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Freedom - the subjects chosen for these talks are always a bit enigmatic,
which makes it somewhat easier for the speaker, because then he can talk
about anything. However, I did have something in mind when I gave the
title to this talk, something that I believe to be of great interest to
everyone - the subject of freedom. When the subject is 'true' freedom
there is added interest.
The reason for the interest is that most of us appreciate the fact that we do have some freedom. In the democracies of the Western world we consider our societies to be quite free. Relatively speaking a society which is free in the conventional sense of the word, in that we are not oppressed by a dictatorial government or a terribly unfair and unjust legal system. We are not being deprived of the basic needs for a comfortable life.
We also have a lot of freedom with regard to speech, lifestyle and religious beliefs. Freedom of religion, in particular, makes this a marvellous country. Most of us take this for granted; we assume that this is the state of affairs everywhere, but it isn't. To live in a country where you have the freedom to practise the religion of your choice, to study and to live according to the principles of your religion, is quite a rare situation in this world.
So this is a relatively free country. As individuals we have a lot of freedom with regard to the lifestyle that we live. We can come, we can go, we can get married, we can remain single, we can have families, we can choose not to have families, we can work, we can choose not to work; there is a lot of freedom with regard to how we live our lives.
However I would like to question whether this is true freedom. Are we really free, even in this society? Do we really feel free? Is it sufficient to be able to do what you want, how you want, to go where you please, to dress as you like, to speak as you please? Is that enough? Is that true freedom? I would like to ask you to consider why you do what you do, why you go where you go, why you say what you say, why you live the way you do live? Is there freedom in our choices, or are we in fact still slaves, trapped in an oppressive power that is not out there, not an external object or entity, but within ourselves? Our own ignorance, our own delusion, our own obsessiveness, our own instincts, our own fictions, the creations of our own minds - these are the tyrants that oppress us.
From the Buddhist perspective we are not free. Even in a society such as this, where external conditions are so favorable, even 'liberated', most human beings are still very much slaves of their desires and aversions, their obsessive anxieties and fears, and their own thoughts which they can neither understand nor control.
Places of power
This is enslavement, and it is taken advantage of by many people. Once I read something about places of power. There are many power places, many objects of power. What do we mean by places of power, objects of power, people who have power? What does it mean to have power? It means that those places, those objects, those people, have the ability to influence us, to make us react, to behave and experience things in specific ways.
We talk about places where you go to have certain experiences. There are many such places. An atmosphere is created: that is basically what a power place is - a place where you bring about a desired reaction from the people who go there. If you understand the human temperament, the nature of the ordinary mind, then you can devise certain conditions to bring about certain reactions. This principle is used all the time in advertising and entertainment. We use it in the way we dress, the way we decorate places of entertainment, such as discos or restaurants, and even schools and churches. The idea is that by creating a certain environment, certain visual and auditory sensations, people will react in desired ways.
That, then, is a power place, a place of power. By such a definition, a nightclub is a very powerful place, with its music, lights, the moving shapes and sounds. States of excitement and exhilaration are stimulated in the mind, it has power over you. When you go to a religious place, be it an old Christian cathedral, a mosque or a temple hall in a Buddhist monastery, the experience is often one of tranquillity and exhilaration. When you go into the cathedral with its high steeple, everything pointing upwards, everything rising up, you experience an uplifting of the spirits. A sense of tranquillity sets in, an exalted spirit. You enter a meditation hall where the lights are subdued, the sounds are subdued, where the atmosphere is gentle, with clear symbols of peace, such as a Buddha statue: immediately you experience a sense of tranquillity sweeping through you. Watching a military parade, with the band and the music of the military, the marching men and cheering people, you feel a sense of energy buzzing through your body.
Objects of power: the way we monks dress - people say, "Why do you dress like that?" This is a power dress, although it may not appear so in this day and age. The idea is to take away as many of the symbols as possible, making oneself completely harmless, completely bare and open. The clothing is of a subdued colour, designed to cover up, to play down the physical presence of the body as much as possible; to make one helpless, harmless and not physically attractive. This has its effect on people. I don't think anybody feels physically threatened by a Buddhist monk. They may feel a bit put off sometimes or a bit puzzled and perplexed about this odd-looking being, but I don't think anybody ever feels physically threatened by the appearance of a Buddhist monk. It has its effect just as the fashions have. We call these power objects, power symbols.
