The Buddha’s teaching is all about understanding suffering – its origin, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. When we contemplate suffering, we find we are contemplating desire, because desire and suffering are the same thing.
Desire can be compared to fire. If we grasp fire, what happens? Does it lead to happiness? If we say: ‘Oh, look at that beautiful fire! Look at the beautiful colours! I love red and orange; they’re my favourite colours,’ and then grasp it, we would find a certain amount of suffering entering the body. And then if we were to contemplate the cause of that suffering we would discover it was the result of having grasped that fire. On that information, we would, hopefully, then let the fire go. Once we let fire go, then we know that it is something not to be attached to. This does not mean we have to hate it, or put it out. We can enjoy fire, can’t we? It is nice having a fire, it keeps the room warm, but we do not have to burn ourselves in it.
When we really contemplate suffering, we no longer incline towards grasping hold of desire, because it hurts, is painful, there is no point in doing it. So, from that time on, we understand, ‘Oh! That’s why I’m suffering; that’s its origin. Ah! now I understand. It’s that grasping hold of desire that causes me all this misery and suffering, all this fear, worry, expectation, despair, hatred, greed, delusion. All the problems of life come from grasping and clinging to the fire of desire.
The human habit of clinging to desire is ingrained. We in the West think of ourselves as sophisticated and educated, but when we really begin to see what is going on in our minds, it is rather frightening-most of us are horribly ignorant. We do not have an inkling of who we are, or what the cause of suffering is, or of how to live rightly-not an inkling. Many people want to take drugs, drink, and do all kinds of things to escape suffering-but their suffering increases. How conceited and arrogant we Western people can be, thinking of ourselves as civilised! We are educated, it is true, we can read and write, and we have wonderful machines and inventions. In comparison the tribal peoples in Africa, for example, seem primitive, superstitious, don’t they? But we are all in exactly the same boat! It is just that our superstitions are different. We actually believe in all kinds of things.
For instance, we try to explain our universe through concepts, thinking that concepts are reality. We believe in reason, in logic-which is to say we believe in things we do not know. We have not really understood how it all begins and ends. If we read a book and believe what it tells us, believe what the scientists say, we are just believing. We think: ‘We’re sophisticated. We believe in what the scientists say. People have PhDs-we believe in what they say. We don’t believe in what witch-doctors say; they’re stupid and ignorant.’ But it is all belief, isn’t it? We still do not know-it just sounds good. The Buddha said we should find out for ourselves and then we do not have to believe others.
We contemplate the universe as impermanent; we can see the impermanent nature of all conditions. From this contemplation, wisdom arises. There is nothing we can find in changing conditions that has any kind of self-continuity. All things begin and end; they arise out of the void and they go back into the void. And wherever we look we are not going to find any kind of permanent personality, or self. The only reason we think we have a personality is because we have memories, ideas and opinions about ourselves. If we are intellectual, we are always up in the head, thinking about everything. Emotionally we might not be developed at all-throw temper tantrums, scream and yell when we do not get our own way. We can talk about Sophocles and Aristotle, have magnificent discussions about the great German philosophers and about Ramakrishna, Aurobindo, and Buddha, and then somebody does not give us what we want and we throw a tantrum! It is all up in the head; there is no emotional stability.
There was a monk I knew once who was quite sophisticated compared to some of the other monks. He had lived in Bangkok for many years, been in the Thai navy, could speak pidgin English. He was quite intelligent and rather impressive. But he had this terrible health problem and felt he could no longer exist on one meal a day. In fact his health was so bad that he had to disrobe [leave the Buddhist Order]. After that he became an alcoholic! He could give brilliant talks whilst being smashed out of his mind. He had the intellect, but no morality or concentration.
