FOREST SANGHA
newsletter
April             2008                             2551                      Number     83
The Forest Sangha is a worldwide Buddhist monastic
community in the Thai forest tradition of Ajahn Chah


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On Teaching
Q&A with Ajahn Munindo

ajahn munindo

Ajahn Munindo
has been the abbot of Aruna Ratanagiri Buddhist Monastery, known as Harnham, since 1991. There is usually a resident male monastic community of five to ten monks, novices and anagarikas (postulants) at Harnham, as well as male and female lay visitors.

The FSN recently asked him questions on the theme of ‘teaching’.

 

How do you understand what ‘teaching’ means, in the context of our community?

Ajahn Munindo: My first thought is that teaching is about passing on the benefits of practice. As for the context of our community, I’m not familiar with serving as a teacher in any other context. Perhaps the word ‘serving’ is important here. I see teaching as an offering. It has been a great help over the years to view my role of leader or teacher as an act of conscious giving. Rather than aspiring to become a master – which as a young monk I thought I was supposed to do – I work consciously on being a good servant. In my own practice I hold an idea of Dhamma practice as ‘serving reality’; I expect this shapes how I relate with or teach others. Regarding the theoretical level of practice, or pariyatti, I think this is generally best dealt with through book learning. At our monastery this means that anyone wanting to join is given a reading list of Dhamma books they need to familiarize themselves with before being accepted. The same holds for the training around the rules, the Vinaya. Applicants are directed towards specific texts and before being accepted they are tested on their understanding.

Is there a difference between ‘teaching’ and ‘training’?

AM: Not to my mind. Probably I use the word ‘training’ more than ‘teaching’, as the latter could tend to take us into our heads and have us think that because we’ve arrived at some ideas that approximate reality rather tidily, we actually know something. This is not necessarily the case. As Ajahn Chah used to say, knowing the word for ‘hot’ does not give you the experience of being burned. He also said that the reason you don’t know anything truly is because you know so much.

I emphasize regularly that this path of practice involves our entire body/mind in training. We train with an awareness that shows us how to see effectively beyond the ways we have been conditioned to see, i.e. according to our preferences. A teacher is someone who helps us see in new and relevant ways – ways that serve our commitment to live in harmony with truth, or reality, or whatever word connects with that sense we have that some things are profoundly more important than others. For instance, it’s relatively important that I stay fit and healthy so as to not be a burden on others and to maximize on the fortunate circumstance in which I find myself. Accordingly I pay some attention to healthy living; I exercise and so on. However, it’s much more important to know that I am going to die. So, to be as able as I can possibly be in meeting death when it comes, reflecting on this calls for a much greater degree of my attention. Anyone who offers help with this kind of preparation is a teacher for me.

How do you approach your role as a teacher? What kind of teaching/training do you do, or how do you help people learn?

AM: I don’t really feel that I ‘do’ any teaching or training, but I’m interested in helping people learn. The first priority, though, is to maintain perspective within myself. If I lose that then I risk getting caught in ideas about myself as a teacher. Such ideas, if not clearly understood, are a guaranteed obstruction when it comes to helping others. Cultivating this kind of effort is a lifelong project.

The next thing I’d say is that attempting to train others without the context of a

buddha_monk

The Dhamma Hall at Harnham

harmonious and mutually respectful relationship can lead to loss of faith and even a turning away from the path. The classic texts point out the importance of this with extensive, detailed explanations of what is suitable and what is not. It would be a big mistake to see the role of the teacher as one of merely passing on information. If for instance a student doesn’t feel trust in the teacher then whatever benefit the teacher might have realized for themselves, the student probably won’t get it. This works both ways, teacher-student/student-teacher. It’s been an important area of learning in our monastic communities, especially since we left the traditional Asian context and came to the West. These days we spend a lot more time listening to each other, being patient and kind, which generates a context of friendship that is essential. At the same time, of course, once we know how to maintain our own practice we can learn from everything and everyone, including those we might not like or even trust.

