The only way out

Suicide terrorist attack at the Shangri-La hotel. Picture by Sudath Malaweera

That long-forgotten terrorism-fear has now become a standard. The people are forced to live with it. They are forced to grapple with the deepest psychological trauma: fear. There is nothing new to this emotion. It has weathered and lasted centuries and millennia.

When natural disasters are rolling behind you, the Buddha posed a question for King Kosol, what's the best remedy? The King's answer was untypical of a royalty. The royal guards will be of no use, he said. Royal buildings built to shield natural disasters will be of no use, he reiterated. There is only one option left. To reflect all the good you have done.

Why did the Buddha ask that from a king in the first place, one would naturally wonder. From time to time the Buddha exercised that strategy on his disciples. You know that the answer is obvious. But when you express it, your awareness of that same concept will improve.

In the case of fear, the Buddha goes into more details than King Kosol’s response. A substantial number of discourses in the Pali Canon deals with this phenomenon.

Benefits of loving kindness

His analysis comes down to two major suttas; one well and widely known, whereas the other is not quite so. Karaniya Metta Sutta is, of course, the first. And then we come across Mettanisansa Sutta.

Found in Anguttara Nikaya, the Sutta is a relatively shorter discourse. Mettanisansa is Pali for elaborating the benefits of loving kindness. As it is short and demands attention, I shall reproduce a Pali translation rendered by Venerable Piyadassi Thera. The Harvard-educated monk has authored quite a few works in Sinhala and English.

The translation reads as follows:

Thus have I heard:

On one occasion the Blessed One was living near Savatthi at Jetavana at Anathapindika's monastery. Then he addressed the monks saying, "Monks." — "Venerable Sir," said the monks, by way of reply. The Blessed One then spoke as follows:

"Monks, eleven advantages are to be expected from the release (deliverance) of heart by familiarizing oneself with thoughts of loving-kindness (metta), by the cultivation of loving-kindness, by constantly increasing these thoughts, by regarding loving-kindness as a vehicle (of expression), and also as something to be treasured, by living in conformity with these thoughts, by putting these ideas into practice, and by establishing them. What are the eleven?

1. He sleeps in comfort.

2. He awakes in comfort.

3. He sees no evil dreams.

4. He is dear to human beings.

5. He is dear to non-human beings.

6. The gods protect him.

7. Fire, poison, and sword cannot touch him.

8. His mind can concentrate quickly.

9. His countenance is serene.

10. He dies without being confused in mind.

11. If he fails to attain arahantship (the highest sanctity) here and now, he will be reborn in the Brahma-world.

"These eleven advantages, monks, are to be expected from the release of heart by familiarizing oneself with thoughts of loving-kindness, by cultivation of loving-kindness, by constantly increasing these thoughts, by regarding loving-kindness as a vehicle (of expression), and also as something to be treasured, by living in conformity with these thoughts, by putting these ideas into practice and by establishing them."

So said the Blessed One. Those monks rejoiced at the words of the Blessed One.

Of the eleven benefits, what counts most significant in the present context is the seventh. The one who cultivates metta cannot be harmed by fire, poison and sword. Too good to be true, it reads. But you come across several analogies where the Metta served its promised prize. In Sama Jataka, for instance, the protagonist is shot by a poisonous arrow. Prince Sama is said to have dwelt in loving kindness all the time. Yet he was harmed by a poisonous sword. Now how did that happen, if the prince always dwelt on loving kindness disposition, one may wonder. This problem is tackled in the Milindapa├▒ha, the eighteenth book of the Khuddaka Nikaya, where King Milinda raises that question in the following manner:

“Now, Venerable Nagasena, if the passage I have quoted from the words of the Blessed One be right, (the Sama Jataka account) then this statement of yours must be wrong. But if the story of Prince Sama be right, then it cannot be true that neither fire, nor poison, nor sword can work harm to him who cultivates the habit of love to all beings. This too is a double-edged problem, so subtle, so abstruse, so delicate, and so profound, that the thought of having to solve it might well bring out sweat over the body even of the most subtle-minded of mortals. This problem is now put to you. Unravel this mighty knot. Throw light upon this matter to the accomplishment of the desire of those sons of the Conqueror who shall arise hereafter.’

Venerable Nagasena offers the answer in his usual witty and comprehensive manner:

“The Blessed One spake, O king, as you have quoted. And Prince Sama dwelling in the cultivation of love, and thus followed by a herd of deer when he was wandering in the forest, was hit by the poisoned arrow shot by king Piliyakkha, and then and there fainted and fell. But there is a reason for that.

