight. So there’s a self-regarding and an other-regarding aspect to upekkha, just as there is with lovingkindness.

These qualities of closeness, lovingness, the helpfulness that comes with compassion, are usually not stressed when people discuss upekkha. It’s the peace that is emphasized, although usually it’s translated as “equanimity,” which I’m now finding rather inadequate.

In cultivating upekkha we can start by closely watching our own experience, observing the arising and passing of pleasurable and painful experiences, and over time we come to accept this impermanence and experience peace, which is santi in Pāli and shanti in Sanskrit. This peace is what’s usually called equanimity, but I think peace is a much warmer word than equanimity, and one that resounds in the heart. But this peace is not all that there is to upekkha, which is why equanimity is a poor translation.

“Santi” is commonly used in the Pali texts as a synonym for Nirvana, the goal of Buddhist practice, and the Buddha often referred to his way as “the path to peace.” Nirvana is the ultimate in inner peace, and literally means the complete extinction of inner turmoil.

There’s another term similar to the close watching of upekkha, and that’s vipassana. Vipassana combines the prefix vi-, which is an intensifier, and passati, which is “to see.” So vipassana is “truly seeing” or “really seeing” and it’s simply the activity of examining the impermanence, non-self, and unsatisfactoriness of our experience.

(Vipassana is not a category of meditation practice by the way; the Buddha didn’t offer a list of “vipassana practices,” nor of samatha practices, samatha being the activity of calming the mind and developing skillful qualities of mindfulness, metta, etc. Since vipassana and samatha are activities, or approaches to meditation, any meditation practice can be either samatha or vipassana. You can use mindfulness of breathing with the intent of calming the mind and developing concentration, and that would be a samatha practice. You can use metta bhavana purely to develop kindness, and that too would be a samatha practice. But you can also, in mindfulness of breathing or in metta bhavana, notice the impermanence of your experiences as they arise and pass away, and so your mindfulness of breathing or your metta bhavana practices would be vipassana practices.)

Both samatha and vipassana approaches to meditation lead to peace. Samatha calms the mind, reduces conflict and turmoil, and leads to us being more at ease with ourselves and others. Vipassana, where we closely watch our experience, can deepen this peace yet further, leading ultimately to the profound peace of awakening. When we see our experience as a passing stream of impermanent events, we take them less seriously and we’re not thrown off balance by them. And so our upekkha, our close watching, leads to a sense of even-mindedness, or equanimity, or peace.

Oddly, it’s even-mindedness that has come to be seen as the defining characteristic of upekkha, even though upekkha literally means “close watching” and even though it’s one of the brahma viharas, and thus a loving quality. But really what’s happening is that in upekkha bhavana we cultivate peace, and wish that peace for other beings. We turn our attention toward ourselves, and closely watch our own experience; this leads to peace. We turn our attention toward others, and watch them closely and lovingly, and we wish that they experience the peace, the santi, of close watching. Upekkha really isn’t equanimity, although equanimity is an outcome of our close watching.

From this point in our 100 Days, on I’m going to refer to upekkha as “close watching,” and I’m only going to use the words “equanimity” and “even-mindedness” when referring to the quality of stability and peace that our close watching leads to. Really, upekkha is about radiating peace. Upekkha bhavana is really about cultivating peace through insight, and about radiating peace by wishing for insight to arise in others.

Yesterday I talked about how our speech can contribute to that project or radiating peace, as we take our close watching into daily life. We try to speak truthfully, and kindly. We try to speak helpfully — in ways that help people to grow. And we try to speak in ways that bring people into harmony with themselves and others. We try to speak, in short, in ways that will guide people toward experiences of awakening and of peace.

But talk isn’t enough, and if we’re to benefit others we must also act in ways to help bring about peace.

There is a lovely teaching that could be translated as the four grounds of bringing people together (if you’re geeking out on all this Pāli they’re the “sangahavatthūni”).

First we have giving (dāna). We have to put our money, and time, and energy where our mouth is. So it’s not enough to talk peace and to talk about being helpful and compassionate to others. People need places to practice. They need teachers. Sometimes they need basic material help. If we’re closely watching beings in a loving way, wanting to nudge them toward awakening, we have to help them in practical ways.

There’s kindly speech (peyyavajja), which I discussed yesterday, and won’t say anything more about for now.

There’s beneficial activity (atthacariyā). This is any activity we take that promotes peace and harmony. So this might include giving that’s non-material, like making yourself available to help others. It might include teaching, or sharing your practice with others (teaching really ought to mainly involve sharing your practice with others). It might include responding when you hear there is suffering, by doing whatever you can to help. It might include responding when you’re aware of conflict, by helping people to gain a broader perspective on their lives.

And this is the best of helpful acts: to arouse, instil and strengthen faith in the unbeliever; to arouse, instil and strengthen virtue in the immoral; to arouse, instil and strengthen generosity in the niggard; to arouse, instil and strengthen wisdom in the unwise.

Lastly there’s exemplification (samānattatā). This is where our life itself becomes a teaching. Even without intending to, you demonstrate kindness, compassion, and rejoicing in the skillful. Your actions show your peace and joy.

The Buddha’s presence seems to have had a profound effect on those around him. One time a Brahmin priest called Doṇa was walking along a road between two towns, and he’s said to have seen the Buddha’s footprints and recognized in them the form of a 100-spoked wheel, which is a very auspicious symbol. And of course he wanted to meet the Buddha and so followed him and tried to discover what kind of man this was. Now, I’m not a believer in miracles, but this story makes perfect sense to me. I can well imagine that the Buddha left a mark on those who saw him. Even if people didn’t talk to the Buddha, you can imagine them being affected by his bearing, and talking about him for some time afterward. We talk about having a carbon footprint; you can think in terms of the Buddha leaving a spiritual footprint. And you can imagine Doṇa hearing the “buzz” about this man who seemed to radiate peace as he passed, and being curious to meet him.

So perhaps we too can be a bit like this, although it’s not something you can try to do; it’s something that has to emerge naturally as your practice transforms you. As you keep a close watch on your speech and actions, as you keep a close watch on your mind when you’re meditating, as you closely watch the arising of pleasant and painful experiences and simply let them flow by, you’ll become calmer, kinder, and more peaceful. And this exemplification of the path will in itself help point others in the direction of peace.

Om shanti shanti shanti

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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