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Ajahn Amaro

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The happy monk

How would you assess the study of Buddha Dharma and the practice of meditation now being taught in the West ?

Par Ajahn Amaro

Living Buddhism in the West

Interview with Ajahn Amaro by Inquiring Mind Magazine

After spending time with the Western monk Ajahn Amaro, one is left with the unique feeling of having been in the presence of a truly happy man, and one whose happiness is born of wisdom. Ordained by Ajahn Cha in 1979, Ajahn Amaro has spent most of his life as a monk at the Amaravati monastery in England. In recent years he has lived in Northern California for several months each winter. Soon Ajahn Amaro will be taking up permanent residence in California on 120 acres of forested land in Redwood Valley, Mendocino County, where a Theravadan monastery will be established. The land was gifted to Ajahn Sumedho, abbot of Amaravati, and to the Sanghapala Foundation by the founder of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, Master Hua, who passed away this past Spring. The following interview with Ajahn Amaro was conducted by Wes Nisker and Terry Vandiver in March of 1995, on the porch of Ajahn Amaro’s residence in Marin County, California.

***

INQUIRING MIND : How would you assess the study of Buddha Dharma and the practice of meditation now being taught in the West ?

AJAHN AMARO : In the West people tend to separate their meditation practice from their lives. Ajahn Chah emphasized that "if you have time to breathe you have time to meditate." You breathe when you walk. You breathe when you stand. You breathe when you lie down.

I think part of the problem in the West is the emphasis on retreats. If you do a lot of intensive retreats you will develop strong concentration. Many of the people I meet in America have been doing retreats for 15-20 years and they are really quite accomplished concentrators. But I’m afraid they have not found much freedom.

Notice how the word "sitting" has become synonymous with meditation or with practicing Dharma. Sitting is the operative word, meaning, "I am here on my cushion, my eyes are closed, the world has dissolved into emptiness." We have learned how to concentrate our minds and then to push out our worldly irritations and responsibilities. We create this great space inside and become very good at getting rid of thoughts and feelings. Meditation can thus become rather like being in a shooting gallery with the little ducks. You can become a great marksman or markswoman, shooting down the thought ducks and the feeling ducks.

IM : Is this emphasis on intensive meditation retreats unique to the West ? Or is it imported from Asian traditions ?

AA : One reason for the retreat emphasis, at least in vipassana circles, is due to the Asian systems that have fostered many of our teachers and styles of practice. Goenka-ji and Mahasi Sayadaw’s disciples emphasize a very controlled retreat situation as the primary path. Retreat, retreat, retreat. Those teachers have had enormous influence and have helped tens of thousands of people, but I think that their style has led to this imbalance, the unhealthy separation between life and retreat.

Of course, if you go on retreats for 20 years you can create tremendous inner space. But it can become almost like a police state. You just clear the streets of all the unruly inhabitants of your mind. And while you may get them off the streets, the guerrillas will still be active underground. So when you leave the retreat, you begin to experience your ordinary life as difficult and turbulent. Then you can’t wait to get to the next retreat. I am speaking very generally here, and maybe exaggerating a bit, but I think I am describing a pattern that many of your readers will recognize.

IM : In contrast, Ajahn Chah and teachers in the Thai forest tradition did not emphasize retreats so much, and placed equal importance on community and daily life.

AA : Ajahn Chah would have us do periods of intensive practice, but we would still go out on alms round in the morning and there would always be work to do around the monastery. So even the times of intensive, formal practice were not so separated from life or so completely free of stimulus.

When you focus on creating a clear, subjective, interior space, then your life is built around trying to be in that space with as few distractions as possible. That space then becomes a counterpoint to the external world. Even though we might have great brightness of mind or experiences of selflessness within that space, those states exist in counterpoint to our family, our society, and the entire phenomenal and physical world. We are losing half the picture. Furthermore, our peace and happiness becomes completely dependent on conditions.

I have recently been addressing this issue through the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment. During the course of the night, as the story goes, the Buddha-to-be made his vow not to get up from his seat until he was completely enlightened. The Lord of Illusion, Mara, tried to disturb his meditation with fearful and sensual images but was unsuccessful. By the end of the night, the Buddha’s realization into truth was complete, but although he was fully awakened the armies of Mara were still around him.

