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Ajahn Sumedho Interviewed
Interview by Roger Wheeler
first met Ajahn Sumedho at the Centre for Higher Tibetan Studies in
Switzerland in the spring of 1979. He had just finished giving a ten-day
course in the mountains near Berne, and was invited to spend a couple of
days at the Centre by its Abbot, Geshe Rabten.
One person who attended Bhikkhu Sumedho's course liked to be around him because 'he is just such a nice guy'. It was heartening for me to see a monk who kept strictly the rules of discipline, the Vinaya, yet maintained a softness and naturalness behind his observance of them.
To illustrate Sumedho's resoluteness about the importance of practice and meditation: While we were both walking around the hillside near the Centre, overlooking the French and Swiss Alps with Lake Geneva below, he asked me whether I had a desire to return to India. I answered that I would go if it were for the purpose of improving my Tibetan. I could then return to the West and act as an interpreter for a Tibetan master or work as a translator of Tibetan texts. His only response to that was: 'Why don't you just get enlightened?'
When Ajahn Sumedho ('Ajahn' is the Thai equivalent of the Pali/Sanskrit Achariya, or 'Master') came to the Insight Meditation Society in May of 1981, he conducted an eight-day work retreat. As the following interview will show, there is nothing special that is cultivated in the meditation; there is no particular technique that is taught. One's only responsibility is to remain mindful in all activities throughout the day. Live simply, be natural and watch the mind are the keys to his practice.
During the retreat the students performed various tasks around the Centre for two hours every afternoon. Some painted, some cleaned the building, others worked in the garden. We chanted prayers every morning and evening, and I was rather surprised to see how the twenty-five participants (most of whom were new to meditation) so quickly and easily adapted to the bowing and ceremony that the two monks, Sumedho, and the young English monk, Sucitto, who accompanied him, asked them to perform.
Ajahn Sumedho inspired the retreatants with his three daily impromptu talks, and casually spent his lunch hour and the one and one-half hour tea break willingly answering their questions about Dhamma practice and entertaining them with stories about monastic life in Thailand.
What was most encouraging for me was to see that there are monks who have the determination and the motivation to maintain the purity of a tradition. Many of the questions that I raised in my paper concerning the shortcomings of conformity and blind obedience to spiritual organizations and teachers were skilfully and wisely dealt with by Ajahn Sumedho. I appreciated his humour and patience with my persistent questions concerning organised religion. His views on the values of tradition and monastic life enabled me to see this matter from a different perspective.
The following is the major part of our three interviews.
RW: What attracted you to Buddhism? What did you feel it had to offer?
AS: The path of liberation.
RW: Had you tried other paths or methods as well?
AS: At one time I was quite a devout Christian, yet I later became disillusioned with Christianity, mainly because I did not understand the teachings and was not able to find anyone who could help me to comprehend them. There did not seem to be any way to practise Christianity, other than just believing or blindly accepting what was said.
What impressed me about Buddhism was that it did not ask one merely to believe. It was a way where one was free to doubt. It offered a practical way of finding out the truth through one's own experience, rather than through accepting the teachings of other people. I realised that was the way I had to do it, because it is my nature to doubt and question, rather than to believe. Therefore, religions that asked one to accept on faith were simply out. I could not even begin to get near them.
When I discovered Buddhism, it was like a revelation for me, since I saw that one's religious inclinations could be fulfilled in this way. Previously, I felt a sense of sorrow in the fact that I knew the material world was not satisfactory for me and yet the religion I had been brought up in offered no alternative way of practice other than just blind faith. Buddhism was quite a joyous discovery.
[Ajahn Sumedho mentioned being inspired by D.T. Suzuki's books, and having encountered Buddhism in Japan while in the navy during the Korean war.]
RW: Upon completion of your naval service, did you remain in California or did you return to Asia?
AS: After I left the navy, I went back to the University of Washington to finish my bachelor's degree in Far Eastern Studies. I then went to the University of California at Berkeley for an M.A. in Asian Studies. When I completed that in 1963, I went into the Peace Corps.
RW: What attracted you to Thailand more than to Japan, for example, where Suzuki's teachings originated?
AS: Well, I was in that part of the world. Also, I remembered the cold winters of Japan. Since Thailand had such a nice, sunny climate, I felt I might as well see what it had to offer, because I dreaded having to live through those cold winters.
RW: Did you immediately go to Ajahn Chah's monastery?
AS: No, I went first to Bangkok where I practised meditation as a layman. During the mornings I taught English at Thammasat University and in the afternoons I went off to practise meditation.
I later decided to ordain, but I did not want to live in Bangkok because I did not find it very suitable for me. While I was on vacation in Laos, I met a Canadian monk who recommended that I ordain in a Thai town across the Mekong River. So, I followed his advice and ordained at a temple in Nong Kai. That year I mainly practised on my own, without a teacher. The following year I met a disciple of Ajahn Chah, a Thai monk who spoke English. He then took me to meet Ajahn Chah.
RW: And you remained at Ajahn Chah's monastery for ten years?
RW: You mentioned that it was the doubting aspect of Buddhism that attracted you to it. One was able to doubt. It very often happens that people are attracted to the Tibetan tradition because of the personality or wisdom of the teacher. Does the teacher have such a significant role in the Theravada tradition?
AS: No. They try to de-emphasize that; yet people are often attracted to teachers, which is very natural. However, the discipline itself is arranged so that one is not to adore a teacher. One keeps within the discipline by respectful attitudes and compassionate actions towards any teacher or anyone. I was not really looking for a teacher. I did not have the feeling that I needed a particular kind of teacher. Yet I had confidence in the Buddha's teaching. When I met Ajahn Chah, my confidence in him grew when I realised what a wise man he was. At first I liked him but I did not feel any great devotion. But I stayed there and I really do not know why because there were many things I did not like about the place. Yet, I just seemed to stay there... for ten years!
RS: How would Ajahn Chah instruct the disciples under him?
AS: Ajahn Chah set up a monastery which provided the opportunity for people to ordain and practise Buddhist meditation. So mainly what he offers is a place, a conducive environment.
