Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1990

Sangha & the Basis of Community; Ajahn Santacitto
Accepting the Way Things Are; Sister Thanissara
Declan's Gift; Venerable Kovido
In the Footsteps of the Wise; Ajahn Liam
Question Time; Than Ajahn Sumedho
The Dhamma of Relationship; Ajahn Sucitto

Three Poems:


In the Footsteps of the Wise

Ajahn Liam is the acting abbot of Wat Pah Pong. This piece, translated by Ajahn Jayasaro, is an exhortation he gave to monks from Wat Pah Nanachat who had come to pay respects to him before beginning the Vassa (Rains Retreat).

The real peace, the real seclusion, is that of peace or seclusion from the defilements. It is not a matter of detaching oneself physically from unpleasant sensations or unpleasant experiences, but being able to maintain equanimity and peace in the midst of all sense activity.

In the commentaries, there's a list of suitable conditions for meditation: suitable environments, suitable foods, suitable companions and so on, and advice that a meditator should seek to find an environment in which all of those suitable conditions are present. In fact, for someone who really understands practice, there isn't any sense of criticism and dissatisfaction with the place they are living in. Everything should always be 'grist for the mill', it should always be seen as something to be learned from.

You'll notice that even the Buddha himself in his practice wasn't always looking for the place which was just right, and that he didn't always have all the appropriate or helpful conditions. He just went straight from his life as a prince to living under trees. Whatever the climate was, he just practised - it wasn't something that was so important, because he really understood how to practice. So we should also be willing to learn to look on all things that we come into contact with as things to be learned from, rather than trying to manipulate conditions to suit what we think is best for us.

The arahant is the one who has abandoned all clinging, who goes beyond all sankharas.

The practice in Buddhism is a practice of the mind. It's not particularly a practice of the body. We talk about the sankharas (1) and divide them into the physical reality and the non-material or formless reality, that which can't be seen with the physical eye. Then we divide those formless sankharas again into those which are positive, helpful and wholesome, and those which are harmful, painful and which lead to suffering or distress. We're learning how to look at these, and how to find skilful ways to develop the wholesome qualities in our minds and to abandon and eradicate the unwholesome.
(1) Sankharas can here be understood to mean phenomena as experienced from the subjctive viewpoint, as distinct from dhammas, which corresonds to phenomena seen more impersonally.
The mind, like anything else, is something which has both its positive and negative aspects. We have to develop skill in working with the mind, to develop an understanding of which sankharas are wholesome and which are unwholesome, and then learn to abandon or develop them appropriately. Even wholesome sankharas can cause us suffering if we attach to them, because the root of suffering is attachment. Goodness by itself can be a cause for suffering: the difference is that suffering which arises from the unwholesome sankharas is an open, obvious sort of suffering, whereas the suffering arising from wholesome sankharas is concealed somewhat. Often the appearance of something is very positive, but attaching to it causes us pain and distress.

Learning to come to an understanding of these things, but then going beyond them altogether so that there's neither one nor the other - this is the arahant. The arahant is the one who has abandoned all clinging, who goes beyond all sankharas. What that means is liberation from both the positive and negative, the wholesome and the unwholesome sankharas which arise from ignorance. Both the good and the bad are conditioned by ignorance and have come to an end in the arahant. Because the arahant is living, the five khandas (2) are still present; however, he himself is one that is free of those sankharas. This is the nature of a samana - no sankharas infected by ignorance arising in mind; and just to come into contact with samana, a peaceful one, is great auspiciousness.

(2) The five khandas - body, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness - are the categories which the Buddha used to describe the components of the personality.
All of us who have received ordination are Sangha in terms of convention, Sangha in terms of Vinaya. But the Sangha is of two sorts. There's the samutti Sangha, which we become a member of just by going through the ordination ceremony; and there is the Ariya Sangha, the Sangha by means of virtue, by means of attainment. 'Ariya' refers to the lessening and the eradication of defilements. Beginning with the sotapanna (3), the process continues up to the arahant. For the Sangha in the conventional sense, we need four monks or more to maintain the quorum, but any time there is a person, ordained or not, who is a sotapanna or further along the path, then the Ariya Sangha is already present. We come together as samutti Sangha in order to develop the qualities of the Ariya Sangha, in the footsteps of those great samanas who have gone before us.
(3) Sotapanna is the first stage (of four stages) of the realisation of Nibbana. Arahant is the culminating fruition of that realisation.
Looking at these particular qualities, one of the most essential is that of restraint, composure or care. On its most level, in terms of sila or morality, this is a way we have of maintaining harmony within the group. We come from many different backgrounds, and although at times we get on very well together, there may be times when some difficulty comes up to make us feel that we are adversaries. We can be full of irritation or aversion to other members of the community.