Then Mara asked him, "What right do you think you have to claim enlightenment ?" The Buddha then reached down and touched the earth, invoking the Earth Mother who appeared and said, "This is my true son and he has done everything necessary to claim complete and full enlightenment. He is the supremely awakened one." Then from her hair she produced a great flood of water which washed away the armies of Mara, who eventually returned carrying flowers and other offerings.

I think the story is saying that if our liberation is simply a subjective, mental, interior experience then we are only half-cooked. Wisdom has to reach out into the world. Even the Buddha has to make that gesture of humility and ask the earth for her blessing. In order for the armies of Mara to really be dispelled, we have to open our eyes and step out of that blissful interior space. For liberation to be finalized we have to touch the earth.

IM : What prompted you to become a Buddhist monk ?

AA : When I first visited Ajahn Chah’s monastery in Thailand, I found a group of Westerners like myself, with very similar backgrounds, who were living in the forest doing Buddhist meditation practice. And they all seemed remarkably cheerful.

When they explained their way of life and the basis of their practice, it made perfect sense to me. Previously I had assumed that freedom came from having no rules and no boundaries. I’d never really questioned that premise, even though trying to live that way had been painful and difficult. These monks suggested that I look for freedom where it could actually be found. They pointed out that the material world is filled with limits, and you don’t look for that which is boundless in the place where you find limitation. They explained that by living a life which is disciplined, simple, and harmless one could discover the true freedom that inherently lies within us. Upon hearing their words, my immediate reaction was, "How could I have been so stupid ?" I felt simultaneously embarrassed and relieved.

IM : Did the monk’s life live up to your initial expectations ?

AA : Absolutely. Even though the last thing I would have planned for myself was a lifetime of celibacy and renunciation, what I discovered was a new delight in simplicity and the deep satisfaction that comes from not actively seeking satisfaction. It is a strange but sweet irony that in the monastery I find the very delight that I was so rabidly searching for outside the monastery. It just looks like I’ve given up everything, but actually, the inner experience is one of great delight. In fact, this monk’s life is a feast ! When I was first ordained I used to think, "I don’t deserve this," or "I’m not going to get away with this for very long."

IM : Are there any particular difficulties that you encounter as a Buddhist monk in the West ? How do you feel walking around in robes in this culture ?

AA : For me it has always seemed like the most normal thing in the world. I think, to a degree, we all feel like outsiders in life. We all feel slightly different from other people in one way or another, and being dressed like a Buddhist monk in the West is just another form of being different.

Besides, even though we are Buddhist monks and nuns, we are only alien when we are outside the monastery. Inside the monastery it is normal to have a shaved head and wear brown robes : the women have shaved heads and the men wear skirts !

Living as part of a Buddhist monastic community makes all the difference, whether you are in the West or the East. Ajahn Chah always emphasized the Sangha, the community, as a method of practice in and of itself. It wasn’t a matter of living with a bunch of other people just in order to do meditation practice. The life of the community of monks and nuns was itself a method of practice and a method of liberation. Although Ajahn Chah did teach individual meditation techniques, over and over again he stressed the importance of community. I think that is one of the reasons why our monasteries have succeeded in the West.

Also, when you live in a community, then the monastic traditions make a lot of sense. They work and they work well. We aren’t just trying to sustain some archaic Asian system as a curio or a formality. The life of renunciation — living on alms, wearing the same robes as everyone else — and all of the rules are methods whereby we train ourselves. Through those forms the heart can be liberated.

IM : Most Westerners don’t seem to be very attracted to community as a path. Perhaps one reason is because that path clashes with our cultural belief in the primacy of the individual, the importance of going it alone.

AA : I would agree. Community life is about setting aside my own desires for the sake of the group. It’s self-sacrifice. To the individualist, that sounds like death. But the training in communality is, for many Westerners, a blessed shift in perspective. Because what makes us suffer most of all in life is having "me" at the center of it all. Our society supports and validates that attitude, which has led to deep feelings of alienation and insecurity.

When we learn how to surrender our own urges and biases, we are not inherently giving up our freedom or denigrating our individuality. Being able to listen and to yield to other people is a way of recognizing our relationship with them and our interdependence with all the life of the planet. As we let go of our selfish demands we begin to recognize the vastness of our true nature. That dynamic is extremely important in the full development of spiritual life.

