Saturday, January 28, 2012

Attachment


Okay, the topic of this week’s post was “supposed” to be loving-kindness – the last of the four sublime abodes to be addressed in this series. Regular readers will note that during the course of my exploration of the other three (compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity) I also delved into their respective near enemies (pity, comparison, and indifference). And so it was that I fully intended to eventually address attachment, the near enemy of loving-kindness (Kornfield, 1993). As I sat down to start writing, however, I immediately realized that attachment really deserves top billing here – if only by virtue of it being one of the most misunderstood of all Buddhist concepts. I’ve actually spoken with people who have “tried to get into Buddhism but just couldn’t get past the whole non-attachment thing.” Apparently non-attachment, for many, means living a passionless existence – devoid of romantic love, deep caring, pleasure, and commitment. So, please bear with me; I’ll be getting to loving-kindness eventually. For the time being, though, let’s get utterly and completely wrapped up in this thing called attachment. (Humor intended.)





The Many Things That Trip Us Up Along the Path



Perhaps a proper exploration of attachment requires us to begin with an examination of the kleshas, of which there are many. Klesha (klesa) is a Sanskrit word meaning defilement, passion (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 181; Rahula, 1959, p. 144), hindrance, or impairment (Zimmer, 1956, pp. 294-295). According to Zimmer (1956), “klesa denotes anything which, adhering to man’s nature, restricts or impairs its manifestation of its true essence” (p. 294). Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) note the proximate and far-reaching effects of the kleshas, stating that, in addition to “prevent[ing] practitioners from attaining neighboring or complete [meditative] concentration” (p. 251), they “dull the mind and are the basis for all unwholesome actions and thus bind people to the cycle of rebirth” (p. 181).



Kornfield (1993) discusses numerous kleshas such as anger, fear, boredom, judgment, sleepiness, restlessness, and doubt (pp. 83-101). Others are: craving, desire, hatred, delusion, pride, rigidity, and shamelessness, as well as believing in such false views as eternalism, nihilism, the existence of the self, or the nonexistence of karmic consequence (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, pp. 181-182). Some practitioners consider five of these kleshas, collectively, to be the so-called five hindrances – desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and compunction, and doubt (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 251). Regardless of how many kleshas we might identify, however, or how we might decide to group them, three stand out as the roots from which all other hindrances or defilements can be traced.



The Three Really Big Ones



If we think of all of the aforementioned hindrances as just so many tree roots protruding from the ground, ready to trip up the unsuspecting spiritual sojourner when they least expect it, then we might also trace all of those pesky and troublesome roots back to three main ones. The Sanskrit term akushala-mula is one that refers to these “unwholesome roots” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 7). Kushala (kusala), in a more literal sense, means wholesome, good, or having merit, whereas akushala (akusala) means unwholesome, bad, or having demerit (Rahula, 1959, pp. 142, 144). The words take on a more specific Buddhist flavor, however, in reference to karmic results being bad or good, as the case may be; i.e. leading to the continuation of samsaric existence rather than its cessation (Rahula, 1959, p. 32). This is the context in which Sangarakshita (1980) discusses kushala and akushala as being in reference to actions that are either skillful or unskillful, respectively (p. 129).



And just what are these three unwholesome roots? Let’s provisionally refer to them as attachment, aversion, and delusion – collectively comprising what are referred to by some practitioners as the three poisons. These three poisons are prominent in variations of the repentance verse chanted in many Zen centers. Perhaps a quick look at this verse will provide us with some much needed context. Yoshida (1979) translates the Verse of Repentance as follows:

All the wrong karmas made by me

Were created from beginningless

Attachment, aversion and delusion

Born of the body, mouth and mind

I now repent all of them wholeheartedly.






Attachment, Aversion, and Delusion – A Deconstruction of Terms



Regular readers of this blog will almost certainly have a sense as to why some Sanskrit words are used by English speakers without translation. Words such as nirvana, sunyata, and duhkha have no perfect English correlates, and trying to crash on ahead as if they do inevitably leads to grave misunderstandings. Thus, it might be good to examine the Sanskrit words that have given rise to such translations as attachment, aversion, and delusion before we assume that we really know what they have to tell us about how to live our lives.

