January  2002 
 Number 59 


Living in Harmony; Ajahn Karuniko
Dialogue: Ajahns Sucitto, Khemasiri & Akincano
The shining darkness; Sister Thaniya


Living in Harmony
From a talk given by Ajahn Karuniko; March 2000

There are six things that the Buddha recommended for living in harmony; kindness in bodily action, kindness in verbal action and kindness in mental action towards each other in public and in private, sharing, keeping the same virtuous conduct, and harmony of view in what we're trying to do with our lives. When these six things are manifest in a group of people then there's a good possibility of them living in harmony. So three of these are concerned with the practice of Metta, the practice of loving-kindness. There are a lot of teachings that the Buddha gave on the practice of loving-kindness because he saw the necessity of this attitude when we interact with people. If you find it challenging relating to other people then the practice of Metta is seen as something that can very much help with that.


Metta is also referred to as a protection for the mind. When it's well developed it protects the mind from being overwhelmed by greed, hatred and delusion.

Metta is also referred to as a protection for the mind. When it's well developed it protects the mind from being overwhelmed by greed, hatred and delusion. Just like in a forest, if the forest is wet, then when a fire comes near it the fire won't consume it. So if there's a basis of Metta in the mind then there's less chance of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion overtaking the mind. Even though these sorts of things come into contact with it they don't overtake or consume it.

When we practise Metta we start with ourself, having a sense of Metta for this being here. I'm always reminded of this when I go flying. When you get on an aeroplane they give you many instructions. At one point they say, 'If there's a drop in oxygen, then an oxygen mask will drop from above.' But they then say, 'Put your own oxygen mask on before you put your children's on.' When we first hear that it can grate - 'put your own on before your children's.' But when we consider it, it's very sensible, isn't it? Because if getting the mask on your child becomes a struggle then you both might suffocate before it happens. This can be the same with relationships too. If we haven't developed this sense of Metta in ourself then relationships can be a struggle, and sometimes the relationships can perish.

What do you think about that bloke or that lady, that you see when you look in the mirror in the morning when you clean your teeth or wash your face? How do you respond to that image in the mirror, this thing called 'Me'? And as you look at your image, what sorts of perceptions come up? Does the self-critical mind come up or do you like that person in the mirror? To me it's a sign of a healthy relationship with this mind and body to like the person you see in the mirror. We can dwell on our faults, which just tends to drag us down, but it's more skilful to remember some of the good things about the person you see in the mirror, the good things that person has done. You might not be the bees' knees of Buddhism but everybody has their good points and we can bring them to mind. Now we might think to ourselves, 'Well really I haven't done many good things.' We could look at our past and think of all the unskilful things we've done but it's more skilful to come to the present moment, to what we are doing now. If we can bring to mind the importance of trying to cultivate skilful things in the present, then this can very much help us find a sense of Metta for ourself.

I find that if I bring to mind the good things that I've done and dwell on those it does have a different effect on the mind than just dwelling on the not-so-good things I've done and dwelling on my faults. I find when I consider like this I don't get to thinking, 'How wonderful I am.' It just brings a sense of well-being into my mind. And that to me is the basis of skilful action; it's the basis of meditation.

We have an interesting little situation in our bathroom. We have two sinks side by side and one big mirror, so when we stand at the sink and another person comes up, you see yourself and the person next to you. I find it an interesting exercise to look at myself and look at the other person and see my responses to that. And I contemplate that a perfection of Metta would be, that I could sit in front of that mirror all day and people could come and go and it would all be the same. My mind would respond the same to myself as to others, to others as to myself.

This is illustrated in a story about a group of monks that were practising together and then were captured by a group of robbers. The robbers said, 'we're sorry about this, Bhikkhus, but we're afraid we're going to have to bump one of you off to tell people we mean business.' They went to the leader of the monks and asked him to select one. He looked at the small group of monks: there was one very old monk pretty much on his last legs, there was one monk who was quite sick, there was one monk who was very devoted to him, and there was one monk who he didn't get on with. And they'd asked him to choose one. Who do you think he chose? You might think he'd choose himself, but actually he told the robbers 'I can't choose'. Because he had Metta for the four and for himself, he couldn't choose. That is seen as the perfection of loving-kindness.

