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Where There Is Peace, There Is Buddha:
The Sublime Attitudes in Daily Living

by Ruben L. F. Habito


[One's appropriate] responses [in daily situations] arise from the heart of one filled with peace, a heart overflowing with loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. As we ourselves learn to live in this way, we are given a glimpse of where the Buddha resides in our day and age.

In our contemporary global society, characterized by so much violence and discord among human beings and so much woundedness on the personal, social, and ecological levels of our being, where can we find the Buddha?

In pursuing this question, let us take a hint from a well-known short scriptural text called the Karaniya Metta Sutta (found in the collection entitled Sutta Nipata). It is included in one of the earliest layers of texts preserved in the Pali scriptures and has been used as a chant for recitation among Buddhist communities in Southeast Asia. I fondly recall the occasion when I first heard this text being recited in Pali at a local village community gathering in Sri Lanka many years ago. It was in the company of women and men young and elderly - plus small children and infants in their mothers' arms - who were all chanting wholeheartedly and from memory, palms joined in reverence. The visit there was made possible by friends in the Sarvodaya, a Buddhist-inspired socioecological movement founded by A. T. Ariyaratne, an awardee of the Niwano Peace Prize, well known for his vision of global peace through community building and cooperative action beginning at the village level.

The text opens with this line: "One who is well-versed in goodness, seeking, having attained the place of peace [santampadam], lives and acts in this way." The sutta then goes on to describe the characteristics of one who precisely lives this way of peace: that person is "able, upright, truly upright, kindly of speech, gentle and without conceit . . . content, easily satisfied, having few wants and simple tastes, with composed senses, discreet, not arrogant nor greedy."

The implication here is that one who walks the path of the awakened is one who walks the path of peace. How may we recognize the Buddha? Where there is peace, there we will find the Awakened One.

Having named some observable qualities of such a person of peace, the sutta then focuses on the central feature that underlies all of these: such a person steadfastly holds in his or her heart the all-embracing aspiration: May all beings be happy. It describes the wide range of diversity of sentient beings for whom this happiness is wished: "weak or strong, tall or short, seen or unseen, dwelling far or near, born or yet-to-be-born . . . may all beings be happy! [sabbe satta bhavantu sukhitatta]"

The word translated as happy in English comes from the Pali sukhitatta, in turn derived from the more simple form sukha. Recall that the Buddha's path of awakening was launched with the realization that our human condition is marked by dissatisfaction, frustration, and suffering (dukkha). The word dukkha comes from a Pali compound indicating a wheel that is unaligned and off center and is thereby unable to roll on smoothly and function properly as a wheel. The inversion of this condition is sukha, giving the image of a wheel that has now found its center and thus is able to roll on smoothly and carry out its function properly as a wheel. In short, someone who has overcome this dissatisfactory state of ill-being - marked by lack of peace and steeped in the three poisons of greed, ill will, and ignorance - is in a state of well-being and happiness. This gives us a richer picture behind the word happy in the short aspiration "May all beings be happy." In other words, "May all beings attain the fullness of well-being: freed from dukkha, arrive at the place of peace, and be able to transform greed into generosity, ill will into goodwill, and ignorance into wisdom."

Such indeed is an awakened one, who walks the path of peace. And as this short scriptural text emphasizes, the heart of such a person is marked by loving-kindness (metta). "As a mother would give her life to protect her only child, let one cherish all living beings with a boundless heart." The fondest wish a mother can have for her only child is that the child grow up to attain the fullness of well-being throughout his or her life. And this is also the wish of one who walks the path of peace for each and every being in this universe. Such a heart and mind replete with loving-kindness "radiates over the entire world, spreading upwards to the skies, and downwards to the depths." Such a heart and mind is referred to as a "sublime attitude," or a place of "divine dwelling" (brahmavihara).

Other texts from early scriptures expound on this place of divine dwelling as bearing four marks. In addition to loving-kindness, compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (muditha), and equanimity (upekkha) are also included, together called the four immeasurables.

Let us look more closely at these four marks of one who walks the path of peace. They are regarded as immeas­urables (appamana), that is, something that can never be thoroughly fathomed by our puny human minds, something totally beyond our finite ways of thinking and measuring. Loving-kindness, already described, spreads out far and wide across the entire universe, embracing every sentient being in an infinite horizon. The Pali word metta, from which it is translated, derives from the Sanskrit maitri, a feminine noun meaning "affinity," "kinship," "kindliness," "friendship," or a combination of these. To look at all beings, or better, at each and every being, with a heart of metta is precisely to see each and every person as close kin to oneself with whom one's own destiny is bound - indeed, as one's very own self.

This is a very spontaneous and natural sentiment for all of us, wishing all beings the very best that is possible for them. It is rooted deeply in each of us at the core of our very being. You hear of the children suffering and dying from hunger in Africa and in so many other places in the world. We realize they are us. We are the people who died in the tsunami, and we are their kin in Fukushima, lives ruined by the nuclear accident, still continuing to live in uncertainty. We are the children all over the world running around playfully with their parents close by; we are also those children who are separated from or have lost their parents.

"We are the world, we are the children." So goes a very popular song from the 1980s. It is a heart of metta that conveys to us how that is indeed true. One's heart wells up with loving-kindness for all beings, knowing that they are me and I am they. In his journal, Thomas Merton relates an experience he had while standing at a street corner on Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky, when he saw the people walking in the streets and realized "they are me and I am them!" He goes on to write how at that moment he saw that "we are manifestations of the same glory" that comes from the divine source. Seeing each and every one of my fellow sentient beings in this light moves me to want to bow down to each one in gratitude and respect, filled with a heart of loving-kindness.

