Monthly Archives: February 2013

Feb 2013 Updates

Updates on my life that I originally posted on Facebook in February 2013.

Yesterday Feb  27, 2013
We had 9 families represented at the teaching on Buddhist Basics that I gave in a new friend’s home in Charlotte last Saturday. (19 people total.) We had a great time!
A few kindly brought gifts* for the local battered women’s shelter. (By supporting women in crisis we can help save lives and prevent tremendous suffering for them, their children, and everyone affected by family violence.) Yesterday a friend drove me & gifts to the shelter, and we got a tour of their great new facility. Very nice! Last month they transitioned from cramped housing & offices (crammed into 5000 sq feet) into this spacious 45,000 sq foot attractive state-of-the-art safe facility. It’s awesome. The staffers all have huge smiles.
Many areas of the facility are named after the local businesses and civic groups that sponsored the furnishings, with little plaques by the doors. It feels good to see so much caring and involvement by the community. Volunteer groups, mostly churches, have fixed up most of the bedrooms (family suites), making them cozy and welcoming. They still need people to do total makeovers of about 9 more rooms. Interested, anyone?
* 4 big bags of sugar, about 30 cans of soup, a new DVD player & half a dozen DVD movies.
Charlotte Domestic Violence Shelter | Safe Alliance
Charlotte Domestic Violence ShelterServicesSafe Alliance proudly announces the opening of the Clyde and Ethel Dickson Domestic Violence Shelter in winter 2012-13. The new shelter is the realization of a dream and a source of hope for those in need of sanctuary from abusive situations. The new Safe A…
  • Sat Feb 23rd I’m giving a teaching in Charlotte on “Buddhist Basics” (at a residence in Myers Park neighborhood). If you wish to attend, contact me for details. The teaching will focus on teenagers but adults will also enjoy. 10:30 am – 2 pm (Potluck lunch.)

To spread Buddhist principles of harmlessness & goodness, and support cultural traditions of Vietnamese people in the USA.

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Ven. Sudhamma Thank you for Liking the Page. You enabled it to obtain a new, shorter URL address, ““.
  • Soooo… how’s the weather, dear Friends up north? We had the windows open here this afternoon. I raked leaves, no need for a sweater. Some early bright yellow jonquils (daffodils) are blooming in the yard; I wouldn’t mind a little more of winter before the hot season (i.e., most of the year) hits. Ah, life in the South! (USA)

Posted by Ayya Sudhamma Bhikkhuni 28 Feb 2013.


Personal updates from some of my Facebook posts in January 2013.

January 27

  • Made a quick trip to Greenville SC, for just a few days, to attend a ceremony, and stayed with Ven. Sudinna at the Carolina Buddhist Vihara; got back late last night. Today, in Charlotte, I led a daylong meditation retreat at a yoga studio, with about 20 meditators attending. We had a great day.

January 16

  • Finishing up a couple of weeks teaching Dhamma in a tiny town in Vermont. My mid-winter visit has been received enthusiastically. Snow is falling outside the windows; beautiful. A neighbor took me show-shoeing earlier today. The local Baptist pastor, whose church helped sponsor my visit, brought my lunch. It [the town] looks something like this painting.
  • Spending a couple of weeks giving teachings in a snow-covered beautiful village in Vermont (USA). The people welcome me graciously with great interest. I’m so happy! I’m staying warm, but the winter air has been chilly; temperature was only 1 degree F (-17.2 C) early this morning! Neighbors here keep telling me about the unusual low of -15 F (-26 C) that occurred the night before I arrived. Brrrrr!

Posted by Ayya Sudhamma Bhikkhuni 28 Feb 2013

Why Men Love Breasts

The Buddha on Why Men Love Female Breasts

I know, I know. As a nun I’m not supposed to unwisely ponder such topics. And I don’t.

The question arose in the news recently when an expert proposed a biological imperative supposedly causing male fixation on this female attribute. People are taking his idea seriously. Yet the Buddha already answered this question well using solid reasoning about human nature.

Image from Wolchover's article New Theory On Why Men Love Breasts, crediting Creative Commons

Image from Wolchover’s article (1), crediting Creative Commons

So why do men love women’s breasts? The expert explains in terms of evolution. His theory is that male attraction to breasts leads to a behavior that triggers female pleasure and affection, hence increasing the male’s success in reproduction. No need for me to spell out the details; here’s the info if you want to read about it yourself. Article: Why Men Love Breasts (1)

Here’s what the Buddha said about such attractions, explaining them in terms of desire and ego:

A man attends inwardly to his masculine faculties [physical traits], masculine gestures, masculine manners, masculine poise, masculine desires, masculine voice, masculine charms. He is excited by that, delighted by that. Being excited & delighted by that, he attends outwardly to feminine faculties, feminine gestures, feminine manners, feminine poise, feminine desires, feminine voices, feminine charms. He is excited by that, delighted by that. Being excited & delighted by that, he wants to be bonded to what is outside him, wants whatever pleasure & happiness that arise based on that bond. Delighting, caught up in his masculinity, a man goes into bondage with reference to women. This is how a man does not transcend his masculinity.(2)

In other words, according to the Buddha, first a man delights in his own masculine traits. Then based on his self-desire & conceit, he feels attracted to the other gender’s traits which contrast with his own traits and thereby highlight his own traits. Thus he gets fixated on the breasts and other female attributes.

