Forest Sangha Newsletter July 1996

Puja; Ajahn Succito
An Invitation to Awaken; Venerable Chandako
Kiwi Practice; Ajahn Subbato
Seeking the Buddha's Footprints; Angela Coton
Upasika news; Three Reflections
Ballad of Amaravati's Bridge; Samanera Thitadhammo
Signs of Change:



Kiwi Practice

Ajahn Subbato, who is currently abbot of the Devon Vihara and a New Zealander by birth, uses a Maori legend to encourage meditators in their practice during a retreat given at Amaravati in 1994.

I thought I would tell you a story, a Maori legend.

A long, long time ago in the Land of the Long White Cloud - this is New Zealand, before the Maoris came there, when the islands were covered with very dense rain-forest. There was a terrible plague of beetles and grubs. They were eating at the roots and the bark on the trees and so were destroying the forest and it became very serious, as there grew to be more and more of these grubs and beetles chewing away.

So Tane, the God of the Forest, gathered all the birds together. As many of you will know, in New Zealand there were originally no animals. There were just lizards, and lots and lots of different birds. Tane, the God of the Forest, called all the birds together; they were just up in the tree tops singing and having a good time. He told them what the situation was, saying: "Look, the forest is in danger. Our very life is in danger from this plague of beetles and grubs. I need some of you to come down to the forest floor and eat them, and save the forest. It's a desperate situation." And of course most of the birds went, "Yuk! Grubs and beetles." The birds were used to living on ambrosia, nectar, beautiful wild berries and fruits. The idea of eating little grubs and beetles did not appeal to them, so there was a general turning the other way and whistling, trying to pretend that they hadn't heard.

So Tane decided that he would have to ask each of the birds individually. He asked each of them, "Will you please come down and eat the grubs and beetles, and save the forest?" And each one of the birds had an excuse, had a reason: "Well, no, actually I'm frightfully busy this week", "Sorry, Tane, I just can't fit it in this week". And they all had some sort of an excuse: one of the birds said, "I can't come down, I'll get my feathers all dirty", and the Tui said, "No, I'm too scared to do it - it's too dark and dingy and damp, and I just couldn't bear it". Another bird said, "I couldn't bear to be separated from my chicks, I need to stay on the nest and look after them." And so on it went.
We can ask ourselves, "What am I depending upon?" Is it the next cup of tea, or tomorrow's breakfast, or the bell ringing?

Tane, the God of the Forest, was getting worried about this. Finally, he asked the Kiwi bird. And, the Kiwi bird said, "Oh. All right. Gee, I suppose I could do it." Tane explained to the Kiwi bird, "When you come down to the forest floor you'll have to give up your beautiful rainbow coloured wings, and you'll have to grow big feet so that you can stomp around in the forest in the thick leaves and undergrowth. You'll have to have a plain brown coat, and grow a long beak so that you can dig around in the leaves and in the ground and eat all the bugs and beetles." That didn't sound too great, but the Kiwi thought, "I have to go through with this."

So, bravely, the Kiwi came down out of the tree-tops and grew stout feet, and gave up his beautiful rainbow wings and wore brown feathers and grew a long beak and stomped around in the dark. The Kiwi became a nocturnal, flightless bird that creeps around in the dark eating grubs and beetles in the forest. Tane was a bit peeved at the response that he had got from the other birds, and so he punished them. He said to them, "Formerly you sang all day long, but now I shall allow you to sing in full chorus only at dawn and dusk. And, Tui, you can wear a white feather under your chin as a sign to all the other birds that you are a coward." And the God of the Forest gave each of the birds a different little punishment. But the Kiwis came down in their flocks to the forest floor and ate the grubs and saved the forest. The Kiwi became in Maori mythology a heroic symbol, and to have Kiwi feathers on your cloak meant you had a lot of mana, or prestige.

