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 October     2006            2549            Number 77
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah

Welcome to the desert of the real


Adapted from a Dhamma talk Luang Por Sumedho gave on his 72nd birthday

It seems only a couple of years ago that I celebrated my sixtieth birthday at Chithurst. Of course, with reflection we can realise that time is simply a function of perception. Whether it seems a long time or a short time is really a view we’re having right now in the present moment. We can notice how our thinking, how our mental and emotional habits affect consciousness. If I’m sitting waiting for the bell to ring, it seems to take a long time even if it’s only a few minutes. Yet I can sit in meditation for several hours and it seems like a very short time.

Whether time seems short or long, what there really is is the here and now. Experience is now. Dhamma is now. The morning meeting, evening meeting, days and years going by — these are conventions, the world of conditions that most of us regard as reality. It’s easy to live with the idea of doing something now to get a reward in the future. This is the attitude we all start meditation with, that we all have as part of our cultural conditioning, our identification with personality and the body. The whole society calls it the real world, so it’s very convincing.

I suggest that the only way we can see the ‘real world’ for what it is is through mindfulness, or what I call intuitive awareness. Otherwise, we merely operate from within our perceptions, conceptions, and habits. This ignorance and the attitudes that come out of it are the “real” world for most people. Even now, though one might understand what I’m saying, I’m still using only words, and words are limited conventional forms like anything else. The real must be realised. It must be recognised, this sandhitthikko akalika dhamma — apparent here and now, timeless, to be looked into — it’s immediate. Having the idea of it but not the reality, one can’t recognise the real. With meditation, with bhavana (spiritual cultivation; meditation practice), it’s a breaking down, a destruction of the world through insight. It’s Armageddon — the end of the world that we take to be real. See the world as simply this: the conditions that we hold to, the attachment, the habit formations that we identify with.

That kind of seeing isn’t itself a condition, it’s not another creation out of ignorance — so it is to be recognised, and valued. Even the way we talk about it, using conventional forms within the Pali tradition, it’s still communicated in terms of doing something now to get something in the future. Practice hard now and you will be rewarded in the future. You are an ignorant, unenlightened person now and if you practice hard, you might eventually be liberated from ignorance, in the future. And that seems reasonable enough and is how we generally see life. We see ourselves as being this body.

It’s my seventy-second birthday. This is a convention, a conventional reality. Of course, it provides us with a chance to generate valuable qualities like generosity and faith, and so the conventional realities are not to be despised; practice is not a rejection of the world as an effort to dismiss it. This ‘destruction of the world’ is not an effort to annihilate the world of conditions, but rather to know it for what it is. ‘Knower of the world’ is an epithet for the Buddha.

As we get older, notice how age has certain emotional effects. To me, seventy-two has always seemed old. I hear people saying of others, “Well, he’s very elderly — he’s over seventy.” And in modern society ‘old and elderly’ isn’t usually regarded as something good. “He’s seventy-two, an elderly monk... but he’s still young at heart...” ‘Young’ and ‘old’ — I encourage you to investigate the language itself, how it affects your consciousness. Since I’ve been a monk and a meditator for a long time now, being ‘old’ is not something I find unpleasant, because old age is a natural part of life. But if when I was twenty you had told me I looked forty, out of vanity I would have felt insulted. When you are twenty, forty is old; when you are seventy-two, forty is young. It’s all relative, and this is what conditioning involves: perceptions, assumptions, and positions we take to be real. These are conditions that tend to distort reality for us so that we are constantly caught in reactivity — emotional reactions, fears, hopes, memories, happiness, sadness, resentments, envy, regret, and all the rest. In a lifetime we build up and hold on to these emotional habits because usually that is all we know how to do: grasp things.

That’s where we need vipassana (insight) meditation’s emphasis on mindfulness: to constantly observe in our experience the way it is, what sakkaya-ditthi (personality-view; identification with the body) is. Now again, these words are just concepts, they’re Theravada conventions. To talk or think about sakkaya-ditthi or personality-view is only a pointing. What is sakkaya-ditthi? What is it right now? What is the sense of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, ‘my personality’, ‘my separate being’; of self-consciousness, self-worth; of identification with the conditions we experience, identification with the body? I am seventy-two years old. I am a Theravadan Buddhist monk. These can be merely conventions that one uses in a conventional situation or they can be a strong sense of self. Being a male or being American or a member of the Labour Party or an anti-war demonstrator: such things can be good for what they are, but the sakkaya-ditthi problem is never resolved no matter what the identity is. No matter how marvellous the condition you identify with might be, the problem of suffering is never resolved that way.