A woman does the same thing, enjoying the maleness that contrasts with — and therefore highlights — her own femaleness in which she delights. Thus she gets fixated on male attributes.

The Buddha’s explanation suggests taking responsibility, since people actively set themselves up to be assailed by lust in all its various forms, and his explanation implies a way out. (One can escape lust by choosing to direct one’s inward attention wisely, not triggering the initial underlying excitement.) It is more useful than a theory of a biological imperative that leaves people without responsibility for their lust and hence without much recourse.

By the way, neither the Buddha’s explanation nor the modern theory seem to account for gay preferences. Since attraction begins with delight in one’s own traits, we can theorize that perhaps a natural variation causes some people to fixate outwardly on attributes that are similar to their own, rather than attributes that contrast. (Just reverse the gender in the 3rd sentence of the above quote. See?) So there may be some flexibility in the Buddha’s explanation to encompass gay sexuality, but not in the evolutionary theory.

(1)  “Why Men Love Breasts” by Natalie Wolchover, Life’s Little Mysteries Staff Writer, 26 September 2012,; “Breasts: The Real Reason Men Love Them” by Larry Young, PhD, and Brian Alexander, 25 September 2012,

(2)  “Saññoga Sutta: Bondage” (AN 7.48), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 4 July 2010. Retrieved on 29 December 2012.

Compassion & 8-Fold Path

“Compassion Within The Eightfold Path” by Bhikkhuni Sudhamma

Originally published in Preserving the Dhamma – Writings in Honor of the Eightieth Birthday of Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, published by Bhavana Society Forest Monastery, 2007, p. 165-171.

Compassion is often described as a melting of the heart at the thought of the suffering of another being, with the wish to alleviate that suffering. Although compassion does not encompass the entire path of spiritual development taught by the Buddha, it plays a significant role.

The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is a set of eight directives for how to achieve freedom from suffering, or at least enjoy a happier life. His path combines a wise perspective (pañña) with skillful outer conduct (siila) and training in mental composure (samādhi). The second and the sixth steps imply cultivation of compassion.

The path starts with Right or Skillful Understanding. This is the basic understanding of how the whole big picture of life fits together through cause-and-effect. On a refined level, it means understanding the root of all our mental pain as being any kind of desire or grasping, and that the end of all suffering depends upon the cessation of all desire. (Desire as the root of suffering is a key part of the Four Noble Truths.) More fundamentally, it means understanding that “what comes around goes around, ” or, “what goes up must come down.” In other words, Right Understanding requires a basic grasp of kamma (karma). Whatever you do will come back to you one way or another, sooner or later. 1

Compassion Within Step Two

Knowing even a basic idea of kamma, one becomes well-motivated to embrace Step Two: a skilful or right intention. Do you want others receiving you with a generous, open heart, loving-kindness and compassion? Or, is stingy indifference, aversion, and cruelty just fine, coming at you from every direction, now and also later? What comes around goes around.

The Buddha described three aspects to right intention:

1. Intention of renunciation, in the sense of letting go of any objects of desire. It implies open open-hearted, generous letting-go of all grasping; hence it directly counteracts the root of suffering.

2. Intention of non-ill will.  Ill will is a deepening of suffering caused by desire so intensified as to have become twisted into the seemingly opposite quality of aversion; non-ill will implies loving-kindness.

3. Intention of non-cruelty. Cruelty lies at the furthest, worst end of twisted desire, being the most ugly and brutal manifestation of ill-will. The word cruelty brings up images of the worst and most famous examples human brutality, as in cases of outrageous cruelty during war. Yet cruelty has relatively subtle manifestations, too. Is the word “idiot” not a cruel thing to say to someone? Even mere thoughts can have a tone of cruelty. Non-cruelty implies compassion.

Hence compassionate intention is a significant part of the natural, intelligent response to understanding that “what comes around goes around.” Compassion brings immediate reward, too, as the open-hearted sense of connection feels quite pleasant, soothing the mind and relaxing the body.

No one ever said that the law of “what comes around goes around” applies only to actions towards certain people. When deliberately cultivated to full strength, compassion has the potential to become boundless, extending far beyond one’s usual limited ability to recognize commonality and to empathize. Before cultivating compassion, people begin at varying degrees of separation. The most miserable, shut-down, walled-off people recognize only their own selfish interests. With improvement such people may begin to care also about their own immediate family or clan. With a wider perspective, they find empathy for people of their town or region, yet may still resist those outside of these boundaries; for example, “I like Southerners, but Yankees should go home.” Some people habitually cut off empathy for an entire gender, race, or ethnicity. Some people may watch the news carefully for any word about English-speaking people or Christian people, with ready sympathy for such select groups, but shrug off what happens to the others, feeling only begrudging concern for them.

Some people have their heart as wide as the world for all people, unhindered by the usual excuses for separation – yet remain uncaring, even cruel towards non-human beings. They may help raise money for hunger-relief overseas, yet put out traps or poison to kill the hungry raccoons that enter their backyard in search of food. Many have no regard for animals since they supposedly have no so-called “soul”. Even among those who care about domesticated creatures, few show any concern for small, wild creatures. Far fewer care whatsoever for insects. Yet an expert told me that insects’ bodies are miniaturized, like computer chips, containing everything necessary for sentience, simply smaller in size. Universal compassion wisely does not hesitate to feel a sense of commonality and wish to relieve suffering of all sentient beings – motivating one to move as quickly to pull a drowning fly out of water as one would move to rescue a kitten or child.