In the practice of meditation what I do find very useful as I'm sitting breathing is just bringing up the thought, 'May I abide in well-being, may I be happy'. So as I breathe the breath into this inner world of body and mind, just bringing this thought to mind. And doing this, especially when there are states of greed, ill-will, delusion, anxiety, worry or fear, I do find a helpful practice. It brings a softening around these experiences so I'm not getting caught into the fight. It's like giving something the space to follow its nature - which is to cease. Because sometimes in meditation we can get into being very much in control and that then makes meditation a struggle. Somehow we're somebody who's controlling this thing called mind and going to get rid of all the unwanted bits of it. But this can be like being in this room, and when something unpleasant comes in you jump on it, you seize it by the throat and say, 'Get out'. You keep it by the neck on the floor and keep on telling it to 'get out, get out'. That doesn't work, does it? So to me the practice of Metta can be likened to opening all the doors, creating some nice big spaces and eventually the thing finds its own way out.

Then also in meditation we can cultivate it towards other people - as to oneself, so to others. One way of doing this is to bring people to mind and wish them well. It's recommended we start with people that tend to evoke a sense of kindness and develop it first with them, and as we get more skilled at it, then we can start bringing to mind those people that we find more difficult. This practice doesn't mean that we just sit down and start thinking these thoughts and all of a sudden our heart starts oozing with Metta - we might feel very tight or miserable on a level of the heart. Again it's something we have to develop, we have to start somewhere, and we can always start on the level of intention. The experience of this is that we start with intention and as we sincerely keep those intentions going then, over time and with practice, things start getting down to the level of the heart. At first it might seem like there's an incompatibility there, trying to think one thing but feeling another, but we have to start somewhere.

I like an analogy; it's like if our hand's cold and we hold something that's warm, our hand doesn't get warm as soon as we touch it. But the more we hold on to it then the heat from that object will permeate the hand. Now at first our hand's cold so we can't really grip the object very well, we lose it. Similarly the more we practise at it, the more we can hold these sort of thoughts in mind, then the greater the possibility of that intention working its way down to the level of the heart.

I used to find mornings were a time when either I felt dull and sleepy or niggly. I've found it's a very good time to bring up some thoughts of Metta as a way of energising the mind that's just going to fall asleep if I don't do anything. If I try to watch my breath and I'm tired then it's.... I'm hearing it not watching it! But if I try to bring up some skilful thoughts then I find that can energise the mind in a good way. And it can help dispel that morning niggliness, that critical morning mind that, if we get caught in it, can ruin our whole day. So bringing to mind the people we have to interact with that day and wishing them well. And, of course, as we bring people to mind there are different responses depending on our relationship to them, but if we can we maintain that intention, 'May they be well', because we have to start somewhere. This is a practice I've found has helped me very much with relating to people in a community situation.

One of the benefits of this is a mind that is more easily concentrated. An experience I've had on occasions is sitting down in meditation thinking, 'Right I'm going to concentrate the mind' but it's going here, going there and there's a sense of agitation. But rather than just struggling like that, to bring up a few thoughts of kindness towards people or remembering good things people have done, then sometimes what can occur is a mind shift. All of a sudden you find the mind stops struggling, the mind starts to stay with the breath. A subtle change of mind state can make such a difference.

It's also helpful to consider that life is a mixed bag. There are some things that are great about it and some things that aren't so great about it. There's always going to be times when there'll be misunderstandings and people won't be getting on, and this and that - that's the way life is. So at times when we do get agitated and the mind's getting too caught up into the complexities of life, just to bring a simple, skilful thought to mind and hold it there can have a very good effect. It can bring us back to something a bit more calm and skilful, and then it's amazing how different things look. We see the way things look from the anxiety mind, and then how they look when the anxiety mind's not there - it could be better, it could be improved, but it's not a problem. And if there's anything I can do to help with things, then such action will come from a mind that is more calm, which has more of a sense of kindness there, rather than a worried, anxious, fearful mind.

The benefits of the cultivation of Metta are quite wonderful according to the teachings of the Buddha. When we develop it we can live more in harmony with people and, the Buddha says, we become dear to human beings and dear to non-human beings, animals, devas and deities. On the human level one can see how, at times when we're friendly towards people it does bring a more favourable response than at times when we act or speak on ill-will. If people come at you in an attacking way, then of course, the tendency is to get defensive or attack back. But we can acknowledge that initial response and then think in terms of kindness, 'Well what can I do to help to pacify the situation.' I've always found on the occasions when I've managed to respond in a friendly way, how nice things have come out of it.

