The end of the world is here
Luang Por Sumedho
Adapted from a Dhamma Talk given at Amaravati Monastery, 30 August 2008

Today is the new moon, halfway through the Vassa … time flies. At my age it goes by faster than ever before. But time is an illusion. We’re talking about Dhamma, akalika (timeless) Dhamma, the timeless reality. I like to use the word ‘reality’ for Dhamma. I say it this way for the purpose of reflection (awareness and investigation), to take words and give them more meaning, more power than the English words we already know. Usually the word ‘reality’, as in ‘let’s face reality’, refers to worldly problems. But the ‘real world’ of society is not real. I’m not trying to be doctrinal about this, just to get us to reflect on the word Dhamma. Taking refuge in the Dhamma is taking refuge in reality.

Luang Por Sumedho

As we practise mindfulness meditation we need to use these Four Noble Truths. The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta we chanted tonight is a perfect tool. That is, if we use it for insight, not just memorize and be able to chant it but use it like a tool: apply it to our experience, to suffering, the causes, the cessation and the way of non-suffering. The Buddha even made it simpler than the Four Noble Truths: he said “I teach only two things, suffering and the end of suffering.” Notice he’s taking an ordinary human experience, suffering, or dukkha, and just pointing to it. He’s not making metaphysical statements that the nature of reality is suffering and the real world is all about being miserable. It’s about two things: suffering and the end of suffering.

So the end of suffering is here – I’m pointing to my heart, or citta, as they call it in Thailand. Luang Por Chah used to say ‘Suffering ends here’, and he’d point to his heart. Or, ‘The end of the world is here’.

We can feel intimidated, being samanas, because oftentimes we’re criticized for not living in the ‘real world’ with its struggles and so on, that we live in some kind of illusory world. But as you know, that is not the real world. It is the world, though. The world is like that, the nature of conditioned phenomena is that it is changing, unstable, uncertain.

Seeing it that way is a reflection, a way to use our awareness to point to conditioned phenomena, which we call the five khandhas*. In the teachings we have this neat little package called the five khandhas to work with. That simplifies everything, because conditioned phenomena are endless in their variety. The human body is a condition, it’s a phenomenon. This is where we start looking at our own body no longer from the perspective of cultural attitudes or memories, but in this very direct way: rupa khandha (form) is this. It doesn’t have to be a matter of looking at somebody else’s rupa khandha, there’s one right here I experience all the time. This kind of reflection involves changing from personal pronouns, identities of any sort, and just noticing a condition, a phenomenon that I am experiencing at this moment: this rupa khandha. And it’s like this. The five khandhas provide expedient ways to investigate phenomena, both from the coarse level of physical form to the refinements of feeling and consciousness, memory, emotion and the whole range of conditioned phenomena we experience.

meditation hut at Chithurst

As always, for this Vassa there’s this encouragement to keep investigating your experience in these ways. Whatever happens doesn’t matter, the weather or the problems or whatever the conditions are. We can make them into problems and get worried and upset and sad and so forth because the conditions aren’t always what we want. We want certain conditions, we don’t want other conditions. That’s about conditions. .But what I’m pointing to is a way of reflecting on conditioned phenomena, of observing them, in which we’re no longer trying to make anything out of them but just recognizing them. The reality of conditioned phenomena is that they are impersonal, and they are changing. No matter how strongly we feel our emotions are ours, they’re empty. The feeling, ‘I’m hurt because I’m not appreciated’ is an empty condition. It has no soul, no core, no substance, no essence. When you investigate from this level of awareness, seeing it as empty is not to dismiss or deny it – that would be some kind of value of judgement we’d put on it. Instead, it’s just recognizing the feeling as the feeling; it’s consciousness awakened to Dhamma, to reality. Simple as that.

We all know this teaching. Most of us have been at it for years, using this formula. These Pali teachings are skilful means to investigate reality; to break through the illusions, the delusions, the conditioning, the attachment to conditioned phenomena. Everything, every condition, whether it’s happiness or unhappiness, takes us to the unconditioned – if you just let it. Whether you’re happy or sad, you get what you want or you don’t – everything: it’s all conditions arising, ceasing. It all ceases in the unconditioned.

Amata-dhamma is reality. And the relationship of amata-dhamma, or the unconditioned, to the conditioned is not one of judging. Everything, every condition is born and ceases in the unconditioned. It’s not saying the conditioned is inferior to the unconditioned; that’s the way the thinking mind works. Using these terms is not to take sides: ‘I’m for the unconditioned, I can’t be bothered with the conditioned’. It’s to be able to know, to discern the conditioned for what it is and to recognize the real. It’s extraordinarily simple. Or maybe it’s just ordinarily simple. Extraordinary is an extreme isn’t it? But you get my point: the simplicity of it.

