Forest Sangha Newsletter October 2004
Inner Foundations and Social Action; Ajahn Pasanno
A Dhamma Collage: Part I; Ajahn Jayasaro



A Dhamma Collage - Part I
Highlights of talks given by Ajahn Jayasaro to the community of monks at Wat Pah Nanachat.

The Pot of Oil Simile
The Buddha explained the practice of mindfulness using the 'Pot of Oil' simile. A man was made to carry a big pot of oil along a difficult path through a crowd of spectators who were watching a beautiful dancer. The man had to avoid spilling any of the oil because behind him was a man with a sword who would cut off his head if he spilt even a drop. Now if you imagined yourself in that position, carrying that big pot of oil, where would your attention be? You couldn't afford to look at the dancer or be distracted by the crowd. Probably your attention would be mainly on the pot, but at the same time you couldn't ignore the state of the road; you'd have to avoid the potholes. You'd have to glance ahead occasionally to look for obstacles, then come back to your main object of attention, the pot of oil. So you'd be with the pot of oil most of the time, but some of the time you'd be glancing ahead, checking the path. This is the simile for practising sati, mindfulness. Sampajanya, clear comprehension, is the withdrawing from the object of sati for a moment and seeing the whole context of what you are doing: What else is happening? Are there any obstacles or hindrances arising in the mind? Are there any problems coming up?

Samatha and Irritability
On the path of samatha practice, it is common to reach a certain level where you get very judgemental, and irritable with other people, angry if people upset your meditation. You get very protective and paranoid about your Samadhi. Of course there are good scriptural authorities to support this proprietorial attitude. The Buddha said 'Take care of your meditation object at all times. Don't let your Samadhi be dissipated.' He encouraged us to avoid unnecessarily disturbing situations. But we can take this attitude too far. We can become self-righteously peeved about people, things, situations, responsibilities that might have a detrimental effect on the peace - my peace! - that we're trying to develop. This is one of the defilements of samatha practice.

Looking after your meditation object can be difficult and frustrating, yes; but try not to blame the difficulty on others. It's better to look at it as a challenge. Another helpful way of coping with the tension, and preventing it taking over your mind is metta practice.

By attending to asubha nimittas in the wrong way, unwholesome dhammas are strengthened and wholesome dhammas - a sense of perspective, forgiveness, metta, and so on - are weakened; we lose our sense of proportion.

Skilful Attention and Inner Imagery
It is important to see how skilfully or unskilfully we attend to what is pleasant or unpleasant. The first hindrance, sensual desire, is born because we attend in an unskilful way to what is pleasant. When we are confronted with a pleasant object, the untrained mind tends to narrow its attention, focussing exclusively on the pleasant aspects of the object. The aspects of the object which are unpleasant, unbeautiful or simply neutral, the untrained mind censors or screens out. When we think of a pleasant object or person or event, we remember just one particular part of it, not the whole thing.

The pleasant aspect of something is called its subha nimitta. Nimitta means 'image' or 'aspect;' the nimitta is only an aspect of an object, not an accurate representative of it in all of its complexity. In the case of something pleasant, we tend to focus on its subha nimitta, its beautiful aspect. We tend to nurture subha nimittas: subha nimittas relating to sexual matters, to food, or to places we have been. There is a cluster of these subha nimittas in our minds and the mind takes up subha nimittas and starts to fondle them, exaggerate them, trying to squeeze out every last bit of pleasure from them. That kind of fondling of subha nimittas makes them stronger and draws the mind to them like a magnet. This is how sensual desire completely overwhelms the mind. With such fondling of the images, the skilful dhammas of dispassion and letting go are weakened. Unskilful dhammas of attachment and fascination intensify.

With the second hindrance, hatred, we have asubha nimittas: images of people, events and experiences that we don't like. We tend to take such images as accurate, shorthand, representatives of reality, when in fact they are dependent on screening or censoring out important information which would radically change the perception of the object. The asubha nimitta might relate to something external - a person or a place - or it might relate to something internal, one of our own character traits that we don't like. By attending to asubha nimittas in the wrong way, unwholesome dhammas are strengthened and wholesome dhammas - a sense of perspective, forgiveness, metta, and so on - are weakened; we lose our sense of proportion.

Patient Endurance
In the forest monasteries, particularly in my generation, the teaching on patient endurance was drummed into us almost every day. Patient endurance became something we aspired to. Sometimes this went a bit too far: when young men are inspired by the idea of patient endurance, you sometimes get competition and people start showing-off a bit, trying to prove how tough they are. But it is unfair to criticise a teaching simply because certain people, now and then, grasp it wrongly.

