Grace and Practice

Grace is a powerful and inspiring word, just bringing it to mind seems to have an automatically uplifting effect for me. There’s something about grace that seems to resonate with the qualities that we seek to develop when we follow a practice, and yet it isn’t a word that we come across very often in the Pali suttas. Despite this it seems like a good way to describe so much of what we do and what we aspire to when we practice that I wondered if I might be able to find just why it is that grace and practice feel like such a good fit, and if that would help me to understand how we can use it to support our development.

While it is clearly a quality that we would benefit from developing, it isn’t ever mentioned in the Buddhist path of practice as something we need to specifically work on. Theravada practice has ten paramis, equivalent to the paramittas in other schools of Buddhism, which reflect the qualities that the Buddha is said to have developed over his many previous lifetimes and that once they were perfected allowed him to become a buddha. Grace isn’t among them: generosity – dāna, morality – sīla, renunciation – nekkhama, discernment or wisdom – pañña, energy – viriya, patience – khanti, truthfulness – sacca, resolve – adhitthāna, kindness – metta, and equanimity – upekkhā. But still, when we think of a person who had developed the paramis, I’d say it was inevitable that we would expect them to carry themselves with impeccable grace, so it seems to me that there is something that connects these qualities.

The word grace in English has many different possible meanings, and likewise a dictionary search in the opposite direction also throws up a large number of Pali words that could be used to mean grace, so perhaps this is part of the reason that we don’t see it in the suttas so often: it isn’t a word with one meaning that only has one equivalent word in Pali. But I’m going to look at some common meanings and ideas about grace to see if I can uncover how it is that grace seems to intersect so neatly with practice.

The first meaning that grace always brings to mind for me is of movement, the fluidity and poise of a dancer, or the strong flowing movements of a gymnast. Grace implies balance, and that has a very obvious connection to the Buddha’s teachings – the middle way. We too need to maintain a balance of not going to either extreme of any position, and doing that requires a commitment to staying steady in the face of distraction and temptation. So a dancer or gymnast’s ability to convey grace in their movements tells us more than just their ability to maintain their balance; it indicates to us the depth of their focus, their commitment to this moment, the level of their expertise, the connectedness to their physical experience, and a certain quality of their minds too. All of these, of course, are qualities that we are aiming to cultivate in our practices too.

The way a person physically carries themselves in ordinary life can reveal some of these qualities to us too, and that is something that we might not fully appreciate until we start to spend time around people who have diligently cultivated mindful movement. The poise and deliberateness in the way a monastic, or an experienced practitioner, moves is an inspiration, and personally I found their role modelling of this was one of the most convincing indications that following the practice could create significant personal transformation – these guys didn’t just talk the talk, they literally walked the (mindful) walk too.

Even though it has been over a year since I have sat in the temple on a moon night, waiting for the puja to start, I know I would still recognise the sound of Ajahn Amaro’s steady foot steps, carrying himself with such precision that his slight limp from accidentally stabbing himself in the foot is scarcely perceptible. He never fails to enter the space with complete focus and inwardness. His careful movement as he quietly enters the temple, and then moves with deliberation first to the statue of Ajahn Chah at the side, and then to the centre of the room, is always exactly the same, and it sets the tone for the rest of the proceedings. There is a part of our minds that responds to this in a very direct way; Ajahn Amaro could start every puja by spending ten minutes giving us all a pep talk about mindfulness, self-containment, concentration, focus, attention to detail, working hard to perfect ourselves, but he doesn’t need to – he just walks in with care and consideration every week and we all understand the message he is conveying.

