A couple of years ago I wrote about the Brahma Viharas (aka the Four Divine Abodes, aka the Four Immeasurables) and their Near Enemies. If you’ve never heard of these concepts, I highly recommend that post as a more thorough introduction and overview of what they’re all about.
If you’re already somewhat familiar with them, here’s a quick table outlining the Brahma Viharas and their Near Enemies, the latter representing what can happen when we get a bit self-centered vs focusing on others, even if we start out coming from a good place. This table also shows the Antidotes, or the Brahma Vihara we might want to bring into our practice if one of the Near Enemies starts to take over.
Metta / Lovingkindness
Attachment to a person or a particular outcome
Karuna / Compassion
Grief, overwhelm, or despair
Mudita / Sympathetic Joy
Intoxication with someone else’s good fortune, choices, or life path
Upekkha / Equanimity
Indifference or apathy
And here’s diagram I created to show the same thing, highlighting in a more visual fashion the interplay between each of the Brahma Viharas… noting also the dynamic between interdependence / care / connectedness (toward the outside edge of the diagram) and self-centeredness / ego-clinging (toward the inside of the diagram):
I created another, more personal version of the same diagram after realizing how regularly I cycle through this exact pattern when it comes to social justice issues:
In my better moments, I find myself at the top right in the land of Metta: filled with a sense of kindness that emanates outward to all beings, omitting none.
But often, particularly when I’m faced with news of the latest injustice — someone has been attacked because of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation, for instance, or I perceive some community I’m a part of as not being as inclusive as they could be, for instance — my sense of lovingkindness starts to decay into Metta’s Near Enemy. I can become quite attached to views about how people SHOULD behave, how they SHOULD treat each other, how justice SHOULD be enacted, etc.
According to this system, that’s when I need to bring in the next Brahma Vihara: Karuna, or Compassion. Not only for the beings that I perceive as being oppressed and marginalized, as I mention in this diagram, but also for their oppressors, or the people who are behaving in less-than-inclusive ways, whether due to hatred or just plain old ignorance.
“Fixed” as in: permanent / unmoving / unchanging;
“Fixed” as in: repaired, made whole.
On this theme I present this timely and provocative conversation between Viveka and Paramananda. So much of what Viveka says (and not just in this podcast!) resonates with my experience, in particular:
Just because we’re physically together doesn’t mean we’re vibing together… Just recognizing that when we’re physically together doesn’t mean that all bodies are able to be there in the same way has been a huge teaching for me.
How can we actually co-create a space that everyone is genuinely able to be welcome with others, to be welcoming others? …There’s something about the beautifulness of our differentiation where we can actually welcome each other fully.
Their conversation takes as its springboard this poem by James Baldwin, which Paramananda recites beautifully (and from memory!) at 4:40:
For Nothing Is Fixed
by James Baldwin
For nothing is fixed,
forever, forever, forever,
it is not fixed;
the earth is always shifting,
the light is always changing,
the sea does not cease to grind down rock.
Generations do not cease to be born,
and we are responsible to them
because we are the only witnesses they have.
The sea rises, the light fails,
lovers cling to each other,
and children cling to us.
The moment we cease to hold each other,
the moment we break faith with one another,
the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
Here’s another excerpt of a poem, which I heard for the first time this afternoon. Apparently it is stenciled on the streets of Salem, Massachussetts in such a way that it is only visible when it rains, and I wish I could find the poem in its entirety:
All around the globe, Right Now, people are busy filling in the cracks of our world with gold, and I’m deeply inspired.
The world today is very different from that in which Buddhism originated and flourished… The challenge Buddhists face today is to find ways of communicating and practising the Dharma that are truly effective in these new circumstances. The situation seems to call for renewal in the Buddhist world, faithful to the Buddha’s own teaching, yet addressing the circumstances we find ourselves in now.
A problem of the dharma today is that it has become so limited. It has become constricted inside of a kind of fear. We want to maintain control of it, so we resist it evolving as it always has…
…we miss the opportunity before us to liberate ourselves from the obscurations that keep us from knowing who we are, from knowing each other, from knowing that our birthright is exactly love.
Obscuring the path of liberation for us all, simply put, is race. And when I say race, I mean race and ethnicity and heritage and skin color and all of those things that we have conflated into it for hundreds of years.
I am currently training for Ordination in the Triratna Buddhist tradition. After years of of studying with a number of Tibetan Buddhist teachers in India, Sangharakshita, a man who was brilliant and British, insightful and white, brought his unique vision of the Dharma [= teachings of the Buddha] back to England. From there, this vision has spread throughout the so-called “Western” world and beyond.
The Buddhist movement Sangharakshita founded is the Triratna that I first encountered at the Auckland Buddhist Centre, after a decade+ of intermittent Buddhist study and practice. I may just as likely have encountered it at the San Francisco Buddhist Center, or any of the dozens of Triratna Buddhist Centers located around the world.
