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The Basics of Buddhist Meditation
Talks in Chi Lin Nunnery, Hong Kong
Day 3: 9th October 1998
3: Metta, Karuna, Mudita, Upekkha (1)
Godwin: Once again I would like to welcome each and every one of you.
So today and tomorrow I am going to talk about a very important aspect in Buddhist meditation. It is related to developing four very important spiritual qualities in ourselves. They are called "The Four Sublime or Beautiful States". They are also called "The Divine Abodes", because when we develop these qualities we are like divine beings, like gods.
I would like to see these four qualities as our friends because if we can encourage these four friends to be with us most of the time, this will help us to experience a lot of joy and lightness and it will also help us to bring joy and lightness to others. To put it in another way, when these four friends are not with us this can create lots of suffering for ourselves and lots of suffering for others.
And these four qualities in Pali sound so soothing, so nice. They are Metta, Karuna, Mudita, Upekkha. So Metta is loving-kindness, friendliness. Karuna is compassion. Mudita is sympathetic joy. And Upekkha is having a non-reactive, equanimous mind.
Today I will be talking about the first two qualities, the first two friends, and tomorrow I'll be talking about the last two friends.
Metta in simple terminology means just friendliness. So the question is: where do we begin this friendliness? It is psychologically interesting that we are to begin with ourselves. I think it is difficult to be friendly to others unless you are friendly to yourself. A phrase that I would like to use is: Metta enables us to be our own best friend. But we don't realise sometimes that we can be our own worst enemy. And generally speaking we see enemies outside ourselves, and maybe all our life we are trying to find and get rid of the external enemies but we don't realise, as I said, that we can be our worst enemy.
In what ways do we become our worst enemy? One is that we can be extremely critical and hard on ourselves. The phrase that I like to use is: we give ourselves minuses - it can become a very strong habit. And when we have this habit of giving ourselves only minuses we'll also be giving minuses to other people. We can create a hell where only minuses exist. So meditation of loving-kindness helps us to see this very clearly, how we become our own enemies by giving ourselves minuses and giving minuses to others; and then we learn to see more and more the positive qualities in ourselves and in others.
In this connection there is a beautiful word that is used in the Dhamma, the word is rejoicing. To rejoice in our own good qualities. To rejoice in the positive aspects in ourselves. Now at this moment every one of you can rejoice that you have made a commitment as meditators. Seeing more and more the positive in ourselves, and learning to rejoice in our own goodness in this way can bring about lots of joy and lightness. And when we experience more and more joy and lightness in us, then it can also be infectious, it can also influence and inspire others to experience more joy and lightness.
In the Dhammapada, one of the most important books containing the Buddha's teaching, there is a very interesting phrase: that we should overcome our suffering through joy. Sometimes we are trying to overcome suffering through suffering. But when we experience more and more joy and lightness, then when suffering arises, when we experience unpleasant emotions, it becomes very easy to handle them.
Another aspect of rejoicing is that when we take to meditation in our spiritual life, naturally we learn to lead a harmless life, a skilful life, a wholesome life, not creating suffering for ourselves and not creating suffering for others or harming others. This comes under moral or ethical behaviour which is very much emphasised in the Buddha's teaching. And here again there is a beautiful phrase, I would like to use the Pali words, Anavajja Sukha, which means the joy and bliss that comes from harmlessness, joy and bliss that comes from a skilful and wholesome way of living. So we see clearly how from being our own worst enemy we can learn to be our best friend.
Another way in which we can be our own enemy is when we hold on to the wounds that we carry in relation to what has happened in the past. Generally speaking wounds can be created by what you have done to others and what others have done to you. In relation to what you have done to others, a very destructive emotion that we can be holding onto is guilt. And with wounds created in relation to what others have done to us, the emotion that we can be carrying within us is hatred and ill will.
And when we have these unhealed wounds it can affect us in many ways. It can affect even our body sometimes. We can have psychosomatic illnesses which are created due to psychological reasons. It can also affect our body it creates certain tensions in the body. And it can affect our sleep and we will be having dreams in relation to some of these unhealed wounds. So we can be experiencing sadness, we can be experiencing fear and guilt even while we are sleeping! And at the time that we die some of these unhealed wounds can surface in a very strong way so that we'll not be able even to die peacefully.
So it is extremely important for us to learn how to heal these wounds. Here again meditation of loving-kindness can be extremely helpful in learning just to forgive ourselves and to forgive others. Forgive ourselves by realising that we are human. Forgive ourselves by realising that we are still not enlightened, we are still imperfect. And in the same way, forgive others by realising that they are being human, that they are also imperfect like us. And this is also a way of learning to let go of the past, otherwise we carry this past as a very heavy burden that we are holding onto. It is only when we can really heal these wounds and let go of the past and the burden that we are carrying that we can really experience joy, peace and more compassion for ourselves and for others.
