Forest Sangha Newsletter January 2000

Dwelling on Conditions along the Way; Ajahn Karuniko
The Monastic Millennium; Monasteries report
Vow Power of the Buddha; Ajahn Kittisaro
The Hinge of Silence; Ajahn Sucitto

Recollecting on the Vow Power of the Buddha
Kittisaro - from the Amaravati summer retreat 1998.

Before this retreat dissolves, it's good to recollect on how it's been. Thanissara and I both feel a lot of gratitude. There's a lovely word in Pali for gratitude which is 'kataņņuta'. 'Kata' means 'done' and 'ņuta' means 'knowing' - knowing what has been done. Recollecting what has been done is the essence of gratitude. I feel a lot of gratitude for this opportunity to come back to Amaravati, a special place in the world for cultivating the Dhamma. I feel a lot of gratitude for the people here, everyone who has come and made the effort to offer their energy to this retreat, your willingness to work with that which isn't easy to work with.

This place is here because of those who are willing to be here and cultivate the Path - people like Ajahn Sumedho all those years ago leaving his home, leaving what was familiar, what normal people respected, to go off to Thailand for the sake of Awakening. Being willing, as a huge farang, to sit with a shaved head at the end of a long line of monks alongside the little novices. Imagine what he went through because there was a spark of faith that there was something to be learned through persevering - then eventually going on to gather others around him so that the Dhamma could come here to England.

Part of what allowed Ajahn Sumedho to be so inspired was the presence of Luang Por Chah. I feel profound gratitude to Ajahn Chah and 'kataņņuta' just recollecting what he did with his life: the incredible patience, perseverance, effort, investigations and breakthroughs, his immense willingness to share.
...'full' enlightenment:
the enlightenment that not only knows how to let go and be peaceful but the enlightenment that also knows how to perfectly respond to conditions in a way which is a true blessing for all beings.

When I came in 1976 before he was ill, streams of people continually came to see him. I think at that time he already had 20 or 30 branch monasteries; that's hundreds of monks and nuns and thousands of lay people who looked to him for guidance. He was willing to be with and respond to us fellow human beings, to encourage us to practise Dhamma.

I think the great gratitude that I have for Luang Por Chah is remembering that he made the Path seem possible, do able. He didn't make it seem impossible, he made it seem possible. In Thai he said, 'Ben yung nee' - 'It's like this.' We are capable of doing that, acknowledging that 'it's like this, here and now'. Is it painful, is it pleasing, is it hot, cold? That's how we come back to the Refuge of the Buddha, just to be that which is knowing 'It's like this.' That's something I can do.

Then we can look at who inspired Ajahn Chah, various teachers and the teachings of the Buddha, and as we keep going back we reflect on the Buddha himself. When people kept lavishing praise on Ajahn Chah he would say, 'Not mine, it's the Buddha. Give it to the Buddha.' Let's reflect on the awesome accomplishment of Sakyamuni Buddha, on what has been done.

It's important to feel gratitude. It's very important because it honours the context. It fills us up and allows us to see beyond the distorted contraction of self. Yes, it's also important sometimes to notice cracks and flaws and things we need to improve, things we need to do, but when we're obsessed with 'what's wrong' that's just living in a hell realm. It's important to be able to recollect blessings, to recollect fullness, to recollect the good fortune in our lives, and yes, also at the right time to give attention to what can be transformed.
We can recollect the good fortune of meeting the teachings of the Buddha. Here at Amaravati we've struggled through a ten-day retreat, but just imagine the conditions that gave rise to Sammasambodhi, the full awakening of a Buddha. We can each get a feeling when we go to 'This is how it is' for the suffering that comes from grasping and the suffering that comes from rejecting. When we try to possess the changing nature of things we generate stress, and in seeing this we recognise the peace of non-grasping, the stillness and peace in the midst of movement. In not grasping and not rejecting, the flow of conditions doesn't agitate us.

There is resting in the Refuge of just knowing. That's called non-agitation, non-birth and death. It's the Deathless. So we can realise a little peace, a little freedom and we know the possibility of continuing to cultivate so that freedom is more sustained, more uninterrupted. That taste of peace is the same taste that the Buddha had because all things merge in the Deathless. This is where all things come together, that place of non-possession. But the Buddha's accomplishment wasn't just unshakeable peace, which is an awesome accomplishment in itself.