On the other hand, we can have very strict morality and not have any wisdom. Then we are moral snobs, or bigots. Or we can become attached to concentration and not have any wisdom. ‘I’m on a meditation retreat and I’ve developed some concentration, some insight, but when I go home, oorh! I don’t know if I’ll be able to practise any more, or even if I’ll have time. I have so many duties, so many responsibilities.’ But how we live our ordinary lives is the real practice. Retreats are opportunities for getting away from all those responsibilities and things that press in on us, so as to be able to get a better perspective on them. But if the retreats are just used to escape for a few days and that is all, then they are of no great value. If, on the other hand, they are used for investigating suffering-‘Why do I suffer? Why am I confused? Why do I have problems? Why is the world as it is?’-then we shall find out if there is anything we can do about suffering. We shall find that out by investigating this body and this mind.
Ignorance is only the scum on the surface, it does not go deep; there is no vast amount of ignorance to break through. That ignorance here and now, that attachment to the fire here and now-we can let it go. There is no need to attach to fire any more-that is all there is to it. It is not a question of putting out the fire. But if we grasp it, we should let it go. Once we have let the fire go, then we should not grasp it again.
In our dally lives, we should be mindful. What does it mean to be mindful? It means to be fully aware right here, concentrating on what is going on inside. We are looking at something, for instance, and we try to concentrate on that; then a sound comes, and then a smell, then this and then that-distractions, changes. We say: ‘I can’t be mindful of this environment; it’s too confusing. I have to have a special environment where there are no distractions, then I can be mindful. If I go to one of those retreats, then I can be mindful; no distractions there-peace and quiet-noble silence! I can’t be mindful in Edinburgh or London-too many distractions. And I’ve got family, children, too much noise!’
But mindfulness is not necessarily concentrating on an object. Being aware of confusion is also being mindful. If we have all kinds of things coming at our senses-noises, people demanding this and that-we cannot concentrate on any one of them for very long. But we can be aware of the confusion, or the excitement, or the impingement; we can be aware of the reactions in our own minds. That is what we call being mindful. We can be mindful of confusion and chaos. And we can be mindful of peace and tranquillity.
The path of mindfulness is the path of no preferences. When we prefer one thing to another, then we concentrate on it: ‘I prefer peace to chaos.’ So, then, in order to have peace, what do we do? We have to go to some place where there is no confusion, become a hermit, go up to the Orkneys, find a cave. I found a super cave once off the coast of Thailand. It was on a beautiful little island in the Gulf of Siam. And it was my sixth year as a monk. All these Westerners were coming to Wat Pah Pong-Western monks. And they were causing me a lot of sorrow and despair. I thought: ‘I don’t want to teach these people; they’re too much of a problem; they’re too demanding; I want to get as far away from Western monks as possible.’ The previous year I had spent a Rains Retreat with five others. Oh, what a miserable Rains Retreat that was! I thought: ‘I’m not going to put up with that! I didn’t come here to do that; I came here to have peace.’ So I made some excuse to go to Bangkok and from there I found this island. I thought it was perfect. They had caves on the island and little huts on the beaches. It was the perfect set-up for a monk. One could go and get one of those huts and live in it. And then go on alms-round in the village. The village people were all very friendly, especially to Western monks because to be a Western monk was very unusual. We could depend on having all the food we could possibly eat, and more. It was not a place that was easy to get to, being out in the Gulf of Thailand, and I thought: ‘Oh, they’ll never find me out here, those Western monks; they’ll not find me here.’ And then I found a cave, one with a Jongram, and it was beautiful. It had an inner chamber that was completely dark and no sounds could penetrate. I crawled in through a hole and inside there was nothing. I could neither see nor hear anything. So it was ideal for sensory deprivation: ‘Oh, this is exactly what I’ve been looking for; I can practise all these high jhanic states. I can go in this cave and just practise for hours on end with no kind of sense stimulation.’ I really wanted to see what would happen. But there was this old monk living in this cave who was not sure whether he was going to stay. Anyway, he said I could have the grass hut on the top of the hill. I went up there and looked, and down below was the sea. I thought, ‘Oh, this is also nice because now I can concentrate on the sea, which is tranquillising.’
There was a Thai monk on the island who was a very good friend of mine and he said: ‘Well, if they find you here, there’s an island about fifteen miles further out-they’ll never find you there. There’s a little hut there, and a little village; the people in the village would love to take care of a monk.’ So I was thinking: ‘You know, possibly after the Rains Retreat, I will go out to that further island.’