Leading a community, sometimes I see myself as being like the conductor of an orchestra, an orchestra comprised of seriously enthusiastic players, each very capable in their own way. Most people who take up the Buddhist path of practice have already stepped aside from the flow of popular culture. This is even more the case for those joining a monastery – they aren’t willing to settle for the status quo. They don’t necessarily need me to tell them what to do. They need something else, and it’s that something else that the conductor offers. Through the process of playing together each player is altered in how they relate with their own instrument. They learn, the conductor learns – everyone benefits.

So maintaining the right attitude is primary. Then, as I was saying, it needs to be emphasized that this training involves the entire body/mind. All aspects of our lives are included – nothing at all can be left out. In practice this usually means finding ways to highlight imbalances in our approach. We all come to training with a mixture of intentions, some wholesome and worth developing and others neurotic, by which I mean not serving our aspirations to be fully free from suffering. Part of a teacher’s job is to act like a mirror, reflecting back to a student any tendencies of avoidance they might have, preferably as they occur. Of course, most tricky to spot are the ways we avoid our faults, but there can also be times when our strengths and abilities need reflecting, to make them more conscious. The Buddha pointed out in many ways how devious our deluded minds can be; left to our own devices most of us would ignore our weaknesses and overemphasize our strengths. Traditional Buddhist mindfulness training is about developing skills that eventually allow us to be our own mirror. We have a teacher so that we won’t need a teacher.

There are tried and tested ways of developing these skills. I try to encourage people to be mindful of how we benefit from those who have walked the way longer than we have. When we appreciate the nature of the task we face then we can offer ourselves into it more fully, and a teacher can help us see better what we’re dealing with. I needed a lot of encouragement as, although I sincerely wanted to let go of the habits that kept tripping me up, I regularly lost it: getting caught in complaining and criticizing for instance. Here I was, living with great teachers, all my material needs were more than adequately met, yet the nature of my conditioned mind meant that I would indulge in thinking, saying and even doing things that created discontent. So although I was making a lot of effort, ostensibly to realize unshakeable peace, I was at the same time generating the causes for lack of peace. Without the patient, tolerant, consistent encouragement of my teachers, I might well have undermined my commitment and given up. It takes time to see our faults as faults. The more subtle faults can be the biggest troublemakers and they can also be the most difficult to unearth. They tend to be overgrown with a dense mass of intertwined opinions – like for instance, ‘I am already aware of all my faults’.

If the right kind of reflection comes at the right time then we see something new and meaningful about ourselves. With this comes letting go, which in turn generates an authentic interest in submitting ourselves more fully in the training. By ‘authentic’ here I mean genuine, not the synthetic kind of energy that comes from our initial idealism. And by ‘more fully’ I mean an increased willingness to take whatever comes. In the beginning we like to pick and choose, saying we need such and such conditions for practice. As we learn true letting go, we find that ‘this’ – whatever is happening here and now – is the only practice. That isn’t to say that in practising with everything we forget that we need to protect ourselves from that which is harmful. The things that harm us come from both within and without, but mostly it’s our heedlessness that undoes us. If our teachers can help us stay connected with what first brought us to practice we won’t go too far astray. It’s only when we forget this that we indulge in complaining and so on.

Nurturing faith (saddha; meaning trust, rather than belief) is also something I think about a lot when considering my responsibilities as a teacher. It’s not that students necessarily lack faith; if they didn’t already trust that there is a reality to be realized behind all the confusion of distorted consciousness, they would never have got started. But until a certain point in practice it’s possible for that faith to get obscured. If we allow ourselves to become too busy, for example too much talking, too much socializing, getting excessively well known, all these things can lead to a loss of connection with faith. It shows itself when students are faced with challenges that require a surrender into total uncertainty – but they find they just can’t do it. There isn’t the well-developed sense of there being an indefinable dimension in which they can simply trust. So an important part of a teacher’s job as I see it is to protect the practice environment so a student’s faith is maintained; and it’s the student’s job to learn how important faith is, and to look after it wisely.

What do you do to encourage such faith or trust? Are there techniques?

AM: Some people find techniques more useful than others. It depends on how tricky or devious your ego is. Mine is very devious; it’s a good imitator. As soon as I learn something from practice, the monkey mind quickly starts performing it and it’s no longer the real thing. What changes over the years is that you get more alert to these antics; you don’t get so surprised or upset about it. You learn to take appropriate precautions. If you have such a mind you need to be very agile and cultivate a large repertoire of skilful means to stay ahead of the ego’s con-tricks. You can’t afford to rely on one or two specialized techniques.

