|April 2004||2547||Number 68|
Rounding Out the Practice
Tahn Natthiko invited me to say a few words tonight, saying he wanted to draw on my experience of thirty years of monastic life. So this was a good theme for me to reflect upon. What have I been doing for the last thirty years?
Over the years I've seen many phases in my practice, beginning in Thailand. To start with, I had a very simplistic view of practice. Having just finished university, my first idea was to spend six months in a cave in Thailand to sit in silence, and that's it, that's enlightenment. That was my initial fantasy. 'Just give me six months and it's all over, I can go home again.' Enlightenment and then go home. Well that was thirty years ago, so you see how much of a fantasy it was. I think most people are like this though. Most of us start meditation practice with concepts, ideas, expectations and even such fantasies. In the actual experience of practice, we put these ideas and concepts to the test. We find out for ourselves. I could say that for me my efforts of the last thirty years have been to do with rounding out or balancing the practice.
I remember my early years in northern Thailand, sitting in my little hut, trying to keep my practice very simple. I would just sit there and watch the breath. I'd watch it for hours and hours and hours every day. I was in a meditation monastery so there weren't a lot of distractions. There was nothing to do but sitting and walking meditation. It was not a forest monastery, so there was no routine: no evening meditation, no morning meditation. One was left to get on, on one's own. I was quite serious at that time, or maybe just deluded - I don't know which - and I really put myself into the practice.
I recognised that I had a great opportunity, because in those days there were few such opportunities in the West. So here I was in Thailand, a Buddhist country, and they were very generously offering me this place to practise in. So I practised for sixteen hours a day just walking and sitting, walking and sitting. There was nothing else to do.
Of course, with no distractions for hours and hours a day, for months at a time, the mind got reasonably peaceful. But because the monastery was on the tourist map of Chiang Mai, quite a few Westerners would come. One time, I remember sitting there meditating and I heard footsteps coming up the steps. The door opened and this tourist walked in. He saw me sitting there, so he came walking over and said 'Hello, I'm Joe Smith.' I looked up and said 'Hello, I'm ... errr ... I'm ...'
I looked in one of the Buddhist books and saw that it said 'sila, samadhi and panya.' Oh yes, panya, what's that? What's this element called wisdom?
I couldn't remember who I was! 'I'm breathing,' that's all I could think of. Of course it wasn't exactly a joyful experience; it was a little bit frightening. You know, I had to consult my passport to figure out who I was.
Those days of tranquillity were numbered because I practised so diligently that eventually even eating became a distraction, a disturbance to concentration. One can't live very long without eating, so after a while I fell sick. It was a bit of a shock being sick, because I couldn't keep up my meditation exercises, so all my confusion returned. Concentration or calmness of mind is a conditioned state; if one does concentration exercises for long periods of time one can experience concentration, but that concentration is conditional on the exercises. When I couldn't keep up the exercises, all the confusion, all the worries, all the thoughts came back, and it was even worse than before. Not only did I have my usual confusion, but it was confusion in the context of having known tranquillity, so it seemed much worse. It was the usual confusion against the background of previous calm. So of course my first reaction was 'Buddhism doesn't work. It couldn't be my fault. It must be the fault of Buddhism.'
Fortunately something inside me, some kind of intuition or some degree of faith, gave me a second thought: 'Maybe I'm missing something here.' So I looked in one of the Buddhist books and saw that it said 'sila, samadhi and panna.' Oh yes, panna, what's that? What's this element called wisdom? Maybe I'm missing something here. Then I realised, 'I'm going to have to go back and round out my idea of practice.'
In those days, my understanding of wisdom was that it was basically knowledge. So wisdom for me meant studying the Buddhist scriptures. This was what I understood the Buddha meant by 'wisdom'. In fact, contemplating the scriptures gave me quite a bit of wisdom in one sense. There are different kinds of wisdom mentioned in the scriptures. There's suta-maya-panna, which is the wisdom that comes from the discourses, from what we've read or heard. That's the first kind of wisdom, a lower kind of wisdom. The second kind is cinta-maya-panna, which is what we think about and contemplate.
The third kind, the highest form of wisdom is bhavana-maya-panna, which is wisdom that comes from meditation and contemplation. Not having much experience of meditation, I thought wisdom was about studying the scriptures. But after studying the scriptures and meditating for a few more years, something seemed to not work any more. Fortunately, I came across the teachings of Ajahn Chah which were by then available in translation in Thailand.