The resolution comes through an awareness of Dhamma, the way things are. All conditions are impermanent: sakkaya-ditthi is something that arises and ceases. ‘Personality’ is a very unstable, changing experience. It changes according to conditions: one can have the most beautiful aspirations, feeling inspired to want to help save the world and help all beings, and the next minute be caught in raging anger over somebody’s foolishness. This conflict in the Middle East now, I’ve been observing how it affects my mind, the righteousness of both sides. I have studied righteousness a lot because my personality can get that way very easily; righteous indignation is a very stimulating emotion. It’s not anger over somebody slamming the door or insulting Theravada Buddhism, indignation arises over high minded stuff: about what is wrong and bad, tyrannical, corrupt, and wicked.

Indignation is exciting — even just trying to express these words in an indignant form feels exciting — there is something very alive about that emotion. And of course, in modern society there is a lot to be indignant about. There is no end of opportunity to find just causes and sympathetic souls who will help us to perpetuate a feeling of indignation. But the important thing to see is not that an emotion like indignation is ‘wrong’, but that it can be part of our identity. It can be what we depend on to feel alive. Thinking of how to right the wrongs and how it shouldn’t be this way, the corruption, the dishonesty, the deceit! In the same way sexual desire makes us feel alive, indignation can make us feel vital, like there is something important to fight for.

Strong emotions bring a lot of energy into experience, and this can be what we depend on to feel alive, because so much of life is neither/nor: it’s just ordinary stuff, boring and tedious. Our ordinary life can involve so many petty things. Hurt feelings, projections, learning to accommodate the people in our lives with whom we get bored or irritated, and to live with our own shortcomings. Having a cause to fight for can be a much more stimulating energetic experience than the humble tedium of ordinary life.

It is only through mindfulness that all this can be seen for what it really is. As I have said many times, this is the gateway to the deathless. It is the escape hatch. But, it doesn’t seem like anything. Awareness is not exciting.

There’s a line from the movie ‘The Matrix’ that goes, “Welcome to the desert of the real.” It is exciting to be deluded. To have something emotionally stimulating or sensually pleasing is entertaining: always something to look forward to. The real can be compared to a desert, which implies a kind of arid spaciousness without anything much in it, just sand maybe, and sky.

Yet I have found the result of this practice to be an appreciation of what could be called this spaciousness, the emptiness of not holding on to anything. Emotionally this can seem like a desert, and we can feel quite averse to it. It can appear boring: like the quality of space itself seems boring. “So what: everybody knows there is space.” We dismiss it, we give no importance to remaining aware of the space within which objects exist. Yet that’s like what we are able to do with mindfulness, if it is true and deep: let go of all of the things that arise in consciousness, as they arise; let go of every feeling of compulsion that arises, of everything we do, every identity, every thought; of even the ideas of space or emptiness — let go of those concepts, because those too are only words. Like in ‘being empty’: ‘experiencing emptiness’ is another idea that we can grasp, without recognising the grasping.

That’s why I continually encourage a recognition of awakened consciousness, each of us in our own experience. We’re all intelligent people, we understand Buddhist concepts quite well so it’s not a problem on that level. One can feel very inspired by these ideas. But there is no liberation from ‘self’ through just thinking and analysing. Reality is recognised through attention, deep, sustained attention — and this does bring up strong emotional reactions.

My reaction when I first experienced this insight was, “I can’t do it.” Yet at the same time I had this insight into anatta (the selfless nature of all things). And I remember watching myself, emotionally saying, “You can’t do it” — it was like I was watching a child screaming “I can’t do this, I can’t do this!”— a kind of internal screaming, and at the very same moment watching this emotional reaction as it was happening. It was so easy to identify with the emotion, since that was what I was used to.

I have always found the monastic form very helpful for cultivating this practice, because if you use it properly it really is a good vehicle. If you stay in it and agree to it’s limitations, the monastic life gives you references, it has this quality of encouraging you to keep aware, to break through delusion — to simplify. It’s ironic, isn’t it, with all it’s rules and so forth Buddhist monasticism seems very complicated, but basically it’s very simple — because the whole aim is to be here and now, is to simply rest, profoundly open.

That here and now conscious experience is not something we create out of ignorance, it’s not a self, it’s not cultural, it’s nothing to do with creation or language. There’s nothing at all we can point to or get a hold of. It’s not even an ‘it’. Even calling it ‘awareness’ or ‘knowing’ is not it: talking this way is just a means to incline the mind towards an ineffable recognition of release. Actually, there’s nothing there. But since we have to use language to communicate, we say that ‘it’ is real: the reality of now. And it can be recognised and cultivated. In the Four Noble Truths, then, recognition of this is the Third Noble Truth. And the Fourth is cultivating it.