   

The three poisons or unwholesome roots are perhaps most commonly known individually as either greed (lobha), hatred (dvesa), and delusion (moha) (Sangarakshita, 1980, p. 129; Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 7); or as desire (raga), hatred (dvesa), and delusion (moha) (Young, 1998-2010). Ironically, moha, the Sanskrit word usually translated as delusion, is fairly clear. It even seems to encompass elements of the existential ignorance conveyed by avidya, which, by the way, is the first link in the twelvefold chain of dependent origination – the topic of a series of previous posts. For example, the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon search results for moha include: “darkness or delusion of mind (preventing the discernment of truth and leading men to believe in the reality of worldly objects).”



Dvesa also seems to be fairly straightforward as long as we consider some subtler nuances of the word. In addition to hatred, a Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon search turns up dislike, repugnance, and enmity. Zimmer (1956) also considers disinclination and distaste (p. 295), to which we can add aversion (Chakrabarti, 1999, p. 52; Young, 1998-2010) and antipathy (Young, 1998-2010).



A Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon search for lobha, yields: desire, longing, covetousness, cupidity, and avarice. A similar search for raga, on the other hand, yields: passion (especially love); affection, sympathy, or desire for; as well as interest, joy, or delight in. To this list, Rahula (1956) adds lust (p. 145). It seems safe to say then that lobha is colored more by a desire for things pertaining to material gain, whereas raga is colored more by a desire for that which the senses might delight in – especially that which pertains to matters of romantic love. Things become clearer still when we note that Chakrabarti (1999) describes raga as “the desire to experience something frequently and repeatedly” (p. 52). Now, that’s sounding a lot like attachment! Young (1998-2010) essentially agrees, stating that “raga (desire) is the drive to repeat pleasant sensations.” So, it does seem as though we’re triangulating our way toward a discernible meaning of this word, attachment.



The Spectrum of Attachment and Aversion



I think we can boil down the multitude of words that we’ve considered here so far into one simple concept: pulling some things toward us and pushing others away. Perhaps, then, it would be instructive to think of a spectrum like the one below on which aversion extends to the left and attachment to the right. Left and right are arbitrary, of course. I was merely associating aversion with the negative realm. If it works for you, you might also think of the magnitude of the attachment or aversion in a numerical way.


Aversion (the negative realm), Equanimity (the zero point), and Attachment (the positive realm)

You’ve probably already caught onto the fact that the zero point on the spectrum represents equanimity, the sublime abode discussed in the previous post. Recall that equanimity is that state wherein we are neither pulled in one direction or the other; there is nothing that we need nor anything to cast off; we are perfectly content right where we are, just as we are. Oh, and what exactly is it that makes us think that we’re not already perfectly okay right where we are, just as we are? Well, that would be delusion, of course.


Perhaps I should sign off for now at this point of semi-closure. I know I haven’t addressed the fundamental questions raised as we wrestle with how to deal with our attachments. Please be patient. I have to leave something to write about for the next week!





References


Chakrabarti, K. K. (1999). Classical Indian philosophy of mind, The Nyaya dualist tradition. State University of New York Press.

Conze, E. (1967). Buddhist thought in India, Three phases of Buddhist philosophy. Ann Arbor Paperbacks, The University of Michigan Press.

Conze, E., Horner, I. B., Snellgrove, D., & Waley, A. (1964). Buddhist texts through the ages. Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library, Harper & Row, Publishers.

Hamel, S., Leclerc, G., & Lefrancois, R. (2003). A psychological outlook on the concept of transcendent actualization. The International Journal For The Psychology of Religion, 13(1), pp. 3-15.

Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (2010). Practical advice for meditators. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel116.html

Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart – A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. Bantam Books.

Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality, 3rd edition. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., as excerpted in Notable Selections in Human Development, 2nd Edition (Diessner, R. and Tiegs, J., eds.) McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.

Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, New York.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (2011). Head & heart together: Bringing wisdom to the brahma-viharas. Access to Insight, 17 April 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/headandheart.html

Yoshida, R. (1979). Verse of repentance (tr. Yoshida, R.). Missouri Zen Center website. http://www.missourizencenter.org/SundayService.pdf

Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.

Young, S. (1998-2010). How meditation works: An introductory overview of techniques for mental development within the Buddhist traditions of Theravada, Tantra and Zen and including reference to Christian contemplative practice. http://www.shinzen.org/Articles/artHow.htm

Zimmer, H. (1956). Philosophies of India (ed. Campbell, J.). Meridian Books, New York.

 
Image Credits


Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Equanimity


The third of the brahma-viharas, or “Four Sublime Abodes”, that I’ll be taking up here is upeksha, a Sanskrit word that is usually translated as equanimity (Sangharakshita, 1980, p. 144; Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 394), but which might also be translated as evenmindedness (Conze, 1964, p. 315), impartiality (Conze, 1967, p. 302) or equipoise (Yoshida, 1994, p. 70). Generally speaking, upeksha (upekkha in Pali) is a state wherein the mind is in equilibrium, having transcended all distinctions – suffering and joy alike (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 394). We will be well-served, however, by digging just a little deeper into some of the more specific uses of the word.




Conze (1967) discusses aspects of upeksha ranging from those transient states fortuitously experienced throughout the course of our days, or perhaps more routinely by the adept in the course of deep meditation, to those enduring traits of the buddhas and arhats. With respect to the former, upeksha can refer simply enough to the feeling of neutrality toward sensations or objects of consciousness that are experienced as neither attractive nor aversive. It can also refer to the “attitude of serene unconcern” (p. 89) characteristic of the third of the four primary stages of meditation (dhyana in Sanskrit, jhana in Pali) – a stage in which all arising phenomena are received with the same calm state of mind (not merely those to which we are otherwise karmically predisposed to receive without reactivity). With respect to the latter, trait-like aspects (independent of circumstance or meditative absorption), upeksha “denotes the final stage of ‘worldly’ wisdom, just before the Path is reached, when evenmindedness towards all conditioned things is achieved” (p. 89). Thus, upeksha comes to be an enduring quality embodied by buddhas and arhats who remain mindful and unmoved at all times. And this brings us to upeksha’s inclusion in the brahma-viharas, those states of mind that should be cultivated in order to aid in the liberation of others (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 46). Cultivation, after all, is what takes us from upeksha the state-like quality that appears fortuitously or only within the context of meditative absorption, to upeksha the trait-like quality – unshakeable and omnipresent. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is our repeated exposure via the practice of meditation to the more state-like quality of equanimity that allows us, over time, to actualize it with greater regularity and eventually embody it as a buddha does.



As we work toward the cultivation of equanimity, however, we need to be wary of its near enemy (remember those?) lurking in the shadows – indifference. Please see the first post in this series, The Four Sublime Abodes (and the Enemies Close at Hand) for more on the near enemies. Unlike equanimity, its near enemy, indifference, is either “not preceded by intelligent reflection” or it results from one having “close[d] one’s mind to the sufferings and joys of others” (Conze, 1967, p. 89). Stated in this way, it would seem rather easy for us to recognize when we’re exhibiting indifference rather than equanimity. Ah, but is it?




Isn’t it sometimes the case over the course of our information-saturated days that we find ourselves tuning out stories relating the hardships of others for the simple fact that we’ve grown sick to death of hearing bad news? At such times the life and death struggles of our neighbors might seem just plain boring to us, our compassion-fatigue having made us indifferent to their sufferings. In order to protect our fragile egos from feelings of anxiety or helplessness we might then affect an unmoved demeanor, as if, in our “advanced wisdom”, we recognize that this is just the way of the world and we’ve grown to accept it. In such a way indifference might masquerade as equanimity. On the other hand, perhaps a wiser and more compassionate course of action would be to choose wisely the nature of or otherwise limit the volume of our information bombardment – without limiting it so much that we end up becoming uninformed, mind you. Perhaps then we would be able to maintain the energy necessary to act wisely and compassionately; and then, after having acted as wisely and compassionately as our capabilities allow, we might abide in a state of calm equanimity as to the outcome, knowing that we’ve done all that we could.



