. . so the retreat continues and today wasn’t so noisy. We didn’t have such a good chance to meditate and make friends with the cement mixer and the pneumatic drill, but that is being facetious. In a way, it is also an opportunity of adopting a realistic attitude towards meditation, and not creating hostility towards the way it is. There is noise and unpleasant things happen, but if we become averse to them, then we are creating hostility. When we are mindful and accept the way it is, then we are not creating hostility. So the real suffering is not the sound of the pneumatic drill and the cement mixer, but the stuff you create in your own mind—that is what dukkha is.
Sometimes we want to have a monastery that is perfectly silent, like a dream place. Spirit Rock in California is a beautiful place, it’s in Marin County across from San Francisco, and they have built some lovely buildings and a meditation hall. It has been well thought out and it is modest and convenient. But there are these turkey vultures. Outside the meditation hall they go ‘gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble . . . ‘ One of these birds likes the people, he’s made friends with them, but the quandary is that some people think they should be got rid of. Well, I always think friction and having annoying things around is absolutely essential for good meditation. Otherwise, you become incredibly selfish, controlling, and easily upset.
If the standards are too high and everything is just perfect, then any little thing that disturbs can get you into a rage. This is an important reflection. Luang Por Chah was very good at getting me to see that suffering wasn’t really anything there in the monastery—the food, the climate, the insects—it was what I created in my own mind. And that is where wisdom is. You begin to realise that the world is going to be this way, that there is always going to be something you don’t like, that is not going to suit you, that is going to be irritating or undesirable in some way.
How do we respond? One way is to react and try to get rid of the turkey vultures, the cement mixer, the pneumatic drill, the lawnmower, and any other annoying thing. Sometimes you get somebody that is into ringing bells, and they just hammer away on that bell out there—that can be really annoying! And this isn’t to say that we don’t try to set up quiet and suitable places in which to meditate, but what we are aiming at is liberation from conditions, not control. When we get into environmental control and try to make everything the way we want it to be, even if we get what we want, we become somebody who has to have our own way in order to meditate. Then you are very dependent.
This kind of peace is through controlling everything and getting rid of every kind of disturbance. You can become very refined and sensitive, but then life becomes increasingly more miserable because the world isn’t particularly refined. This is not a refined realm, not a Devaloka, a paradise. The planet earth and we are not made of ether and subtle substances. We need to recognise that the human realm, planetary life, sensory existence and so forth, is like this. It is coarse and refined; it is wide ranging in the quality of the conditions and experiences. The wisdom faculty is to embrace the totality of it rather than trying to refine it to just getting what you want. You will break if you do that. If you get too refined, you just cannot exist any more, you crack.
A healthy state of mind is not refined; it is that which takes life and responds and adapts to changing conditions. We have to bear with in this state—ageing of the body, sickness, pain, death, loss of loved ones, and ongoing irritations and frustrations. The Arhat, then, is a being that embraces all without being refined or precious. The Arhat is not somebody who has to have life only at its very best and at its peak moments.
When we examine Buddhist monasticism, it is not about having refined requisites, or having high standards; it is about having four requisites of a low standard. Some of the monastics at the time of the Buddha didn’t even wear robes; they were naked ascetics. The Jain monks didn’t have alms bowls. They had to go to the door and beg for food with their hands and could only take what filled them. They weren’t allowed to have money, gold or silver. They had to pull out their beards because they couldn’t even use razors. But the Buddha thought that was a bit too much, and when he established Buddhist monasticism 2542 years ago, he modified it so that monks were allowed to gather the rags that people had thrown away, in order to make robes. We have three robes to cover the body and to keep warm, and these are based on what people had thrown out, on what the villagers didn’t want, or what they wrapped corpses in. One could go to a charnel ground, take this cloth, wash it, and make a nice robe for yourself. For alms food we were allowed an alms bowl, shelter for the night was at the foot of a tree, and medicine for sickness was fermented urine.