I would like to point out that the power of these objects is not in the objects themselves. The power is not out there. The reason these objects, situations, noises, music or whatever have the power to make you experience something is because your mind lacks power, because your mind lacks freedom.
The mind is a victim of these objects, being stirred up and influenced by the sensory experience. It is a victim, it is not free. That is why people can make you angry, situations can make you irritable, objects can make you desire and crave. Many things can make our minds react and create states of heaven or states of hell, the emotions, feelings and moods that overwhelm us without our realising what is going on. All of this is happening to us but we don't realise, we still think that we are free.
When Christmas time comes around you get bombarded with advertising and you go down to the shop and spend more than you intended. Why does that happen? You intend to go for a walk, just window-shopping, and you come back with a bag full of things. So many of these situations happen in our lives as a result of not being free. We are not in charge, we are not in control; the mind is a victim.
But it need not be this way at all. It is possible for us to be in charge. It is possible for the mind to be free, but first we must understand how the mind works, and then learn to take charge and claim our rights to freedom.
In the ultimate sense there is only one type of person who is truly free. No-one, nothing, no place, no condition, can ever enslave that type of person. We call such a person an enlightened being, a liberated being. Note the words themselves - liberation is a synonym for freedom. In the ultimate sense we refer to such a person as a liberated one, one who has attained to liberation, one who has attained to freedom. No person or situation can ever enslave such a mind or condition it, sending it up to heaven or down to hell, or cause it to get lost in craving, aversion or confusion. That mind we call the liberated mind.
It is possible to inflict pain on such people. It is possible to inflict physical restrictions, you can lock them up, you can cripple them, you can put out their eyes, you can cut off their tongues - yet none of that could enslave the mind. Those are physical restrictions, but the mind is free, because nothing, whether pleasant or unpleasant, has the power to make the mind stir from peace. Nothing can move that enlightened wisdom. The mind is independently at peace, regardless of time and place, regardless of what does or does not happen, regardless of whether one lives in a democratic society that is fair and just or whether one is living in an oppressive and brutal dictatorship.
That is freedom in the ultimate sense, and every human being has the potential to attain to that state of liberation. What is the path, how can we move in that direction? Actually, just the movement, the walking along the path, is already becoming a little free. Every step is an experience of freedom.
It is very important to understand that we are as yet not free. Though we live in a society that is free in the conventional sense, we are not free, because our minds are not yet free. As long as we are unenlightened, we are all afflicted by craving and desire, wanting and thirst, the need to have this or that. Is your mind free when it is still afflicted by such movements, such compulsions, such obsessions? Can you say you are free when things can make you angry and miserable, when people can make you experience hatred and irritation, when situations can make you depressed and miserable? Can you say that you are free? Of course not. If you were free you would certainly not experience any of these negative states.
True freedom is freedom in the mind. I'm not dismissing the importance of external conditions; as I have said, it is a great blessing for us to live in a country which has relative social freedom, but even in this situation we are not free. There is more to be done. We can never attain true freedom of mind just by creating better external conditions. We must look at the mind, we must begin to notice the obsessiveness of the mind.
Every religion talks about heavens and hells, but as far as the human experience and the Buddhist perspective are concerned, heaven and hell are not far away. In a single moment you can go up to heaven and then drop down to hell. It happens many times every day. The different realms of existence are the various states of mind that we experience throughout the day - the moments of bliss and happiness are symbolised by heaven; the moments of despair and darkness symbolised by hell.
Let us look at this process that is taking place within the mind. Is it natural for the mind to be like this? Is this the most natural state for the human mind, this state of being conditioned, being stirred into emotional states associated with want and craving, aversion and negativity, anxiety, doubt and confusion? It must be natural in a sense, because it's happening, but is it the most natural, most fundamental state of your mind? Stop right now. Stop mentally, be silent, very quiet, listen, this moment... Why isn't the mind stirred up? Why isn't there lust? Why isn't there aversion? Why isn't there confusion, doubt and anxiety? Why isn't there exhilaration and excitement? Why isn't there heaven and hell? Because the mind at this moment is still. At this moment the mind is not creating, not being stirred into proliferation, obsessiveness and compulsion through the thinking process of creating, reacting and struggling.
