The Way It Is

The shining-through of the divine

What is divinity? We may have this vision of a human being as being an instinctual being because we have an animal body with the same instinctual nature of an animal. Survival and procreation are just as strong in us as they are in cats, dogs and wolves. But also there is the divine. This is something that we rise up to or turn to; because it's not instinctual, it won't be something we'll find unless we deliberately seek it.

For reflection on divinity we have the four brahma-viharas, the beautiful, selfless qualities that can manifest through the human form when there's no self. When you're not caught in instinctual behaviour or emotional reactions based on ignorance; when there's dispassion and all that process of self-view ceases, then the divinity is obvious. Then kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and serenity of mind are not something that we have to get, but something that manifests through these forms.

In our lives as separate beings we relate to things. As individual beings we have relationship to things, we have to meet and contact and react or respond to objects all the time for the rest of our lives. On the physical level we have to respond to each other's presence in some way, either ignoring or embracing or paying respects or cursing. In relationship, when there's no self, then there is this divinity that manifests. So you can see that the human form is a form for the divine.

On the other hand, we can think it's just for yourself, 'It's my life and I can do what I want, I have the right to happiness' and all that kind of selfishness. On an instinctual level if we don't rise above animality, we can just live very much following instinct or emotion. Or we can live in a world of ideas, of attachment to ideas of how things should be, which is very much a problem in the Western world. But as you penetrate that and see the suffering that comes from grasping anything at all, as that insight brings about the letting go and the non-attachment, then there's a response to the way things are which can be divided into these four categories of the brahma-viharas.

Metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha provide a reflection: they form a sequence of how to relate to the human realm, to the animal kingdom, and to nature. Metta is very much how we should relate to ourselves, too. It's how to relate to ourselves, with kindness and acceptance rather than with aversion and judgement. metta implies that we accept something that may not be very nice - like if you have physical pain or things that aren't very nice about your body, or your character. Maybe you have a lot of fears or bad temper, or something like that. If you have metta it means you can accept these for what they are. You're not judging it, condemning it from an ignorant, self-conscious position. You're aware of it as painful, unpleasant, or ugly - but metta practice is the ability to accept patiently the flaws, the pain, the irritations, and frustrations within our minds and bodies and the unpleasant and annoying things that impinge on them from outside.

This is because with metta such things are seen as no longer personal, there's not me and you, no 'you've done this to me...' or 'I've done this to you.' Metta is having perspective and not creating a problem even about the unfairnesses, injustices, inadequacies and so forth, of ourselves or others or of society. It doesn't mean that we don't notice, or we can't see; but it means we don't make problems about it, we don't carry it around in our minds with bitterness, resentment, anger and destructive tendencies. With metta there's always the ability to forgive and start anew and to recognise the way things are and not expect everything to fit the ideals we have regarding how things should be. It doesn't mean that we fatalistically resign ourselves to mediocrity and tyranny and stupidity, but it means that we aren't caught in the pattern of ignorance conditioning mind formations. So we can bear with the vicissitudes of life with a kindness and acceptance.

Then there's karuna. Karuna is compassion. When we see the suffering of others and the injustices and unfairness that exist, we respond with compassion, but it's not like a wealthy person feeling sorry for the poor; that's not it. It's not looking down on the poor, not patronising or feeling sorry for people, but it's understanding the predicament of our human condition and all that goes along with it. It's from understanding the nature of suffering, how it arises and ceases, that you can have true karuna for other beings.

The British have a lot of karuna for animals, don't they? Britain is quite a impressive country when you think how much wildlife there is in this densely populated area of Southern England. That's a good quality: karuna. So Britain is a kind country, where people generally have developed compassion - concern for the unfortunate and the underprivileged.

When we moved to Chithurst there were people who didn't want us there; but most of the local people were trying to be fair. They had compassion for us in other words, a certain measure of compassion. They were not going to harm us or try to get rid of us even though they may have preferred a nice Christian monastery or nice, proper upper-class family to buy Chithurst House, a family who would raise horses and play polo. That would have been more with the general mood of West Sussex because people like what they're used to. But because there was metta/karuna already developed, there were only a few people that were directly hostile or would take any action against us. So one can regard this as metta/karuna.

