Category Archives: Dhamma

The Buddha’s teaching on impermanence is clear but sometimes we need help recalling even what is most obviously true.

The Buddha said it is okay to remain attached to anything just so long as it is yours. But what belongs to you? “The eye, monks, is not yours; let it go. The ear is not yours, let it go. The nose… tongue… body… mind… not yours; let it go.” Also sights, sounds, smells, tastes, bodily tangibles, thoughts and other mental objects: let them go as well. Apparently everything isn’t yours, and if not yours, it must be let go. The Buddha pointed out that he knows of nothing that one can cling to without pain resulting.

But what about sand?

After teaching children one Sunday afternoon last month I noticed a strange big bottle of something – was it sand? – left upon the dining table. It turned out indeed to be sand, a special type lightly combined with an acrylic to make a kind of sand Playdough for sculpting (BrookstoneSand). This sand has more stick-to-itself stability than regular sand yet remarkably does not stick to one’s fingers, making it a delight to touch and mould. And there it sat on my table with everyone gone home.

Hence, I did the only reasonable thing, which was to delve into it with both hands before trying to find the owner.

The result:

Sand Dog

Sand Dog

That task done, I sent around a photo of the dog sculpture by text to those most likely responsible for having left the sand, with the query, “Do you know anything about this?”

The bottle of sand turned out to belong to Jason, a member of Charlotte Buddhist Vihara’s Board of Directors. As a man who loves meditation, works as a kindergarten teacher and fathers a small child, Jason capably leads some children’s programs at the Vihara. He had brought the bottle of sand in case we needed a crafts project that day, and forgotten to take it home. He did not intend to forfeit it. Yet on seeing the sand sculpture photo he kindly opted to leave the sand at the Vihara on an indefinite loan, explaining that it would be useful in case I need to keep any visiting children busy. Perhaps he was actually curious what else this nun might end up making out of it, or realizing that I need artistic outlets? Whatever the reason, in letting go of this product that he had purchased for teaching purposes he demonstrated admirable generosity and the wisdom of non-clinging.

Yet why should it remain a loaner, not a gift? I can’t say for sure, but by leaving the sand with me on trust as a loan, Jason can feel assured that I won’t give it away in a spontaneous gesture of generosity – always a potential hazard for objects that belong to me personally (though not with things intended for the greater Sangha). In fact just yesterday a dear supporter named Heather, having seen my newly-discovered love of sand, kindly brought me a small container of sculpting sand for my very own, to keep. It came in a cute little glass-topped container, a delightful small gift that she had received during a training for her corporate job, like a party favor for businesspeople. Within a few hours I had already given it away, joyfully handing the cute container to an employee of the City of Charlotte, a nice young lady whose job is to motivate citizens to get organized in neighborhood coalitions; she will find it useful in her work. That was fun!  Thanks, Heather!

Having created an image in the safely loaned sand, however, I faced an unexpected dilemma. It would have been nice to move on and make new sculptures in its wooden “sand box” container, but the highly unstable sand dog couldn’t be moved at all without tearing it up, and I simply could not bear to do that. The dog was, you know, too good, almost seeming alive, as though looking up at me as if to say, “You wouldn’t mush me would you?” In other words I had gotten attached right away. The image was neither ‘permanent’ enough to try to preserve longterm, nor so impermanent as to fall apart and go away gracefully when my interest waned, so my clinging held me in limbo. This dragged on for more than a week. I was stuck.

Despite all my knowledge of the Buddha’s teaching, including the part about pain associated with holding on, I needed help with letting go.  Yes, of an image in sand.

Therefore I left the dog sculpture out in plain view during our New Year’s program. Children would attend. Enforcing and hastening laws of impermanence regarding delicate things is a special duty of children. Surely one child or another would stick his finger into the fragile dog sand sculpture, ruining any endearing quality and thereby setting me free from the dratted thing.

It worked!

When our many guests had left at the end of New Year’s Day, I investigated the dog. Sure enough, clear damage had been done, the nose having been lightly squeezed into a misshapen triangle that indicated a frantic effort to undo the damage of a curious finger-poke.