In my own life, when setting out to cultivate this within the convention of the Thai forest tradition I didn’t know if it would work or not, I was putting it to a test. This is now my fortieth vassa, so over half my life I have been contemplating, meditating on the Dhamma. I have enormous gratitude and appreciation for this tradition because I feel pleased with the results of my life as a bhikkhu. Buddhist practice is a tool we can use, whatever the particular conditions of our lives, to recognise the universal.

When I first came across Buddhism it inspired me. I think I intuitively recognised it; something in me opened to Buddhism in a way it had never really opened to anything else. I can’t say why that was, but it happened to me quite surprisingly when I was about twenty-one. It wasn’t part of my culture; emotionally I was conditioned for other things — nothing bad or wrong — it was just that something in me was not attuned to that way of life, something that had no problem in attuning itself to a culture as strange to me as the Thai forest tradition. Different language, different everything, and yet, while it had it’s frustrations and difficulties, I didn’t really mind that much because I felt it was always helping to point me towards awareness, encouraging me towards liberation. Whereas I felt if I went back to my old life in the States, that would have pulled me back into delusion.

I always appreciated the opportunity that was made available to me in Thailand because it gave me a way out of it all. Thus the life here, at a monastery like Amaravati is an attempt to give this same opportunity to people. But please don’t cling to the convention itself. One can be a conceited Buddhist monk. One can be completely deluded and still talk all about the Four Noble Truths, about how wonderful Buddhism is as a religion and how it is better than all the rest.

This practice takes great honesty, watching and accepting the way it actually is, even if we don’t like it. Mindful, intuitive awareness is not critical, it’s not judgemental, not saying there is anything wrong or right with what we are feeling — it’s noticing. It implies refraining from that which is unskilful and harmful to this effort and cultivating that which supports it and brings benefit. It is discerning the very nature of conditioned phenomena, and recognising the unconditioned reality.

So use everything that happens to you, here and wherever you are as an opportunity to observe, to be the awareness. Cultivate the purity of the heart. It is not an easy path and it has its challenges. For one thing, welcome to the desert of the real — refraining from investment in the senses, practising sustained awareness amidst the same things day after day after day. Use the form of the life, the morning and evening meetings, the Pali chanting, the etiquette and everything else. We can perform these dutifully as perfunctory acts of necessity, or we can consciously choose to use them as reference points to support our practice of awareness. Don’t demand that you feel a certain way, but whatever way you are feeling be aware of it in terms of it’s nature to change. Be aware of emotional reactions as change, being the knower rather than the changing emotion. Then there is stillness.

By cultivating in this way, the result is stillness — and not one which depends on things around us being quiet. We use the word bhavana, or cultivation. What does that really mean in practical terms? Recognising this ‘desert of the real’, this stillness. And again, it’s recognised, it’s not clung to. If we cling to the idea of it we’re deluding ourselves again. So even ‘stillness’ is not the right description, because words are only pointers — this is not a definition. The Third Noble Truth, the cessation of conditions, needs to be recognised.

If we cultivate this way, then all conditions are seen to arise and cease within stillness: every emotion, every thought, every sensual experience, every desire. The stillness is not changed by the arising or cessation. In its recognition, resting in it, one always has perspective on emotional habits: the loves, hates, likes, dislikes, approval, disapproval, fears and desires, no matter how important or trivial they might appear in their quality or quantity. They are what they are. We will find that this stillness is natural; it’s not an illusion; it’s not dependent. It is merely unnoticed — ignored — because it doesn’t seem like anything, it has no quality. It’s not absolutely fantastic and it’s not annihilation. And we’re not sitting in a void, a paralysed zombie feeling nothing. We feel and we are aware, allowing conditions and the way they move and change, to be what they are. There’s nothing to do. We don’t have to go around trying to control or manipulate things or resist or collect anything else.

This is real — it’s not an abstract or unattainable ideal. And we have to know it for ourselves; it’s realised through our own wise reflection. We know it in terms of Theravada Pali Buddhism, which is an excellent map. It’s all there: there’s nothing missing, it just needs to be used. The conventions, the words, these are to be used skilfully, like a good map. Of course, if we want to go someplace we have to start moving; we can’t just sit here and think about going to Paris, for instance, and expect to get there if we never start walking, even if we have a lovely map.

The emphasis the Buddha made was on liberation, on release. This is not just inspired idealism, it is pragmatic: it offers us all an opportunity to break out of the trap. To get out of the ‘matrix’, to break through the world of delusion. Not by destroying it, but by so thoroughly understanding it there’s nothing left — it’s not a matter of annihilation but of recognition. So, I offer this for your reflection on my seventy-second birthday.



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