Tuesday 1 December 2020

Living the Dhamma is harmony

Have you learnt anything on account of the Covid pandemic? Maybe that hitherto unquestioned socio-economic norms (regular job, enjoying an evening out, travelling) are constructions, are more fragile than they claim to be, and aren’t something you can rely upon. But it might also be the case that your free time has increased and you've exercised more, or meditated more – my dentist remarked that dental health had improved as people now had time to properly clean their teeth! And maybe you’ve experienced something resourceful and generous about human beings.

As I've commented before, life in the so-called ‘real world’ has been looking distinctly unrealistic these days. With the trend towards ‘alternative facts’ we have been experiencing a virus that some dismissed as unreal and many even a hoax even as the numbers of the dead has been rising into the millions. Money that governments previously squatted on and haggled over has been dished out in all directions (including of course a few backpockets). But with alternative facts, conspiracy theories and political spin, what the future holds is anybody's guess. The American elections (if you weren't prevented from voting) presented a scenario of disturbing polarisation and reduced middle ground – all that everyone could agree upon was that things aren't right in the society; there's hardship, inequality, profound mistrust – and real or threatened violence between fellow-citizens. And in that regard the United States is not an isolated case; it's just more vocal and gun-toting than most. It seems to me that the social model that was launched in 17th century Europe (and was exported in a distilled form to the New World) is cracking up under its own imbalance.

The launch of this model was heralded by the Lord Chancellor of England, Francis Bacon, who in 1623 wrote glowingly of the 'scientific' revolution, by means of which Nature can be ‘forced out of her natural state and squeezed and moulded’, and ‘tortured’ until she ‘takes orders from man ...’ (De Augmentis Scientiarium). It was a statement of the domination paradigm and what it could offer. In 1723, the English clergyman William Derham made the point even more bluntly: ‘We can, if need be, ransack the whole globe, penetrate into the bowels of the earth ... to acquire wealth.’

Once the domination-exploitation genie was out of the bottle and backed by weapons and credit and effective logistics, it presented great gifts to its supporters. The planet has been ransacked ever since. And once one accepts the logic of Cosmos – that the energies and actions that we follow go within and without and in all directions – then the domination of the biosphere was echoed by domination strategies in the human world (colonialism, genocide and slavery), and by exploitation drives within the individual that push people's bodies and minds to breaking point in order to succeed in the market place.  Anxiety, eating disorders and depression blossom in the cracks. Yet, in the trance that the mass induction into this model brings around, we tend to assume that this is reality and that it will bring ‘us’ (that is, ‘my group’) to a better and more comfortable life.

However, despite its promises and rewards, the resultant social model has supported government by a largely remote elite, resources handled by a mega-corporations for whom we work and on whose goods we spend the wages they give us, the disappearance of the commons in terms of common unowned land, village halls and neighbourhoods, and the continuing reduction in habitat for non-humans. In America the domination by the European settlers met with ineffective resistance from the native people (crushed and consigned to the wastelands), and that trajectory has continued as the moral right to attack or undermine any country it chooses to. In Europe, domination was contended between the Great Powers – until that led to wars that devastated all of them. On account of which there has been an, at times reluctant, recognition that maybe co-operation is essential.

But that takes some doing. Because the model is based on the needs of my group; and that will always bring competition and rivalry. And yet ... the shared climate crisis; and yet, the shared virus ... and isn't it often the case that crisis cracks the old normal and brings out the unbreakable, resilient heart-centered?human. The fact is, that ‘all sankhārā (constructed phenomena) are subject to breakdown’ (the Buddha's last words) – and our mundane reality is a heap of these sankhārā – ‘so fare on with diligent attention.’ Accordingly people are beginning to turn away from the breakdown model. There are good signs: citizen's Assemblies (see involve.org.uk); local grassroots movements; neighbours helping each other; increased interest in Dhamma and spiritual teachings; care for the environment and wildlife returning.  Modest beginnings of a reset?