Now, these are very low standards, aren’t they? However, the monastic form isn’t an ascetic form and if better things are offered, we can accept them. Some people offer nice textiles for robes. I didn’t ask for this robe, for example. Some people in a part of Thailand I used to live in make silk and they wanted to make me a robe, so they made me this one in silk. It is not what I require as my standard. Also, the food we get here is of a very high quality. We can’t say we want high quality food—I want this, I want that, I like this, I like that. We are not even supposed to hint. What do you want Ajahn Sumedho? What do you prefer? You are not supposed to say anything. You just take what you get in your alms bowl. The training is to be content with basic things, training the mind to learn how to be content, and I think that is very important for us all.
Even though we may not live at a low standard, we reflect from that standard, so that what is given is appreciated—like the food we get, the robes we are given, and the shelter for the night. Gratitude and contentment, I find, are qualities of the holy life that make it a joyful experience. It is a lifestyle that brings me a lot of joy. I have contemplated the things that have been given to me so that I can live in this way and devote my life to the Dhamma. But I haven’t always been content with what I’ve had.
In the early days in Thailand when I was a young monk, I remember the first khuti I was given by Ajahn Chah. It was a fairly new khuti, but it wasn’t very high, and I was the tallest monk they had ever seen in Ubon! Everything was built for short monks. So they gave me this khuti to use and I kept bumping my head—the beams and door frame were low. It did make you mindful, but I complained. I felt I would like a better khuti than that. But Ajahn Chah got me to look at this complaining—you know, it was a shelter for the night, and it had a new corrugated tin roof which was very nice in the rainy season in Thailand, a roof that didn’t leak when the monsoons came. Contemplated in this way, one felt content, grateful for what one had, rather than thinking, ‘It’s too short! Why can’t they get something better? Do they expect me to live in this place?’ And even though those kind of thoughts would still come, I began to see that I was creating suffering around these things.
Food is a very sensitive subject, isn’t it? People can get really touchy about food. In Northeast Thailand, in some of the poor areas, you just take what is given. I have sometimes had rice and salt for my meal, and that would be one meal a day. Of course I did suffer from malnutrition sometimes, but that was not as much suffering as this incessant obsession that we create in our minds. We do have high standards. We want the best and can become very fussy and demanding. Our expectations of life increase and we think we can’t possibly survive on less—there are these things that we absolutely need.
The alms mendicant is content with the four requisites and because I deliberately cultivate that kind of thing, I do feel a lot of gratitude for the things given to me. The temple that has been built here at Amaravati all came about from donations. People offered this temple; it wasn’t something I demanded, and it seemed to happen in a miraculous way without getting pushy and obsessed with fundraising, finances and so forth. So things do happen, you know. Also, the khuti they built for me is a very nice one and I am very grateful to have such a nice place, but it was not something I demanded; it was not something that I had to have. People make these things available and that’s fine, but it is important to train the mind to be content with a roof over the head for the night, the food one gets, the clothes one wears, the medicine that is available.
After my sixth Vassa, my sixth year as a monk, I had a heartfelt feeling of recognising all the goodness that had been sent to me through my monastic life. It seemed that when I became a monk suddenly everything opened up for me—I found a good teacher, everybody was eager to help me stay in Thailand, the Immigration Department even gave me a resident’s visa (which is almost impossible to get except for wealthy American businessmen). And then, over the years, there has been the generosity of food offerings and requisites. And everyone was so willing, so eager, to support me for my spiritual development. Because of that I have always felt a kind of joyousness.
I look at this body and think, ‘I’ve been a monk for thirty-three years and this body is now an alms-food body.’ The body is supposed to change every seven years, isn’t it? So this is a body that is made out of alms food. It is quite healthy for its age, and I feel a lot of joy, a lot of peace and clarity of mind through meditation. And it is a rare opportunity for the likes of someone like myself to live the holy life in such a full and complete way.
Discontentment—always feeling that things aren’t good enough, wanting something better, more, not being content with where you are, always thinking you would be happier somewhere else or always looking for the next thing—these kind of mental states are very much a part of one’s cultural background, you know: The grass on the other side of the fence is greener. Or always trying to raise your standards. That is how I have been conditioned through my social background, my cultural background.
The training in contentment was through the monastic life. And this gives the mental quality that is very pleasant to experience. The complaining mind, the critical mind, the always wanting something you don’t have, or not being content with what you do have, is dukkha. We create that dukkha, that suffering. The monastic life is a form that you surrender to. If you are not willing to surrender to it, then after a while you don’t want to do it any more; you get tired of it. It doesn’t work for you if you are still thinking in terms of attaining, gaining, and becoming. One can survive the monastic life on inspiration and just endurance for a while, but after that it reaches a point where you’ve had enough and you just have to leave.