The Meaning of Compassion
Now I would like to say something about our second friend, Karuna. Usually Karuna is associated with seeing other people suffering. It is extremely important to learn to do something, to have friendliness when you see such suffering. In this world, as I said on the first day, there can be more and more suffering in particular situations. So we should develop this important spiritual quality of compassion where we feel the need to do something, even small things, little things, when we see someone suffering. One spiritual teacher said that it is not so important to do big acts of loving-kindness for other people when you see suffering, but the small everyday acts, the little acts that we can do are very important.
And this reminds me of a quotation by the Buddha where he was emphasising the importance of loving-kindness when he was addressing a group of monks. He told them that if you can practise loving-kindness during the time it takes to snap your fingers you're worthy of being monks. So it shows that even practising loving-kindness for a few minutes is really good.
In the same way, as I was saying, doing little acts of kindness, sometimes talking to a person, sometimes smiling at a person, such little actions even for a few minutes are a way of developing this quality. And when you develop this quality, wherever you are you are bound to see such opportunities; even travelling in a bus or going along the road, you're bound to notice situations where you can be of some help or show some kindness to others.
And I would like to suggest that you should also learn to relate to yourself with this quality of Karuna. When you see yourself suffering, when you realise that you are suffering yourself, you'll be your worst enemy if you're just allowing yourself to continue to suffer in this way. So having Karuna for yourself is trying to do something about your own suffering.
Now we realise the reason why these qualities are called beautiful qualities, why they are divine qualities, because they help us to do something about our own suffering and they help us to do something about the suffering of others. And here again, as with loving-kindness, when you develop this quality of Karuna and when you can see that whatever help you have given is having the desired effect, you can be very happy about it. And when you can see that you can do something about your own suffering this can develop lots of self-confidence, and you can be happy that you have found a way to work with your suffering and have also found a way to eradicate the suffering of others.
Tomorrow I'll be speaking about the third quality and the fourth quality, but now we can have a discussion, so if you have any questions please feel free to ask them.
Questions and Answers
Retreatant: I would like to ask if there is any limit regarding compassion and loving-kindness. For example, I have a friend who asked me to lend him some money because he said he was poor but I found out later that this friend went gambling. The first time I forgave my friend, and when he came back to ask for money, I gave him some money again, and again a second and a third time and forgave him. So is there a limit to forgiveness and loving-kindness and compassion?
Godwin: Very good question. Because in everyday life we sometimes have to face such situations. So it is very important to realise that loving-kindness doesn't mean allowing others to exploit you. This can be considered as idiotic compassion. In this connection there is a very interesting story. It is one of my favourite stories. I would like to share this story with you. It comes from the Indian tradition and the story is about a cobra who was practising loving-kindness.
So there was this cobra practising loving-kindness in the forest saying: May all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be peaceful. And an old woman who was collecting firewood saw this cobra and mistook this cobra for a rope. So she used the cobra to tie up the firewood that she was carrying. As the cobra was doing loving-kindness practice, the cobra allowed this woman to do anything.
So the woman carried the bundle of firewood home and then the cobra escaped but with a lot of physical pain and physical wounds. And then he went to meet his teacher, and the cobra said: See what happened to me! I was practising loving-kindness, and now see the wounds and all the pain that I'm experiencing in my body! The teacher very calmly said: You have not been practising loving-kindness. You have been practising idiotic compassion, because you should have shown that you were a cobra. You should at least have hissed! So in relating to people like the person you described you have to learn to hiss, and in doing so you'll also be doing a service for that person.
Any other question please?
Retreatant: Master Godwin, I have a problem I would like to present here. A couple of times in my life, in fact recently, lots of things were going wrong, things like losing control, and it was just like I was in the eye of a hurricane, spinning and spinning, or like a rat climbing on the wheel trying to keep up with the spin. I don't understand how my own mind could create such a horror. Do you have any idea what really is causing it and how to get out of it?
Godwin: So I would like you to meet with you personally and I would like to get more details about what exactly is happening, but in the meantime I might try to offer one or two suggestions.
The first suggestion I would like to offer, which in fact I should have mentioned when I was speaking about loving-kindness, is learning to make friends with such unpleasant experiences. When we have unpleasant experiences, whether it is physical pain or mental pain, what normally happens is we don't like it, we resist it, and then the result is we start hating ourselves for it. By hating such experiences, by resisting such experiences, by disliking them, sometimes we might be giving them more power and more energy. So loving-kindness can be used in this context by making friends with this situation that you are experiencing. A phrase I like to use sometimes is just to tell yourself: It is O.K. that I don't feel O.K. This is the first suggestion I would like to offer.
The second suggestion I would like to offer is that when you make friends with it, are open to it, then you can explore, investigate, learn about what you are going through. Sometimes we may have such an experience when we have unrealistic goals in life, when we have expectations how we should behave, how others should behave, how life should be. Sometimes we can be making strong demands of how things should be. And when these demands are met we're happy but when these demands are not met, this is where we start to suffer, this is where we start to hate ourselves, hate others and hate life. So with friendliness you can learn to find out, learn, explore, more about what you are really going through.