It’s also good to review what Dhamma (aka the Cosmic Order) practice is about, as the extension of contemplative truth into the relational and social domains. In meditation you find the mark of truth – that all phenomena are changeable, that awareness can step back and feel whole and balanced, that goodwill and compassion arise naturally, especially as a response to the truth of the transient, fragile, and at times pain-inducing nature of what we face and touch and are met with every day. And that the citta can develop strength and warmth through that. That offers an indication, and an invitation, to extend cultivation of mind and heart into relationship – the essence of the Buddha's Vinaya teachings. 

In Vedic culture, ‘Vinaya’ meant something like 'self-effacement', a reverence of the Cosmos that encouraged personal restraint and humility. As a development from that, the Buddha's Vinaya is the teaching on social harmony, within the fourfold assembly (monks, nuns, laywomen, laymen) and towards the biosphere in general. When you get that, and you recognise how essential this training is for any relationship, you get some ideas as to a reset that is line with contemplative truth.

A set of principles on relational harmony that appears several times in the Pali Canon (at A.4:32; A.4;256; A.8:24; A.9:5) comprises dāna, piyavācā, atthacariyā and samānattatā. Here's a brief explanation. Dāna: giving, sharing – resources, hospitality, health support, and Dhamma/wise advice. Piyavācā: gentle, ‘affectionate’ speech; speech that comes from the pure heart and respects the one whom one is addressing. Atthacāriyā: Meaningful action, service; an endeavour that serves the whole. 'One who doesn't serve, lives miserably' to paraphrase the Buddha – who subsequently spent his awakened life in Dhamma service. Samānattata: impartiality; to myself as to others; being a friend through the good and the bad times; seeing all one's honest and valid actions as worthy – whether they are acknowledged, praised or not.  Following these, one's heart never loses balance; one retains one's centre while extending it, rather than lose it in the worldly winds of praise and blame, gain and loss, renown and ignominy, happiness and unhappiness.

It's a motif that appears several times in the discourses , and like many Dhamma motifs one can expand and extend its meaning to fit the scenario that you’re practising in. And you can check out the results by reviewing your heart and mind in meditation.  Moreover these principles remind us of the true norm, one that the advantaged percentage of the world forgets. No, a roof over the head is not a universal norm – there are plenty of homeless people. Access to food is not a universal norm; neither is just and responsible government. Even where these still exist, we should not take them for granted; they can and do disappear. What we all always have is citta – mind, heart, awareness – and to not neglect it in the trance of social advantage and its conveniences, but to care for, clarify and extend it has to be what life on the human plane is about. It is only through this cultivation that we can enter a Cosmos that centres on harmony.

Wednesday 28 October 2020

Living in the real world

So what's been happening? Having been offered a three-month retreat, I emerged to find ... much the same; or a development along familiar lines. Estrangement - and connection: on one hand, the secular political field presents increasing polarisation and separation; and on the other the field of human goodness has extended via many neighbourhood concern groups, an increase in virtual gatherings and a softening of the boundaries of time and place and class. In my case, I've been adjusting to the pandemic situation with an increase in online activity. A supporter (upāsikā) in Singapore has invited and hosted global online sessions whereby I've had 300 people 'in' my kuti, from all over the world and in different time zones. It's part of an unplanned development whereby talks get edited by an upāsaka in Thailand, classified in California and uploaded onto the Internet. A small group of American upāsikās assembles a bi-monthly mail-out that lets people know where I'm at and offers a sample of Dhamma material. In the same vein we had an International (Sangha) Elders Gathering recently which drew monks and nuns from all over – ranging between one picking up a satellite signal from under a tarp on a hill in Thailand, to the urban settings of Britain, to monasteries in Europe, North America, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. Although such meetings lack the regenerative effect of shared somatic presence, just to see all those faces on a screen after a couple of months of solitary practice was a source of joy.

