People often believe contemplation is the same as thinking about something. But when I use the word it means rather ‘contemplating what an existing condition is like’. If you feel angry or resentful, contemplate that feeling. This isn’t to say you should try to figure out why or where the feeling came from, but look at the way it is. Let it be and notice what it feels like as an experience in the present.
The three characteristics of impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and not-self (anatta) are the guiding suggestions. Not in the sense of going around thinking that anger is just impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self, or to project those ideas onto experience, but to look at impermanence and to contemplate it. I remember noticing the passage of time—of how the sun rises and sets—and using impermanence as a subject to contemplate for the day or for several days. We can notice visual change and sound. When an aeroplane flies over or somebody says something, for example, we can be aware of how sound is very definitely impermanent, fleeting, ephemeral. And taste and touch—are these things permanent? No!
Contemplate contentment and gratitude. This isn’t an imperative to be content and grateful. I’m not saying you have to feel these emotions. It’s more like encouraging a way of living in which these kinds of feelings come to you; you cultivate them. In monastic life we deliberately cultivate contentment. It doesn’t come that naturally. A lot of the time we’re discontented with everything. But through contemplating discontent and the suffering that comes from always complaining or wanting something to be better, you see the suffering of those negative mental states.
Being alms mendicants we can contemplate the fact that our lives depend on the kindness of others. That, in fact, is one of the monastic contemplations, and it’s somehow a beautiful thing for a monk or nun to remember every day in their lives. We can also contemplate all the good actions in the world, all the tiny little things people do, unselfish actions, good actions, on a great or small scale. Think of all the good things that conscious beings have done today. This is another contemplation which helps us to think in a positive way about the goodness of humanity.
A year ago I held a retreat at a tea garden in Darjeeling. A lovely guesthouse had just been built there and I was the first guest; I had it all to myself. There was a television in the lounge and the manager had turned it on so that the only thing you could really get was BBC international news. This was about the time Pol Pot died in Cambodia. So the day they cremated his corpse I saw it on the television. I’d been to Cambodia in 1997 for a month as an invited guest of the Sangharaja. I also gave some retreats in Phnom Penh and met all kinds of people. They gave me the VIP treatment. I was taken to Angkor Wat and to a resort town on the coast. But besides these things, I went to museums which held the skulls of the killing fields, and to a school where they tortured people. There were photographs on the walls which brought ominous and depressing images into the mind, scenes of brutality, of people delighting in torturing, prolonging deaths so that they were long, drawn out, horrible, and agonising. It wasn’t as if they just shot somebody in the head. The Khmer Rouge loved to really make people suffer and to make it last as long as possible.
So these images are in my mind of the horror of the killing fields in Cambodia, and of course Pol Pot is the symbol for all that, the kind of demon that everybody regards as one of the great monsters of this century—Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot! At the time, I was doing this practice of rejoicing in the inconceivably vast oceans of good actions performed by conscious beings since beginningless time. This is what I was contemplating on this retreat in Darjeeling. But what I saw on the television was Pol Pot’s corpse being burned like rubbish. Here was this old man that everybody hated—the Khmer Rouge had turned against him and his wife and daughter weren’t at the funeral. There was just a couple of armed guards. He died near the Thai border. They built a fire with some rubber tyres, threw his body on top, threw on the old mattress he’d died on and a bamboo chair he’d sat on, and this pile of rubbish just burned. One couldn’t help but feel like rejoicing at the dismal end of a terrible monster rather than ‘in the inconceivably vast oceans of good actions by conscious beings since beginningless time’. I noticed the tendency to feel, ‘He deserved it! Revenge! Even that was too good for him. He should have been made to die in a horrible way, just to get even.’ I wasn’t actually feeling like that, but I could understand those kinds of revengeful, vindictive tendencies of the human mind, those kinds of emotions. I thought, ‘Probably everybody at this time is thinking, “Good riddance to that old monster,” and nobody is thinking of Pol Pot in any positive way.’ So then I deliberately tried to think differently, ‘Surely, Pol Pot had moments of kindness in his life. He had a dog. He was kind to his wife, his daughter. He’d been a temple boy when he was young.’ And I began to try to rejoice in the good actions of Pol Pot, just as an exercise for contemplation.
The perception of Pol Pot is that he was a monster, and yet nobody is totally evil—no one! Good actions would have been performed by Hitler and Stalin. Just because they do terrible things doesn’t mean they’re totally evil and never do anything good. Contemplating this, I began rejoicing in the good actions, the inconceivably vast oceans of good actions performed by conscious beings since beginningless time. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m the only person on this planet rejoicing in the good actions of Pol Pot at this time.’ I know some people would be really angry with me for crediting him with the possibility of carrying out even one act of kindness at one moment in his life, like petting the dog or buying his wife a new dress, for example. But it’s possible!
