Nothing is left out, nothing is bypassed and nothing is rejected
by a heart committed to the Way of Transformation
If we talk about our path as a Way of Transformation then we can have a feeling that our practice includes all aspects of our lives. Everything that happens is part of our spiritual work; everything is acknowledged, everything is received. I find this wonderful to contemplate.
As Buddhists, we regard a heart committed to transforming greed, anger and confusion into generosity, kindness and clarity as a heart that radiates blessings. These blessings are for the benefit of all beings. And because we work at transforming all of our life, we don’t have to be afraid of any part of ourselves. Whatever we find within is O.K. It is all to be recognized as part of thee Way. It is there to be seen. In the words of the Buddha, this Way is about “seeing clearly all the world, in all the world just as it is, and in so seeing finding freedom”.
In talking about our practice I prefer to use the word transformation rather than transcendence. The word transcendence can tend to conjure up a sense of leaving something inferior behind and moving on to higher things.
I don’t think we can afford to leave anything behind; except, that is, our false ideas – and that is the same as leaving nothing behind. We don’t transcend anything at all, we receive absolutely everything. We keep moving towards greater and more ready receptivity, until we find a constant flowing willingness to greet that which is in front of us right now.
Our task then is to find the skill to keep remembering what it is we have set out to do and the ability to meet that which comes to us. Thankfully, the Buddha and his disciples have given a lot of guidance to help us along. Today, let’s look at some of this guidance and how it pertains to the manner in which we meet the raw condition of our reactions in daily life. In taking on this task of facing our raw nature we have to be able to develop resources. We need to know where to turn for support. So where do we turn?
Many people who visit our monastery say, “Oh, you’re so lucky to live in a place like this, it must be wonderful. Look at the beautiful meditation room and the gardens and all the inspiring monks and novices – they’re so friendly and helpful. Lay people come and bring you delicious food and you don’t have to work…” Usually I just nod my head, knowing that, while a lot of what they say is true and these surroundings are conducive, there is still a very demanding task to perform. Peaceful surroundings are only part of it. When we investigate the transformative power of capability of the heart, then we are directly addressing this task. When we refer to the heart in this manner we mean the core within us, the inner place that is the heart of our being. This is where we can turn to find what we need for working with the raw condition.
Indeed, we can consider our heart as consisting of several transformative places. As we go along the path we discover all the many spaces, or rooms within, as Ajahn Chah used to say. He would tell us, “You monks have lots of rooms in your mansions that you don’t even know about yet.” We’d be complaining about this and that, and he’d say, “Just wait awhile. You’ve got all these wonderful rooms that you haven’t yet even explored.” And he was right.
As we all know, our daily-life reactions are made up of the raw material of anger, passionate desire, confusion, jealousy, loneliness, resentment, and so on. It’s raw and it’s unrefined. But it’s like the compost heap in the walled garden near our monastery. I have a tent in the walled garden which I use on fine nights and the smell of the compost heap keeps me company. I reflect on this. From one perspective, it spoils the walled garden with its beauty and its grand view. But from another perspective, it’s all right. When we appreciate what compost is, when we really appreciate what the raw material is and we understand something about transformation, the it’s O.K. If we don’t, well, then we miss the point and we just think, “It stinks.” It does stink, that’s true, but that’s only because it’s in its raw condition.
Now, what are the transformative spaces or transformative powers of the heart? As I said, there are many rooms, many places within ourselves where we can go to work. Today I want to bring into our awareness four of these, which are traditionally called the Four Divine Abidings (brahmavihara). These Diving Abidings are just that; they’re like four rooms or four spaces within ourselves in which we can dwell. We can also go there to work. And we do a particular kind of work in each of these four places.
It’s the same as if you’re going to prepare some food. We used to have a novice here who was marvelous at making cheesecake; he did this in the kitchen because that’s the space to do the work of making cheesecake. He didn’t do it in the workshop; you do a different sort of work in the workshop. It’s very helpful to know what sort of work to do in what sort of space.