The teaching itself is just the traditional Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths. He adheres to the Vinaya discipline. Part of the agreement to live there is that the monks adapt their behaviour to the traditional discipline. I felt that was what I needed very much. It was an opportunity to live under a convention of that kind. My background was very permissive and freewheeling and I realised that was a great weakness in my nature. I resented authority and did not know how to conform to discipline in any way. So I was quite glad to have the opportunity to do that. It was a good challenge for me and I knew that was what I needed to do. Much conceit still existed in me, wanting to live on my own terms. Ajahn Chah was very strict. We had to live on the terms established by the monastery. I learned to do that there.
Ajahn Chah does not stress method. He stresses just being aware during the day and night, being mindful and watching the impermanence of conditions as one experiences life.
During the first year while I was in Bangkok, I meditated alone. Since I understood the meditation technique, when I went to Wat Pah Pong [the name of the monastery], Ajahn Chah just encouraged me to keep doing what I had learned in Bangkok. He did not demand that I adapt my behaviour to any particular form or technique other than the Vinaya discipline of the monks.
* * * * *
RW: I would like to read to you something from Krishnamurti concerning tradition. He says: 'To carry the past over to the present, to translate the movement of the present in terms of the past destroys the living beauty of the present. There is nothing sacred about tradition, however ancient or modern. The brain carries the memories of yesterday, which is tradition and is frightened to let go because it cannot face something new. Tradition becomes our security and when the mind is secure it is in decay. One must take the journey unburdened, sweetly, without any effort, never stopping at any shrine, at any monument, or for any hero, social or religious, alone with beauty and love.'
Now, Sucitto's and your presence here has been an obvious display of the carrying on of a tradition that has been going on for over 2500 years. Concerning this quotation, I wonder if one could get too caught up in form, missing the intended purpose? Or, another way of stating it, how does one avoid getting caught up in form?
AS: Well, it is like driving a car. One could dismiss the convention of a car and say, 'I am not going to depend on that because it is from the past. So I'll just walk on my own to New York City.' Or, 'I'll invent my own car, because I don't want to copy someone else and take something that is from the past and bring it into the present.' I could do that, and maybe I would succeed. I don't know.
The point is not so much in the vehicle that is used, but in getting to New York City. Whether one goes slow or fast, one should take what is available, whatever vehicle one finds around oneself. If there isn't any, invent one, or just walk. One must do the best one can. But if there is one already around, why not learn to use it? -- especially if it is still operable.
So, tradition is like that. It is not... clinging. One can also cling to the idea that one does not need tradition, which is just another opinion or view. Quotations like that are tremendously inspiring, but they are not always very practical because one forms another opinion that traditions are wrong or harmful.
The problem, you see (I am sure Krishnamurti must realise this) does not lie in the tradition, but in the clinging. This body is a conventional form that came from the past. The language that we use, the world we live in, and the societies we are a part of are all conventional forms that were born in the past. So, one could say that one does not want anything to do with them. In that case one should stop talking completely. Krishnamurti should stop having books published.
RW: He asks his listeners, 'I don't know why you buy these books.'
AS: We live in a conventional world. It is not a matter of depending on conventions, but learning how to use them skilfully. We can use language for gossip, lying, and becoming obsessed speakers; we can become perfectionists, fuss-budgets with language. The important thing to understand is that language is communication. When I communicate something to you, I try to speak as directly and clearly as possible. It is a skill. But if my tongue were cut out, I would just learn to live without speaking -- that's all. That would not be any great sorrow, but a bit of an inconvenience -- for some things; it might be convenient for many other things.
Religious traditions are just conventions that can be used or not, according to time and place. If one knows how to use it through the tradition, one is much better off than another who does not know, who thinks that they are all just a waste of time. One can go to a Christian church, a Theravada monastery or a Synagogue, and respect, get a feeling for the convention that one finds oneself with, without feeling that it is bad or wrong. It is not up to us to decide about that. They are all based on doing good, refraining from doing evil. Therefore, if one clings to them, then one is bound to them. If one regards religion as just a convention, then one can learn how to use it properly. It is the raft that takes one across.
RW: You mentioned that traditions can be used according to the time and place. I noticed that you and Sucitto go on 'alms round' in Barre in the morning. On the one hand, I find this quite admirable. On the other hand, I wonder what kind of effect this has on a society that is not Buddhist. To the average householder, a person wearing orange or red robes could be anything from a Hare Krishna devottee to -- whatever.
Is following the tradition, at this time and in this place, doing more harm than good? Could it be offensive to these people? Would it have been offensive for me to go and listen to Krishnamurti in Saanen wearing my robes (which, in that context, I chose not to do)?
AS: Well, the intention is good, the time is now, and the place is here. Some people will be upset; some will find it very nice. In England it upsets some people, but sometimes people need to be upset. They need to be shaken a bit, because people are very complacent in these countries.
Going on alms round also attracts good people, who seem to like it. Since our intention is not to shock or harm, how my appearance affects others is their problem. I am modestly covered and am not out to lure them into any kind of relationship or harm them in any way. On the contrary; it gives them the opportunity to offer dana (charity) if they are so inclined.
In England, admittedly, most people do not understand it. Yet it seems to me that making the alms round is one of the religious conventions that is worth maintaining, because the people in countries like this have forgotten how to give. It is like putting juice back in the religious body again. It is getting monks moving within the society.
When the Buddha was a prince [before he was enlightened], he left the palace and saw four messengers who changed his life. The first one was an old man, the second was a sick person, the third was a corpse and the fourth was a monk meditating under a tree. I look at this as a message. I do not carry it around as a duty I have to perform, but just part of my life, the way I live my life. If people object and find it very wrong, if it is causing people all kinds of problems, then I will not do it. That has not happened yet.
People thought that I should not go on alms round in the village. They thought it was stupid. Some English people, as well as Buddhists, felt that we should adapt to the English customs. However, I decided to take it as it came. Rather than deciding whether or not I should adapt to the English customs, I simply brought the tradition and played it by ear. I felt it would take its own form, accordingly. If one trims the tradition down before even planting the seed, one often severs or slightens its whole spirit. The entire tradition is based on charity, kindness, goodness, morality... and I am not doing anything wrong. I may be doing things that people do not understand...
RW: In my own mind, and I imagine in the minds of others as well, the alms round might seem to be a type of clinging to form, to tradition.
AS: Then one is not being mindful. It would just be clinging to a method. Yet it is still better than what most people cling to, isn't it?