The other common response to this encouragement was, 'Well, why put up with something that you don't like? What a waste of time. Why not go and look for something that you like? Enjoy yourself! Life is short.' But the Buddha said that the ability to patiently abide with the unpleasant is a wonderful jewel of the mind. If you don't have patient endurance, in the initial onslaught of unpleasant vedana, unpleasant sensation, then you are liable to get overwhelmed before the cavalry - which is mindfulness - can gallop to the rescue. You've already lost it. What you need is an ability to resist the initial push of defilements, an ability to stand firm. Unless you have got well-developed sati, when you are caught off guard, when suddenly there's physical pain, or someone suddenly abuses you, at that moment sati is probably nowhere to be found. But when you have patient endurance, you are nonetheless able to bear with these things. The more you see the benefit of patient endurance, the more faith you have in it, then the more willing you will be to cultivate it.

We couldn't have a better teacher of this than Ajahn Chah. I have often told you about Ajahn Chah's battles with sexual desire when he was a young monk. His practice at that time was indeed a battle. There is no other way to talk about it, except through martial imagery. On one occasion strong, obscene, erotic visions or hallucinations obsessed his mind for seven days and nights before eventually subsiding. Ajahn Pasanno once asked him what skilful means he used to deal with such incredible attacks of lust and sexual desire. Ajahn Chah said 'Nothing special: I just endured.

Teachings on Samsara
I find the Buddha's teachings on samsara very helpful. If you believe that you have been born many, many lifetimes already, then ten or twenty years of meditation practice, or even thirty years, forty years, is the blink of an eye. Some people take the agnostic view on this, saying 'Don't worry about past or future lives; you know, just concentrate on the present life.' But if you are only prepared to consider this one life then ordaining for five or ten years is a really big deal. If the Buddha didn't think it useful for us to consider samsara, then why did he talk about it so frequently?

Being Somebody
I remember in America once hearing someone telling her child 'Look, you may be poor but you can be somebody; you can be anybody if you really want.' This is life's goal for many people, isn't it? To be somebody; yet what a sad way to live one's life. The desire to be somebody gets expressed as the desire to be loved, to be appreciated, to be wanted, to be needed; needing to be needed. Unfortunately this desire always has its shadow. It is always dogged by the fear of not being somebody, of being nobody, the fear of not being needed, the fear of disappearing without trace in the sands of time.

Some years ago, a political figure was assassinated in the States, I think in the Deep South. When they caught the assassin he shouted out in exultation, 'Now I'm a thousandth part of history!' as if his main motive had been to get his name in the papers, afraid he was going to die without anybody knowing his name. This is a kind of bhava tanha, desire to be, which has become so prominent over the past 100 or 200 years. It was quite a rare thing before the industrial revolution.

The great cathedrals were probably the greatest artistic creation of the Middle Ages, yet nobody ever thought about recording the names of the architects and craftsmen. With the great art of the East, nobody ever thought to write their name in the corner of the paintings. With the great Buddha images in Thailand, if you look round the back, you won't find engraved there the name of the man who designed or cast it. People weren't interested in all that. I don't know exactly when it started.

Looking for Sweet Chillies
There's a world of difference between accepting the idea of impermanence on the intellectual level and really penetrating it with wisdom. Probably nobody in the world, in any culture, professing any religion, would deny that things change. Inuits and pygmies, cowboys and coolies: all would agree that things change. But beyond the superficial intellectual understanding of change, there is a certain point when the perception of change changes you. This only comes about through practice, in recognising the extent to which we have been looking for happiness in things that don't last. This is the basic mistake that we all make, because we don't remind ourselves, we don't want to see. There remains a slight hope.

There's a famous story of Mulla Nazruddin, who with tears running down his face was eating his way through a sack of chillies. When asked about it, he explained that one day he hoped he would find a chilli that was sweet. We're like that too. Perhaps sooner or later - we tell ourselves - we'll find a chilli that's sweet, we'll find a condition that isn't impermanent like all the other conditions we've experienced. The rational side of the mind says 'No, it's not possible', but still there is this emotional longing.

Young couples canoodling in the moonlight say: 'If only we could make this moment, this evening last forever;' but they only wish for it to last forever because they know it won't. Actually, it would be pretty miserable if it did, wouldn't it? People think that happiness lies in pleasure lasting forever; but happiness doesn't work like that, does it? Even if canoodling lasted forever, you couldn't enjoy it, because the body gets tired; excitement is tiring. In fact you can't enjoy anything for long, can you? How long can you enjoy anything before it gets boring?