Contemplating these little things—even though they might seem trivial—is an exercise in consciously informing yourself of rejoicing in the goodness of humanity. This exercise, I found, counterbalanced my tendency to give so much importance to the bad actions of humanity, myself included. I’ve noticed that I’m very good at making a big deal out of the mistakes and foolish things I’ve done, and the faults and weaknesses I have. I can really get off on that! But I tend to almost dismiss any goodness in my life. You know, ‘So what!’ Why do I do that? I don’t know, but that’s what happens.
I notice this in the sangha too (the monks and nuns) here in England. There’s so much interest in what’s wrong with the sangha that sometimes the goodness of it is almost dismissed as not being realistic, or as being in denial. The attitude that there’s something wrong or there’s some great lack or there’s a real problem that we have to solve, is quite common among monastics. This isn’t to deny that there’s anything wrong and everything is just perfect, but it does tend to create an atmosphere of anxiety, a constant, underlying feeling that there’s something wrong and we’ve really got to have more meetings, more discussions, and try to find out what it is. We’ve done that and it seems to make matters worse! So maybe the problem is in assuming there is something wrong in the first place, and giving that too much importance and attention.
In this ‘I rejoice in the inconceivably vast oceans of good actions performed by conscious beings since beginningless time’, I rejoice in the inconceivably vast oceans of good actions performed by the sangha, here in England, since it began. Is that better? This is a contemplation, not based on idealistic thinking or fantasy, but knowing the goodness in our hearts, knowing that we want to be good. Most humans I know really do want to be good, even if they aren’t. It’s just that they are sometimes caught in resentments and attitudes and habits that drive them into doing harmful or corrupt things. The aspiration to be good, however, is common. I don’t think I’ve ever met any human being who I can say is totally evil and hasn’t had the aspiration for good action of some sort. Remembering this and bringing it back into one’s own mind isn’t inflating the ego; it’s to be honest about the way things are.
One practice that we have in the monastery is to share the blessings of our life. The attitude in Buddhism is not to do things for selfish ends, so even though we’re sitting here maybe thinking, ‘I’m going to get enlightened! I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’m going to do it.’ That sounds very selfish, but then we share the blessings of our practice with others. There is this beautiful chant that we do at the end of the day, sharing the blessings, the goodness and practice of our life with all sentient beings. In Buddhist terms, all sentient beings include demons, angels, monsters and saints, the forces seen, the forces unseen, the born, the not yet born, and so forth. It’s so all-inclusive you couldn’t possibly leave anyone out; we even share the blessings of our life with the Lord of Death. Whoever would think of doing that? This helps us to recognise that our lives are interdependent; we’re not just isolated entities operating in a way that has no effect on anyone else.
Before I started meditating I was brought up to be this kind of independent, free individual—these were the ideals—and this gave me the impression that, ‘My life is my business, not yours! And what I do with my life is my business, none of your business. If I want to ruin my life, well, that’s my business. Don’t you worry about it. You just mind your business; take care of your life.’ That seems fair enough, ‘Keep your nose out of my business.’ But the effect of this attitude was that by the time I reached thirty I was suffering from chronic loneliness. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any friends, but even so, I was still lonely. The loneliness wasn’t due to not relating, I was simply reaping the result of this ‘individual, independent free spirit’ that said, ‘My life is my business and not your business. Mind your own business!’ Through meditation, however, I gradually saw how I’d cut myself off emotionally from the rest of the world with my ideals of independence and individualism. In one way, it’s fun when you’re young enjoying the freedom of asserting yourself, of not being concerned about what others think, of thinking it doesn’t matter what ‘I do because it’s not going to hurt anyone else! If it hurts me, well then, I’ll accept that!’ But now I wouldn’t think in the same way because I see we effect each other whether we intend to, or not.
This realm that we’re in is very sensitive. This planet is all about sense experience, about seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching; it’s all about how things effect us. Just the tone of someone’s voice or the words they use are things we feel. Somebody was telling me about an angry telephone call they received. The anger that came across went through every cell of his body. It was somebody who didn’t really matter to him, but it was just the power of that angry voice. That’s sensitivity, isn’t it? You could rationalise it and say, ‘Well, it’s that person’s suffering,’ and try to dismiss it without feeling anything. Being sensitive is rather frightening, isn’t it? To be sensitive means we’re subject to so many things happening, we have to develop ways of protecting ourselves.