IM : Do you feel there are significant differences between being a monk in Europe or America and being a monk in Asia ?

AA : One of the great blessings of Buddhist monasticism in the West is that it becomes free of the formalism, ritualism, and cultural accretions of Asia. In many ways, it is much easier for Westerners to get to the essence of the teachings. Even our Asian teachers have remarked on this. They say, "You are really lucky. We have all this cultural baggage that we have to work through with our students." Westerners don’t know anything about the "-ism" of Buddhism before we start our studying and training.

IM : On the other hand, Western monks and nuns don’t get as much support from the lay population as their Asian brothers and sisters.

AA : Yes, and that respect and support is very sweet. When I go to Thailand, I get treated like a visiting dignitary. In the West we still have to earn our respect. I’ve had people say to me, "What do you do for a living ? What do you contribute to the Gross National Product ?"

IM : You should just tell them you are working on the Subtle National Product.

AA : I respond by asking them what makes a nation healthy ? Does it depend on how many sacks of wheat it exports or how many tons of steel it sells ? Or does the health of a nation include the well-being of individuals, and furthermore, is that well-being only dependent on their physical health and comfort, or does it also involve their peace of mind ? I try to expand the definition of national well-being.

IM : What are the hardest monastic rules to keep when you are living in Western culture ?

AA : It is different for different people, I think, but for many of us the hardest rules are those around celibacy, maintaining a kind of evenness in our relationships with other people. And it’s not just about refraining from sexual intercourse. Ordinary human affection and friendliness can easily lead to a flow of emotion that suggests something more intimate. While there is nothing wrong with that flow between human beings, when you have taken vows of celibacy, then that suggestiveness or flirtation is in violation of your commitment.

IM : What about entertainments ? Do you miss listening to music ?

AA : Not much, although I used to be a big music fan and listened to it all the time. Now that I don’t deliberately listen to it, I find that when I do happen to hear music, it’s as if I’m hearing it for the first time. Music used to be such a constant presence in my life that it had lost its power. If I hear it now, it has an astonishing quality of freshness. I am with every note, every phrase.

When we adopt the renunciate life we aren’t condemning the world of the senses, per se, because that leads to aversion and negativity. Instead we are learning to accept whatever is offered to us with full appreciation. Whatever arrives is received and cherished, but we don’t try to add anything. I think many people listen to music because they love the place that the music takes them to, which is the present moment. You are not thinking about anything else ; you are experiencing the harmony, balance, and rhythm that the music suggests. But all of those qualities are present in a meditative mind. If we need music in order to get us there, then when there isn’t music (or delicious food or beautiful surroundings or whatever it might be), we are likely to feel bereft. We immediately start to look for another experience that will take us to that place of beauty. What the precepts do is to shut the door on all our habitual sources of satisfaction so that our entire attention is directed inward. That is where we discover a beauty and clarity, and a vastness of being which is unshakable, independent of circumstances and conditions. Then when we hear a piece of music, or see a beautiful blue sky or the fine shape of a tree, that’s an extra.

Believe it or not, I became a monk because I am a hedonist at heart. The fun began when I became a monk. I am not trying to be flip by saying this. For me at least, being a monk is the way I can most enjoy my life, and I do mean en-joy. My life is en-joyed, filled with joy as an ongoing experience.

IM : Everybody is going to want to ordain after they read this interview !

AA : That’s fine. But remember that the joy only comes after the self-surrender and sacrifice. I think as a culture, we are afraid of sacrifice. We feel that we must own and accumulate things in order to be complete, and not just material objects but people and relationships as well. It is hard for us to understand that letting go is not a loss, not a bereavement. Of course, when we lose something that is beautiful or dear to us, there is a shadow that crosses the heart. But we enlighten that shadow with the understanding that the feeling of loss is just the karmic result of assuming that we owned anything in the first place. The renunciate life is based on the realization that we can never really possess anything.

***

This article is republished by DharmaNet International, with permission, for free distribution only. The interview appeared originally in Inquiring Mind, Volume 12, Number 1 (Fall 1995).

What Is Important ?

by

Ajahn Pasanno

This Teaching is translated from a discourse given in the Thai language by Venerable Ajahn Pasanno at Buddhamonton (Buddhamandala) near Bangkok in September, 1987. It was offered during a week of formal meditation instruction and practice, dedicated to His Majesty King Bhumibol on the occasion of his 60th birthday.