Regarding faith though, there aren’t any sure ways. That’s part of it. Living out of faith means we can’t be sure, at least not sure in the way our deluded self wants to be. We have to be willing to face the fear of losing everything. But if we practise consistently, not in too much of a hurry, we won’t go too far out of balance and lose our connection with what’s important.

One of the things I’ve found I do when teaching others – and myself for that matter – is to emphasize the questions. I find that when I’m giving talks I offer the listeners more questions than I do answers. As a young monk I once heard a teacher asked what his teaching technique was: was it concentration, or investigation, or mantra repetition and so on. When he eventually replied he said, ‘It is to trick you.’ That instantly rang a bell for me. Not that I see myself as a teacher trying to trick people, but I do see how our clever minds will shamelessly employ any means to avoid letting go. We need help to see that.

Every moment of struggle that we find ourselves in can be resolved by asking the right question. The most fundamental question, and one that we can always ask, is:

monks

Meal offering at Harnham

How do I get to see the resistance I am generating that turns the natural pain of life into unnatural and unnecessary suffering. This is the Million Dollar Question.

So I don’t believe giving people more techniques or information about how to practise really helps. Asking the kind of questions that return us to our underlying sense of trust in Dhamma does help. Gradually faith is purified and intensified, until it becomes something we can truly rely upon. To the degree reliable faith is established it becomes easier for us to let go of the incessantly grasping, conceptualizing mind, and that’s a nice thing.

Having said all that, a creative engagement with ritual practices can help support faith too. It might not be immediately obvious just how this process works. For those of us addicted to our sophisticated ideas about reality, simply, regularly, submitting ourselves into traditional ritual practices such as bowing and chanting can be an excellent antidote. It might appear completely pointless much of the time but can nevertheless be exactly what is needed.

Training monks and novices must entail differences in relationship and expectations than teaching laypeople. How do you approach these areas? What are some of the differences and similarities?

AM: First, we are all human beings doing what we can to be free from suffering. Whatever our choice of lifestyle, basically we are all in this for the same reason. It’s true there are differences in how we engage practice. And the longer one has been in the training the greater the difference – this is the case for anyone following the Buddha’s teachings, Sangha and laity alike. That is to say that it’s all to do with commitment: how much are we willing to sacrifice? In the first few years of training I don’t expect there to be a great deal of difference. But as those practising become more firmly established they find they can take more pressure. Waking from the dreams of delusion takes energy and the amount of intensity that we can handle is determined by the strength of our container. By container I mean primarily our sense of self-respect. Self-respect is much more than an idea we have about ourselves; it’s like an energetic force field and it builds up as we exercise sila (virtue) and renunciation. Someone who has internalized these principles to a greater degree can take a lot more pressure. And that in turn serves the process of purification.

In terms of how this approach might show itself, I always tell those new to training that whenever they have doubts about what constitutes right practice, be it meditation or observing precepts, they should feel free to ask. And for the junior Sangha members, once a year I ask them to write a report on where they are at. This gives them a chance to bring up things they might find difficult to speak about. There were times in my early years as a monk when I had the impression I wasn’t supposed to have doubts, or if I did I should just observe them, not express them in any way. As a result I struggled for years over things that could easily have been cleared up. It’s true I developed strength in patient endurance in the process, but there are endless opportunities in life to develop that virtue. Some doubts are more useful than others and to get to know this in the beginning it’s right we feel allowed to ask.

For someone well established in the training it could be appropriate to tell them to simply watch the doubt; let the pressure build up, allow the agony of uncertainty to be a thorn that spurs them on in their effort – to use the heat and pressure generated to break out of old, limiting structures of self. For them the feeling of, ‘this is too much too soon’ is not to be believed in, but endured with resolute determination. The real

Abhinando and Jutindharo

Ajahns Abhinando and Jutindharo in the Dhamma Hall

thing feels like that eventually. At an earlier stage of training though, right practice might mean equipping oneself with a wholesome sense of self-worth and relative contentment; ‘too much too soon’ might really be that way. Enduring at their stage might cause their container to crack up.