Just as equanimity is something that we can cultivate over time, allowing us to move from a more fleeting, state-like manifestation of equanimity to a more enduring, trait-like manifestation, so it is that with practice we can arrive at a state of equanimity with respect to hardships in our lives that have us behaving in every way but non-reactively. Of course, this became especially apparent to me during the course of wrestling with all of the tumultuous “self-changing” realities of bringing a marriage to a close and adjusting to its aftermath: loss of companionship, meaning, financial security, structure, sense of future, etc. Please see The Bardo Realm of Grief for further exposition of what I mean by “self-changing”.



Perhaps the first step towards arriving at equanimity (becoming equanimous) is to recognize that whatever negative emotions we are experiencing are the result of our clinging tightly to relationships, things, circumstances, and ideas that can no longer be, and being fearful of whatever relationships (or lack thereof), things, circumstances, and ideas will or might take their place. This is, of course, samsara. Now, we would probably not be fully human if we had the ability to instantly move on after the death or departure of someone dear to us, but an ability to recognize that this is simply the nature of this worldly existence might help us remain open to whatever might next arise in our lives.



There is possibility in whatever hardship might transpire. In contemplating the possibility of being alone for the rest of my life, I came to realize the beauty of solitude and the creative potential that dwells therein. In contemplating the possibility of having to sell the house that I’d lived in even prior to my marriage in order to satisfy whatever legal judgment might be handed down, I came to recognize the freedom that the simplicity of an apartment-dwelling lifestyle might allow. In contemplating my feelings of “stuckness” at having to remain on my then-present career path in order to maintain the financial stability required for the positive disposition of future transactions, I realized the spaciousness of not having to expend energy toward making an occupational change. In contemplating how the perfect storm of all negative outcomes might have me losing all at once my marriage, my house, and my job, I came to know the exhilaration of having to set off into the unknown – like an explorer embarking upon a grand and glorious journey. Isn’t that what life is, after all, a grand and glorious journey?

Okay, only one of the "Four Sublime Abodes" remains - that of metta, or loving-kindness. Recall that its near enemy is attachment. Ah, now this might take some time for a newly romantically involved Buddhist to wrap his head around, so please bear with me! 




  
References


Conze, E. (1967). Buddhist thought in India, Three phases of Buddhist philosophy. Ann Arbor Paperbacks, The University of Michigan Press.

Conze, E., Horner, I. B., Snellgrove, D., & Waley, A. (1964). Buddhist texts through the ages. Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library, Harper & Row, Publishers.

Hamel, S., Leclerc, G., & Lefrancois, R. (2003). A psychological outlook on the concept of transcendent actualization. The International Journal For The Psychology of Religion, 13(1), pp. 3-15.

Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (2010). Practical advice for meditators. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel116.html

Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart – A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. Bantam Books.

Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality, 3rd edition. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., as excerpted in Notable Selections in Human Development, 2nd Edition (Diessner, R. and Tiegs, J., eds.) McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (2011). Head & heart together: Bringing wisdom to the brahma-viharas. Access to Insight, 17 April 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/headandheart.html

Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.

  

Image Credits
 

Head of Buddha In Tree

by Kittikun Atsawintarangkul:

 

The Children – Victims of Adult Vices

by Lvova Anastasiya:



Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sympathetic Joy


Hello again! I apologize for the delay in getting this post online. As I stated in a comment following my previous post, the holidays, a meditation retreat, and a persistent (albeit minor) respiratory ailment all combined to knock my writing routine off track. All is well, however; I hope it is so with all of you.