Sometimes in Theravada Buddhism one gets the impression that you shouldn't enjoy beauty. If you see a beautiful flower you should contemplate its decay, or if you see a beautiful woman, you should contemplate her as a rotting corpse. This has a certain value on one level but it's not a fixed position to take. It's not that we should just feel compelled to reject beauty, and dwell on its impermanence and on how it changes to being not so beautiful - and then downright repulsive. That's a good reflection on anicca, dukkha and anatta; but it can leave the impression that beauty is only to be reflected on in terms of these three characteristics, rather than in terms of the experience of beauty. This is the joy of mudita - being able to appreciate the beauty in the things around us.

Flowers are a lot prettier than we are; we admit they're prettier; we expect them to be; we don't envy them their beauty. But we might really hate somebody else for being beautiful because then it's a threat. Somebody else's beauty makes me look not so beautiful. That's me, isn't it? This is to be observed; not to try and force a kind of false happiness onto the situation, but to let these things cease in your mind. To be clearly aware of this particular problem is to stay with it and not make a problem about it from the self view. Then recognise it as anicca, dukkha, anatta; let it cease; let go of it. Then, in that letting go, we find a rejoicing in the talents and the goodness and the beauty of other beings.

When you look at flowers you experience a joyful feeling and that's mudita - you're rejoicing in or glad at the beauty of something. Maybe you've never reflected like that. We see beautiful things in nature, and because they're no threat to us or anything, we can rejoice in the sunset or the beauty of trees and mountains and rivers. So that's mudita: a rejoicing in beauty and goodness and truth. And we rejoice in the goodness of others. When somebody does something good, or you hear about some noble action, or some heroic effort, or some self sacrifice, a sense of mudita arises. That's joy, sympathetic joy.

But where we tend to fall short of this is where it becomes a matter of 'you' and 'me'. We can be very jealous of somebody's health and beauty if we are caught in the self-view. We might feel joy at the flowers in the garden, but then we go to the neighbour's house and her flowers are more beautiful than ours. We might feel envy because from a self position it's: 'Her flowers look better than mine, and she is more beautiful than I am.' Or: 'He is better looking than I am, or he is more intelligent', or 'He has a better personality' - all this. So we suffer from this envy and jealousy. It's a very common problem; in fact, many human beings are really stuck in envy and jealousy.

If we were to go to a rich person's house, with its beautiful grounds, the swimming pool, beautiful oriental carpets, lovely furnishings, the selfless person might rejoice at being in a beautiful place. Or, one might think: 'Hum, wealthy people probably got it from cheating the poor and ripping off the underprivileged... grumble, grumble, grumble'.

I remember going into a church one time with somebody in London and it was a beautiful church. I said, 'Oh, what a lovely church'. He said, 'Yeah, it was probably at the expense of all those colonies the British exploited.' But I wasn't commenting on the history of the church, but really experiencing the gladness of being in a beautiful place. And yet we can think that maybe that church was built out of the slave trade, or the opium trade. Perhaps slave traders and drug traffickers in the last century felt guilty, so they built a magnificent church in London. Yet that doesn't mean that it's not beautiful, does it? We're not judging it on the moral plane but reflecting on the joy, on the experience of beauty, goodness, and truth: these are what bring joy into our lives. People that can't see the beauty of the good or the true are really bitter and mean at heart, ugly; they live in an ugly realm where there's no rejoicing in beauty and goodness and truth.

To rejoice in these things doesn't mean that we get carried away with them; the experience of joy no longer occurs if we indulge in beauty and try to grasp it, or if we hold on to the experience of joy to try to have it all the time. But mudita is certainly a part of our human experience.

Mudita is our ability to be joyful with the beauty and loveliness of life's experiences. It is the sense of joy and appreciation and gratitude for the beauties, and the lovely things of life, the lovely things in other people. So that when there's no self then there's joy; you find a joy in the goodness, the beauty of the people around us or in the society or the natural conditions. Once you have insight then one finds one enjoys, delights in the beauty and the goodness of things. Truth, beauty and goodness delight us; in them we find joy: that is mudita.

