Sunday, August 16, 2009

Standing in a sacred circle

by Pema Chodron

I am going to give a teaching on bodhicitta, bodhicitta being a Sanskrit word that is usually translated awakened heart.

The bodhicitta practices include the four aspirant practices called the Four Limitless Qualities, the six paramitas, and the lojong teachings on the slogans and tonglen.

Of these, I am going to teach on the Four Limitless Qualities. These four qualities are maitri, compassion, joy, and equanimity. It is said in the Buddhist teachings that all the Buddhas, or Awakened Ones, are always right here with us just longing for us to open our hearts and minds so we can move beyond our limited way of perceiving: our limited way of hearing, tasting, smelling, and seeing.

There is a practice that we can do all the time as we walk around in our life and that is to continue to open to the situation in which we find ourselves, as a practice, as a way of looking at the moment of life in which we find ourselves. Opening our mind, opening our heart to where we find ourselves.

One of the ways of working with this is to realize that we are always standing in the middle of a sacred circle. Whatever comes into the circle of our life, we train in welcoming it. Whatever we're doing, we're always in the center of a sacred circle. It is not restricted to formal meditation or when we're in a good frame of mind. It is not something that is restricted to when we feel we have it all together or to when things are not falling apart.

It is our life, wherever we are, always standing in the middle of a sacred circle. To use Buddhist language, you could say this is the practice of bodhicitta, cultivating the heart of wishing for the good fortune and welfare of others, cultivating the heart of wishing that we and others could be free of confusion, pain, and suffering of all kinds. When we start to practice this way, we quickly find that it isn't easy.

It is a setup for coming uncomfortably close to our neurotic aversions and lusts, cravings, fears, jealousy, addictions, envy; to our capacity for cruelty, our arrogance, to all our neuroses. The most significant point is that all of them are welcome. This is my understanding of maitri, the first of the Four Limitless Ones. It's beginning to open our hearts to what we find in our own being and what we usually disrespect, fear, or have an aversion toward and wish to get rid of.

The teaching on the Four Limitless Ones is one way of practicing standing in the center of a sacred circle and welcoming whatever enters the circle of our life.

When we do a retreat together, in a very magical place like this, there is a lot of support for this practice of keeping our heart and mind open and for welcoming whatever comes into the circle of our life. There is a strong bond between us, some common purpose of coming here to look for encouragement, hints, instructions, and support on how to open ourselves instead of hide out of fear of being hurt or seeing something that we don't want to see.

It is not just that there are meditation instructors to help us, and teachings and practices that we will be receiving, it is also what in Buddhism is called sangha. This is a particular unique sangha that has come together for just these 10 days.

There is a lot of support in this circle, but there are also a lot of demands —because, believe me, there will be at least one person here who pushes all your buttons, probably more than one. Chances are good that you room with them. People don't really push our buttons unless they are pretty close to us. But there will also be the people sitting in front of you, behind you, on either side of you who move when you feel they should be still, talk when you feel they should be silent, are silent when you feel they should talk.

You will experience irritation in these 10 days... I hope.

You should realize that this very irritation you came here hoping to escape could be like a clap of thunder going off when you feel it in your body and hear all the conversation you are having with yourself in your mind-- how did this irritating person or situation get into my circle? The encouragement will be to welcome whatever enters the circle of your life. In this process, we move closer to ourselves and closer to each other.

Maitri is very much about moving closer to oneself. Welcoming what one finds in oneself. Compassion is about beginning to extend that sense of welcome outward to all that we encounter; in particular compassion means not shutting down to pain or discomfort. The pain of not disliking who we are, the pain of someone not liking us. Compassion has a lot to do with opening to those feelings and being to not run away from pain so we don't have to run away from other people when they trigger our fear and aversion with ourselves and with others when the going gets rough. That is my understanding of compassion.

Joy, the third of the Four Limitless Ones, is very much a product of welcoming everything into the circle of your life, whether it is our own emotions, thoughts and feelings or other people and circumstances. Joy is a product of realizing that we are always standing in the center of a sacred space, and that we do have the capacity to welcome. Actually there is no way to escape from it because even our closing down and not welcoming is welcomed.

This quality of bodhicitta that I am describing is developing a heart that doesn't close down even when the going gets rough. Looking into your own being can be the roughest of all going. Whether it is what we see inside or what we experience outside, joy has a lot to do with bodhicitta and this opening of the heart and mind to the whole experience.

The view of equanimity and the Four Limitless Ones is that we are not trying to fix anything. We are trying to welcome things as they are; to realize that we are inherently whole just as we are. We do not need to be fixed by meditation. We just need to learn how to welcome ourselves and everyone else. During this retreat we will use the mindfulness-awareness (shamatha-vipashyana) practice as an equanimity practice-training in greeting whatever arises in our minds and emotions with an unbiased attitude.

A traditional image for equanimity is a feast to which everyone is invited and welcomed. When we use the word thinking to label our thoughts in meditation, thinking will be a synonym for welcoming and letting go of the thought so that the next quest can come through the door. Any of you who have meditated will know that the guests keep coming and coming!

Equanimity practice develops our aspiration that we may all feel the sense of complete welcoming what we already have, knowing that there is the potential for human beings to gradually develop to a place where nothing is shut out of our heart.