In the long run this surrendering means letting go of everything. But there are a lot of things you don’t want to let go of. So you do feel this sense of terror sometimes, or just resistance and rebelliousness, towards the monastic life. Through reflection, however, and watching mindfully the reactions one has to the restraints, the convention, you begin to see that the suffering isn’t really in those conventions, but in the reactions themselves—like hating the cement mixer—that is the suffering.
In this retreat I have tried to emphasise a sense of saddha, faith and trust, and enthusiasm for meditation. We are willing to take a risk. We are not asking for guarantees of enlightenment and security; we are willing to put ourselves on the line and risk failure and starvation and everything else, and just trust in the dhamma. That is a very good reflection for people who live in a welfare state where they are used to having all the guarantees from cradle to grave. It does sometimes sound like foolishness or irresponsibility, but basically I see that the Buddha established the monastic order as a vehicle that would last through generations. It has survived 2542 years in this way, not by being propped up with a lot of money, guarantees, and promises, but through establishing the Dhamma-Vinaya [the rules of the Order] where the needs of the Sangha [community] are based on trust and faith, rather than on demands.
Human beings are good-hearted. We want to be good. We feel a lot of joy when opportunities for generosity or selfless action are made available to us. You can see that the love of the good, of the true and the beautiful, is very much part of our humanity. But if we just see human beings as only consumers, as greedy for things, selfish and vain, then we get this very jaundiced view, this very nasty picture of ourselves, and we miss out on the potential for our good side, of what we truly long for. Just from living here in Britain for twenty-three years, I have experienced generosity, kindness, respect and appreciation—all the good things my life has been involved with by being a Buddhist monk living in a non-Buddhist European country.
Ask yourself what you really love: the good, the truth, what is beautiful? We long for those things. Even though evil can look very glamorous and fascinating sometimes, even though it may appear tantalising, tempting and exciting, generally speaking when we really contemplate those kinds of feelings, we recognise that they are rather childish, and that what we really want is the good, the true, and the beautiful. We want to know the truth. We love the good. Remind yourself of this. The habits around vanity, selfishness, miserliness, fear, worry, and anxiety, are conditions we create out of ignorance, not out of right understanding.
We can delude ourselves. We can think that what is ugly is beautiful and that what is bad is good. We can delude ourselves into thinking that an atrocious act is a saintly one. We can rationalise almost anything we want to—make a reasonable case for committing murder, for robbing a bank, for destroying an ethnic group, for bombing. We can give very rational arguments based on rational, thought-out ideas so that we can delude ourselves very easily. We have clever minds. But when we get down to basics, that longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful, is like a spiritual aspiration. There is something in us. It is not a desire that comes out of ignorance; it is a natural aspiration of the human mind, a longing for liberation, for freedom, for the good, the true, and beautiful. This is something to respect in yourself, and to keep remembering what you really long for, what you really aspire to, and not to let all the mundane and banal, worldly, materialistic influences take you over and blind you to what you really are, to what your true nature is.
Now, this opportunity of going into retreat is something to really value and treasure because it is an ideal situation for reflection. Notice how, over the past week, you have not had to decide a lot, like what you are going to eat, what you are going to wear, where you are going to go, who you are going to speak to, and what you are going to do next. It has all been nicely arranged for you. The food has been laid on, you are not here to change your clothes all the while, and there is the noble silence so that you don’t have to socialise, entertain people, and bring all that into mind. We arrange the schedule. So you just follow it. You eat at this time, wake up at this time, sit at this time, walk at this time. And even though you may resist it in a sense, in another way it makes life very simple; you don’t have to think about it. You are not encouraged to go outside the monastery or distract yourself with reading books or watching videos and so forth, so the whole atmosphere is one of internal reflection, mindfulness.
