The Buddha approached the spiritual path through the noble truths. These are based on the existential reality of suffering. This is where many people in the West misunderstand Buddhism. They compare it to other religions and come out with statements about it being a negative approach, and that Buddhists don’t believe in God. There is this idea that it’s some kind of atheist religious form. But if you contemplate the Buddha’s teaching, the important thing to realise is that it’s a teaching of awakening rather than of grasping any kind of metaphysical position.
The first noble truth, suffering (dukkha), brings us back to a very banal and ordinary human experience. The suffering of not getting what we want is common to all of us. We all experience suffering from being separated from what we like and love, and having to be with what we don’t like. So we can all relate to it, rich or poor. We all have to experience old age, sickness and death, grief and sorrow, lamentation, despair, doubt—these are common to every human experience. There is nothing particularly unusual about this suffering; it’s ordinary. But it is to be understood. And in order to understand it, you have to accept it.
If you’re always trying to get rid of suffering, you can’t really understand it; you’re caught up in reacting to it. That is what we tend to do when we feel discontented or unhappy. Whatever form of suffering we’re experiencing, the tendency is to try to get rid of it by seeking happiness, maybe distracting ourselves with something which might give us a few moments of pleasure. We try to get away from what we don’t like.
The first of the four noble truths is the truth of suffering. And then there is the insight—suffering should be understood. This is the where the reflective mind is awakened to suffering, to really examine, to investigate the experience of suffering in the present, whether it is physical or emotional. We have to be willing to experience suffering rather than just see how we can get rid of it. This is going against the natural reactions we have, that all sentient beings have. We actually turn to it, examine it, embrace it, look at it, feel it.
This we can only do through reflection. When we try to examine suffering analytically, what happens? We end up blaming somebody; we increase the amount of suffering and confusion by endlessly trying to rationalise it, by analysing it. The reflective mind, on the other hand, is the willingness to feel and experience, to savour, to taste suffering.
What is the suffering of anguish and despair? There is a difference between wallowing in anguish and despair, and resisting them by understanding. Understanding means we’re willing to notice them, to turn to them, to use them as a noble truth, rather than as some kind of personal problem. We change our attitude towards these things. We change from—’I’m suffering and I don’t want to suffer,’ to ‘There is suffering, and it’s like this.’
What is it like, as an experience, to be separated from the loved? We can notice this feeling of anguish, of suffering, from being separated from what we love and like. And then there’s the frustration, the exasperation of having to put up with something you don’t like, and that feels like this. When I feel frustrated, exasperated or fed up, I use that opportunity for insight into the noble truth of suffering—to feel exasperated and fed up is like this. So what am I doing? I’m really detecting that kind of mood. I’m not judging or analysing it, but just noticing that this feeling is like this. The mind embraces the feeling; its willing to feel exasperated; there’s the awareness of it as an object; you begin to see it as ‘there is suffering’.
The cause of suffering, the second noble truth, is attachment to desire. Maybe we have the view that we’ve got to get rid of desire, that desire is something we shouldn’t have, rather than understanding it, knowing it, investigating the result of clinging to it, of being attached to wanting something, of wanting something we don’t have, of not wanting what we have, of wanting to become something that we’re not, of wanting to get rid of bad habits, of wanting to get rid of anger, of wanting to get rid of desire.
What does desire feel like as experience? Desire aims at something; it has an energy to it. When we attach to desire, that gives us energy to attach to desire, so we’re always trying to get something, like the compulsive shoppers of this age. People go into shopping centres and just buy everything because of the desire to get something they don’t have. Wealthy people can do that sometimes. Not even wealthy people, sometimes people with credit cards get themselves into terrible debt. You go into these malls and there are many things that make you want them—’There’s something I want!’ That desire comes of wanting something you don’t have—some beautiful object.
Reflective awareness is awareness of that feeling of wanting something. What is it like, that feeling of wanting? You can observe it as an experience in the present—wanting is like this. You can observe it just on the sensory level, the desire for sense pleasure, sensory experiences.
Desire itself isn’t a problem; it’s the grasping of desire that brings suffering. It’s not in getting rid of desire, but in letting go of desire that we begin to realise the way of not suffering. Letting go of the causes of suffering is letting go of the grasping of desire.
This realm that we live in is a desire realm. Desire is natural to this realm. Desire is what keeps things moving. This is a realm of sensory experience, of pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness; it’s just the way it is. So desire is not really the problem. Ignorance is the problem—not understanding things as they really are. Grasping these desires is the cause of suffering. We’re actually recognising that suffering has a cause. It’s not the body, the sense world; the conditions themselves aren’t the cause of suffering, it’s this grasping of the conditions that is the cause.