It’s also useful to consider the effects of living inside or outside of spiritual community. Obviously the Buddha recognized the benefits of supportive companionship. In setting up the Sangha he established a here-and-now, visible presence in society that could function as an example to inspire all those who seek a way out of the tedious mediocrity that is ‘worldliness’.

But it’s not an option for everyone to live in spiritual community, with the support that entails. I do recommend to anyone serious about their training to try and locate themselves so they have regular access to inspiring examples of those living in accord with the Way. And in making that kind of assessment people need to exercise wise discernment; not all monks and nuns are going to be an inspiration. Just having robes on doesn’t mean anything in itself.

Self-respect, intensity and support are spiritual factors that all followers of the Buddha would want to work on. Monastic or retreat situations, with their emphasis on constant mindfulness, enhance the opportunities to cultivate them.

There is one more point I would make. This is the recognition of individual responsibility (‘Work out your own liberation with diligence’ [the Buddha’s final words]). Any ideas we might still be holding to that there is someone out there, up there, looking after us, have to go. Just as in the time of the Buddha, these days many people hold such stories as being ultimately real, if not consciously then unconsciously. The idea that there is someone taking care of things is real: it is a real movement in our minds. But the only thing ultimate about it is that it is uncertain, unsatisfactory and inherently insubstantial (anicca, dukkha, anatta).

Joining the Sangha or belonging to a Buddhist group does not in itself guarantee anything. If we continue our habit of projecting responsibility outwards – now onto our community, whereas previously our energy was invested in, for example, our conditioned ideas of God – we lose out. We merely swap one form of false security for another, and this will certainly lead to eventual disillusionment. When this sort of thing happens, those who become disappointed tend to blame the community for letting them down. Maybe the difficulty came from investing too much energy in an unsafe refuge. We need to remember that being a member of a great group of meditators or being ordained under a great teacher are not ends in themselves. Being individually responsible for our spiritual development was one of the Buddha’s many radical teachings and something of which our teachers might need to remind us from time to time.

So for someone considering going forth and living the Holy Life*, what would you say are the benefits?

AM: Spaciousness: mental, emotional, relational. You have permission to move through the world, touch it, sense it, observe it, without being defined by it. That’s the most direct answer. And three other things come to mind. The first is to do with consistency of practice. Have you ever seen someone try to start a fire by rubbing two dry sticks together? If they take a break when they get tired, the heat doesn’t build up sufficiently for the fire to ignite. ‘Going forth’ is making a public statement of our commitment to live the celibate renunciant life for the purpose of purifying the heart. This effectively puts you in a position that makes it hard for you not to keep practising, to not keep firing up the furnace of purification. We all know what it’s like to feel enthusiastic for a while and then find the energy passes, leaving us unmotivated. Having the robe on stops you from doing things that delete the goodness your practice has generated. It stops you from backsliding. I recall many years ago one teacher told us how he had been in robes for about thirty years but he had only been a monk for about nine; he had only really practised for nine of the thirty but during the intervening twenty-one he hadn’t fallen backwards. So one benefit of going forth is what it stops you doing.

The second thing is what it gives you. Sangha life provides the optimum environment for delving into dukkha (fundamental suffering, or ‘unsatisfactoriness’). If we want to wholeheartedly, single-mindedly inquire into the process of ignorance, then we need to be able to draw on a huge reservoir of goodness. Attempting to transform our suffering without access to a lot of well-being is doomed to failure. The Holy Life as set up by the Buddha is a goodness generator. All our activity – body, speech and mind – is guided towards enhanced integrity and expanded compassion. We learn to expect from ourselves, and others expect from us, that we continually increase in goodness. These expectations are helpful. The values of the casual culture in which we live condition expectations that do not accord with Dhamma. They aren’t helpful – quite the opposite. Wearing the robe of a samana (religious renunciant) elicits free energy, so to speak, by way of what people project onto us. Even in a country like Great Britain that is not predominantly Buddhist, most people recognize a monk when they see one and expect us to be kind, patient, considerate, friendly, wise. It makes it a lot easier to live simply, harmoniously and contentedly.