At first there may be resistance, a kind of restlessness, and that is natural. You are, after all, changing from a busy, habitual life to a more passive, meditative retreat style. But then you begin to tune into the silence of your mind, the sound of silence. Most people do not appreciate this, or don’t even know about it, so that they are always have to be talking or distracting themselves, doing things. They don’t know what else to do. It seems to me that most people just go from this to that, killing time, waiting for the next thing, doing something now to get what they want in the future, on and on like that. But in meditation just be aware of how contentment is now, this gratitude is now, the silence is now—this continuous refrain of ‘here and now’. Be mindful here and now.
Do good, refrain from doing evil, and be mindful. This is the advice of all the Buddhas. It is to live in society doing good when we act or when we speak, to do that which is kind and generous, and to refrain from action and speech that is cruel, disruptive, exploitative, or selfish. This is the basic teaching of morality. And it is such a simple thing to say: Do good; refrain from doing evil! But it can be very hackneyed: Do good; refrain from doing evil. Yes, we know. Be good; don’t be bad. It sounds as though you are back in school again, grade one. But now we are in a position where we are taking responsibility. I want to be good. I don’t want to use my physical body and my presence as a human being for doing bad things to myself, to this being here, to you, or to society. And I am determined not to use it in any intentional way to exploit, to take advantage, to abuse, or to deceive anyone. So that is something that gives me a sense of self-respect. I have made that decision, the decision of how to live my life as a human being in this society, and this is something I can respect. I respect people that do that; I respect myself for doing that.
Being generous and kind, doing good in society, not being stingy and mean, selfish and vain—we practise metta (loving-kindness) and dana (generosity) because this brings action in society which is giving to society, sharing what we have, being a good influence.
We also develop awareness, mindfulness, heedfulness, which means to be able to recollect right now the way it is. To be mindful is to just be, right now, bringing into consciousness the way it is. We are aware of what we are feeling, the mental states we are in, the place we are in, the group we are with, the conditions around us. On this meditation retreat, for example, we are mindful of the fact that this is a meditation retreat. This is not daily life as most of you live it ordinarily. We are aware of the schedule, the rules, the people, the conventions that exist here, and we live in a way that isn’t disruptive or will cause conflict.
When you leave the retreat and to back into society, you can be mindful of the way it is, and this may be very frustrating, unpleasant, demanding or stressful. But as you are mindful of it, you are using clear comprehension—it is like this. This is not criticising, but noticing the way things affect you and how to live within the structures that you have to endure and bear with. So then you are using wisdom. You are learning how to live in a way that isn’t just heedless, selfish, blind, blaming, complaining, critical, resentful.
I remember in my early monastic life I wanted certain things to be different. When things weren’t very good, I didn’t want them to be like that. I would be very critical of other monks, thinking that I didn’t want them to be the way they were. I wanted them to be some other way. I also didn’t want a lot of the things in myself—these thoughts, feelings, emotions. But in this reflective awareness, this embracing quality, the irritations are part of it—the frustrations, the worm in the apple, the snake in the garden, the fly in the ointment, the hair in the soup, the cement mixer in the monastery . . . You find a tremendous ability to endure situations that you think you cannot.
I remember so many times in an emotional state saying, ‘I just can’t take any more of this! I’ve had enough! I’m fed up!’ And then I notice that I’m still here and I can take it. Maybe I shouldn’t go around believing that stuff. Then something else would happen and once again I would think, ‘I’ve had enough, fed up, can’t endure any more!’ But I can. When I really look at myself, I can endure a lot of things that my emotions say: I can’t endure, had enough. I can endure these things.
You then begin to mistrust emotional habits because they make you into a coward, into a kind of weakling, you know—precious little thing, had enough, can’t take any more! And you realise, ‘I’m not weak, not precious.’ Even though the emotions can be going off like that, I don’t believe them.
I’ve been here in England now for twenty-three years, but I never thought I would be living in England! I still feel quite surprised about it. In some ways it seems like a long time, but in actual experience it feels as though I have only been here for a few years. And during this time, I’ve had these feelings of, ‘I’ve had enough!’ When life gets difficult and unpleasant for me I have a habit of wanting to get away. I don’t suppose any of you have that problem! And one of my refrains was always, ‘I wanna go to my cave.’ I had this idea of a cave in the Himalayas, you know like a hermit, like Milarepa. So I had these thoughts of going off and living in the mountains alone. Then I found myself in Hampstead, London, then in Chithurst, and then in Amaravati, surrounded by people. It wasn’t my intention when I became a monk to end up in this position. I mean, I don’t think I would have become a monk if I had known what was going to happen. But then somehow the flow of life has brought me into this.
