The first Noble Truth is the understanding of suffering and the second is the insight into ‘letting go’. The suffering that we are talking about comes from attachment out of ignorance, out of habit, greed, hatred, and delusion. We tend to react to sensory impingement, either wanting the pleasant, or not wanting the unpleasant. So the tendency is to react and grasp; and grasping also implies trying to get rid of things. Then the third Noble Truth is the realization of cessation, nirodha. Cessation doesn’t mean the ultimate cessation of everything where we go into a kind of blank vacuum; it is the mind empty of ‘I am’ where there is no grasping, no hatred, and no delusion, where there is simply the realization of what we might call ‘the empty mind’, or ‘the silence’.
‘Silence’, then, is to be realized; it is not to be believed in or created. We can’t make silence; and we cannot realize it by going into a pitch black cave where there is no sound. It will be silent in the cave, of course, but if there has been no insight into suffering and the origin of suffering, the moment the cave is left, noise and things that come into sight will be very upsetting. So, like a Hermetic practise: ‘I will find silence in peace and stillness by rejecting all of you. I have to go away from you now to some place where nothing harsh, exciting, or agitating will come to me; and eventually I’ll find this level of stillness in myself.’ But there has been no insight and so the stillness and silence experienced through sensory deprivation will be interpreted from the ‘I am’ position. As soon as the silence is broken, or disturbed, or as soon as something happens, then it will be upsetting, and anger will arise.
We can get very angry if we become attached to silence and stillness and sensory deprivation; it is so pleasant not to have things impinging on the senses once we get used to it. And if we attach to the silence out of ignorance, out of greed, then when it is disrupted we can feel very angry; we may even feel like murdering someone. So that can’t be the kind of still silence the Buddha was talking about! He couldn’t have been talking about a silence that is dependent upon conditions (a lack of sensory movement). The silence, the cessation of suffering, is now; it is here and now, in the mind; we don’t have to go anywhere to get it.
Conditions, whatever they might be — harsh sensory impingement, painful sensory impingement, pleasant, beautiful — if there is a realization of cessation (the third Noble Truth), then the way things happen to be in the moment on the sensory plane are not really the issue any more. One can bear with conditions because the silence is not from denying or rejecting, but from understanding, from letting go, and from realizing that all is subject to arising and ceasing. In that movement is a stillness and peacefulness that all of us can experience and know directly for ourselves.
The Four Noble Truths is a very accurate teaching because it is something we can actually apply to our lives wherever we happen to be. There is a growing interest in Buddhism in Britain. Why is this? Why do people here want to practise Buddhist meditation? Because it provides something that each one of us longs for. We are living in a very stressful time with all the successes of Western civilization, Western education and technology, the miracles that the West has performed! And it continues — there is no end to it. Yet people have not become more peaceful and contented. In fact they feel even more stressed by it all. So the problems of modern society in the West are coming not from a lack of anything, from tyrannical governments or from anything terribly wrong, but just from the level of stress in the mind — the speed, the nervousness, the tension, the tendency to get caught up in things and having no way of letting go, no understanding of the nature of things. So people end up taking drugs, drinking a lot, seeking sensory deprivation, trying to bury their heads in the sand; they go off to remote islands in the Pacific or do anything they think will help them find some inner peace.
In Thailand, where we lived in forest monasteries, I remember how common it was for monks to be attached to their particular situations; and they could be very opinionated! I remember visiting an absolutely beautiful place in the North East. The people had made a kind of meeting hall in this big cave which was on a cliff so that you had a panoramic view of the forest below. And there were lovely little kuties built into rock grottoes. It was a dream come true. I thought it would be nice to live there, so I spoke to a Western monk in Bangkok who had been and I said, ‘Were you at that beautiful monastery?’
‘It must have been wonderful — so peaceful and beautiful.’
‘I couldn’t stand it!’
‘Why? What was wrong?’
‘Well, they gave me this little place to live, this little hut, but every morning I had to walk by someone else’s hut and it upset my mind’.
‘So what did you do?’
‘Well, I had to leave; it wasn’t a proper place for me; I had to find something better.’
So he went somewhere else. And I said, ‘Well, what was it like at that other place?’
‘That wasn’t very good either, because every time I went out on alms round, these dogs would come and bite me.’
And I kept thinking, ‘Hmmmmm . . . This is interesting. You’re missing all these opportunities. You’re looking for the perfect place. You think that once you’ve found the perfect place where nothing will offend or disturb you, then you will really be able to practise.’ And this is very common among monks. They get very attached to the idea of ‘Don’t disturb me! Don’t bother me!’ ‘We’ve got to have it like this; can’t have it like that.’
I was tending in that direction myself when I met Ajahn Chah, and he obviously observed this because he would never let me get away with it. I would start programmes for ‘real practice’; it was kind of arrogant. I would think, ‘I’m here for real practice. These other monks, they’re not as serious as I am; I’m more serious.’ And so I would set myself a very strict practice routine. Then, suddenly, Ajahn Chah would ask me to go some place with him, but I’d say, ‘It’ll upset my practice.’ He would say, ‘How would it upset your practice?’ Then he would take me somewhere!