*The ‘Holy Life’ is a translation from the Pali, brahmacariya, which referred to the living of the celibate renunciant life, and is more evocative of the true meaning of the Sangha’s vocation than, say, ‘monastic life’, or ‘renunciant life’.

The third thing to consider is how living the Holy Life offers regular association with those further along the path of training than we are. At the beginning of the Buddha’s Discourse on the Greatest Blessings (Mahamangala Sutta) it is recommended that we ‘Do not cultivate the company of the unworthy, and associate often with the wise.’ Without drifting into superstitious ideas about ‘transmission’, I believe there are indeed great blessings to be found in keeping the company of those who have done their work and realized the fruits of practice. If we are permeable enough, then, just as we might pick up a disease from someone who is ill, by living closely with those more virtuous than ourselves we ‘pick up’ something very helpful.

Gathered together for a Kathina ceremony

Gathered together for a Kathina ceremony

Ajahns Kovida, Thitamedha and Sr Jotipañña,

Ajahns Kovida, Thitamedha and Sr Jotipañña, of the Chithurst community

Aruna Ratanagiri is a single-sex community. Are there reasons for this that relate to training?

AM: It comes down to what works. We’re at an early stage of translating this particular variation on the theme of a celibate renunciant life into our society, and it seems appropriate that we be spacious and big-hearted in the experiments we make. That’s the principle. Speaking personally, this approach of single-sex community living seems to me less complicated. But the Sangha at Harnham was structured this way when I was invited to come here to be senior monk – I didn’t set it up like this. However I am pleased it is this way.

I feel great respect and gratitude for what has evolved in our Western monasteries over the 30 years since we left Thailand. I don’t believe it’s unfolded like this as a result of any particular individual’s good (or bad) ideas; it is just what we of Western origins have manifested in our sincere efforts to make this renunciant life possible in this social context. I think it’s a misperception to think anyone is ‘doing it’. There are larger forces at play. And I don’t believe anyone has all the answers – we are dealing with the unknown, which is why it is wise to move cautiously and patiently. We do have the choice: what kind of difficulties do we want to work with, those that arise out of living in single-sex communities or those that arise in communities that are mixed. Individuals will decide for themselves which way works best for them.

What is important is that we don’t rush; we don’t rush into new ways just to be more acceptable, or dispense with old ways without showing patience and respect towards the traditions which seeded what we have now. I’ve always had a great admiration for the manner in which Luang Por Sumedho has held back in the face of forceful efforts to persuade him to change things just because they’re disagreeable in some ways to some individuals. We can learn from things being disagreeable and unreasonable. Of course, the most important thing to learn is who it is that is objecting so strongly to the way things are. That tricky inner character comes on as if he or she will be truly satisfied if only they get their own way. I know from my own practice that there is much valuable energy contained in our desire to change things. Rather than merely follow its conditioned trajectory, we can train to embrace that energy, turn it around and employ it in the transformation of the utterly unreasonable passions of lust and resentment.

When the subject of changing the way we do things comes up, I often voice my conviction that the only change we can trust that is lasting and in accord with Dhamma is change that comes out of a sense of adequacy or strength, and equanimity. When the voices demanding change sound like, ‘I can’t take this any more, I just can’t stand it’, then we are wise to hold back. It‘s like saying ‘I am inherently limited’. If we follow these voices then, even if our effort is successful in effecting change, I don’t believe it will be beneficial in the long run. For it to be right effort it needs to be motivated by inner clarity and contentment. Passion and enthusiasm can still be there, but not in the service of ‘me’ and ‘my way’.

The Buddha said that that which accords with contentment and modesty is Dhamma and that which does not is not Dhamma. In our case perhaps it’s even more important that we pay attention to these areas of practice since the culture in which we live does not hold up contentment and modesty as praiseworthy qualities. The Buddha didn’t recommend them to stifle creativity or ingenuity but because these are the kind of qualities that conduce to letting go of the causes of suffering. A good teacher reminds us that the point of going forth is to realize inner contentment. It is from such an inner reality that truly effective, wise and compassionate action can come.