Let’s consider these four spaces as opportunities that we have available. It is important that we appreciate that these spaces are already, potentially at least, there within us. For human beings the existence of these four spaces is a given. If we don’t know how to enter them, well, that’s something else. Talking about the divine abidings on this occasion is one way of encouraging us all to remember how to approach these doorways – to recognize, then open them and to go in.
To begin with, then, there is the raw condition of ill-will. We all have ill-will, and if we don’t have a place to go to work with it, we will struggle. Even if we know how to go to that place we can still struggle! But we have a feeling for what to do. It’s as if you are in a well-equipped kitchen with a good larder – you feel confident. Similarly, we can feel confident when we appreciate the heart-space of loving-kindness, metta in the Pali language. You will recognize loving-kindness as a quality, the Buddha said, when you observe a mother with her only child: that sparkle in her eye, that gentle eye, that radiance of her skin, that selfless caring, that out-flowing wish: ‘May you be well.’ It doesn’t matter what the child is doing, even if it isn’t very nice. The mother’s love for the child remains: ‘May you be well.’
And so the Buddha encouraged us. He said that if we want to know how to meet ill-will, how to receive it when it arises, then locate the space within the heart, go to the space within ourselves from where we can radiate the wish: ‘May all beings bel well’. In our monasteries we chant: “May I abide in well-being, in freedom from affliction, in freedom from ill-will.” As an exercise in approaching that doorway to the room of loving-kindness and entering into it, we can say these words to ourselves. We are encouraged to practice in this way regularly, to recite these verses and use them as objects of meditation.
I would like you to take them away with you today and try practicing, repeating inwardly, “May I abide in well-being, in freedom from ill-will.” Actually try generating this wish for yourselves. If we do so, we discover this inner space and how we can enter it. When we know we can enter this room whenever ill-will arises, whenever we feel resentful, or whenever we’ve got the painful sense of righteous indignation, we don’t end up running around wondering where to dump it. We know we have a place to go to. We’re not going to that room to dump the ill-will; we’re going there because it’s in this space that we can find the resources needed to responsibly engage with it. In that room, if we do that work, we will discover a sense of confidence that we can meet the ill-will; anger is not a disaster.
The second place within the heart is, in Pali, karuna, or compassion. The Buddha said that the quality of compassion is best recognized in observing a mother with her only child, when that child is sick and writhing with a fever. Just feel that for a moment. What is that quality, what is it that comes forth most naturally from a mother in that state? What is that wish is she were to give it voice? It is, “May you be free from suffering.” It’s an empathic feeling with that child’s pain. It’s different from the radiance of metta, loving-kindness, which says “May you be well.” In this case compassion is feeling with the pain of others and giving rise to the wish, “May you be free from suffering.” One has a sense of, “I share this pain with you. I’m in this with you.” And what a wonderful space this is for working with such unpleasant conditions as sadness, loss or loneliness. So long as we don’t know the space of compassion, don’t know the space in which one can feel the shared predicament of human suffering, we will struggle badly.
On this theme, we have a helpful story from a commentary to one of the scriptures of a woman, Kisagotami, who first lost her husband and then her baby child. She was so beside herself with grief she couldn’t put the child’s corpse down, and carried it around with her. Out of pity, the village headman said to her, “There’s a holy man living nearby, go and see him. He’s supposed to be able to fix everything.” So Kisagotami went to see the Buddha. The Buddha didn’t give her the wisdom-teachings on impermanence, even though it is true that everything is impermanent and everything that is born is bound to die. Instead, he said, “I can help you. I will bring your child back to life. All I need is for you to bring me a cup of mustard seed from a household where nobody has died. That’s all” So, of course, Kisagotami went off, and spent all night going from house to house seeking for the cup fo mustard seed; and slowly it began to dawn on her that every household knew the suffering of eath. So the realization arose, “We’re all in this together.” With that opening of the heart came a new receptivity, an increased capacity for holding her pain. She was able to put down her dead child and gladly express her appreciation to the Buddha. This image of Kisagotami can encourage us to approach the doorway of compassion.
