In the moment of mindfulness, there is no suffering. I can’t find any suffering in mindfulness; it’s impossible; there’s absolutely none. But when there’s heedlessness, there is a lot of suffering in my mind. If I give in to grasping things, to wanting things, to following emotions or doubts and worries and being caught up in things like that—then there is suffering. It all begins from my grasping. But when there is mindfulness and right understanding, then I can’t find any suffering at all in this moment, now. This is about this moment here and now. It’s not about whether suffering exists as a kind of metaphysic or abstraction or theory of suffering. We’re not talking about suffering as a theory or an idea, but as an actual experience, here and now. There might be physical pain, but if we’re mindful, we reflect on this as: There is pain. It’s like this. But then we don’t create aversion around it; so there’s no suffering. If we have a fever or cancer or anything that people think is suffering, and then we’re mindful, there is no suffering in that moment. When there is heedlessness, we might worry or be caught in despair and negative states towards it. But at any moment of mindfulness and understanding, there is no suffering.
This is why it’s a direct teaching. It’s always apparent here and now—timeless, encouraging investigation, leading to liberation, to be experienced individually by the wise. Now, this is to be your realisation. It is for you to investigate what suffering really is, when it is, and when it’s not. In a mind where there’s no delusion, no heedlessness, no ignorance, then there is no suffering. When there is no suffering, there is no birth and death, there is nobody to be born or to die. Conditions are changing, but they’re not personal any more. The body dies, but there’s no longer the assumption that `I am dying’, or that `I am the body that’s dying’. When it’s time for the body to die, then its true nature is to die. Having been born, its time comes and it dies. That’s its nature. That’s natural. That’s perfect. There’s nothing wrong or frightening about it; it’s just the way it is; it’s a natural phenomenon. A soon as we’re heedless, however, then, `Oh, I’m dying! Oh, dear me, what’ll happen when I die?’ And then we suffer. Suffering comes from doubt, worry, fear of the process, fear of the unknown. There is a whole range of suffering we create through all the wrong assumptions we make about ourselves and the universe we live in.
Now, I’m not very well equipped to comment on the theistic approach, or the belief in God, but that is a part of surrender, isn’t it. The Christian message of the cross, for example, of Jesus Christ surrendering to the cross, is a very powerful symbol of surrender and forgiveness. He is forgiving the people who are persecuting him, and surrendering to the restriction, the humiliation. That’s a symbol of humiliation and pain in the most obvious form—stripped naked, totally humiliated, jeered at, plus the physical pain of hanging on a cross. But then there’s the actual forgiveness and surrender. So, in a theistic approach, or doctrinal approach, the ideal is to surrender any selfish desires and attitudes, surrender to the form of the religion, to the style of it. And in the Buddhist path that’s very much what we’re also doing. In Christianity, the surrender is with faith rather than with wisdom, but in Buddhism the more wisely one reflects, the more one surrenders. As you understand things, you stop the resistance. The resistance tends to diminish and you naturally surrender. When you’ve completely surrendered to the Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha, that’s bliss. But as long as you’re trying to get something for yourself, you’re not going to have that happiness, that blissfulness, because the self—wanting something for yourself—always creates suffering. So that is why the Refuges, the Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha, is so important. They are a reflection. It isn’t a question of believing in them in an exoteric style, but of using them as teachings to help find or realise an esoteric way, inside ourselves, the Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha which we surrender to. That’s the purity, the pure heart—ultimate purity and wisdom, compassion.
As to religious symbols, there is both static and dynamic symbolism. When we talk about the absolute, for example, there’s no dynamic quality there—that is a rigid word. It’s the ultimate, the absolute. And if we worship or believe in the absolute, one’s mind tends to become very rigid. Always in relation to the absolute, therefore, are dynamic symbols, like the infinite. Infinity is dynamic rather than absolute. Absolute and infinite are really the same thing looked at in slightly different ways. One is the more static, fixed position, and the other is a dynamic position. And the static absolute tends to be personified as a male, while the dynamic is personified as a female. The female deities are the symbols for compassion in the more dynamic religious forms, and the absolute symbols are the male, static kind of thinking, of justice. This is God the Father who has a very fixed view, and punishes—the male type of thing which tends to command and proclaim. The compassionate religious forms, on the other hand, are forgiving. Avalokiteshvara in Buddhism and Kuan Yin are often given female forms, because that is how religious symbolism works, psychologically. But they are two aspects of the same thing. They are just ways of reflecting and contemplating, rather than a position one might take up for the absolute against the infinite—preferring Mother Mercy to God the Father, for example, or Kuan Yin to the Buddha, or whatever. We’re not making preferences, but recognising that the mind has these different aspects. Even in our language, in our symbols, we have ways of expressing what would be called a static form and a dynamic one.
Now, if there is no dynamic form, then religion becomes very fixed and judgmental, righteous. Purity is a fixed view, isn’t it—purity! That word itself implies something static. It’s not dynamic. Love is a dynamic force, and also joy. These are dynamic qualities. But the dynamic relates to the static. It’s like the perfect marriage of yin and yang, male and female, father and mother. Rather than conflicting they are complementary. They depend on each other. One isn’t superior or inferior.