It is very important to reflect on this. We easily blame conditions for our suffering. We say, ‘You! You said something to me that really made me suffer.’ Or, ‘It’s because I can’t get what I want that I’m suffering; I want something and I can’t get it. So I’m really suffering.’ Or, it’s because I’m very attached to an idea of what I should become and I just can’t stand myself the way I am; I want to become this perfect ideal!
Wanting to become something, wanting to get rid of something, wanting sensory gratification—these three kinds of desire and the grasping of these three kinds of desire are what we reflect upon. That which is aware of desire—mindfulness—is not desire, is it? Desire is a mental object that you can observe; you can be a silent witness to desire. If you are desire, there is no way you can possibly have any perspective on it. Because you are not desire, however, desire is something that you can observe and learn from.
First we observe desire, grasping, and then there is the insight of letting go. Letting go of desire isn’t getting rid of desire. We’re not resisting desire, getting rid of it, we’re just letting it be what it is. Desire is desire—let it be that way. If we understand it, we know it; we know the feeling of it; we know when it’s present; we know when it’s absent. This is knowing, direct knowing. Even in Buddhist countries they say, ‘We’ve got to practise in order to get rid of our desires and get rid of our defilements. Kill the kilesas!’ People go on and on like that. It isn’t just Westerners who interpret Buddhism in this way.
I encourage people to really observe desire as experience. What does it feel like? Really get to know it. Wanting sense pleasure, wanting to get rid of something, wanting to get away from something, wanting to become something, feels like this. Practising meditation in order to become enlightened—what does that feel like? If I practise hard enough I’m going to become enlightened! That’s the worldly mind, isn’t it? At university we have to study hard so that we’ll pass examinations. Work hard! You’ll get rewarded! This is the work ethic of our society. We may apply this ethic to meditation. Meditate hard! Really get in there and meditate! Grit your teeth! Kill your defilements! Really smash through! Make yourself become something. Become an enlightened person. The desire to become enlightened, to become pure, to become a better person—it sounds very good, doesn’t it? The desire to become a good person is a very good desire; the desire to be good isn’t bad. The important thing is to recognise that the grasping of desire is the problem; that is the cause of suffering.
Grasping—what is that like as an experience? There’s desire, and then you really hang onto it, cling to it, identify with it. I remember contemplating purity. Bhikkhus have the Vinaya (the rules of the Order), and there is often the attempt to attain purity through keeping this Vinaya. But after years I never felt really pure just by keeping the Vinaya. You can become kind of pure in Vinaya, but as strict as you become, you don’t naturally feel pure. I kept thinking, ‘Well, what is purity, then? Is it that you become pure through keeping rules, by refraining from doing nasty things and thinking bad thoughts? Do you eventually become pure by that means? Is purity a state that you achieve through doing something? Can you become pure in some way?’ And then there is contemplating, this reflective awareness—What is purity right now? This is different to assuming that I’m impure to begin with and operating from that position. That’s the self view—basically I’m impure and I’ve got to become pure. Bringing purity into the reflective awareness in the present—what is really pure at this moment in terms of what I can actually directly know at this moment?—this is like a koan. The only thing I can really find as pure is in awareness, the pure state of awareness, this attention in the present—that’s pure!
When I really contemplated that and realised that, then I had this insight: I’ve never been impure. It’s never been absent from me. It’s always been here and now. It is close, near, absolutely present all the time, but I forget it, and I get carried away with my desires. I grasp desires—wanting something I don’t have, not wanting what I have, wanting to become something, wanting to get rid of something, wanting to become pure—’I want to become pure!’ I do things to become pure—go on fasts, torture myself, try to get rid of my bad thoughts, struggle and strive . . . bed of nails . . . hair shirts . . . self-flagellation . . . What happens when we do that? We end up exhausted and not pure yet!
At certain moments you might think that you’re pure, but because you think you’re pure then you can also think you’re not pure. So, even if you achieve purity through all those ascetic means, you can’t sustain that kind of purity; it’s something you attain so it’s not really pure.
Contemplate purity here and now—what could it be right now for any of us? Purity is not in a thought, or the body, or emotion, is it? Purity is in awareness. Awareness is the gate to the deathless; awareness is the transcendent reality. We begin to have this sense that our true nature is pure and, no matter what we do or think or say, we can never lose that purity. Even the most horrible criminal is still pure—serial killers, rapists, paedophiles, the whole lot. But they don’t know it. They don’t know and so they do all kinds of things out of ignorance, out of grasping desire, out of not understanding things as they really are. We forget. We believe we are this—I am this or I am that. How many of your identities are you really attached to? Do you like to think of yourself as being a certain type of person, having a certain kind of racial identity or sexual identity or class identity or personal identity? These things are very strong; everyone’s very much attached to their identities. Being a woman is an identity, or being a man, being a blind person, being a disabled person, or whatever. We often depend on these identities for a sense of our self-worth.