If you see beauty as something to grasp then it arouses desire. You see beautiful human beings, a beautiful woman or man and you think: 'I want them.' That's desire. That's not rejoicing in the beauty of someone; it is the desire to possess, control, and get something for yourself out of it.

On the level of instinct that's the way it is. That's natural enough. If we didn't find each other attractive no-one would want to procreate the species, would they? If sexual activities were painful and miserable, nobody would want to do it. And if we found each other totally repulsive and ugly then we wouldn't want to get close to each other, not to mention anything as intimate as sex. Desire is the natural way on that level of the sensory realm. There's nothing wrong with it, but there is the possibility for the human being to transcend it. If desire was all we were and all we could do, then we should follow it. But because we can transcend, we have this connection to the divine, we can rise above the coarse, instinctual nature of our own bodies and the animal realm.

And that's what I'm pointing to; I'm not condemning the animal realm. Animals can bring us a lot of joy. Down at Chithurst recently I spent the day with Doris, our cat, and I always felt her bring me a lot of joy. She's a very pleasant animal. If I get attached, however, I say: 'I've got to have Doris. I've got to bring Doris here to Amaravati. I can't live without her.' Then I drag her up here, and she would have to fight with the cats who live here and it's all just for me, just so I can get what I want. Then that wouldn't be a joyful experience any more. It would bring a lot of problems.

We can reflect on how things are affecting us. To always want mudita - the beautiful flowers, and the waterfalls and the beautiful birds singing - means that you can't rejoice in them any more because you're trying to hold on. You're trapped in all kinds of views, opinions about it, so even if you're in the midst of it, you're not really enjoying it, rejoicing in it any more, because you've been separated from it through your desire for it.

In our life as samanas*, contemplating nature, contemplating the Dhamma, we don't have to think that all beauty is just there to corrupt us and give us another rebirth. That's another self-view, isn't it? But be aware of how beauty affects you. When you see a beautiful woman or handsome man, how does it affect your mind? There may be the initial attraction and then one can easily get into feeling threatened and rejecting it because we have a life of celibacy. Or you might give a second glance and dally with the sexual thoughts that might arise from that eye contact; but the more you are mindful, the less you tend to follow things as desire, the less you tend to create or add to the feelings with desire and attachment? When you're mindful then you don't do that.

(*samana means 'spiritual seeker', in this context one whose practice has taken them to the commitment to a religious form of life)

So enlightenment doesn't mean a kind of bland indifference. Sometimes enlightenment is made to sound like we can become emotionless zombies, people that don't feel anything any more. Well, as long as there's self then what we would call joy tends to be tinged with selfishness; it becomes stained with our selves. We get jealous if we have something beautiful and somebody has something more beautiful because selfishness always turns beauty into possessiveness, doesn't it? If the beauties of life, the joy of truth and beauty and goodness, if they are coming from self then they're always corrupted with jealousy, envy and begrudging people. So if there's selfishness, even if you are the most beautiful of all, it's not really a joyful experience, because you are always worried that there might be someone claiming that crown. If you adopt a self-view there's always that possibility, isn't there? But when there's no self then beauty doesn't belong to anyone. It's not mine or yours, we realise there's not the possibility of possessing it anyway, so there's no desire to possess. So there can be the joy of the experience of beauty without it being corrupted with selfishness.

Then upekkha: equanimity, serenity. To be able to abide in serenity of the mind, we're not going around looking for beautiful things to find delight, in because there's no self. I mean you respond to beauty with joy but it's not something that you're looking for or seeking as a person any more. So that the ordinariness of life is upekkha, is serenity. It's about having peacefulness with the pains and aches of the aging process and the separation from the loved. All this is the realisation of upekkha, of serenity.

