I recollected my manifold past lives . . .: There I was so named, of such a clan, with such an appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life term; and passing away from there, I reappeared elsewhere; and there too I was so named, of such a clan, with such and appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life term; and passing away from there, I reappeared here.’ Thus with their aspects and particulars I recollected my manifold past lives. This was the first true knowledge attained by me in the first watch of the night . . .
Inspired by Linda Blanchard’s recent post, a naturalistic interpretation of the First Watch pericope began to occur to me.
One of the practices Gotama advises in the suttas as a pathway to awakening is the cultivation of metta, one of the brahma viharas. What is the object of metta practice? We are called upon to develop boundless friendliness toward ourselves, those close to us, those who barely register in our awareness, those with whom we have a bad time, and, ultimately, all sentient beings everywhere. Feeling metta toward those we know and care about may not be too challenging. But how do we develop metta toward those we don’t know, toward those we positively dislike?
The basis for developing an intention of kindness toward everyone is the contemplation that everyone, regardless of who they are and what their relationship to us may be, has some very fundamental things in common. We all want to be safe and protected from inner and outer harm. We all want happiness and to live life with ease. We want to experience love and connectedness with others. When we cultivate the physical sensation of metta, we become both the source and the recipient of that heart warmth. The experience of metta connects us with the foundational motivations of everyone who ever lived.
As I do metta practice, I find myself trying to connect with the homeless guy hanging around outside my office; the people who bring my mail and serve my coffee; all the other people participating in this traffic jam; even that bastard in the office or the malevolent politician. Regardless of their appearance or the circumstances of their lives, they share my longing for safety, peace and love. If I know that about everyone, how could I want to harm anyone? Why wouldn’t I want to do what I could to help those around me bear the common burden of our existence? Why wouldn’t I share our common store of happiness?
Perhaps the meaning of the First Watch is that, when we awaken, we experience our common humanity. To develop metta is to recognize that we are each thrown into the accidental conditions of a life that will bring us arbitrary shares of joy and misery and will end one day in death. This is not some abstract concept of oneness, but a mindful awareness of how the particularities of our lives reflect our shared experience as sentient beings, our shared propensity for craving, aversion and bewilderment. Whenever and however we are born, whatever our circumstances, we share the same existential condition, and the same potential to wake up.
Seen in this way, anyone’s birth, life and death, past, present, or future, are only superficially different from my own. We are all living the same life, or rather, the same life is living us. There I was so named, of such a clan, with such an appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life term . . .