People sometimes ask me how to practise Dhamma in the real world; but Dhamma is the real world. It works; it holds together in a sustaining way through connecting to human goodness and truth; it’ s consistent; it supports life. By contrast, much of what poses as the ‘real’ world has been the opposite for quite a while, and now that's becoming more clear. Any system that extracts so much from human and natural well-being in order to keep running – to the point where homelessness, unemployment, inequality, and pollution increase; to the extent whereby mental health and harmony decreases and the natural regenerative Earth is pushed towards breakdown – can't sustain the wholeness that is the mark of the 'real'. Just take a look at the human landscape alone: fractured societies; governments in armed conflict with their citizens. From Portland to Minsk to Bangkok and Hong Kong, armed police in military-style uniforms face off against protesters in jeans and T shirts, waving placards; tear-gas, water cannons, shouted slogans ... The cries for justice and the loss of empathy speak a truth about the loss of the real.

The challenge of being a separate individual within a collective environment has always called for empathy –‘let's share’ - and justice – ‘we operate under the same rule and protocol.’ The normal range of empathy occurs within small groups, in face-to-face dialogue, in response to crisis, or in travelling and meeting those 'others' in their native lands. But for the huge daily-life span of the nation-state, empathy is difficult. So we refer to coolly 'objective' justice. (Which is a nice idea.) Without development however, both of these fall short. Empathy becomes sentimental and conflict averse – so we can't work through the gritty personal bits of why we disagree, confuse and disappoint each other. Justice falls prey to a legal system angled by professionals (who may have their vested interests, one of which is to make money out of adjudication) and vulnerable to political manipulation. But how else to manage a complex society?

The disarmingly simple approach of the Buddha is to encourage cultivation of the heart/spirit (citta). As a directed practice this begins with three wholesome and life-nourishing intentions laid down by the Buddha as sammā-sankappa: to not seek gratification through sense-contact, to not violate, and to not be callous. The standard understanding of these encourages the development of renunciation, kindness and compassion. But you could expand that a little to: centring on and clarifying the citta, checking the will to dominate, and cultivating empathy. The three fit together, with the slightly uncomfortable sounding ‘renunciation’ at the head of the list – because until one has shifted one's source of happiness, of identity and of orientation from the world that is defined by the shifting appearance of sense-data to the cultivated field of the citta, then instincts of aggression and the withdrawal of concern for others follow suit. Yes, if we really are limited to being stuck inside a bag of skin bombarded by sense-contact, then it would make some sense, at least in the short-term, to set up a massive consumer-accumulation program and defend one's own with all one's might. And some people do attempt that – hence the gross inequality and conflict prevalent in the world. Life gets to be all about ‘me’ and ‘mine’. But how real is that? The mind justifies the self-centred outflow as a path to rightly-earned happiness; its aggression becomes defence and standing up for what’s right; and when 'mine' becomes 'right', instead of mutually-attuned awareness, empathy shrinks and outflows increase. There's a lot of inequality, domination and exploitation caused by believing in this wrong 'right'.

The advice is to put a check on the ‘right’ that supports the outflow we call the 'real world'. And this is because as the Buddha put it, such a check is for one's welfare, for that of others and leads to liberation. And further: because 'I saw in unwholesome states danger, degradation, and defilement, and in wholesome states the blessing of renunciation, the aspect of cleansing.' (M.19) So... one works on letting go of a foundation of 'mine' not out of righteousness, or puritanical zealotry but because of experiencing harmonious, ‘whole view’ states as a consequent blessing. And as renunciation ripens into self-relinquishment, one finds happiness in giving, serving, extending goodwill, in skilful speech – and in solitary meditation.

The last source can be the trickiest – there's no-one to give to, to look after and support, no great cause to be set on fire with. So you don't get uplift from those sources. You're here with your body, mind and heart – or at least bits of them. And the bits that most commonly make themselves known are the unhappy, nagging or compulsively stupid bits; the stuff you wish would go away, the stuff you've tried to cure, the stuff you wish you weren’t. It's all as real as the 'real' world, because it's the hangover of that outflow; the performance attitudes, personal anxieties and unresolved energies are in the very air we breathe (or choke on); our personalities get built on them. So most of us begin to meditate with our heads in that air; it keeps one busy at getting somewhere.

