A Dhamma Reflection offered by Ajahn Sumedho on 6 March 2021
This is the half-moon Observance Day, and we have the opportunity to reflect on Dhamma, the way it is.
For each one of us, the way it is right now is going to be different: with our own moods, memories, thoughts, expectations or whatever. When we try to compare one person with another, we get confused because we’re all different. On the level of saṅkhāras, or conditioned phenomena, everything is different. Nothing can stabilize into a permanent quality or condition; it’s beyond the ability of saṅkhāras, which by their very nature are changing. The Buddha taught, ‘Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā – all conditions are impermanent. This is the way it is. They change. Saṅkhāras are like this. They can be of any quality: low or high, good or bad, right or wrong, material or mental or emotional, and their nature is anicca (impermanent), dukkha (unsatisfactory) and anattā (non-self).
The Buddha laid down this teaching very clearly; it’s very simple and you can reflect on it. It’s not a teaching you grasp or a Buddhist doctrine that you must believe in, because belief just stops you from reflecting. You don’t just say, ‘The Buddha said that, so it’s true.’ Rather, you take what the Buddha said and use it to look in the direction that it’s pointing.
This is the last month of the Winter Retreat. At this time and place it’s like this. This may sound very prosaic and boring, ‘It’s like this’, but it’s using words to open up the mind to the way it is, rather than try to determine whether the way it is right now is right or wrong, good or bad, true or false.
What we call meditation is really mindfulness. There are so many meditation techniques that are available now on the Internet, and various teachers teach different styles because that’s the way teaching is; it depends on words. No two teachers are going to sound exactly the same. Is how you hear me and receive what I’m saying going to be exactly the same from one person to the other? I doubt it. But reflecting like this isn’t about whether what I’m saying is right or wrong, or about you trying to believe what I’m saying is right, or prove I’m wrong. It’s an invitation, an encouragement to reflect on the reaction that you’re having as individuals at this present moment. Whatever the emotional state or mood that arises – it’s like this. Whether it is right, wrong or a mixture, is not the issue. It is the way it is. When I talk about Dhamma, it’s the reality of the way it is.
Religion is a kind of outer surface of everything. It’s the skin of the fruit, not the juice or pulp, but the external surface. Religions are like the many kinds of fruit available. Some people prefer one over another, but that doesn’t make one better than the other. It’s just the way things are. Nobody’s going to demand that we feel the same and agree on the one fruit that we all find delicious. That’s what tyranny is: ‘You have to believe what I believe, what I say.’ So much of religious teaching gets blocked off by doctrines, things you have to believe in order to be a functioning member of a particular group. Belief is grasping concepts that you are attracted to, or that you are interested in. Or maybe you’re not interested in it but you’re told that if you don’t believe in a certain way you’re a sinner, there’s something wrong with you, that you’re an apostate and have to leave the group.
But that’s not reflecting on the way it is; that’s just a form of tyranny where one person determines what a group has to believe in without question. That’s one reason why Christianity broke up into so many different kinds of groups, because people had different takes on the basic teachings and history of the Christian religion. Buddhism also can be caught in just believing in Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Korean Buddhism, Thai Buddhism or Theravada Buddhism. We can all feel that the particular form we’ve chosen is better than the rest. Reflect on that. This feeling of ‘What I have is better than what you have’ is a feeling; words and feelings that arise and cease. That’s the very nature of all languages – it’s all words.
No matter how high-minded or beautiful the word may be, or how mean, low or nasty it might be, the one thing in common that all words have is that they are saṅkhāras, they’re conditioned phenomena. And that’s why I always encourage you to listen to the words that enter your mind without judging them, because if you learn to just sit still in a quiet place for a while, then various thoughts, memories and concepts arise and cease. You’re not trying to control them, reasoning everything out logically or judging if they’re right or wrong, true or false. But it’s like this.
This is reflecting on the nature of words – thoughts as they arise and cease – rather than trying to figure out what kind of thoughts you should think, or are wrong and bad and shouldn’t arise. If you have bad thoughts, you easily assume there’s some evil source in you, some devil trying to tempt you, or that you’re a bad person because a good person wouldn’t have evil thoughts. That’s conceptual proliferation. The mind goes around and around about right and wrong, good and bad.