Ancient countless eons ago our Buddha, when he was an ordinary person like us, met a previous Buddha and was so touched by the capacity of that Buddha to help living beings that an aspiration and vow arose in him. 'I too could help others. I want to become a Buddha. I vow to accomplish that.' It's a natural thing, and so he was inspired to make a resolve which is now sometimes articulated in the Four Great Vows of a bodhisattva.

The first vow is: 'Living beings are numberless, I vow to help them all to cross over the sea of suffering, the sea of birth and death.' That's a huge vow. The second Vow is: 'Though afflictions are endless... afflictions such as difficult moods, aversion, greed, confusion... though these afflictions seem inexhaustible and endless, I vow to penetrate and to cut through them all.' The third Great Vow is: 'Dhamma doors are measureless, I vow to cultivate them all.' Why did the Buddha make this vow? One of the incredible qualities of our Buddha is he was able to respond to different people's needs. If we, in our present individual cultivation, think we have to do all the countless meditative practices, we would feel confused and overwhelmed. The Buddha, however, might give one teaching for someone to go off and reflect on for six months, knowing that that teaching would be perfect for them. For one person he might emphasise samatha practice, for another contemplation of death, or more attention to Vinaya discipline. Through the third Great Vow the Buddha cultivated skill in countless approaches to the Path. The Buddha mastered all the Dhamma Doors, all the skilful means to enable beings each with their unique tendencies to give rise to insight into the true nature of things. The fourth Vow is: 'Though the Buddha Path is unsurpassed I vow to realise it.' The Buddha Path conditions that which gives rise not only to peace but to Sammasambodhi. It means 'perfect', 'big', and 'full' enlightenment: the enlightenment that not only knows how to let go and be peaceful but the enlightenment that also knows how to perfectly respond to conditions in a way which is a true blessing for all beings. Sammasambodhi knows fully how to receive the forms of fellow beings, how to listen to you and then respond to what you need for awakening. The Buddha is the Great Physician.
The Buddha consciously chose to be reborn again and again for the sake of cultivating this skill and for the sake of using his many births to cultivate a profound field of blessings generated from perfecting the paramitas. He was even born as an animal, or as a king, a beggar, every conceivable circumstance, just for the sake of learning - motivated by this resolve to fully realise truth so that it can also be shared with everyone. What an amazing thing. It's awesome. And then to set down a teaching and consciously consider that it can deteriorate in this or that way, therefore he put these safeguards in place so the Teaching could last through time.

I am similar to Thanissara in that in the beginning I didn't have much of a feeling for the Buddha. Who's the Buddha anyway? In parts of the Northeast of Thailand some of these huge Buddha images weren't the most inspiring in the world. Some even had Christmas lights flashing on and off continually. But then meeting living breathing embodiments of the Path like Luang Por Chah and getting a feeling for someone who's devoted his time to this practice, faith arose. This is the power of Sangha. In seeing the beautiful fruits of that I was inspired to practise myself. Then as I started to reflect more on these amazing teachings that had been laid down and that are rolling through time and space, I started to reflect 'Well how did this get here' and then little by little a great sense of gratitude arose for the Buddha.

So in our daily life I think it's useful from time to time to reflect on our blessings, to reflect on our good fortune. That's very important. There's something else I'd like to mention that I think is helpful in linking what happens in this rarefied, more protected space of retreat to our everyday life. I think that prayerfulness is very helpful. It certainly has been for Thanissara and myself. Remember the Buddha's teaching on the salt crystal. When a lump of salt is dissolved in a small amount of water it's bitter, and you can't drink it. Sometimes the resultant karma or the obstructions that are coming to us from what we've set into motion are pretty bitter to taste, they are hard to digest and transform. Sometimes our sword of wisdom gets blunted or even shattered when trying to cut through chaos, confusion, despair. Our samadhi is scattered and though we might intend to see how things are, we get overwhelmed and inexorably dragged into very painful places, losing all perspective. Even the 'it's just like this' teaching seems impossible. The Buddha says when a lump of salt is put into a larger body of pure water it can dissolve and dilute the bitterness. Then it's drinkable. And sometimes we need to remember to generate blessings, to dilute the overwhelming toxicity of our resultant karma. Yes, the highest and most wonderful teaching is 'seeing how it is', but sometimes it's hard to see how it is because the obstructions are so difficult and deep rooted.

