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Venerable Santacitto

Venerable Santacitto (Stephen Saslav) was born of Jewish parents in Brooklyn, New York City in 1947. He excelled at mathematics in high school and went on to study at university.
In 1967, just after the Six Day War, he went to Israel to work on a kibbutz. Continuing but not completing his university studies in Jerusalem, he left and went hitch-hiking through Africa, where he was drawn to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Travelling on through the Seychelles, India and Nepal, he ended up working as an English teacher in Bangkok, where he took a meditation course with Sister Sudhamma. Through her he met an American disciple of Ajahn Chah, Dr. Douglas Burns, whose clever persuasion induced him to visit Wat Pah Pong. Although he was unable to speak Thai, he was deeply affected by meeting Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho, recognising in them the self-actualisation that had profoundly inspired him in Abraham Maslow's book, Toward a Psychology of Being.
The existence of a path to self-actualisation motivated him to become a samanera for a short experimental period. Finding himself unable to leave, however, he went on to receive upasampada in 1971 at Wat Benjamabopitr under Chao Khun Buddhivongsamuni. His twelve years in Thailand were punctuated by seven months back in Brooklyn, and nine months in France. In 1985, at Ajahn Sumedho's invitation, he moved to Amaravati in England, where he established the multi-faith Christmas Humphreys Memorial Library, and was instrumental in setting up an exhibition on lay people's practice in 1988.
He is now senior incumbent of the Devon Vihara.

The following teaching has been adapted from a session of questions and answers which took place during a retreat led by Venerable Santacitto at Amaravati, September 1988.

"Probably the easiest way to outgrow ourselves is
through the response of compassionate action."

QUESTION: Could you speak on the differences and similarities of love and compassion?

ANSWER: Compassion is a sensitivity to the experience of suffering, or dukkha: a sensitivity of heart to the suffering of others. It's a 'non-separation' from our own heart's response on sensing suffering in another. And because it is a kind of suffering in itself, it impels action. However, since it's not a suffering arising out of selfishness -- that is, from our own sense of separateness -- it doesn't impel blind action. In taking one beyond oneself, the experience of compassion is a very powerful opportunity for the arising and development of wisdom. Probably the easiest way to outgrow ourselves is through the response of compassionate action.
Love is a more directly positive quality. With a positive response of heart we thoroughly accept another's reality, with an acceptance that encompasses any resistance we might feel. Again there is the sense of 'non-separation', but this time it is in relationship to happiness.
With love, because it often involves highly positive feelings, one can easily become lost in it. Hence we have the expression, 'Love blinds.' Compassion, being more in touch with suffering, tends to keep us grounded better than the sometimes eruptive energies involved in love. One can see how, without care and attention, love can easily drift from being a selfless sensitivity, to becoming an attachment. It slowly becomes 'self-interested'.
The best example of selfless love -- and we are all familiar with it -- is the self-sacrificing love of a mother for her child. But it is also a good example of how attachment creeps in. In its original purity of complete acceptance, love is an extremely pleasant experience. But unless we are very clear about feelings of 'getting something out of it', attachment does slowly creep in. And where attachment arises, love is blocked. By limiting our acceptance, the completeness of love disappears.
Though compassion mightn't be as conducive to attachment as love, 'self' can still get involved if we are not careful. That which might have been compassion to begin with can turn into pity -- 'feeling sorry for someone' -- which doesn't bridge the sense of separateness. Looking down on others doesn't help us grow beyond ourselves.
If we make the effort to intentionally cultivate love, we find it's a quality that can be directed towards all people, including those who we don't necessarily even consider friends. In such cases, rather than feeling euphoric ecstasy, we experience a simple kindness, a sort of grandheartedness -- a willingness to coexist.
We must remember, however, that talking about 'pure love' and 'pure compassion' is not with the idea of creating absolutes, but to help guide us in our practice. By recollecting in this way, we can come to appreciate how, the less we allow personal gain to become mixed in, the more all beings benefit.

Q: Is devotion another kind of love? Can it be a form of cultivating love?

