Step 2 – Finding the Footprints
The Ninth Dharma Realm
Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints. Even under the fragrant grass, I see his prints. Deep in remote mountains they are found. These traces can no more be hidden than one’s nose, looking heavenward.
Loving Kindness (metta)
All mankind’s troubles are caused by one single thing, which is their inability to sit quietly in a room.
In the commentary for the ox-herding pictures, the second step of Finding the Footprints is referred to as “Finding a path to follow.” Loving Kindness meditation is such a path.
The central practice of this dharma realm is metta, loving kindness meditation. This practice provides the antidote for the ill will that defines this second-from-the-bottom realm, that of the hungry ghosts.
After doing our best to establish Present Moment Awareness, including counting our exhalations as taught by Master Hakuin, we seamlessly transition into a second form of meditation taught by the Theravada school of Buddhism.
This meditation is the perfect meditation to help us climb out of the ninth dharma realm.
Master Hsuan Hua says that dislike and hatred of others (and ill will directed to one’s self as well) causes beings to fall into the ninth dharma realm, known as the realm of hungry ghosts. (They are not hell-dwellers, but their suffering is intense and their spiritual development is below that of animals. Imagine being less aware than a crocodile!)
Most modern people scoff at the notion of a Hungry Ghost dharma realm. It is perhaps best understood when one considers that even animal and plant species are not always clearly defined, i.e., there are animals and plants that blur between species and are difficult to classify. There are even some creatures that can be classified as plants and animals, of course.
The dharma realm of hungry ghosts is thus understood as being a transitional realm between the hell worlds and the dharma realm of animals. The hungry ghosts have developed enough happiness to escape the unhappiness of the “hell” domain but they still are more defiled than animals.
Some teachers say that hungry ghosts are created by excessive greed rather than hate and anger. But Master Hsuan Hua says that excessive greed leads to the dharma realm of animals so we will stick with his teachings. Either way, we don’t want to cultivate hate, anger, or greed. Those are unwholesome states and our job is to cultivate wholesome states.
Therefore, to climb out of the ninth dharma realm, and to ensure that we won’t fall back into it, and to find the footprints of the ox, we practice Loving Kindness (metta) meditation every morning after practicing Present Moment Awareness.
We can Google Loving Kindness meditation and find many different variations of it.
It typically goes something like this:
May I be well, happy, calm, and peaceful.
As we sit in our zazen posture, we repeat that statement (mentally) several times. It helps to reinforce feelings of happiness that we cultivate during the first step of Present Moment Awareness. Then we repeat each of the following statements in the same way:
May all of the members of my family be well, happy, calm, and peaceful.
May all of my relatives be well, happy, calm, and peaceful.
May all of my friends be well, happy, calm, and peaceful.
May all strangers be well, happy, calm, and peaceful.
May the people I dislike be well, happy, calm, and peaceful and may my dislike fade away.
May all beings on the earth be well, happy, calm, and peaceful.
May all beings throughout all of the universes be well, happy, calm, and peaceful.
Bhante Dhammawansha (my metta teacher in Clearwater, Florida), wearing his robe which he calls “my tablecloth.”
We sit quietly and still, letting each thought of loving kindness pervade ourselves and the universes. We don’t rush through the practice. By enjoying and savoring each step of the practice, we cultivate patience, the third of The Six Perfections.
By climbing out of the ninth dharma realm, we have found the footprints of the ox and need only one more practice to pull ourselves from the dharma realm that is third from the bottom.
The three dharma realms at the bottom of the ten dharma realms are known in Mahayana Buddhism as the evil dharma realms. With our next practice, step three, we will at least have climbed out of those realms.
Daily metta meditation is of profound importance. We will soon discover its magic.
Sharon Salzberg, a well-known metta meditation teacher even says metta meditation is the only meditation she practices. Her most famous book is Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.
Sharon Salzberg, Co-Founder of the Insight Meditation Society
As we perform our Loving Kindness meditation each morning, dissolving the second hindrance of ill will and insulating ourselves from falling into the realm of hungry ghosts, we can also send to the hell dwellers and the hungry ghosts our wishes that their suffering will soon end so that they, too, can be well, happy, calm and peaceful.
The traditional interpretation of the second stage of the path to enlightenment represented by the ten Ox-herding pictures says that Finding the Footprints (or, to be more accurate, the hoof-prints), is the stage where those few who have persevered and successfully overcome the desire to quit eventually realize that not quitting was the right thing to do.
They have accepted the Buddhadharma and have decided they will continue cultivation, even if they are stuck at the starting line and can’t seem to get past it.
The physical pain of sitting subsides somewhat as we become experienced meditators. We leave behind those who gave up at the seeking the ox stage. We begin to realize that we are all the same person (because we all have the same mind), and thus we understand that we are leaving our old selves behind. Having found the footprints, we are committed to following them until the ox is caught.
Still, no jhana has yet been experienced. The difference between seeking the ox and finding the footprints is just a matter of degree. A resolution to keep practicing matures into a firm commitment to practice every day so that the rowboat of practice does not get swept downstream to the lower dharma realms.
After we have performed our metta meditation, we seamlessly enter into our third practice in order to have a first glimpse of the ox. The third step of our morning practice is the second step of placing mindfulness up front as taught by the Buddha and explained in detail by the Venerable Ajahn Brahm.
We sandwich metta meditation between the two steps of establishing mindfulness because metta meditation is the antidote to ill will and therefore it is the practice that lifts us from the ninth dharma realm. Also, by practicing metta after Present Moment Awareness, we are practicing an enhanced, mindful form of metta.