Stillness, silence and peace are more fundamental to the mind, these are more basic states, but we don't perceive these moments, we don't cherish that state; and because we don't notice or value it, we don't know how to take refuge in that precious quality. So we go wandering about like slaves, without a home. The mind reacts to the various sensory experiences without reflection.
This movement creates heaven and hell. It happens habitually, instinctively an impulsively. It binds us fast and we are born into it. When somebody say to you, "You pig!" there is no stillness, the mind starts reacting: "How dare you call me a pig, you dirty rat. I'm going to get back at you." The stillness is gone and you don't even notice it. The reaction has taken over, you automatically get angry. Of course you get angry, a slave has no choice. You don't realise you are angry until afterwards.
They put those wonderful advertisements on television when you are sitting there very concentrated; when you are concentrated you absorb marvellously. You are sitting there and they put on an advertisement about beer with beautiful young women and handsome young men, with magnificent scenes of beach and sky; youthful figures surfing, gliding and all sorts of fantastic, beautiful, and exhilarating experiences: "Yes I want that. Ah, beer, that's it!" The association is made - they are drinking beer: "That's what I want." When you drink beer that is what you experience, that is what you become, that is what you are. This is what happens, we don't reflect on these creations of the mind, we are just victims.
Is a rock heavy?
We say these things are power objects, but it's simply that the mind is weak. It's like my teacher, Ajahn Chah, used to say. He would point to a rock and say, "Is that rock heavy?" Of course, people would say, "It's a big rock, I think it must be heavy." And he would say, "Only if you try to lift it. I don't feel any heaviness." Where is the heaviness of the rock? It is only heavy for those who take hold of it and carry it around. Then, of course, it is heavy.
Where is the power of the object, the power of the situation, the power of the condition? There is power only when the mind takes hold of and carries it around, getting lost in it and reacting. The power comes from the mind, not the object.
This is talking in an ultimate sense. I do not dismiss the fact that we should correct the conditions around us and that it is important to try and create good conditions in the world. That is also important, and even on this spiritual path we place great emphasis on suitable conditions, correct behaviour and so on; but this evening I'm pointing to the source of everything, and ultimately it must come back to this.
If I could, I would put different advertisements on television. I'd like to have advertisements that have a very tranquil setting with people living simply, speaking nicely, meditating, being contented... and someone says, "You've got enough, you really don't need any more. Make yourself peaceful; you don't need a new car, you don't need to get drunk, you don't need to smoke, you don't need to do all these things. Enjoy your life, be peaceful, you already have plenty"... well, you never know, it may happen.
This evening I'm not so concerned with that, but rather with the idea of getting to the source. Our heart, our mind, is the place where the enslavement ultimately begins and ends. This is where we have the ultimate choice. We cannot control all external conditions, it's not possible. As I said, even enlightened people can be incarcerated, crippled and restricted externally. They can't control everything; but the mind, that is a different matter.
Internally, there is a choice, but very few can claim that right and make that choice. It requires training, and only when the training is complete does one have ultimate freedom.
However, just to start the training is a step towards freedom. The first stage is to turn inwards, to look and see what is going on within the mind. Begin to notice the movement of the mind, to notice the difference between the peaceful, silent mind and the proliferating, noisy mind. From that point of reference, of stillness and silence, we have a clear perspective of the movement of the mind. If we only experience noise and activity we have no perspective, and without a perspective we have no way of understanding or controlling the situation.
How do we develop this perspective? Learn to become quiet, learn to become still, learn to listen inwardly to the noise in the mind, observe the thinking process. What is it that observes? That quality is very precious. The function of that quality is simply to know. It is different from ordinary consciousness, because ordinary consciousness may or may not have this quality. You have been conscious all day, unless you had a snooze, but that doesn't mean you've been awake or aware in the sense of inner listening, inner watching. It is very rare for most human beings to experience this.
It is because we have not developed this ability that we are enslaved, that we are under the power of our own conditioning and our instincts, and that we can be manipulated by situations and people around us. We are very predictable in that sense.
Consider this quality: what are you thinking right now? The ability to listen, the ability to know the content of the mind at this very moment, is called awareness, or mindfulness. It is through this quality that we can get to know what is happening in the mind and get a perspective on the thinking processes. We can see the arising of craving and lust and we can see their results. We can see and contemplate the nature of anger, how it comes, where it comes from and its consequences. We can reflect on the nature of emotions. Emotions are not so mysterious, they can be understood. They are simply constructs of the mind. They are not so different from the process of thinking, because emotions are in fact the result of a process of thought and feeling.