I assume everybody here wants to be good. In the whole monastic form – in all religious forms – the ambition to be a good person is a common bond we share. But we can’t always have good thoughts. We are living in a community that has a structure to it that we all agree to: to surrender and live within the structure of the vinaya, the precepts. That’s an agreement that’s required to join the community of monks and nuns. All the vinaya precepts are about right action and right speech, but not about right thought. Thought can be wrong, can be bad, can be evil, as well as good, the best, the highest possible thought you can think of at any moment. But you can’t sustain them. If you observe them, they arise and they cease. When you resist or try to suppress them, then you proliferate around them and blame somebody. Either you blame external sources – some kind of evil force in the universe is tempting you, is one way of expressing that – or think that someone in the sangha is trying to influence you in a negative way, or that you are just a bad person. But whatever take you have in regard to these bad or evil thoughts, it’s still the use of words, proliferating concepts that arise in your consciousness.
When we take refuge in Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha – Buddha or Buddho means awakened consciousness. It’s not about trying to become or act like a Buddha. It’s not a show where we wear a costume trying to look like Buddhas, shaving our heads and wearing these robes. But it’s the external sign, the rind of the fruit, the surface that we can reflect on. The robe is that which always reminds you that you’re not a lay person anymore.
Many of the thoughts, emotional reactions and experiences that we have are still coming from the time when we were lay people, even from the time we were little children, teenagers, young adults and onward. But what or who is it that is aware of thoughts as thoughts? Not the critic. The critic is not who you are. Your position in life isn’t to be stuck in a critical mind – caught always in seeing everything as what’s right and wrong about every condition, every situation – because all conditions, all saṅkhāras, are changing. You can’t sustain them.
Many of us have had insights through various forms of meditation, and then we remember them. For example you think, ‘Yesterday I sat in the Temple and had the most profound insight into Dhamma.’ That’s a memory. It arises in the present moment. That’s the way memories are: impermanent. The next day you come back and sit in the same place in the Temple, and do the same things that you remember doing the previous day when you had this profound insight, and what happens? Your mind goes all restless, negative. You’re struggling with it, you feel disappointed and want to get up and leave. You’d hoped that the bliss that you experienced on a previous day could be sustained for your whole life. We would like to live in a state of what we call ‘bliss’ forever and ever because we don’t like to suffer.
The very nature of saṅkhāras is dukkha or suffering – unsatisfactoriness – because that’s the way they are. They’re not satisfying. No matter how good or beautiful or right, or the best that you can possibly have, they’re going to change because saṅkhāras are impermanent. That’s the way it is. Whose fault is that? You think, ‘Is it God’s fault? Why didn’t God create permanently blissful saṅkhāras for us, so that once we have this insight we can stay in that peaceful state forever and ever, beyond death?’ We can imagine bliss as a permanent state. But the thoughts about bliss are still words and concepts that we create in the present moment. So, trying to remember previous insights is suffering.
Fifty-five years ago, before I met Luang Por Chah, I spent the first year as a sāmaṇera (novice monk) in a monastery in Nong Khai, in northeast Thailand. That’s where you go to cross over into Laos, to get to Vientiane. I was ordained in Wat Sisaket, one of the main temples in the middle of the town. The head monk sent me off to a meditation monastery outside the town, where I spent a year meditating, at first using methods. I found these methods blocked me; I couldn’t get beyond them. I’d feel that if I wasn’t doing this method then I wasn’t meditating, and feel guilty and try to force myself to do this technique all day. And when you’re with yourself, you have no distractions. I didn’t take any books except one that I was given, The Word of the Buddha, the basic teachings from the suttas and the Tipitaka. That was the only book I allowed myself to read.
In the first three months, after desperately trying to perform this technique that I was taught in Bangkok before I was ordained (and I couldn’t do it), I just gave up. And then I sat there for maybe three months in a hut by myself. The people at the monastery were very good to me. The nuns and sāmaṇeras would provide me with food every day, and I also had good support from the lay community in Nong Khai, so there was nothing to complain about. The difficulty that I was experiencing wasn’t due to anything untoward that was happening around me in the monastery. But I was 31 or 32-years-old at the time, and I’d spent a life repressing negative states. My self-image was that I was basically a very good-natured person, because at that time you had to get along in life and be friendly and open, and I considered myself a well adjusted adult male. But then living alone with nothing to do for 24/7, except this technique, I couldn’t sustain it. The teacher who taught it to me said I had to keep doing this over and over until I got enlightened. Well, it wasn’t working.