At one time we went to a place where a new branch monastery was being established on the Cambodian border. It was a most fetid kind of environment, really hot and dusty, with huge mosquitoes all over the place. The village people had built a crude shelter and we sat up all night in this shelter while Ajahn Chah talked with the villagers; I couldn’t understand Thai very well, so I just had to sit there (you are expected to stay with the teacher until he says you can go). So I stayed and he kept talking and talking, and they chewed these betel nuts, spitting out the red juice. I was feeling more and more averse. Then these huge mosquitoes kept landing on me! ‘What a horrible place! And I had to disrupt my practice in order to come to this dreadful place!’ I was absolutely furious with Ajahn Chah. He kept interfering with my practice over the years until, finally, I got the point!
So when I came to England (this was in 1977), I was prepared. I didn’t have views about my practice having to be any which way, but it became apparent during those first two years in London, that I didn’t want to live in big cities. So, finding myself in London was not what I really wanted. But was it interfering with my practice? Was living in London, in a completely new country, being a foreigner, being a Buddhist monk, having to adjust to a new climate and everything, was it disrupting my practice? By the time I came to England I had already worked this out — in no way was it disrupting any practice because the practice was something to be with all the time; it wasn’t dependent upon external conditions. Occasionally there was the feeling that I would like to have more time alone, go to some quiet place; but this was all seen as conditions of the mind that could be let go of. Strangely enough, it was in London that silence and stillness became most strongly realized, rather than in the cave in Thailand; it was in the streets of London that the silence and stillness of my mind became strong and real; and it was wonderful to see that. It isn’t that London is a holy, sacred, city, is it? None of us would make that assumption. In fact most people would tend to put it down as an unpleasant place to have to be in. Yet it was here that the realization came that it didn’t matter what impinged on the mind itself, as long as there was mindfulness and reflection on the way things are.
It was very clear right from the beginning, therefore, that one would not be able to reproduce Thailand in England, or set things up as it was in the Thai monastery. Instead, one trusted in the ability to respond and adapt to life as it happened. There was no question of trying to create something new, of trying to impose ideas onto this society, or of trying to convert people to Buddhism. It was not a case, say, of running away from this culture or the people of this society by forming a little cult that shuts its doors and says, ‘We want our way, and don’t bother us!’ None of that.
The trust and confidence in the practice of being with the true silence of the mind is what we call ‘here and now dharma’. Truth is always apparent here and now; it is timeless. This is the challenge we now have as human beings living in a stress-filled society with its increasing problems and difficulties. It gets very complicated at times for everyone, and yet we can let it go and realize silence and peacefulness now. We call it ‘inner peace’, which is just a way of saying, ‘You can’t go out and find it; you don’t have to go and look for it in India or think that it’s in some other place, — the Himalayas, or anywhere else.’
The statements of the Buddha are negative, ‘It’s not this, it’s not that; it’s not self.’ ‘There is no self.’ ‘The created, conditioned realm is not self.’ ‘The unconditioned is not self.’ At Amaravati (which means ‘the deathless realm’) we say, ‘There is Amaravati.’ Of course you might think I mean the piece of land you see around you — this is Amaravati. But if you also apply that to something more profound, as a realization from your own heart, then there is the deathless. I’m talking very much in this vein now because I feel that human beings need to really consider this again. We don’t have much in our society that encourages this, or really talks about deathlessness.
When they published a book of my talks in 1985 (they printed it here in England), I called it Path to the Deathless. And someone said, ‘”Deathless” is not a good word for the English; if it has “death” in it, nobody will want it.’ Then they kind of neutralized it by calling it Mindfulness, Path to the Deathless. So even the word ‘deathless’ can be frightening to people, can’t it? I don’t know whether English people find that offensive or not, but to me the word ‘deathless’ is the same as ‘immortal’. The word itself is an important one to contemplate, to bring back into our minds again, just that word, because we identify very much with and are frightened by death, by the prospects of dying — suffering, sickness, weaponry, pollution, nuclear holocaust. We are faced now with so many horrible, deathbound experiences. Of course, we shall all die anyway, but premature deaths, terrible, painful deaths, mass deaths, genocide — all this is something that we’re aware of as a possibility; yet hardly anyone talks about deathlessness, or the immortal, or transcendent truth. I am impressed, however, by some modern theologians and Christian meditators who realize this. The actual mystical experience, or the insight into truth, of course, is really something you can’t qualify in words; it can only be pointed to. And so this talk is an attempt to point to that possibility for those who haven’t had the experience, or for those who have grave doubts about it, or wonder what mystical experience is. Often it is described as feeling at one with the universe, but even the concept of ‘oneness’ is relinquished when there is a more continuous awareness of true silence and the vast emptiness of dharma or mind.
Buddhism Now June 1991
Other posts by Ajahn Sumedho