As soon as I managed to stop laughing, I mushed the sand image into no-thingness, delighted to find letting go easy once the true shifting nature of sand was again made clear. Finally I could start anew.

Thus I could create this:

Sand Angel

Sand Angel

Yet whether dog or angel it is just sand. We all know that. Everything remains just sand, none of it ours, all to be let go.

Meanwhile I can’t use this sandbox.

Say, got any kids who wouldn’t mind coming over here to do me a favor…?


Ayya Sudhamma Bhikkhuni (Buddhist nun)

 January 6, 2015




In the Waiting Room

A nun friend who recently suffered a concussion from a fall had an MRI and other brain scans done a couple of days ago. While in the radiology waiting room she noticed the suffering of others, and wrote:

There are visibly very sick people waiting for scans. But also interesting to me how easy it was to connect, share a story or a joke and feel warmth together. We are all brothers and sisters in old age, sickness and death, and when we take a few layers off to get closer to this reality, it accentuates the importance of small kindnesses and acts of being together.

Her comment reminds me of a time 20 years ago, in my lay life, when I went for a follow-up CAT scan after a year of brutal cancer treatments. Sitting in the radiology department’s waiting room I noticed an elderly Chinese couple also waiting for a scan. The worn-out looking old man in hospital clothing sat unmoving, without expression or response while his wife softly chattered incessantly at him in a disconnected manner.

Out of habit I touched the beads of my bracelet while waiting for the scan. Throughout my cancer treatments I wore a Kwan Yin bracelet that a stranger had slipped onto my wrist after I mentioned in a public venue that I had just been diagnosed with cancer. My benefactor had slipped away without me catching sight of him or her in the crowd. The mysterious arrival made it seem like a gift from heaven. The bracelet’s pale green imitation jade beads nicely caught and reflected the light, and it had a lovely glow-in-the dark (!) Kwan Yin pendant, held together by an elastic string. Despite the simple materials I treasured it, often wrapping my fingers around the beads or the tiny glowing Kwan Yin image during times of uncertainty and difficulty.

(Certainly, belief in Kwan Yin Bodhisattva  isn’t taught in Theravada Buddhism, doesn’t appear in any early scriptures, has no place in early Buddhism. But who can really argue with the idea of an embodiment of compassion who listens with open heart to the cries of the world, and rescues the most helpless and desperate beings – sailors on rough seas, women fearing loss of a pregnancy, the imprisoned, and those deathly ill with a terrible disease such as cancer?)

My treatments having finished, I had returned to the hospital for a final scan just to make sure of my recovery.  My fingers touched the bracelet; I no longer needed it.

On impulse I stepped up to the elderly Chinese couple, smiling broadly.

Quan Yin Boddhisattva of Compassion,  Vien Quang Monastery, Clover, SC USA

Quan Am (Kwan Yin, Guang Am) Bodhisattva of Compassion

Kneeling in front of them, I gently but swiftly slipped the bracelet onto the old man’s wrist. The wife’s chatter abruptly ceased. They both stared with mouths gaping. With a quick bow, beaming with joy, I retreated to my seat on the other side of the room. Last I glanced at the couple they remained as though frozen with astonishment, staring with wide eyes at the bracelet on the man’s wrist.

One can only imagine, and marvel, what it meant to them — a healing image surely once sacred to them long years ago, coming to them so far from home, so unexpectedly, from a stranger, a smiling American girl, arriving in their time of hopeless pain. Perhaps Kwan Yin rekindled their hope. Our encounter certainly charged their energy.

I still taste the joy of that brief connection in the waiting room 20 years ago with a couple of strangers linked to my heart by old age, sickness and death, and a small act of kindness.

Fat Laughing Buddha?

Americans new to Buddhism usually soon inquire: Was the Buddha fat?

(Like this statue.)Attribution: By Hannah 50 (Own work by uploader - LOKE SENG HON) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

The answer is no.

The historic person known as Gotama Buddha ate only one meal a day, and he walked everywhere he went. How could he be fat? The early scriptures describe him as tall, lean and handsome — so handsome that some people were unable to pay attention to his teachings due to gazing at his physical beauty.

