July  2001 
 2544  Number 57 


Reflecting on Kindness; Ajahn Candasiri
Staying at Home; Aj. Amaro chats with Aj. Sucitto
Interconnectedness; Sister Thaniya


Reflecting on kindness
Talk by Ajahn Candasiri given at Amaravati on 15th August 2000

One of the things that most interests me is a sense of well-being. So I thought this evening to reflect on a chant that we do very frequently in the community. The Pali is Aham sukhito homi, niddukkho homi, avero homi, abyapajjho homi, anigho homi, sukhi attanam pariharami - 'May I abide in well-being, in freedom from affliction, in freedom from hostility, in freedom from ill-will, in freedom from anxiety, and may I maintain well-being in myself.'


...its about creating the causes for a sense of blessing to arise, and then really allowing ourselves to enjoy that sense of blessing, that sense of well-being.

The translation that's given for the word, sukhito, is 'happy' or 'blessed' - a sense of blessedness, or being blessed. This is something we can consider. We might see it as being something to do with angels and saints and special people. But we can also consider, in what sense are we blessed? Is it something that we can actually bring about, just through the way that we live our lives at the most ordinary level of human existence?

For example, the practice of generosity, which may involve something as simple as having time for each other, really listening to one another. I don't like talking to people when I feel that they haven't got time for me. I'd rather not bother. But, on the other hand, there is an extraordinary feeling that comes when I sense that somebody is able to take time to give full attention to me. It might just be a couple of minutes, but the sense that the person is actually right there and able to be with me - I find that incredibly nourishing when people can do this. And I realise perhaps that when I can do it for other people, that's something they find nourishing.

I think we can solve a lot of problems for each other just by being able to do this - that it can bring about a kind of healing. This is a form of generosity, one that we can easily underestimate the value of.

We can also reflect on the goodness, or virtue, of our lives. This is another source of blessing - sila: the way that we hold the precepts that we have, how we use and apply them in our lives. This is another thing that can bring a feeling of well-being. We can take care to avoid harming anything, even a mosquito or a slug or a spider that we might not like particularly - that we are frightened of, or find repulsive. It too wants to live, it too wants to be well. Gradually, what arises when we live carefully and responsibly in this way is a sense of gladness, which is perhaps what we mean by this feeling of being blessed. It's a feeling of gladness and rejoicing in the presence of other beings - in their welfare and happiness. So even very very simple beginnings in generosity, kindliness, upholding a precept structure are a foundation for a sense of blessing that we can enjoy in our lives.

We're not very used to enjoying these kinds of things, because usually we think about our unworthiness - our faults and our failures - rather than our worthiness. It's almost as if there's a fear that we might get complacent or swollen-headed if we start thinking about how good we are! But I think that if we don't do this, we're missing out on something very important and precious in our lives. It's very important to enjoy life.

We tend to think of enjoyment as being selfish or indulgent or unskilful - but what I'm talking about is the skilful enjoyment of life. So when we chant, 'May I abide in well-being' - aham sukhito homi - 'may I have an experience of blessing and happiness in my life' - it's not just wishful thinking. It's about creating the causes for a sense of blessing to arise, and then really allowing ourselves to enjoy that sense of blessing, that sense of well-being. It's quite legitimate to enjoy the blessings of virtue and generosity!

When we go on our alms-round, I sometimes think, 'What on earth am I doing?... This is crazy, going along and depending on people to get my meal today.' But then behind that, there's the thought: 'I'm giving people an opportunity to do something that's going to make them happy: to practise generosity, putting something into my alms-bowl that will not only nourish me but will also nourish their own hearts.' As any of you who've participated in this will know, we stand in a place where people can ignore us and pass by - and most people do. But with the ones that actually do come up and offer something there's always a feeling of happiness, almost a sense of fun doing something a little out of the ordinary. Even when I did this in India and had beggars putting food in my bowl, it was quite amazing to see the happiness that it brought them, sharing out the little biscuits or bread that they had.

So next we have: niddukkho homi - 'May I abide in freedom from affliction, in freedom from suffering'. We can tend to think that this means: 'Can I please avoid suffering. I don't want suffering, I don't like suffering - may I live free from suffering, not having suffering.' And it would be very nice, wouldn't it, if we could live free from suffering, without suffering. But actually it requires quite a lot of wise reflection to live free from suffering - and there are certain sufferings that we can't avoid. We can't avoid the sufferings of old age, sickness, death, the death of those that we love. Then there's bodily discomfort and pain. However, there is also a suffering that we can avoid; but it takes practice. It takes wise reflection, it takes effort and understanding.

