|April 2000||2543||Number 52|
Beyond Worldly Aims and Values
There is a sutta that we recite sometimes that I find most helpful as an anchor; it's about the ten things that samanas, those who have gone forth, should recollect frequently. The first of these ten reflections is 'I am no longer living according to worldly aims and values.' It is talking about the fact that when one becomes a monk or a nun one gives up worldly titles. You can't actually tell which of us are princesses or princes, titled people, we all become just samanas.
There is a very sweet story from the time of the Buddha. After the Buddha was enlightened, his cousins, who were all princes with noble positions, decided to go forth, to leave their family situations, their situations of power, and go and be his disciples. They set off with Upali who was their barber; their intention was to send him back to the palace, but he wanted to go on with them, to also be a disciple of the Buddha. When it came to the time for them to go forth the Sakyan princes made sure that Upali was the first, and hence their senior. In this way they gave up their princely status. In the same way we bow to one another in order of seniority depending on how long we've been in the Order.
Having this practice gives us a chance to find something that is beyond the world and that will endure in a way that worldly success and failure don't endure…
Another way that I like to think of it is that we're operating more in terms of Dhamma rather than looking to be very powerful or successful. In Sangha life we can get very good at certain things; we have very skilled crafts people in the community, we have people who are good at giving talks, we have people who are very good at sewing or very good administrators or very good artists; but in terms of practice these things aren't really that important. It doesn't really matter how successful we are in worldly terms. Certainly it's nice when a community runs smoothly, when things are well taken care of and when people can construct buildings that don't fall down and sew their robes straight. These kind of things are good things to do but really our gift, our offering, is in terms of our Dhamma practice.
This is a useful thing for everybody to consider, whether living as a monk or nun or whether living a household life having to go out and earn a living, look after a family or whatever. Because these Sirens, these voices of the world are very powerful, very convincing and can lead us into a lot of trouble. Since no matter how successful we are, how wonderfully we do, the moments of great triumph where we really hit the heights in terms of fame or prestige or do the very, very best, are only moments - they don't last. They bring a kind of pleasure and satisfaction, but if they're the thing that we make the most important in our life our life is going to be a series of ups and downs. We'll have moments of great success, they'll pass, and then what will we do? We can look for another moment of success or remember that great moment, that peak, and take it out from time-to-time and fondle it.
Having this practice gives us a chance to find something that is beyond the world and that will endure in a way that worldly success and failure don't endure; something that will be a real refuge to us when everything else is falling apart. So when we are old or sick, when we are no longer able to succeed, there is something that we can turn to as a safe abiding place.
I find this very helpful because, while there are some days in our community where everything seems to go very well - and we can certainly enjoy these - there are also days when things don't work out so well. Sometimes everybody else is feeling fine but I'm having a bad day, I'm upset, things don't work out, the computer doesn't do what I want it to, the fax machine breaks down. If I don't keep remembering that I'm not living according to worldly aims and values, that it actually doesn't matter if things go wrong, but that what is important is how I respond to these things then I can suffer. I can either suffer, or I can understand that this is just how it is right now. It's not my fault, it's not anybody else's fault, it's just how things have come together. I don't have to blame anybody, I don't have to blame myself,
I don't have to fight or struggle or try to manipulate things so that they're different, all I have to do is make peace with things as they are. Sometimes people say, 'Gosh, Buddhists are awfully passive just making peace with things as they are. What good are you doing for the world?' But the alternative, when we're not mindful and things are going wrong, is we tend to tense up. A reactivity happens in the mind and there's a closing down. It's like having blinkers on so we can only see in one direction. We hold everything very, very tight to try and keep things the way we think they 'should be'; there's a wilfulness there. We can create a mood of tension that everybody picks up on. This certainly brings suffering.
When we cultivate an attitude of letting go, of being present with things as they are and making peace, then the mind is more sensitive, more responsive, more intuitive; it is much more aware. Then one's response can be in accordance with Dhamma; there is a sense of harmony rather than of tightness from holding with fear or desire.
