- Published on Wednesday, 27 March 2013 16:43
- Written by Paul Breiter
Luang Por Sumedho, left, and Paul Breiter, Wat Pah Nanachat, 2013
Wat Pah Nanachat Bung Wai, International Forest Monastery of Bung Wai District in northeast Thailand, could also be named Forest Monastery of Detachment or something similar. The influence of its founding abbot, Ven. Ajahn Sumedho, seems to pervade the woods and illuminate the forest paths, although he hasn’t walked those paths with any regularity for years.
Long ago, as a young monk in robes, Wat Nanachat was for a time my home. Recently I made one of my several return visits to this monastery, founded to train Western monks in the tradition of Ajahn Chah. Now noisy from the nearby highway, busy with monks, trainees, and visiting laypeople, still an atmosphere of serenity pervades the place. In the first days after arriving, the mind mulls over preferences and thinks about how things should be. Then I hear Ajahn Sumedho in my head, saying, “That’s just creating more self (atta),” or, “You don’t need to create concepts around the experience,” or, “All that does is create more suffering (dukkha).” Maybe the fact of the impermanence of outer and inner happenings is so obvious that I didn’t need to hear him mention that other characteristic of conditioned phenomena.
“Ordinary mind is the way” is a well-known saying in Zen circles, attributed to the Tang Dynasty master Nan Chuan. The different schools of Buddhism might give slightly different interpretations, but they would all agree that what it doesn’t mean is that following one’s impulses and letting conceptual thinking run wild is the way.
“What is the meaning of the Buddha’s way?” a Zen student once asked his teacher.
“Do good and refrain from evil,” the teacher replied.
“Even a three-year-old child can say that,” the student argued.
The master replied, “A three-year old can say it, but a sixty-year-old can’t practice it.”
Ajahn Sumedho’s instructions have always been like this—both understandable and practical, offering an entry into the Dharma here and now, no matter what the individual’s circumstances may be. They often don’t seem to amount to much on paper, but when imbued with his presence, or the memory of his presence, they come to life.
My old teacher, now in retirement at Amaravati Monastery in England, visited Wat Nanachat ten days after I arrived. One night he gave an informal talk to a small gathering of monks and trainees. It began with a simple enough question about difficulties with food. Forest monks subsist on one usually enormous meal per day, taken at 8 or 9 in the morning. The northeast Thai staple of glutinous rice can weigh one down even more and bring serious drowsiness, and it can take a few years to find a middle path with this most basic requisite for living.
After some reminders about use of the requisites of robes, almsfood, dwelling place, and medicines, Luang Por, as he is now known, went on to talk about states of mind and the three categories of craving (tanha). Desire for food and sex, the biological urges, is kama tanha, sensual craving. He pointed out that they are natural to the animal bodies we are born into; the way to handle them (especially for those who have taken ordination vows) is to neither indulge nor suppress, not to glorify them or feel guilty about them, but to observe their arising and ceasing and not view them as oneself or one’s own. With guilt or negative attitude toward them, we fall into vibhava tanha, desire not to be, which can only produce conflict and unhappiness. The original question, about the troubling effects on meditation practice caused by too much, too little, or the wrong kind of food, led him to point out the suffering involved in wanting things to be other than they are.
Fear and aggression, he said, are also animal impulses related to survival. “If you were a primitive human hunting for your food in a jungle, fear and aggression would be useful emotions.” That was an interesting take on those things, which we usually judge to be harmful and negative.
Bhava tanha is translated as “desire for becoming,” that is, desire to be something. In meditation practice, it manifests as the laundry list of things we feel we should be experiencing and attaining, and is basically just a distraction from being aware of what is going on. Such desire is just that, desire, and it isn’t a self or a person but only a source of delusion and suffering.
As one contemporary Zen teacher said about “Ordinary mind is the way,” if the positive states and qualities we wish for are to appear, they have to appear in a now, and it would be best if they appeared in the now we have now—even with a busy highway near the monastery and a new 7-11 at the entrance to the once-bucolic, middle-of-nowhere village. Luang Por Sumedho always reminds us to deal with the mind we have now and not think longingly about the mind we wish we had or think we should have.
Observing the conditioned mind in the present, we watch it arise and cease, arise and cease; we note that it is nothing more than a collection of conditions, something impermanent and impersonal; and not attaching to the conditioned will allow the unconditioned to appear.
Staying in the monastery, shedding compulsions about what I should be doing or attaining, but just eating my food, washing my clothes, and doing sessions of formal meditation, a sense of spaciousness naturally grew. The timelessness of the Dharma was hinted at even as I ticked off the days remaining on my short stay: just to live like that, without concepts of the future, of how things should be or how I should be, I considered, might come as a great relief.
Indeed, without such a viewpoint, isn’t one just living in the worldly extremes of hope and fear, in a fantasy realm?Add a comment
- Published on Wednesday, 02 January 2013 15:23
- Written by Paul Breiter
Many teachers have compared finding one’s way in Dharma practice to the efforts of a child to learn writing, a skill we certainly improve through trial and error. But then we generally expect sooner or later to become expert and proficient in our practice. We expect that everything will go smoothly and that the element of suffering will vanish from our efforts. This may well be the case for some people. But to get hung up on wishing for an easy passage is merely to be caught in the snares of hope and fear. Suzuki Roshi spoke of the need to keep “beginner’s mind.” In the expert’s mind, he said, there are few possibilities, but in the beginner’s mind, there are many.
Some beginners approach the Buddha’s teachings with a wariness of every thought, impulse, and habit. Whereas it’s important to guard against falling into flakiness and rationalization, we need to employ a certain amount of cleverness and a willingness to experiment in order to find out what works for us.
Ajahn Chah urged his students to “fight outside the model.” First, we learn the basic concepts, but we shouldn’t let them become a filter or a screen between us and what we actually experience. Recently I listened to a talk given in a group retreat by one of Ajahn Chah’s Western disciples. He advised flexibility in finding what works in meditation, paying attention to the actual quality of mental states rather than trying to measure them according to standard classifications and high ideals. Comfort and ease, pliancy of mind, and delight in the meditation, for example, are practical indicators of something beneficial taking place. But if one has read descriptions of the jhanas and is hoping and waiting for extreme experiences of bliss and so forth, that can be a big distraction and set one up for egoistic cycles of frustration and gratification. The Dharma is described as here-and-now, not involving time but to be experienced by those with discernment. Looking for something else to occur in the future may be missing the point.
Ajahn Chah advised not to aim too high or too low. We need some guiding ideals, but mostly we just need to put the nose to the grindstone and practice steadily. It shouldn’t just be a chore, although sometimes that is unavoidable—more so for some than for others. Since most of us don’t have a teacher watching and guiding us constantly, we need to find our own way, to forge our own paths, finding a middle between carelessness and self-indulgence on the one side and uptight fanaticism with all its attendant negativities on the other side. The Buddha gave clear and simple standards for us to be able to gauge our practice and determine if we are going in the right direction. If practice leads to an increase of qualities like faith, perseverance, patience, compassion, and freedom from defiled mental states, that is true Dharma. If it leads to laziness, doubt, self-centeredness, and increase of attachment, aversion, and confusion, that is a wrong path.Add a comment