Upekkha doesn't mean indifference. Sometimes it's translated as indifference but it actually means serenity when things are ugly or unpleasant or ordinary. If you follow the asubha practices, noticing, paying attention to the unbeautiful, the not beautiful, then you begin to create upekkha, equanimity or serenity. There was a hospital in Bangkok that would get all the murders and violent deaths, corpses found in the canals and things like that. If you went in on a Monday they would have a collection from the weekend and a variety of gruesome, macabre objects that would first give you a strong feeling of revulsion. You'd go in and say 'Yuk! Let me out of here!', because you don't generally like to look at human bodies that have been butchered and mangled and are in a state of decay. Such things are what civilised society always keeps away from. We have all the institutions to take care of that so that it never has to meet our attention.

But actually if one meditates on it then the result is equanimity or serenity. If you get over the initial aversion and horror and negativity towards the rotting human corpse or a human corpse that's been cut up in an autopsy, the result is equanimity or upekkha, tremendous peacefulness and serenity. Not depression. Not aversion. When there's no self one can abide in a state of serenity. If there's self then we say 'I hate it, I don't like it, take it away, I can't stand it. I can't bear this. It's foul, it's disgusting....' But when there is equanimity, upekkha, there is no self. So one is not making problems about the process of living and the way things move and change and go from beauty to decay. With mudita you find joy with the beauty and when the beauty fades then there's equanimity rather than sorrow.

Upekkha is the ability not to follow aversion or be carried away when you see beautiful things. So we're not just running around trying to rejoice in beauty, or running around trying to feel karuna for every unfortunate creature. We can allow the waiting when there's nothing much happening. With upekkha one does not have to seek something to get happy about, or some cause to fight for, or have this compulsive activity which is another great problem for modern humanity. We try to use up restless activity in good causes, always involved in activities because there's no upekkha.

Traditionally, the brahma-viharas are considered as lokiya dhamma, mundane Dhamma, not the transcendent or lokuttara dhamma. Because of the way the mind tends to think, the view arises that they're not worth bothering with. 'Lokuttara dhamma is the important one. You don't pay much attention to lokiya dhammas.'

But with mindfulness, you're with the relationship of the lokiya to the lokuttara dhamma. We relate on the lokiya dhamma level through the brahma-viharas - metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha. When there's no self, when there's no ignorance conditioning the mental formations, then there is the way of things - the lokiya dhammas. But we're not asking mudita to be a permanent experience. We're not expecting to have a continuous, absolute, eternal experience of rejoicing and joy in our lives because we're not attached to that as a viewpoint.

So the brahma-viharas represent a spontaneous response to this experience of birth and consciousness when there's no self. They're a spontaneous response from selflessness, from anatta, rather than an impulsive reaction from desire. There's a difference between a spontaneous response to wisdom and mindfulness and an impulsive reaction to desire. The difference lies in that view of a self. In the self-view one is still grasping, just reacting impulsively with desire to life's impingements and experiences. When there's no more ignorance then there's spontaneity. That's what spontaneity is. There's no self in it. It's just a more and more natural way to respond to beauty, truth and virtue; or to pain and misery; or to winter, spring, summer and autumn; to the fortunate beings or the unfortunate ones; and even to the waiting, holding your cup of tea, waiting looking out of the window at the rain.

This is just a contemplation of what divinity is. If you reflect on the instinctual nature, the earth-bound body, its sexual desires, the procreative abilities, survival, eating, drinking, sleeping, all these basic instinctual necessities, there's nothing bad about them; it's just the way a form like this survives. It has to procreate itself, doesn't it? In fact human beings are getting too good at procreating themselves. It's rather frightening, isn't it? How many billions is the world population? Four or five billion on this planet? And if they were all just like animals, just operating out of instinct, that is four or five billion selfish, undeveloped, neurotic, screwed-up human beings. Terribly frightening, isn't it? Or take it to the opposite extreme - five billion enlightened human beings! Now that might not be so bad! Five billion enlightened human beings rather than five billion ignorant, selfish human beings. Five billion human beings who can manifest the divine in their daily lives, through metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha. That doesn't sound so bad, does it? Sounds rather nice.

But five billion human beings manifesting greed, hatred and delusion is a pretty grim picture. Yet we don't have the right to comment on them: this one here, this is what we have, this is what we can work on. Don't worry about the others. This is what you can actually develop through reflection and through meditation.