If someone suffers obstructive habits such as blame, shame, resentment, despair or aggression, compassionate intention allows spiritual development to take root. For example, if you begin to shut down or become rigidly controlling, you can step back and find compassion for the hurting being — oneself — who suffers so much that he or she needs to think and act this way. Relief is immediate. If you suddenly feel foolish or perceive yourself as a failure, again you may turn to compassion to prevent or overcome the taunting, shaming messages of your own mind (such as, “You always  …!” “You should not have …!” “Stupid!”)  By stopping the internal cruelty, you prevent it from going outwards to others.

Compassion not only cuts off cruel tendencies, it leaves a sense of balance and gentle uplift. It brings an overflowing kindness for others that feels almost like water welling up in the heart and flowing outward to those who need sympathy. Once someone begins to practice compassion, many others will come to rely on his or her kindness, calling him or her words such as “sweet” and “nice,” and never guessing how foreign such kindness was to him or her before beginning this practice.

The Eightfold Path does not end with the skillful and beautiful intentions of Step Two, but continues with the rest of the eight directives. Compassion has a role in another of these. To explain requires a brief explanation of the rest of the steps. They are, in full: (1) Right Understanding, (2) Right Intention, (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Action, (5) Right Livelihood, (6) Right Effort, (7) Right Mindfulness, and (8) Right Concentration.

Given the understanding that what comes around goes around, along with skillful intentions — the open-hearted gesture of letting go, loving-kindness and compassion – you become well-motivated to modify your speech and behavior to be more beautiful, harmonious and kind. Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood cover the modification and purification of  speech and behavior. Right Livelihood is essentially the reminder that kamma still applies to one’s behavior even on the job, and to the way one earns one’s living. Thus the Buddha covered most of our possible actions of speech and body.

Yet, there are not just these two, but three kinds of actions that anyone can do; the third is  actions of the mind. All three — actions of the body, speech and mind — can be modified, uplifted, and made more perfectly skillful. The remaining steps of right effort, mindfulness and concentration, get down to the business of directly training the mind. With these last three steps you begin to modify your mental actions.

Compassion Within Step Six

Right Effort has to do with choosing wholesome mental states over unwholesome mental states every waking moment. It is the skillful effort to let the mind become beautiful. Right Mindfulness essentially encourages us to remain mindful of all actions of body and mind, as in “be here now,” and noting deeper reality as it continually manifests. The last step of Right Concentration has to do with sitting in meditation, enjoying the uplifted, beautiful states that lead into deeper and deeper concentration. This makes the mind extremely focused and powerful. With these deeper levels of concentration, the mind can become like a microscope, and, if wedded to right mindfulness, it gets to where one sees the present moment completely clearly, bringing no more doubt about reality.

Returning to Right Effort, the Buddha described it as a sequence of efforts, of preventing and overcoming unwholesome states of mind, and developing and making a continuing habit of wholesome states of mind. Compassion plays a role in this step, so we need to take a closer look.

First, let us separate wholesome from unwholesome states of mind. Anger, obviously, is unwholesome. Grasping, impatience, resentment, rage, fear, laziness, stinginess and pride, among others, belong on the same list. Opposite qualities such as loving-kindness, compassion, letting-go, energy, generosity, gratitude, caring, humbleness, honesty, faith and patience, among others, belong on the wholesome list. Even children can easily sort out most wholesome states from the unwholesome ones.

The Buddha offered an underlying logic to these two divisions: unwholesome states arise out of deeper roots of greed, aversion, and delusion; wholesome states arise out of deeper roots of non-greed, non-aversion, and clarity.

If any unwholesome state enters your heart, all other unwholesome states remain near at hand. Jealousy, for example, can easily lead to anger and other unwholesome states, can it not? Anger can lead to resentment, ingratitude, hard-heartedness, or any other miserable quality on the sorrowful, regrettable, unwholesome list. Imagine that in a village lives a group of mean brothers in a one-room house; on entering the mean home to talk to one brother, the other brothers hang around nearby, listening, and may enter the conversation. The most minor unwholesome state, such as a mild irritability or self-pity, may quickly flare into worse states that bring harmful speech and evil actions. On the other hand, allowing into your heart any one of the wholesome states, such as serenity, easily leads to other lovely states, such as gladness, generosity, or compassion; all good qualities remain near at hand, also like a clan of brothers.

A funny thing about the wholesome states and unwholesome states: you cannot have both qualities at the same time. The mind has one experience after another, and, for ordinary beings, mental experience must have either a wholesome flavor or an unwholesome flavor. The mind visits either the wholesome camp or the unwholesome camp at any given instant (although it goes back and forth so rapidly that you cannot easily say which quality predominates). Hence a moment of a wholesome state such as compassion guards against an unwholesome state during that moment.

Compassion, like other wholesome states, brings you close to all the other delightful states of mind that let you feel like life is worth living, even a joy to live. When one’s heart softens and melts, feeling open to whatever comes towards oneself or others, pliant and strong, accepting and kind, the unwholesome state hides away (at least temporarily). The heart becomes full and overflowing.