There is the suffering that is because of wanting things to be other than the way they are. We can suffer because of wanting to have a position, to be somebody in relation to somebody else; wanting to have our own way; wanting people to agree with us; wanting people to like us; wanting to succeed, not wanting to fail; not wanting to be disappointed or hurt... The list is endless isn't it? But the cure is very simple, once we get the hang of it - learning how to let go of desire.

It's a life-time's practice, it doesn't just happen. But we can learn how to see things in accordance with Dhamma, rather than in accordance with our ideas, our conditioning; with our wishes, our hopes and longings. We can learn how to see things in accordance with reality, so that we don't pin our hopes, our aspiration, on things that can never satisfy, can never heal us or bring us a lasting sense of happiness and peace. So - niddukkho homi - 'freedom from affliction' - it's something that is attainable, but it does, like everything else, require effort, require reflection and understanding.

Then how do we let go of hostility and ill-will?... Avero homi, abyapajjho homi: ill-will, malevolence, vengefulness, resentment, bitterness - all of these things that cause us misery? Often we don't even see that they're causing us suffering. People can spend hours feeling resentful about being slighted or ignored or hurt by somebody else. Sometimes it can go on even longer - days, weeks, months, years! Sometimes, our grumbling can bring a kind of gratification, a feeling of righteousness - of being right, and someone else or the situation being wrong - but is that really happiness? Is that really well-being? When I look into my own heart, I see that, 'No, it's not. It's not really what I want. It's not really how I want to live my life.'

This is very important. Sometimes we're not even aware of our mental habits. Particularly, I've found, I can be quite unaware of how I relate to myself - the sense of criticism, judgement, ill-will that I can bear towards this being here. I've noticed that there is a tendency to judge and undermine myself when I make a mistake. It's like having a rather mean parrot sitting on my shoulder, whispering: 'You're no good. You could have done that better. Why did you do that?... Why did you say that?... She's much better than you; you should be like her - but you couldn't be, you're hopeless...' Probably each of you has a slightly different voice inside - your's might be saying it in German, French, Japanese or Chinese. Whatever language it is, it's still the same message. It still burrows away into any sense of well-being, blessedness, or happiness.

I remember one time at Chithurst I was having a retreat, and I was going through the pattern 'You're no good. You should be able to meditate better. You'll never be any good... all these years you've been practising, and still you can't concentrate. Your mind's all over the place. You're lazy!' - all that stuff. I remember just contemplating this mild misery. It was just before the meal-time. I was standing by the back door, feeling mildly miserable, and I began to reflect on one of the qualities of the Buddha: 'bhagava', which means 'blessed one', and I was thinking about what being blessed was: a feeling of fullness, of happiness - and thinking: 'Well, you're not feeling very full and happy, are you?...'

I saw that this rather pathetic, miserable, empty feeling was completely the opposite of feeling blessed. I began to see what I was doing to myself. There was no-one else doing it to me - it was something that was coming from my own mind, and I realised it was there quite a lot of the time. I saw at that point that I had a choice. I could actually choose whether to continue to live with this mild misery, or to consciously generate a sense of well-being, or blessedness, that was free from this negativity. I thought, 'Well, that's not how I relate to other people. If someone comes to me, and tells me that their meditation is no good, or that they don't feel worthy I don't say to them: 'Well, that's true. You're not really very good, are you?...' Usually, I say to them: 'That's all right. Don't worry. You're doing the best you can. Keep on trying. Contemplate the goodness of your life, and realise that actually you're doing very well - look at how most people are living.' I talk to people in positive encouraging ways. I realised that I can do that to myself as well, rather than being so mean and critical and nasty. So we can learn how to relate to ourselves in more loving and positive ways. Rather than waiting for someone else to come along and encourage us. We can do this for ourselves.

We also need to be very careful about the ill-will that we can harbour towards one another - particularly when we're right! Maybe someone is making a complete mess of things, and really being quite unskilful in the way that they're living... Well, what's a skilful response to that?