If we could invest some interest and energy in establishing and maintaining this quality of awareness in our lives we would learn a lot about the mind and what happens to us. We would know how to avoid becoming slaves to the power of these states of mind and the thinking process, and therefore of external conditions, because when the mind is awake we have a choice. We can choose to think or not to think. We can choose to follow a particular chain of thought or refuse to do so.
It requires that wakefulness, awareness and mental discipline which we call concentration. This is exactly what we develop through meditation. But it isn't necessary to meditate for years before you can experience this. You can experience it right now and every day. What it requires most of all is the ability to centre and to be awake, even for just one moment.
Then it is a question of values. What is important to you? If we feel that freedom or peace is the most important thing, then we choose not to allow ourselves to sink into states of anger, lust and confusion. Is this suppression? No, it's just a choice, just as you choose to come here this evening. You make a choice. There's always a choice. Just like deciding to go in a particular direction, you walk that way, you make a choice. If the choice is influenced by fear and ignorance, then it's not very skilful. A skilful choice comes from understanding.
If you want to become free, you must be strong. You must have the mental capacity to be free. This mental capacity is the development of these two qualities, awareness and concentration, which are particularly important in the kind of situations that we live in today. The emphasis is on awareness. You can cultivate awareness in your daily lives, you can bring this quality of knowing into the mind. All you need do is to remember to wake up and know what is happening now. What are you experiencing now? What are you thinking now?
What obstacles are there to this practice of awareness? Mainly forgetfulness, the mind following its mechanical, instinctive patterns of reacting and creating. This is a very powerful force, it is not something that is going to be overcome easily. It requires a lot of sincerity. If you want to be mentally free then you must invest the energy and interest to do so. You must strive to actually realize that possibility by being awake, here and now, to what you are doing.
Here are a few examples to illustrate what I mean:
Right now it is hot. It is not unduly hot, but imagine that it is really hot and you are starting to perspire, becoming very sweaty and uncomfortable. What will happen to you? You can say that the body is hot and sweaty, yes, but what else happens? The mind starts reacting: "I don't want this. This is terrible. I want to get out of here. Let me out! Why isn't there air conditioning? This is hopeless... I don't know, these Buddhist people, can't they organise things better? Why don't they get an air-conditioner in here?" Your mind could really go to town. Meanwhile I am talking and you are half here and half there, thinking, thinking, thinking, with irritation, with aversion, with impatience...
That is what may be happening but usually you have no idea that it is happening. In other words you are in it, drowning in it, but you don't know that you are drowning in it. This is the first problem, you don't know that you are drowning. That's why you drown so often - because you don't know you are drowning. The fish is in the water, but it has no perspective of the water. Is this what is happening? We are experiencing a mental state of irritation, impatience or aversion, but we don't know... it's just suffering.
But then for a moment you wake up: "I'm really getting hot under the collar - not only physically hot, but angry, impatient and irritated." Then what? Usually you just fall back in again. What if you could sustain that awareness, and with it a different attitude? Does the mind have to be in that state? Does the mind have to get so hot if the body is hot? Stop! The body is hot, it is sweaty - we call this unpleasant sensation. It is bearable. Stop that process in the mind, that negative thinking, the irritation, the anger, the impatience. If you stop that process, the mind is peaceful and silent. There may be physical discomfort but the mind is peaceful.
The mind can even, if you wish, be turned in a different direction: "Oh this is lovely, it is so kind of these Buddhist people to organise a meeting like this to contemplate these deep and important topics. It's marvellous that there are such good people in our society." You feel kindness, a sense of unity, gratitude; you may even be transported from hell to heaven.
Or you can just stop and be empty, awake and peaceful, not creating heaven and hell but being awake and sensitive, alert and peaceful. If you can do it with one thing, you can do it with everything. How much you can do depends on how much training, how much wakefulness, wisdom and concentration, you have developed.
