Forest Sangha Newsletter July 2003

From Darkness to Light; Luang Por Liem
The Great Escape; Ajahn Jayasaro
Radical Acceptance; Ajahn Amaro
Cultivating the Heart; Ajahn Thaniya

Radical Acceptance
An extract from a talk given by Ajahn Amaro, the co-abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery, during a visit to Cittaviveka Monastery in April of 2003.

The one theme that seems guaranteed to bring up irritation in people is metta - loving-kindness. It's an almost sure-fire trigger for aversion to arise to start telling everyone to love everything. I find frequently when teaching a ten-day retreat, people say, 'It was fine until day eight when you did that guided metta meditation. That really set me off.' It's strange how common an experience that is.

Sometimes metta practice is taught as a Walt Disney, 'wouldn't it be nice if everything was nice' approach. It seems to be trying to sugar everything over; to turn the world into a place where the butterflies flitter around, the lion lies down with the lamb, and children pick blackberries from the same bush as grizzly bears. Something in us gets nauseated by that Walt Disneyesque image and revolts against it. Immediately we can't wait for the grizzly to swipe the head off the little three year-old, we want to torch the butterflies, and so on and so forth. We are annoyed because everything is just too sweet, too false in that kind of approach.

I have experienced that same kind of irritation I confess, and I've found it's because of starting from an idea of loving-kindness. We approach it in a verbal or conceptual way with a system of words or phrases that we repeat. This can be done with all sincerity, and some people do find this helpful and get a lot out of it, but for the majority of people it can be irritating or seem superficial. We can spread loving-kindness in a geographical way, like starting from this place and then spreading out from here, around the world and then to the whole universe, or start out with the people that we know and love, then the people that we are indifferent to, the people that we dislike or dislike us, and outward to all the different levels of beings. This can get to feel like a laundry list of beings, or a kind of geography lesson. We find we're repeating phrases or trying to conjure up images but our heart's not really with it.

We're not trying to like everything, rather we're recognising that everything belongs.

What I've found in contemplating this is that it's more important to get a feeling for establishing a genuine sense of metta, of that true fundamental benevolence and acceptance, to make the priority establishing that emotional quality. I see metta is about bringing our attention within ourselves, within one's own body and mind, within one's own being; to cultivate first a sense of friendliness and benevolence towards one's own body. Oftentimes we do this by focusing attention on the breath, especially at the heart area. We work with that until we can cultivate a genuine, heart-felt sense of friendliness and well-wishing towards our own body. Most of us can do that without any sense of falsity or superficiality. It can be very solid and genuine. We wait and work with that until we can cultivate the genuine presence of an attitude of kindness and acceptance.

One of the things, which if not understood also contributes to the Walt Disney effect of the other approach, a point that Ajahn Sumedho would stress regularly, is that loving things is not the same as liking them. Having metta for ourselves or for other beings is not the same as liking everything. We often come a cropper by trying to make ourselves like everything. This is a completely wrong approach. When we taste something that's bitter and try to force ourselves to believe it's sweet this is just falsity, it's just sugaring things over. It doesn't work. It just makes the bitter even worse. It makes it nauseating as well as horrible to taste.

I have a very painful memory of trying to help out a fellow novice friend of mine in Thailand many years ago. He was French and didn't have a very good grasp of English and he had an even weaker grasp of the nature of herbs. When we'd received a care-package from America with all sorts of different herb teas, he had selected some wormwood and made this into the afternoon tea for the Sangha. I dropped by the kitchen where he was brewing this up. He had an extremely agitated and anxious look on his face. So I said, 'What's the problem? You look really upset.' And he said, 'Oh, it is terrible. The tea I make for everyone, it is wormwood. I don't know what it is, but it is horrible! It is like disgusting medicine.' Then I replied, 'Yes, that's right. It is disgusting medicine. It's not a tea that you're supposed to make for everyone as a refreshment.' Being convinced of my own genius, confident that I was the ultimate tea maker I said, 'Leave it to me. Don't worry. You go back to your kuti and recover. I'll take over.' So I took over the tea making. I tried putting sugar in. I tried putting some salt in. I tried putting some chilli powder in. I tried everything I could think of to fix it. There was no electricity in those days so I couldn't just chuck it away and start again - just getting the water hot took ages on those little charcoal fires. Finally I thought, 'Okay, publish and be damned.' I just took the kettle and decided to serve it up as it was to the whole Sangha. I had this feeling that it wasn't me who really made it. My poor friend, Jinavaro, who was literally shaking, had gone off to his kuti to recover. So I thought, 'Alright, I'll take the rap. I haven't really fixed it but at least he won't get the blame.' I thought I was being very noble.

