Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Piyavagga: Dear Ones (Affection)

I have noted some benefit coming out of my personal challenge to blog daily. And it isn’t that I am now more familiar with the Dhammapada than I ever had been before, although there is benefit in that, to be sure. No, the benefit I am experiencing is subtle, and yet profound. Because when I began this self-imposed task, I had only recently said goodbye to my partner. If I were to retreat in anyway as a reaction to his leaving the country, it made sense to retreat into the Dhamma, to seek refuge.

By sticking to this task of blogging daily about each chapter in the Dhammapada, I have diverted my sorrow into something more positive. It’s still there, but it feels diffused because I didn’t give it the opportunity to fester and build. And in the process, I’ve been able to sort through my feelings, my attachments. I have been able to contemplate in a way my relationship with someone very dear to me and face what goes on internally when separation occurs.

This sounds so analytical, so clinical, so unfeeling; but I assure you, it has been anything but a dissociative experience. One thing I can say is that this has been eye-opening. I have contemplated love in ways I never have before. I can remember my first experiences with men and at that time love was instantaneous and filled with infatuation. It was an all or nothing endeavor that often left me feeling like a gutted corpse. But slowly, painfully, this addictive behavior (we say things like “I need you, I got to have you, I can’t live without you!” My god, we could be just as well be talking about Vicodin) gave way to something more appreciative, more like the true kind of loving kindness, metta, that the Buddha talked about.

And so it is with a very different pair of eyes that I approach the Piyavagga today than, let’s say, nine years ago when I first encountered the Dhamma.

“Having applied himself
to what was not his own task,
and not having applied himself
to what was,
having disregarded the goal
to grasp at what he held dear,
he now envies those
who kept after themselves,
took themselves
to task.”

I’m not envious of those who have taken up vows, who have followed a monastic path. But I do wonder with greater frequency what bliss they have found that would cause them to give up on this wonderful and painful but beautifully sensual life.

“Don’t ever — regardless —
be conjoined with what’s dear
or undear.
It’s painful
not to see what’s dear
or to see what’s not.

So don’t make anything dear,
for it’s dreadful to be far
from what’s dear.
No bonds are found
for those for whom
there’s neither dear
nor undear.”

Not for a minute do I believe these verses to be telling me that not making anything dear means not to love anything or anyone. In this context, I believe the word “dear” is being used to mean something that is so valued that I must have it, I cannot be separated from it. So I can love someone and not be selfishly possessive. As Elton John sang, “butterflies are free to fly, fly away, high away, bye bye.”

The next set of verses are somewhat difficult to interpret usefully.

“From what’s dear is born grief,
from what’s dear is born fear.
For one freed from what’s dear
there’s no grief
— so how fear?

From what’s loved is born grief,
from what’s loved is born fear.
For one freed from what’s loved
there’s no grief
— so how fear?

From delight is born grief,
from delight is born fear.
For one freed from delight
there’s no grief
— so how fear?

From sensuality is born grief,
from sensuality is born fear.
For one freed from sensuality
there’s no grief
— so how fear?

From craving is born grief,
from craving is born fear.
For one freed from craving
there’s no grief
— so how fear?”

I get the idea of being freed from craving, freed from sensuality, and even freed from delight, or that is a bit more difficult. Does being freed from delight mean that I no longer feel that bubbly emotion we call delight? Does it mean I cannot delight is a lovely poem? A beautiful sunset.? A kind gesture? And when it comes to the idea of being freed from what’s dear, from what’s loved is more difficult. Am I free from Benny because he’s gone? And does that mean I stop loving him? This is a bit more knotty.

The notion of delight, or affection, gets turned around a bit in the final verses. For example, look at the last verses.

“A man long absent
comes home safe from afar.
His kin, his friends, his companions,
delight in his return.

In just the same way,
when you’ve done good
& gone from this world
to the world beyond,
your good deeds receive you —
as kin, someone dear
come home.”

In this example, the fact that a man’s return after a long absence to his kin, friends, etc., brings delight to these people is used as a positive to demonstrate the rewards one can experience by doing good: after death, the merit gathered welcomes you as if a long lost friend. Obviously, in the first part the people described held great affection for the returning man; they held him dearly. That’s a good thing, because it is used as a literary method to explain the workings of kamma and the accumulation of merit in our lives.