RW: I am not sure. Is it possible to place a value judgment on clinging? However how does one keep the mind awake, day and night? While performing certain rituals, chanting or on alms round, how can one avoid the repetitive, mechanical routineness of our daily existence?
AS: Daily existence is mechanical and routine. The body is mechanical and routine. Society is that way. All compounded things just keep doing the same thing over and over. But our minds do not have to be deluded by those habits anymore.
RW: Krishnamurti says that 'religious people, those who live in a monastery, in isolation, or go off to a mountain or a desert, are forcing their minds to conform to an established pattern.' You said earlier that at Ajahn Chah's monastery, you were conforming to an authority because you felt that previously...
AS: One is conforming one's bodily action to a pattern. That is all.
RW: Yes, Krishnamurti says: 'forcing the minds to a pattern.' Minds do conform to an established pattern, not just the body. They are dependent.
AS: Right. That is samatha [tranquility, concentration] practice: believing in doctrines and absorbing into conditions. But that is not the purpose of Buddhist meditation.
RW: Samatha practice is conforming to doctrines?
AS: If one believes in doctrines, the thoughts in one's mind to accept certain doctrinal teachings, and reject those which do not fit. Then there is also the samatha practice of tranquility, where one trains the mind to concentrate on an object This practice calms and steadies the mind.
RW: And you are calling that 'an established pattern'?
AS: Yes. The normal rhythm of one's breath is an established pattern that you cling and are attached to, isn't it? It gives some tranquility to the mind.
RW: One does not 'cling' to the breath. Breathing happens naturally. One might say that one observes the breath...
AS: One focuses solely on the breath. At one particular moment one is concentrating and not noticing any other object.
RW: I do not quite follow. What does that have to do with the mind habitually following dogma?
AS: Whatever is a pattern or a condition [sankhara], if one believes in that sankhara, one becomes that. If one attaches to any object, then one becomes that object. So, when one is concentrating on the normal breath, then one becomes that normal breath. Mentally, one's form takes that, one becomes one with that object for as long as the concentration lasts.
The same holds with doctrines. They are the worlds of forms, conventions and habits. One can be likened to a (doctrinal) belief in the thoughts of others, in teachings and creeds, in what other people say, in Krishnamurti (which is the problem with his disciples).
Mindfulness is not clinging. What Krishnamurti is pointing to is the awareness of the changing nature, the way things really are in the moment. But he seems to delude people by the fact that he started [teaching] from a very high place. Most people, even if they think about what he is teaching, cannot understand it.
It is something one knows through letting go -- even of believing in Krishnamurti, or of trying to figure out what he is talking about. One has to come down to a very low level of humility, what Ajahn Chah calls an earthworm, just being very simple and not expecting any results. Doing good and refraining from doing evil with body, speech and mind, and being mindful.
RW: Why do religions degenerate?
AS: Because they are only conventional truth. They are not ultimate truth.
RW: But people do not practise. They practise mechanically. When a teacher conducts a course here, the question often arises, 'Buddhism is known as a peaceful religion, and it is said that a war has never begun in the cause of Buddhism.' But look at Tibet and Cambodia. People were massacred. In Laos the monks are working in the field. One visiting Cambodian monk said that, basically, people do not practise, and that is why it falls apart, why there is so much trouble.
AS: Well, why is the world as it is? Why did they annihilate two million Cambodians? One can speculate. But the only thing that one can know is that the conditions of one's mind -- greed, hatred and delusion -- are the reflection of the world, the way it is. The world has murders, death, atrocities and destruction because we do it all the time in our minds, too.
What did you do before you ordained, or even while you are ordained? You try to annihilate a lot of things out of your mind, don't you? If you have anger, jealousy, nasty thoughts, you annihilate them, because you think that is the way to solve the problem. One annihilates that which one thinks is the cause of one's suffering.
Now apply that to a country like Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge government believed that the middle class bourgeoisie was the cause of all suffering so the government annihilated it. It works on the same principle.
Buddhist teachings are non-violent. One does not annihilate the pests, but understands that even the pests of the mind are impermanent and non-self. They will disappear on their own.
Many things that we are frightened of are really our best friends -- like fear itself. We are afraid of the unknown, but the unknown is the way to enlightenment. Not-knowing is what brings terror into people's lives. Many people spend much of their life just trying to find security in some form or another, because of fear. Fear drives them to become this, or get hold of that, to save up a lot of money, to seek pleasure or a safe place to live, or to find some ideal person they hope will make them happy forever. That is fear of being alone, fear of the unknown -- of that we cannot know. In meditation, when one is mindful, that very fear -- seeing it as it really is -- leads us into the deathless, the silence. Yet fear is something that we react to very strongly.
So, if one cannot be at peace with the pest of one's mind, one cannot very well expect a stupid government like the Khmer Rouge, or most elements of the world, to be any better. We have no right to point the blame at such things as big as society. To find fault with America -- that is easy to do -- or with Cambodia or Tibet... because the monks did not practise hard enough or the Cambodian people were not good Buddhists... that is a bit silly, actually.
What are you doing about it? That is what I am saying. I cannot help Mr.Pol Pot's screwed-up version of the world. How he intended to solve the problem was idiocy. But I have seen that very same idiocy in myself: the desire to wipe out that which I do not like or that which I think is the cause of the world's or my own suffering. That is where one can see what the problem arises from. One can say, 'Oh, the monks weren't good enough', but that is not fair, really.
[The next question was not recorded].
AS: I have had a very fortunate experience with a Buddhist monk, Ajahn Chah, and I see what a very happy, tolerant and harmonious being he is. Of course, many of his disciples do not understand what he is teaching, either. Yet he certainly makes it all very clear and offers them every occasion to practise and find out.
When one talks about dukkha [suffering], the first noble truth, one is not talking abstractly about dukkha out there, that exists as some sort of nameless thing. I am talking about that very feeling in one, in here [points to himself], that does not feel quite happy or feels a bit upset, worried, discontented, insecure, or ill-at-ease. One experiences the first noble truth within oneself.
