Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1994

Ajahn Chah remembered; Jack Kornfield
Heart of a Legacy; Luang Por Chah
Freedom in Restraint; Sister Sundara
Turning the Western Wheel; Ven. Sobhano interviews Aj. Amaro
Faith in Awakening; Many Monastics Reflect
Seize the Time; Ajahn Sucitto
Signs of Change:


Freedom in Restraint

Sister Sundara reflects on the value of restraint within spiritual practice in a talk given during a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, Massachusetts.

When the Buddha taught the First Noble Truth, he said that taking refuge in human existence is an unsatisfactory experience. If one attaches to this mortal frame, one will suffer. Not getting what you want is painful - that's quite easy to relate to. Getting what you don't want can also be painful. But as we walk a little further in the footsteps of the Buddha, even getting what we want is painful! This is the beginning of the path of awakening. When we realise that getting what we want in the material world is unsatisfactory, that's when we start to mature. We're not children any more, hoping to find happiness by getting what we want or running away from pain. We live in a society that worships the gratification of our desires. But many of us are not really interested in just gratifying desires, because we know intuitively that this is not what human existence is about.

I remember many years ago I was trying to understand what I thought Truth was, but I had no concept of it. It was something beyond the reach of either my thinking mind or my emotions, something that transcended this material realm, this cycle of birth and death. As time went on, the desire to live a life that was truthful and real became the most important thing. I was trying to harmonise my thoughts and my aspirations so that I could come to a point of peace. But there was something in between my mind and my aspirations - a huge gap - and that was what I called 'myself', this body and its five physical senses.

Many of us tend to look with alarm upon anything that is going to bind us, any convention that is going to limit our freedom.

At the time, I didn't realise that the Buddhist teaching presents the human being with a sixth sense, the mind, the platform on which thoughts can arise. Mind and body are like a reservoir of energy and I found that my level of energy fluctuated, depending on how I used my mind and body. My way of relating to the world was connected with the clarity of my mind, and that clarity was very much dependent on the degree of energy I had. It seemed quite urgent to understand how I could live my life without wasting energy needlessly. Then I could rally my forces and gain understanding.

Many of us have not been brought up with a very disciplined life-style. In my family, children were encouraged to express themselves totally, so they would never become repressed, neurotic individuals. Unfortunately, doing what you want, when you want, doesn't bring much wisdom to your life, nor much compassion or sensitivity. In fact, it makes you very selfish. Although I had not been inculcated with any great sense of discipline or respect for life and living beings as a child, I could appreciate life, the beauty of being alive, and the importance of not wasting this life.

When I came across meditation and the practice of insight, this seemed a much easier introduction to discipline than following precepts or commandments. Many of us tend to look with alarm upon anything that is going to bind us, any convention that is going to limit our freedom, so many of us come to discipline through meditation.

As we look into our hearts at the way we relate through the senses, we come to see how everything is inter-connected. Body and mind are constantly influencing and playing on each other. Most of us have experienced the pleasure involved in gratifying our senses, for example, when we listen to beautiful music. But when we attach ourselves to the experience, it is spoilt and we become confused by the sensory world. Through insight we can understand the danger of gratifying ourselves; we see the transient nature of our sensory experiences and become acquainted with the danger of holding on to something that is fleeting and changing. We realise how ridiculous it is to hang on to all that is changing, and with that realisation, we naturally recoil from wasting our energy on following something which we know will disappear.

Sense restraint is the natural outcome of meditation practice. Understanding the danger of following our senses, the desires connected with the senses, and the objects connected with the desires is one aspect of discipline. Understanding brings about the application of this discipline. It is not sense restraint for its own sake but because we know that the senses do not lead to peace and cannot take us beyond the limitations of identification with our mind and body.

When I came to the monastery, I had to adopt the discipline and the Eight Precepts which reflect what we call right action: refraining from killing, from stealing, from sexual misconduct, and from lying, refraining from taking drugs and intoxicants, from eating after a certain time, and restraining the physical body from dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, beautifying oneself, and sleeping on a high and luxurious bed. Some of these precepts may sound irrelevant; for example, not many people have four-poster beds these days. But these guidelines begin to make more sense when we incorporate them into our meditation practice, and reflect on them, and the spirit behind them. They help us to refine our personal conduct through awareness, through looking into our hearts and seeing the results of our actions and the consequences of the way we speak.

We tend to be impatient beings, and we like to get things right straight away, forgetting that much of our growth and development comes from accepting the fact that this human body and mind are far from perfect. For one thing, we have kamma, a past that we carry around with us which is very difficult to shed. When we contemplate the precept about refraining from wrong speech, it's an opportunity to learn not to create more kamma, so that our speech is not another source of harm and suffering for ourselves or for other beings.