It was the hot season so we were all sitting outside under the trees. I offered the kettle to the monks and they started pouring it out. There was a cascade of exploding and cursing as the Ajahn and the other senior monks each took a mouthful. They spluttered the concoction over the forest floor. I heard my name called out with great vigor by Ajahn Pabhakaro, who was the abbot at the time. 'What is this?!' 'It's called wormwood, Ajahn.' There was a great grumbling. I thought that monastics were supposed to be grateful for whatever they received. Anyway, this was also the occasion when I began to believe in divine intervention. Just as there was general disgust and dismay at this revolting drink a little pick-up truck pulled up and people got out whom we had never seen before. They opened the back of their truck and got out two crates of Fanta and Pepsi and a big bucket of ice, which they offered to us. They then got back into their truck and drove off. I thought, 'Whoever is in charge of this, great, you just saved my neck.'

The taste of that extremely bitter, foul drink, laden with so much sugar that you could stand a spoon up in it, has stuck with me ever since. It was the epitome of a nauseating mixture. This is what it's like when we try to practice metta by liking everything. But what is really meant by metta is the heart that can accept everything, that does not dwell in aversion towards things. So what I find is far more important, rather than going through lists of beings or going through a geographical pattern, is to discover the heart which can genuinely and completely accept the way things are. We're not trying to like everything, rather we're recognising that everything belongs. Everything is part of nature: the bitter as well as the sweet, the beautiful as well as the ugly, the cruel as well as the kindly. The heart that recognises that fundamentally everything belongs is what I would describe as being the heart of metta, the essence of metta. If we get that really clear within us, and begin to train ourselves to recognise it, we realise that we can cultivate this quality of radical acceptance. Even though metta is described as a brightness or radiance in the brahmaviharas, there's also this quality of receptivity that it has. There's receptivity and acceptance; a readiness to open the heart to the way things are.

So I don't like to teach metta as a practice on its own but more as an attitude which needs to underlie every single aspect of the practice; whether it's samadhi or samatha (concentration or tranquillity), or whether it's vipassana (insight practice). Unless there is this radical acceptance, a basic attitude that everything belongs, any attempt we make to establish concentration or insight will go awry because there'll be an element of disharmony in it. If I'm trying to concentrate and I consider the mind focusing on the breath as good, and noises around me in the room or random thoughts arising as bad, then there'll be dualism in the mind. It will set up a conflict between what belongs and what doesn't belong - the breath belongs and the noises don't belong. We may be able to force ourselves to concentrate through an act of will for a certain length of time but it creates the mind as a battle zone. It becomes this purified place that I have to protect. I have to keep the intruders at bay. I've got to wipe out evil. I've got to destroy or keep at bay the intrusions of noise, thoughts, emotions, physical discomforts and so forth. They become the enemy. What happens is that you live in a war zone. You may find that you can protect your space - your homeland can be secure (to use a painfully familiar phrase from where I am living these days) - but you end up in a realm of paranoia where the enemy is everywhere. You live in a state of fear and tension.