The Dhamma is one of our Refuges, a place of security. We're finding peace in what is unpeaceful, finding security in what is insecure: just coming for Refuge in the present moment, asking, 'how is it right now?' and resting in the present like that. When there is a sense of ease we're in tune and we can respond in a way that is suitable, rather than a way that's wilful and that will perpetuate agitation. Otherwise what happens is something goes wrong and there's a rebound: we react, we say something and then somebody else gets upset with us, and there's a general feeling of disharmony.
There was a wonderful scene at tea-time today down at the 'peaceful little cottage where the nuns live.' I had an idea about how the evening was going to go; I was expecting my first cousin once removed and another very good friend and I was going to prepare tea and go off and talk quietly with them. As I was preparing the tea another very good friend showed up - that was very nice, I welcomed her and she helped. Then a Tibetan nun dropped by with a friend - that was a bit of a surprise and they joined us. Then someone else came. We have a young friend who is going through a fairly major breakdown right now, and she came wandering through doing strange things. Then a couple of sisters who are on retreat in the forest came in expecting to find the place empty and quiet and there was our small kitchen full of people drinking tea. I was very grateful for this practice. It meant just keeping my feet on the ground and realising that 'this is how it is right now, it's not that there's anything wrong.' It's not exactly what I had in mind for the evening but it was perfectly all right, I felt we had a very nice time with just a whole series of different things happening. I was grateful that I was not living according to worldly aims and values. A worldly value would be 'Well it's supposed to be like this and we're supposed to do this. Things have gone wrong, they haven't worked out and I've got to make things all right'. When we let go whatever happens is fine, things don't have to go according to plan - this is a great security.
I realise that before I started this way of practice I was always concerned about things working out. I always had to have an idea about how things were going to go. I had to make proper preparation and if things didn't go right then there was tension.
When I first came into the community I went on retreat with Ajahn Viradhammo. I remember him talking about taking refuge in Dhamma and I began to have a sense of what this really meant 'to take refuge in Dhamma' - it felt awesome. I was so used to taking refuge in my mind, my clever mind that would work things out, that would have a plan, that would be able to judge and assess things according to what I thought was right and proper. I realised just how much I used my intellect to hold my world together and I began to see that actually taking refuge in Dhamma meant letting go of this intellect, letting go of these structures that I'd used to determine how I lived my life. It felt like a leap of faith, being willing to let go of what I'd grown up to depend upon, to allow myself not to have a clue, allow myself to take refuge in the moment. To know the moment rather than hold on to a fixed view or a fixed plan.
When we talk about this turning aside from worldly aims and values, we talk about taking refuge in Dhamma, this doesn't actually mean to give up our intellect, it means to stop allowing it to be the master. We can still plan things, we can still make intelligent use of the brain that we have, but we do it from a place of Dhamma rather than a place of fear and desire. We let them go. It does take time; we can't just do it straight away.
Living in community, living in society, of course we have to make plans. Those of you who have jobs of course have to turn up for work; you have to earn your livelihood. Living in the monastery we have different duties that we do our best to perform, we try to live as well as we can in accordance with our training. And our training is set up to allow us to understand all our drives, to see clearly the Sirens, that are pulling us away from our real potential, our real possibility of being free.
I remember a number of years ago when the nuns' community was still in quite a tender, fragile state, we had a visit from Meichee Patomwan, who at that stage had been a nun in Thailand for thirty-six years. She was aware that I was concerned because there was anxiety about the nuns, whether we had enough respect and whether things were all right for us. And she said to me, 'Don't worry about it. Don't worry about looking good or any of that, just concentrate on your own practice, just look after your own heart, keep your own heart peaceful. If you do that everything will be all right, the respect will come, things will work out.' Just hearing that was such a relief because anything else felt so tense. I realised it was a worldly aim, a worldly value, trying to look good, trying to get respect; it was getting it the wrong way round, rather than just looking at one's heart, practising with that. We can notice, 'Is there suffering? Is there not suffering?' and if there is suffering then, 'Why is there suffering? There's suffering because I want to be respected, or because I want to look good.' Okay that can be looked at; 'is that really important? Does it really matter?'