I remember years ago at the time of the Gulf War, Luang Por would listen to the news, and each day, he would tell us about what was happening during this war. He talked about Saddam Hussein, who was definitely being portrayed as the villain. I noticed in my own heart a tendency to feel a lot of anger, a lot of righteousness, indignation - even quite powerful rage in relation to this human being, who seemed to be causing so much harm to others.

So as I reflected on this, I thought: 'Well, is this vengefulness the most skilful response?' There was a feeling of wanting to punish him in some way for the things he was doing. I wanted to make sure he got what he deserved: 'Well, he deserves something really horrible. It's up to me to make sure he gets it!' It was a very powerful feeling. I've had it in relation to other people as well - this sense that it's up to me to punish and bring about justice. So, it can happen in extreme ways, quite obvious ways; but it can also happen in quite subtle ways. I've also noticed it in relation to little things that can happen in the monastery - somebody consistently not turning up for the washing up, or not coming to pja, or getting things wrong - I can have a similar feeling of indignation.

There's a story that I often tell. Many years ago in Chithurst, when I was an anagarika, I was in the kitchen making tea one day. It was winter time and the kitchen scene at Chithurst used to be very nice, because it was a place where it was warm - everywhere else was cold and damp. Ajahn Anando, who was the senior monk at that particular time, came into the kitchen - he'd obviously been having a very difficult time with somebody; he looked at me, sighed, and said: 'Thank goodness I don't have to be concerned with sorting out other people's kamma!' I've reflected on that a lot - the feeling of having to sort people out, and make sure they get their just deserts. But actually we don't have to do that, it's not up to us to punish, or blame, or to take revenge - any of that. We don't have to do it, we can let go of that. Such a relief. This law of kamma, it takes care of everything. Nobody gets away with anything.

So the good news is that it's not up to us to sort it out. Our duty is to maintain a sense of ease and well-being. Our duty is to free the heart from suffering. Our duty is to realise complete liberation. That's our duty. Our duty isn't to fall into hell over somebody else's misdeed - we don't have to do that. We have a choice. We don't have to stay, to linger in states of resentment, bitterness or cruelty. The Buddha talks about this in the Dhammapada; he says that hatred never ceases by hatred. If you keep thinking about somebody who's abused you, hurt you, robbed you, beaten you up, done whatever it is, had it in for you - you're not going to find happiness by thinking in those ways. This doesn't bring us a sense of happiness and well-being. With mindfulness, we realise we have a choice. We don't have to linger in these states. We can let them go.

But sometimes it's not so easy, is it? These thoughts can really get under the skin and obsess the mind. It's at those times that we need to really bring out our tool-kit - I often see the Buddha's teachings as a tool-kit of techniques for dealing with particular difficulties. There's a very good tool-kit for obsessive unskilful thoughts of one kind or another. But of course we have to recognise them as being unskilful, don't we? And that, in itself, is a very important first step.

Sometimes people become quite overwhelmed when they start to recognise these things. They think, 'Oh, I thought I was such a nice person before I started to meditate, and now I see all these mean nasty thoughts and unskilful habits. But you can't begin to cure the disease until you recognise that you have it. So when people come to me with these kind of tales: 'I didn't realise how awful I was,' I say, 'Well that's a great blessing to realise how awful you are! Now you can begin to do something about it. It's a great great blessing that at last these things are beginning to come out into the light - the dust, the cobwebs, the nasty smelly bits.' So the first step is to recognise it, without tumbling into further aversion and despair and misery; to see it in a positive way: 'Ah, OK - now let's see what we can do about it.'

Firstly, it's important to see that we don't have to think these thoughts. We don't have to carry these things around. We can set them to one side. That's one skilful means: to realise that we have a choice.

When the thought arises, we can put our attention somewhere else. Sometimes people say, 'Well, isn't that repressing?' - but is it? We've recognised it, we've acknowledged it, we've seen the harmfulness of it. Now it's time to allow it to cease, to let it go - turning our attention to the silence, or to the body. Let go of all our thoughts, all our concerns - just feel the contact with the floor to really feel the breath, the body breathing... These are things we can do, aren't they? And even if we can only do it for a moment - before the obsessive, mean, nasty thought comes back again - just that moment is a powerful piece of ammunition in diminishing the power of the obsessive thinking. It puts a real dent into the mean, vengeful storyline that we've got going. So we can just take a moment to enjoy the breath, to feel the body, rather than allowing the obsession to completely occupy, to fill our whole mind space.

