Ayya Medhanandi (‘Amma’)


Traditionally, dana and sila, the perfections of generosity and right conduct and speech, have been understood as worthy qualities of the heart to be developed in daily life, and as the preliminary steps to prepare the groundwork for our meditation practice. But, in fact, they touch every aspect of meditation practice not just the foundations. For the path is not linear. It is not like climbing a ladder where you start with the rung of dana and sila and finally, at some stage, progress to samadhi (concentration) and panna (wisdom) after years and years or lifetimes of building up generosity and a good heart. These qualities are to be treasured by the spiritual warrior at every step. Whether you are sitting on your cushion to meditate or reflecting on skilful choices to make in your life, there and then you can be cultivating dana and sila.

Generosity and a good heart support the cultivation of clear seeing and concentration in the mind in two ways. First, they bring joy in a general sense of well-being, in particular when I give with a pure intention, a pure gift, to one who is worthy. That kind of giving brings great fruit to the giver. One of the Buddha's great disciples was Visakha, a very dignified and generous lay devotee. She is perhaps best remembered for her extraordinary generosity to the Sangha. And at one time she undertook a commitment to make gifts to the monks and the nuns for as long as life would last in the way of medicines that they would need when sick or travelling. She also provided bathing cloths. And when Visakha reflected on her own generosity, she reflected in this way:

Remembering it, I shall be glad and when glad, I shall be happy; with my mind happy, my body will be tranquil; when my body is tranquil, I shall feel pleasure. When I feel pleasure, my mind will become concentrated and that will bring the development of the spiritual faculties in me.

Second, as joy arises from that generosity, virtue takes root. This is an internal state of sila, a heart that is open and in harmony. In its purity, the mind grows unified and exalted. If you are dishonest, dishonourable, deceitful, if you disappoint people, if you're insensitive, reflect on your state of mind. Can inner contentment be supported by a mind ruled by desire and aversion? You may shower gifts on others, but what is the quality of your mind? Inner tranquility and happiness are founded upon an enduring gratitude, a wholeness of being stemming from a natural inclination to commit to right living. But, where there is any residue of unrelenting hatred, ill-will, confusion and doubt, then how can you feel grateful? How can you truly be mindful and present for this moment and be able rest in it when your mind is caught in negative emotions?

Think about your own life. What are you holding in your heart against yourself, or against another person? Is there a trace of lack of forgiveness towards yourself or anyone else, or even towards life? As long as you remain bitter, resentful or disappointed, you are practising fear rather than forgiveness. These become the obstacles to Nibbana. It is not a terminal illness, not a history of childhood abuse nor a disastrous relationship that stands in your way - not the infirmity of old age or pending death itself, not crippling disease, not losing your loved one, being attacked, abandoned, shunned, or made redundant. None of these are obstacles to freedom from pain as much as that residue of darkness, of hostility, of discontent and negativity in the mind.

When my first spiritual teacher in India was mortally wounded by one of his crazed devotees, he was not concerned for himself, but asked after the man's well-being, knowing that he would have to go to prison for his action. This is perfected generosity - 'giving for' or forgiving the other unconditionally, forgiving life and transcending the state of clinging to the world and worldly conditions. In such a state, one is content with, at peace with, grateful for life's situation, even if conventionally speaking it appears to be tragic.

But you have to begin where you are, allowing yourself to feel the difficulty of your own predicament. Making peace with how you are is in itself an act of generosity and honesty. It is pure gift. You are the giver and the receiver of the gift. But it is not meant for you alone. When eventually you receive the wisdom of no self, it becomes a gift for everyone around you.

Practising with these qualities of generosity and goodness in the heart, you let go what has been unbearable and what you have judged and defended against and resisted. This leads to a ripening of the spiritual faculties, pure listening, pure attention in the moment, giving yourself more and more fully to the silence of the mind. You train the restless mind, the wanting mind, the tired mind, the angry mind or the confused mind to settle and to see clearly, to see things as they really are and not as you think they are.

You are no longer caught in the energies of fear, fantasy, obsession, anxiety and emotional debris. You no longer believe that what appears to be real is real, that the world with all its fleeting sights and sounds and experiences is permanent, that what is false is true. As it turns away from the tides of distraction, restlessness and aggression, the mind can no longer wander out but instead, inclines to its centre, towards wholeness and goodness. Right there in the silent mind, well-concentrated and at peace - mindfulness creates a seal, an energetic field of protection around you to stop the flow of the mental rivers of greed, hatred and delusion.

Think of the Maori greenstone, pounamu. Until you polish it very well, you can't see the radiance of the green colour of that stone: it has to be rubbed and attended to patiently for a long time. The surface dullness has to be eroded away. It acts as a gloss over the shining green stone within, like a protective veneer. Likewise with training the mind, every time you apply a moment of wholesomeness, a moment of goodness, generosity of attention and goodwill towards yourself - you peel away the layers of illusion, focusing the light of awareness into the darkest corners of your heart, and revealing the truth of your inner being, your Buddha nature. This is what is described in Maori as polishing the greenstone or 'growing from the inside'.

Then, by cultivating skilful mind states, such as the sublime abidings of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity, you strengthen and stabilise pure awareness. This internal protection is a fruition of morality. It's not a formulaic blossoming of virtue dependent on a system of rules to be followed but one that arises from your natural understanding of the connection between goodness and joy in stillness. A still mind grows serene, unsullied, wise. It is fearless and tolerant. And it radiates calm into every aspect of your life. The process of establishing internal sila, that inner purity and calm, is a gradual one, like the polishing of the greenstone. And so we practise.

Imagine a surfer balancing on his surfboard: it's very difficult to balance on a wave that's about to crash down but you practise. You get up on the surfboard and balance yourself. You have to focus, concentrate, and brave the wave. You try to balance in the present and you keep crashing into the past and future but you rise back up each time using all your experience and discernment to climb up again on the wave of the mind's energies; and you stand in the middle.

The conditioned realm is completely seductive - always promising to make us happy but unable to keep its promises. Real happiness can only come when you are ready to give up that struggle for conditions to be the way you want them to be and you are willing to stand in the very middle of the flames without being afraid. You trust that in facing your fear, your longing, your selfishness, you can finally find the way to end fear, longing and selfishness.

So with unwavering commitment to being fully in the present moment no matter what it feels like, terrifying, strange, anguished, bereft, hopeless, painful, you persevere. You sit and watch - you polish the moment, growing peace from the inside. Whatever the mind is begging you to pay attention to - in the past, in the future or in present distracted thought - you let it go. You learn to forgive everything that once seemed unforgivable. In this way, you let go any idea of the way things should be, or of who you are. And you cultivate gratitude for one breath more - even if it feels like hell.

This is the meaning of waking up, being consciously alive - a human being for the very first time. It begins with stilling the hurricanes of the heart and opening to what we fear and avoid with acceptance and courage. The practice of gratitude is a doorway to liberation. Without it, we can scarcely set foot on this path that leads to deeper and deeper happiness. There are many levels of gratitude such as thankfulness for a gift offered, for a kind word, a helping hand, for life's blessings or good fortune. There is also gratitude that emerges from a heart contented, a simple abiding with life just as it is. This is gratitude undirected to a specific person or situation. It indicates a general well-being and equilibrium and if authentic, it will even stand the test of life's travails.

© Ayya Medhanandi