The second of the four sublime attitudes, or divine dwellings, another feature of the place of peace wherein the Buddha resides, is compassion (karuna). Loving-kindness is the heart that wishes for the well-being of all, whereas compassion is the heart that bears the sufferings of all who suffer and thereby seeks to alleviate them. This is radically different from the emotion of pity, which entails a sense of superiority and even smacks of smugness in observing others suffer. Compassion, or perhaps more clearly, com-passion, is a state of suffering with. One seeks to do all that one can do to alleviate the suffering of one's fellow beings because it is one's very own suffering, because we ourselves suffer the pain of one another.

The third of the sublime attitudes is sympathetic joy (muditha). This is a heart that shares the joy of everyone who is celebrating something in life, whether it be a childbirth or the simple joy of watching the natural scenery and being grateful for it. All of the joys that are part of being human are our very own also, which we are able to share with one another. With a heart of sympathetic joy I am able to celebrate another person's success as my own rather than feeling envious in a petty way and thinking "Why couldn't it be me?"

The fourth sublime attitude can be seen as being at the core of the other three: equanimity (Pali, upekkha), a heart that finds itself at peace in all conditions and all situations. The Sanskrit word for equanimity is upeksa, from the verb compound upa+iks, which literally means "to see at close hand." This means seeing things as they are, without any obstruction. And if we see things as they are, an injury is an injury. It is of course something that we need to address, to cure it, but first, see the fact clearly: it's an injury. A pain is a pain, a death is a death. It doesn't mean that we don't grieve over someone's death, the death of someone we love, or the death of a friend. Indeed, we grieve. And that is also a fact. Just as it is. With a heart of equanimity, deep within we know it's the way things are, and we are at peace.

This is what Zen teachers refer to as the quiet mind. That quiet mind is something that pervades no matter what happens. The ground may crumble from under us, things may turn out contrary to our expectations, we may find ourselves in a very tragic situation. These are eventualities that are part and parcel of our human life. We also grieve and feel pain and sorrow just as much as anyone else in such situations. And yet, deep within there is equanimity amid all of this. This doesn't mean that we are numb to tragedy but simply that we have found acceptance and peace. Equanimity also allows us not to be destroyed by that tragedy and thereby be driven to despair. Rather, we are able to see our situation with clear eyes and take it from there, whatever it may entail, and begin rebuilding our life from that point.

These four sublime attitudes are four characteristics of living in the light of the infinite, living in the place of peace, living the heart of the Buddha. These are presented as an invitation for each and every one of us.

Now, how do we spell this out in concrete terms? I'd like to take a hint from a Zen koan from a collection used in the Sanbo Kyodan Zen lineage that may help us in this. It is helpful first to note that koan practice in the Zen context is a way of seeing and experiencing the life of the Buddha in dynamic action in our day-to-day lives. The proper "answer" to a koan is not like solving a puzzle nor understanding what it means intellectually but, rather, to embody the Buddha's dynamic action in concrete ways.

When the wind blows through the willows, the downy seed balls float away.
When the rain beats on the pear blossoms, a butterfly flies away.

These are the third and fourth items of a four-part koan. The first item reads, "The leaves of the lotus are round, round, rounder than a mirror," and the second goes, "The edge of a water nut is sharp, sharp, sharper than an awl." Here "round" and "sharp" refer not just to physical attributes but primarily to the interior disposition of an individual who, having arrived at the place of peace, lives in the total freedom of his or her true nature. We will not look at these first two in detail but will focus only on the latter two, above.

"When the wind blows through the willows, the downy seed balls float away." Whatever happens in our lives, we live with the freedom of allowing ourselves to go with the flow, blown by the gentle winds that carry us along. When hungry, we take something to eat. When tired, we take a rest. A baby is born, we rejoice. A loved one dies, we mourn. And all of this in the complete freedom of the heart of the Buddha.

"When the rain beats on the pear blossoms, a butterfly flies away." This is the opposite direction of the downy seed ball. This is now to take steps that "go against the flow." The butterfly flies away to protect itself from the pounding of raindrops on its delicate wings. If we find ourselves in an abusive or coercive situation, we move away and seek refuge elsewhere. If we feel trapped in an unfulfilling job that is not really giving us the nourishment that we need in life, or if we find ourselves in circumstances of conflict and violence, we may need to take some bold steps to ensure our own well-being and the well-being of those around us. For this we need to discern skillful means grounded in wisdom and compassion to prevent the escalation of violence or to divert it toward a more peaceful and harmonious course of action.

The scenes laid out in this koan describe situations we often find in our daily lives and suggest appropriate responses to those situations. These responses arise from the heart of one filled with peace, a heart overflowing with loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. As we ourselves learn to live in this way, we are given a glimpse of where the Buddha resides in our day and age. The Zen ancestors from Shakyamuni down to the living Zen teachers of today are one in proclaiming: Stop, and see. Open your eyes. Discover that the Buddha is in you, and your own life will be the Buddha's living presence in the world.

A central image conveyed in the Lotus Sutra is that of the Buddha likened to a lotus flower blooming in the midst of the murky waters of a pond. Our earth, with all the misery and messiness, the pains and travails of all of our fellow sentient beings, is like the pond with its muddy waters. To transform this wounded earth into Lotus Land is to allow the Buddha in each of us to blossom in full beauty in the midst of this.

Ruben L. F. Habito is a faculty member at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and is founding teacher of the Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas, Texas. He is the author of many works, including Healing Breath: Zen for Christians and Buddhists in a Wounded World (Wisdom Publications, 2006), and Zen and the Spiritual Exercises: Paths of Awakening and Transformation (Orbis Books, forthcoming 2013).

This article was originally published in the July-September 2013 issue of Dharma World.

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