I am deeply grateful for the clarity and accessibility of the Triratna teachings, and even more so for the beautiful Sangha [=spiritual community] that makes the Triratna movement so unique amongst all the other Buddhist disciplines.
I struggle daily with several intersectional aspects of Triratna’s culture, as it manifests at the more-distributed-than-centralized global and local levels. The movement’s history stings of appropriation, colonialism, and patriarchy. Formal Dharma study groups and people training for ordination are separated by gender, with no formal support for people who do not identify as “male” or “female.” At my local Center, due to the availability of teachers, it’s a lot easier to join a study group if you identify as a man, while many women wait months — and must make formal commitments — before being assigned to a group.
There doesn’t seem to be an accepted path to Ordination for parents of young children or people who otherwise don’t have the ability to attend retreats for long periods of time. The retreat Centers we use are not accessible for people with limited mobility, which means that many of our older Sangha members, and those who use walkers or wheelchairs, cannot attend.
There is quite an openness to the queer community. On the male side of the gender divide, that openness has bordered on (crossed into?) concerning abuses of power over the course of Triratna’s history. All but one of the authors whose work is disseminated by the publishing company associated with Triratna appear to be male, though it’s possible I’ve missed someone.
There is subtle scorn (or is it simple racism?) directed at “cultural” Buddhists, a term used for those who were born into the tradition without having actively chosen to practice its teachings. “They’re doing it wrong; we’re doing it the right way, as the Buddha intended” is the not-so-subtle subtext.
Triratna is my spiritual home. The more I learn about Sangharakshita’s history, the lineage of his teachings, and the beautiful and diverse people who are the embodied continuation of that lineage, the more comfortable I become with the late founder of this movement.
I would like to keep my eyes wide open to the suffering that follows from the many issues I mentioned above, many of which stem from the culture he created.
I study, first and foremost, as I am encouraged to do, the Dharma as formulated by Sangharakshita and taught by Triratna teachers. Fortunately for all of us, there are far more recorded talks and videos from Triratna Order members of color than there are written works. I am deeply honored to be able to learn from teachers as insightful, skilled, and experienced in the importance of diversity and inclusion work as Vimalasara and Viveka.
To keep my cup full, I regularly seek out diverse Buddhist teachings from people who practice in traditions other than the Triratna community. There is so much amazing anti-racist work happening in the Insight Buddhist Community in North America that Buddhist of any affiliation can learn from, for instance. I share these resources in the hope that we all can benefit from — and see ourselves in — the many facets of the dazzling Dharma jewel.
To the extent that I have the energy — it takes a lot of emotional labor! — I am committed to actively working with my local Sangha to build a more inclusive approach to sharing the Dharma. This includes regularly engaging with my friends and teachers and Order members and fellow students in designing new ways to communicate with and learn from each other. It includes doing my best to stay engaged, even when it seems as though my concerns are being minimized or dismissed. I try to model the inclusive behavior I would like to see.
I regularly slide into anger, into indignation. I skip right over “the gap” [between feeling and wanting something to be different] more often than I can keep track of. I wonder how regularly I break the precepts that pertain to kindness, generosity, and mindfulness. I am overcome with feelings of Hrī [=remorse] when I reflect on the impact of my unskillful actions. I know that my tone has many times resulted in people feeling shut down or minimized themselves. The cycle of samskara [=habitual tendencies] continues.
I try to remember that all things arise based on conditions. I work to include in my compassion all the people who “aren’t racist” but who do not yet fully understand their privilege or the impact of their behavior on others less privileged… which I do not believe is their fault; rather, I see it as a function of their own conditioning.
I say the name of George Floyd aloud, and remind us about the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, lest we carry on with our Dharma activities as if this moment of great suffering were not happening. Yes, all beings experience suffering. And we need to be clear that suffering is happening in a very specific way — murder, often at the hands of police! — for Black people right now. And that this suffering is related to the suffering of Māori at the hands of the NZ police, and the suffering of indigenous people around the world. And that this suffering is related to the climate crisis. And that our liberation is tied up in the liberation of Black people in the US, whether we choose to look at those connections or not.
This represents what is most alive in me today; tomorrow, I might say something completely different. May we all stay open to the possibility of holding multiple perspectives at once. That is, after all, the promise of liberation — of Enlightenment! — that inspires my practice.
Lately I’ve been wondering if my belief that I’m acting on behalf of other beings is actually a form of delusional spiritual bypassing.
How can we balance the energy needed to do our own work to address our own delusions, and the energy and work to support the liberation of all beings?
I posed the question above to Viveka during a talk she gave on The Buddha as Social Revolutionary; a month later, I feel even more strongly that we Buddhists could muster a bit more socially-engaged energy while we also use the tools for our own comfort and self care.