Admittedly there's solace in that. My first three years of meditation, from day one on onwards, were spent in solitude in a small hut, living on one meal a day. Conversation wasn't allowed, there were no communal events to go to, nothing to do except watch the rising and falling of the abdomen and note sensations and thoughts arising at the point of mental or physical contact, and let them pass. Hardly gripping stuff – but it was the big project, and so I threw myself into it with the youthful fervour of one who reads of stages and breakthroughs. But when I paused for a break ... and the sounds of people outside the monastery socialising came drifting over the wall, the sense of isolation wafted in. And when my father died, the sense of loss. Duly noted – but the rising and falling of the abdomen began to seem to be a distraction from that sense of isolation, rather than the other way around. (After all, meeting that sense of separation from the loved is the Buddha's first noble truth.) And when I found myself getting pleased by the company of cockroaches, the bit that 'doing meditation' overlooked made itself clearly felt.

So how do you meet estrangement? It's of course a penetrating question to pose during lockdown, but it's more prevalent than either of these scenarios. When on retreat, I can easily be in my box all day with barely any contact – but that’s a chosen situation that I can move out of.  More telling is the sense of estrangement in daily life – as when being with people without meeting them; or living under a system that doesn't make sense; or recognizing the difference in realities, the prevalence of propaganda and deceit and not knowing where there is solid common ground. It comes with the mis-orientation of the real world. My sense and practice then is to not fill up the gap or gloss over it, to not pass through it, but to rise to meet that groundless space. If the heart can open in equanimity towards that, there's also an opening to compassion, joy and a deep appreciation of the gift that each human being carries. We’re both alone and on the same blank page at the same time.

Pre-Covid meeting
Apart from using the touchstone of community (which however spread out and virtual that may be, is an economic, and psychological necessity), my subsequent meditative practice is about opening to that uncertainty. It’s also about moderating doing; doing what it takes to maintain ground and mindfulness, what it takes to avoid compulsively engaging with (or repressing) mental states, and to neither give up on, or plan for, enlightenment. In brief it's about establishing a base and means to retrieve the lost bits and realise wholeness of citta. Then 'right' as 'sammā' arises – meaning 'fitting', 'in accord with Truth', 'well-set', 'balanced', 'in harmony with the Cosmos'. As in the world view of pre-mechanised cultures, the Cosmos includes the spiritual, the social, the natural and the supernatural – and it's guided by Dhamma. From that balance the Path arises – to configure Right Livelihood as a way of sustaining one's life in the interactive world. Aspire to do what you love. It's not easy; it has to be realized.

The foundation for that is to live in accord with a morality, and more than that, an awareness that is based on 'to others, as to myself'. As the Buddha did throughout his life, you work out the details of protocols based on that, from meeting situations from a place of balance rather than of personal definition or ideology. You don't need an identity to do that; in fact it gets in the way. But when you get the right 'right' then empathy meets justice – and the world comes alive.