Ajahn Chah's teaching seemed very balanced. Of course, he encouraged concentration, but not overdoing it. From what I understood, he was pointing at the wisdom faculty as coming not from reading the scriptures, but from knowing oneself. For example one person asked him, 'How long should I sit every day?' His reply was, 'I don't know, look at yourself. What do you think you need? What works for you?' He would joke that for some people sitting a long time is like a chicken sitting on its nest. Not really useful. You might hatch a few eggs, I suppose. Of course, some people might need to do more sitting, but the point was: look for yourself.
When I realised that Ajahn Chah had a real foundation in wisdom, and that he knew how to develop and cultivate it, I went to see him, and ended up staying in his monasteries in Thailand for the next six years. Even though his teachings were very simple, it often took some time before they really 'entered the heart.' In the Thai language the words that mean 'understanding' are 'kow jai,' literally 'enter the heart.' Ajahn Chah's teachings could enter the brain all right, I could hear what he was saying, but they didn't really enter the heart. I didn't really understand them yet.
I remember one of his teachings was about maintaining mindfulness and collectedness whatever we're doing, not only in the meditation hall but also in every activity. I must have heard this a dozen times. On one afternoon however,
I was sitting in my little hut in the forest and trying to get quiet and calm. Then at three o'clock the bell rang for water hauling. With the heat, three o'clock is not the most cheerful time of day. But if I was to live in the monastery, I realised that I had to be co-operative. So I came out of my little hut to help with the water-hauling. I was grumbling away, 'This is disturbing my meditation. I could have got good concentration if the bell hadn't rung.' Then I stopped and thought, 'Hey, Ajahn Chah told us to be collected and mindful whatever we're doing. Well, since I live in this monastery, maybe I should try it.' So I tried to be collected and mindful when walking to the well, when helping haul the water, when distributing the water around the monastery, when sweeping out the meditation hall. After forty five minutes of this I went back to my hut and sat down for meditation, and surprise - I found my mind was really quiet. Before it would have taken half an hour to stop the grumbling. But when I sat down, I found, 'Gee, it actually works!' Even though I'd often heard Ajahn Chah's encouragement to be mindful, it took this particular incident to really understand what he meant.
Of all the teachings I heard from Ajahn Chah, the one which I reflect upon most is a very simple one. I still don't really understand it, so I contemplate it even now. He said, 'Everything is teaching us.' Later on I added my own personal interpretation: 'Everything is teaching us if we're open to it.' More recently I say: 'Everything is teaching us whether we know it or not.' For me this means that teachings come to us at different levels, even though at our ordinary level of perception it may not seem like we're actually learning. Sometimes it's a gut feeling, sometimes it's just a vague intuition. And that's why I said that my practice has been like trying to balance out, rather than just receive the teachings at one level, the brain or the heart or wherever. It's a matter of trying to receive at all different levels. To me this fits in with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, being mindful of the body, the feelings, the states of mind and dhammas.
Sometimes the teachings are coming at a bodily level. Balancing the practice means not only being aware of walking around and getting dressed, for example, as it says in the scriptures, but actually learning the inner language of body. For example, to understand the Thai language, I need to learn Thai. To learn the body's inner language requires a different learning. There are certain exercises in the scriptures which help us develop awareness of the body. But what I am pointing to is a bit deeper. At times there are experiences going on, and I can't understand them here or here [pointing at the head and heart]. To understand what the body is saying is not merely about the brain's interpretation of the body. It is about being open to receive the body, at its own level of reality, its own level of expression.
To me, learning the language of the body is like learning a foreign language. The body speaks a foreign language. It doesn't speak 'rationality.' It doesn't speak 'emotionality.' I guess you would have to say it speaks 'physicality.' To understand this language, we can make a start by developing awareness with regard to the body; tune in at the bodily level. We listen to the body itself speak, not trying to interpret it through the brain, but just let the body speak for itself.
At other times we need to be aware of feeling. 'Feeling' is the usual translation for the Pail word, vedana. In the Buddhist teaching, feeling or vedana has to do with the feeling tone. It's not to do with emotion. Although this might seem simple, it can be hard to pick up. I remember once in England I led a meditation retreat on the subject of feeling, you know, pleasant, unpleasant, neutral; pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. After three days this man came up to me and said 'I have a question: What is feeling?' After three days! I replied, 'Pleasant, unpleasant, neutral.' So simple, and yet he didn't get it.