Another attitude from my generation was that men aren’t sensitive. ‘Women are sensitive, but men aren’t. We don’t feel things. We’re tough! Men don’t cry like women do.’ We got these kinds of messages as children, ‘Men don’t cry! It’s a sign of weakness. Feeling is a sign of weakness. I remember in the military we developed a macho suit of armour, ‘Nothing bothers me! I’m not afraid of anything!’ There you’d be, shaking and quivering inside with terror, while saying, ‘I’m not afraid of anything!’ This is the mask you put on in public. It’s a way of protecting yourself.
In meditation, however, you completely open the doors to being fully sensitive. So how is sensitivity to be interpreted? The Buddha pointed to seeing it in terms of dhamma (truth) rather than in terms of self. Now, being sensitive as a personality—as if ‘I am this body’—is to think in terms of, ‘This is me and my emotions, my feelings, my thoughts, my memories, my eyes, ears, nose, tongue and so forth. All this is mine!’ And then I become quite frightened by this sensitive state. It seems overwhelming when you contemplate life to think that this interdependence and this sensitivity is so all-pervasive. It makes you want to find a place in which to protect yourself, a fortress, a little cave with a ‘Do not disturb!’ sign hanging on the front of it and ‘Strangers stay away!’ It makes you want to limit the sensory impingement and alien influences. We can start getting paranoid and think in terms of alien influences ‘out there’. We can begin to speculate about spirits, ghosts, creatures from other planets, all kinds of things ‘out there’ that can harm ‘me’ in some way. It’s possible to create a whole army of danger in our minds about what’s ‘out there’ in the universe, in the dark, and become paranoid and frightened.
If our lives are interpreted on the ‘self’ level, there is a lot to worry about. The body can in fact easily be damaged; our feelings can easily be hurt—somebody insults us or makes fun of us or humiliates us. These are common human experiences we all dread and don’t want in life. So then how do we interpret sensitivity through wisdom? The Buddha’s message is to do it in terms of dhamma, the way it is—sensitivity is like this. We contemplate pleasure, pain and neutral feelings (vedana). We reflect on what these things are, what happiness and suffering are, what equanimity is, what silence is, what noise is, what aggravation is, and so forth. We open to these things rather than trying to protect ourselves from feeling them. We actually turn to them with the intention of understanding sensitivity and no longer creating suffering around these sensitive states. So we are liberated through being totally open and sensitive; that is where we don’t create suffering. We don’t create suffering out of ignorance, or out of fear and desire. This sense of embracing, opening, welcoming, is in terms of dhamma rather than in terms of ‘me’, ‘mine’ and ‘self’.
Culturally, we are conditioned to interpret experience through the self view, the personality view, the personal experience—’my life’, ‘my feelings’, ‘my body’. And now we’re contemplating it in terms of dhamma which is: There is this feeling; there is pleasure; there is pain; there is suffering; there is happiness; there is peace; there is war, and so forth. But these are to be understood through embracing rather than through resisting out of fear and ignorance. And our human karma is such that we are in a place where we can do this, the human mind being a reflective mind, a buddha mind. In terms of the way it is, each one of us is on this point where there is the conditioned and the unconditioned. T.S. Eliot wrote that ‘to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time is the occupation of the saint . . .’ To apprehend, to know that point of intersection of the timeless with time—this is the here and now for each one of us. Don’t believe me! Contemplate it. We can actually see the time and the timeless where we are in this moment because we’re a conscious entity in the universe. There is a kind of independent conscious entity. We’re not merged in the unconditioned in terms of having a physical, conscious body. This particular thing is a conscious entity in the universe; not in a personal way of ‘I am a conscious entity in the universe,’ but this is the way it is, isn’t it?
We can just give all our attention to the time-bound thing, the conditioned realm. This is what materialism does. It’s always sorting out, rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, trying to create perfect societies out of ideas, perfect socialist systems—communist systems, democratic societies, common markets, economic markets. We can create ideal societies with our minds, based on the highest principles, the highest morality, and the very best of the best. But in terms of experience, life is never like that; it’s like this—changing. You can get something new, for example, but what does it do? It just gets old! This temple here—we’ve built it now and on 4th July it’ll reach its peak. So there it’ll be—finished, at its peak, a new temple, complete. What’s it going to do? It’s just going to get old, isn’t it?