Heaven On Earth

Many wholesome mental states exist, yet the Buddha repeatedly recommended four as particularly powerful for raising up the mind: loving-friendliness (mettā), compassion (karu.nā), altruistic joy (muditā), and equanimity (upekkhā). He called them “Brahmavihāra.” Brahma means a high god and vihāra means a dwelling place. In this sense Brahmavihāra means “heavenly dwelling.” In other words, with your heart steeped in loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy or equanimity, you experience a kind of heaven-on-earth.

Loving-friendliness and compassion often receive mention almost interchangeably, but they do differ. With loving-friendliness one emanates well-wishing for other beings. A typical phrase of loving-friendliness is, “May they be well, happy and peaceful.” Loving-friendliness has a lighter, brighter, more cheerful and uplifted quality than the sober compassion, that full-hearted response to the depth of pain and loss in the world.

Altruistic joy means the opposite of jealousy: gladness, a sense of uplift at the thought of good things happening for other people.

Equanimity refers to a vibrant, balanced state of mind unshaken by life’s vicissitudes. One who strongly cultivates equanimity does not become depressed or elated, no matter how rough or comfortable one’s conditions. He or she simply continues on mindfully. (It is said that enlightened ones “walk evenly over the uneven.” (SN Ch 1 No. 8 [S i 4]). At its greatest strength, equanimity, supported by other factors of wisdom,1 opens into full enlightenment. Yet even a little bit of equanimous attitude goes a long way towards helping us let go of unwholesome states and habitual patterns of thinking that threaten to destroy our peace of mind.

Many times the Buddha suggested using the Brahmavihāra as the focus of meditation. He said to start by well-wishing feelings of loving-friendliness into every direction. (He offered various methods for filling every direction.)2 Next, do the same with compassion, then altruistic joy, then equanimity.

These four go together well not only in sitting meditation; they also support each other in one’s ongoing, daily mental development. Any one Brahmavihāra by itself, in anyone not yet enlightened, has certain pitfalls, but when cultivated together, each of the four guards the others from their specific possible downsides.3

A Brahmavihāra offers a quick remedy against its opposite quality, called its “far enemy.” Yet for each Brahmavihāra there is another unwholesome counterpart, called the “near enemy.” This is not a clear opposite, but rather seems so close to the wholesome quality the two can be mistaken for each other. People sometimes fall into this pitfall when attempting to cultivate these wholesome states. Compassion helps to overcome the near enemies of other Brahmavihāras.

The practice of loving-friendliness overcomes its far enemy of anger/aversion. Yet, someone making effort to open the heart with loving-friendliness may carelessly slip into its near enemy, attachment. Attachment, unlike universal loving-kindness, is rooted in underlying greed. It can manifest in several ways. What began as simple well-wishing can turn into excessive involvement in the lives of others, and one may get swept up in their dramas. Becoming overly focused on certain people, one also may practice favoritism, wishing well for some while excluding others from the reach of one’s kindness (particularly people who oppose the more favored peoples’ interests). Such attachments, though easily mistaken for loving-kindness, may serve as a base for heavier unwholesome states of mind, such as resentment, and mislead one into unwholesome speech and actions, bringing deep suffering and perhaps resulting in the worst evil deeds.

Compassion balances against the excessive involvement, favoritism and narrowness of an imperfect loving-kindness, for compassion embraces every being. Let’s say that I feel loving-kindness for my friends but despise the thieves who recently robbed them. Compassion that is very big, broad, and open would remind me, “Thieves suffer too.” They suffer from what they do, they suffer from their confusion, maybe they suffer from past circumstances that turned them in wrong directions, and they will suffer in future lives too. Doing evil hurts. With great compassion, if one sees a victim and the perpetrator both standing nearby, both looking stunned, then one does not prefer the victim over the perpetrator, for they both suffer.

Lust is another way attachment may manifest. A meditator sending someone loving-kindness that slips into attachment may suddenly start to think, “I’ve gotta have this person!” This is a disaster in some circumstances, especially for a celibate. A monk once told an audience that when he was newly ordained, each of his first five monk-teachers fell in love, disrobed, and ran away to be married. He eventually realized that those five monks had practiced loving-kindness as a focused meditation and carelessly directed it intensely towards individuals of the other gender. (This is why many meditation teachers warn against directing lingering thoughts of loving-kindness towards an individual to whom one may become attracted.) Compassion for everyone affected will definitely prevent harmful sexual behavior. On a higher level, compassion, if strong enough, brings such an uplifted regard for all beings that selfish sexual urges naturally fall away.

Altruistic joy overcomes the far enemy of jealousy. The near enemy of altruistic joy is excessive exuberance over someone’s good fortune. Mental agitation arises, based on others’ good fortune, rooted in greed. (An alternative teaching holds that mudita’s near enemy is a pretense of shared shared happiness for the purpose of flattery and manipulation). For example, someone wins the Lottery and her neighbor begins jumping up and down, screaming and crying out, “Oh how wonderful!” Compassion brings down the giddiness with the steady understanding that no matter how good things may get for some people, there remains unimaginable suffering for others. It also brings the sobering reminder that peoples’ present joy may yield to future suffering. One needs to maintain a balance between this present, momentary joy and the bigger picture that includes impermanence and suffering.