Friday 8 May 2020

Lockdown means open up

For many of us, it's been a month or more of lockdown. And new openings. Volunteers offering help, free-will gifts from businesses, flinty-hearted ministers whisking credit out of previously empty hats. Screen-shy samanas such as myself have climbed over their techno-fear and produced online Dhamma sessions. (Lay teachers and Dhamma centres, more savvy about this way of operating, are now offering online retreats.) Quite an opening. I wonder if any of this can be sustained.
It would be wonderful if in the future, 'government' could be an activity, shared among a broad range of responsible people, rather than a power-attuned elite. It was notable how the more the governing bodies were led by 'strongman' figureheads, the less agile and flexible they were and still are (compare Germany's record against that of the UK, US or Brazil). I wonder if our societies might reset to increased local governance and a more consensus-oriented rule.
Some economic laws have also been seen as unreliable. Decades of operating according to fiscal standards rather than addressing the commonwealth through a balanced distribution of resources and increased social cohesion depleted our ability to look after each other when businesses closed down. It would be a salvation if the current economic model, based on consumption of the Earth's dwindling resources, could be reset. We didn't need to fly, use oil as much as we were led to believe. Unfortunately, it could be the case that in the interests of the consumer economy, the selling of the next generation's future will again be seen as normal, inevitable, and even our right. But there may be a broader recognition of the economy of giving and sharing – materials, services, healing, and wisdom. We look after each other: it's always been the safest and most crash-resistant socio-economic model.
What is more likely is that the value of mental/spiritual and relational well-being has become evident: on one hand the rate of domestic violence increased; on the other hand, so did the neighbourliness. So with that comes an incentive to cultivate the heart. And the Dhamma teaching has extended into people's homes. I hope that for many, this has been an opportunity for clear thinking, meditation, and a review of priorities. To notice what and who you can rely upon when things go upside down. Even more worthy of note is that things – no, all conditioned things (even my well-intended Zoom sessions) – do break down. In accord with the Buddha's last utterance: 'whatever is conditioned is subject to decay, practise with diligence'. So the myth of invulnerability, of being beyond Nature is foolish, and it was through hanging on to that that leaders of nations made failed or flustered responses. On the other hand, working in accordance with Nature, and acknowledging our vulnerability can make us more sensitive, flexible, and compassionate. For these reasons, co-operative dependence and vulnerability epitomised the lifestyle chosen by the Buddha and the great disciples.
Life at the time of the Buddha was risky in a manifest way: here you might see someone dying, here a worm-infested corpse. Brutal kings ruled, meting out savage punishment to those suspected of crimes. There was no state welfare; famines and little medicine; and thieves and brigands lurked in the wilderness, living off travellers who ventured onto the unpoliced roads. And yet, in the face of all this, some people went forth from the modest shelter of town life to live in those wildernesses, dependent on such offerings as might be made at a nearby village. Some went forth deranged by grief by the loss of a son; some with a spiritual aspiration that burned with such intensity that the life of the body was worth the gamble. To realize 'the Deathless', these few headed very fully into vulnerability – because with less shelter, there could be fewer ways of turning away from the naked truth of birth and death. It was not a suicidal wish, but one based on the understanding that through meeting how things fundamentally are, in a way as free from human contrivance as possible, a breakthrough could come around. But for that, one had to 'go forth': to move where there's nowhere else to go.
An understandable response to being apparently locked into a fragile and mortal existence, might be terror and depression. But the awakening memo is: it is risk, not security, that brings us together – individually and socially – in the richest way. It reminds us of where we really are, and asks heart and mind to bring forth their strength. Then with skilled attention, guidance and persistence, the contraction around holding on can be relaxed; the tendency to fear can be rolled back, and a heart so opened and revealed can rise up. With the shift to deep attention that this brings about, one can view the conditioned process as it is – and not as me, mine, a fixed or personal reality. That's a vital change of view. Just flip the pages of anyone's life book; get beneath the story line, and what do you notice? Changeability, the unpredictable, the unforeseen (good and bad): to recall that brings forth faith – be open and alert. A human life is also marked by an ongoing quest to find fulfilment – which hasn't quite arrived (and maybe isn't even near). Seeing that brings attention back to the present: what do you really want, and where will that be found? It's never in that ongoing flow of continuity that the Buddha called 'becoming' (bhava). What about if the mind stepped out of that, into the immediate openness of an awareness that isn't craving or dreading becoming anything? When you even review that tide of 'now I'm this and I should be that, and I might get there' you realize that this goes on irrespective of circumstance and identity. So there's nothing intrinsically personal about this book, and you don't have to throw it away and get a better one. The advice is to study it from a different viewpoint: it's written in personal handwriting, but bear in mind and take it to heart, that the marks of change/risk/unpredictability (anicca), of incompleteness and the unresolved (dukkha), and of impersonality (anatta) are universal marks. Through bearing these in mind, there can be a breakthrough to the unconditioned, the secure, the sorrowless, the place of peace. One can step out of the book.
As to how to get that point ... Motivation (chanda) and resilience (viriya) are part of it. And also faith: you stopped, or were stopped – perhaps in crisis or in inspiration – and something, or someone came your way. Attention was opened and made alert. So that, either through your own deep attention or the voice of another, you poked one eye out of the conditioned rolling on. With that eye you can see the danger of conditioned existence, and you look to building resources. And among the cluster of factors that you gather is mindfulness: which in the suttas is not a meditation technique, but an ongoing cultivation of 'bearing in mind an essential meaning'– whatever that may be. Most universally, the meaning is encapsulated in right view: there are skilful qualities, there are unskilful qualities and through non-clinging, there is liberation. Skilful qualities rise out of greed, aversion and delusion and attune to the essential openness of awareness. This will give you the right kind of strength – not the brittle shell of the strongman, but the strength of a deep tap root that's merging into the ground.
Seeing conditioned reality as something to rise out of doesn’t mean that you stop generating skilful conditions and warding off afflictive ones.  The Buddha himself spent all his awakened life building a platform of teachings, as well weaving the mutually-dependent mesh of household and gone-forth disciples. These conditioned structures, because they arose dependent on the truth of the good heart and the awakened mind, have persisted for the welfare of gods and humans long after his demise.  So it's a matter of what conditions you bring forth and where. Constructing more advanced ways of dominating nature or each other is a mission of doom. But the 'gods' of climate, of social meaning and ethical balance under whose influence our collectives form, could certainly benefit from reconstruction.  To this end, meeting how things most fundamentally are can bring forth our ethical sensitivity, wisdom and compassion. It's through these that the great Way has always been established.