This story talks to each one of us about the kind of work that we are doing here. The work that we are doing is really important: it's not just a holiday we're having here (in case you hadn't noticed). Sometimes it feels like a holiday, and that's fine, but it is important work. Not everyone is going to do this particular kind of work. There are all sorts of ways in which we can respond to our life and to the state of the world as it comes to us, and this is just one way of approaching it.
This is not a casual thing we are engaged in, spending hours and hours meditating. The mind is really very tricky. We hear about the Venerable Sariputta saying that the sort of monk who would grace this world is one who in the morning would abide in this attainment, and in the midday would abide in that attainment, and in the evening he would abide in another attainment. For most of us it is a rather more of a hit and miss affair. We are breaking new ground, for most of us we are getting into a whole world of uncertainty, entering into a very mysterious and unknown realm of the heart and mind, and it is very tricky. We get caught in all sorts of subtle moods and wander down blind alleys, or we fall asleep for a whole session of meditation; we feel dull, or restless, and we don't feel as though we are achieving anything or getting anywhere. So it may seem that this is not a very effective kind of work - that we are not accomplishing or achieving anything very tangible. And yet, if you think about it, this is the nature of the mind; this is what we have to work with. This is the very stuff that we need to learn to work with - whatever it is that we are experiencing is where our work is. We work with the mind, the body, the heart, as it is - we understand that. Just because it might be subtle and not momentous - materially you aren't doing anything - we're just spending all day with ourselves, and it doesn't appear that we're doing a great deal for the world or for anybody else but in fact it's really, really significant, this work. We shouldn't be discouraged by all the subtle and devious ways of the mind: "It's not working for me", or "I can't do it" - these feelings obviously come up, but they are the grubs and beetles that we need to be pecking away at with our long beaks.

Two very important things to access, understand and strengthen our faith in, on a retreat, are our understanding of taking refuge in the Triple Gem, and a sense of what the Path is - a direct experience of what these both mean. Once we are established in the Refuges and Path- knowledge then they go with us wherever we go; they stay with us and even if we lose touch with them we can come back to them. All our chanting has been about bringing our mind in touch with the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha - the three Refuges - over and over again. Taking refuge in the Buddha, in mindfulness and clear comprehension, is something we are cultivating as we are meditating; we are practising being mindful of the body, of the feelings, of our mind, our consciousness. We are training the mind to abide with awareness. Most of the time in normal, everyday consciousness we're identified with the body, with feelings of pleasure and pain, with the mood, state and colour of the mind; we're pushing and pulling with it all. Because we are busy in our everyday life and we are involved in this wrestling match, it is difficult to get a sense of what taking refuge in the Buddha, taking refuge in being clearly mindful, means. When we are on retreat, as things quieten down, and we relinquish the struggle, observe and keep trusting - staying with 'being aware' and 'being mindful'. We can stay open and receptive, feeling whatever it is that we are feeling; feeling the body as it is, feeling our mood, witnessing feeling, being fully aware of the flow of sense-consciousness. As things quieten down and we relinquish the struggle, we get a sense of that as an abiding, a sense of it as a real refuge. We are no longer taking refuge in the desire mind, the pushing and pulling the struggle with sensations. We're no longer trying to re-arrange our body, our feelings, our state of mind. We're no longer taking refuge in that active manipulation of body and mind in desiring or resisting, we are taking refuge in 'being-aware-of', in knowing and feeling openly, in listening and watching.

