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More on darkness and light…

More on darkness and light… April 23, 2009

After two days at nearly 70 degrees I think it’s actually trying to snow here in Missoula, MT!

Busy times here in my little umwelt. I’m 90% moved from my house near the U and in with the most lovely Julie the jeweler. ‘Tis a temporary stay though, as I seek out a still more solitary abode in which to complete my thesis, on which I’m giving myself a very firm 15-month deadline. That and the China trip and presentation in Montreal should all keep me fully busy for the next six months (though it’s hard to think of a time recently when I wasn’t fully busy).

Anywho – back to the Buddhisty content. (taken from and expanded from an email to my Pali study-partner)

In post canonical literature discussing the metta sutta, the story is given that the Buddha taught it to monks who had gone into the forest and were frightened by the spirits inhabiting that place.

It was, I believe, Yakkhas that were bothering them. This term comes from the Sanskrit Yaksha (s with a dot underneath) which means a “quick ray of light, but also a ‘ghost’.” It’s kind of funny that their word for ghost or tree spirit would be the same as their word for a quick burst of light. Yaksh (without the ‘a’) can mean to move quickly or swiftly. They can also be kind to men and administer to their spiritual welfare, as “tutelary genii” or angels.

It is interesting how light is associated with spirits and how internal spiritual work – metta – is used to overcome its frightening aspects…

Think of this vs. Western or many Hindu methods where you would instead create an alter to an outside sun or thunder god and ask Him (or the occasional Her) to favor you.

This is just one of countless examples of Buddhism moving us from looking “out there” for solutions or fixes toward looking “in here.” Sure, the monks might have really believed that there were ‘tree spirits’ out there. But rather than having them make a sacrifice or burn the right incense or do a dance, the Buddha simply had the monks cultivate loving-kindness as their ‘weapon’ against the frightening creatures. It’s subtle, but amazing.

And perhaps some see it otherwise – seeing Buddhists looking to the stars for answers or other kinds of divination, etc. But that is always, to my knowledge, a mistake, a sort of half-measure that the Buddha would have only allowed as an upaya-kusala or ‘skill in means’ for people who were incapable of looking within at the time. The Buddha famously used magic tricks a couple times to win over particularly stubborn people – but he went on to forbid his monks to do likewise. Clearly we can get lost in our own magic or that of others, seeing THEM (out there) as the saviors and so on.

Our true work is always inner work. Cultivating warmth and inner-light (metta) protects us from the darknesses and fightening quick flashes of light, yakkhas, that might thwart us in our practice and life. It is good to know that this is within our power. But that also means it is our responsibility.


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