The Path of Wisdom, by Ajahn Sumedho

The Six Realms of Birth, 10 hanging scroll paintings Japan Edo period, 19th century ADSometimes people criticize Buddhism because they say it’s pessimistic — we just talk about suffering; why not talk about love? Love is much more in­spiring than suffering, isn’t it? Talking about universal love is a very inspiring subject. There is nothing wrong with contem­plating universal love, either. But if that’s all we are doing, then it can be merely a whitewash over inner pain and anguish. We might want to love all beings and live in a world of unity and total love. That might be a very appealing idea. What is it that prevents us from that unity? If we trace it back, we will find it’s the ignorance that we have about ourselves. The suffering that we create in life is always the tendency to divide and separate, compare, accept and reject. So the Buddha emphasized the Noble Truth of suffering — not as an absolute, pessimistic view, but as a truth that we can be free from. The Buddha said, ‘I teach only two things — suffering and the end of suffering’.

Now the suffering side of Buddhism seems to be an ob­session with Buddhists. Every­thing is suffering, suffering, suffering. The Buddha said, ‘I teach two things.’ He didn’t say, ‘I teach one thing — suffering.’ He said, ‘I teach two things — suffering and the end of suffering.’ So the end of suffering is one of the things he taught. And this comes about through our ability to reflect mindfully on the way things are. This is what we call ‘the path of wisdom’. By investi­gating life as we experience it, being willing to accept pain, looking at suffering, looking at despair, looking at anguish — not from the critical position of how it should or shouldn’t be, but from the reflective mind of ‘there is this’ we begin to see that all suffering arises and ceases; it has no permanent quality; it has no essence. Suffering is not ultimately true at all; it’s merely an illusion that we are committed to and that we produce and create in life through never having awak­ened to truth.

So the whole purpose of Buddhist meditation, then, is to awaken to truth: the way of awakening. These words are significant in Buddhist termin­ology. Awakening, enlighten­ment, mindfulness, awareness, alertness, attentiveness: these are all words we can use to mean ‘to wisely reflect on the way life is’.

Now Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha. (The Three Refuges are very significant for Buddh­ists.) Taking refuge in Buddha can be just a Buddhist cer­emony which doesn’t mean much of anything. So this taking the refuges is a conven­tion which can be used skilfully, with wisdom, or it can be like ciphers to us, or we can be like parrots. You could probably get a parrot to say, ‘Buddham saranam gacchami.’ That’s easy enough to learn. People say, ‘What do you do to become a Buddhist?’ In England they will say, ‘How do you become a Buddhist?’ ‘Take the Three Refuges, the Five Precepts.’ The Three Refuges can be a perfunctory ceremony, or it can be a real reflection, a real commitment to awakening, to being awake, because ‘Buddha’, the word itself, is ‘the Awak­ened One’. You can have Buddha images, can’t you? They make these Buddha images be­cause Buddha can be per­sonified; it’s not just an ab­stract wisdom; it’s not some­thing that is abstracted; it’s something we can relate to because these forms are human forms. The Buddha images take the human form and symbolize the ability of a human being to be mindful and wise in the present moment. So that’s what a Buddha is — the ability of a human being to be mindful and wise in the moment.

Teaching Buddha, from Eastern India, possibly Sarnath Gupta period, 5th century AD © Trustees of the British MuseumGotama the Buddha was a human being who responded wisely to the world that he lived in, and responded to it so well that we are still benefiting from it and talking about it now. After 2530 years we still find it worth becoming Buddhist monks. That to me means the potential for all humanity.