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Spreading karunavirus

UPDATE APRIL 5. Currently many monasteries and Dhamma Centres are offering teachings via their websites or Zoom. Check in online for details.

So, the world has changed, we're in lock-down, and Dhamma practice continues with heightened focus. Covid-19 just marched in.

I just got back to Cittaviveka from a retreat in the Netherlands; one of the last creatures on Noah's New Ark after my train was cancelled, a flight to replace it was cancelled and another flight promptly arranged by the tireless, unflappable, and matter-of-fact compassionate retreat manager. 
 As the retreat contained people from New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, the UK, Ireland and the USA, there was quite a lot of rearranging to do. The teachers themselves (from four different countries on this planet) met briefly each day, to look at the new unknowns, return to the concerns of the retreat and its yogis, and open to what seemed best – for now. A sound Dhamma focus. And this was what we brought back to our students; creating up to four days of practice to facilitate moving out into the new world. So there had to be time to sit in silence as a group, grounding the agitation and anxiety with embodiment, and the encouragement to expand mindfulness around that. Also there was the invitation to feed back on what arose from that process. 'Compassion' (karuṇā) was the universal theme. Concern for others arose, particularly of course friends and relatives back 'home'; gratitude was expressed – for having the container of the retreat and the companionship in Dhamma; and in the silence and the restraint, there was a sense of the enormity of what all humans are involved with now.  This is the response from balanced and trained awareness. Other signs are not so positive.

As I mentioned in my September blog (http://sucitto.blogspot.com/2019/09/systems-breakdown-what-next.html 'Systems Breakdown'), when customary structures weaken or collapse, there are a number of responses that occur. And this is what we're seeing now. 'Fighting over toilet paper' is a laughable reaction; 'buying guns and bullets' is more frightening. Will food supplies last? When people panic, wild reactions set in built around self-preservation. More common is the loss of reasoned assessment – we imagine that the system or our nation can manage, this will all blow over and then it's back to normal. I doubt it. Our governments are making up strategies as the situation develops (or trivialising it), but this situation could go on for the rest of the year, and its ramifications last much longer. People are dying and will continue to needlessly die where there has been a long-term absence of socially, universally accessible welfare and health services. That has to change. Travel will have to become even more security conscious. Will we travel less? Will governments maintain their power of security when the police get sick? Can even the military cope with the civil unrest of millions of people?  That social unrest, especially in the USA where nearly 90 percent of the people possess firearms, is another disturbing consequence.

