Heart Matters


What we are calling heart-matters are real matters; they are universal and personal concerns.

We can learn about these matters by listening to ancient teachings and we can also learn from listening to ourselves.

I suggest that these two must go together.


Thank you for the few minutes we have just spent being quiet together. I am pleased that we have this chance to meet and I am happy that we can begin our meeting in silence. When I'm in an unfamiliar situation with people that I don't know, it's helpful to have a few moments to feel where I am, to acknowledge that you're here too, and generally to become aware that we're in this together.

This evening I hope to be able to offer a very practical reflection on the essential aspects of the Buddhist Way. Regrettably, much of what is presented as religion ends up applying only to a very small part of our lives. However, the example of the Buddha and of those who have followed this path demonstrate that the essential aspects of this teaching apply in practical ways to the whole of our lives.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that often we are not even aware that there are profoundly important matters in life. The way we live sometimes causes us to forget that we really do care about certain things. What, then, are the things that we care about most? This is the question I would like to ask.

What matters most and is truly worthy of our attention? While much in life sort of matters and many people tell us what they think really matters, I feel we need to make an attempt for ourselves to find out for sure what really matters. The guidance given in the Buddha's Teachings supports this kind of inquiry.

It may come as a surprise to hear that the path that led to liberation for the human being known as the Buddha came as a result of personal life failures and disappointments, possibly not a lot different from what many of us experience. His investigations took place within the context of an elaborate culture with a vast array of proliferations on the theme of truth. It was similar to the context in which we live - where there is a tremendous proliferation of ideas, opinions and views about what religion is, what truth is, or as I prefer to say, about what really matters.

When I lead meditation retreats, I ask people early on to enter into a contemplation imagining that they are nearing the ends of their lives. I ask them to suppose that somebody they love dearly comes to them and says: "There's so much in life that appears to be important; now that you've lived your life, can you please tell me what really matters, more than anything else?" The aim of introducing this question is not to have people find a 'right' answer, or remember something they've read in the scriptures, but rather to guide them to a place where they already have a felt sense of truly significant matters. I'm suggesting that we have a dimension within ourselves that already knows that some things do profoundly matter. This dimension is a place into which our religious guides and good friends can lead us.

In the Buddhist tradition there are three things that are said to really matter. We could call them 'heart-matters', as they are said to constitute "the Heart of the Buddha". The first is wisdom, the second, compassion, and the third, purity. From the Buddhist perspective these qualities really matter and are worthy of our attention. Initially I'd like to talk about the qualities of wisdom and compassion, and then consider how further contemplation of the heart-matter of purity allows us to bring these other two qualities to maturity.


The Function of Wisdom

What then is wisdom? It's a word that perhaps appeals to us because it's got something to do with our heads, where we like to spend time, where we feel comfortable. We have been taught at school that we gain credentials by knowing how to be clever at moving around up there. Mental agility can get us lots of points, so perhaps we think wisdom is a virtuous way of being up in our heads. That's one way of approaching wisdom. But what is wisdom really about? Wisdom is something that we still respect. What is it that we respect? In approaching these questions I'd suggest that we begin by asking, how does wisdom function?

Firstly, I would say that wisdom functions by seeing through the way things appear to be to the way things actually are. In the Buddhist Way, wisdom is a matter of insight, a 'seeing into' how things really are. In the daily chanting at our monastery, we recite some verses about the qualities of the Buddha, and one of the words we use (in the Pali language) is lokavidu. Loka means 'the world' and vidu means 'seeing through'. It's usually translated as 'knower of the worlds', but that's not quite it. By 'world' here, we do not mean the planet. In the Buddhist understanding of 'world', the important thing is the inner world, the psychological world, the world we construct in our minds, the subjective world we live in.

So one thing that we could say about wisdom is that it involves seeing through the way things appear to be in the world we have constructed in our minds, to the way things actually are. I would say this really matters. It really matters because we are so easily fooled by apparent reality. Some everyday situations seem difficult because we don't see clearly yet these difficulties can lead to an understanding of truth. The legend of the Buddha's own life is a powerful example of this.

The traditional texts tell a story of how, up until the age of twenty nine, the Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be) was protected by his father and prevented from encountering anything seriously unpleasant. Prince Siddhattha, as he was known, lived then secluded from the harsher realties of life, amidst wealth and privilege with unlimited resources for pleasure. With several palaces, a devoted family, fine clothes, skill in the arts and appreciation of beauty it was hoped that he would remain contented with royal life and follow his father in service to the realm. But as the prince approached thirty something happened; for the first time he came face to face with the painful side of being human. On one of his journeys outside the palace walls he saw a crippled old man. And on subsequent occasions he saw someone who was sick and then a dead person.