We might consider Gotama the Buddha to be a very special, exalted superman, rather than to be a human being. In Buddhist traditions, he has often been exalted to the status of a superman. He was so special, so fantastic, so magnificent, that our lives, ‘this creature here’, couldn’t possibly ever relate to it. ‘This being here’ doesn’t have all those marvellous virtues, and so forth. When we think like that, we somehow miss the point of the teaching, because Buddha is then a special being, exalted, way beyond us. And our lives could never hope to get near to such perfection. But the Buddh­ist teaching, notice, isn’t about becoming a superman, or be­coming anything at all. It’s the exact opposite of becoming anything; it is the awakening of an individual human being to the way things are. It’s not becoming a special human be­ing, or trying to become a super human being in the next life; it is this life, within this form, within this karma, the way we are as individuals, with all our blessings, faults and problems: this is the suffering. There is the origin of suffering and there is the cessation, the way out of suffering. ‘I teach only two things — suffering and the end of suffering.’

This to some people doesn’t seem enough. We think, ‘Well, what about love? What happens when we die? Who created the world? Who was the one who started it all off? Who was the first human being? What is it all about?’ And we create all these kinds of macrocosmic, metaphysical problems in our minds, because life is a rather mysterious experience when we think in the way we are conditioned to think. ‘What is the purpose? How did it begin anyway?’ But the Buddha would never answer these questions because what he was pointing to was always ‘here and now’: the suffering and the end of suffering. He taught in a brilliant way. The brilliance of it lay in this one-pointedness, his concern for what we can actually know and understand, in the state we are in at ‘this’ time.

The Buddha emphasized that the arising of suffering was due to the grasping of desire. Now what does that do to your mind? We all have desires, don’t we? Our bodies are desire-bodies. Recognize that they are desire-bodies! If you notice, sometimes you are idealistically thinking, ‘I don’t want to be greedy. Greed disgusts me.’ Then you find your body gulping down food in a greedy way. Then you think, ‘It’s disgusting, isn’t it?’ Some­how the body has its own desire. In your mind you can think that greed for food is disgusting, yet the body itself has its own needs, so the body will want food even though you may not want it to. You are trying to diet, or something, trying to keep the body from eating too much. So the body itself is a desire-body — this human body. We are not judg­ing, saying that desire is bad — notice that! We are just pointing to desire, and attach­ment to desire. The problem is attachment. The desire is not the problem.

The Buddha listed three cat­egories of desire. There is desire for sense pleasures — this natural inclination to have beautiful things to look at, beautiful sounds, delicious flavours, and so forth. Then there is the desire for becoming — the desire to become some­thing. We don’t want to be the way we are, we want to be something else; we want to become enlightened, to become a virtuous human being, and so forth. Some are quite good desires, you know. It’s not like desire is all bad. And the third category of desire is ‘to get rid of, to get rid of things we don’t like — desire to get rid of anger, desire to get rid of greed, hatred, desire to get rid of delusion.

What is desire? It’s a move­ment, isn’t it? It’s not something permanent. You find de­sires going through the mind, going through you. You feel desire for something. You can actually observe it; you can reflect that ‘this’ is desire. When you are meditating and you are desiring to attain a tranquil state, you can reflect that there is this desire to become tranquil. There is desire to get rid of pain, or get rid of unpleasant mental states. There is desire for some kind of sensory, pleasurable experience. Desire is to be understood. And the insight that comes from understanding it, is that we can let go of it; we needn’t grasp it. The Buddha compared it to grasping fire. What happens if you grasp fire? You get burned, don’t you? The same with grasping desire. We are always being hurt. Desires are to be seen, to be known, and to be let go of. And letting go is not suppression; it’s not that we suppress, sublimate, desire. We acknowledge it and allow it to go. This insight into the origin of suffering is the second Noble Truth.

As I said, letting go doesn’t mean getting rid of. So we have to bear with things. We have to allow things to go, rather than try to make them go. Trying to get rid of things is a desire, isn’t it? And that’s the origin of suffering. If we try to get rid of things, annihilate, control and manipulate, suppress, kill off, murder, and eradicate, we find ourselves in a hopeless situation. We end up just sup­pressing things and we will always fail, because suppression is just looking the other way. And, of course, when you are not looking at something, you think that you have forgotten it. But it’s still there. I’m looking over here — this flower is beautiful. But that ugly thing is over there. So then, through forgetting about this beautiful flower, the ugly thing kind of hits me again. It comes back, because I’ve never let go of it, I’ve never allowed it to go; I have merely pushed it aside, and that takes effort, doesn’t it, to hold it down, and to suppress?