So it would seem to be a fine line between the type of “holding someone dear” that is infatuation or obsession, and this which is loving-kindness, a type of affection that is nurturing and non-binding rather than clinging and dependent.

When I think about it, I have to wonder, how can you have happiness without some type of object that is the source of that happiness? Or at least the catalyst for that happiness? The Buddha taught that all states of being are conditioned upon a prior state of being or condition. But Nibbana is an unconditioned state even though I cannot attain it unless I break all conditions, which is a condition itself.

Alright, I’m getting dizzy. Suffice it to say that I believe in love.


  1. Very thought-provoking post that I *delighted* in reading! (ha.)

    After reading/listening to a bunch of suttas, I've gotten the feeling that the Buddha was pretty much saying the same thing over and over. So maybe we can kind of interpolate the meaning of "From delight is born grief," etc., from stuff in other suttas. One of my favorites is #148 from the Majjhima Nikaya: "The Six Sets of Six." Very repetitive and powerful. In there he says,
    "When one is touched by a pleasant [eye/nose/mind...]feeling, if one delights in it, welcomes it, and remains holding to it, then the underlying tendency to lust lies within one."
    Meaning that when a pleasant feeling comes around, you can let it be pleasant, but don't "grab on." He then goes on with painful and neutral feelings -- the common gist being: see it for what it is: painful or pleasant or neutral feeling. But don't pull or push. Don't let your mind tense up and go "Ooh I like that!" (<= craving.) Just observe and enjoy the feeling and relax.

    Your questions on no longer enjoying a beautiful sunset (, lovely poem, etc.) definitely struck a chord with me. A few years ago I lived in an apartment that overlooked the Pacific Ocean, and many nights I got to see a breathtaking sunset. But.... whenever I looked out that window, I just had these pangs of "I hope my next apartment has a view like this.. my lease is up in a few months." "Where's my camera?" "Why don't I feel happy about this amazing view that other people would love to have?" and tons of other *thoughts* that were just clouding the "pleasant eye-feeling" that I didn't even notice anymore because I was a million miles away. I rarely actually enjoyed the view!

    The same thing often happens to me when I see anything beautiful. Instead of enjoying it, my mind kicks into photographer mode. "Which lens would I use? What time should I come back here to get the perfect lighting? How would I photoshop that?" yada yada and not enjoying the beauty at all. And it's not just with visual beauty, I kinda do the same with pleasant feelings from all 6 senses.

    As for loving another person, yeah, that's a toughie. :/   I'm hopelessly in love with my wife and daughter, and can't really talk about them like they're sunsets, can I?.. But, well, let's go with that: My daughter is 3 and is constantly doing/saying super-cute things. But whenever she does, my default is to go down this path of "but she's growing up and won't be doing this much longer, boo-hoo, where's the video camera :(" ... Or at moments of strong love for my wife, it's not long (less than a second sometimes?) before I'm thinking about impermanence and death....

    The textbook answer, of course, is, don't think! (duh! :))Let the feelings be there. How easy is that to do? Well, it's said that craving is very weak, but very persistent. It's easy to overcome, to relax it away, but the moment you lose your mindfulness, it's back. (How you actually DO that depends on your own personal practice..)

    Feelings of pain come up too, and according to the same sutta, we should treat them in the same way: see them, let them be. You still feel the pain, but it's not as intense nor long-lasting, because you're not fueling it with a maelstrom of thoughts. Let it be, and it'll pass. (By the same token, pleasant feelings are less "bubbly," but still very pleasant.)

    So like you said, it's a fine line between non-binding loving-kindness, and "holding someone dear."
    From my experience with my wife and little girl, it's a moment-to-moment thing. Usually, I'm pretty clingy with both of them. Occasionally, I'm aware and able to radiate love and just be okay with whatever's happening in the present moment. Workin' on that. :)

  2. Wow Dave, all that sent by phone? LOL. I will make a note about reading MN 148 and coming back to this after I finish with the Dhammapada. I guess I did provoke a lot of thought out of you, hehe. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  3. lol, I ended up emailing it to myself, then copy-pasting on the phone. :)
    gonna listen to some Zappa now!