In our world today, interconnected as it is by networks of travel and instant communication it is difficult to imagine the possibility let alone the consequences of being so cut off in a world set apart, protected from and, in effect ignorant of the realities that all human beings must confront. It was the shock of this awakening that caused the Buddha to later say that when a naive, ordinary man sees another who is aged, sick or dead he is shocked, humiliated and disgusted for he has forgotten that he himself is no exception.

Such a sudden realisation of the unavoidable suffering that accompanies human life raised questions in the young prince, as it does for us all at some point - questions such as, "Why bother? What's the point of it all if I am only going to get sick, old and die anyway?" Finding no answers for himself the Buddha-to-be lost perspective and gave in to despair.

But the story goes on; one day he also saw a renunciant, a monk or truth-seeker, one who wore the ochre robe, the classical Indian garb of renunciation. When the prince asked his companion, "Who's this? What's he up to?" his friend replied, "This person is in the same state as you are in. He is disillusioned with life and he can't find answers to his questions. But since he can't find answers outwardly in the world around him he has dedicated himself to looking within."

The example of the man in the ochre robe impressed the unhappy prince. And it was then that he made the gesture called 'going forth' which has come to be known as the Great Renunciation. He left his palaces, his possessions and his family to begin the pursuit of truth. His experiences with suffering had aroused in him the intuition that there might be something more beyond the way things appeared to be. Enthusiastically he then set out on his own search for a path that would lead beyond feelings of frustration and despair.

We could speak of what then arose in him as an inclination or intuition of wisdom. But it is noteworthy that this inclination arose by way of suffering. That is an important part of the story. This was more than an intellectual conclusion that he had reached. When he renounced life as it had been lived both his mind and his heart were involved. His inclination was toward a deeper way.

So he travelled and studied with the great teachers of his time. He became an outstanding student of what they taught. But for all his labours and theirs, he didn't find what he was seeking. There was no release from his suffering.

Through ascetic practices, eating little and extreme fasting he became emaciated and was dangerously weak when he eventually arrived at the insight that "this path of practice too is not balanced." Once more his intuition of wisdom drew him away, this time from any dependence at all on others, on any particular teacher or technique. He had initially left the path of indulgence in sensual pleasure and pursuit of the gratification of desire; then he had adopted the denial of pleasure and self-mortification, so this time that also had to be put aside. The intuition and urging towards wisdom brought him to what he could recognise and later refer to as the Middle Way.

Cultivating Wisdom

I am considering wisdom as that capacity for clear seeing, for seeing through the way things appear to be to a reality that lies beyond subjective opinion. This is the function of wisdom. And this wisdom can be cultivated by contemplating the truths passed down to us in the Buddha's Teachings. One of the things the Buddha taught was that there are many 'truths' which, if you contemplate them, are not actually going to take you to the realisation that you are seeking. This is one of the problems with religion, with speculation: that there are all sorts of fascinating ideas to which we can pay attention in this human realm, but there are only a handful to which we really need to pay attention if we're going to undo the tangles caused by our false seeing. This handful is what in Buddhism we call Dhamma: the Teachings which lead to the realisation for which we're searching.

Once when the Buddha was in the forest with some of his closest disciples, they were remarking on the vast proliferation of things one could be engaged in trying to understand. The Buddha instructed: "You've got to be very disciplined about all this. You need to pay attention to the right things." Then he picked up a bunch of leaves from the floor of the forest and said, "Tell me, which is greater, all the leaves on all the trees in this forest, or this handful of leaves in my hand?" Of course the disciples replied, "The handful of leaves is much fewer and the leaves on all the trees are much greater." The Buddha continued, "Well, so it is with the truths of existence. They are much more than what I've taught, but what I've taught you is what you need to pay attention to if you want to arrive at what really matters."

Briefly, let's recall a familiar example of one of the fundamental truths that is beyond opinion, and that is worthy of attention - namely, that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent. Everything that is conditioned, programmed, born, made or constructed will deconstruct or die. All that arises will cease, is unstable. This is given as a teaching, a wisdom teaching, as an encouragement for contemplation. A teacher says, "Stop and consider impermanence." You stop, you look around and you can see that things are impermanent outwardly, things are impermanent inwardly. The perception of impermanence can stimulate meaningful investigation of our experience, and this is one way of cultivating wisdom.

Learning to Exercise Attention

Another aspect of our cultivation is the discipline of attention. This means relinquishing the proliferation of thoughts, the temptation to follow just anything that happens to come into the mind. If we're interested in arriving at this heart-matter of wisdom, of seeing through the way things appear to be to the way things actually are, it calls for precision in the application of attention. Our cultivation of wisdom involves contemplating such things as impermanence, but it also involves working directly with our ability to attend. The idea that attention is something we can train is a fundamental and basic teaching. It's well known in all the ancient religions of the world that you can exercise and concentrate attention. This is the same as concentrating light; everyday light is useful, but if you concentrate it, you get laser light, which is useful in other ways. The common or garden variety of attention is likewise fine for shopping or reading a book, but if we want to penetrate through the way things appear to be we need to focus attention.