Letting go means we have to bear with pain, and anguish and suffering, until it ceases. We are letting go of it, but we are not getting rid of it, because it will go, on its own; it’s nature is to cease because it’s not the ultimate truth, it’s not perma­nent. This is where human beings, especially modern hu­manity, need to be very patient. We are not patient, we are modern, efficient, educated, intelligent — one of our greatest lacks is patience. Coming from a very high pow­ered society like the States, I can say that patience was never considered terribly important. It was being efficient, getting things instantly, quickly, getting what you could immediately, not having to wait for anything very long, that was important. A credit card from Barclay’s Bank in England ‘takes the waiting out of wanting’ — that was their slogan several years ago. Contemplate that ‘taking the waiting out of wanting’!

Altarpiece Dedicated to Buddha Maitreya (Mile fo)Having a Barclay credit card, you don’t have to wait any more for anything; whatever you want, you’ve got this card; you don’t have to wait. Talking about world finance, you sud­denly realize that greedy hu­manity who is not willing to wait for anything, who wants wealth and comfort and every­thing instantly, is going to have to pay the price for this, actually. It’s not looking so good any more — we might have to wait for something eventu­ally.

So waiting is very much a part of meditation. Meditation is learning to wait, learning to wait peacefully, rather than being restless. When we are sitting still holding the body in one posture for half an hour or an hour, we have to wait for things, we have to be patient, we have to allow things to be the way they are. When pain arises, we have to allow the pain to be there. We have to allow unpleasant thoughts to be the way they are, and allow them to go. We have to be patient, receptive to the rest­less feelings, the boredom, and all the unpleasantness that we could immediately get rid of if we were not practising medi­tation. In a modern household, if you are not meditating, there are so many things, that if slight boredom or impatience arises, there is always some­thing to distract yourself with. In meditation you are deliber­ately choosing to set yourself up in a situation where you can’t get away from yourself. You have to bear with the way it is, the way you are, the way the weather is, the way the situation is.

Living in Thailand for ten, eleven years, you develop a lot of patience, because there are a lot of things in Thailand that shouldn’t be — like mosquitoes. My strong opinion has always been that mosquitoes shouldn’t exist. I don’t know about you. When you put on the robe and become a Buddhist monk, you can’t kill anything. Suddenly there you are with mosquitoes buzzing around you, having to accept the murderous thoughts in your mind, the annoying buzz of mosquitoes and all the unpleasantness you can create around it. But that is also part of the meditation, is a way of being patient.

One finds that one can bear such things. I found that I had a tremendous ability to bear with things that before I thought I would never be able to stand at all. I used to have screaming inner voices saying, ‘I can’t stand another moment of this! I’ve had enough!’ And then I found out I could always stand another moment. It sur­prised me. Have you ever noticed that in yourself? There is one thing exploding inwardly, ‘I’ve had enough! I’m fed up! I can’t stand it!’ But we can stand it; we have an amazing ability to stand things, and to endure.

As we begin to realize this, our attempts to just get rid of and just react heedlessly to the sensory world, start fading out. We begin to relate to the world in a much more skilful, gentle, kindly, patient way.

Click here to read more teachings by Ajahn Sumedho.

First published in the April 1990 Buddhism Now.


Categories: Ajahn Sumedho, Art, Buddhism, Foundations of Buddhism, Theravada

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2 replies

  1. A wonderful post I have felt those times that you share so well, after we lost our son. I thought I couldnt bear another moment of pain and yet, I did, again and again. The human spirit can bear so much more than we think, our spirit and inner strength can bring us out of our pain and into joy again.

    • Many thanks Karen,

      Grief is so powerful. At the time we forget that mourning is the natural consequence of losing someone we love.

      One of my sisters has recently died, so I share your grief.

      Wishing you all the very best.



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