What are some of the means you use to facilitate training? For instance, how have you incorporated the need to do building work and ongoing maintenance as part of monastic practice?

AM: When I was first ordained I lived in a monastery in Bangkok where most of the monks were engaged in study or serving the ceremonial needs of the lay communities – workers from outside were paid to look after maintenance. Then I moved to live with Ajahn Tate in a meditation monastery who said (I was told, since I couldn’t understand Thai at that stage) that those who have the ability to do lots of formal meditation should do that and the others can do building and maintenance work. Later I was re-ordained by Ajahn Chah. When I joined that community I heard he said he wanted the new Buddha image in the temple that was being constructed to be in the standing position because his monks practised not just while sitting, but while working too. He had us doing hard physical work on the temple from straight after the meal at 9 am right through until beyond midnight. This went on for weeks. Apparently, he purposely delayed the introduction of electricity in the monastery so we would have the opportunity to pull water from the well by hand. He told us that if we wanted to penetrate to the deepest insights in practice, we needed to cultivate mindfulness while we swept leaves each afternoon and cleaned the toilets.

In other words there are a variety of takes on this matter. Your view will be determined by the examples you’ve been exposed to as well as your aptitude. Here I tell monks I expect them to do community work on average five hours a day, five days a week for the first five years of training. That is the routine for eight months of the year; the other four months we are in retreat mode. I think it’s good to have it explained up front, so people are less likely to get caught in complaining when they are asked to work. I tell them that if they can give themselves into this routine for five years, they should have come to know themselves well enough to be able to really benefit from solitary practice. From experience I know it can happen that when left on our own we can remain unaware of the gaps in our practice only to have them surface many years later, thoroughly compounded, causing a lot of trouble for ourselves and others.

The idea of running off to live in a monastery can be attractive to people wanting to avoid the irritations involved in living with other people. Yet if we’re sufficiently aware, we can avoid turning the natura

Preparing the ground for walking meditation

Preparing the ground for walking meditation

l frustrations of human interaction into suffering by demanding this realm to be other than it is. But few of us start out that mature.

One of the best ways to become familiar with our compulsive avoidance of our weaknesses is to have to spend time with people whom we don’t necessarily want to be with: having to wash dishes with someone who talks nonsense all the time or who inconsiderately splashes dirty dish water over my robes; sleeping one plasterboard thickness away from someone who stomps around in their room; trying to sit when my neighbour is blissfully ignorant of how his learning chanting out loud is giving rise to my thoughts of wanting to murder him! We are all susceptible to some degree to getting upset and the first five years of training is the appropriate time to have a really close look at what we have to deal with; those fiery upthrusts that manifest when ‘I’ don’t get ‘my’ way.

It isn’t hard to feel peaceful and holy when there are no irritations. I might believe all I need is to have conditions exactly how I want them for long enough, so I can quickly break through into deep concentration, cancel out the hindrances and drop into the big Enlightenment. Goodbye cruel world! It’s easy to justify such ideas if all you do is read books. Well, I’ve seen many monks in too much of a hurry try that and end up miserably short of anything like enlightenment. Before we have a chance to really let go of the hindrances we need to get to know them. The traditional approach for flesh and blood human beings, not ideal ones, is to live under what we call ‘dependence’ (nissaya) for the first five years (navaka training) and then after that, to try it out on your own terms.

So receiving an explanation of why the monastery routine is structured the way it is can help. Perhaps those who’ve been reared in a culture that imbues them with an automatic response of respect and reverence towards authority might not need the same level of conceptual clarity in these matters – I suspect that’s the case. For many of us however, trust was either injured early on in life or was deprived of the conditions needed for it to fully develop. So we can use a little help. I don’t think it’s helpful to expect someone to follow what I say just because that’s the way we did it in Thailand. They do all sorts of things in Thailand that we don’t do here. I find if people understand, then generally they welcome what is offered and feel better able to let go of their conditioned resistance.

After five years an individual should be equipped to make responsible decisions about their practice. It’s like any other serious training that might be undertaken – medical, legal, carpenter’s apprentice – between five and seven years is what it takes to internalize the basic structures. Then they can decide for themselves how to proceed. Of course those of us who are leading the communities always hope that at least some of those who train with us will want to return and help out, but there are no deals struck. It’s based more on trust and individual ability.