Sometimes we come across heavy inner conditioning and we know we must go into it. To go through to the way things actually are - not for the sake of mere speculation, but for realisation - requires us to exercise trained, focused attention. Learning this skill is an important part of meditation. If we're working only with an everyday quality of attention, it's no wonder that we don't understand a lot of things about life. It's like having a torch with weak batteries - no wonder we can't see the way. If we have good batteries, we can see more clearly - likewise with the quality of attention.

I'm reminded of once walking with a friend, from our monastery in Northumberland over the Cheviot Hills to Coldstream, hoping for sunshine and pleasant walking. But the weather was terrible, the walking was boggy, my socks and gaiters were wet, and I just wanted to get there as quickly as I could. I became intensely focused on walking.

Towards the end, as we were approaching the bridge which connects England and Scotland, I was struck by something on the pavement: a dandelion coming up through it. Normally, I wouldn't have noticed it, but because of the heightened state of awareness I was in at that moment, the dandelion seemed to jump up at me. I thought, "How did that dandelion get through the tarmac? Dandelions are so small." It struck me that, if it could think when it was underneath the asphalt that dandelion would have thought, "My goodness, this is not possible, it's too black and dense to even try!", because that was the apparent nature of things.

Fortunately, however, a dandelion doesn't think like this. It's in the nature of the dandelion to penetrate through the tarmac and to blossom. That's the way of the dandelion. It also happens to be the way of the human heart. Even when the apparent nature of things is so black and thick that it appears impenetrable, if we're present for life with concentrated attention, and not continually caught in our thinking, the heart will find its way through.

Wisdom - clear seeing - and its precursor, faith - the intuition towards wisdom - are what enable us to stay with life and to accord with our true nature, which is to penetrate through the apparent nature of things to that which is.


A Way of 'Feeling with'

Like wisdom, from one perspective compassion is just another word. Some groups hold it up as a banner and claim to have a monopoly on it. But nobody owns compassion. We could talk a lot about compassion, but the mere conceptual understanding of these issues doesn't take us very far. Concepts alone don't serve our true needs. We need to know this quality of compassion for ourselves, not just have ideas about it and assume that we know it because we talk about it. The Buddha himself said about the teachings that he gave: "All I can do is point the way. I can't become enlightened for you. I can't give it to you." I'm sure he would have also said, "I would if I could but I can't." In approaching this heart-matter of compassion then, let's consider it practically and see if we can move towards realising it for ourselves.

In this consideration, it is essential that we feel for what is being addressed - we need to feel for how compassion functions. We can look at the Latin roots of the word 'compassion' to give us a hint: passion means 'feeling', com means 'with', so 'compassion' suggests 'feeling with'. Compassion means feeling with life, particularly feeling with suffering. "If you want to know what compassion is," the Buddha said, "well, you see what's in a mother's eyes when her child is sick." The quality you observe says, "May you be free from suffering." Compassion is a feeling of empathetic relationship in the context of suffering. It means feeling the suffering of others, with no judgement, no barrier.

From one point of view, the capacity to judge is an aspect of intelligence. But sadly, when we judge heedlessly compassion is excluded, and effectively we bring down the shutters: "I don't want to feel what you're feeling, so I'll judge it. You're wrong for suffering." When there is this kind of judgement, empathetic relationship is impossible; all that is left of compassion is the word.

Unitive Intelligence

The function of compassion is to feel with the suffering of beings and it's useful to know how this and wisdom go together. Wisdom is seeing through, and with this wisdom there's an appreciation and use of discriminative intelligence - the capacity to identify and to analyse and compare. With compassion, on the other hand, a mother does not necessarily analyse the child's suffering. She responds. Analysis is not the essence of compassion.

What is the quality of compassion? It's a feeling-appreciation of where the other person is at, with an intelligence that is different from wisdom. It has a distinctly different tone to it; it's a unitive intelligence. Sometimes compassion doesn't understand anything in itself. That's not its function; that's the function of wisdom. Compassion doesn't have to understand. Compassion feels, holds and receives the situation.

We Western Buddhists are good at conceptualising things. Maybe some of you have suffered the misfortune that I have, and may even have perpetrated the same mistake that I have. When somebody comes to us in suffering the important thing is that they know they are received. They don't need us telling them how we understand their problem, talking about anicca or something. Coming out with some kind of impressive presentation of paticca-samuppada, (the dependent origination teachings) is probably not what's called for. If all we come up with is a clever interpretation of somebody's suffering, it is doubtful that they will feel as if we have offered them anything at all. We haven't met that person on a level that matters. Surely meeting on such a level is what religion can offer us: if we can't find an enhanced capacity for receiving suffering, our own and others', then what's the point of ou