Notice that personality is a complicated thing. My personality tends to make everything complicated. I’ve watched it for years, watched how the moment I get caught in my feelings and desires, loves and hates, preferences, opinions and views … the world arises. And it’s a complicated world, full of fears and complaints and disappointments.

The emotional state seems more real than anything else, doesn’t it, when we’re caught up with our feelings. It takes us over, we can be completely enslaved to our emotions. And that’s where this vedana, sañña, sankhara, the khandhas of feeling, perception and formations can be used to observe. Notice how we can be aware of all that, of happiness and unhappiness, of me and mine. Of my feelings and what I think and what I want.

That which is aware of me is not me. Now this statement is not meant to be grasped as some kind of doctrinal teaching, it’s an encouragement to investigate. Find out: this which is aware, it’s pure, conscious, discerning … but ‘me’ depends on thinking. To become a person, to become me I have to think ‘me’. If you just keep examining, investigating in this way, the whole illusory structure, attachment to conditioned phenomena begins to fall away, is no longer believable, no longer convincing. Because it is illusory. There’s no essence to it, any of the five khandhas, there’s no personal essence or substance or core or soul or special thing that is just mine. The Buddha is the knowing, the ability we all have to know reality. Thinking is a human creation that we cling to. We’re attached to our thoughts, views and perceptions. Our memories. These are very convincing, because this me, me, me can really take us over. Me as a person, me as a man, me as an American, me as 74 years old, me as a bhikkhu … and yet me is empty.

When you observe in this way, that which is observing this sense of me isn’t judging it – it’s not saying it’s wrong to think me – but it knows, there’s a discernment, a recognition that if I attach to this and follow this sense of me and mine, where does it take me? To suffering, every time. Complicated, endless problems, difficult scenes, fears, resentment, disappointments.

I came into monastic life very idealistic about Buddhism, monastic life and the Thai forest tradition. But every convention has disappointed me in some way or another. This is the nature of conditions, isn’t it? They’re all disappointing. Even when I get what I want, it’s not enough. It’s not a criticism of the convention, just a recognition of what idealism can do, what we bring into this life and why so many people leave it. Because it’s disappointing on the ‘me’ level. I don’t get what ‘I’ want from it, from the ego level.

It wasn’t what I was expecting. I wanted something else. But then the whole point of these Four Noble Truths is to see the nature of wanting. Wanting something you don’t have or not wanting things to be the way they are – blind attachment always takes you to suffering. That is not to be believed in, it’s to be investigated. To be seen for yourself, known for yourself. No one else can make us enlightened or know reality for us. But they can point to it: that’s what the Buddha’s teachings do, they’re pointers at reality.

Life is short. Don’t waste your life when you have the opportunity to use this experience, this birth, this rupa khandha, this personality that you have, the loves and hates and feelings, the five khandhas and six ayatanas (sense organs) that you’re experiencing right now, to use them for awakened discernment. We’re not here to try to make things nice and what we want. This is the challenge of the samana life.

As Buddhist monks and nuns we are samanas, alms mendicants, meaning that we’re putting ourselves right on the line, depending on the goodwill of other people. That’s different than if we were priests with rights to control or dominate the lay community. Remember, as alms mendicants we’re actually beggars. We put ourselves at the very bottom of society’s ladder. We have no money, we can’t even grow our own food – for food, shelter, something to wear, medicine, we are totally dependent on the goodwill and kindness of the lay community. It’s not to take this in a personal way; I’m not saying that we’re so pure and good that we do this. But this is a daring thing to do, isn’t it? It’s putting our life on the line. It’s taking a risk. Better to have money in the bank, own our house, make sure we’re treated properly and appreciated and things are safe and secure. But reflect on what an alms mendicant is. It’s putting ourselves right on the edge.

How many will stay here when the economy falls apart, and take a risk? We take so much for granted here, it’s a well-supported monastery. But the support of this monastery is from the goodwill of a lay community in an affluent country. In some ways it spoils us. We can begin to just take it for granted and forget that sense of gratitude, that kataññu. We can start thinking of what ‘I’ want in a worldly way. The nature of this alms mendicant life is insecurity. We give up our rights. We have moral rights: the Five Precepts, or the Eight or the Ten or the Vinaya. We have the right to determine to live within these restraints on behaviour and speech, within an agreed conventional structure. It’s more about duties than rights, performing one’s duties within the structure of the Vinaya. At least that’s the agreement, that’s how we play this game, in order not to create any more illusions about self or the world, but to break through the illusions. The samana life is about relinquishing, just as the Second Noble Truth is about letting go of desire. It’s not a rejection of anything, it’s not suicide, not resistance, denial or suppression – it’s letting go. It’s releasing our habitual blind hold on the five khandhas. The life of a samana is about relinquishment, not about attaining. We trust in the Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha.

