Saturday, 13 October 2007

Spreading upward to the skies, and downward to the depths

I've been thinking a lot lately about the Metta Sutta. I've been chanting it every day now for several weeks, and have committed it to memory (pretty much!). On my walk to work, I find myself chanting bits of it in my head. It's even starting to turn up in my dreams sometimes.

The Metta Sutta is the Buddha's teaching on what it means to have loving-kindness, a thing that is in short supply in the world, and that I wish to cultivate more fully in myself. Lately I have chanted the Metta Sutta at the end of my morning practice. The English translation I use is, to me, truly beautiful. I found a recording of male members of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia chanting it in a Gregorian style It is sublime and soothing to the spirit. I downloaded it to my MP3 player and chant with the recording. To listen, click the link, but minimize the pop-up page so you can follow along with the text below:

The Metta Sutta

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skilful,
Not proud or demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

I'd like to break this down line-by-line and share my thoughts about it. I would love to get feedback comparing thoughts and responses to this lovely sutra. Let me begin by saying that as I was raised a Protestant in the Bible belt of the USA, my responses to things are filtered through this lense. My remarks are not meant to criticize anyone's faith. There is no comparison here for the sake of proving one thing is better than the other.

So here we go…

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:

I find it interesting that goodness is described here as a skill. I was brought up feeling that goodness came from outside myself, that it was something that I had to pray for, something that would be instilled in me by the Holy Spirit, if I asked for it. Lack of goodness in my behaviour meant I needed to repent and ask forgiveness and pray for a gentle spirit. The idea that gentleness and loving-kindness could be a skill that can be cultivated never occurred to me. I love this concept in Buddhist thought, the idea that misbehaviour (what I used to think of as 'sin') is behaving unskilfully, and that my deeds and thoughts and words are my 'practice'. It means I'm developing my skills. (And as Napoleon Dynamite can tell you, everybody needs skills!)

The path of peace mentioned here is the Noble Eightfold Path. Notice it is not called the path to peace. It's the path of peace. That's because once you get on this path, you have already reached your destination. (The path is: right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.) There are many sources of information about the Eightfold Path in books and online, but I can think of no better distillation of them than Thay's 14 Mindfulness Trainings.

More thoughts from me tomorrow! What do you think?

May all beings be at ease.

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