As I noted, more positive signs are already arising in terms of the movement towards compassion and sharing. To quote again from that September blog: 'An act of faith is definitely called for, along with sense-restraint and compassion.' Well, in Britain, the restraint with regard to theatres, pubs, restaurants, shopping and socialising, was first suggested and then enforced. When the known becomes the unknown, an act of faith can only arise with mindfulness: 'Here we are now, the future always was uncertain, we always were going to get sick and die and be separated from the loved; best stay grounded and open to what arises in awareness.'  But when proliferating emotions and thoughts are checked by that practice, self-oriented panic gets replaced with concern for others. People come forth with good heart. Members of Cittaviveka’s international resident community have taken it upon themselves to make the perilous journey home to look after their ageing relatives. As far as the monastery itself goes, we have removed our 'required requisites' list, thinking that it's better if people donate food to those in greater need. Throughout Britain, people have been volunteering at a rate of three per second to act as assistance workers to support the National Health Service (more than 400,000 in one day alone.) In the wider world, medics have come out of retirement; hotels opened their doors for relief accommodation; drinks manufacturers used their alcohol to produce free sanitary gel. Virtual gatherings were already happening the day before I left the retreat, and now online Dhamma programs are getting rolled out. (See your local and national Dhamma centres.) And as for the economy, for whose welfare we were receiving austerity budgets – that has had to break its rules. Money always was just a promise – isn’t it time to make it into the promise to support our human welfare? Can there be a discussion around that, rather than a decision made by a few? Maybe rather than return to business as usual, we'll have to make the economy (from the Greek 'house management') fit the ecology (='house knowledge’). It might be good to really get to know what our house is before we manage it.

On that note, the last comment I have to make is to reiterate another phrase: 'Maybe Nature, internal as well as environmental, is calling us out of our selfishness.' Let's bear in mind where coronavirus came from. Not to stop at 'China'; but to point out that covid-19, along with HIV, Ebola, SARS and MERS, is a virus that has mutated from a pathogen that infects wild animals (and that they can cope with). When humans plunder the fragments of wilderness that are left and kill the few animals that remain (only four percent of all land mammals are still wild) these pathogens transmute and transfer to people. With lethal effect. Isn't it time to learn something? Not just to create a new vaccine (until the next virus mutates and floods the population), but to call a halt to the needless and suicidal destruction of the biosphere. It seems that the wildfires, hurricanes and floods didn't hit hard enough; but now a grim heavenly messenger is driving the point home. We're creatures of this Earth: if we can't offer support, we have to at least respect each other's right to live. 

And yes, now is the time to meditate. The skill is to not deny fear, but to steady awareness in the body, then encourage it to grow bigger than the fear. From this the heart of compassion gains ground.

Some tips:
Sit steady and upright and establish your awareness in the presence of your body. Not in a particular spot, but in the living presence of being here. Shift attention away from agitated or tense areas of your body. Being with the tide of your breathing might make this more comfortable.

Draw awareness into whatever seems to be the centre of your body then, as things stabilise, relax whatever is around that centre. Extend your awareness to edges of areas that are tense and agitated, as if you are gently applying warmth to frozen tissues. Stay with this until your entire body feels balanced and at ease.

Feel to the edge of your body and sense the space around that. 
No pressure. Open. Feel wrapped by that space.

Bring to mind that the body is vulnerable and feel protective towards it. This is not defence – which operates in terms of fear of 
the other and what might be, but protection – which gathers around what is valuable and loveable.

Bring to mind other people, in their laughter, intelligence and sorrow, and extend that protective sense to them. Let the extent of ‘other people’ widen to include more. 

Bring to mind other creatures, in their living contexts – fish leaping and flowing through fresh water; land animals foraging, resourceful and alert; birds swooping through the skies. See them as intrinsically valuable and marvellous. 

Bring to mind the resilient plant life that feeds and shelters creatures and fertilises the Earth. See this too as intrinsically valuable and marvellous.

Consider any action that you can undertake to respect, protect or support others.