The person without wisdom is like a drowning man clutching at straws, clutching at anything to give some lasting happiness. But nothing lasts. Nothing can do it for you. Nothing is going to give you a permanent high. Even heaven realms are impermanent. In the heavens you can be the life and soul of the party with five hundred young maidens frolicking around with you, gathering daisies and making them into chains, having a great time for aeons and aeons. Then suddenly the flowers start to fade. Your time is up.

The Buddha related his own early reflections on this. He said, 'Before my enlightenment, though being myself subject to birth, ageing and death, I looked for happiness in things that were also subject to birth, ageing and death.' He reflected that such a search was not suitable or appropriate for a person of intelligence. This led him to embark on what he called the noble search. It wasn't the search for material pleasures; it was the search for liberation.

Self-perceptions and Misunderstandings
What happens when you are falsely accused of something? What happens, particularly if you have done something in a very good way, a very selfless way, and then you are accused of doing it in a very selfish way? How does that feel? How does it feel when people misunderstand you like this? This sense of self, the person you think you are, the sense of being someone, anyone, is an expression of ignorance. The moment you've any sense of being someone, you're setting yourself up as an Aunt Sally in a fairground, inviting people to throw balls at you. You'll find yourself suffering immediately. Even if other people's perceptions of you are not bad, it's unsettling if they don't coincide with your own.

Sometimes you meet someone who is absolutely convinced that they know you better than you know yourself. I used to find it intolerable when my mother would say to me, 'I can read you like a book'. I would reply, 'No you can't!' I'd insist that she didn't know me at all. Sometimes you find that someone's perceptions of you don't fit your own perceptions of yourself. There was an interesting example of this, this morning. A couple of young women visiting the monastery were overheard in the kitchen saying that they thought the abbot's eyes - my eyes - were chilling, like those of an executioner. So I suppose they won't be coming back here again.

I remember a rather confused layman once asked Ajahn Chah about the goal of practice. He had read so many books: books on Zen, books on Mahayana, books on Taoism, books on Don Juan. He asked Ajahn Chah: 'Should we practice to become a Bodhisattva or to become an Arahant?' Ajahn Chah said 'Don't become anything at all. Don't become an Arahant. Don't become a Bodhisattva. The moment that you become anything at all, you'll be suffering already.'

As a young man, King Asoka's teacher was a perfume seller. The most beautiful courtesan in the city fell in love with him and did her best to entice him to her bed. But he wouldn't have anything to do with her. Of course, being already completely infatuated with him, the fact that he was the only man for hundreds of miles who wouldn't jump at the chance for an evening with her made him even more alluring. She made him many invitations to visit her, and his continual reply was, 'It's not yet time.'

One evening while she was entertaining a certain guest, she was told that someone incredibly wealthy had just arrived. The only way she could get rid of the present guest was to have him murdered, which she arranged. She got caught for this and sentenced to a horrible punishment, which involved having her hands, feet, nose and ears cut off. Having been punished in this awful way, she was then taken to the cremation ground to die. Still dressed in her finest silks, she lay there with hands, feet, nose and ears scattered around her. Her faithful maidservant sat there comforting her as gradually her life drained away. Suddenly, the maidservant saw someone coming and realised it was the young man that her mistress had been lusting after for so many years. Having so often said, 'It's not yet time,' now of all times he had come. When she informed her mistress about this, her mistress's first reaction was 'Oh, that he should see me like this! Quickly gather the hands, feet, nose and ears and cover them with a cloth.' Such was the intensity of her vanity, even in the final moments of her life! It would be better somehow, she thought, if the young man did not see her severed limbs. Meanwhile the man approached and gave her a wonderful Dhamma teaching. Before she died she became a sotapanna, a stream enterer. In terms of Dhamma then, it is a story with a happy ending.

Gratitude to Parents
As a teenager before becoming a monk I once travelled through Iran. I was pretty much down-and-out at the time, living in an alleyway, relying on alms. One day someone had given me a few coins. I knew of a soup shop across Teheran where for very little money they'd give you a big bowl of soup and all the bread that you could eat. So on this day, I was walking in the early morning towards the soup shop across the city. I passed a woman who had obviously just come out of her house and was on her way to work. She looked at me in a very disgusted way, which was, I admit, reasonable enough, as I was pretty disgusting. She walked over to me looking very stern and pointed at me indicating that I should follow her. We went to the block of flats where she lived and into the lift. She didn't say a word to me the whole time, so I didn't know what was going to happen. She took me into her flat and gruffly showed me to the kitchen, sat me down, and put a huge pile of food out for me and watched me eat till I was full. Then she barked out something in Persian and her son came in with a clean shirt and a pair of trousers. She let me know that my present outfit deserved to be incinerated and pointed me to the bathroom, to shower and change, which I did. When I emerged, she pointed to the door. We walked out, into the lift, onto the road and then she just walked off without another word. I was very impressed.