One is not pointing to dukkha as some sort of vague thing that hovers over the world. If one really looks at one's mind, one finds discontentment, restlessness, fear and worry. That is something one can see oneself. One does not have to believe. It would be idiocy to say 'I believe in the first noble truth', or, 'I don't believe in the first noble truth. I believe that everything is wonderful.' It is not a matter of believing or disbelieving, but rather one looks inside and asks oneself, 'Do I always feel wonderful and happy? Is life just a constant source of joy and gaiety? Or do I sometimes feel depression, doubt, fear, etc?'
Just speaking from my own experience, I could very much see the first noble truth. It was not that I wanted a more depressing ideology to accept. I recognised that there was fear, uncertainty and uneasiness in myself. Yet the first noble truth is not a doctrine. It is not saying 'life is suffering', but rather it is just saying, 'there is this'. It comes and goes. It arises (the second noble truth), it ceases (the third noble truth), and from that understanding comes the eight-fold path (the fourth noble truth), which is the clear vision into the transcendence of it all -- through mindfulness. The eight-fold path is just being mindful in daily life.
RW: Yet mindfulness itself is not a wholesome factor.
AS: Neutral. It does not belong to anybody. It is not something one is lacking; it is not a personal possession.
RW: There are wholesome and unwholesome mental factors, and there are factors which are always present, like mindfulness. Mindfulness is not innately good.
AS: It is awareness of good and evil as change. By using the wisdom factor of discriminating alertness (satipanna), one sees the conditions of good and evil as impermanent and not-self. This mindfulness liberates one from the delusion that these conditions tend to give.
RW: I would like to return for a moment to the role of tradition. Do you feel that adherence to a particular tradition would naturally tend to separate one from another tradition that has a certain set of values?
AS: Well, on the level of convention, everything is separate anyway. You are separate from me as a person, as a body. That can only be solved when we merge by developing wisdom. With conventional form there is only separation. There will always be men and women and innumerable religious conventions. These are all on the level of sense perception, which is always discriminative and separative. It cannot be otherwise. Yet if one is mindful, those very conventions take one to the deathless, where we merge. There is no 'you' or 'me' there.
RW: 'Deathless' -- how do you use that term?
AS: It just means that which is never born and never dies. There is nothing more one can say, really, because words are birth and death.
RW: Could one say that the deathless is synonymous with the end of clinging and grasping?
AS: Non-attachment to mortal conditions.
RW: I find it more the case than the exception that when belonging to a group, there is a tendency to feel secure, and to condemn, belittle or speak condescendingly to those who do not share one's own religious beliefs or philosophical dogma. I was quite concerned about these matters when I left the Centre in Switzerland... How does one overcome this feeling of separation, form versus the essence? How can one be free from getting enmeshed in form, whether it be in a study or meditative environment?
AS: Well, just be enlightened. It would solve all your problems.
RW: Thanks a lot.
AS: One has to make the best of all these things. Even here [at the Insight Meditation Society] the meditation is kind of spoon-fed. It is like sitting in a high chair and having your mommy come and dish it to you on a little plate. It is idealistic. For meditators there is hardly any friction; everything is secure and provided.
In places like Tharpa Choeling [the Tibetan Centre in Switzerland] there is more friction, much more to forgive, much more confusion to the mind. Chithurst is a good example of being neither the best nor the worst place. It is adequate. Some people will make use of it, some will not. I do not want it to be too perfect or ideal, because people need friction. Otherwise they become complacent and dull. One has to give people space to work through their biases and hang-ups.
In my own life I saw how I became attached to the teacher, the tradition and the rules. If one is serious and watching dukkha, then one begins to see that and let it go. That does not mean one has to throw away the tradition; it just means that one can be at ease with it.
I enjoy monasticism. I like being a monk. I think it is a very lovely way to live as a human being. But if it does not work anymore, when the time comes to end it -- it will end. That is it. It does not matter that much.
Yet there is no need to throw away the ordination either. I have grown because of it. I have not as yet seen a better way to live one's life. So I stay with this one until it is time to change. When the time for change comes, it will have to come on its own. It is not up to me to decide, 'Well, I'm fed up with this. I'm going to try something else.'
One can see the whole tenor of the life of a monk is very good. It is harmless, it is honourable; it is useful in society too. I know how to use it. I can teach through this tradition. I can teach people how to use the tradition, which I think is a good thing to know how to use. One can learn how to use conventions instead of just rejecting them.
If I give you a knife, you can use it for good or bad. It is not the knife's problem, is it? If you use it to murder me, would you say, 'The knife is bad'? The knife might be a very good knife, a well-made and useful tool. The same with the Theravada or Tibetan tradition; it is learning how to use them skilfully -- and that is up to you!
One has to recognise that Asian teachers come from a society (Tibet, for example) where everything is more or less taken for granted. They have been raised in a society that thinks and lives Buddhism. Whether they are devout or not does not make any difference. Nevertheless, it affects their whole outlook on themselves and the world. Whereas you come from a country which is materialistic, and where the values -- based on greed and competition, and trust and faith in conceptual learning -- have affected your mind. Our faith in America is in books, isn't it? In universities. In science. In conceptual learning. In being reasonable.
RW: Do you find that type of learning to be invalid? Or can that also be used properly?
AS: No. Right. It is learning how to use things like that correctly, with wisdom. Nothing in the universe is a waste. It is all perfect. There is nothing in it that needs to be rejected or added. There is nothing wrong, really.
One is looking for perfection, yet it is in the imperfect where most people go wrong. If one is looking for perfection in a Buddhist teacher or in a Buddhist tradition, one will be greatly disillusioned by it. If one looks for perfection in Krishnamurti or in anyone, or in the perfection of one's own body and the conditions of one's mind... it is not possible! One cannot force the mind to think only good thoughts, or to be always compassionate and kind, without giving rise to even an impulse of aversion or anger.
The mind is like a mirror -- it reflects. So the wise man knows the reflections as reflections, and not as self. Reflections do not harm the mirror at all. The mirror can reflect the filthiest conditions and not be dirtied by it. And the reflections change. They are not permanent.
Filth and dirt also play an important part. Hatred and all the nasty things in one's mind are like manure. Manure stinks. It is not nice and one is not happy to be around it. Yet it does give a lot of good nourishment to the roots of the plants so that they will have beautiful flowers. If one is able to look at the manure and see it for what it is, rather than saying, 'Ugh, get it out of there! I don't want anything to do with it', then one can appreciate its value.
