Life as practice
In the last few years, I’ve chosen to use the Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s sermon on impartial kindness, as my principal text. I’ve been particularly interested in teaching the Metta Sutta because I think it presents an overview of the entire practice path that the Buddha taught. It begins with the challenging and inspiring line, “This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness and who knows the path of peace,” and continues with instructions for morality practice, mental discipline, and the cultivation of wisdom. I love that this text is totally unequivocal. The cultivation of unshakable goodwill toward all beings, “omitting none”—a practice made possible through the “gladness and safety” that is the fruit of firm ethics—liberates the mind from “fixed views” so that its essential peace is undisturbed. The English translation I use is 42 phrases long, and it delights me to say to students, “This is the path! This is the Eightfold Path!” Any one of the 42 phrases lends itself to discussion and elaboration, and in my upcoming Tricycle Online Retreat, “The Whole of the Path,” we’ll take a closer look at the teachings of the Metta Sutta.
Intention is the key to practice. Though the Buddha left his family and adopted a monastic lifestyle to support his practice, these days most of us apply ourselves to this same practice in the midst of our worldly lives, and intention plays a crucial role in the development of our practice. I’ve often thought about the meaning of the word practice. People ask, “How long have you been practicing?” I think we’ve all been practicing our entire lives, since the day we were born, trying to adapt to changing circumstances and trying as best we can to feel reasonably content. If we are lucky, it happens to us at some point that we realize, as the young prince Siddhartha Gautama did, that the anxious discomfort that we often feel when faced with challenge is a universal human habit of mind. We further realize, sometimes through innate natural wisdom and sometimes by hearing wise teachings, which mind habits we are able to change. We begin to imagine living our lives with passion and equanimity, emotionally responsive to our own needs and the needs of others. I think of this as the essential “Aha!” moment, a glimpse of happiness that is the beginning of wise understanding and wise aspiration, the intentional beginning of the Eightfold Path of practice.
In the Metta Sutta, the practitioner is enjoined to “not do the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove.” I love that line—it provides a basis for the development of ethics as a transformational practice and leaves no wiggle room for anything less than impeccability. I understand this to mean that morality requires wise mindfulness, wise concentration, and wise effort in addition to supporting their development. I’ve long held that any one aspect of the Eightfold Path is a holographic echo of all the others and that practicing any one element is the same as practicing them all. Wise action, wise speech, and wise livelihood are three Path elements, and they translate into the five lay precepts (non-harming, non-exploiting, using speech judiciously, using sexuality judiciously, and eschewing the use of any intoxicants that cloud the mind) that I encourage my students to reflect upon as part of their daily meditative practice.
The main body of the Metta Sutta mandates, in essence, goodwill toward all beings, no matter what. It is not unusual, when I introduce this teaching to a new group of people, that someone will ask in a voice that often sounds both incredulous and alarmed, “Surely you aren’t going to ask me to forgive So-and-So (naming someone everyone recognizes as a villain)?” It is difficult for the practitioner to imagine that it is possible to recognize that someone is dangerous and harmful, yet still to respond to that person with clarity and determination without arousing ill will in our mind. My father used to say, “I need to remember my anger to fuel my social activism,” to which I would respond, “No, you don’t. You need to recognize it in order to arouse you to action, and then you need to act with a clear mind.” It seems clear to me that metta practice, specific attention to the presence or absence of goodwill in the mind, is a subset of mindfulness practice, and it is part of what the Buddha taught as the third foundation of mindfulness: attention to the contents of mind. Using the four foundations (attention to the body, feelings, the mind, and mental contents) as the template, with an emphasis on “a mind that meets all experience with warm cordiality,” we see that metta and mindfulness are inextricably part of one another.
“This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness and who knows the path of peace.” Our ability to wish well impartially is connected to our ability to let go of the fixed views that cause distress to arise in the mind. I believe that the line in the Metta Sutta that reads “Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down” means that we must do this practice all of the time, and demonstrates that all of our life experience—our relational life in the world as well as our personal meditation practice—is the venue for practice. I like to think that the Eightfold Path starts and ends with wise understanding and wise aspiration. When anyone asks me, “How has practice changed you?” I reply, “I am kinder and happier. And I am confident that this is a universal path.”
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Sylvia Boorstein is a psychotherapist and a founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. She is the author of Buddhism: It’s Easier Than You Think; Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There; and That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist. She has been teaching meditation since 1985.
Image: Photograph by Margot Duan