Where, then, did we get the ugly, fat laughing statue?  The one that invites you to rub his belly for good luck?

Veneration of a fat laughing Chinese deity of ancient times, named Hotei or Budai, has gotten mixed together with the idea of the Buddha. An alternate tale of a similar obese Buddhist monk, named Phra Sangkajai, comes out of ancient Thailand. For a fascinating detailed look at the history of these images see this Wikipedia article.*

The Buddha did not show riotous laughter like these statues, but he remained quietly, serenely happy. By following his teachings, we can too.


Ayya Sudhamma Bhikkhuni, 15 April 2013

What Happened to Scar? (Lion King)

What Happened to Scar?

The movie The Lion King told the simple story of a royal lion family wracked by a power struggle when the heir presumptive, Scar, resorted to murder to gain the throne. Scar was King Mufasa’s brother and uncle to the prince cub (and heir apparent) Simba.

Scar seizes power after killing the King and causing the disappearance of the prince cub. Then Scar and his hyena friends slowly ruin the kingdom through their excesses, causing starvation.

Scar. Best villain ever. — FlickFeast’s “Top 10 Animated Films” (click image)

Years later, having fully grown, overcoming his unwarranted shame over his father’s death, Prince Simba returns to free the kingdom and claim his rightful position. After a fight in which Scar plays more dirty tricks, including blaming his friends for his misdeeds to gain clemency, Scar suffers an ugly death when he falls among the outraged hyenas.(1)

To their credit, the writers made the royal father and son merciful, willing to give the bad guy another chance. Yet we don’t get to see why they should value him despite his evil ways, which may give the impression that they were just naïve. The bad guy is drawn as two-dimensional, nothing but evil; the movie barely hints at the painful root of the envy and ambition that motivated Scar.

To fill this void, a fan called Drowfan posted on Youtube the probable backstory to the bitterly ambitious creature we encounter as Scar. To tell the story, he presents a series of pictures from The Lion King film and artwork submitted by fans. Click to watch the short video: The Lion King – What Happened to Scar”.(2) 

There was a time when even the darkest of souls had light and laughter... -- Fan Artist, Balaa

The future villain Scar in his days of innocence — fan art by Balaa

Scar was once the innocent, loving cub Taka; so what happened? Drowfan’s video makes it obvious:

– The intelligent little fellow felt devastated by his father’s choice of his stronger, yet less clever, brother as the one to groom as future king.

(“Well, as far as brains go, I’ve got the lion’s share, but when it comes to brute strength, I’m afraid I’m at the shallow end of the gene pool.” – Scar)

– Jealousy and disappointment fueled Scar’s bitterness.

– Years of focusing unwisely upon his resentments led to his enraged grab for power, as though he could force the world to give to him the happiness that he lacked in his own mental states.

– The final images reveal the lonely misery of King Scar despite his great power. (My favorite is at 6.22 on the video, entitled “Forsaken“.)

Viewers of the video responded positively. One who commented, “Now I understand why Scar was so upset, angry and anxious to be King!” received more than 150 thumbs up from other viewers. Another viewer went so far as to say (receiving 35 thumbs up):

Now I Understand why he so evil and sarcastic you have my blessing Scar or I should say Taka you really don’t deserve this pain that you have. As you die against your own Hyenas, I hope you find the peace and rest forever.

My theory is that if we knew everything, absolutely everything, from the past that motivated any person, we could feel only compassion. Even the most repugnant people who commit the worst crimes would gain our sympathy if we really knew their story. The video on Scar can help us consider this possibility.

‘He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me’ — for those who brood on this, hostility isn’t stilled.

‘He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me’ — for those who don’t brood on this, hostility is stilled. Dh 3-4 — The Buddha (3)

It seems that Scar had some tough breaks, then he brooded upon them. Such wrongly-directed thinking is a typical route from victim-to-villain taken by some of the worst offenders in society. Yet haven’t we all done that at some point — nursing our resentments — albeit less dramatically? If so, who can stand in judgment?