______________________________________________

If we are lacking the richness of truth in our hearts, then when we die and they cremate us, our lives will be worth no more than the handful of ashes we produce.

______________________________________________

The Buddha offered his Teaching to the world with the intention of showing a way to know Truth - Dhamma. His life-long gesture of renunciation was made so we could personally know this Truth. The fact that these Teachings are still with us shows that they have been put to good use by both lay and ordained people alike. It is important, however, that we understand the need for personal contemplation of these Teachings for their true value to arise. With such personal contemplation, if it is right, we can come to sense the completeness, coolness and calm that they offer.

As a foreigner living here in Thailand, I find life as a Buddhist monk extremely beneficial. Sometimes people visiting our monastery, Wat Nanachat, ask me how long I’ve been a monk. ’Over ten years,’ I tell them. ’Is it good ?’ they like to ask. ’If it wasn’t any good,’ I reply, ’why would I have spent over ten years living this way ? I could be doing all sorts of other things.’ It is because I personally see the value of this Way that I live it.

Without clear understanding of the processes of our hearts, we create all kinds of problems. We become hot and bothered and are dragged about by emotional states. For there to be personal and global peace, these states need to be understood : the ways of the heart need to be seen clearly. This is the function and value of Dhamma.

In contemplating the Buddhist Way, it is important to see that there is absolutely no obligation or intimidation involved. Whether we take it up or not is our choice, we have complete freedom in this regard - the Buddha only offered us an introduction to the Path. There is no external judge checking up on us. He pointed out that which leads to true success, to liberation, peace and wisdom ; and also that which leads to failure and confusion. No external authority is making absolute statements about what is good and bad, right and wrong, and nobody is going to punish us if our preference is not to follow. However, observe that there is always that within our own hearts that knows what we are doing.

So it is important that we consider together how to actually use the Buddha’s Teachings and realize for ourselves their true value. We have all heard many times about the Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path. Maybe we have heard about them to the point where we take them for granted ; we don’t think they are so important any more. But these Teachings are actually referred to as ’The Heart of the Buddha’s Way’. Throughout the forty-five years of his teaching the Buddha never changed or abandoned them.

I made use of the time to go over some of the chanting

Last week in our monastery I was unable to do walking meditation because I had sprained my ankle. I would join the community for the sitting period and then when it came time for walking I would go back to my hut. I made use of the time to go over some of the chanting that we do. Many times I went over the Buddha’s first Discourse — the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta — which contains The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path. As a result I discovered many valuable points.

Let us first consider the context in which these Teachings were offered. The Buddha had spent six long years striving to see for himself the Truth. He had undergone an incredible amount of hardship — not like meditators these days, who make a lot of fuss if conditions are not exactly how they want them. When the Perfect Enlightenment eventually took place he carefully considered exactly how to go about sharing his realization. He was thirty-five years of age at the time, not old and senile — and, as he had been brought up a prince he had had the best education available. He was in the prime of his life and fully capable of articulating his understanding. So he wasn’t going to hand out the Teachings to just anybody.

He decided that his five companions during the time of his asceticism were most suited. They were totally sincere in their efforts, well experienced and intelligent. He then spent several weeks walking to where they were staying. When eventually he reached the, he gave the Teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. So these Teachings are not common and insignificant.

The fact that we have heard and talked about them many times means we run the risk of their becoming mere theory for us. However, if we were to talk in a worldly sense about achieving something, we would understand that it would of course require effort ; likewise in the case of the Eightfold Path. If we make the right effort then realization can take place.

Now let us consider what we mean be ’right effort.’ The Buddha gave an example of throwing a stick into a river. If that stick didn’t run aground on either the right bank or the left, and if it didn’t sink, then it would definitely reach the sea. In terms of our practice, the left and the right banks are the extremes of clinging to pleasure — kamasukhallikanuyogo — and clinging to pain — attakilamathanuyogo. Not sinking means not relinquishing effort. If it wasn’t for becoming caught in sensuality, indulging in negativity and giving up making effort, we would reach Nibbana - Peace. This is one of the laws of nature. A true appreciation and honest accordance with the Way shows us that it must be like that.