An imperfect altruistic joy also tends towards partiality, favoring the happiness of these over the happiness of those. Compassion does not allow that, either.

Equanimity overcomes its far enemy of agitation. What do you suppose the near enemy of equanimity would be? Cold indifference. This is not wholesome detachment. Rather, it is the shutting down of the heart, motivated by aversion. Indifference, when mistakenly cultivated instead of equanimity, may mislead people into thinking they are making spiritual progress as they lose both positive and negative reactivity to the world around them. The unwholesomeness of this shut-down mental state becomes clear when you consider that it is often a factor in suicide. Compassion, however, does not allow indifference for even a heart-beat. Compassion breaks down the barriers, letting life and love and all good states come streaming in. Guarded by compassion, equanimity can be safely developed towards full perfection without getting lost in the near enemy.

Compassion, too, has a near enemy: pity (in the negative sense of the word). The shallow, sentimental dismay of pity covers aversive resistance to another’s suffering. Pity lacks a sense of connection; one cannot connect with others’ painful feelings – or one’s own. “I’m so glad I’m not like those poor people over there. Keep them over there, I’m not really like them.” The heart is closed. One looks down on them, thinking of them as separate, perhaps feeling twinges of sorrow, guilt, or other unwholesome states rooted in aversion. I have seen people express pity for a starving, lost pet, but when the desperate creature comes closer to beg for assistance these people cruelly stomp their feet or threaten the animal with a broom. “Poor thing,” they say with a sigh as the animal scurries away.

The Brahmavihāra of loving-friendliness quickly reveals to oneself the shortcomings of shallow pity. Loving-friendliness does not allow a sense of separation. It soothes and brightens the heart, taking away aversion. If well-developed, loving-kindness does not allow unwholesome pity to even get a foothold.

While we try to perfect compassion, another obstacle may arise. We can notice so much suffering that we become overwhelmed. We may feel melancholy, depressed, despairing, burned out, or even bitter. The uplift of altruistic joy comes to the rescue! Hearing of happy things happening to someone, we gain renewed sense of uplift and hope for all these suffering beings to find relief. Altruistic joy can tempt someone back out of his or her shell, saying, “Come on! There’s a lot of good happening, not just pain. Come out, be alive, rejoin the world!” Thus altruistic joy brings balance. Most particularly uplifting is news of someone turning his or her efforts to spiritual endeavors and making good progress in wisdom.

Equanimity also comes to compassion’s rescue when aversive pity has developed. Equanimity reminds us that no beings receive random bad luck, but all are the owners of their kamma, reaping the pleasurable and painful experiences they have sown these many lifetimes. Furthermore, every being’s internal nightmare in response to painful conditions comes entirely from his or her own mass of ignorance; no matter how hard the circumstances, an enlightened being cannot suffer. The most profound equanimity based upon insight into “non-self” (anattā), which is wisdom into the true nature of all beings, including oneself. This purifies compassion completely from any downsides.

However, do not imagine that the teachings of the Buddha conclude with heavenly states of mind. We do not seek merely uplifted states of being to let ourselves enjoy a happier Samsara and go to heaven. All states of being continue to harbor unsatisfactoriness, if there remains any subtle, underlying clinging. We need to develop wholesome actions of body, speech and mind without sight of the real goal: complete freedom. The Buddha said that the teaching of all buddhas is, “Do no evil, do good, and purify the mind.” (Ovāda Pātimokkha Dh 183.) First, we must escape hellish states! Few people could effectively leap from the midst of painful, confused actions into a process of refined letting-go. Having put evil actions and mental states such as greed, anger and cruelty far behind us, we  thoroughly cultivate wholesome states such as the Brahmavihāras. Once heavenly states of compassion and the rest are achieved and steadied, then the soothed, uplifted mind can settle into the transformative training of letting-go of even desire for those lovely states of being.

  1. For the seven factors of wisdom (bojjhanga or “factors of enlightment”) see MN 118.
  2. For examples: 1) Imagine the universe divided into four quarters and pervade each, in turn, with the well-wishing feelings of loving-kindness, sending it “above, below, around and everywhere, and to all as to myself.” 2) Pour loving-kindness into the ten directions, starting with the northern direction, then northeastern direction and so forth, finishing with the directions above and below. 3) Most simply, in a text on loving-kindness alone, the Buddha said to spread it “upward to the skies, and downward to the depths; outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will.”
  3. For this section I am indebted Ven. Nyanaponika Thera’s “The Four Sublime States,” Wheel Pub. No. 6, by BPS. See this brochure for more analysis of the mutually supportive Brahmavihāra.

Life With Bhante G

To celebrate my teacher’s 80th birthday in 2007, his students compiled reflections and memories into a book; below are the recollection contributed by me (including some parts cut from the book).

By the way, Bhante G celebrated his 85th birthday in December 2012. In much of 2012 our once remarkably vigorous teacher struggled with heart trouble requiring surgery, and he has had a long recovery; however, as of January 2013 he looks quite well, energetically delivering a teaching to us nuns by Skype.

Preserving the Dhamma – Writings in Honor of the Eightieth Birthday of Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, published by Bhavana Society Forest Monastery, 2007, p.47-50.