People enjoy hating the bad guys and cheer upon seeing them destroyed painfully. If we brood upon the bad guys’ bad deeds to inflame our hearts against them, cultivating hostility, are we not engaging in the same kind of wrong thinking that creates a villain? What then do we become?  

Any time we hold on to a resentment about anything anyone does against us or others, we put ourselves onto a similar course to Scar’s. Surely that is not what we want. Instead, let us breathe deeply, try to relax and soften up, and find a better way to think about things. Remembering there must be a backstory to their actions can help us let go of our outrage, so we don’t walk that old path from victimization to villainy. We can cultivate sympathy, kindness, and good will; then with a positive attitude, safely take whatever action is needed to make things better.

(“I still can’t forgive him 😦” writes a fan who probably saw the film as a child nearly 20 years ago. We laugh — yet this is how the mind really works.)

Righteous anger is big in the West, especially in the USA. Someone does wrong out of greed or anger, hurting innocent victims, and people react with anger and hatred. Look at the readers’ comments after any news report of a bad guy having been caught; you may wince at the extreme cruelty of the remarks.

When upset, people may think, “Surely in this situation we have the right to hate!” The Buddha, however, took a very different stand:

Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves. MN 21 (4)

When the Buddha, known as the King of Peace, was pressed as to whether he approves of killing in any type of situation, the Buddha said yes: kill your own anger. (5) What kills our anger? Its opposite: loving-kindness.

The Buddha repeatedly warned us of painful karmic impact to ourselves from our negativity towards others, even deadly enemies. If any of us extend hatred by thoughts, words or actions towards any other being, we ourselves suffer. We  make our life’s journey more painful for ourselves and the world around us, and we don’t find the way out of renewed rounds of suffering. On the other hand, extending kindness, compassion, joyful goodness and other beautiful states in our thoughts, words and actions bring ease of well-being to everyone. The welcome ripple effects of goodness continue ever-outward.

Unfortunately, even people who know these things and can cultivate kindness in other situations may let themselves get shaken into vengeful anger over news of today’s most hated and feared evildoers, such as child molesters or terrorists. Let us look at one example. Among the most vicious terrorists have been the LTTE Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. Their tactics during 20 years of terror included more than 300 surprise attacks by their suicide bombers against innocent civilians, with no crowded bus, train, office, or neighborhood street ever safe from the possibility of a horrifying explosion coming from the clothing of an ordinary-looking person.(6) Few would shed tears over a failed LTTE suicide bomber sitting in jail. Most would say, “Let him suffer!”

Yet what if we knew the backstory of one? Read this interview with a young woman whose arrest prevented her planned suicide bomb attack.(7) (An advertisement may block the page, so click “skip this ad” in the upper right hand corner.) On learning details of this jailed assassin’s pathetic life — orphaned, abused, forced into a terrorists’ training camp, hurting from a disability, seeing no meaning to her life until she volunteered to be a hero giving her life for the cause — surely we develop more understanding and stirrings of sympathy.

Such compassionate feelings towards a villain can lead to clear reasoning and a more truly Buddhist response to the situation, a response that is sharply intelligent, compassionate, harmless and wise — and perhaps the end of bitter enmities.

A dramatic evil deed happened in the USA on September 11, 2001, when hijackers used airplanes to attack civilian targets. Later, a teacher at a progressive school in California told me that when the news broke regarding the 9/11 attacks, a small boy in her class commented, “Wow, someone is having a really big temper tantrum. I wonder what need isn’t being met?”  If the general public in the USA had responded so wisely as this child, perhaps we would be in much better condition today.

Compassionate wise action does not mean passivity or ineffectiveness. At times, we must take strong action; but aversion never improves such action. To the extent that one mindfully and wisely maintains loving-kindness and compassion, one’s actions will ripen beautifully for the greatest benefit to all beings.