Even hatred is Dhamma teaching us that it is impermanent and not-self. Everything takes us into the ultimate truth, through seeing that whatever arises passes away. So even the dirtiest thought in one's mind is just that; it is merely that condition changing. If one does not resist or indulge, it arises up from the void and goes back into the void. It is perfect. There is nothing that is wrong and that is why there is nothing to fear.
If one starts trying to think of ways to change the world so that it will be perfect, one will become very bitter and disappointed. People get very upset when I say that, because they think that I am just not going to do anything. What needs to be done, I am doing. What does not need to be done, I leave undone.
Just this condition: One does good and refrains from doing evil. That is all I can be responsible for. I cannot make the world (my concept of world) anything other than it is. That concept of world will change as we arouse wisdom within ourselves. We will then be able to look at the world as it is, rather than believe in the world as we think it is.
The truth is not Buddhist. It is not that Buddhists have any special insight into the truth. It is just that it is a way that works.
* * * * *
RW: You mentioned that the emphasis at Ajahn Chah's monastery is on the maintaining of the Vinaya, the monks' discipline. Do any of his monks study scripture: the Abhidhamma for example? Does he find that necessary or place any importance on study at all?
AS: The monks do study. There exist for monks the governmental examinations, of which one can take up to three levels. Ajahn Chah encourages the monks to take these examinations, which are a basic intellectual understanding of the Dhamma and Vinaya. So he encourages the monks to do that much.
Ajahn Chah will send those monks, who have the inclination and aptitude for learning the Pali language, to a special monastery where the language is taught. However, he does not go out of his way to encourage that because he realises it is not necessary to know Pali grammar in order to attain enlightenment.
It is a very individual thing. One cannot make just one suit of clothes to fit everyone. However, the general pattern encouraged at the monastery is to develop one's mindfulness while living under the Vinaya discipline.
RW: Does Ajahn Chah expect his monks to teach at one point or another?
AS: When they are ready, he has them start teaching.
RW: Then, most or all of the monks will one day teach?
AS: It also depends on the monk. Some monks cannot teach; they just do not have that kind of ability -- that is, in a structured way. Some teach in other ways, just by their living example.
RW: You said earlier that you had many difficulties when you were at Wat Pah Pong. What were they? Of course, in the beginning you could not speak the language at all. I am sure that was a big one.
AS: Well, it is just a strange culture and language. In that situation one has to give up practically everything that one is accustomed to in one's own life.
RW: How did you deal with that?
AS: I just did it, actually. I do not quite know how to say how I dealt with it. If one wanted to stay and learn from that place, one just did what one had to do. I managed to change my ways to adapt to their ways.
The Thai monks were always very kind. It was not a place where people made things difficult for one. There was always generosity and kindness. It was just getting used to doing things in different ways, eating strange food and speaking a different language.
RW: Sometimes, when people from two different cultures meet, a kind of cultural arrogance may arise from one side or the other, or both. Did you encounter this?
AS: Well, yes. The Thai people have feelings like anyone else about their culture and society. However, we all shared in common living in a monastery, where the emphasis is not on cultural inheritance but rather on the Buddha's teaching. So the cultural differences did not seem to be of any great significance to anyone.
I was much more sophisticated than they were. I had travelled a great deal and had lived in different places and knew much more about the world in general. Their superiority to me was in their ability to live so well and to coordinate in the only tradition that they knew. Oftentimes I felt very clumsy and foolish, like a very oafish person, because I did not tend to have the physical coordination or agility in bodily action that they had.
RW: We were talking the other day about traditions and routines, and how a complacent attitude may arise towards one's practice. There is often the tendency for a young monk to be very strict about his vows and to keep a strict discipline. Later one finds one is not really digging in or doing the practice seriously. One tends to become mechanical in one's actions and maybe that will to discover the truth becomes stifled by the weight of the organisation or the tradition. Did you find that kind of degeneration at Wat Pah Pong?
AS: Well, I did not find it for myself, because I had plenty of motivation on my own -- and I did not let any tradition stop me. Yet I could see that some monks were not very motivated. They were in it just because it is their tradition. Therefore, they tend to sink into habitual living as a monk.
Ajahn Chah is quite an expert at pushing people out of ruts. Yet he cannot keep doing that all the time. One cannot expect him to play nursemaid to all the monks. I think he did that very much at first. I noticed that he now takes it all much easier and leaves it pretty much up to the monk to develop. That is the way it should be. This is a very mature practice. The teacher should not be constantly called up to prod and arouse the students. We should do that ourselves. Yet there are Thai and Western monks who just seem to sink into habits. They would do that anywhere they were. They do not have that 'urgency' in their lives.
RW: I think you are poking fun at me... Krishnamurti says, 'The guru's role is to point out. Finished. Then let the person learn. If he inquires, he will find out. But if you tell him everything, then you are treating him just like a child. There is no meaning to it.'
AS: Right, right.
RW: In your position as abbot, how would you instruct your monks to prevent the possibility of taking things for granted, especially receiving charity from lay supporters? How do you advise them to guard against things becoming routine, matter of fact, secure; the feeling that it is just a nice, comfortable life?
AS: Well, it is not exactly a comfortable life. In England the problem does not lie in sinking into a routine, because there is no tradition there to sink into. It is new and fresh. So, it is not a case that one can really sink into anything.
In England there is not the security that there is in a Buddhist country. Life as a monk in Britain is risky, a chance; it is not guaranteed. One then needs to be much more alert, whereas in Thailand one can take it all for granted because it is so established and secure there.
All one can do is to encourage and keep reminding people -- because they forget. But how they develop is really up to them. As they say, 'you can take a horse to water...' And that is all one can do.
RW: Yet for some people there might be a gap between their own tendencies and inclinations, and the ideology that they are following. How can that gap be bridged?
AS: That is why one has to allow people space. That is the real value of the monastic life. One has to allow people time and the opportunity to develop, rather than to expect them to make great changes all at once. Some people understand immediately; for others it will take years. That does not mean that one will teach only the ones who understand immediately -- they do not need to be taught very much!
One can also provide in the monastery a place for people to live at least a good life in a wholesome way. Eventually something will filter down to them. At least it is good kammically. One is not doing any harmful actions. That kind of environment encourages one to do good and refrain from doing evil. It is a moral environment. The emphasis is on paying attention, being alert, and watching; confronting one's life as one experiences it, looking at it, and learning from it.