Bhante G

Bhante G; photo by Mike Belleme

“Recollections of Bhante G”  by  Ven. Bhikkhuni Sudhamma

Following are some recollections from living with Venerable Gunaratana at the Bhavana Society, during the years 1998 – 2002.

On Devas
A quote that has been attributed to Bhante Gunaratana: “Devas [deities] cannot do anything for you. They only cheer you on. And then when you get somewhere they try to take all the credit!” Soon after arriving at Bhavana, I heard that Bhante G had said this, and the quote sounded credible to me. A year or two later, however, when I asked him whether he had indeed said this, he just chuckled.

On Attachment 1
Bhante G commented, “The one death I most deeply feared was my mother’s. After that, I didn’t have to fear.” He went on to explain that he was never attached to anyone so strongly as his mother (not even his beloved brothers and sisters), nor did he believe he would ever become so attached to anyone again.

In other words, after his mother’s passing, he became free of the worry and sorrow over loved ones, that nag at almost everyone else in the world. He had no more of the attachment-love that would create piercing grief, nor was he interested in developing it towards anyone. Instead, he had become devoted to universal loving-friendliness: metta.

This comment from the Buddha comes to mind: “For him who has completed the journey, for him who is sorrowless, for him who from everything is wholly free, for him who has destroyed all Ties, the fever (of passion) exists not.” [Dh 90.]

Not Angry
One time while working on a lengthy project with a fellow, Bhante G repeatedly needed to extend their deadline. Bhante G pledged to stick to the latest timeframe, and this fellow conveyed the message to other interested people. But later, Bhante G needed another postponement. Unfortunately, I received the dreaded task of telephoning and delivering the unwelcome message to the man, who became irate.

Upon my reporting this man’s anger to Bhante G, he said, in a gentle tone, “He is angry. But I am not angry.” To my surprise he flashed an innocent, sweet smile and concluded, “So, I think it is oooohh-kay.” (The man ended up quitting the project in a rage, and didn’t talk to Bhante for a long time. He did eventually seem to come around, but it took a few years.)

On Attachment 2
For some people, Bhante G’s metta seems palpable. Some may experience his metta as a sense of uplift that strengthens as they approach him, or as a sudden surge of joy in his presence, or as a subtle brightness that permeates a person, leaving only uplift and tingling happiness.

But his metta cannot be bought or earned. A stranger he meets at the airport, if receptive, can feel from him the same lovely metta as that given to the most devoted disciples.

Sudhamma at Bhavana

Ayya Sudhamma working in the Bhavana library

Therefore, be forewarned: Just because a devotee attaches to Bhante G does not mean that Bhante G will return the attachment, or offer special approval or favors. Not even ordained residents at his monastery obtain that from him.

To the contrary, Bhante G considers the opportunity to live in a sacred place, learning the Dhamma and giving to others, as reward enough in itself. Residents are expected to devote themselves to the study and dissemination of the Dhamma and to the caretaking of non-resident visitors—always giving without expectations—like him.

Anicca (Impermanence)
One afternoon while washing dishes, I noticed colorful bubbles forming and disappearing at the top of a large container of dish washing liquid. One large soap bubble, three or four inches wide, emerged. Watching its colors twirl, marveling at the beauty, I patiently waited for the bubble to pop. Moments passed; it seemed as though it would never burst. Bhante G walked by the kitchen door and I called to him, “Bhante, look, this bubble…!” Just as he looked, it burst.

“It popped!” I said, surprised and disappointed. Bhante G leveled a knowing look at me and said, significantly, “You see?” and was gone.

The Chanting Tape
One time in 1998, Bhante G arrived home from an overseas trip, carrying about two dozen cassette tapes and twinkling like a Christmas tree. Resident disciples knew something was up. After everyone had greeted him and most had drifted away, he handed a tape to one lay disciple and said, a little too nonchalantly, “Listen to this.” She promptly did, and after a few moments of listening, raced to the monastery office to use the cassette tape-copying machine.

People living in a monastery—or at least the stubborn residents—soon learn some simple ground rules for survival. These include not asking permission if you’re going to do an action anyway and quickly doing whatever is necessary before anyone says not to do it. On this occasion, the lay resident quickly made a copy of the remarkable tape. The tape contained the beautiful sound of a very young child’s voice, perhaps as young as three or four, confidently chanting Pali suttas, including three well-known protective chants and a few chants for healing.1

When residents next gathered, Bhante G raised the topic of the tapes, saying that they had been entrusted into his care and that he had promised their owner not to copy them. “No one must copy those tapes!” he declared, and looked at this one disciple. Returning his gaze impassively, she nodded solemnly along with the rest.

Then, twinkling brightly again, Bhante G related the background story of the tapes. In the early 1970s in Sri Lanka, a two-year-old child began to spontaneously chant at night. Within a year, knowledgeable Buddhist monks had confirmed that the child’s mysterious sounds were Pali suttas chanted with astounding perfection. Tape recordings were made. The boy informed adults that he recalled the Pali chanting from a distant past life as a monk. Word spread, and the child became a sensation, chanting to crowds of pious Buddhists. As he entered adolescence the boy wished to live a normal life, leaving behind his chanting fame and the overprotective monks who expected to ordain him. His family consented and put out the word that the boy had gone overseas.