The Eightfold Path is called the Middle Way, which means our effort must be the right amount. If our actions of body and speech are not in harmony with this Way ; if we are getting caught up in seeking sense pleasure and indulging in states of anger and irritability, then definitely it is impossible to see things as they actually are.

We must constantly endeavor to make the right kind of effort or we will end up like the stick, and sink. When we are feeling enthusiastic we can easily give ourselves to the practice. But it can also happen that at times we are totally disillusioned, even to the extent that we forget completely the original confidence and faith we had. But that is natural. It is like swimming a long way ; we become tired. We don’t need to panic ; simply be still for a while. Then when we have regained strength, continue.

Just don’t sink !

Understand that much : in accordance with nature, that state will change. Despair, if that is what has arisen, will pass. Just keep practicing. Observing our minds and seeing how our attitudes are continually changing shows us that impermanence is natural.

Understand how necessary this kind of contemplation of Dhamma is in our lives. It is like nourishment to the heart. If we don’t have clear understanding, then it is as if something is missing. Often people who visited Ajahn Chah would say they didn’t have time to practice. They’d say had too many commitments. He would ask them : ’Do you have enough time to breathe ?’ They always replied, ’Oh yes ! It’s natural to breathe.’

Isn’t cultivating Dhamma as important as breathing ? If we stop breathing then we die. If we are not established in a right understanding of the Truth of the Way Things Are, then also we die ; we die from that which is truly good, from true ease and true meaning. If we are lacking the richness of truth in our hearts, then when we die and they cremate us, our lives will be worth no more than the handful of ashes we produce - and that’s not much ! We must investigate how to live in a way that truly accords with what the Buddha taught. Surely then we could live in harmony without conflicts, difficulties and problems to resolve.

Sila (morality) is that which shows us this Middle Way. It points to the avoidance of the extremes of pleasure and pain - it means knowing the right amount. When we live in the Middle Way regarding actions of body and speech then we don’t cause offense to others ; we do what is appropriate for human beings. The practice of formal meditation is to train our minds and hearts to stay in the Middle Way.

These days, many people who meditate try to force their minds to be as they want them to be. They sit there arguing with their thoughts ; if their attention wanders they forcibly bring it back to the breath. Too much forcing is not the Middle Way. The Middle Way is the ease that arises naturally in the mind when there is the right effort, right intention and right awareness. When practice is ’right’ and there is ease of mind, we can simply watch the different states that arise and consider their nature. We don’t need to argue with anything. Arguing only causes restlessness. Whatever emotion arises is within the domain of our awareness, and we simply watch. Whether it’s joyful or the absolute opposite, all experiences are within the boundaries of our awareness. We just sit, watch, contemplate and recognize them ; they will naturally cease. Why do they cease ? Because that is their nature. It is this realization of the true nature of change that strengthens and stills the mind. With such insight (pañña) there is tranquillity (samadhi) and peace.

The Buddha’s wisdom is knowing the right amount. It doesn’t mean knowing everything about everything, but knowing impermanence, knowing suffering, knowing selflessness. The reason we get caught in seeing things as other than the way they really are is our lack of wisdom. With wisdom we know how to let go ; to let go of craving, let go of clinging, let go of beliefs. We let go of the tendency to always see things in relation to a self.

What we call ’Me’ is merely a convention ; we were born without names. Then somebody gave us a name and after being called it for a while, we start to think that a thing called ’me and mine’ actually exists. Then we feel we have to spend our lives looking after it. The wisdom of the Buddha knows how to let go of this ’self’ and all that pertains to it : possessions, attitudes, views and opinions. It means letting go of the opportunity for suffering (dukkha) to arise. It means giving occasion for seeing the true nature of things.

So cultivating the Eightfold Path develops what is ’right’ for human beings. Through the practice of discipline, tranquillity and wisdom (sila, samadhi, pañña) we can live in harmony. Continually being caught up in extreme states is the result of selfishness ; of not knowing the right amount ; of not knowing the Middle Way. This Eightfold Path is a job that we need to do. If done carefully and correctly the right result will appear.

