Brahma Viharas


We tend to get carried away by irrelevancies. I’ll tell you one personal story here. I knew a very learned Sanskrit and Pali scholar who had studied the languages from the philological point of view and gradually he became interested in what was in these languages, as distinct from the grammar and the borrowings of the vocabulary from the Dravidian and other sources. And he asked me whether I could suggest any teacher, or place to go, to study the Indian Buddhism or the Vedanta. He didn’t much care which it was, so long as he did some of this training that he’d been reading about. Looking at him, I advised him, I said, ‘On no account, study Indian Buddhism or Indian Vedanta’.
And he was very surprised at this, ‘What, what, what then?’
I said, ‘Study the Japanese or the Chinese Buddhism’.
He said, ‘I already know many of the Sanskrit and Pali texts. I know a great deal of the history. I know a lot of the Indian Buddhism. And you’re saying, leave all that!’

And I told him, that in my opinion anyway, if he took a teacher of the actual practice, every time the teacher opened his mouth, that great scholar would be criticising. Because if the teacher, for instance, came from Bengal he would be pronouncing ‘maitri’ as ‘moitri’ – it’s the way they pronounce it in Bengal – and every time the teacher exhorted him to practice friendliness, the first of the Brahma Viharas, moitri, he would go, ‘Tssp [indrawn breath or gasp]. Oh no!’ He would not be thinking of friendliness, he would only be thinking that it was a mispronunciation of ‘maitri’ and a replacement of that diphthong with another diphthong.

And then when the teacher said that ‘maitri’ is the first of the Brahma Viharas, the four Brahma Viharas, which are known, very ancient in Buddhism, instead of thinking of these four Brahma Viharas –friendliness, compassion and cheerfulness with somebody who is happy, and indifference to someone who is evil, instead of thinking of those four, he would be thinking ‘Oh no, these aren’t Buddhist in origin at all! They’re found in part one of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The teacher is wrong!’ He will not be thinking of the content at all, but only of the pronunciation, only of the historical associations. ‘So, much better’, I said to him, ‘study Chinese or Japanese Buddhism where you know nothing whatever. And you can come forward like a child and actually learn something!’

Reasons are given to us which we can’t understand. Instructions are given, we can’t understand the reasons. Although, sometimes, reasons are invented to satisfy the mind of people who begin to practice, if they are such that they demand reasons for everything. There are many practices which only experience tells the reason for the form of the practice, but the intellect, especially of the people proud of their intellect, demands an explanation.

Well, in judo sometimes, we explain something. The Japanese students will accept it and practice it for a few months then, when they’ve got experience in that movement, you can explain why turn this way, and not that way, then they can understand it. But the westerners, the moment you say turn it this way, they say, ‘Why not that way? Wouldn’t that be better?’ Well, its only experience that will provide the true reason, that we have to invent a series of sort of pseudoscientific explanations which are not really true, but which satisfy them enough so that they can practice and then, later on, they’ll find out the true reason.

When I was very small, but I can still remember it, about four, I went into the kitchen and they had one of those big kitchen clocks which go tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock and I can remember asking my mother, ‘What’s it saying? Why does it do that?’ Well now, it’s not so easy.. tick, tock, you see, that’s what it says, but I was the third son, so she had experience of this sort of question. She said, ‘It says tick, tock because it likes that, you see!’
So I said, ‘Oh, does it say anything else? Why doesn’t it say anything else?’ And then she, again, ingeniously said, ‘You know your drum, you like, don’t you, banging it, don’t you? God, how you like banging that drum! Just banging it. Well, in the same, the clock likes saying tick, tock, tick.’
Well, I understood that. Yes, I liked beating that drum and it liked going like that.

Recently I have had the same experience. Then I couldn’t understand the mechanism of the clock or why this would happen. Now I have a small computer and I have a lesson once a week and my computer has one anomaly in a way. Anyway, you have to manipulate it in a way contrary to what the textbook says for a particular reason. When this first came out I said, ‘Oh, but the textbook says that… Why do we have to do this?’ and I could see the fellow, he’s a young fellow who teaches me, thinking, ‘Yeees’, then he said just what my mother said: ‘It likes that!’

Well, we’re given all sorts of practices and disciplines and our intellect, especially if we are a bit lazy, will put up all sorts of objections and so on, and it’s worth remembering that it’s unreasonable to expect explanations of these things which depend on experience, and we must rely, not on our intellect justifying the practice, but on the experience of the teacher who gives it.

A teacher said about the idea in the Buddhist training: go on one straight line, keep to something, and yet, at the same time, it says, oh you’ve got to accept things, you have to be flexible. The example he gave was of a gyroscope or spinning top. Now, if you’ve played with one as a child or you’ve seen a gyroscope spinning, its balance is so perfect when it’s revolving that it can travel down the little notch at the bottom, it can travel down a string, and still keep its balance on the string. If it was stationary it couldn’t do that. It’s revolving about its centre and can keep a perfect balance on that string.

And yet if you even blow, the gyroscope will just spin, but it will come back to its balance. Again, it will give way, the passing experience. It will come back very strongly to its point of balance again and settle itself. Well, he said, in the same way, there is something in the training which keeps on the same line and keeps perfectly balanced but, at the same time, it can adapt quite freely and softly to the impulses, the momentary impulses from outside, and the adjustment to the circumstances and then it will again resume its balance and go forward.

Another teacher gives, as an example, that the gyroscope adapts gently, but firmly comes back, and he said it doesn’t react powerfully against it, and he gave as an example of that – a man who is trying to calm a lake or even in his bath. If he wants the bath to be calm and he tries snacking down the waves, as they come up, he [the teacher] said that’s like you trying to smack down your thoughts as they arise. You create new ones. But if, instead, you simply keep still and you watch the waves, then they’ll die down of themselves.

© Trevor Leggett

Talks in this series are:

Part 1: Stone Sermon

Part 2: Jizo, the stone child

Part 3: We sweep up the leaves

Part 4: Brahma Viharas

Part 5: Ananda asked the Buddha

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