The previous post introduced those states of mind that comprise the brahma-viharas, the “Four Sublime Abodes” of compassion, equanimity, sympathetic joy, and loving-kindness (Sangharakshita, 1980). According to Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994), these are the states of mind that should be cultivated in order to aid in the liberation of others. Recall, however, that each of these states of mind – these “sublime attitudes”, as Thanissaro (2011) referred to them – has a near enemy or imposter, which, while appearing in the guise of spiritual advancement, is merely a more base karmic tendency dressed up in its Sunday finest. And so we have pity masquerading as compassion (the near enemy that I spoke of in the previous post); indifference dressed up as equanimity; attachment passing itself off as loving-kindness; and, the topic of this week’s post, comparison lurking behind a veneer of sympathetic joy (see Kornfield, 1993).






Okay, let’s be brutally honest with ourselves as we contemplate the following questions: How often do we truly share in the joy of another’s good fortune or achievement as completely as if that good fortune or achievement were our own? When we come to experience the joy of another ringing out into the world like a bell do we resonate that joy as if we were the very same bell, or is there some crack or chink or thick spot somewhere inside of us that issues forth a disharmonious undertone – perhaps inaudible to all but ourselves – perhaps inaudible even to ourselves? And if we (bravely) admit to giving off such disharmonious undertones, then is it not also easy enough to see that the crack or chink or thick spot giving rise to them is that part of us that seems to always be at the ready to compare the good fortune and achievements of others with those of our own?



Alright, but let’s not rush to harshly judge ourselves for this very human shortcoming. It is our shared human karma after all – a survival-oriented tendency rooted deeply in our genes. As I posited in Unconditioned Peace:

[T]he one who lags behind becomes the prey. The one who fails to make a straight enough spear loses the meat. The one with the smallest cache of food risks not having quite enough. So keeping an eye on what others have and how we measure up to them is a way for us to ascertain our own prospects for survival. It’s a way for us to feel assured that we’re doing enough.

And so it is that we remain vigilant for that which others have but we do not. The mind’s propensity for comparing self and other seems to be equipped with a hair-trigger activation switch in that regard, doesn’t it? Now, just in case you are judging yourself harshly for this tendency…, might I point out that you just might be comparing your spiritual practice to that of others and finding yours lacking! Oh, what a slippery place the realm of spiritual practice can be!



Notwithstanding my admitted karmic propensity for getting pulled into a comparing frame of mind, I also know that I have the capability to experience sympathetic joy in its purest form. I know this because I’ve experienced it intermittently throughout my life during so-called peak experiences – experiences that have subsequently served as touchstones for my practice of cultivating a mind in which sympathetic joy might arise with greater ease and increased frequency. Perhaps I need to step back and explain what I mean when I speak of sympathetic joy arising within the context of peak experience. For that I will need to delve into the work of Abraham Maslow and certain researchers in the field of transpersonal psychology.



You may recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the process wherein the individual (simplifying the theory greatly) works his or her way up through lower order, survival oriented needs, then general well-being oriented needs, and, finally, self-actualization needs. Maslow found that self-actualizing individuals were likely to describe what he termed peak experiences, experiences that some might be inclined to refer to as mystical but which he considered to be natural and “well within the jurisdiction of science.” Maslow (1987) notes the similarity between what he calls peak experience and what others might define as mystical saying:

There were the same feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placing in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened, so that the subject is to some extent transformed and strengthened even in daily life by such experiences.