Then it's useful to do something that is tangibly good. Like putting our palms together and praising that which is worthy of praise. It's called p­ja. When everything else is crazy, if we can just connect with and lift up into our heart that which is worthy of praise, we're allowing into our cramped bitter heart a whole vast reservoir of pure energy. It might be just offering a stick of incense or putting a flower on a shrine, it might be in the middle of nowhere remembering the Buddha, the great bodhisattvas and sages, the precious qualities of Dhamma and Sangha. In this way we begin to resonate with the energy of that which we're honouring. Some may think, 'Gosh this is like jumping through hoops again, I came to Buddhism to get away from that'. Yes if they are blind rites and rituals, but I'm encouraging us to really investigate what happens when we praise, when we say 'Namo.' 'I honour, I offer my life into this Refuge. I honour all the enlightened beings of the past, present and future and the amazing array of invisible beings around us.' Whether we believe or not they are there. This is a dynamic, mysterious universe and there is a response. The universe responds. I have found that creating kusala kamma generates a virtuous energy and a field of blessings that helps to dissolve some of the obstructions that are rolling in from all sides. This sort of prayerfulness is a great friend.

To use a more coarse example, let's say we have something heavy to lift up and we can't lift it up. If someone else comes along to help us, we might be able to lift it up. Yes, the Buddha focused on the important effort we each have to make in this teaching. The Buddha and the great saints can't give us enlightenment. We have to see it for ourselves; it's we who have to let go. But the idea that we can't be helped is erroneous, we're helped tremendously in many ways all the time.

If we are in a terrible state and a good friend comes along, it makes a difference. Their presence, energy and reflections can sometimes make a big difference in how we are relating to the moment, how we might be perpetuating the problem. The great principle of Sangha as a Refuge demonstrates that this Path isn't just about 'Me' doing it. By honouring the context through p­ja, or gratitude, or connecting with Sangha, the whole nature of the present afflicted mind-states is shifted. You can make a phone call to a wise friend that might make a difference. A p­ja in a way is like making such a phone call. One is connecting and resonating with the 'here and now' Dhamma realm which is wise, pure, trustworthy.

I encourage you to investigate this, I've found it very helpful. Another way to help generate a reservoir of goodness in our lives that blesses the world around us and also blesses our whole sense of well being is to practice this wonderful quality of dana or generosity. This profound and incredible quality can make such a difference to our whole sense of self respect and our whole sense of well being. The nature of a deluded sense of self is a contraction around the perception of possession.

Dana directly opposes that contraction and is also very natural. It is our nature to give, to share, as it's the nature of a fragrant flower to offer its fragrance in all directions, it doesn't think 'Oh God, do I have to give that out today again', it just does it. Like the sun, 93 million miles away, it is just being itself. One tiny slither of the sun's radiance touches and energises this planet. What if the sun called it off for a while? When we are natural, not clinging, then our own natural energy is also being shared, also being offered. Let us check this out in our daily life, offering our kindness, our time to listen, our encouragement to another and our extra resources to those that need them.

So let us all consider in our own lives how to cultivate more consciously a field of blessings, following the example of the Buddha in his many lives, using every circumstance to generate a vast and pure pool of paramita. Today is a special day for Thanissara and myself, it's our wedding anniversary. I feel fortunate to have such a good spiritual friend. We encourage each other to practice Dhamma, to deepen our understanding and to find ways to share with others. By chance we've ended up in South Africa these last years. Recently we read the impressive life story of Nelson Mandela. His life is a wonderful inspiration. Just think of someone imprisoned in awful conditions for 27 years, who was determined to transform that prison into a university, into a temple and a place of learning. Amazingly he came out of that without bitterness. I think we all have our prisons, our obstructions and our limitations that we are wrestling with. But you know it's possible to overcome these difficulties. We can grow through these challenges. Ajahn Chah always made me feel I could do it. Let's remember our blessings, and meet this moment afresh with faith.

We are honoured to be here in this position of sharing Dhamma. Please forgive us for the things that we say that aren't helpful or are confused, we are still finding our way and are keen to keep learning.