Like so many others, Bhante G said that he heard of the famous chanting boy and attempted to track him down during visits to Sri Lanka, but received a false story. Occasionally, as the years went by, the chanting boy came to mind and Bhante made inquiries, but no one could give him any answers.

Bhante G then related an encounter that had taken place some years before (in the early 1990’s), during a visit to Australia. A certain lady named Elizabeth picked him up at the airport, bringing along a couple of friends. Sitting in the car, Bhante G suddenly began thinking of that boy he heard of long ago, and he spoke up, describing the child who chanted, and asked Elizabeth whether she had heard of this child.

“Yes,” Elizabeth answered.

“Do you know where he is now?” Bhante G asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Where is he?”

“In the front seat.”

Bhante explained to the residents that the former chanting boy, by then a young man, had heard of Bhante G and had timed a visit to Australia during Bhante G’s trip, in hopes of meeting him. The young man had also connected with Elizabeth, and at that moment they were riding together in the same car! The young man bonded strongly with Bhante G, becoming a devoted disciple. Bhante encouraged him to go public with his remarkable story, but the young man was sensitive about his experience, so he declined.

After some years went by, Bhante G said, the young man became stricken with a nearly fatal illness; which he suddenly overcame, upon determining that he would live to serve the Dhamma. After that, he decided that he would go public with his story. He and Bhante G met up during Bhante’s latest travels, and he gave Bhante G twenty-four tapes of his chanting.

Bhante G concluded by saying that this man later intends to publicize his story widely and produce recordings of his chanting. Therefore it was imperative that no copies be distributed outside of the man’s control, as they would surely get mass-produced. After Bhante G’s talk that evening, the resident disciple carefully guarded her treasured bootlegged tape, allowing friends to listen, but not allowing copying despite many pleas.

A couple of years passed. One day Bhante G telephoned the Bhavana Society office from Canada, where he had been summoned to the bedside of a child who appeared to be dying. He asked that someone quickly send him one of the boy’s chanting tapes. He explained that the sound of another child’s voice chanting would comfort the ailing child. It would also comfort the parents by offering proof of rebirth. However, Bhante could not recall where he kept the collection of tapes. No one knew. The office was searched, and searched again. Bhante’s bedroom was searched. No tapes.

Someone recalled the resident who had possessed a tape of the chanting, and the focus shifted to her. A messenger hurried to her cottage with the order: surrender your tape for copying. Surprised, she resisted. Hadn’t Bhante G said no copies should be made? Hadn’t he promised the tapes’ owner? It would be wrong, she decided.

It can take a while for an American to understand the shift and flow of reality—or perceptions of reality—in a Buddhist monastery. Rigidly structured thinking creates suffering for anyone who clings to it. A typical American’s sense of right and wrong overlaps—but does not completely match—the monastery moral code. In this case, to the monks and other resident disciples, the higher paradigm of compassion overruled any sense of contractual obligation; and obedience to the master definitely overruled an individual disciple’s personal opinion. Hence this resident, clinging to her rigid thinking, found herself In Trouble with the master, who from Canada quietly roared his demand. With just a little further psychological pressure by a couple of fellow residents (akin to a thumb being swiftly pulled back), the stubborn American resident caved in. That same afternoon a copy of the tape was on its way to Canada by express mail.

After that episode, everyone wanted to listen to the inspiring chanting tape, and a flurry of copying ensued. A tape was kept in the office for copying, as needed. Bhante G occasionally sought a copy to give to particular visitors to the monastery. Whenever the office copy disappeared, as it did repeatedly, people turned to that certain resident for her well-guarded copy, to make more. For a number of years, although the rest of the 24 tapes remained well hidden or lost, the Bhavana residents and many supporters commonly possessed a copy of that one chanting tape, to their uplift and great benefit.

Walking 1
Bhante G finishes his lunch and is the first to leave the dining hall, while others are still eating. Shortly he slips from his bedroom, across a hallway and out the back door, moving quickly to escape possible hangers-on. Hat on his head, staff in hand, he is ready for his daily walk.

He reportedly walks five miles on each outing. One often sees him along the road, waving at every passing car—always offering the enthusiastic, friendly wave that has helped him to gain acceptance among the locals.

Not all local people initially accepted him. Venerable Gunaratana stands out as “different” in this backwoods area: the design and color of his clothing, his country of origin, his skin color, his shaven head, his stature, his accent, and his religion. Nonetheless, passing drivers return the wave even of someone so different, because the friendly wave-and-response exchange remains a deeply entrenched social gesture in the rural South. You would feel, as they’d say, “downright mean” not to wave back at Bhante G’s cheerful, outgoing greeting.

The local people’s responsive wave to Bhante G, a positive gesture made time and again, has created friendly feelings towards him. It has even forged lasting friendships.

Walking 2
Bhante G says that walking is his time to practice his metta. In other words, as he walks along the road, he radiates loving, friendly feelings towards all living beings. This practice often comes to mind when I take a walk.

Being Right
When it comes to the Dhamma, no flaw stands out in the message of Ven. Gunaratana. However, I sometimes held opinions that were out of harmony with his, when it came to administrative decisions for the monastery or the management of residents. Before embarking upon the holy life at age 35, I had been an attorney and a righteous feminist—an educated, independent American woman brimming with strong opinions.