In the state of purity, however, these identities are no longer necessary; not that they’re dismissed in conventional language, but they’re not what we really are; we’re not anything, only purity. But don’t believe me. This is something you’ve got to find out for yourself. It’s realisable. It isn’t some kind of theory or some kind of high-minded idea that has come to me, it’s the realisation of dhamma, of truth, through investigation, through awakened awareness.
To recognise this purity, to really value this purity, I find, is a great relief, because it’s with me all the time. I just have to keep remembering. I do forget it—I get carried away with the various habits of the mind and body—but I can also remember. Meditation is actually learning to remember this purity, the here and now, centring yourself with the body, with the breath, with the sound of silence, and just noticing the conditioned states, the changingness of conditioned phenomena, of moods, of the emotions, of thoughts, of feelings, of views and opinions, of good or bad, of high or low.
Those of us who are from, say, Jewish or Christian backgrounds, or European societies, sometimes see ourselves in terms of being sinners. I was brought up with the idea that we are basically born within the state of sin. There was a feeling of having lost purity and of having to find it, of trying to become pure or achieving it maybe when I die by doing something; this is from my own experience, my own cultural background. In Buddhism, however, we’re not thinking of our true nature as some kind of fallen being who has sinned, but just as a forgetful one. That, I can relate to. I have to admit that I forget it. Forgetting is one thing and remembering is another. If we forget, we can remember. Remembering is like mindfulness, awareness, clear understanding, clear comprehension, real understanding, and the use of wisdom. Just noticing this—knowing that one is very clear when there’s purity, and when there’s not, really know what it’s like, know the suffering that one creates when one is caught up in grasping desires. Feel it, know just the general ambience of that, just that kind of irritating, acrimonious feeling of wanting or not wanting, just be aware of that grasping and making oneself suffer through that. Or, remember the purity of the moment.
The purity of the moment is in this pure state of awareness. Therefore, you can always refer to it, remember it, just by the simple act of attention, this wide, embracing attention, intuitive awareness in the present. That’s the gate to the deathless, transcendent reality, the unconditioned. It’s not an achievement; you don’t achieve it; you just remember it. When you try to achieve it, you’re operating from ideas, grasping ideas and going along with the assumption that you are the identity of yourself, you are this person who is impure and you’ve got to become pure. That is then your basis, the premise that you are operating from, your modus operandi. From this position you never feel pure; you always feel as though there is something wrong. There is a sense of despair and disappointment because you’re starting from a position that is basically deluded rather than from the purity of the present.
When we talk about the Buddhist teaching as direct, it is that direct. You can’t be more direct than the awakened attention in the present. You’re not starting from a position about yourself or the world and making value judgements about it; it’s just the simple imminent act, the internal act of listening, the open, receptive listening, where you can hear that sound of silence, that kind of scintillating sound in the background—that’s purity. Of course, you don’t go around saying, ‘I’m pure now!’ You don’t need to decorate purity; it’s perfect in itself. If there’s any claim to it, you’re off again. When people go around claiming they’re pure, I never believe them. It’s not something you proclaim; it’s something you realise; it isn’t personal. Purity is universal; it’s not ‘mine’, ‘my purity’, it’s not yours, it’s universal, it’s where we’re the same.
If you want to know where we’re all equal, we are all equal in this purity. This purity is complete. There’s not more or less of it in anybody. Purity has no nationality, it’s not male or female, it’s not even Buddhist. This is to begin to awaken to the way things are.
Now, emotionally, we’re not usually prepared for the awakened state. Even though I had an insight into this years ago, I resisted it, because emotionally I was prepared for becoming something. I’d get bored with it, or I’d doubt it, I would want things; there were a lot of worldly things that I was still very fond of at that time. I was quite willing to let go of a lot of worldly things but other things I wasn’t quite so eager to let go of. I was perfectly happy to let go of the anger and jealousy and fear, for example, but I wanted to keep the good stuff for a while. The world was still rather tempting, tantalising, fascinating, promising all kinds of things. So, emotionally, there was still a longing for worldly things, for pleasure, comfort, fulfilment, adventure, for whatever. Something in the worldly plane was still very attractive to me and even good in itself. These emotions, then, would become very resistant to this simple practice of mindfulness. More and more, however, you begin to see the suffering of attachment even to the good things of the world. And it’s the attachment, not the world, not the good things, but the attachment, that brings the suffering.
First published in the August 1999 Buddhism Now
[Taken from a talk given during a retreat at Amaravati in May 1999.]
To read other articles from Ajahn Sumedho click here