Friday 31 January 2020

The Presence of Absence: living with an empty space

Life at Cittaviveka over the past year or two has gone through some changes for me personally. It's understandable, since I'm no longer the abbot and have gradually segued into something, or some role, called Guiding Elder. It's a gracious, if nebulous, title. It began with the understanding that although I can pass comment, I no longer have a decisive say in what goes on. This in a way is a relief, because the realization that people aren't necessarily going to follow my views did allow me to express them more freely. After a while, it has more become the case that a good amount of day-to-day management isn't even referred to me; along with this, I have been able to move out of views and opinions to a greater degree. This is partly because of my age: passing year seventy, there is the deepening realization that the world and the monastery and the tradition will roll along (or not) when I'm gone, so why get snagged on the details? Why bother to formulate an opinion when others can, and will have to put energy into sustaining it? Death approaches, do the real business. Indeed, as the new abbot settles in, his encouragement is for me to define for myself what my business is. 'Come and go, and run your routines as you like.'
This is strangely disconcerting. I have no clear idea of what I like. In fact, I don't even have a convincing sense of what I am. I generally operate in terms of how to fit into a situation, or what works best for the group. So, being given free rein in terms of the monastic community, one consequence is that my mind expands to include the far wider field of Dhamma practitioners – and then try to fit in with or attend to their needs. Such attention easily leads me into taking on too many engagements and (my body tells me) too much travelling. Meanwhile, I look with a mixture of incomprehension and envy at how some monks can find time to go for long walks, even tours, or happily spend time 'at home' in their monasteries, receiving guests after the meal, tidying up here and there, and just giving an occasional talk now and then. But when I consider it, that's closer to the model that we see in the discourses. So, for myself, a shift of view seems to be needed. 
In a way, the shift is staring me in the face: when I consider the question, ' What do you want to do?', I find a blank space at the end of it. So, why not follow that sign? Maybe being blank for a while is the appropriate option. Indeed: Absence is a revered presence in spiritual life.
Strangely enough, my seating position in the line of bhikkhus in the Dhamma Hall is now up front and central, but not at the head of the line. Although I am over twenty years senior to him, the abbot sits 'up' the line from me. To explain: in terms of Vinaya the line-up proceeds in order of seniority, to the minute; the more senior you are, the closer you sit to the head of the line. This shows people who to follow. However, the role of the abbot is to show and inform people as to what to follow. Thus, when it comes to public occasions where the Cittaviveka abbot needs to lead, he sits in that 'top of the line' position – which is now off slightly to one side, in order to accommodate the GE (me) in a respectful way in the centre. As for myself, although I'm now in the centre, I sit in silence, a blank presence who follows the abbot's lead. This actually works well. It's quite a relief for me, as when I'm teaching, I am in the spotlight, and this can amplify the significance of even casual non-Dhamma expressions in a way in which I'm unaware – and yet responsible. So, it's great to be nothing much; quiet yet attentive, and on the lookout for what the abbot might need. This helps me because it limits the range of my concern: which is now to support the situation by just being present. I comment if asked, and, unless something is constantly being missed, don't comment if not asked. (Incidentally, I think he's doing really well.)
This non-centrality feels quite natural. Even when I was abbot, I'd place my seat to one side of the Buddha-image, so that people would have an unimpeded view of this object of recollection and devotion. What it signified to myself was that I was following the Buddha's lead. (Although he never said anything and had me guessing from time to time.) A question that sat like a mantra in my mind for several years, was: 'What would the Buddha do with this?' or, 'What would Ajahn Sumedho/Ajahn Chah say about this?' And I'd try to put my inclinations to one side. But when I review this now, that was still my inclination. And moreover, looking for an answer in me saying or doing something was my habitual focus. I could try too hard, and not let the situation speak. Things might have been better if I had just let my mind go blank and see what unfolded by itself. After all, it's never the case that nothing happens – so why force it? Can I trust my present Absence?
Such questions, or something like them, are good ones for us to bear in mind. Maintain awareness of a revered but invisible being sitting next to you, and at decisive moments, pause and float the question: 'What would he or she say? What would they feel if I did this? Or didn't do that?' The note of caution to sound is that such a being should be a friend, not a tyrant, and they should address you, not your query. They might well say: ‘Relax, the answer’s not here yet.’ And such a one would allow you to make the small mistakes of forgetting an appointment or a name, or coming out with a remark that touched the wrong spot. To these they’d comment, if comment were needed: 'How does that feel, when you review it?' 'Is there something to learn from that?' Such errors are anyway easier to correct than the big mistake of taking it all personally.

Having less of a function here does also allow me more scope to turn around. Behind me, the Buddha, the real Guiding Elder, is sitting upright but relaxed, with open eyes and mild smile. That's what he's modelled year after year. In words: 'Touch in with silence, don't fill all the gaps.' Get it? Full stop, period, end of.