This is just to point out that our life here is not about the social values of today. It is about liberation from delusion, wakening to the real. The real is not something, is not anything. It’s not a phenomenon. You can’t think about it, you can’t create an image of it. So we say unconditioned, unborn, uncreated, unformed. Anatta (not-self), nirodha (cessation), nibbana (liberation). If you try to think about these words you don’t get anywhere. Your mind stops, it’s like nothing. That’s why it can be disappointing, because if we’re expecting something from the meditation practice, some kind of Enlightenment or bright lights and world-trembling experiences and we don’t get them, then we’re disappointed. Because expecting is another kind of desire, isn’t it? I want something. I read about it in a book: the universe trembled when the Buddha was enlightened. So we’re sitting there waiting for some kind of earthshaking experience … and even if we get something like that it doesn’t mean anything until we’ve actually penetrated reality with wisdom. And reality is not shaking, it’s not trembling; but it’s here and now, it is reality. It’s real. It’s knowable, recognizable.

So we can use these words, the Third Noble Truth is about ‘realizing’ or ‘recognizing’ the unconditioned. Because when dukkha ceases it isn’t like annihilation, but there is this, there’s reality. When dukkha ceases there’s reality. When we’ve let go of dukkha, let go of the five khandhas then their nature is to cease and there is still the real when conditions cease. If we don’t appreciate this then even though conditions are ceasing all the time we don’t notice because we’re always looking for something else. We’re always on to the next rebirth experience, the next cause, the next problem. Something more to do, something to get, that maybe we should meditate more or we shouldn’t meditate … there’re all kinds of views and opinions.

There’s a lot of interest in Advaita Vedanta these days. Because in Advaita you don’t have to deal with Vinaya. According to the Advaita teachers it’s all about being mindful. It’s inspiring, and Vinaya is not mentioned, and even religious conventions are unnecessary. This can be appealing. But what I’ve learned from our style, this very orthodox Theravada Buddhist tradition, the Dhamma-vinaya, is that it gives us forms to work with, to bounce off of, it gives us boundaries where our ego is challenged. Living within its boundaries we might resist or not like it or get attached to the boundaries; we begin to see that one can rebel against or one can get institutionalized through the convention. But the point is to use it consciously as a tool to reflect, to investigate the nature of dukkha.

As such the Dhamma teachings of the Buddha in the Pali Canon are brilliant. We have these skilful tools to use like paticca samuppada (dependent origination), or the Four Noble Truths; the fetters and the stages, and lists like the indriya (mental factors) are brilliant ways of using conventional teachings not for grasping or rejection but for looking at things in different ways, emphasizing them so we can investigate and see. And it gives us a common vocabulary for discussing Dhamma, for sharing this opportunity for liberating insight with others. That’s why the Buddha-Dhamma has been able to last for so long, 2,551 years: because there’s a convention that carries it. One that can be  inherited, and go from one generation to the next. The Buddhist teaching has been preserved in its purity. The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – you can’t get better than that in its skillfulness and precision, just on a conventional level of using investigation to awaken. It’s about taking something so ordinary – suffering – and through investigation seeing its causes and cessation, and realizing non-suffering.

This realm that we’re in is a frustrating experience. Being born as a human being on this planet is like this. It’s not about being peaceful and happy and blissful. It’s about growing old, getting sick, seeing the world change, having to put up with all kinds of fears and ignorance, conflict, unfairness and so on. This is the world, the sense world: it’s about birth and death. But through practice our relationship to the world becomes one of just knowing it – not being born into it moment after moment again and again. Lokavidu (an epithet for the Buddha) means ‘knower of the world’.

At Amaravati, this practice is what we’re here for. It’s all I care about. It’s what I know from experience is right, good, liberating. We can explore, investigate, begin to really understand the nature of the mind, the nature of consciousness. Not through what psychologists or modern science tells us; we’ve got the perfect tools within the Pali Canon for investigating the nature of the mind.

This is the purpose of Amaravati Monastery. It’s a wonderful opportunity. It’s for awakened investigation of Dhamma. We’re not here to feel comfortable and safe; it’s taking a risk, putting ourselves on the edge. This monastery is well supported – I don’t go out and ask people to support it. I don’t go around trying to convert people. It generates its own support because of the Dhamma. It’s the accumulated virtues of the Buddha and his teaching that we are experiencing now. Reflecting on that can help us really value this opportunity.

  • *The five khandhas, or groups, are physical and mental components of the personality and of sensory experience in general. They are:  rupa (physical phenomena), vedana (feeling), sañña (perception), sankhara (mental fashionings), and viññana (sense consciousness) [resume reading]

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