The third suggestion I would like to offer, which is related to the second suggestion, is to find out whether this condition is created by thought, whether it is created by emotion, or whether it is created by sensation. Sometimes when we have such unpleasant experiences it's a very good practice, as I was suggesting yesterday, to spend some time with the sensations in the body or with the breath in the body. That technique can help you to create some space and then you'll realise that these sensations are changing all the time. So if we can really be open to the sensations, whatever we are experiencing in our mind and body, and open to the changes, then whatever happens to a great extent you'll be able to relate to it in a different way.
And the last suggestion I would like to offer is: find out when you don't have unpleasant experiences. It is extremely important in everyday life if you are bothered by a particular emotion to know the times when that emotion is not there. Perhaps if you can be open to that you might be surprised that during the day there are moments when this condition that you are describing is completely absent. I'm sure you're not experiencing it now, for instance, because I can see you smiling.
Maybe one last point is, if we can learn to see such experiences as valuable experiences, as opportunities to learn, then it's a beautiful way to live. To learn from unpleasant experiences, to learn from conditions which we think are negative, to really see them as opportunities to use for our spiritual growth.
So I would suggest you try to use some of these tools and if still they won't work you can either call me or to come and see me.
I think there is time for one last question.
Retreatant: Usually when nothing happens it is very easy to say let's have loving-kindness to ourselves and to others. But when things happen, for example, somebody says or does something and makes us very unhappy, my experience is I get very angry, to such an extent that I completely forget everything about loving-kindness and I can't even sleep for a few nights, and this hatred remains for a few days. I want to know whether you have had any such experience. If you have, how did you handle it?
Godwin: Very good question. I'm happy that you're presenting very practical questions relating to everyday life. So firstly I will share how I work with such situations, which hopefully will help you to work with what you described.
The first point is: don't be surprised. Because as I said, we are still human, we are still imperfect. So as long as we are human, as long as we are imperfect, we are bound to get angry, so why should we be surprised?
The second point is: don't give yourself a minus because you are getting angry. By giving yourself a minus, what you are doing is getting angry about the anger and you're hating yourself because you have anger.
The third point is that if you are unable to observe the anger at the time that it arises, at least later on you can start reflecting on what happened. So why did I get angry? Why did I use those words? What really made me lose my control? As I said in answer to the earlier question, our failures can become very valuable spiritual friends. And this kind of reflection has to be done in a very friendly, gentle way rather than doing it in a very hard way, beating yourself and unnecessarily experiencing guilt and remorse in relation to what has happened. And then as I said in my talk, you can forgive yourself: I'm still human, I got angry, but let me see now when I meet that person next week or whatever, how I will be relating to that person. So then you'll be learning from such experiences, then you can experiment with such situations.
And if we need to have an ideal, the ideal should not be that we will not get angry. The more realistic ideal we can have in relation to anger is, how soon we can recover from that anger? This is the importance of practising awareness in everyday life. So that if you can practise such awareness, and as I said yesterday, if you can have a connection with your breath, then as you are getting angry the breath will tell you that you are getting angry, and with awareness you can notice it and that will help you to recover from that anger.
I once met a woman who had a terrible temper, anger was her big problem. I gave her a simple suggestion and it worked very well. I told her to carry a mirror in her pocket. And I told her whenever she got angry, please look at the mirror, don't open your mouth but just look at the mirror. And when she did it she was shocked to see the reflection in it. So whenever she did that she felt bad about how she was looking because she was concerned about her appearance. And there was an immediate recovery from the anger and sometimes she was even able to laugh at her anger.
I'm afraid there is no time left now so we will take a short break and during this short break, as I was saying the last two days, please move slowly with awareness and also please maintain silence and enjoy the space that silence creates in your mind. And please come back after a few minutes.
[ Break ]
Guided Meditation on Loving-Kindness
Feel grateful that we have this body, that we can use this body for our practice.
Can you see yourself as your best friend? Can you really feel it? Feel it in every part of your body, your whole being.
Feeling it in the area of your heart and allowing your heart to open up to yourself, like a flower.
And feeling yourself as your best friend, can you forgive yourself for any mistakes you have made in the past?
In forgiving yourself, really say to yourself and feel these words: May I be well; may I be happy; may I be peaceful; may I be free of suffering.
For anyone who does not have such wounds, you can feel happy that you have healed your wounds.
For those who have wounds in relation to what others have done to you, let us heal these wounds by learning to forgive others, by learning to let go of the past.
Learning to let go of any hatred or ill-will that you are carrying.
Can you think of those others and wish that they also be well, that also they be happy, that they may be peaceful and that they may be free of suffering.
In healing our wounds may we experience more joy, more lightness, more friendliness to ourselves and more friendliness to others.
Let us now learn to rejoice that we are learning to develop loving-kindness to ourselves, to develop loving-kindness to others.
[ Bell ]
Before we start to chant let us just feel the peace and the stillness in this room.
[ Chanting ]
May you all be well, be happy, be peaceful, and be free of suffering. And may all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be peaceful. May all beings be free of suffering.
Thank you very much.