Discipline really makes sense as you follow this path, because when you begin to get in touch with the raw energy of your being, and the raw energy of anger, greed, stupidity, envy, jealousy, blind desires, pride, conceit, you become very grateful to have something that can contain all that. You can see how much the state of our planet really reflects a lack of discipline, a lack of containment of our greed, hatred and delusion.

Speech is very difficult because it can put us in a vulnerable situation. As long as one is silent, it's not so difficult. We can even seem quite wise until we start talking. Those of you who have been on retreats may have felt utter dread at the thought of having to relate verbally again with human beings. It's so nice just to be silent with each other; there are no quarrels, no conflicts. Silence is a great peace maker! But when we start talking, it's another story. We can't really fool ourselves any longer. We identify strongly with what we think, and so our speech also becomes a problem. Unless we learn how to speak more skillfully, both ourselves and others can be quite hurt and upset by our words.

Actually, speech itself is not the problem, it's more the place it comes from. When there is mindfulness, there are no traces left behind. Sometimes we say something which is not very skilful, and afterwards, we think of something much better that we could have said. But if we speak mindfully, somehow the stain of that self-image that is so powerfully embedded in us is removed. Using discipline takes a lot of humility. That's why, as long as we're immature, it's very difficult to adopt a disciplined life, we just tend to feel repressed and inhibited by it; instead of being a source of freedom, it becomes a trap.

In this practice, we are very fortunate to have a chance to realise that our actions, our speech and our desires are not ultimately what we are. Within meditation practice, this quality of impermanence becomes clearer. We can see the impermanent nature of our actions and speech, and our feelings related to these, and begin to understand that which is present in our experience but is not really touched by it. This quality of presence is always available and is not really affected by any of our sensory interactions.

To contain our energy through precepts requires a lot of attention because our minds always tend to forget. We forget our ultimate fulfilment; we always try to be fulfilled with things that are changing and not truly satisfying or nourishing. If we learn how to use our energy so that this quality of attention is sustained, it's a form of protection. Otherwise, we're at the mercy of our thoughts and desires, and are blinded by them. Through our refuge in awareness and our practice of restraint we are protected from falling into painful states.

Another aspect of discipline is the wise use of the material world. Our immediate contact with the material world is through the body. When we learn how to take care of the material world, then we are looking after the roots of our lives; we do what is necessary to bring the body and mind into harmony. This is the outcome of restraint. We become like the beautiful lotus flower which symbolises purity, resting on the water while being nourished by its roots in the mud. The Buddha is often depicted sitting on a lotus. Unless we create that foundation of morality rooted in the world, we can't really rise up or grow.

In monastic life, the skilful use of the four requisites -clothes, food, shelter and medicine - is a daily reflection. These four requisites are an essential part of our life and a very useful reflection because the human mind is intent on forgetting. For example, it is important for us to take care of the robe, to mend it, repair it, wash it, to reflect that we only have one, and it has been given by a very generous person. The same goes for the food that we eat. We live on alms food; every day people offer us a meal, so we can't eat without thinking carefully about this gift of food. We could not even lead this life without these offerings of requisites. As alms mendicants, we reflect, 'This room where you are now is only a roof over your head for one night.'

Taking care of the material world, of what surrounds us, is an important part of discipline. When we are not able to take care of that which is immediate to us, how can we pretend to be taking care of the ultimate truths? If we don't tidy our rooms every day, how can we tidy our minds? It's very important to reflect on simple things such as taking care of our living place and not misusing our belongings. It's easy to be careless, especially if you're in control of money. If you can buy what you want, that can sometimes lead to more carelessness. You think, 'Oh well, never mind, I'll get another one.'

The last aspect of discipline or restraint is right livelihood. For a monk or a nun, there is a long list of things we should not get involved with, such as fortune-telling or participating in political activities. I can see the value of this more and more when I look at some parts of the world where monks own a lot of luxurious items or actually become landlords. Right livelihood is clearly defined as one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path. It is important to reflect on how we want to live our life and what kind of profession or situation we want to get involved in.

These four aspects of what we call samvara or restraint are the supportive conditions within which the ultimate discipline can manifest in our hearts, and that ultimate discipline is our total dedication to the Truth, our total dedication to that which is pure and real. Sometimes we can't really say what it is, but as we meditate, we can be truly in touch with that reality within ourselves.

The ultimate discipline is the constant aspiration to go beyond our self-centred lives. All the spiritual paths and spiritual disciplines are here as supportive conditions for this aspiration; that's really their aim. The precepts, the reflections on the requisites, the reflection on one's livelihood and the discipline of our mind and body are to enable us to keep alive this aspiration and to realise Truth in our hearts.