The eye that sees the Dhamma . . . becomes the Dhamma

On reciting the Buddha’s First Discourse last week I was reminded of how the Eightfold Path actually takes effect. It says in the sutta : Cakkhukarani, ñanakarani, upasamaya, abhiññaya, sambodhaya, nibbanaya samvattati. Which means that this Path functions by opening the ’Eye of Dhamma’ — cakkhukarani ; ’giving rise to insight’ — ñanakarani ; ’giving rise to peace’ — upasamaya ; ’giving rise to knowing accurately’ — abhiññaya ; ’to knowing fully’ — sambodhaya ; and to ’realizing perfect freedom’ — nibbanaya samvattati. This is the complete Path that the Buddha teaches. It is a Path that, when cultivated, opens the eye that sees the Dhamma, knows the Dhamma, and becomes the Dhamma. This is the eye that sees that any condition that arises also ceases.

In the scriptures we read, that when the ’Eye of Dhamma’ is opened, when we see clearly the way things are, then we ’Enter the Stream of Dhamma’. It is only this knowledge that arises from the practice of the Eightfold Path which causes defilements to diminish, brings peace to the heart, and eventually frees us from all suffering. Therefore it is of supreme importance to all of us. The Eightfold Path has this function - it is something that really works.

How we practice the Buddha’s Teachings depends on how we view them. It depends on what we consider as having value. Please do try to investigate and see that your lives accord with the Buddha Way.

No Empty Ideal

by

Ajahn Amaro

This talk was given by the Venerable Amaro during a retreat conducted for lay people at Amaravati Buddhist Centre in April 1986.

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What ’Buddha’ means in our lives is more important than whether the Buddha Gotama actually lived, taught and did all the things he is said to have done.

______________________________________________

Being on a retreat like this, a great sense of fellowship develops : a sense of everybody being on the same journey. Even though we come from an enormous variety of backgrounds, men and women, young and old, we are all heading for the same place. This is something we know in our hearts is true — that even though we may have different names for the goal of the spiritual life, something in us knows we are all heading in the same direction.

The most important thing about religious practice of any sort is that it is to be a process of awakening ; it must not get trapped into being an empty ideal that we worship, instead of being a reality we open to. Many rivers of blood have been shed arguing about different names for the goal : ’The Holy City’, ’Union with Brahma’, ’Kismet’, ’Nibbana’. As long as there have been people there have been ways of symbolizing the state of peace, security and fulfillment. So, if we can avoid getting caught up with the wording of the signpost — ending up hanging onto the signpost itself — as long as there is the resolution to make the journey, we will arrive, regardless of the name of the destination we have used.

How could the goals be different ? Whether one is brought up a Christian, a Hindu or a Jew, as an English or an Asian person, how could the fundamental nature of the mind be different ? How could it possibly be affected by the shape of the vessel into which it is poured ? So too the nature of Ultimate Truth — the nationality and the conditioning of the person in whom it is realized does not affect the way it actually is.

It is very important to remain determined to make the journey, to follow the signposts to awakening. The Buddha was extremely careful in the way he taught, to account for the human tendency to wander off the path. Our minds are so active and bright that we will always find some fascinating things to get involved in along the way : interesting places to visit, plants to investigate, people to chat with by the road. So he kept pointing out to people the crucial need to make the journey, rather than to just talk or think about it.

Around any religious teaching, over the years, there seems to grow up an enormous quantity of metaphysical and philosophical ideas ; rites and rituals ; traditions of what to eat, how to arrange marriages and funerals ; how to talk about the different qualities of our minds and the different factors that influence our lives. Although we might start off with basic symbols to represent simple truths, in time they become things we worship in themselves. The institution becomes more important than the people who comprise it, and it is forgotten what the institution, and the symbol, were actually for. We end up worshipping the signpost rather than allowing it to point out the way to us.

"The leaves in your hand are few"

To avoid this the Buddha kept his teaching very simple. One day he was walking through a forest with his monks ; he picked up a handful of leaves and said : ’What do you think, bhikkhus, are there more leaves in my hand or more leaves in the forest ?’ ’The leaves in your hand are few and the leaves in the forest are many,’ they replied. ’So too’ said the Buddha, ’the things that I know are comparable to the leaves in the forest, but that which I teach you is just as much as I hold in my hand.’

All the Buddha knew in terms of how the world works, the history of the universe, the astral realms, the mechanics of nature in all its multifaceted complexity — all this he laid aside. He kept his teaching simply to that which was crucial to liberation.