I've been contemplating the question 'How are you?' and have realised that it's a question we should ask ourselves. 'How are you today?' And I'm beginning to learn how to do this. I had a quiet day this week. I was quite tired so I thought I'd better have a rest, so I lay down but my mind was going berserk. I thought 'Well, how are you?' And I could see that I was thinking about all the things I had to do - 'I've got to do this and I've got to do that and I've got to think about this and I've got to plan this and I've got to write to so-and-so and I've got to talk to so-and-so, and...' I thought 'Is resting really going to help?' And I could see 'No.' It wasn't that I needed to rest, what I needed to do was to help the mind to settle. 'Okay, so what's the remedy for this?' So I realised that what I had to do was to sit quietly. It was as though the mind was just filled with Sirens all demanding attention. And I could see 'No! You don't have to listen to those voices of the world, it's time to pay attention to your heart. Just stay still, stay quiet, stay with nature.' So I spent the rest of the day just listening to these voices but staying with the body, staying with the breath, watching the light, watching the trees, touching the earth. By the end of the day, when I asked myself 'How are you?' the answer was 'All right.' There was a feeling of wholeness rather than of agitation, of being pulled all over the place by the very insistent demands of the world.
So just consider 'what are worldly aims and values?' And, 'what are the aims and values towards which we aspire?' We can bring Dhamma into our lives, we can bring Dhamma into the world, through our humble willingness to bear with the voices of the ego, to bear with the insistent demands of the world and not be bullied by them. Say 'OK I hear you.' And then from a place of calm we respond. We can do an enormous amount of good from this place of stillness, this place of quiet.
After his enlightenment the Buddha didn't spend the next 45 years just sitting in a state of bliss. If you look into the Vinaya teachings, the teachings about how the monastic orders were set up and how the different rules came into being, or if you look into the Suttas, you see that he was extremely active in a very compassionate, wise and skilful way. He dealt with people who were in the extremes of human anguish and despair. He was able to present a teaching that responded to their need in the moment. He was also able to respond to the people who tried to catch him out in debates. He met all kinds of people. To be like the Buddha is perhaps asking too much but just to try, moment-to-moment, to distinguish between the voices of the world and to, for a moment, interrupt the compulsions of the mind that pull us around, just to be with one breath. To be with the feeling of the body sitting on the mat, to be with the feeling of the feet touching the ground as we walk from place-to-place, to relax the shoulders when we're finding ourselves getting tense in a difficult situation, to relax the face when we find that we are thinking an awful lot in our meditation; just letting the thoughts go their own way and using little things in our daily life as ways of helping to anchor us in what is a secure refuge. In moments of extreme anguish, at the moment of death, at moments of complete confusion, when everything around us is falling apart, when things just aren't the way they 'should be', we can turn to these signs, these anchors in the present moment.
Being peaceful with one breath is obviously not a worldly value. It's obviously not something that is going to get us an enormous amount of praise. Fortunately we have a situation where we're encouraged to do this because it takes us to another system of values that goes beyond the changing world. There isn't very much we can rely on in terms of our bodies, in terms of one another, in terms of worldly success, in terms of prestige and fame, in terms of our intellect. All of these things are changing.
But we have this opportunity to develop the practice of being present. Sometimes it's difficult, sometimes it doesn't really seem like it's anything very much but little-by-little it adds up. There's a verse in the Dhammapada that gives a valuable simile of this: if there's water just dripping into a bucket, just one drip and another drip and another drip, sooner or later the bucket fills up - it can be hard to notice it filling. Similarly you might think you are getting nowhere, the moments of mindfulness don't seem to be adding up to very much but give yourself a year or a couple of years or a decade or two, and you'll find little-by-little things change. You'll notice that there is more of a sense of ease, there is more of an ability to respond rather than to get uptight and agitated, there is a little more compassion, a little bit more space in the heart. This is how it works. You might have a sudden insight, like my insight into what taking Refuge in Dhamma really meant, but it does take time and a humble step-by-step application, in order to bring about the gradual transformation of each of us.
I'd like to end this teaching, offering it as an encouragement for each of you to work at developing this very humble moment-by-moment mindfulness practice. And my wish for each one of you is that you will gradually find more peace, freedom and happiness in your lives.