It is here that we see the value of Vinaya. The discipline, particularly that of showing respect according to seniority, is a way of restraining those unwholesome dhammas. In terms of Vinaya, it is not possible to commit an offence with the mind alone: that is, just thinking unwholesome thoughts of feeling badly towards another is not yet anything too serious. Keeping unwholesomeness at the level of foolish thoughts is a way of maintaining harmony in the group. Even though we may feel certain things, we understand them as feelings which arise and pass away, and we don't let anything get out of hand. This is the value of sila - learning to develop that mindfulness of our actions and our speech. Before we say or do things we have the presence of mind to examine why exactly we wish to say or do them. 'Would saying this, in fact, be a cause of distress to ourselves or to others?' if we feel that it would be, hen we should refrain. Don't allow yourself to be guided by greed, hatred and delusion. These are the roots of pain and difficulty. We are looking to lessen these, not to strengthen them by acting on them.

This is the sense of restraint in terms of the Patimokkha, patimokkha-samvara sila. Here, the most important condition for maintaining our sila purely is a sense of shame or conscience, learning to reflect on the nature and painful results of wrong-doing, until we feel repugnance for unwholesome actions and speech. With a sense of shame, keeping of precepts becomes much easier.

There is also restraint in terms of senses, and sense restraint is another important aspect of our practice. Eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body - we should watch them all the time, being very careful and composed.

Why did the Buddha want us to be restrained in the senses? Because it is right here that suffering arises; it is right here that contact takes place. There's contact, then feelings of happiness, unhappiness, indifference, craving, clinging. It all arises dependent on sense contact. If we can maintain a tight rein upon the sense activity, looking very closely and not allowing the mind to give rise to unbridled feelings of liking or disliking, then this is another virtue in which we follow in the footsteps of the Noble Ones. This is one of their most outstanding qualities - keeping that vigilance. When we can maintain that sort of mindfulness at sense con-tact, then the various things which used to sweep us away and used to really encompass our minds lose their ability to do so.

Consider praise and blame. As long as we're alive, we live in a world of praise and blame. No matter how wise or stupid we are, we have to put up with them. They are natural to the world. We can, however, have mindfulness at sense contact, and then when we hear something, we don't feel compelled to react. Then praise becomes merely praise, and blame becomes merely blame. There is praise, but there isn't anyone to receive the praise; there is blame but no one being blamed. Things are just as they are.

Things start to move into the realm of suchness. Things only become a problem when we take hold of them, proliferate and make something of them. If we maintain that very sharp, clear awareness of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body, then before all those difficult problems can start to cause us misery, we have cut if off right there. This is another important aspect of practice - developing strong mindfulness, unshakeability of mind, strength of mind. This is developing samadhi, the stillness that remains unmoved in the midst of our experience.

The third important quality is the quality of wakefulness. Look at the practice as a way of understanding. Look at the mind and yourself, study the mind, not in order to praise or criticise, but to be able to understand it. Thus we're able to lessen the causes for the arising of unwholesome dhammas and allow them to gradually decline and wither. Look at the body. We begin to notice things about the body. On one level we can just notice how, although we have very different personalities and characters, our physical existence is all very similar. All of us have been born into the world, we're all getting older, and we're all subject to sickness and death. Noticing that common nature of the body is a way of enabling us to feel a sense of community with others, to feel kindness, and to have a willingness, to forgive and generate compassion for others. Notice the change in the body. This characteristic is immediately obvious. When we look, we see the body constantly changing. There is heat and cold, pain and pleasure, constants movement o the physical process - the digestion, the blood circulation. Everything is moving, everything is changing. Come to understand the body. Cut through the concern, the possessiveness and attachment to the body by just noticing and understanding its actual characteristics. Cut through the very conditioned ways we have of looking at the body.

Then there is the other aspect - looking at the mind. Notice the feelings, perceptions, and thoughts that are arising and passing away with time. Here, as with the body, the mode of contemplation, the important point, is the change and impermanent nature of things. It is from noticing and rely penetrating this truth of impermanence that wisdom starts to grow. Our being samanas, our moving towards the clear enlightened state becomes that much more peaceful and real.

To see the changing nature and particularly the falling away, the degeneration, the ending of things - it is here that we start to give rise to that sense of dispassion and disenchantment. We being to see the thoughts and emotions like a child's playthings. As long as we are fascinated they just go on and on. Once we se their foolishness and lack of substantiality, they begin to lose their ability to fascinate us and to defile our minds.

It's just like watching a play. If suddenly in the midst of he show we were to realise that every one of the actors was just playing a part, that they were all going to die someday, and the people watching the play were all going to die, we would lose interest. When we begin to see the nature of mental states and conditioned phenomena very clearly, seeing that they're constantly falling away, passing away, constantly leaving us, we too develop his disenchantment. Then we can start to let go.

These are the different aspects of our practice - the different virtues and qualities of the Nobel Ones which we are trying to develop. Restraint in terms of sila, sense restraint, and wakefulness to the actual conditions, knowing the true nature of the body and mind. This is a way we have of following in the footsteps of the Buddha and his enlightened disciples.