What about new technologies? Most of us are familiar with the ideal image of the recluse in his or her cave. Is computer use antithetical to Buddhist monastic life? What can the role of technology be in the context of monastic life and teaching?

AM: Good question. The archetypal image of the renunciant can be a powerful trigger, giving rise to faith in the possibility of freedom. This was one of the ‘signs’ that inspired our teacher the Buddha to go forth. I’m sure it also inspired many of us now living this life. That dimension within us which gets activated or quickened on seeing a samana, one who has given up everything on the outside for the pursuit of truth within, is our real refuge. It is precious and needs to be guarded. Outer Buddha images, Dhamma teachings and members of the Sangha act as reflectors for that inner ability or refuge, reflecting back what is there within.

Personally I don’t feel there’s any inherent conflict between this and technology. I’ll be open and tell you that part of me loves technology. And I think I allow myself to love it because of how it enables communication and the benefit from that. I regularly investigate my relationship with technology and I don’t believe it’s compulsive (at least not totally). Often when I speak with Ajahn Vajiro, for instance, he confesses how fond he is of gadgets; at the same time he refers to them all as ‘Mara’ (the ‘Tempter’). What I’m saying is that having these questions out in the open is important. Technology is powerful, but in itself it’s neither good nor bad. I believe it’s mainly the consciousness that applies it that determines the effect.

Having said that, in the late ‘60s I was a fan of the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who was known for saying things like, ‘The medium is the message’. He was making an important point there; some of his books are very worth reading. There is something about the speed and feel of technology that affects the message being transmitted, and it’s folly to ignore that. But as always, if we just react to this without mindful investigation, we run the chance of missing out on potential benefit. I make a practice of observing how the different mediums affect me; if I listen to a Dhamma talk as an audio recording or if I watch a video recording of a monk on YouTube, it feels very different. Speaking personally I’m not convinced the latter helps get the teachings across. Even though a good rational argument might be made for engaging YouTube to spread Dhamma, what motivates my actions is more than rational thought. How it feels is as important, if not more so.

The best approach is to acknowledge that this is a shared task. If we can be open and flexible about learning to skilfully use

Cave dwelling: the ‘cliff cave’ over the Mekong River at

Cave dwelling: the ‘cliff cave’ over the Mekong River at
Poo Jorm Gorm, a branch of Wat Pah Nanachat in Thailand.

technology, we minimize the risks. But risks certainly do remain.

Some monasteries don’t allow any computers at all – that’s their way of managing the issue. At our monastery, part of acknowledging the power of technology, and the possibility of it creating more problems than solving them, is the clear community agreement on how to use technology. Everyone who has been in training for less than eight years (which is the time required by the Elders’ Council before any Sangha member can represent their community on the Council) has to seek permission before accessing the Internet for personal use. Using it to research timetables or building materials, etc., doesn’t need permission. Only communal terminals are to be used and likewise with email addresses. Those who are over eight vassas set their own standards of use. I think that is a good middle way.

Some who join the community positively dislike computers, telephones or microwave ovens. (But no one objects to the central heating system.) Others are obsessed with computers but realize the danger and gladly accept the discipline. So taking a position for or against technology is not it. Without modern technology I could well have died during childbirth along with my mother. There have been several occasions in my life during periods of hospitalization when I wouldn’t have pulled through without the intervention of technology. So I’m a hi-tech human who’s glad to be still alive doing what I’m doing. We have a hi-tech sewerage system here in our monastery – despite huge efforts to have things otherwise, it just wasn’t possible. It was this option or close up and leave; that’s just how it is. Those who want to live in caves can live in caves. That doesn’t have to be a problem. There are plenty of empty caves and I trust that the purification they realize alone in their cave will bring real benefit. I know this understanding isn’t shared by all, but I have confidence in it. What matters is how conscious we are in our engagement with life. Again, it’s what works that counts.