A: Yes; I would say the experiences of devotion and love are very similar. We could say, devotion is a love directed towards someone for whom we feel respect. It includes a sense of gratitude also for the benefits that we have received.

Q: Would you say that it's possible to experience a devotional heart quality without a human being as the object -- maybe towards a tree?

A: Yes; and there also you are feeling gratitude for what the tree gives you by its existence.

Q: When I see nature, I am so full of gratitude, but that seems to be a kind of attachment. I try to see the attachment, but it's difficult. Someone once told me: 'If you go on like this, you will never be free.' [Laughter] I just love trees and birds and nature . . . and I find I'm having to change . . . I don't know how to deal with it.

A: It's true that some of these positive qualities of heart may come under the classification of 'attachments', but they can be pretty darned healthy attachments. I sometimes like to look at the practice path as being similar to climbing a ladder; so long as what we're holding on to doesn't obstruct our ability to pull ourselves further upwards, then a so-called attachment might be serving a useful function. However, if we're holding on to a higher rung of the ladder but won't let go of a lower one, then we're stuck. We've got a problem. So holding on to something that is keeping us from going on, even if it's pleasurable, is blocking progress.

Q: Yes, but I'm not sure that I want enlightenment to be like that. [Laughter]

A: Eventually, we have to let go of everything -- but in the right time. We shouldn't try to force ourselves to let go of things! It's just that from time to time life happens to present us with opportunities where we can either let go or not let go.

Q: Is 'letting go' a necessary part of meditation?

A: It's entirely up to the individual. There is no need to feel that you have to let go of your devotion towards nature. But later on, you may begin to sense something more valuable in your life, the development of which could be aided by a more balanced relationship with nature. For example, you may begin to feel a greater need for the power of equanimity, finding that always gushing outwards towards nature is something that is preventing you from further blossoming. So you may realise that equanimity need not be a negation or rejection. It's more a matter of allowing the appreciation of nature to settle to a deeper level. It's starting to recognise the nature within ourselves as well as the nature 'out there'.
Generally though, as far as trees are concerned, I would say they are a rung of the ladder which pulls us up; especially in our modern materialistic society. To a large extent we have lost touch with our ability to really be with nature. We've forgotten how it functions to help us tune in to our inner nature. Remembering that, simply being with nature can be a very beautiful stepping-up point. Appreciating trees and birds and external nature, definitely doesn't have to be an obstacle to get rid of. We can learn to use such appreciation as a point of balance in our lives -- not only for ourselves, but to share with others also. This is something we need a lot of.

Q: It's so sad to hear people always complaining about everything. If only they would just walk outside . . .

A: Yes, we tend to get lost into our personal space and limit the mind. Just walking outside and opening up can be a way of letting things free.

Q: Do you think that there is symbolic meaning to the Buddha's getting enlightened under a tree? Maybe it means that we can learn from nature. Trees can teach us how to refine ourselves. We can come to understand how important it is to give back to nature what has been taken away.

A: That is a very good point; the Buddha was born under a tree, enlightened under a tree, and died under a tree. And he said that sitting under trees was a good thing to do. His recommendation to his bhikkhus was: 'There are these trees, go, sit.'
Our particular monastic tradition here comes from what is known as the 'forest tradition' of Thailand. There's an emphasis in this tradition which says that if one really wishes to practise under ideal conditions, then the forests provide these conditions. In their simplicity we can discover an invaluable reflection of our inner nature.
To a large extent, Ajahn Chah's teachings were influenced by his vast experience of living in forests. Many of the similes that he used came out of this. His own practice was simply a matter of being a totally open and aware human being in natural surroundings, watching both inwardly and outwardly to see what was happening. Out of such practice came a very deep understanding of himself. But he wasn't trapped by nature. When he needed to go to the city, he could do that quite comfortably without yearning for the forests. He could make the most out of the forest, without becoming dependent upon it. If we become attached to being in the forests -- as monks sometimes do -- then that's a sign that there's still something to learn from nature.

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