I really was determined to escape. I wanted peace and I found the Western monks very confusing. They would always ask lots of questions and were so demanding. So I was all set to spend the Rains Retreat in this idyllic situation. And then-this foot! My right foot became severely infected and they had to take me off the island into the local hospital on the mainland. I was very ill. They would not let me go back to the island and I had to spend the Rains Retreat in a monastery near the town. Sorrow, despair and resentment arose towards this foot-all because I was attached to tranquillity. I wanted to escape the confusion of the world; I really longed to lock myself in a tomb where my senses would not be stimulated, where no demands would be made on me, where I would be left alone, incognito, invisible. But after that I contemplated my attitude; I contemplated my greed for peace. And I did not seek tranquillity any more.
I never did return to that island. The foot healed fairly well and I had a chance to go to India. Then, after that I went back to Wat Pah Pong, and by that time I had decided not to make preferences. My practice would be ‘the way of no preferences’; I would just take things as they came. On my return to Wat Pah Pong I was put in the responsible position of being a translator for Ajahn Chah. I detested having to translate for Westerners, but there I was. I had to do it, and I also had to teach and train monks. A year or so after that they even sent me off to start my own monastery! Within two years there were about twenty Western monks living with me. Then I was invited to England.
And so I have never escaped to that cave because I no longer made preferences. The responsibilities and teaching seem to be increasing, but it is part of the practice of ‘no preferences’. And I find, through this practice, my mind is calm and peaceful. I no longer resent the demands made on me, or dwell in aversion or confusion about the never-ending problems and misunderstandings that arise in human society. So the practice is-just mindfulness. No longer do I long for tranquillity. Tranquillity comes and I see it as impermanent. Confusion comes-impermanent; peacefulness-impermanent; war-impermanent. I just keep seeing the impermanent nature of all conditions and I have never felt more at peace with the world than I do now, living in Britain-much more so than I ever did when I was, say, those few days on that island. At that time I was clinging desperately to ideals of what I wanted and there was the accompanying fear of having them taken away-I was afraid that Westerners would come and bother me and that my peaceful environment would be interfered with. There was a real selfishness involved in that rejection and shutting out of others, and a real fear that others might ruin it for me. So this attachment to peace and conditions inevitably brings fear and worry along with it, because all conditions can easily be taken away or destroyed. The kind of peace that we can get from ‘no preferences’, however, can never be taken away. It can never be taken away because we can adapt; we are not dependent upon the environment for tranquillity; we have no need to seek tranquillity, or long for it, or resent confusion. So, when we reflect on the Buddha’s teaching (seeing suffering, its origin, its cessation and the path to its cessation), we can see that he was teaching the path of ‘no preferences.
The Buddha was enlightened. He spent six years as an ascetic, doing tranquillising practices, attaining the highest states of absorption, and he said: ‘No! This isn’t it! This is still suffering. This is still delusion.’ And, from that realisation he found the Middle Way, the path of ‘ no preferences’, the path of awareness.
We should not expect high degrees of tranquillity if we are living in an environment where people are confused or not tranquil, or where we have a lot of responsibilities and duties. We should not think: ‘Oh! I want to be somewhere else; I don’t want to be here.’ Then we are making a preference. We should observe the kind of life that we have, whether we like it or not-it is changing, anyway; it does not matter.
In life ‘like’ tends to change into ‘dislike’; ‘dislike’ tends to change into ‘like’. Even pleasant conditions change into unpleasant ones, and unpleasant conditions eventually become pleasant. We should just keep this awareness of impermanence and be at peace with the way things are, not demanding that they be otherwise. The people we live with, the places we live in, the society we are a part of-we should just be at peace with everything. But most of all we should be at peace with ourselves-that is the big lesson to learn in life. It is really hard to be at peace with oneself. I find that most people have a lot of self-aversion. It is much better to be at peace with our own bodies and minds than anything else, and not demand that they be perfect, that we be perfect, or that everything be good. We can be at peace with the good and the bad.
An extract from Teachings Buddhist Monk by Ajahn Sumedho