My fortunes changes. I returned to India to live a more meditative life. One day I recalled that woman in Teheran, how inspiring I found her. I was sure that I would never forget what she did for me. Suddenly it dawned on me that whereas I felt so much gratitude for someone who had given me just one meal and a shower, I had lived with my parents for almost eighteen years; they had given me three meals a day, all the clothes I needed, and if I ever got sick, they were more worried about it than I was, and I realised that I'd taken it all for granted. I felt more gratitude towards that Iranian woman than I did to my own parents. I realised how shallow my thinking was, how much I had received as a boy without giving it a second thought.

It seems to me that unresolved issues with parents are a major obstacle to spiritual progress: the unwillingness to forgive them for not being perfect, for not being who we want them to be, for having greed, hatred and delusion, for being puthujjanas. This is something we monks need to look at. It's a kind of wound that needs to be allowed to heal.

The Practice of Metta
A lot of us have problems with the practical details of metta meditation. We wonder how exactly to go about it. What methods should we use? One approach I have found helpful in my own practice is to spark off a feeling of metta and then expand it. I have found that the quickest way to spark off a feeling of metta is to think of my mother and of her love. This is something most of us will be well acquainted with. We all know what this is like. When I think of my own mother, I get this very warm feeling in my heart, in the chest area. I take this as a meditation object, and develop metta meditation from it. Thinking about one's mother's love is not simply a sentimental excursion. It is immensely precious; it has practical value.

Gratitude and Humility
In this tradition we put a lot of effort into striving to be our own refuge and to take responsibility for ourselves and our conduct. In such an individualistic style of practice, it is through reflecting on what we've been given that we prevent ourselves falling a prey to pride. We are saved from the perils of spiritual pride by remembering our connections with others - remembering what we have been given. Reflecting like this is very supportive of humility, of genuine humility, one of the most beautiful spiritual qualities. It is not merely the outer trappings of humility, not merely an ideal that we try to correspond to, but a humility that comes from not grasping at self and from recognising that all that we have has been given to us.

Appreciative Joy
Not many people develop mudita, appreciative joy, as a meditation. This is a pity, because it's a wonderful thing to do. I always say that it is the lazy person's path to enlightenment, because you don't have to actually do anything, you just appreciate what other people are doing. You just sit back, watch and enjoy other people's goodness, and feel your mind becoming purer.

As you cultivate mudita, you'll find your mind develops a natural sensitivity to goodness. It is as if you study plant life or herbs and then walk into a forest: you automatically know which tree is which, which plant is which, which plants can be used for medicine and so forth. In a forest your mind turns to these considerations quite naturally. Similarly, when you develop mudita, you become increasingly sensitive to goodness and to the good intentions of other people. This appreciative attitude begins to replace the negative and cynical reactions that are ingrained in many of us. Mudita is a way of recognising, of opening our eyes to the goodness around us. In a monastic community of course, it's not difficult to see goodness in every part of the day. It's very unusual to see anything else really.

You can see small acts of kindness even on the streets. I remember one day on almsround seeing somebody dropping something, and somebody else called out to them, 'You've dropped something,' and then picked up the article and gave it back to them. The other person received it with a smile and a 'Thank you'. What a lovely thing that was to see. It made my day. There's no reason why people should bother to do such things, but they do; it's a lovely thing to see. There's no kind of reward for it either; it is just the obvious thing to do. It's the naturalness of such actions that is so uplifting, the intimation of what the human heart is capable of.

Counting Blessings
I'm often reminded of the words of wisdom that I received from my parents when I was small. For instance, I remember my father frequently telling me, 'Sit up straight!' I realise now how wise and profound that advice was, though I didn't used to appreciate it when I was a teenager.

Another phrase from my childhood that springs into my mind occasionally is 'Count your blessings!' Probably most English people have heard this. I think in this monastic environment it is particularly worth bearing in mind, because we can easily take what we have for granted: that we are fed every day, that we have kutis to live in, that we have good friends to live with. If we constantly reflect on our blessings, not simply the material blessings but also the small spiritual victories that we achieve and the goodness that we create, then discontent regarding our progress, or lack of it, shrinks. Counting our blessings provides a cushion, a sense of wellbeing which enables us to bear with the ups and downs of practice, the difficult times, the disappointments and disillusionments that inevitably come, and when one realises that this is a lot bigger job than we initially thought. This isn't just a ten day retreat, it's a practice of ten years, twenty years, thirty years, if one is lucky. If you count your blessings you end up feeling, 'Well, there is nothing else I'd rather do anyway'. There is a sense that we are doing what needs to be done. This is a wonderful refuge.