Another thing we can do is to notice the space around or between thoughts, or to replace a mean thought with a kind thought, say, by trying to see things from the other person's point of view. We can try to tune into their suffering. Like with Saddam Hussein - I'd think, 'Well, he's a human being. He wants to be happy, but he's certainly going to have to pay a really horrible price for this cruelty he's inflicting on others.' Just seeing that he doesn't want to suffer - and he's going to suffer; that brings a sense of compassion straight away into the heart. It's not condoning the cruelty, the unskilfulness of somebody's life; but rather, it's replacing our own vengeful, mean, nasty thoughts that are sapping our sense of well-being with something that is more wholesome.

When we chant the sharing of blessings, the goodness of our lives with 'virtuous leaders of the world', people sometimes comment: 'But many leaders of the world don't seem to be particularly virtuous. Many of them seem just to want a lot of power; they do quite awful things.' But I'm interested in helping them to be wiser, in helping them to be happy. I know, myself, that if I'm not happy, I'm not very wise, I'm not very mindful. If there's a feeling of tension or fear, there's not much mindfulness and so I tend to make mistakes, to be mean, narrow-minded, selfish, frightened. Skilfulness comes from a sense of well-being. When people are kind to me, when I'm kind to myself, then I'm naturally more kind to others, naturally more in tune with other beings and their needs. So I'm quite happy to share any blessings of my life with dictators and foolish selfish people, because I see they need all the blessings they can get!

Then, anigho homi - freedom from anxiety: worry, too, can undermine our sense of well- being. These last couple of days I've had quite good reason to be anxious, as my eighty-six year-old father needed to have an operation under a general anaesthetic. So it was quite reasonable to feel concerned and anxious about him in hospital. 'He's quite old now - and will he survive the operation?...' These things. But I knew actually that worry wasn't going to help: it certainly wasn't helping me, and I also had a sense that it wasn't really helping him either. I was quite interested in the distinction between concern and worry. Worry seems to me to be quite unwholesome - it's like an obsession: worry, worry, worry! And I noticed that when I wasn't being mindful, the mind very naturally went into worry - imagining the worst possible scenario. Whereas concern was more, 'Well, I am concerned. There's a reason to be concerned, but what's the skilful thing to do in response to this?'

So I decided that whenever the mind was beginning to go into worry - beginning to imagine the worst scenario - that I would use my imagination, the power of the mind, to imagine a different scenario. I phoned my brother yesterday evening, and he told me that my father still hadn't come out of the operating theatre; he'd been there for quite a long time - longer than expected - and my mother was a bit worried. So then, instead of worrying, I deliberately thought: 'Well, it is a very delicate operation. Probably it's just taking a bit longer, and he's actually making a very good recovery. He's doing really well.' And so as I was on my walking path, I just kept thinking: 'He's doing very well, he's getting better' rather than, 'Well, maybe he's died... and they'll be telling my mother...' It was very easy for the mind to go into that, but every time it did, I'd deliberately think: 'Actually he's making a really good recovery, he's doing really well...'

How much of our lives do we spend worrying about things, being anxious about things that haven't happened, and may never happen? Can we really appreciate how much we undermine our sense of well-being through doing this? Can we begin to introduce some kind of skilful means as an antidote to worry and anxiety? So, if your mind goes into constructing worst possible scenarios, imagine a totally amazing and wonderful and best scenario. Doesn't it make us feel better, rather than miserable? I tried it yesterday, and it worked really well. And, in fact, my father is recovering well.

These are some ways we can reflect on well-being: 'May I maintain well-being in myself'. So, it's not just a wishy-washy wish, a nice idea, as we chant these things. These are reflections that have a lot of guts to them, a lot that we can consider in terms of our own practice, in a very moment-by-moment kind of way. It's not saying that we're going to avoid every kind of suffering and difficulty; having been born into this human realm, we have to experience all kinds of things - pain, sickness, disease, sadness - this comes to all of us in due course. What I'm talking about is the needless suffering; learning to recognise that, and to replace it with something brighter and more positive. Then our lives can be a blessing, not just for ourselves but also for each other.