And it’s what works for oneself and what works in terms of benefiting others. Somebody recently wrote to me saying he was a member of a meditation group in a town a few hundred miles south of Darwin in Northern Australia. He was expressing their gratitude for being able to regularly download Dhamma talks from the website. To access that part of the world, by any means other than electronic, would require a great deal of time and energy (I know, I hitch-hiked through there when I was twenty-two). Somebody else wrote to say they’d enjoyed sharing in a Dhamma reflection with me by way of an MP3 file on their iPod while trekking in remote regions of the Himalayas. Those are slightly extreme examples but there are many, many more; people who, without current technology would not be in contact with Dhamma. I confess I get a bit of a buzz from being a part of that.

It would be interesting to know how many of the monks and nuns we have made their initial contact with the Sangha through the Internet. Quite a few, I expect. Basically, from a practice perspective, none of it is necessary. However, since it is readily available, and since there are beings that suffer and are seeking the way out, I am keen to use it. The point is not to be intoxicated by it. Whether technology is a blessing or a curse depends on how it’s perceived and used.

When I commented in the end-of-year report printed in December’s Forest Sangha Newsletter on how we have started a programme of emailing out a short Dhamma reflection on every new and full moon, we received a delightfully large number of requests from people wanting to be included. I suppose anyone who was likely to find such a programme an offence against the image of what was proper for a Buddhist monk would be unlikely to contact me so perhaps I’m getting a false reading here, but I don’t think so. If this stuff is used sensitively I can’t see anything inherently antithetical to the monastic life.*

*If you wish to be part of the new and full moon mailing send your email address to: dhammasakaccha at gmail dot com

In moving an Eastern tradition to the West, do we meet with challenges unique to the Western context that require a different approach in training?

AM: There are differences but they’re often exaggerated, I find. We only feel lost and limited because we’re ignorant of two things, the Buddha said: suffering and the cause of suffering. This is a timeless truth. The manifestations of our ignorance and the skilful means required to untangle it understandably vary from East to West. And yes, we need to be big-hearted in the approaches we make. But what’s most important is that we stay true to our deepest interest in being free. I believe it’s when we lose sight of this that we become caught in and confused by the outer complexities. So long as we attend to what the Buddha taught and, at the same time, keep coming back to this deep longing for liberation, then our heart’s natural ability will show us what we need, as we need it. I trust in this very strongly; in this, and in recollection of our teachers.

One of the most significant sources of support I’ve found over the years has been to regularly consider, ‘What would my teachers think about this?’ To some that might seem I’m stuck in old ways, but to me it’s about staying in tune with a dimension that’s not about fad or fashion or getting distracted by the demands of popular culture. Of course, considerable skill is required in translating the conventions, but I believe that will more or less look after itself if we keep our eyes open, so to speak, and stay true to that which is essential. Our love of truth is essential, and for me that is what’s nourished by recollection of my teachers – it helps keep me on track.

Your generation, the one that began their training in Thailand back in the1960s and 1970s, are all getting older. What do you teach about ageing?

ajahn sumedho

AM: That it’s a relief. The older I get, the happier I feel. Personally, since this body has never really been a great source of comfort, the physical inconveniences of ageing don’t come as a big surprise. What is most noticeable is how hugely privileged I feel. I see in a way I’ve never seen before how living in a period of human history when there is such ready access to Dhamma teachings and teachers is a very lucky thing. Maybe luck doesn’t come into it but it feels that way. There are times these days when I think back and realize how much I have accepted things as if I were somehow entitled to them: information, opportunities, access. When I see this I feel rather ashamed. But with age I’ve learned to value even feeling ashamed – I view such feelings as protectors. It is what the Buddha referred to as hiri – totally different from guilt, which is part of the neurotic baggage we start out with and only useful as fuel for the furnace. Feelings of remorse for past heedlessness, rightly held, lead to gratitude. I don’t recall feeling grateful when I was young, even though I always had so much; I was dazzled most of the time by my mind’s capacity to imagine how I and the world could and should be otherwise. It’s not because I’ve become complacent; rather that some of the compulsiveness has worn out. And that’s a relief. I find gratitude a more sustainable resource than much of what I turned to in the past. If it’s genuine, gratitude never fails to soften and warm the heart. And it doesn’t run out. I think it might be limitless.

 


 


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