Then I had this intuition that there was nothing I could do, so I just learned to sit and watch. So much anger, resentment and fear started arising in consciousness. I looked at it – 32 years of repressed anger and resentment. In anyone’s life, there’s a lot to resent. Life isn’t going to treat us fairly all the time. Life has its qualities of fairness and goodness and also its opposite. But I was told anger was a sin. When I felt angry, I wasn’t angry at anyone in the monastery; it was just old resentment that I would remember from the time I was a child, the time when I was a student, when I was in the military. I decided I wasn’t going to try to stop this anger. I would just let it go, and I did. Anger is also a saṅkhāra. It isn’t permanent, it’s not self, it’s anattā. Resisting anger was a lifetime habit at that time – 30 years of resisting and repressing negative feelings, fear.
My generation of American men were told we shouldn’t be afraid of anything. Our role models for masculinity were cowboys and athletes who always seemed fearless, facing dangers with great bravery and strength. That’s the way a man is supposed to be according to cultural conditioning. But this is the way it is: all alone in the forest, in the dark with no electricity, just a candle (a paraffin lamp was a complete luxury); in a foreign country whose language I couldn’t understand. So I allowed fear to arise rather than try to stop it, rationalize or justify it. Fear is like this. Anger is like this. You open to it and just be the Buddho, the witness of it. It is what it is in the moment, and if you don’t do anything – just relax and let it be what it is – it will cease. Then you see that that’s the nature of saṅkhāras. They have to cease. A saṅkhāra has no permanent ability to sustain itself for very long.
At the end of three months, I woke up one morning in this little wooden hut with a tin roof, and the whole place was beautiful. I was luminous, surrounded by light, and even trying to think of a negative thought, I couldn’t do it. The previous memories that used to wind me up into anger and resentment didn’t do anything. They were just empty. They couldn’t grab or get hold of me, or make me believe in them anymore. So I immediately thought that I was enlightened, that this must be what enlightenment is like. That state lasted for about a week, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Then I had to renew my visa to stay in Thailand, at the immigration station in Nong Khai. They were very rude to me (although they did extend the visa), and this radiant luminosity completely disappeared.
I went back to the monastery and kept trying to get this state of luminosity and bliss back. Everything had been beautiful: the forest and the monastery, that tin roof wooden hut I lived in had been like a palace; everything touched with life and beauty, and that’s what I wanted. So I created a desire to have that same experience again. But no matter how hard I tried, it didn’t come back. Then I started reviewing this book, The Word of the Buddha, and the Four Noble Truths, the first sermon of the Buddha. I started to contemplate suffering, the First Noble Truth. And I got it: the cause of suffering is trying to get something you can’t have. I began to have an insight into the fact that I didn’t have the luminous bliss that I wanted. This is bhava-taṇhā, this is the desire to get something you remember or conceive of that you don’t have right now. So I started awakening to Dhamma, to the way things are. Bhava-taṇhā is like this. Wanting to get rid of things is vibhava-taṇhā; the desire to get rid of bad thoughts, of what you don’t like, what you don’t want, to kill the defilements. This is resistance, repression.
The teaching on the Four Noble Truths – that there are three kinds of desire, kāma-taṇhā (desire for sense pleasures), bhava-taṇhā, vibhava-taṇhā – really awakened me to reflect on desire. The attitude I grew up with in an American Christian family was that desire was some kind of bad thing. It usually meant sexual desire, and that as monks and nuns we’re celibate, we shouldn’t have sexual desires, but in terms of Dhamma, desire can be divided into these three categories, which are very helpful. See how much of your life here at Amaravati is about vibhava-taṇhā, the desire to get rid of things, or bhava-taṇhā, desiring to get something you want, to become enlightened, to become an arahant. Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to become an arahant or get enlightened. It’s not about good and bad anymore. But it is a desire, and desires are saṅkhāras and are impermanent and not self.
These three characteristics of anicca, dukkha and anattā give us this wonderful information that what all saṅkhāras share – from the best to the worst, from the biggest to the smallest – is that they are impermanent, unsatisfying and not personal, non-self. So contemplate that. Whatever you think you are, however you conceive yourself, that’s a saṅkhāra. Listen to what you think or believe you are. Whether it’s positive or negative, it doesn’t matter. It’s the Buddho, the awakened conscious moment where we’re aware that thoughts about me, what I think, my feelings, my body, my position, my age, my gender, my rights – all these are thoughts that arise and cease, rather than a concept to be grasped and proliferated on.