The third Abiding is empathetic joy, mudita in Pali. This is the place in which jealousy is transformed. Do you know how painful jealousy can be? We don’t have to drag it out; we’ve all had some experience of that pain I’m sure. But if we know this room, if we know how to approach this doorway of empathetic joy, we can feel the pain of jealously, we can sense how unnecessary it is, how unfortunate it is, and let this awareness of suffering open us to the possibility of a place where we can actually release ourselves from it. Turning away and avoiding jealously doesn’t deal with it, as neither does the avoidance of ill-will, sadness or sorrow. But in mindfully receiving jealously there is an opening and if we receive it fully then we discover empathetic joy. It’s a wonderful quality in which we can feel, “May beings not be parted from the good fortune they have attained.” This is the thought that we cultivate. It means celebrating and taking delight in others when we see them doing well, instead of getting glost in the painful feeling of, “Oh, I wish I had that.”
The Buddha again compared this to seeing a mother with her only child. She sees the child doing well, and feels happy for the child; she’s happy with the child. This is empathy, this time in the context of joy. Hence we are encouraged to cultivate this place into which we can take jealously. We can meet it; with a struggle perhaps, but now we have some ability.
In this consideration of the powers of transformation that are called the Divine Abidings, we have spoken so far of these three: loving-kindness, compassion and empathetic joy. The fourth quality is equanimity, in Pali, upekkha. We need to give particular attention to this very important quality. Joy and love and well-wishing are heartfelt, energizing and beautiful qualities. However, we can have a tremendous desire for beings to be well – yet they are not well. Howe do we meet that? Perhaps with confusion. We wish ourselves and others well, putting ourselves through many, often dramatic, efforts in pursuit of well-being. Despite our efforts, though, we sometimes find ourselves in a complete mess. Sadly, we often react with, “It shouldn’t be this way. I’m a decent character, it shouldn’t be like this.”
If I could give a personal example, I recently received a letter from someone, not a nice letter. I was disappointed and rather affected by this letter; it was a bit more than I could manage. I was disturbed, for several hours, until Evening Puja came along. I thought, “Well, I won’t go to evening Puja, I’m too upset.” But this isn’t the right way, this isn’t the right way, this isn’t what I tell the other monks, so I went to Evening Puja, and sat there as we usually do. Before long I heard the thought, “It shouldn’t be this way.” At that point I spotted the problem: I was pushing away the struggle, the reality of it. And then with a sense of relief came the recognition, “Here we are again.” This was the quality of equanimity. There is nothing wrong with saying ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’: imagining how things could be otherwise is an aspect of our intelligence. The problem is our getting stuck and lost in imagining how things could be otherwise.
The Buddha said that if we want to really work with confusion of this sort, we can go into the place in which there is an appreciation of the law of kamma. There are causes and effects; there are laws; there is a bigger picture. We have a meditation for accessing this transformative space so that we can meet confusion: “I am the owner of my kamma, heir to my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported by my kamma; whatever kamma, whatever intentional action I shall do, of that I shall be the heir.” This is a valuable grounding contemplation. Of course, when we’re terribly confused, it may not make much difference to start at that time thinking about these things. But that is also why we have the encouragement of these teachings, these suggestions: we are readying ourselves in preparation to recognize these doors, and eventually these rooms, so that when we are called to meet the raw condition, we know how to enter.
I feel grateful to the Buddha for directing us to these places where we can go to do the work that we all know we have to do. As we experience the benefit of this work, we see the world in front of our eyes more and more clearly. I recently heard a minister from Edinburgh offer an ancient Gaelic prayer which relates to this. It went,
Bless, oh Lord, my eyes, that they may bless all that they see.
Bless, oh Lord, my ears, that they may bless all that they hear.
Bless, oh Lord, my hands, that they may bless all that they touch.
Bless, oh Lord, my face that it may bless everything.
This too is my prayer. For us, the Heart of Transformation is Lord. May all beings in all directions feel blessed and wholly received.