In Thailand they treasure physical solitude, going off to some cave or some remote place and practising in solitude. And this is what I used to love and tried to incline to when I was there. But then living here in England I realised that I wasn’t going to have that any more, being the kind of focus of the monastery and community life that I am. After all, in the past twenty-three years I’ve had very little actual opportunity to go off and meditate. When Hammer Wood was given to us I had these kind of fantasies of myself sitting in a little hut there for years on end, you know, listening to the sounds of the birds, watching the squirrels and deer, and living out this kind of fantasy life of a hermit! But I’ve hardly spent any time in Hammer Wood. The conditions never came for that kind of practice. So then I adjusted my standards to a mental solitude rather than a physical one, and used that as a kind of reference point.
Because I put emphasis on citta-viveka, that solitude of the heart, I became very successful at finding it within rather than seeking it externally. And upadhi-viveka is enlightenment, living in the light, in the awareness. Viveka is translated as a kind of solitude and a sense of peacefulness—physical or emotional—and enlightenment; it is learning how to work with the life we have rather than always thinking, ‘I cannot practice because I don’t have enough physical solitude.’ So I gave up complaining about that. This citta-viveka which leads to upadhi-viveka is just an example of how I particularly use this tradition, and adapt myself to the conditions that I found myself in.
I have not been chained to the monastery, of course. I could have gone away, run away, disrobed, gone back to Thailand and stayed there. There is no one holding a gun to my head and making me stay here. But there is this feeling that I should not act just on my own feelings, on my own impulses of the moment, that I would rather work it out through the mind than in the feeling of, ‘I’ve had enough! Fed up! Need more space and time to myself!’
I would rather work things out in terms of patience, endurance, contentment, gratitude, getting down to the simple act of being grateful for just this—this room here and this room here, just finding the joy of the very simplicity of life, of the joy of seeing this beautiful hibiscus flower, the beautiful colour. Then the mind rejoices in the beauty of something. It’s very simple, isn’t it? I am not saying I have to have this plant. Can I have this plant? Take it away? That is being a killjoy, isn’t it? I am talking about learning to trust, have faith, be content with very simple things like the sunshine and the blue sky, or even the grey days. Some time ago, I decided I wasn’t going to just prefer sunny days, but rejoice in whatever kind of weather there is. So then my emotional state is not dependant upon whether the sun is shining or not.
Now, this is a challenge I admit, and it isn’t that I am always successful at it, but it is certainly a direction and a way that gives life its truly spiritual quality. It is a very simple way of living. And the irony of it is that I have had a most fascinating life. I have been all over the world, beautiful situations, interesting people. Actually, I am inclined to make it less fascinating because it gets too interesting. I could go all over the world all the time and give retreats. All kinds of things are made available to me, not due to anything that I have been seeking, but they just happen. Last year, for instance, I was hardly in Amaravati for more than a week at a time. People would say, ‘If you want to seen Ajahn Sumedho, don’t go to Amaravati.’ So this year I’ve made a determination to limit my excursions and to feel that the life of a monk at Amaravati is enough—just the sitting, standing, walking, lying down, the four requisites, the rain, the sun, winter, spring, summer, autumn, morning puja, eating, evening puja, things like that—just the simplicity of the life, and the contentment and joy that comes from that.
We human beings can realise the dhamma [the truth, the teachings]—and that is a great gift. We have this opportunity and ability to practise the dhamma, begin to really understand ourselves and the world that we live in, and develop wisdom so that we are not just helpless victims of circumstance. Then we feel that our lives do have tremendous significance—not that I think of myself as significant, but I don’t feel that I have wasted it. I feel that I have learnt many things I needed to learn, and this has all been made possible through the generosity and kindness of others—of the Lord Buddha himself who established the teachings, of people like Luang Por Chah in Thailand, of all of the lay people. One feels content and grateful just for a very simple life. This is the joy of the holy life within this human realm.
So I offer this as a reflection.
First published in Buddhism Now May 2003
[The above is from a talk given during a retreat at Amaravati in May 1999. Courtesy of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery.]