The importance of mindful movement is underlined by its inclusion as one of the four foundations of mindfulness practice, and the specifics of it are laid out in the all important Satipatthana Sutta MN 10:

“… when a mendicant is walking they know: ‘I am walking.’ When standing they know: ‘I am standing.’ When sitting they know: ‘I am sitting.’ And when lying down they know: ‘I am lying down.’ Whatever posture their body is in, they know it… Furthermore, a mendicant acts with situational awareness when going out and coming back; when looking ahead and aside; when bending and extending the limbs; when bearing the outer robe, bowl and robes; when eating, drinking, chewing, and tasting; when urinating and defecating; when walking, standing, sitting, sleeping, waking, speaking, and keeping silent.” trans. by Ajahn Sujato

But for the monastics there is an extra layer of instruction coming from the vinaya, which is their code of conduct. In this they are instructed to take care of their movements and behaviour through such things as not swinging their arms around when they walk in public, not sitting sprawled over a chair, not smacking their lips when they eat, and not shovelling so much food into their faces that their cheeks puff out. As lay practitioners there is no requirement for us to undertake these extra rules, but I find them useful to reflect on, to understand what kind of mindset leads to behaving in these commonly seen but ungraceful ways, and what mindset would be needed to act differently.

The next common meaning of grace I want to look at is to do with allowing, and being given grace. This meaning of the word brings up for me qualities like patience, acceptance, metta, and compassion, so it wasn’t a surprise that one of the Pali words offered to mean grace is karuṇā – compassion. These ways to understand grace seem to take us closer to the qualities of the paramis, and it is easy to understand that they are qualities that the Buddha exemplified. Another of the Pali sugestions for grace is dayā, which also means sympathy, compassion, and kindness. This word dayā gets used in this passage in MN 12, here Ajahn Sujato has translated it as ‘pity’:

“I’d step forward or back ever so mindfully. I was full of pity even regarding a drop of water, thinking: May I not accidentally injure any little creatures that happen to be in the wrong place.” trans. by Ajahn Sujato 

The Buddha is talking about himself in this passage and his own practice leading up to becoming enlightened. We see that he was cultivating a state of grace towards all beings, being so mindful of them that he wouldn’t even pour away some water in case it were to cause any harm. While this inner quality that the Buddha was cultivating wasn’t a physical expression of the kind I’ve already talked about, I feel sure that if we had been watching him carefully pour away water that we would have seen it carried out with much grace and poise regardless. But I don’t think that grace would have come from the mindfulness of his movements, I think the grace of his mind would have been conveyed to us by his actions too. This quality of the display of grace having to come from our inner world is conveyed by these verses from the Dharmapada:

One becomes graceful
Not by having flower-like complexion
While being miserly, jealous and deceitful,
And acting contrary to his words.

He who can renounce evil
Having cut it off by its root,
Who is wise and hatred-free
Is said to be graceful. trans. by Ajahn Dhammajoti

Grace is very hard to fake, if there are any elements in us that don’t support grace then we will be found out eventually, so when we meet someone with a lot of grace we can see that they have cultivated a lot of good internal qualities.

This connects well with another word that was suggested as a translation for grace from Pali, which is līḷhā, a word that means polished. If we take some of the suttas literally then the Buddha was described as being ‘golden’ in skin colour, and that he actually shone. Whether he was golden or not, I’m pretty sure that the Buddha did shine, not because his skin was polished but because his mind was. His countenance was something that is mentioned in the suttas as attracting people’s attention, and he told the story of how the first person who met him after he achieved enlightenment came to talk to him:

“While I was traveling along the road between Gaya and Bodhgaya, the Ājīvaka ascetic Upaka saw me and said, ‘Reverend, your faculties are so very clear, and your complexion is pure and bright. In whose name have you gone forth, reverend? Who is your Teacher? Whose teaching do you believe in?’” trans Ajahn Sujato

The Buddha was clearly emitting a certain something that was obvious to Upaka in his physical expression. The Buddha didn’t do so well when he started speaking though, giving Upaka such an audacious description of his achievements such as describing himself as being the champion, the knower of all, the supreme teacher, and the perfected one, that Upaka assumed he was crazy and left in such a hurry that he went the wrong way:

“When I had spoken, Upaka said: ‘If you say so, reverend.’ Shaking his head, he took a wrong turn and left.” trans Ajahn Sujato

The Buddha learned from this incident though, as he realised that simply telling people that he was enlightened wasn’t going to be sufficient for them to believe him, so when he delivers his first real teaching to his five former friends in the Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta SN 56.11he uses a different tone entirely, taking time to explain the steps of experiences and insights that he went through that led to him achieving enlightenment. You could consider this as an action that exemplifies grace too, there are many examples in the Pali canon where the Buddha didn’t get things right first time and rather than stick bullheadedly to his guns, he always had the grace to accept that an action hadn’t created the correct outcome and tried something different next time.

But grace in these examples points to a quality, rather than a skill, and that it is one that is clear to see, it simply shines out of the person who has it. A person who meets the world with grace has a noble quality, they are contained and untroubled by the comings and goings of the world. They act with a quality of certainty, in the directness of their movements, and in the selectiveness of their words. Watching them move, much in the way a friend told me he was transfixed by the way that Thich Nhat Hanh drank from a glass of water, is both a lesson and an inspiration to us. Hearing them speak is a balm to our hearts and minds, we know that whatever they say it will be expressed perfectly and will create no friction. They become almost not of this world, not in an otherwordly sense but in a sense of simply having risen above the coarse crude nature of the world.

And in this way I see grace as almost being the natural outcome of following the practice well. Embodied mindfulness practice will express itself as the grace in our movements, the cultivation of right speech will be heard in the grace of our communications, the depth of our concentration will be seen in the grace that comes from being able to keep our focus on what is important in the moment, and the development of metta will be felt in the unhesitating grace that allows everyone the space to be just as they are. This poem written by one of the elder monks conveys the connection between grace and the graduated path of training:

When the eightfold way, so full of grace,
the supreme path, cleanser of all corruptions,
is seen with wisdom; and one is mindful, practicing absorption:
there is no greater pleasure than this. trans. by Ajahn Sujato

Grace conveys to us the level of mastery that a person has reached, and this is often reassuring to us. We feel safe in the company of someone who can carry themselves with grace, knowing that even if we don’t know how to do the right thing, they will, and even if they don’t they will still navigate the uncertainty with calm and clarity. So grace also has this power to both uplift us and to reassure us, and I think that this is another way it can prove to be beneficial for our practice. The inspiring nature of grace makes it the perfect subject for right effort, particularly when we are to create and maintain skillful states of mind. I find thinking of grace as a concept alone can be enough to lift the heart and mind out of the quagmire and turn it towards more refined subjects.

Reflecting on how you might carry out a task with grace can help you to slow down and act with more deliberation. If we are fortunate enough to be around people who carry themselves with grace then these people can be a role model for us; I hadn’t ever considered it was possible to act with such composure and poise in everything I did until I saw it for myself in the perfect comportment of the monastics. Seeing that opened up a whole new realm of possibility for me, and gave me something to aim for. Trying to cultivate grace in our mindful movement can help us to recognise where we are getting it right; it is very difficult to flow seamlessly from one thing to the next if we have got our mind on something else, or if we are nursing a foul mood – it is very difficult to be graceful and angry at the same time. Grace requires balance, not just of the body but of the mind, so when we aim to be graceful we recognise how important it is to not go too far either one way or the other. And to have grace we need to keep our focus very squarely on the right things, which reminds us to keep our attention on the right subjects.

So grace isn’t a step on the Noble Eightfold Path, and it isn’t a parami, but it seems that it is a quality that is interwoven into much of what we do in the practice. As a quality to cultivate it supports the work of the other factors of the path, and as these other factors are perfected grace seems to be the natural outcome of them. Grace can inspire us to new levels of care and diligence, and our moments of grace can inspire others to do the same, so grace may well be part of the path after all.

Photo by Lucie Hošová on Unsplash

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