And what is the reason? Simply that those virtues (said in the passage you quoted to be in the habit of love) are virtues not attached to the personality of the one who loves, but to the actual presence of the love that he has called up in his heart. And when Prince Sama was upsetting the water-pot, that moment he lapsed from the actual feeling of love. At the moment, O king, in which an individual has realised the sense of love, that moment neither fire, nor poison, nor sword can do him harm. If any men bent on doing him an injury come up, they will not see him, neither will they have a chance of hurting him. But these virtues, O king, are not inherent in the individual, they are in the actual felt presence of the love that he is calling up in his heart.’

Supernatural power

Venerable Nagasena does not end there. He goes on to similes:

‘Suppose, O king, a man were to take into his hand a Vanishing Root of supernatural power; and that, so long as it was actually in his hand, no other ordinary person would be able to see him. The virtue, then, would not be in the man. It would be in the root that such virtue would reside that an object in the very line of sight of ordinary mortals could, nevertheless, not be seen. Just so, O king, is it with the virtue inherent in the felt presence of love that a man has called up in his heart.’

‘Or it is like the case of a man who has entered into a well-formed mighty cave. No storm of rain, however mightily it might pour down, would be able to wet him. But that would be by no virtue inherent in the man. It would be a virtue inherent in the cave that so mighty a downpour of rain could not wet the man. And just so, O king, is it with the virtue inherent in the felt presence of love that a man has called up in his heart.’

‘Most wonderful is it, Nagasena, and most strange how the felt presence of love has the power of warding off all evil states of mind.’

‘Yes! The practice of love is productive of all virtuous conditions of mind both in good (beings) and in evil ones. To all beings whatsoever, who are in the bonds of conscious existence, is this practice of love of great advantage, and therefore ought it to be sedulously cultivated.’(Translation credits: Sutta Central)

Venerable Nagasena’s response lays out the standard. The Buddha has gifted us with the path to stay fearless in the face of terrorism. However, one of his disciples reminds us to be vigilant. Just cultivating loving kindness would never suffice. That said, we must remember the loving kindness reflection must not be confined to the cushion meditation.

The solution is to maintain cultivating loving kindness in everything we carry out – however mundane it could be. Ajahn Brahm is a foremost monk who teaches the way to maintain loving kindness all the time. He has in fact coined the term ‘kindfulness’ combining loving kindness and mindfulness.

Metta meditation

In his celebrated work ‘Kindfulness’, Ajahn Brahm elaborates the concept:

“Metta can accurately be compared with a warm and radiant fire burning in your heart. You cannot expect to light the fire of loving-kindness by starting with a difficult object, any more than you can expect to light a campfire by striking a match under a thick log. So do not begin metta meditation by trying to spread metta to yourself or to an enemy. Instead begin by spreading loving-kindness to something that is easy to ignite with loving-kindness.

In metta meditation you focus your attention on the feeling of loving-kindness, developing that delightful emotion until it fills the whole mind. The way this is achieved can be compared to the way you light a campfire. You start with paper or anything else that is easy to light. Then you add kindling, small twigs, or strips of wood. When the kindling is on fire you add thicker pieces of wood, and after a time the thick logs. Once the fire is roaring and very hot, you can even put on wet and sappy logs and they are soon alight.”

In essence, what Ajahn Brahm strives to drive home is clear: Go beyond mindfulness - practice kindfulness!

Practising loving kindness is apparently easier said than done. Ajahn Brahm coins another term for that, ‘kindfulness-block’ probably inspired by the widely known ‘writer’s block’. Ajahn Brahm recounts a case study:

“Some years ago a female student complained to me that this method did not work for her (Ajahn asks us to cultivate loving-kindness towards an animal we are fond of). She regarded small animals, especially mischievous kittens, as little pests, nor did she like crying-and-wailing nappy-soiling babies.

My student had a severe case of what I now call kindfulness-block.

She went on to tell me that in her apartment in Sydney she had been growing some flowers in pots. So I suggested that she choose one of her plants as her first object of metta. She imagined a seedling so delicate and tender. It was so fragile that it needed all her care, love, and protection to survive. She directed all her motherly instincts to that vulnerable little potted plant, nurturing and feeding her friend until it burst from its bud to repay her kindness with a beautiful, fragrant flower. She really took to that method. That was the first time metta meditation worked for her. During the retreat when this happened, she said it was the only session when she wasn’t waiting for me to ring the bell.”

After its first intensity has warmed the air, the loving kindness then glows to protect us. Can we try this out?

The seventh point of the Mettanisansa Sutta reads too good to be true. But the saints have proven its mettle. It is up to us to give it a try with the hypothesis that the Mettanisansa Sutta is accurate. In that backdrop, though not quite easy, we must elevate ourselves to a plane to spread loving kindness to the terrorists.

That itself shall shield us against their potential attack. For that, we must have faith in the timeless well of truth. Ehi passiko, the Dhamma invites: come and see yourself.

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