How determined and resolute one is in that practice is an individual matter. Some are very quick, others are very slow; some are neither quick nor slow. In the monastery one can allow for the fast and slow. It is not that one is selecting only the best, the quick ones. The advantage of having a monastic community is to have the opportunity for many beings to develop. Some may not ever be enlightened but at least they can develop harmlessness in their lives.
In Thai monasteries, sometimes very 'heavy' people ordain, criminals and the like. Monastic life is a refuge for them where they are all the time encouraged to do good. Whether they attain enlightenment or not, who knows? At least it is a more skilful way of dealing with these types of people (who have enough faith that they would ordain) than to lock them up. Some monks tell of their past, which can be quite shocking. When one asks them why they ordained, they answer: 'I have faith in the Buddha's teaching and it is the only way that I can break from my old ways and habits.' In worldly life they tend to get pulled back into their old patterns.
RW: You would not think, then, that a community of monks would be like a crutch or a bondage, preventing a person from growing?
AS: No. Anything can be a crutch or a bondage. It all depends on whether one uses it or leans on it. People think that having crutches is bad. Crutches themselves are not bad. Sometimes we need them.
Imagine saying to a new-born baby, 'You have two legs. Get up and walk! I'm not going to pick you up, feed you or do anything for you. You're now in the world. You have to learn to take care of yourself!' The baby is just not ready yet. Understanding the situation, one feeds it and takes care of it.
As soon as the baby starts crawling, one would not say, 'If you depend on crawling, you are going to crawl the rest of your life and never get anywhere. Get up and walk!' But the baby cannot. He is not ready. He is not strong enough.
By crawling and waving his arms and legs, pulling himself up on the chair, and mommy taking his hand, etc., he is developing strength and growing until it is time to take his first step. When he starts to walk on his own, he does not want to use crutches anymore, naturally. When children learn to walk independently they throw away their crutches. They do not want to hold mother's hand anymore.
In the spiritual path, too, sometimes crutches and refuges are deliberately provided for strengthening. When one is strong enough, one starts walking independently.
RW: You gave the analogy of a baby crawling, developing slowly, gradually. A person who is within the system, just conforming to the pattern of it without really digging in -- how can that system or organisation help to shake him out of the rut he is in... Well, I am just talking about myself, you know... Sometimes I feel it is necessary to make a break for the sole purpose of shaking up what can be a complacent life-style.
AS: Life itself is ever-changing. It is not that structures and conditions themselves change. Some monks have to disrobe and leave. Some, after years, find nothing in it for themselves and seek something else to do. All that one can ask them to do is to try to be as honest as possible about their intentions. Each individual has to work out his own life...
If someone feels one has had enough of monastic life and wants to do it another way, that is quite alright; it is one's choice. But one should be honest about one's intentions rather than just using an excuse. That is important. The only thing that is not nice to hear is when someone leaves [the monastic order] but is not honest about why one is leaving. One may justify one's leaving by putting down the tradition. Yet sometimes people leave for justifiable serious doubts.
RW: As Abbot of Chithurst, how do you advise your monks to view ceremonies and rituals that might seem rather remote to the actual practice?
AS: I personally like rituals. They are quite pleasant to do; they are calming. One does them with a group of people. It is doing something that is pleasant, together and in unison. The intention is always good: to radiate kindness and to chant the teachings of the Buddha in Pali. It tends to uplift and inspire the minds of many people. That is its only function as far as I can tell.
I think ceremony makes life much more beautiful. I have seen Dhamma communities which do not have ceremonies. They are a bit gross, actually.
AS: Gross. People just do not have a sense of etiquette, a kind of refinement, a lovely movement, a sense of time and place that one has when one understands the value of precepts and ceremonies. They have their beauty.
The bhikkhu form is a kind of dance one does. One learns to move. It has its own beautiful form, which is a way of training the physical form in beautiful movement, the mental and the physical combined. However, it is not an end in itself. It can become silly if it is an end in itself. And it is not necessary, either. If it does not fit or if people do not want it, then one just does not use it. It is something one can use or not use according to time and place.
If one has never used ceremony or does not understand its purpose, then when one is faced with a ceremony, one might reject it, thinking, 'I don't like it', or 'ceremonies are wrong'. But they aren't! There is nothing wrong with ceremonies, they are quite alright to have. To feel one should not have ceremonies is just as much an opinion as to feel one should. It is not a matter of having to say one should or should not have them. They are a part of our tradition, so we use them if they are appropriate. If they are not appropriate, we do not use them. It is a matter of knowing, rather than of having opinions about it.
RW: How do you view your role as abbot? How do you see yourself as a figure of authority at Chithurst?
AS: Well, I really do not think about it. I act very much like the abbot. It is my nature to appreciate dignity and hierarchical structures. I do not find those unbearable. Actually, I find [the role of abbot] great fun. It is a pleasant position to be in. It has its disadvantage in the sense that one gets everything thrown at oneself.
Yet I quite like serving others, too. I like to go back and be number ten in the line. In Thailand it was very nice to be nobody, without always having to be up in front of everybody.
However, our training is to adapt, not to choose. It was not easy to be an abbot at first. It was difficult for me to accept that position because many feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt arose. So I penetrated it. I worked with these feelings, making them my meditation to the point where my position became easy for me. I adapted to the position rather than believing the thoughts, 'Oh, I'm not ready for this', or 'I don't want to do this'. Becoming attached to the role of abbot would also be an easy thing to do; that is, taking oneself to be someone important.
If one is mindful, one is checking and watching; these things are just the changing conditions of samsara. Sometimes one is the abbot, sometimes the servant -- everything is changing. If one has no preferences, then one has no suffering when conditions change. But if one is determined not to be an abbot or to take a position of responsibility, then when conditions arise where one is supposed to do that, one suffers.
On the other hand, if one wants to be someone important, but is only number ten in the line, one also suffers, because of feeling resentful and jealous of those who are above oneself. So one also has to watch for that.
The point of Buddha's teaching is to have that awareness of suffering. Everyone suffers, so we all have to watch this. It is not to choose any position in the line as 'mine'. One has to be able to move up or down or stay, depending on time and place.
RW: How did you meditate on this 'inadequacy' that you felt? How did you confront that?