On one occasion I could have demonstrated in a dozen ways the correctness of my viewpoint, and felt particularly frustrated. Angrily righteous, I stubbornly quarreled with our teacher. Later, on my knees, I approached Bhante G to make my apologies (not an uncommon sight). I apologized for my attitude, for having spoken out against his decision in front of everyone, and for having been rude and disrespectful. He received these apologies graciously. Yet I couldn’t help but add, “But I was right!”

His eyes flashed ever so briefly, then he looked past me and commented softly, “Maybe you had better think about that.” Therefore, I did; lowering my hands, I sat back on my haunches, and pondered, as a new idea emerged. From every logical angle, my point of view was factually true, provable, and unassailable. So what could he mean…? Then it hit me, and I declared, “I cannot be ‘right’ so long as my mind is unwholesome!” Bhante G gave his sweetest approving smile and said, “Yes, that is correct.” I prostrated.

It would be nice if I could report that this revelation stopped me from ever arguing my viewpoints with anyone—particularly with the venerable teacher. Unfortunately, for someone with habitual mental impediments like a thick wall, no permanent cure can be instantaneous. Yet this moment with Bhante G opened for me a new way of seeing things—a door which would, over time, slowly widen.

The words guna (pure) and ratana (jewel) denote that the name Gunaratana means “Jewel of Purity.” It’s a very apt name, for his pure integrity inspires anyone who knows him. The Buddha said that a virtuous man has no fear from any quarter; like a king who has conquered all enemies and can sit without fear on his throne.

One time during his daily walk, Bhante G came across a strong-willed visiting monk strolling in the woods with a female devotee, hand-in-hand. The rules given to monks by the Buddha and the protocols for monks at the Bhavana Society are very clear about such matters: being alone with or in physical contact with the opposite sex is forbidden. The solitude and physical contact between these two people violated monastic rules. The sight must have come as a shock to Bhante G; however, as he came up to them and passed by, he aimed only one word at them: “Don’t.”

The laywoman later described the incident, and said that after Bhante G had left the scene, the monk blustered and protested his point of view to her. Nonetheless, one corrective word from an undeniably pure being has undeniable power. He said, “Don’t.” Therefore, despite both of them holding to their own opinions, they didn’t.

“Mister G”?
During a Dhamma talk, Bhante was describing how he had spoken sternly with himself. He began to quote his thoughts, saying, “Now, Bhante…”

Then it occurred to him how odd it may sound to inwardly call himself by the honorific “Bhante.” Interrupting his self-quote, he explained to his listeners, “For, you see,” he said coyly, “I certainly cannot call myself ‘G’…” 2


Bhavana Society meditation hall

Luminous Mind
The late Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda, known as the Chief Buddhist Monk of Malaysia, and with whom Bhante G resided for a number of years, visited the Bhavana Society in September of 1998. The two venerables talked together late into the night.

Later, wondering what two Great Masters may discuss when alone, a disciple asked Bhante G the topic of their conversation. He answered that they discussed the meaning of the phrase spoken by the Buddha, “This mind, O monks, is luminous.”

Bhante explained that the mind, though by nature luminous, remains covered, in unenlightened people, by the defilements. Were the defilements removed, this luminosity would shine forth. (Even just by covering up these defilements, as in states of concentration, the luminosity can be known temporarily.) However, the fact of this natural luminosity is not the same as being purified inside. It is not correct to say that one is really “a Buddha” inside. One still must make the effort to purify the mind.

To help his student understand, Bhante G gave a metaphor. He said that it is like a cup of dirty water taken from a sewer: although one can correctly say that the nature of water is, in its essence, inherently pure, would you drink from that cup of sewage water? Despite the inherent purity of water, before drinking, you still need to purify it! Similarly, we must remove our defilements. It is incorrect to point to the existence of natural luminosity and say, “We are all Buddhas” and proceed as though one’s work has been done.

A year or so later, the disciple gave a Dhamma talk to fellow Bhavana Society residents in which she used this teaching on luminosity of mind. Conversing with Bhante G afterwards, the disciple got the impression that he felt surprised that she had remembered the details of their long-ago conversation.

One must wonder how many lovely teachings Bhante G has given that his listeners never managed to hear, although they were sitting right in front of him. Of all that he has taught, we probably absorb only the smallest fraction.

1. The common Pirit (protective) chants of Ratana Sutta, Mangala Sutta, Karaniya Metta Sutta, and the three healing chants of Maha Kassapa Thera Bojjhangam and two related bojjhanga suttas.

2. To Bhante G’s disciples and friends in the USA, the “G’ stands for “Gunaratana.”  In some Buddhist countries, however, the same sound, “Ji,” is an honorific title worthy of a great sage.

If you know of any Buddhist activities or Insight meditation sitting groups that the organizers would like added to the calendar, please send a message to: DearAyye [~at~] gmail [~dot~] com .

For more information on a program simply click it; a box giving the details for that program should pop up. Click “more details” at the bottom left of the pop-up box to make the links active.

On arriving at my hometown I happily discovered many so new meditation sitting groups that it’s hard to keep track of them. There seems to be no organized communication among the various meditation groups or cultural Buddhist organizations in Charlotte. So I decided to put the information onto one calendar to share with everyone.