One of the occasions I remember was when I was going to visit my parents at Christmas. I was going up on a train which got delayed and as I then missed my connection I ended up on Piccadilly Station at 8 o'clock in the evening, a couple of days before Christmas. Now it's not where I'd like to have been, seeing that I had to go to a remote platform to catch the train. As it was quite cold out and I wasn't very warmly dressed I huddled into the waiting room. I was just sitting there all by myself and then lo' and behold a group of teenage girls came in, all full of Christmas spirit in possibly more ways than one. They came in and went behind me and I could hear them whispering. 'Whoops! I've been spotted'. Then they started singing raunchy songs - I don't know if this was for my benefit or just what they usually sing when they go on to the platform of Piccadilly Station. And then there was a silence and again a whispering and they all came round to introduce themselves. Now actually I'm a sort of working class lad myself, and I used to sing such songs once, so I found I could respond to them quite well. I felt quite friendly towards them. They asked me a few questions and after a while they went back to their songs. When the train came in they seemed preoccupied with their songs so I went to the door, opened it and said, 'Hey! The train's come.' As I held the door they all charged out. Then I went and stood on the platform as the train came in. It stopped with the two sliding doors right in front of me. When the doors opened I stood back ready for the girls to charge; they did come running up, but all of a sudden they all stopped, composed themselves and invited me to get on to the train. And I thought that was really nice; that for a moment there was that stopping, composing and a gesture of kindness as though they reciprocated the friendliness I'd shown to them in the waiting room.

With our relationship to animals, we can see how when we have a sense of friendliness towards animals, that does bring out a better response from them. If you can actually manifest it when a dog comes up barking at you, it often stops barking. In Thailand, animals can prove very afraid of the village people, but a deer came into Ajahn Chah's monastery and would eat out of Ajahn Chah's hand. Maybe some of you have seen the photograph of Ajahn Chah feeding the deer. So this sense of being dear to animals and deities, you don't know how they help us in ways we can't see. In Buddhist stories it's those people who developed skilful things who the deities protect. You might be quite sceptical about this; which is understandable because what we can't see or we have no experience with we doubt.

But coming back to more tangible things, if we develop Metta then we tend to sleep better, wake up better, have less unpleasant dreams. And we are peaceful when it comes to our death. We have peace and confidence about what will happen to us. These are some of the benefits that the Buddha listed.

The Buddha recommended for us to develop it in all postures, walking, sitting, standing and lying down. In our life we queue up at supermarkets, we sit in traffic jams, we lie down before we go to sleep; here are opportunities to cultivate this. Rather than grumbling, 'Why isn't the traffic going,' we could use that situation differently. Here in the monastery often we have to wait for the meal, and we can sit and think, 'how inconsiderate,' but instead we could look at the people who are here, who cooked and brought the food, and send a few nice thoughts in their direction. If we have this inclination we can use many situations in our lives. Times when we're waiting and we're not doing anything in particular we can cultivate such attitudes. Life seems to be getting very full these days and maybe there doesn't seem much time for this but consider for yourself what's important. What is important at the end of the day?

The cultivation of Metta is something important that if we do now will be a great help to us. But if we put it off, and get preoccupied with little niggly things, then it's going to be difficult to remember later. So, we need to consider how we use our time, the things we can do to help us live in harmony with people. If we can live in harmony with others as well as be on our own, if we can go between the two and keep a feeling of harmony, that's a good balance. If we cannot live with other people and find some sense of ease with that, I wonder how far we can go with our meditation. If we can learn how to live with other people and feel a sense of ease, then that shows that we have a good foundation for our meditation. Practice is not just being on our own and meditating, practice is also learning from our interactions with people; hopefully the two can complement and support each other. When things happen, when we interact, we can willingly learn from those situations to deepen our commitment towards skilful things and strengthen them.

When I think about the magic of life, of tuning in with the wonderful things in life, for me the access to that is through things like Metta practice. It does, for many people, give a sense of the wonder, the mystery, the benevolence of the universe.




Be mindful and let things take their natural course.
Then your mind will become still, like a clear forest pool.
All kinds of rare animals will come to drink at the pool.
You will see many wonderful and strange things come and go but you will be still.

Luang Por Chah