I realise it's part of a translation problem. You know, people say 'How are you feeling?' You don't answer, 'Well, pleasant, unpleasant, neutral.' You say, 'I'm feeling fine' or 'I'm feeling great' or 'I'm feeling lousy' or something. You usually answer in terms of emotions. But feeling or vedana is the basic tone of it, the general tone of those emotions, whether they are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. To put that template on experience gives a different perspective. When it's already gone into emotion, you know, 'I'm feeling great', 'I'm feeling happy,' there's already a certain amount of personality, my own particular form of happiness or sadness or whatever. But pleasant, unpleasant, neutral; who could they belong to? This way of looking makes experience more objective. So it gives us a different way of looking at emotions, which for most of us are otherwise pretty personally charged. To put it in terms of pleasant, unpleasant, neutral gives it an objectivity. It's not denying our happiness, but you see it as pleasant feeling rather than 'me being personally happy,' with all the personal investment in that happiness. It divides personal reality into categories.
When Ajahn Chah explained Dhamma, he would often give examples from nature, about the ants and the leaves in the forest and things like that. Although I myself grew up in the country, it would never have occurred to me to look at ants. What's that got to do with Buddhism? Ants and leaves? This is where Ajahn Chah's saying that 'all things are teaching us' has been so helpful to me. You know when I first heard it I thought, 'What does he mean, "All things are teaching us"?' He surely didn't mean that all the talks were teaching us, he must indeed have meant all things.
Ajahn Chah used to emphasise the importance, for example, of trusting in one's own intuitive wisdom. And of course I had no idea what this meant. I mean, wisdom teachings come to us from a teacher, we're disciples of the Buddha, so what's wisdom got to do with me? In my search for wisdom, I would often recognise a need to be confirmed, or affirmed in what I knew or thought I knew.
I found Ajahn Chah's response to this need rather difficult at the beginning, but I much appreciated it later on. He was the master of never giving a straight answer. When one went to him and tried to get a straight answer, he'd always take a different approach. At first I thought he was being a little bit, what do you say, not devious, ... but ... maybe he didn't know ... or maybe he was trying to have fun with us, because he also had a sense of humour.
I realised later on that he was trying to point us back to ourselves, to that which is asking the question or seeking an answer. If we sought an answer out there in him, he would always point us away. So eventually if you followed him long enough, you'd come back to yourself. It is fundamental for Dhamma practice to be able to question our basic assumptions. We start off asking questions, but it's perhaps more important to find out who is asking. Many times I would find out that my questions were coming from my ego. I would ask Ajahn Chah a question, but I then wanted him to give me my answer, or at least an answer that pleased me. I wanted my views to be confirmed. I wanted his answers to please me, to make me happy and to comfort me, and affirm my sense of self.
Answering in the way he did was his way of pointing us back to our own intuitive wisdom. We had to learn to bring up questions and just let them float for a while, not seeking an answer. It took me a while to realise that in the Buddha's teaching, wisdom was not just about reading the scriptures but about understanding oneself, understanding the nature of oneself, the body, the feelings, the states of mind, mentality and physicality, nama-rupa. When the Buddha was trying to discover Truth, he sat and investigated himself. We never see a Buddha statue with the Buddha reading a book, do we? He was meditating, and what he had to meditate with was just his own body and mind. He didn't even have anybody else's body and mind. Just his own. That's where he found enlightenment. It wasn't in a book, it wasn't outside himself, it was right here in his own body and mind.
Having spent so many years, fifteen years sitting in a classroom looking at a blackboard, having a teacher tell me the truth, truth for me was always 'out there'. It took me a while to turn this attitude around.
I remember one time in Thailand we had these students visiting the monastery. Ajahn Chah told them very simply, 'Put away your books, and read your minds.' It sounds simple, but how do you do it? We have all learned how to read books since we were very young, but few of us are taught how to read our minds? What mind, who's reading whose mind? Is my mind reading me, perhaps? But this is what meditation is about. Being able to read one's mind or read the mind.
So, my effort over the years has been to round out or balance out many of my ideas about practice. This means putting them to the test. Of course, putting them to the test means that sometimes we fail. That's what tests are about. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you fail. I must admit that in thirty years - I hope this is inspiring - in thirty years I realise that I've learned some of my most important lessons from the failures, not from the successes. The successes are secondary; you get a charge from them for a while, but learning from mistakes or failures ... these are really, really important lessons. Of course, who wants to learn from failure? Who wants to even recognise failure, which so threatens our sense of self, our pride and our conceit. But to me, the failures show us our dark side. That's where we don't look, we don't see. To me, enlightenment is not about enlightening the light. The light is already enlightened. Enlightenment is about enlightening the dark, where we don't look, where we haven't seen, what we've been ignoring. It's about enlightening our ignorance.