This is the genius of the Buddha, to give this teaching, which is very direct. It’s not abstruse or secretive. So when we’re giving this teaching to monks, nuns or lay people, it’s not about a privileged teaching for very specially anointed people with high spiritual qualities. It’s available for everyone, and it’s been available for 2,560 years. But so much of culture and civilization isn’t based on wisdom. It’s based on ideals – how things should be. Ideals are what we consider how life should be, how Amaravati should be, how monastic life should be. We can all figure out how it should be. It should be completely fair. It should be equal, just, completely right. And if we join the ‘cult’ of Theravada Buddhism, then we believe we’re better than other forms of Buddhism and other religions, because we believe in concepts about the ‘best of the Buddha’s teachings’, the ‘pure teaching’, the ‘original teaching’. We can be critical of other forms of Buddhism because they teach in different ways. But all of that is conceptual proliferation. It’s using the thinking mind to make value judgments about yourself, the conditions you’re living under, the state of the political or social system.
All the wars and conflicts that we hear about in the mass media are about conceptual proliferation. Each side thinks they’re right, and the other, because they don’t agree, are wrong; we have a critical mind. Growing up in America, we were brought up to believe that democracy is the very best, and that America stands for ‘pure democracy’. That’s what I was told when I was young. Then you find out all the undemocratic things that go on, and think that it shouldn’t be like that; we shouldn’t be hypocritical but should live up to this idea of democracy. But democracy is an ideal. It’s a beautiful word and can be very inspiring, like socialism. But in America, if you say you’re a socialist, you’re considered a communist and a traitor to democracy. Socialism has a very pejorative connotation in the United States, at least it did when I lived there. But in other countries you can call your system socialism, democratic socialism, communism. They’re all words, but none of them live up to their ideal because they can’t – because life is like this. People are the way they are. We’re not all arahants or perfectly enlightened bodhisattvas. What we feel is like this, which isn’t always right or good but it is the way it is. This way of reflecting helps us to accept life as it flows through us, developing and using wisdom with conscious awareness.
I remember joining peace movements when I was in Berkeley, California, in the early 1960s. I idolized peace and there was a very active peace movement, with quite a number of different organizations in Berkeley at the time. The Atomic Energy Commission had an office in Berkeley, so we would go down and protest, carrying signs saying ‘Peace’ because we considered the Atomic Energy Commission un-peaceful, and we were demanding they become peaceful. But while carrying this sign saying ‘Peace’, I looked at myself and started considering, ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about. I really don’t know what peace is. I have an idea of peace, but I personally am not peaceful.’ Almost all of my mental states seemed un-peaceful.
I had joined two peace movements at that time, and I could see there were a lot of jealousies and conflicts within the groups; all idealistic and high-minded peace-niks, people who were demanding peace from governments, from political institutions, from religion, from their mates, from their partners, from their husbands or wives, all wanting peace. But what is peace? When we understand suffering, we begin to realize peace. Our true nature is basically peaceful. What you aren’t are the un-peaceful conditions that arise and cease. But underlying all these fraught conditions, no matter what they may be, is the true nature of consciousness: peacefulness, awareness, mindfulness. This you can trust. This is your refuge. You can’t take refuge in your personal positions or preferences, because they’ll change. Then there will be conflict because other people have different attachments to different ideas.
Trying to find a concept that we all agree on is impossible because we’re all different on that level of saṅkhāras. Can you really help the way you are? Can you really be somebody else, just make yourself into an enlightened arahant, a Buddha or a bodhisattva because that’s the ideal you hold? Is it possible for any of us to force ourselves to become perfect? It’s impossible because saṅkhāras are not perfect. Their very nature is imperfection, change. Ideals are ideal. You can carry thought to the superlative, the best, the highest possible way you can think, but that’s a thought, and a thought is a saṅkhāra, it’s anicca, dukkha, anattā. It changes; it arises and ceases. You can’t sustain perfect ideals. You can attach to them and then be caught in judgments towards yourself and others, because nobody can live up to the ideal that you may hold to.
We often become disillusioned with political systems, with religion, with meditation. How many of you think you’re not a good meditator because you can’t get samadhi, or you don’t have jhānas? You think you’re not a good meditator because when you sit in the Temple, where others look perfectly composed and in samādhi, your mind is going all over the place, and you think that’s your self. And then you think you’re not a meditator, or you can’t meditate, or you’re not really a Buddhist. You create all kinds of proliferating thoughts about it. The direct path isn’t about getting jhānas and perfect samādhi but in recognizing that the conditions you’re experiencing in the present are the way they are: they’re changing. And your relationship to them is witnessing their changingness and being patient, letting them be what they are – they arise and cease. According to action and speech, we do our best to conform to the vinaya, to the precepts. But there’s no vinaya around emotional habits or mental activity – around memories, thoughts or character tendencies – because these are all changing conditions of different qualities and quantities in all of us.