So this attitude of everything belonging is really seeing that everything is Dhamma, everything is part of nature. Everything has its place. It all belongs. Then, from that basis of recognising fundamental belonging, seeing that confusion belongs and clarity belongs, that pain belongs and comfort belongs, then we can make choices. We can discriminate, but it's not a discrimination that's deluded or divisive. It's recognising that if I follow this particular track then concentration or clarity is likely to follow. If I follow this track then confusion and difficulty is likely to follow. So it's rather like at Chithurst if you want to go to Petersfield, when you get to the junction of the A272, you turn right, you don't turn left. It's not that left is bad or wrong in some fundamental way. It's just it's not the way to go if you want to go to Petersfield. Similarly, we don't reject thoughts or random emotions or physical discomfort as being evil or somehow fundamentally wrong. It's just that's not the direction we want to go. So there's discrimination but it's based upon a fundamental quality of attunement where the heart accepts everything as part of the whole pattern of nature.

Now it can be difficult for us to do this. We can get very fixated on ideas of what equals progress and what equals degeneration, of what is good and what is bad. We can get mixed up between a conventional judgment of what is good and something that is absolute. We might think progress is good, development is good, and growth is good. And that degeneration, things falling apart or breaking up is bad. We don't want that. But it's really crucial for us to examine these assumptions. Growth is not always a good thing. We can use the power of reflection to consider how much we assume that things improving and succeeding is good. 'That's a good thing. That's great!' If we see through the eyes of Dhamma we recognise that it is all relative, it's all dependent. We shouldn't assume just because something is developing that that is an absolute good. It all depends on how we handle it or what we make of it.

I was recalling today about when Ajahn Sumedho first went back to visit Luang Por Chah after having been over here for a couple of years. Luang Por Chah asked how things were going and he said, 'It's amazing! There is a really good group of monks. We have novices. Four nuns have been ordained. Everyone is really harmonious and committed to the practice. They keep the Vinaya strictly. They get on so well together and everyone is so helpful....' He was waxing lyrically in this kind of way. Finally he paused for breath to give Luang Por a chance to respond. Luang Por waited for a moment and went, 'Uuurgh! Well you won't develop very much wisdom living with that bunch.' He was totally unimpressed. He was always of the mind that it is the friction that teaches you. Don't be glad when there is no abrasion. If everything is running smoothly we just fall asleep. He was genuinely unimpressed, he wasn't just putting on a show for Ajahn Sumedho. 'Well, perhaps I'll send you over a few to liven things up a bit.'

We can have an assumption that everything running well and everyone getting on is how it should be. If it's not like that we feel, 'Oh dear, there's this difficult person. Oh dear, we've run out of money....' It is so important that we contemplate these things, that we don't make assumptions. If you are dependent on success and development, what happens when it all falls apart? What happens when suddenly loss is there, when death is there? Does that mean that everything has gone wrong? How do we work with it? What does it teach us? Luang Por was always stressing that wisdom will mean we learn from everything. Right attitude to the practice is to cultivate a readiness to learn from everything. If we establish that heart of acceptance, of true loving-kindness, then our heart is open to everything. Then whether we call it success - we do a retreat and find our mind easily settles down and we are brimming with insights - or failure: we're just writhing in agony, chewing over ancient resentments, with back pain and anxieties about the future all mixed together with a brimming irritation at the teacher - everything will teach us if we let it. If we are wise everything will teach us: success will teach us, failure will teach us; gain will teach us, loss will teach us; pleasure will teach us, pain will teach us.

In one sutta the Buddha says, 'suffering can ripen in two ways; in further suffering or in search.' When we meet a bitter experience, we can either compound it - getting lost in fearing that experience, running away from it or fighting against it - or it can ripen in search. Which means that there is a quality of wisdom present that recognises, 'Oh, I know what this is. There must be a cause for this. How do I handle this? What can I learn from this?' This is one way of understanding the Buddha's encouragement towards search. We are reflecting upon our experience. So, much of spiritual training is based on the capacity we have for this quality of acceptance, and the readiness to learn from dukkha, from the unwanted, from suffering.