When you are developing reflection on truth, then you work with the mind and begin to see what religious symbolism means. We’re not told in our education to try to understand how to use symbols. The empirical, scientific attitude tends to believe in facts and figures, statistics, as being reality. Symbolism might be regarded as quaint but not as real. But, intuitively, we relate to symbols more than to statistics, don’t we? Our discriminative mind—rational thought, logic, and so on—this is the rigidity of the mind; it is more like the ABC, 1,2,3 computerised versions of everything.
However, both have their value and depend on each other. It’s not a question of preferring one over the other, but of using both, to have a reference point. If we listen to the sound of silence or concentrate on the breath, that is where the mind is pure, isn’t it. It’s not outgoing. It’s not dynamic. One is a kind of stasis of mindfulness, but then in our daily lives we have to go out into the world. We have to relate to forms, changing conditions, people and society in general. So then there’s the compassion—the loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha) qualities which are necessary for that, for relating and responding to other creatures and other beings in the society we live in. If you go home and sit there in front of your husband or wife just watching your breath, refusing to relate to him or her, it would be an attachment to purity, wouldn’t it? To think, `If I relate to that bloke, I’m going to get impure, just talking about worldly things . . .’ We can become attached to the idea of purity, and just want to identify with the unconditioned as something we should be, even condemning all conditions as being unworthy or dangerous or forms of Mara (the Evil One). But that’s not how we live. We can’t just sit and watch the breath, because of the nature of our bodies. We have to work; we have to survive as creatures. We can’t just sit in an ethereal realm and not notice anything. Part of our lives, at least, is learning how to live with other human beings.
The dynamic form of religious experience is Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, in the Eightfold Path. This is pointing to relating to the world around us in the right way, in the moral way, by nonharming, not lying or stealing, not exploiting anything or any other person or creature, by doing things that are for the welfare and benefit of the planet earth and the beings upon it, rather than being engaged in destructive ways which cause harm or pollution or whatever. Right livelihood, right action, right speech—these things might be dismissed somehow. But it’s in these things that we spend our lives, really, in the societies we live in. So this is the dynamic, religious life—doing what is right, what is beautiful, what is true, what is good, or refraining from doing or speaking in ways that are harmful or dishonest, disruptive, cruel.
And the guide is not idealism but Right Understanding. We’re not coming from an ideal of harmlessness, but from Right Understanding that is through the investigation of suffering and the realisation of nonsuffering. And that influence—from Right Understanding—flows to the actual going into society, working and living for the welfare of others—that compassionate, kind, loving energy. So in Buddha-Dhamma, especially in the Theravada school, wisdom is emphasised very much. In the Mahayana compassion is emphasised a lot. It’s a matter of emphasis. Emphasis is another thing we do. We can emphasise one thing over another, but that doesn’t mean one is ultimately better or the other is lesser; it’s just what we emphasise. You might put love first and wisdom second, or wisdom first and love second. You have to put one thing first. You can’t say love and wisdom in the same moment. Just because of the limitation that we’re under, however, doesn’t mean that love and wisdom don’t exist in the same moment. Wisdom and love can be here and now in this same moment, but when we talk about it, we have to put one first and the other second; that’s just the way it is. So, when we’re talking, when we want to emphasise compassion, we put compassion first. When we want to emphasise wisdom, we say wisdom first. This is a way of emphasis but not of preference or looking down on one and exalting the other. For example, when I talk about the mind, I talk about it in a cool way which doesn’t convey the emotional nature. When I want to emphasise the feeling nature, I talk about the heart. That’s just emphasising, using particular words that convey a meaning to us. And when we’re skilful in the use of language, we try to use appropriate terminology, we try to communicate as accurately as we can. It isn’t a question of saying the heart is better than the mind or the mind is better than the heart; that would be ridiculous. It’s just a way of emphasis, a way of making a point.
As you practise, you begin to see it’s all your path. Leaving the retreat, for example, going home—it’s still the Eightfold Path; it’s still practice. It’s not that you have to give up your practice when you go through the gate of Amaravati. If that were the case, this is no transcendent path I’ve been teaching. If it depends on having everything under control in the shrine room, then it might be like another therapy, but it wouldn’t allow you to be liberated from delusion. It’s only when we apply these teachings to daily life that we realise that wherever we are is the place of enlightenment—here and now—not the Retreat Centre at Amaravati or the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, but wherever we are. This is the place. This is the axis mundi. This is the centre. This is where there is truth (dhamma), here and now. Where your body is—whether it’s here or at home, in Thailand, America or wherever—is not the important issue any more; you don’t believe there’s a specific place on this planet that you go to sit in order to become enlightened.
Click here to read more teachings by Ajahn Sumedho.
First published in the February 2001 Buddhism Now.
The above is taken from a talk given during a retreat at Amaravati. Courtesy of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery.
Images from the British museum, endangeredarchives @bl_eap