I’ve been here at Amaravati for fifteen years . We have a nice temple with cloisters now, and somebody has donated funds for a very nice kuti, the nicest kuti I’ve ever had. And one may become attached to Amaravati, or ideas about Amaravati, or the sangha, to monasticism or Buddhism, to being a good Buddhist monk or to the Theravada tradition, to the Thai forest tradition, to establishing Buddhism in the West. All these things are very good and one gets praised for them. People sometimes say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful what you’ve done! You’ve established monasticism in the West.’ I get a lot of these kinds of messages. But one has to be careful not to start attaching to these things, and suffering when one doesn’t get the compliments or when the monks and nuns start disrobing and people start finding fault with you. When one responds to praise and blame, success and failure, those are the signs of attachment. This is where I’ve made a strong determination. In my practice the priority is always towards this purity, never towards any worldly thing, not towards the monastic life, towards Buddhism, individual monks or nuns, orders of monks and nuns, Buddhism in the West, Buddhism in the East, Buddhism in the North, or Buddhism in the South. Even if I am successful at these things, even if I do establish Buddhism permanently for the next thousand years in Europe, the priority can only be to realise nibbana, to cross over the sea of suffering. We’ve made this temple at Amaravati so sturdy it’ll last a thousand years. Buddhism may not survive, but the temple will. The architect said twenty elephants could dance on the roof of that temple and it would not cave in! But to realise nibbana is the whole purpose of ordaining as a monk or nun. This has always meant a lot to me. I could see that it might be sometimes easier to build temples than to practise and to keep that practice going until you really know so that it’s not theoretical. Each one of us has this opportunity to know this for ourselves. That’s the only way we can be liberated, through knowing it for ourselves, not through anyone else’s understanding.
I now see the emotional habits that one has as vipaka-kamma (result of kamma). If I accept whatever emotions come up, let them be in consciousness and then let them out, they will be liberated from their prison. I find this a skilful way of looking at it. Even after years of moral conduct and strict practice, it’s surprising what emotions still come into consciousness. But in terms of practice, whatever comes, you don’t make any problems out of it, you just recognise the opportunity to liberate this wretched creature, or this emotion, from its prison. The attitude is vipaka-kamma, resultant kamma. When the conditions ripen, the result becomes conscious. The things that ripen, that come up into consciousness—just let them be conscious and liberate them by letting them go; let them be what they are, and they will naturally move away. With awareness you’ve opened the doors to the deathless, you’re liberating those wretched conditions from their misery. The doors to the deathless are open—that’s mindfulness. We talk about the doors to the deathless, but it’s not something out there, something remote or hidden. The Buddha pointed to this mindfulness—this is the path to the deathless.
You can see that every moment of your life you have this. This is your heritage, your opportunity, and so even if you forget about it or don’t want to do it right now, there will be a point in your life when you will want to do it. Even if you’re not ready for the unconditioned experience, for realisation, you will be at some time. You’ll get fed up with the suffering that you create through ignorance and attachment.
This seems to be a time when this kind of teaching is becoming increasingly appreciated. It’s not just through the Buddhist convention, but in many ways. It’s as if this kind of practice is being made available to people, or maybe it’s the time of awakening because of the seemingly unsolvable problems and the mess that we’ve created through our greed, hatred and delusion. The population pressures of this age, the pollution, all the wars and weaponry and the materialism, all this has been done—through what? Through desire, and attachment to desire. So much of our intelligence has been used for creating horrible weapons, smart bombs that aren’t so smart, and the problems of human beings and all planetary creatures at this time on this earth, and yet there is this potential for enlightenment, for realisation.
If we contemplate in the terms of just being one human individual at this time, we can see that what we learn through awareness is something very ordinary and unimpressive. It’s not as if we light up with flames shooting out of our heads and we have extravagant experiences. It’s very subtle. No one would ever know. Nothing shows. There’s nothing spectacular about paying attention, this expansive intuitive listening, attentive listening, intuitive awareness. It’s nothing fantastic, nothing to write home about. That’s why it is overlooked, why people don’t notice. They’re looking for something spectacular, some kind of mystical experience where you kind of merge with the ultimate in a union of bliss. It’s what we’d like, isn’t it? Sometimes you have moments like that where you feel as though you’re in union with the ultimate and with nature and with everything, but that kind of feeling becomes a memory and then you want to have it again; you get attached to the memory of it; you’re always looking for something through a memory rather than trusting in the very simple ability we have right now of just paying attention.
This is humbling. It isn’t like an achievement that we can exhibit for the world to see. Worldly people think it’s not worth anything. All these ways of trying to get you to meditate often come with promises that you’ll look younger, you’ll be able to make more money, your relationships will improve, you’ll be successful, you’ll be happy, your diseases will be cured. These things sell meditation. We’re promised all kinds of good things as a reward for doing it. It’s not that those things never happen, it’s not that the reverse happens and you become poorer and sicker through meditation, but that isn’t the point. It’s the goodies that often stimulate the desire to meditate. But I’m referring to the ultimate purpose of meditation—the realisation of truth. To many people, if meditation doesn’t promise a lot of the good things, then it’s not worth anything. In terms of realising the way of nonsuffering, however, and a fearlessness that comes through that, then that is what is said to be the highest happiness. To be fearless and to understand the truth is its own reward. You don’t need anything more than that. You don’t need to have lots of money or good health or anything else.
The mind is not just some kind of thing in the skull. Awareness brings a sense of expansion, of being connected, of being unlimited, infinite, immeasurable. It’s not fixed on just one object, is it? It’s open and receptive; it’s wide; it’s not attached to just one little thing. That is what we call intuitive awareness. Whatever pleasant, unpleasant, miserable emotions or boring thoughts come, just welcome them. You’re opening the doors of the prison to liberate them, rather than thinking you don’t want to have these stupid thoughts or feelings.
First published in the August 1999 Buddhism Now
[Taken from a talk given during a retreat at Amaravati in May 1999.]
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