AS: I just watched. I just brought up and listened to the complaining, whining conditions of my mind that kept nagging, 'I'm not ready' ...
RW: Again, during this morning's meditation anger and resentment were arising. This time I just let it come, watched it, looked at it... arising and passing... without identifying with it, without getting caught up in it. And it went (and will surely come back again!) Is that all the practice is: a continuous, steady, constant watching of the arising and passing away of phenomena?
AS: It is just awareness.
RW: And these hindrances will just peter out, dissolve after some time?
AS: Right. If one is not acting on it, the habit will just fade away.
RW: But even though one is not acting on it, because the propensity or tendency is present for a particular mental disturbance to arise, is there not action being created from that?
AS: One cannot help the conditions that are present which make that delusion arise in one's mind. One of two actions may follow: either one reacts by getting caught up in the action or one represses it.
If one tends to repress the unpleasant, listen to the guilt or self-hatred. Bring up the mood, 'Oh, I'm hopeless, stupid, I can't do anything right, I'm wasting my life...' Just listen to it! Keep bringing it up and listening to it. One sees it by skilfully bringing it up and looking at it. And it goes away. Otherwise one tends just to repress it.
RW: Even though the delusion or emotion is not arising at the time, because one knows that it is a predominant condition that causes one continuous agitation, does 'bringing it up' simply mean letting it arise?
AS: I would even go seek it. About seven or eight years ago I had a problem of jealousy. I hated the jealousy. I had the insight that jealousy was a problem so I tended to try to annihilate it. When that condition would arise I would think, 'Oh God, here it is. I've got to try to deal with this now. What do I do?' Well, one is supposed to have sympathetic joy (mudita) for those of whom one is jealous. So I would think, 'I'm really happy for so-and-so. I'm really happy he's successful.' But I did not mean a word of it. I was just lying through my teeth. It was not solving the problem. I would repress it, annihilate it, and it would always come back bashing on me.
Finally, I realised that the problem was not with jealousy, but with my aversion to it. I just hated myself for having that. I felt I should not have that condition; I was ashamed of it.
When I had that insight I started being jealous of everything. I started bringing it up, thinking of everything that made me jealous. I kept looking at it. After doing that for some time, the problem was no more there.
Lust is something we have greed for, it is something we enjoy. One does not have to keep bringing up lust to look at, because one will get lost in it; it is too easy to absorb into lust.
However, emotions like anger and jealousy are a nasty kind of experience for me. I simply do not like them and do not want them. So instead of pushing them away, I had to bring them to me, just so I could see them.
I deliberately thought of past experiences with jealousy; I just brought up all the memories that that particular problem caused. I did not analyse it and try to figure out 'Why?', but simply looked at the impermanent nature of it. This movement toward neutralised the habit I had developed of pushing away. Then there was no more problem.
That is why wisdom (panna) is necessary. When one understands the movements of attraction and aversion, then one really knows how to practise. Finding the balance between drawing near and pushing away comes from trusting the wisdom here [points to his heart]. I am just giving a guide to consider using. See if it works!
RW: How do your monks relate to you? Is it a similar type of relationship as you had with Ajahn Chah?
AS: The monks who are now with me are quite respectful. They are a very good Sangha. I have had on occasion monks who gave me difficulties. But one learns from that also. Difficult monks who do not like or respect one can teach one an awful lot. They cause friction.
RW: But could that not cause problems in the Sangha?
AS: Well, we learn to deal with problems rather than create ideal environments.
RW: How would you advise one of your monks if he had qualms about following certain precepts? For example, if one of the monks felt it would be better to don layman's clothes instead of wearing the robes when going into London?
AS: We would never wear lay clothes.
RW: Then, no advice is necessary.
AS: Unthinkable. But generally, it is a very individual thing. One has to take into account many things. However, the whole point is to get the monk to know his intention, to know what he is doing, rather than forcing, compelling or conditioning people.
We are just using these particular customs and traditions as a standard of reflection, as a way of looking at ourselves. It is not a matter of making everybody obey the rules, but to try to arouse the honour in a person, to be responsible for his conduct in the community and in the world. One can make people, out of fear, obey rules. They would be afraid to break them because they would be caught, chastised and humiliated. But that is not arousing integrity and honour in a man.
On the other hand, one does not want to make it lax, either, letting everyone just do what he wants. One wants a kind of strictness, an impeccable standard, from which one can learn. Otherwise, people tend to think, 'Oh well, the robes don't make any difference', 'Oh well, eating in the afternoon is ok', 'Oh well, carrying money is alright'. One can rationalise anything.
There are good reasons for breaking all the rules as far as I can see. What if a family next door is starving to death? Why should I not be able to go steal a loaf of bread from a rich man to give it to them? There is always a good reason to justify the action. So it is not the rationalising that we are trying to develop, but the sense of honour and wisdom. That can only be done by conditioning them through fear, binding them to a set of rules that are so inflexible and rigid that they just become rats in a maze.
RW: I used to think that Theravada monks interpreted the vows very literally. Yet when I observe you and Bhikkhu Sucitto, I see that the Vinaya can be used as a lesson in the development of mindfulness. That is all it is.
AS: Right. It is really quite a good vehicle.
RW: But as you mentioned, precepts can become a neurotic discipline.
AS: Right. At first it has to be like an exercise. One trains oneself. When one learns to play the piano, it is not possible to start with the variations of themes. First one must learn the themes. In the beginning one needs to develop skill and become coordinated. One has to do repetitious things, like sitting for hours, until one acquires the skill. One can then play the standard themes simply by following. Eventually, as skill increases, one does not have to follow or imitate anymore. It is natural. Then one can play the variations, and it becomes a joy to listen to. But if one tries to play variations before one knows the theme, it can become very unpleasant -- for everybody.
That is why Vinaya discipline is like piano exercises. The first few years are boring. One has to listen to it over and over: everything has to be done in a certain way. Although it all looks a bit fussy and irrelevant to anything grand, once one learns how to do it, one does not have to think about it, wondering, 'Should I press this key or that one?' It is automatic. One already has the skill with that particular instrument. From that point on, one is free from it; one can use it.
