When something unpleasant happens, or something bad, if we say, ‘Well, you know, that’s the way it is . . . !’ that’s not Suchness. That’s just a cynical statement. ‘Life is pretty horrible and that’s the way it is. Just got to put up with it.’ That’s like resignation to misery. It isn’t Suchness; unless, of course, you see the Suchness of that particular attitude.
Or, when we regard the past as something that is very real, we may think, ‘Ten years I’ve been a monk,’ ‘Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, years I’ve been a monk.” That is conventional reality, but it is also thinking of ourselves as having been something for twenty-eight years. That is just a memory; it is perception in the present. When you really look at it, there is not a person any more, there is just a memory in the present.
We are establishing this awareness in the present, with the dhamma, with the way things are, rather than letting all our memories of the past corrupt, disturb and influence the present moment. People who carry things in their minds are always distorting the reality of the present with attachments and views. The problems of the world come from that, from resentment, disappointment, suffering, from the experiences of the past. When we do not see the present, we merely project or proliferate into the present all kinds of things from the past. Once we begin to see that, then we can practise this turning to the silence, finding a resting place in emptiness and awareness, in the Suchness of the moment. The emotions tend not to want to do that. Emotions have a power that is very convincing; they can convince us that they are real and important. Years ago, back in the 50s, there was a movie about a woman who was to be executed. It was supposed to be a true story of this American woman who was to be sent to the electric chair. Susan Hayward was the actress. She was very popular at the time, and well known for giving these melodramatic performances; and she would play these roles right up to the hilt. So she played the part of this woman who was to be executed. ‘I want to live’ — that was the name of the movie. Of course, Susan Hayward could say this line, ‘I want to live!’, in a most emotional way. I remember it now, right back from in the 50s, Susan Hayward screaming, ‘I WANT TO LIVE!!’ It made an indelible impression on my mind.
In my monastic life in Thailand, before I came to England, I was in a particular branch monastery. And when I was there, I felt I was dying. The inspiration of the life was no longer present; I found it incredibly boring, and hot — there were all these rock formations, and in the hot season the heat would absorb into the rocks making it very hot. Also, the food was dreary. And there was nothing to look forward to. Day after day brought the same old dreary routine.
The 60s must have been fantastic in America, the 60s and 70s, and here I was in this hot place. And I felt like I was dying, a sense of dying. And this inner voice said, just like Susan Hayward, ‘I want to live!’ Susan Hayward kept saying to me, ‘I want to live! I’m wasting my life,’ and all these kinds of highly emotional statements.
Emotions can be very convincing, very powerful, like a melodrama. They can sound real and true when they’re going on. But, at that time, there was that which was aware of them; an awareness of those emotions as mental objects was established already. And I trusted in that. It was hard going, but I did establish my refuge in that awareness of that screaming, crying, pathetic, thing in me. That was the thing I trusted, rather than the messages I was getting through my emotions, which were really empty in themselves. They were empty and soulless things, even though they sounded very much like Susan Hayward who was a very powerful actress. But, still, she was an actress.
Getting that perspective is very important and very wonderful in itself. It will change your direction — you won’t be helplessly caught up in your own emotions and the emotions of other people; you won’t be helplessly caught up in worldly problems and urgent messages, and hysteria, intimidation, or any of it. The world is like that. It is chock-a-block full of intimidations, urgent messages, very important, shattering, destroying, destructive things, terrible prophesies, all kinds of things from the past and all kinds of dreadful things that might happen in the future. When we think about those things, then, of course, we get caught in becoming anxious, frightened, and insecure; threatened by the things that we can produce in our own minds. So we can get a perspective on that; not by suppressing anything, not by pushing anything down and rejecting it, but by seeing things as they are. We can always start anew.
First published in the November 1995 Buddhism Now.
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