It may seem paradoxical, though I hope not disappointing, to say that we can learn most from our mistakes. That's where we don't want to look, at our pride and conceit, the foundations of our sense of self - these all become visible in our failures. But success to my mind is possibly even dangerous, because it leads to more conceit and pride. So, the turning round and transformation of the dark side, the losing side, is to me what practice is really about, to learn from all things, especially the things we don't want to look at, especially the things we don't think are useful or valuable. This was confirmed for me on this year's winter retreat.
In winter we have three months of monastic retreat. It's a good time for practice and usually it's a peaceful and quiet time. But about a month into the retreat this year, I had this little encounter with somebody. Afterwards, I was left with a discomfort; maybe you could call it anger. It wasn't somebody in the monastery. If it had been somebody in the monastery I could have talked to them and we could have worked it out. It was somebody in a chance encounter I had on a walk, and then they were gone. I couldn't even chase after them and sort it out. So there I was in the middle of a monastic retreat, no distractions, and there was this thing.
I called it 'anger' as a way to deal with it, and this 'anger' just wouldn't go away. I found it troublesome in the peaceful monastic setting to have this anger nagging at me. But I finally gave in: I realised, 'This is a good chance to learn.'
I began to contemplate this irritation, to examine what was going on. It was an unpleasant physical sensation around my heart. As I looked at it, this 'anger' suddenly turned out to be something else: resentment. It surprised me, because the person I was resenting wasn't even there!
It was just a memory, imagination. So I contemplated this resentment for the next two or three days. I found it was resentment at being misunderstood. It went back to something that happened decades ago. I began to look at it, to be open to it, to receive it non-judgementally. As I did so, it began to unravel. It looked almost like it was unpacking itself. What I had thought was anger turned out to have a complex mechanism. It turned out to be a series of things.
After resentment, fear came up, fear of letting this resentment out, of it exploding, and fearing what the other person would do if I let it out. The fear lasted three or four days. Below fear was frustration. I spent three or four days with that one. Each day was an unravelling of this feeling
I had called 'anger.' It began to unravel in an almost mechanical way. As it unravelled, it opened up. As it opened up, it got more scary, because it didn't have a shape any more. It became more nebulous, and it became bigger. It became bigger than me. But as it unravelled it became less solid and more spacious, and there was more flexibility with it. When it reached frustration, it seemed less personal. It seemed more universal. This unravelling went on for a few weeks. Then one day I noticed it was just this colourless energy. It had neither colour nor texture nor emotion. I couldn't say it was either resentment or frustration; it was just this pulsating energy, a colourless energy, though it wasn't pleasant. I could see that it was not me, and there was a fear with that. At least with anger I could say, 'Well, OK, that's me'. But as it got more and more unpacked, it got down to sort of an archetypal level. It was a basic fundamental emotion. Then there was just this energy there, pulsating. A powerful energy without colour or direction. I couldn't say it was mine. I could only say it was life-force. And this was a revelation to me, to find that anger is part of our being. It is an expression of life-force. Of course it's been polluted by negative influences, in this case by my own stuff, my frustration and resentment and fear. But at its source it is just the life-force. This was frightening to discover, because I had no control over it. With anger I had a certain degree of control: I could keep my mouth shut, or let it out; but this stuff, what is it?
It is important therefore, that we work with anger, not against it, because it is part of our life-force. If we try to work against it, it is like trying to kill ourselves. This is what many people do, they try to strangle their anger.
They try to stop it and then they get depressed and resentful and frustrated, because they're stopping their life-force. To work with anger doesn't mean to let it out, but to work with it, to be able to tune into it at a level where it's at this life-force level. Once we can see in a different way it has a different meaning for us.
I realised that when I thought it was simply 'anger', certain scolding thoughts arose in me, 'Oh, you shouldn't be angry. Thirty years of meditation and you're still angry.' But when it became this energy, a pulsating energy, then all these voices stopped, because there was no history with it. There was no history, no colouration and no personal investment in it, because it is just natural life-force. That's surely what the Buddha was telling us, not to take the things we're aware of as an expression of ourselves, but to be aware of what their real implications are, what is their real depth. Many times we're just looking at the surface, we aren't really seeing what the source is. If we cultivate mindfulness, awareness, it can begin to penetrate through; it can unpack emotions like anger.
Anger is not something to be throttled and strangled, but something to be explored and opened to and discovered. It is to be transformed into something which is enlightened. Practice is about enlightening that quality, not about pushing it away, or trying to strangle it or ignore it. Anger is telling us something about ourselves whether we want to hear it or not. We should remember the teaching of Ajahn Chah, that 'all things are teaching us', and remember that the things we don't like are probably the things that are teaching us most of all.