Some monks, like piano players, just play the standard theme over and over because they are afraid to let go of the standard. They are not confident; they lack wisdom; they have only conditioned themselves. The point of the Vinaya is not to condition one but to give one complete freedom -- not freedom to follow desire but freedom to be spontaneous. One can only do this through wisdom and not through desire. One cannot be spontaneous with desire; one just becomes overwhelmed by it.
The Vinaya is a way of training body and speech, of giving them beauty and form, and of establishing relationship with others. For example, many people criticise the rules concerning women: 'Why can't monks touch women?'; 'Why can't monks be alone in a room with a woman?'; 'Why can't I have a woman up here and talk to her alone in a private interview?'; 'What is it about women? -- Was Buddha a male chauvinist pig?' Questions like this often come up. It is a matter of establishing a proper relationship so that the Dhamma can be taught. (Most women here have forgotten how nature works. The female attracts the male. It is a natural condition).
Also, if I have a woman up here in the room, even though thinking 'I don't have a problem with lust anymore', how would that look to others? If Bhikkhu Sucitto sees a naked woman walking out of my room... well, it looks bad. It is a way of protecting women, of keeping their reputation from being gossiped about.
Moreover, women often fall in love with teachers and figures of authority. For monks who are still very attracted to women, women have a tremendous power to draw them in, especially if the women are discussing their own personal problems. One can easily get emotionally caught up in that.
Buddha did not say that a monk cannot teach women. He said that a monk should establish a relationship in which teaching can be given. This I have found very helpful in training the monks at Chithurst. There are no scandals or problems there. When women come, they know the conditions for instruction and accept them. Therefore, the teaching of the Dhamma can be given without emotional involvement and all kinds of gossipy problems.
Many bhikkhus in England, both Thai and Western, have lost their reputation due to their laxity with regard to women. That is a very strong natural force. When I went to England, I also thought it would be a problem. I felt that Western women were going to hate and resent the regulations. But they do not. When they understand them, they respect them very much. Our four nuns at Chithurst are more meticulous than we are. They are very careful about the Vinaya because they really want to do it correctly.
In our monastic community there is no jealousy about women. Such as, Venerable Sucitto has a girl friend or favours one of the nuns! Situations like this, where jealousy arises is a traditional world problem, isn't it? Men fighting over women is a natural condition, too, This kind of training avoids those difficulties.
RW: You teach everyone equally, don't you?
AS: Yes. In Chithurst the nuns are very much a part of the monastic community. They come to all the functions and have the same training.
* * * * *
RW: Do you feel that Westerners are more suitable to the satipatthana practice than to the study of philosophical analysis?
AS: Satipatthana is the whole point of the Buddha's teaching. One need not spend much time reading about it. I certainly do not feel it is necessary [to study], even though it is quite alright to do that. I have nothing against it.
However, some people feel inclined toward scholarship and approach the practice in that way. I can only speak from my own experience. I felt that just the basic training was enough: the Four Noble Truths and the satipatthana practice. I needed the Vinaya discipline and the satipatthana practice in order to know the Buddha's teaching through experience rather than through theory. Otherwise, it is like reading maps all the time without going anywhere.
RW: In Tibet, however, the practice seemed to develop quite differently. There was much memorisation of root texts and commentaries, and the debating upon them.
AS: Not having been born or lived in Tibet, I cannot very well speak for a Tibetan. Yet they obviously must have their reasons for their ways. I can only speak of my own experience. But to this day, the idea of spending years just studying about the Dhamma... I would not do it. I just would not! To me it is like reading cookbooks without preparing any meals.
RW: I mentioned to you about the Lam-rim: a systematic outline of the Buddha's sutra teaching. It is a graduated series of meditations that is taught as a method for attaining liberation. By studying and integrating it in one's mind, habituating the teachings to one's thinking, investigating though critical analysis -- do you feel this approach can cut through mental distortions?
AS: I really cannot say. I just don't know about it. I have never tried it out.
RW: I find the Lam-rim to be an excellent framework for the satipatthana practice. Having taken a number of courses here during these past six months, it is possible to do the sitting and walking practice, but I wonder if there is a deep understanding of what one is doing and why one is doing it. A conceptual framework can give one a good basis for understanding what the practice is all about. The reflective meditations are also a good motivating force, helping one to understand the rarity and meaning of having taken a human form, its impermanent nature, and the sufferings of cyclic existence.
AS: I agree. This type of study is very good. I cannot see why the two cannot go together. I cannot see myself just studying it without doing it. In Thailand I have seen monks study and learn Pali for forty years, not doing the actual practice, and then even disrobing. But that is their problem.
The fact is that one does not need to know an awful lot. The teaching is so simple. That is why for many people the practice is enough. Yet I also seriously doubt whether people understand the point of the walking and sitting practice. It is still rather spoon-fed when people are dependent upon being told what to do and having everything arranged for them.
When I now read the Suttas and Abhidhamma, I can understand them. I know what is being said. Before I practised meditation, I read many of the texts but just could not understand what they really meant. When one is practising, one is actually taking the teachings of the Buddha and really looking at oneself. When one investigates the nature of suffering, one is not taking someone else's definition but is looking at the experience in here [points to himself]. The Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path and Dependent Origination all become very clear when one meditates upon them.
I do not want to be quoted on any opinions because they are just that. I can only speak from my experience. Some people seem to be able to get great benefits from studying Abhidhamma. Now I have just no interest in Abhidhamma as a subject that I would study.
RW: In Tibet, the study of Abhidhamma came last on the list. However, the process of debate, as a skilful means for sharpening the mind -- two people confronting each other in a quick, concentrated exchange -- is like taking a dull knife (the mind) and sharpening it so that it can then be used as a sword to cut through ignorance.
Presumably, many Tibetans have attained realisations through using philosophical analysis as a tool to prepare their minds for meditation. The Gelug tradition, however, is often ridiculed by the other three sects of Tibetan Buddhism for its heavy emphasis on study. For those who are capable of pursuing such a system of learning, it seems quite valuable.
AS: In your life here at the Insight Meditation Society, you will find your Tibetan tradition to be more meaningful and useful if you learn to use it and have more confidence in it. So do not be just blindly attached to the satipatthana practice. You are already established in a tradition and trained in it. So when you have had enough of sitting and walking...
Source: Chieng-Mai Dhamma Study Group, https://www.geocities.com/Athens/Academy/9280/index.htm
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last updated: 02-12-2002