My very first experience of this was when I had already been a monk for a year and a half. I was living in a monastery in north-eastern Thailand. It was a small branch monastery associated with the main monastery where my teacher, whom I loved and respected, lived. I had trust and confidence in him, but I didn't think much of the teacher at the branch monastery, and the monks didn't seem to be too keen on doing any meditation. I felt abandoned, and I really wasn't fitting in very well with what was happening in that monastery. It was like a work camp. There was a lot of physical work to do which I had a great resistance to. I didn't become a monk to be a labourer. If I wanted to be a labourer I could just return to Australia and go back to labouring. Physical work wasn't my idea of what I should have been doing. However, it was a new monastery so there was a lot of work to be done - a fact which I did not appreciate.
Then my teacher came to visit and I was overjoyed to see him. I thought that I would be able to get some encouragement from him. But as soon as he arrived the village people from the local area came to see him and I couldn't even get close. It was natural that he should speak to them. He talked and talked, hour after hour, and we were sitting in what was like an open theatre with no walls, just a tin roof and floorboards.
We were sitting on the bare floorboards and they weren't very even. My teacher went over the scheduled time, just like I do, talking and talking with the lay people, who were enjoying it immensely. They were enjoying it so much that they forgot about the other monks sitting there. We only ate one meal a day, in the morning at about 8am. We got up at 3am, and we were up all day, so sitting there on the wooden floor when it was getting close to 10pm was very uncomfortable. And there were hordes of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes were continually biting and you are not allowed to kill them; you can brush them away but you are not allowed to kill them. We were hungry, tired and sleepy and I just got fed up with the whole thing.
In a period of a few hours my mind became so angry, so negative, so frustrated and so miserable, with so many confusing thoughts of what I wanted - I wanted to go back and sleep, I was fed up and hungry... "They could at least give me something to drink, a soft drink or something... get rid of the mosquitoes... the pain in my legs... why does he have to talk so long?... these people, why don't they go home and let the monks live in peace?" My mind was just splitting up.
Monks are supposed to sit there and not express any of this, just sit there and stew. You can smile, but you are not allowed to express any anger. Because all these things which were going on in my mind couldn't be expressed, they were stewing up inside me. There was no escape, I was trapped. It became so bad that it seemed to overflow, and my mind came up into a bright awareness: "What's going on here?" All along I had been drowning in a mental state, unaware of what was happening. I was simply drowning, and then came the realisation: "I'm drowning! What's going on here? This is suffering."
Then the thought, "Well, why am I suffering so much?" I looked back into what had been happening, the mental proliferation, the aversion: not wanting this, wanting that, wanting to get out, wanting to go to sleep, wanting to be alone, to get away from these people, this pain, those mosquitoes - the mind was in such turmoil. Looking back, I realised, "Oh, this is suffering, this is how it is created, this is how I create hell. What if I stop wanting and not wanting; what if I just stay silent and still?"
I went through the various things that I wanted: I could do without them. The things that I didn't want: I could endure them, they weren't that bad. By accepting the way things are, that I couldn't change them, I stopped the obsessive reactions of the mind which were creating all the anguish.
Just by allowing the mind to settle, to come back to its more fundamental state, there was peace. In that situation nothing had changed externally, but internally the experience was a change from fire to coolness. Just like a walk in the hot, fiery midday sun - 49 degrees, it's terrible - then you go into the shade, into the meditation hall and it is cool and peaceful. That was the difference in the mind.
This is a very important lesson. This is what we need to learn, to experience and to live throughout our lives. We can do a lot to change and improve the external world, but we can never control it completely. We must take charge of the mind in order to become free, otherwise the experiences of life will always complicate the mind, creating heaven and hell. We create it, so we can stop it. The mind has the power to remain free if we develop this awareness, the understanding of Right View, and have the right values. Peace and freedom are most important.
Please don't think that by being peaceful you will become irresponsible and hopeless, letting everything fall apart. On the contrary, when the mind is peaceful and clear, when the mind is free to respond, you will be at your best. What you decide to do will come from that place of peace and wisdom. It will be your best, you will respond fluently, you will do what needs to be done, and you will do that which is most appropriate.
I offer this for your consideration. It is a description of an alternative which you may find of interest. If an interest does arise, I certainly encourage you to follow it up. There is a path and you can walk that path. There are ways of training and you can undertake that training. There are the fruits of that training and every human being can realise those fruits.
Sincere thanks to Antony Woods (Sydney, Australia) for
making this digital copy available
(Binh Anson, July 2004).
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last updated: 16-07-2004