Check out her fantastic answer at 45:25 (thank you Viveka ❤ ) or for even more inspiration, watch the entire talk! It starts at 10:07 in this recording and continues for an hour:
I’ve been thinking about the difference between trying to let go of past identities I’ve held dear, vs somehow integrating them.
An example of a past identity: throughout my high school and college years I obsessed about becoming a climbing bum, and then spent another several years attempting to live out that dream in Yosemite and Joshua Tree amongst the climbers I used to read about in magazines. It never really felt right, and to be fair, I did a lot more hanging out with climbers than I did actual climbing. I hesitate to mention to people that I ever “was” a climber — even though it was very much my thing, for thirteen years! — because I’ve learned that people who are into climbing get very excited to attach all sorts of ideas onto me that didn’t even fit back then.
Still, I cannot deny the Climber in me. Whenever my body touches stone, or uses its fingers and limbs to pull the rest of my body upward, I am overcome with a strong sense of knowing: THIS is what this body was born to do.
It’s now been ten years since I attended my first Buddhist meditation retreat. The topic of the six-day retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center was Opening the Doors of the Heart, and we spent the majority of that time in glorious silence, whether sitting on our cushions, walking mindfully through the Fall-crispy-grass on the hills, doing our daily chores, and yes, cracking open our hearts, bit by bit.
I’ve listened to it countless times, and each time different sections catch me. It’s fascinating and humbling to listen again now, another decade’s worth of Metta (lovingkindness) practice under my belt, and still feel as though I have everything yet to learn!
Though the Triratna Buddhist community is my current spiritual home, I continue to feel so much gratitude for all the teachers of the Insight tradition who started me down this path. In particular, I am deeply grateful to James Fox for introducing me to the concept of Metta, and for encouraging me to deepen my practice by attending a retreat.
Saddhu, James, for everything you’ve accomplished with the Prison Yoga Project, and Thank You for inspiring me, then and now!
In most of the spaces I inhabited in Northern California, I had the privilege of being surrounded by very well-trained advocates for racial, class, gender, and a number of other forms of diversity and inclusion. The workshops, classes, community, and work events I frequented were excellently facilitated by people adept at leading the group through the setting of shared agreements. Once we had collectively affirmed those agreements, the facilitators and participants could lovingly but firmly call out — or rather, call in — any behavior that breached those agreements.
Even in situations where there were no explicit agreements in place, such as social gatherings, there was always someone more hip than I was to such matters who was willing to say something when anyone’s bias showed. In the rare moments when I did find I wanted to raise my own voice, usually online, I had people who could help me adjust my language before posting anything, and back me up once my words were out there.
These scenarios felt very safe and very comfortable. I benefited from the work of others; I could fully show up because I knew that what I shared would usually be received and held respectfully by the facilitator or the group itself, or that at the very least, someone else would intervene if anyone failed to check their privilege or veered into prejudiced territory, consciously or otherwise. And I trusted that my own missteps would be skillfully reflected back to me, giving me the opportunity to raise my own levels of awareness.
As I get deeper into my Buddhist studies, I’m increasingly seeing things through the lens of its teachings. While I have no interest in claiming anything as “Buddhist” when I notice resonance, I do feel a bit like the proverbial little boy who, when given a hammer, starts to see everything as a nail!
Consider this Chastity Belt song, for instance (and in case you’re wondering whether or not to hit play, that’s the name of the band, not the subject of their song… though that would be an interesting read on it):
I’ve been playing this song over and over in the car for weeks. When I finally sat down to read the lyrics (see the end of this post) I immediately thought to myself, “Oh! What a great representation of the Four Mind-Turning Reflections!”
I like thinking of the Four Mind-Turning Reflections, AKA the Four Reminders, as a Buddhist “Facts of Life” of sorts, designed to keep us focused on the things that are really important.
Here’s an attempt to paraphrase them into my own words:
Being alive, in this body, right here and right now, is a unique opportunity;
We’re all going to die eventually;
Our intentions and our actions have an impact; and
We’re fooling ourselves if we think we can control everything to suit our preferences, and ultimately the attempt to do so leads to even more suffering.
I’ll spare you my line-by-line analysis of the song’s lyrics but I’m satisfied that they cover off all four pretty effectively 🙂
Then this morning I remembered another song I’ve appreciated for ages, the classic Feel So Different, from the person formally known as Sinéad O’Connor:
The songs’ titles are similar, obviously, but they share a lot more than that. This one too feels distinctly “Buddhist” to me right now.
Is it though? I have no idea how she identified when she wrote Feel So Different nearly 30 years ago (and she recently converted to Islam) so I can only guess: probably not, and it doesn’t matter; I care a lot less about assigning labels, and a lot more about appreciating reminders to stay awake to my life’s priorities, no matter what form they take.