Peak experience, for me, involves a profound recognition that everything is alright just as it is, that my life (and life in general), even with all of its perceived imperfection and unfulfilled possibility, has unfolded (is unfolding) precisely as it should. In the midst of peak experience there is absolutely no fear and no regret. In fact, one of the most distinct qualities of peak experience that I can convey is one of feeling that I could die at that very moment and everything would be absolutely as it should be, without any unfinished business; the world will go on, life will continue, the gloriousness of being will proceed. Now, if you are inclined to place this experience into some sort of metaphysical context, you might realize that what continues to live on after “you” are gone is that which you were always a part of and which, in turn, you helped to perpetuate/create. In that way “you” live on. Thus, if you tend to think in terms of reincarnation, you might note that, to the extent that your actions helped to create a more or less peaceful or just world, you have created the conditions of “your” next rebirth. But the reason I am even exploring peak experience within a post related to sympathetic joy is the fact that a major attribute of peak experience for me is one of feeling great joy for what will continue to be even after I am gone: children will continue to play, flowers will continue to bloom, lovers will continue to stroll in the park, dogs will continue romping in a world of abundant scents, mountains will continue rising and falling, people will continue working and playing and creating, the sun and moon will continue to rise and set, and beneath them both the vast expanse of everything it means to be alive will continue.



It should be noted that Maslow’s work with respect to self-actualization is now being viewed within a broader context in the field of transpersonal psychology. Hamel, Leclerc & Lefrancois (2003) note that:

[P]eak experiences as described by Maslow… are the best moments of ecstasy, rapture, benediction, and great joy. Because these peak-experiences are isolated and ephemeral, lasting only a few minutes or possibly several hours (but rarely longer), they do not, by themselves, lead the individual to transcendent actualization…. It [transcendent actualization] depends on the will and the ability of individuals to keep on developing their psychospiritual potential (p. 5).  



The transcendent actualization spoken of here in psychological terms is the very same transcendence of the small self that I have repeatedly referred to in this blog. In fact, regular readers here will almost certainly recognize aspects of the four components of transcendent actualization enumerated by Hamel, Leclerc & Lefrancois (2003): 1) “a perception of realities that ordinary consciousness cannot perceive but that are common in contemplation”; 2) “a globally integrative vision of the essential core of beings and events, and a perception of the reality independent of fears, desires, and beliefs”; 3) “a congruence between being… and acting”; 4) “a sense of belonging to a greater whole than oneself, which generates feelings of humanity, the sacred, gratitude, humility, admiration, faith, and hope” (pp. 12,13). In short, these four components of transcendent actualization are referred to, respectively, as “in-depth perception”, “holistic perception”, “presence of being”, and “beyond ego-orientation” (pp. 12,13).



Let me close this post by bringing things back down from the theoretical to the very experiential level. Oftentimes after the breakup of my marriage (in the course of wandering the Bardo Realm of Grief that I’ve already spoken of) I would find myself alternating between those most base emotions and some of the most transcendent ones spoken of here – at times in rapid succession, and always with great intensity. In that regard, grief can serve as a powerful magnifying glass with which to study our states of mind – raw and throbbing as they might be. Anyway, it was frequently the case that I’d be walking in the park or sitting in a sidewalk cafĂ© somewhere, incongruously seeking respite from the pain while at the same time remaining open to the lessons that it was searing into my being. Of course, I would frequently have occasion to look on like a ghost at lovers engaged in intimate conversation over dinner or families enjoying a beautiful weekend in the park. Comparing mind would hold sway for a time – angry at others for that which had been taken from me, mystified by the unfairness of it all, regretful and self-recriminating for my having missed so many opportunities, aching with sadness for that which was lost, and jealous that others seemed to hold on to it so easily. It was at times such as those that I would try to bring into my awareness those touchstone moments of peak experience past. Yes, those emotions rooted in small-self views were real, but they weren’t ultimate reality. The pain of my grief was real, but it wasn’t all that I was. There was much, much more. I was much, much more. There was joy all around me – lovers strolling, families playing, dogs romping, trees swaying, sunlight glistening… Yes, everything is still okay. Everything is still perfect just as it is. Just sit with it for a while until you begin to resonate with it once again – like a bell. Can you feel the vibrations beginning to hum within your heart? Yes.




  

References
 

Hamel, S., Leclerc, G., & Lefrancois, R. (2003). A psychological outlook on the concept of transcendent actualization. The International Journal For The Psychology of Religion, 13(1), pp. 3-15.

Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (2010). Practical advice for meditators. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel116.html

Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart – A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. Bantam Books.

Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality, 3rd edition. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., as excerpted in Notable Selections in Human Development, 2nd Edition (Diessner, R. and Tiegs, J., eds.) McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (2011). Head & heart together: Bringing wisdom to the brahma-viharas. Access to Insight, 17 April 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/headandheart.html


 

Image Credits
 

Temple Bell at Toshogu:


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by Tomwsulcer:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maslow_hierarchy_of_needs.jpg

Children of Nivali by Stig Nygaard:


  

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Four Sublime Abodes (and the Enemies Close at Hand)


Compassion, equanimity, sympathetic joy, loving-kindness – these states of mind are sometimes referred to as the brahma-viharas – the “Four Sublime Abodes” (Sangharakshita, 1980, p. 141). Literally translated, brahma-vihara refers to “divine states of dwelling” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, 46) or the “dwelling place of brahmas” (Thanissaro, 2011), reflecting the belief that the cultivation of these properties will bring rebirth in the higher heavenly realm of the Brahmas. Figuratively speaking, however, the brahma-viharas are those “sublime attitudes” (Thanissaro, 2011) or “the four immeasurables” that the bodhisattva must cultivate in order to aid in the liberation of others (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, 46).





Funny thing, though, whenever we strive to cultivate something that we’re not already intimate with, we tend to look for evidence of its fruition in places where it might not yet exist – like when we cover a handful of seeds with carefully prepared soil and then look at every arising sprout, weed and flower and vegetable alike, as that which must be nurtured. It can be especially difficult when two plants look very similar at first glance, only revealing their true identity when whatever fruit that they might bear (or none at all, as the case may be) becomes apparent. And so it is that the sublime attitudes of compassion, equanimity, sympathetic joy, and loving-kindness have their imposters – qualities that, in the words of Jack Kornfield (1993), “arise in the mind and masquerade as genuine spiritual realization” (p. 190). These imposters are often referred to as the “near enemies” of those qualities that we truly value. “Far enemies” are easily discerned; they are essentially the opposite of that which we are cultivating. “Near enemies,” on the other hand, lurk undetected in our midst, stealthily carrying on their business (so to speak) of making us feel unduly good about ours.



Let’s examine each of the brahma-viharas, and their near enemies, in turn:

Compassion (karuna) consists of “taking note of the sufferings of other beings” and exhibiting “a willingness to go out of one's way to give aid where possible” (Khantipalo, 2010). Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) note that “compassion extends itself without distinction to all sentient beings” (p. 176). Compassion’s near enemy is variously described as “pity” (Kornfield, 1993, p. 191) or “grief” (Khantipalo, 2010).

Equanimity (upekkha), according to Khantipalo (2010), “is reflected in one's life by an ability to meet difficult situations with tranquility and undisturbed peace of mind.” Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) note that equanimity is “a state that is neither joy nor suffering,” reflecting a “mind that is in equilibrium and elevated above all distinctions” (p. 394).  The near enemy of equanimity is “indifference” (Kornfield, 1993 & Khantipalo, 2010).

Sympathetic Joy (mudita), or “empathetic joy” as Thanissaro (2011) would define it, is the finding of “joy in the happiness of others” (Kornfield, 1993, p. 191). Its near enemy is “comparison” (Kornfield) or merely “reflecting on one's own gains” (Khantipalo). Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) note that sympathetic joy is ultimately manifested as “limitless joy over the liberation of others from suffering” (p. 232).

Loving-kindness (metta), or “goodwill” as Thanissaro (2011) would define it, is “an unselfish love which can be extended to everyone” (Khantipalo, 2010); it is a “benevolence toward all beings that is free from attachment” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 217). As one might expect, then, the near enemy of loving-kindness is “attachment” (Kornfield), or, more specifically, “sensual attachment, often miscalled ‘love’” (Khantipalo).