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal. Dh 5 — The Buddha (8)

In a dangerous slum of Los Angeles, an elderly woman known as Mama Hill has successfully mentored thousands of at-risk children. She has a saying: “Hurt people hurt other people.”  She says that by watching closely, you can actually discern the age at which a person was wounded. When Mama Hill sits down with a new child to get acquainted, the first thing she asks is, “Who hurt you?” Eventually, when ready to start healing, they answer.(9)

We all get hurt; that is part of life. No matter how great the harm done by others, let us not indulge in hatred and thereby worsen suffering for ourselves and others!

Remember, instead we can breathe deeply, try to relax and soften up, and find a better way to think about things, such as envisioning a backstory to bring up compassion. Then cultivate sympathy, kindness, and good will towards ourselves, those who harmed us and all beings, and undertake positive action.

Some young people specially liked the character Scar in The Lion King because they identified with his pain. Are you suffering misery, perhaps remorse, alienation, anger, misunderstanding, confusion, shame or bitterness? Even Scar deserves compassion; and so do you. Don’t deny yourself love and compassion. No more self-hate. No more hurting yourself. You, too, have a backstory. Discover it. Reach out for support to help you understand and embrace your own backstory — and start healing. There is hope! The change starts now.


(1) The Lion King in storybook form: See Wikipedia on “The Lion King” at

(2) “What Happened to Scar”: Details, including the name “Taka” for young Scar, seem to have come from a set of novels by Alex Simmons based on The Lion King, entitled The Lion King: Six New Adventures; see “The Lion King Wiki” on Scar:

You may also appreciate the backstory of the hated Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, portrayed sympathetically in the Broadway musical “Wicked”. See the Wikipedia entry on “Wicked (musical)” at

(3) Dhammapada v. 3-4 trans. by Ven. Thanissaro, Access To Insight, Accessed 4 March 2013.

(4) MN 21 “Kakacupama Sutta,” “The Simile of the Saw,” trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, from Access to Insight, Accessed 4 March 2013.

(5) “Getting the Message”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 5 June 2010, . Retrieved on 5 March 2013.

(6) The LTTE Tamil Tigers claimed 378 suicide bomb detonations (paragraph 68), killing thousands of innocent civilians far from areas of conflict (paragraph 25). “No one and nothing was safe from its violence” – a short description of LTTE terrorism’s impact on ordinary life throughout Sri Lanka (paragraph 30). Humanitarian Operation Factual Analysis July 2006-May 2009, Ministry of Defence, DSR Sri Lanka, July, 2011. Retrieved 5 March 2013.

(7) “When the Suicide Bomber is a Woman” Interview of Ms. Menake by Jan Goodwin in Marie Claire, 16 January 2008, Photos by Mahesh Bhat, Both accessed 5 March 2013.

(8) Dhammapada verse 5, trans. by Ven. Buddharakkhita, Access to Insight,, accessed 5 March 2013.  (Alternative trans. by Ven. Thanissaro: “Hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility, regardless. Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility: this, an unending truth.”)

In the Lion King-related movie series, peace did not come to the Pride lions until there was reconciliation and exiled lions were re-integrated into the pack. See Wikipedia “The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride” Accessed 5 March 2013.

(9) “Why This 73-Year-Old Is a Gang’s Worst Nightmare” a Profile by Amy Nicholson for TakePart, 14 January 2013. Retrieved 6 March 2013.

Posted 6 March 2013 by Ayya Sudhamma Bhikkhuni.

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.

Oriah’s poem

Oriah’s poem
February 5, 2012  Originally posted on Facebook. (Also in Personal Updates.)
The poem I came across while packing to leave the USA:

“It doesn’t interest me/ to know where you live/ or how much money you have./ I want to know if you can get up/ after the night of grief and despair/ weary and bruised to the bone/ and do what needs to be done/ to feed the children…”

My favorite line from a poem carried around with me since the mid-1990’s — while packing I came across my ragged copy… and searched online to share it with you:

“The Invitation” by Oriah

It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon…
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.

It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.

By Oriah from her book, THE INVITATION (c)1999. Published by HarperONE, San Francisco. All rights reserved. Presented with permission of the author (permission granted by email 4th Feb 2012 and again for this blog 25th December 2012).

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