Forest SanghaNewsletterJanuary 2001

Simplicity; Ajahn Sundara
The Natural History of the Mind; Nick Scott
The Monastery - A Verse
Clearing Space; Ajahn Candasiri
Clearing Space

When the mind is stirred up with excitement, passion or longing; mildly agitated by doubts or irritation; or simply filled with routine lists of 'important things to do', it can be extremely difficult to gain and to maintain any perspective at all - either on its nature, or on the effect of its workings on our state of well being. Strangely enough, there is also a certain pleasure that comes from such mental activity. It brings energy, a sense of aliveness, and we find ourselves doing all kinds of things that make us feel that our life has meaning and value - for others, as well as ourselves. There is that in humanity that thrives on agitation. As soon as things begin to empty out and to settle - as soon as there is nothing to do - we feel uncomfortable, and look around for something to fill up the space. We speak of 'filling in time', in a way that assumes that 'full time' is good, and that the worst thing that could happen for somebody would be to have an empty life; we are not supposed to waste time doing nothing.

However, when we look at life from a contemplative standpoint, when - even for an instant - we take a step back with a question or two: 'What am I doing? Why am I doing it? What is the result?' we begin to have a glimmer of the actual meaninglessness of much of what we engage ourselves with. This can be sobering, to say the least - but it can also be a gateway to an altogether different way of being. Recognising the extent to which even our 'good' action or speech is tainted by egoistic longing, we begin the process of 'self emptying' or purifying the heart whereby, given time, we arrive at a state of fullness beyond measure. We discover a state of perfect mindfulness that persists independently of the condition and activity (or inactivity) of body or mind.
We need to train ourselves, like a good naturalist, to be interested in even the grubbiest, ugliest and apparently most insignificant phenomenon...
The teachings presented in this issue point to at least two things that are necessary in enabling this to happen. Firstly, creating time and space in our lives. Of course, as Ajahn Sundara points out, the opportunity to spend an extended time away from one's role and daily concerns, practising under the guidance of a teacher in a forest monastery, is rare. We can however, if we wish, consider ways of translating such an experience into our own circumstances: visiting a monastery, taking time for retreat, or simply making time to be with ourselves, quietly, each day.

The second factor is investigation - really watching closely to see how our particular kamma manifests through thought, speech or action. We need to train ourselves, like a good naturalist, to be interested in even the grubbiest, ugliest and apparently most insignificant phenomenon - for it may be the very one that underpins our whole view of ourselves, a view that naturally affects our way of relating to others and to the events of our lives.

One such phenomenon that I've noticed within my own mind, and that many many people have confided as part of their experience, is the fearful little voice that says - convincingly - 'You're not good enough. You don't practise enough - or well enough. You're unworthy. What would people think if they knew what you're really like?... Oh dear.' We're not completely at ease with ourselves - and we wonder why we are not happy: 'After all, I've been practising all these years, trying to be good, trying to do the best I can. Where am I going wrong?' But the miserable little voice is stuffed away ('It's only a thought: anicca, dukkha, anatta*). We get on with the business (or busyness) of our life and practice.

* anicca, dukkha, anatta (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, impersonality) the three characteristics of existence according to which conditions are contemplated in meditation and in everyday life.

Maybe we need to make space for that voice, and for all its companion niggles to come out and be carefully attended to, one by one. Sure, they're only thoughts: anicca, dukkha, anatta - but do we really trust and understand that insight? Can we dare to allow them to dance before us in all their finery and, when they're done, bow out?

Living our lives in accordance with the Noble Truths (Suffering, its Origin, Cessation and the Path) might seem somewhat paradoxical at times. Are we really being asked to allow space for what is most ignoble, most trivial? But perhaps it is only noble qualities, such as humility, patience, honesty and the willingness to abandon our self-centred yearnings that can allow the fulfilment of such a Path.

Ajahn Candasiri




Dhammapada v.183

Patient endurance is the supreme austerity for burning up evil.

Nibbana is said to be the most excellent of all attainments.

One who hurts others cannot be called a recluse -

This is the teaching of all the Buddhas.



Present Moment Opportunity:


'There are these roots of trees, these empty huts.

Meditate, bhikkhus, do not delay or else you will regret it later.

 This is our instruction to you.'

Sutta 19 Majjhima Nikaya
(trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi)