Ajahn Sumedho on “An Awakened Response to Violence: Natural Purity of the Mind”

Ajahn Sumedho on “An Awakened Response to Violence: Natural Purity of the Mind”

A reflection on practice by Other Teachers & Folks We Value

(In 1999, when this dharma talk was given in Spirit Rock Meditation Center, the U.S. military was bombing Yugoslavia. We have substituted Ukraine for Yugoslavia in the text here, to make the article more relevant to today’s circumstances.)

Those who live in awakened awareness see the suffering of others—the unhappiness, the misery, the unfairness, the corruption, the horrors of life. We’re not blind to all of this, but we do not create additional sorrow, despair & anguish around our contact with these common human experiences of life’s inevitable suffering.

I have been asked how to relate to the violence in Ukraine where people are performing horrific acts. The questions immediately arise: What can we do about it? How should we regard this? The answer, of course, is mindfulness. With mindfulness, we still feel what is impinging on our mind as unpleasant, ugly, unfair or horrific, because that is simply the way it is. But now we have the opportunity to choose how we respond.

Usually, we just react. When we hear bad news about violence, about brutality & corruption, about the persecution of innocent people, we usually feel indignant or outraged. We want revenge, to punish the tyrants & those perpetuating these indignities on others. This is our conditioned reaction—when we hear bad news, we feel angry; when we hear good news, we feel happy. We don’t have much of a choice in the matter because this is how we are programmed to react.

When we are mindful, we can respond instead of react. With an awakened mind, based in right understanding or right view, we can liberate ourselves from the momentum of habit & reactivity. We can respond to the various experiences we have in life with wisdom & compassion. When we are mindful, we enter the natural state of the mind, which is pure & unconditioned.

The four Brahma-viharas are the natural responses that come from this purity of mind. They are not created. That is, we don’t try to feel compassionate through conjuring up ideas of compassion or sentimental attitudes about love. Compassion, or karuna, is the natural response to the misfortunes, unfairness & atrocities that we see or hear about.

The Brahma-vihara of metta, generally translated as lovingkindness, is our response to the conditioned realm, a patient acceptance of everything, whether good or bad. Accepting the good is not so hard, but it is quite difficult not to hate the bad & seek revenge. Metta is not approval of the bad. It doesn’t mean that we remain ignorant or refuse to look. When we are in that state of pure attention & awareness, then we are not compounding the bad with hatred or the desire for revenge. Metta is responding with kindness & patience, without getting caught up in our habitual emotional reactions to repulsive or unpleasant experiences.

Mudita, or sympathetic joy, is the spontaneous response to the beauty & goodness of the world we live in. Upekkha, or equanimity, is a state of composure & emotional balance. It is the ability to know when it’s time to do something & when there is nothing that can be done. The Brahma-viharas are called the divine abodes. They come from the purity of the mind. They are not personal qualities; they are universal.

American-born Ajahn Sumedho, a monk of over 30 years, was abbot of Amaravati Monastery near London from its consecration in 1984 until his retirement in 2010. Regarded as Ajahn Chah’s most influential Western disciple, Sumedho is considered a seminal figure in the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings to the West.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of the magazine “Inquiring Mind.”

See more about Other Teachers & Folks We Value