I remember when we found Chithurst House. It said 1862 on the front entrance, the year it was probably built. 1862! For an English person that isn’t very old, but for an American it certainly is. 1862—that’s when the Civil War was going on in the United States. Abraham Lincoln was President, and this well-off person decided to build this rather nice house using good materials in England. It was very well made. By the time we got it, it was derelict and we had to demolish parts of it, but it had been built in stone. Stone has this sense of lasting a long time. I’m from Seattle in the Northwest where all the houses are wooden. You seldom see stone or even brick houses in Seattle. When I came to England I just admired all the bricks, the infinite variety of bricks that you have here, and everything’s brick. When we took Ajahn Chah up to Edinburgh, he looked around and said, ‘It’s a stone city!’
Stone and brick seem a little more permanent than wood, yet Chithurst House was about ready to collapse of dry rot after a hundred and twenty years. It was quite interesting going in there; it made me think of Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations—everything was decaying. It was built to last, but even a stone house gets old. You build it, decorate it, make it look very wonderful, invite all your friends for a housewarming and everyone says, ‘Oh, isn’t it beautiful?’ And then what does it do? It starts ageing. To keep it going you have to constantly repair and repaint it, and no matter how hard you try, still its nature is to degenerate. This is just the way it is.
So much of the energy of this century has gone towards trying to create permanent, ideal conditions; it has been full of ideas about socialism, unionism, communism, and now democracy is the big thing—this working towards trying to create fair systems, which is fine; I’m not against it. But when all our attention goes toward making everything just right on the conditioned level, that’s all we see; we don’t know the way things are. In many ways therefore we’re disappointed with life, because no matter how hard we try to give our lives to these good causes, in the end it doesn’t seem to matter that much, at the end of the day.
Observing the nature of suffering is the first noble truth; the second noble truth is the cause of suffering; we realise the cessation of suffering; and that is the realisation of the unconditioned reality that we can turn to. We can notice and awaken to the deathless reality which is unlimited, timeless, immeasurable, desireless. The Buddha said not to reject the conditioned realm, not to say, ‘I’ll have nothing more to do with it. I’m only going to pay attention to the unconditioned.’ The point is, we can’t actually do that because conditions—the body and the karma we have—are so strong. How do we relate the conditioned with the unconditioned, therefore? We reflect on the way it is by paying attention to it—it’s like this.
The conditioned realm is impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha), and not-self (anatta). The unconditioned is . . . when the mind stops. It’s not impermanent, unsatisfactory, or not-self, neither is it annihilation, or dead in the sense of a blank void of nothingness. It’s the pure and intelligent background, that which contains the conditions that arise and cease. And the particular perspective we have as human individual entities is that we can realise this for ourselves, know this. This is something we can prove, know directly through intuitive awareness. In Buddhist terms we work on that level of grasping conditions and letting them go. We realise nongrasping, nonself (anatta), and desirelessness. We learn about desirelessness through desire, nonself through self, and the peace of nongrasping through grasping. This reflective, contemplative, intuitive way of examining the sensitive experience that we’re in, is through what they call realisation. When there’s no grasping, no desire, no self, what’s left? It’s like this. The breath is like this. The body is like this. The sound of silence is like this. And you learn to just relax with that. You don’t grasp it; you don’t identify with it; you accept it—it’s like this. You’re in the present and you’re no longer trying to get something or get rid of something, you are simply learning to relax and to trust in pure attention and pure awareness.
Your relationship to the conditioned realm is then one of loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), altruistic or sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha)—the four Brahma-viharas. The response to the suffering of others is compassion from the purity of mind; it isn’t ‘me’ feeling sorry for people who are suffering; it isn’t personal. It’s a natural response out of wisdom and purity. You understand suffering and your compassion is empathetic; it isn’t patronising. And altruistic or sympathetic joy is rejoicing in the inconceivably vast oceans of good actions performed by conscious beings since beginningless time (mudita). That comes from the purity of the mind; it’s not a personal emotion any more. So you find that in the emptiness of the mind there’s a lot of joy in life. I create a lot of joy in my life that I never did before. And this joy is not some created state that I make up; it’s there when there is this awareness and trust. Sometimes just the beauty of life as experience feels such a joy. And then there’s equanimity (upekkha)—the sense of balance and serenity that’s quite natural to this point of intersection between the timeless with time.
I offer this as a reflection and an encouragement to practise trusting yourself, your intuitive awareness, so that you realise truth and it isn’t just sentiment or idealism. I’m pointing to the realisation of reality, the way it is, and this has to be experienced individually. I can’t do it for you. You have to do it. You have to realise it.
First published in the May 2000 Buddhism Now
Read more articles by Ajahn Sumedho
The above article is from a talk given during a retreat in May 1999. Courtesy of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery.]