The Buddha had a pertinent simile for this: imagine if a man were to take a piece of wood out of water, and try to make fire by rubbing his fire-stick on that piece of wood. Would he make fire with that wet piece of wood? No matter how hard he tried, no matter how much discomfort he endured, he would not be able to make fire with that wet piece of wood. The Buddha likened this to the impossibility of seeing the Path and experiencing tranquility, and liberation, and knowledge of liberation as long we are involved in body and mind with desire and craving, wanting and longing, anger, resistance - in all kinds of delusion and ignorance. Then the Buddha described a man who finds a sappy, green piece of wood, and tries to make fire with it. It does not matter how hard he tries, he is not going to make a fire with that sappy piece of wood. The Buddha said that this is like the person who practises very diligently; who sweats and strains, gets aches and pains, who gets hungry and tired and cold, but who is, although physically removed from desire and craving, wanting and longing, anger, resistance, hatred, delusion and ignorance, still mentally involved and identified with these. There is no way, the Buddha said, that tranquillity, clarity, knowledge of the path, liberation and knowledge of liberation can arise. Finally, if a person finds a dry piece of wood with no sap in it, and rubs it with his fire-stick, yes, he will get a fire. The Buddha likened this to a person who, whether they struggle and strive, enduring pain and hardship in the process - when their body and mind are removed from sensual lust and aversion, from delusion, then tranquillity, knowledge of the Path and knowledge of liberation will arise.
This is a very clear statement of where the refuge we are cultivating is. We can ask ourselves, particularly when we are alone, "Where is my refuge?", "Do I have an inner refuge?". Because we cannot fail to notice what it is that we are relying upon, fail to know where we are abiding. We can ask ourselves, "What am I depending upon?" Is it the next cup of tea, or tomorrow's breakfast, or the bell ringing? This is not to disparage, but to notice what it is that we depend emotionally on. Sometimes it IS the next cup of tea that keeps us going, we want to be aware of hat. Or it can be the group energy; when we are alone we're all over the place, but when we're in the group that buoys us up gives us energy - structure is a refuge for us, provides support that we can lean upon. What is it we are taking refuge in? It's not that we're already established unshakeably in an inner refuge, it's something we're cultivating. We can still get caught up in the desire mind but we're practising coming back and taking refuge, having confidence, in the Buddha. We can contemplate the Buddha, to get a feeling for that abiding; we can contemplate the Buddha, the Enlightened One, as the embodiment of the seven Factors of Enlightenment: mindfulness, investigation of Dhamma, energy, delight, calm, concentration, and equanimity.

These are all aspects of the enlightened mind - it's helpful to just think about these factors and arouse them. It may be hard to think of yourself as a Buddha, but these are factors of the mind, they're things that we can access, things that we can bring forth, things that we can feel. If we are willing to keep trusting and establishing ourselves in pure awareness, simply knowing, simply feeling body and mind, moment by moment, we get a clear recognition of that as an abiding. It's very subtle. We are taking refuge in a response, moment by moment, so it is a very difficult thing. You can't just take hold of the Buddha like a lump of brass and carry him away, but as the mind gets quieter and things settle down then we can get a clear sense of that as an abiding, as a refuge: the Buddha knowing the Dhamma, the Buddha contemplating the Dhamma. It is no longer a matter of trying to develop this and get rid of that, judging and manipulating our body and mind. Instead there is an open, full awareness; it is just knowing, and the Buddha represents that perfect knowing.

If we are taking refuge in this clarity, we can experience the mind in a struggle. Say, when we are sitting and we want something, our mind and our body are saying, "I must have this, I must hear that bell very soon." Our mind can be screaming at us, "I want it, I want it, I want it", if we can just stay still with that, and watch it, if we don't crush the desire with our will or with our judgement, but just feel it completely - it can take a long time to get the balance just right so that we're not pushing the desire away or following it and getting caught up in it - then the desire peters out or dissolves. The desire unwinds. We are still sitting here, we didn't get what we wanted, but the desire for it has gone and everything is OK, it's all right. Five or ten minutes ago, everything in us was saying that we had to have what we desired - that I'm not going to be whole unless I have that - but now we haven't got that thing, and the desire for it has gone. If we can just recognise that - if we can just recognise when the mind is filled with craving and longing and struggling - and hold that non-judgemental, pure, open, balanced awareness, and just stay with that refuge in Knowing, then there is ending of that desire. We haven't killed the desire or pushed it away, but it is no longer there; it's petered out, fizzled away. And we are still sitting here, and it's OK, and we have an insight into the Path - an insight into the way out of suffering.

Recognise there is a tremendous commitment in this, a tremendous commitment to patiently being with what we are feeling, to feeling it totally and completely; opening ourselves so that we are beyond where we feel comfortable and certain. If we are willing to be patient and diligent and trusting, then we have an insight into the ending of suffering, of conflict and struggle. That doesn't mean that we are not going to experience difficulty. There are still beetles and bugs gnawing at the trees that need to be eaten. The Kiwis are still there. Even though they've taken a bit of a beating they are still there, eating away at the grubs and the beetles. They are very quiet about it, doing their work at night. You can hear them squeak, and it is very comforting to know that the Kiwis are there, doing their work quietly at night, without asking anything for it, just taking care of the forest for all the birds. So we can remember that, when we are singing in the tree-tops: there is other work to do.