Because of this he refrained from getting into any kind of metaphysical discussion ; he would never engage in that. Whenever anyone would try to draw him on such a point ’ ’What was the Ultimate beginning ?’, ’What happens to an enlightened being when they die ?’ — he would remain silent. He simply would not pursue it. Firstly, because these things are all unimportant, in that they do not lead directly to liberation ; and secondly, to avoid compounding the wrong views of the questioner. He used a very good simile to explain this once : "If I had a fire and put it out, and then I asked you : ’Where has the fire gone — north, south, east or west ?", what would you answer ?’ ’Well, it’s a foolish question, because those things do not apply. It’s just gone out, it hasn’t gone anywhere.’ The Buddha replied : ’Exactly so — the way you phrase the question assumes a particular kind of answer. So to give any answer is to go along with your mistaken view.’

So he would only teach that which related directly to what a person can do in order to realize the Truth. Whenever he did talk about Ultimate Reality, he would use the most impersonal and open terms : ’It is wonderful ; immanent, peaceful ; the Unoriginated, Unconditioned’ — which do not give a great deal to grab a hold of ! It is not some ’thing’ one can externalize and idealize, but a quality one can open to and realize.

The essence of all spiritual practice, in our human condition, is to learn to look beyond the sensory world, learn to abide beyond perception. One way that we can do this is to look upon life as something that flows through the mind. Rather than thinking of oneself as a person who is going places, consider these as images going through the mind. Right now we have the image of the meditation hall, Amaravati ; this is what we can perceive. The sound of this voice ; the feeling of sitting on a cushion ; the sense of sight ; see that all these things flow through the mind like a current. When Ajahn Sumedho went traveling recently he said he made the determination before he left that he wasn’t going to go around the world, he was just going to let the world go through his mind. Afterwards he said the result was very peaceful : he went everywhere, saw everyone, did everything, but the sense of movement, of a person heading towards somewhere, was absent ; there was stillness in its place.

If we stop looking upon our sensory experience as being so solid and absolute, we see that there are just these perceptions, and the knowing - the sense of awareness and being. This is the way that the mind is liberated, the way beyond birth and death. There was a woman staying here in January who had terminal cancer, she came to die here as a nun. This was during a monastic retreat period so we had a lot of opportunity to contemplate the dying process. One afternoon, as I was doing some walking meditation, it struck me very clearly that when you look upon your life as a succession of images that the mind is aware of, then why should that be broken by the moment of death ? The body is something that is perceived in the mind so, at the moment of death, if there has been awareness of the body alive, then surely there will just be awareness of the body dead. The body dies — just another perception in the mind. What that mind is attached to, where it goes, who it belongs to — are all the north, south, east and west of the matter. They are questions which do not really apply.

This is being with the mind that is beyond birth and death — being that Knowing, being Buddha. When you see a thought arising in your mind, it appears, has its lifespan, and then it’s gone. Though the birth and death of the body are probably the most powerful experiences we have in a human life, fundamentally there is no difference between them and the perception of a thought. With meditation practice there is the development of understanding how things come out of the void and go back into the void again. The more familiar we get with this process, the more the mysteries of existence resolve themselves. So it’s not as though you know the answer, in so many words, to, ’Where do I come from, where do I go ?’, but you don’t need to put it into words. You know the mind out of which everything arises and into which everything disappears.

By training yourself to just be that knowing, be that which is the source and goal of all things, you see the fear of the unknown dissolve. Death is frightening when we don’t understand ; but the more one knows the mind, the more it’s no longer the unknown. There is no more fear because you realize, with the death of the body, what is there fundamentally different that could happen ?

How could it not just be another thing that comes into the mind, that we bear with and then see vanish ? Since we know the mind before and after things have been born into it, we know there is nothing to be frightened of.

In order to be able to deal with life this way we have to develop an undiscriminating attitude, welcoming everything that we experience. Welcoming the pleasant is very easy ; pleasure is what we like. But there are unpleasant qualities that keep arising too : feelings of irritation and pride, desire, one’s inability to be a perfect human being — welcoming all of that is a different story, isn’t it ?

I remember talking with Ajahn Sumedho one day about the practice of doing loving-kindness. ’It’s those foolish and petty, childish emotional reactions I find hard to deal with.’ ’Right,’ he replied, ’but notice the way we describe them — "petty", "foolish", "childish" — does that sound to you like metta ? Does that set things up for you to accept life wholeheartedly ? Or does it show that you have already prejudged the whole experience ? Because that’s what I used to do. You have to welcome it all sincerely.’

Hello . . . cup of tea ?

As I began to apply this advice I realized how much of my time had been trying to fend off all those little imps and demons. All those wavelets of desire, fear and discomfort ; subtle feelings that had never been very clear. Every time anything arose which brought a dismissive reaction up in my mind, I would say, very carefully and deliberately : ’Oh, Jealousy, how nice of you to come ! Have a seat. Pride ! Hello . . . cup of tea ? The effect on my mind was astonishing. I realized how much of a problem I had been making out of my life — so much judging and choosing over what I wanted to arise in my thoughts.

I realized also that every time I reacted negatively, pushing things away, that action implied that there was something to fear. That this feeling or this thought was dangerous ; that it was going to really hurt me, or invade me ; that it was something that was really me and mine. As I began to welcome it all I realized that when you accept everything, only then can you sense that, after all, there is nothing to fear. None of it really belongs to a self or comes from a self. It cannot touch the mind which knows, cannot affect its nature. Whatever shape of vessel you pour the water into, with this same total accommodation, the water changes to the shape of the bottle. It doesn’t say : ’I will not be poured into a square bottle, square bottles are not my scene. Round bottles only, please !’ To push away or grasp a hold of the beautiful and the ugly, the noble and the sordid, is just as absurd really, isn’t it ?

When there is complete acceptance, there is just the sense of being the Knowing, being that which is aware of all that comes through the mind. This is what the image of the Buddha at the moment of enlightenment symbolizes — one often sees pictures of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree, with an aura of light around him. Very still. Awake. And all about him there is every kind of alluring, terrifying, heart-rending form imaginable — the hordes of Mara. Despite all his efforts, however, Mara fails to move the Buddha, and this is the moment of the Buddha’s enlightenment. He knew : the beautiful, the terrifying, the sense of duty — all of these were just images in the mind. There is nothing one can grasp, there is nothing to fear, none of it can really touch the mind.

Now this is a symbol, and whether or not the incident occurred exactly as it is described is not as important as what it symbolizes. For one who practises the teaching, what ’Buddha’ means in our lives is more important that whether the Buddha Gotama actually lived, taught and did all the things he is said to have done. ’Buddha’ is that awakened nature of the mind, the heart of the mind. That in you which is wise, which knows, which is clear and bright. And that is what the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment represents — that Knowing.

All the hordes of Mara — these are just the thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears, memories, pleasures and pains of daily activity. These may not be as grand as the alluring daughters, the terrifying demons or the tears of old King Suddhodana — getting the children to school, trying to please the boss, brushing your teeth — but for us these are the hordes of Mara. The images of daily life come pouring through the mind but, if we are awake, we can see that none of it affects the mind’s true nature — that sense of stillness, knowing, spaciousness and clarity which the Buddha represents.

Most of the time, however, we find ourselves moving away from that point. That’s our habitual reaction to the world — grasping after things or running away from things. I remember, when I was a very small child, often trying to jump into the middle of my shadow, but however hard I jumped I just landed on the shadow’s feet. And I would run after my shadow and then jump — but where would I land ? Just in the same place all over again. And this is what we do with our lives — the things that we desire, it’s like running after shadows. You try to catch hold, reaching for the desire so close, and then you grasp it and then . . .and you haven’t really got it. Somehow it’s not what you expected, it’s different, not what you really wanted.

And then to run from your shadow — to be afraid, you keep turning around : ’It’s still behind me, run faster, got to get away.’ When we stop and look though, we realize : ’Well, it’s just my shadow.’ You can’t get away from it, but there’s nothing in it to be afraid of, it’s just a shadow.

So when we stop and rest in the stillness of knowing, we know in our hearts that all we desire, all we fear, are just shadows. There is no substance there — nothing which can make us more complete and nothing which can threaten us. This is the real freedom of mind.

So being Buddha, being that still, aware, noble being, is both the goal and practice that we follow — the goal of the practice and the substance of the practice are the same. The religious path is thus one of simply learning to rest in being that Knowing, being Buddha, awake and aware.






Buddhaline

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