Reflections on the Four Abiding States Meditation Retreat

Prof. Elaine Walker

In May 2011, I participated in a five day retreat at Chuang Yen Monastery on the four abiding states of mindfulness: loving kindness (metta); compassion (karuna); sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha). The retreat was led by Venerable Dhammadipa Sak. Like most participants, I began the retreat with minimal understanding of how to develop these qualities within my mind. I left the retreat with a re-orientation in how I engage in my practice as a Buddhist layperson- one which I have now incorporated into my daily life.

A number of pre-conditions prior to attending the retreat laid the foundation for the impact that the retreat would have on me. First, I have been a Buddhist lay practitioner for more than a decade; and have practiced meditation throughout that time. I was struck at how after what I considered to be a successful meditation session my calm could be quickly shattered once I re-entered the real world with its everyday noise and problems. Why was my mind so fickle and unstable? Why could it not sustain that “peace” and quietude that it exhibited during meditation? So, I have been perfectly aware of the imperfections of moving from a space of quietude to one of noise. Second, some time ago I came across a verse from the Metta Sutta ” Just as a mother protects with her life, her child her only child- so with a loving heart should one cherish all living beings”. The first time I heard this chanted I was moved to tears. There was something about that verse that struck a chord with me. While, I understood the meaning of the verse, I was unaware of the meditation techniques that one could use to develop such a quality of mind. Third, last year I attended a series of lectures given by the Dalai Lama which focused in part on Shantideva’s “ A Guide to the Bodhisattava’s Way of Life”. Shantideva was an Indian Buddhist master who lived in the eight century. In this book, Shantideva writes of creating a jewel in the mind which seeks to benefit all beings. A mind that strives to make all beings, without exception, happy. As Ven. Dhammadipa guided us over the five days the early puzzles were beginning to fall in place.

In his teaching of the loving kindness meditation, Ven. Dhammadipa taught us how important it was to begin with ourselves. For some participants whose meditation practices involved concentrating on the absence of a self- there were natural questions such as: “If from the Buddhist perspective the self is empty of its own inherent nature then why should I extend loving kindness to myself?” However, as we worked through the meditation sessions, lectures and question and answer periods, it became clear that one would be unable to extend loving kindness to others, if one could not first extend it to oneself. Moreover, extending loving kindness to oneself was not the same as being self cherishing where one’s focus emanated solely from a selfish point of view. But rather, an understanding that if one held negative feelings about oneself, if one were not at peace but suffered from discontent and unhappiness- then developing the altruistic intention to benefit others would be difficult to accomplish.

There were similar questions regarding extending loving kindness towards an “enemy”. What if I cannot locate such a person within my life? However, it seemed to me that we all encounter individuals who we may not conceive to be an enemy- but who in our normal day to day activities whether at work or in our own families at any moment in time may pose some difficulties for us. Wishing this person to be happy, to be at peace at precisely the time when we are having difficulties with them allows us to practice the Bodhisattva’s ideal. I think it was normal for some participants to question the techniques that we were being taught against their own practices. But Ven. Dhammadipa would encourage us to not judge- not compare just learn and follow. For me, that was an important message- given our tendencies as humans to construct/evaluate a present experience against past experiences. I also understood that there are many methods of concentrating the mind, thus having the mind abide in the four states of kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity was just as powerful as focusing on the breadth. The potential spaciousness of our mind to project our feelings of love, compassion and joy beyond the limitations of our physical boundaries was vividly brought home to me when Ven. Dhammadipa guided us in applying each technique directionally- that is projecting our feelings towards the four directions of the world: north, south, east and west.

In leaving the retreat I began to see the parallels between what Ven. Dhammadipa was asking us to do, and the vast vows that many of the Bodhisattvas have made. It struck me that these Bodhisattvas to whom we go when in need, some of whom who have put off their vows to attain Buddahood until all sentient beings have been rescued must have the quality of mind that Ven. Dhammadipa was encouraging us to develop- one that wishes others well, that extend joy and compassion to others and which view all individuals and situations with equanimity. I felt that this practice to which I was newly introduced during my five days at Chuang Yen Monastery gave me an unbroken bridge between what I did on my meditation cushion and how I interacted with the rest of the world when I re-entered it after meditating.

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