How many times have I talked like this? But there’s only one important teaching. You can talk about all kinds of things: about personal experiences, views and opinions you have about various other teachers, other religious forms. I can use inspiring words about Theravada Buddhism or the Thai Forest Tradition. I can inspire you with inspirational words, but they’re only words, saṅkhāras. And so this emphasis on the impermanent, unsatisfactoriness of words doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them, but they’re very limited. They are not what you really are. When you grasp or identify with the saṅkhāras that you believe you are, you’re going to be unhappy. Even at their best they’re going to disappoint you.
So where does peace lie anyway? Where is peace right now? Is it here in this temple at Amaravati? Many monks or nuns that I’ve known want peaceful external conditions – no noise, no conflicts – just to live in a state of bliss and peace. We get upset about Luton Airport when the planes fly overhead, or a dog barks, somebody’s mowing the lawn and it’s disturbing my mettā practice or my peacefulness. We think of peace as controlling everything so that nothing upsets us, nothing distracts us. Well, that’s not the way things are. Having eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body: these are all restless conditions. They’re not peaceful. Eyes are not peaceful. The nose – odours change. Hearing sounds – they’re unpleasant, pleasant, neutral. Sensory experience is not peaceful; its very nature is change, and that’s the way it is. To not want it to be that way is creating suffering around the way things are. Whereas if your true nature is peaceful, then you’re peaceful with the conditions you’re experiencing right now. The way it is right now, at this moment – whatever you’re feeling, whatever you’re thinking – is like this. And in this sense of opening, I open my arms wide, embracing the moment rather than trying to control it into perfect thinking and perfect equanimity that I imagine or remember having. I open to it. If there’s conflict, it’s like this. If there’s chaos, it’s like this. If there’s noise, cacophonous sounds, bad odours, ugly things to look at – it’s like this. This you can do anywhere, whether you’re in the monastery, in the middle of London in a traffic jam or at a meeting with others. Meditation isn’t confined to just sitting in the Temple at certain designated times of the day. It’s integrated into the way we move and change in sitting, standing, walking, lying down, inhaling and exhaling. It’s in the movement and change of saṅkhāras – of saṁsāra – the changing conditions that we’re all experiencing through our senses.
What is immutable, unmovable or unchangeable is this awareness, and we begin to see that that’s what our refuge is. It’s not about grasping it. Real meditation is the ultimate letting go of absolutely everything, which is not annihilation. It is relaxing: not trying to get samādhi, not trying to get insight, not trying to get something that you don’t have, or get rid of what you have that you don’t want. As Luang Por Chah said, it’s a relaxed holiday of the heart. Years ago, I asked him if he could define what meditation is in Thai, and he said, Phakphon thang jit-jai, which I translate as ‘a holiday of the heart’. I thought to myself, ‘I’m certainly not on a holiday of the heart. I don’t know what that is. I keep all these rules of the vinaya and try to meditate and get samādhi and jhānas, and try to get enlightened – it’s hard work! It’s taking a lot of effort, and sometimes I just can’t do it.’ Luang Por Chah always had this sense of open relaxation, of being with the moment whatever was happening. His life wasn’t always just praise and flowers and adulation, accolades and so on. He had to put up with a lot of stress, disappointments and changing conditions that are a part of life. That’s the way things are in what we might consider the best monasteries, not to mention any others.
So this afternoon’s reflection is meant to encourage you to trust what you really are – your awareness – and not to try to become like somebody else or some ideal, some imagined nun or monk or enlightened human being. Enlightened masters are inspiring to us all, but you can’t become an enlightened master by grasping a concept. The master is awareness itself that you learn to totally trust and integrate into your life as it happens.
Whether it’s praise or blame, success or failure, happiness or suffering, good or bad fortune – these are all worldly conditions. They’re listed in the scriptures as the ‘eight worldly dhammas’. We all want good fortune. We all want success. We all want praise. We all want happiness. But success, good fortune, happiness and praise are positive words that are desirable. We don’t want to be looked down on, despised. We don’t want to be failures or losers. We don’t want to be blamed for things. We don’t want to get sick, get old and die. There’s so many things that we don’t want, but these unwanted conditions are saṅkhāras. They are worldly dhammas because this moment can only be like this, the way it is.
So I offer this as a reflection. May you all benefit from this. Don’t grasp the teaching but apply it to your own experience of life as you live from moment to moment.