In this series of posts I’d like to explore each of these brahma-viharas, in turn, as well as their near enemies, with particular attention paid to their manifestation in my own practice during my own experience of grief. For the remainder of this post, then, let me focus on the sublime abode of compassion.



Compassion and Pity



Perhaps you can read between the lines of my blog profile and intuit that I might have made a lot more money at one time than I’m making in my present career. You would be right. This transition alone has opened up my eyes to how money can insulate us (or at least provide the illusion of insulation) from certain types of hardship – not all, to be sure, but a great many indeed. For instance, it used to be the case that an unexpectedly expensive automobile repair was but a minor inconvenience for me. After all, at the very worst I could simply rent a car for the time it took me to purchase a new one. There was never any question as to whether I could afford it or not. Gosh, for a time I even had two vehicles – a newer car and an old pickup truck. One of them was always in good running order and at the ready for dependable transportation. Oh, those carefree days!



Now, though, I have to watch my money a bit more carefully. I’m down to one vehicle, and it’s getting on in years. And so it is that when I hear one of my clients speak about how an automobile breakdown caused them to lose their job, thereby precipitating a cascading sequence of unmanageable events, I can understand much more completely what they’re facing; or when a lack of transportation prompts one of them to drop out of school, thereby causing them to put on hold their dreams of a brighter future, their circumstances are that much more real for me. I have a greater ability to empathize with them. My compassion has grown much more genuine due to my perception of the separation between us and our respective circumstances having diminished.



When we feel that harm or hardship is something that only befalls other people our “compassion” might actually veer into the realm of pity – compassion’s near enemy. However, when we realize that there is nothing special about our own existence that can keep the hardships of life at bay our tendency to feel pity seems to dissipate – at least, that is how it seemed to be for me. Pity arises from a sense of separateness, specialness, protectedness. True compassion arises out of the realization that we are all the same with respect to the experience of hardship. Nobody is immune from it. Each of us will know it sooner or later.



After the initial shock following the breakup of my marriage I began to really see how much suffering there is in the world. In the months that followed, storms and disasters seemed to strike one after another. (I suppose it’s always like that, though, isn’t it?) Three tornadoes touched down in Virginia that following month, injuring 200 and destroying 140 homes. Arkansas storms killed seven and injured thirteen just a few days later, and then a couple of days after that some 78,000 were killed when a cyclone devastated the Irrawaddy Delta of Myanmar. A week later storms swirling across Oklahoma, Missouri, and Georgia killed twenty and injured hundreds while, in China, some 67,000 died when an earthquake struck in Sichuan Province. Further compounding the initial destruction caused by the earthquake was the evacuation of 150,000 just a couple of weeks later due to the threat of devastating flooding. But it wasn’t just natural disasters causing suffering around the world. The global financial crisis was beginning to unravel at that time. Banks were failing. Businesses were folding. People were losing their jobs. Homes were beginning to be foreclosed upon en masse. Gasoline prices were skyrocketing, putting pressure on household finances everywhere and causing food prices to increase at an alarming rate in areas of the world that could least afford it. Yes, it might have felt at first as though only my world was imploding, but all I had to do was pay attention and I could see that the entire world is in this together.



But it’s not a matter of minimizing our own suffering by comparing it to that of another who we might perceive as being “worse off” than us. No, it’s a matter of realizing that we’re all in this together – this world in which so much joy exists simultaneously with so much pain, this world in which there is no real distinction between those who happen to be facing hardship and those who are not. When the last remaining boundary separating self and other has been torn down, when the walls that were once a convenient hiding place (if only an illusory one) have all crumbled, compassion will then walk freely anywhere it needs to go, and pity will be nowhere to be found.




References

Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (2010). Practical advice for meditators. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel116.html

Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart – A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. Bantam Books.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (2011). Head & heart together: Bringing wisdom to the brahma-viharas. Access to Insight, 17 April 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/headandheart.html



Image Credit: Paradise Garden by Exsodus




Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank