Bringing the Teachings Alive
A talk given by Ajahn Viradhammo at Cittaviveka July 1st 1989
For me, monastic life is a model that the Buddha has offered of how we can all practise. Sometimes lay people ask: "But how do I do it as a lay person?" Lay life is so varied; life situations vary so much, some people have families, some don't. There are all kinds of lifestyles, so it's hard to set up any specific model. Certain general suggestions are given for lay practice: to keep the precepts, to live a moral life, to practise generosity; Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood are offered, but lay practice has to be creative in using life itself as a vehicle for freedom - and that's very individual. Monastic life has a more uniform quality because we live together according to rules; as lay practitioners you can contemplate how this model works for reflection and contemplation.
Now the basic and fundamental prerequisite of monastic life is surrender, a giving up to a certain form and discipline. We take the precepts and accept this lifestyle: that's the choice we make. But then it becomes a situation where we no longer have that many choices. We live in a hierarchy, we have a prescribed way of relating between men and women. We have rules about taking care of our robes and the equipment of the monastery; we have rules that govern the sharing of things. We have various ways of admonishment and of ordination, legal processes. As a monastic order we give up to this training and form.
Some people think that rules are an infringement on freedom, but actually what this surrender or commitment does is to give us the opportunity to watch - rather than a freedom to always do what we want. Before I became a bhikkhu I lived in India for some time, and had tremendous physical freedom. I managed to live on about ten dollars a month; I didn't have the constraints of my old culture, so there was tremendous freedom. But I became very confused. I got confused because at that time I still believed that if I did what I wanted, I'd reach some kind of fulfilment; but instead I found that doing what I wanted to do just made me more and more frustrated, because it did not put an end to wanting. It did not put an end to that fundamental restlessness which I kept trying to overcome by obtaining an experience: travel, a relationship or whatever. That kind of freedom actually was fun for a while, but it led to despair - the more I went out into the world of situations and events, the more I realised that this was not working. Then, through some stroke of good fortune I managed to become a bhikkhu.
I didn't find it easy, but of course that's not the point. The first year of monastic life was terribly frustrating, the second year was terribly frustrating, the third year was terribly frustrating! I couldn't shuffle the pieces of the chessboard around. I couldn't go to the monastery I wanted to go to. I'd go to Ajahn Chah, and I'd say: "Luang Por, I'd like to go to such and such a monastery." He'd say: "What's wrong with this one? Don't you like me?" Ajahn Chah's way was very much one of frustrating desire - and he was fearless in that. He didn't mind if his disciples hated his guts! That's the kind of compassion he could exhibit: the compassion to frustrate. That takes a lot of courage, doesn't it? But I had decided that if I was going to get anywhere near the Truth that the Buddha was trying to point out, I just had to stop and look. I couldn't just keep rearranging things; I had already given that a good go and I knew it didn't work. The reason I took up this model, this vehicle, was not just to have fun; nor was it because I wanted to get something out of it - it was because I wanted to be able to observe. So this fundamental commitment to a structure allows for the freedom to watch. Can you translate that into your own life? For example, your family, your job, your social structure: these can be a vehicle for spiritual understanding if you begin to accept that within them there will be frustrations, rather than always trying to rearrange situations to fulfil personal desires and needs. Obviously, if the situation is harmful in some way, then you have to make a change; but the usual humdrum, boring, annoying stuff of life is actually the stuff of Enlightenment, if we are willing to observe how it is. So commitment is very important; and this is what the robe is - it's a symbol of commitment.
Responsibility can be used as commitment, or it can be seen as a burden. I can take on the responsibility of being the senior monk and have kind of a martyr syndrome about it: "Oh, poor me, I have to be the senior monk..." or I can feel great about it: "Wow! Look at me, I'm the senior monk..." or I can just see it as a convention: "I'm senior monk. I'd prefer to be a fly on the wall actually, but there I am: senior monk." Then I watch what it does to me - whether there's like or dislike, or feeling that I'm doing it well or that I'm hopeless - beginning to observe how the mind functions within that situation, rather than changing or rearranging it according to some personal opinion.
So, applying this to your situation, ask: "What happens to me at work?" "What happens to me at home?" Work is just not always going to be fulfilling, it can be boring, interesting or annoying, but we can make use of this commitment. If we're always shifting according to personal desire, we can never really understand how it operates in the mind. So commitment is fundamental to understanding our human mind. Now within commitment there are three themes that I find very helpful in my own practice:- discovery, training and purification.
...this is how Buddhist concepts can help us; they can awaken us to certain things about human
experience which we need to understand in order to be free.
Discovery (sometimes called vipassana) is fundamental, because the Buddhist way is the way of awakening. It's not the way of getting rid of, or attaining to something in the future; these are bound up with ego, aren't they, with what we call "self-view". Awakening is always something immediate: we awaken... What do we awaken to? To things we haven't seen before; we discover things we haven't seen before. So the Buddha's teaching is pointing out things which are always there, but which perhaps we have not seen before.
Now this is how Buddhist concepts can help us; they can awaken us to certain things about human experience which we need to understand in order to be free. They are not just ideas that we put away until our next exam in Buddhism, they are principles and concepts through which we look at life - like lenses. So you can take a conceptual structure, like the three characteristics of existence: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self (anicca, dukkha, anatta) - how do you apply that to your life? For example, anatta, `not-self': the teaching that this mind and body are not self... But if I'm not this body and I'm not this mind, then who am I?... The mind begins to question. The question directs the mind, it starts to awaken us. The beauty of the Buddha's teaching is that it allows for and uses doubt in a way to liberate the mind. Or take a teaching like anicca: `That which has a nature to arise has a nature to cease' - begin to look at life through that. Life's experiences are varied, so if I'm always involved in experiences it's very confusing but if I use this teaching as a lens to look through, I see that that which has the nature to arise also has the nature to cease, and is not personal. So I begin to discover the nature of my conscious experience, because I'm no longer attached to it - I begin to discover things about experience that I've never noticed before. An angry thought is not mine, it's a condition of nature; it arises and ceases. Perhaps I can then begin to let go of guilt, anger and things like that, seeing them as not personal - not-self. I have discovered something.
Then dukkha: often we talk about dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, in terms of conflict. We all have conflict in our lives, but before I came across this teaching I was always just trying to get rid of conflict: trying to be a nice guy if I was angry; trying to get rid of greed if I was obsessed with greed; trying to distract my mind if I got bored, so there was this random attempt to get around it somehow. But when I heard the teaching that says conflict has a cause I began to question, and to discover the cause of suffering.
Now the delusion of our life is that we tend to get fascinated by particular types of experience. If I get angry at the bus being late, I think it's the bus driver's problem, or it's my problem. I'm always looking outside to figure out what the problem is, but I'm not looking at the anger. The teaching that we use is one of being more objective: "OK, this is an experience of anger, but that is something which arises and ceases. What's causing the suffering here?" So we're detaching now from the seeming urgency and complexity and fascination of our experiences. In this process, it doesn't matter what we're angry at, what matters is that we look more deeply into these basic mental patterns in order to understand. If we are willing to look into our conflicts, to open our minds to conflict, then we can discover something, can't we? Whereas if we make a judgement that we should be someone who never has fear or anger - should always be bright and beautiful and charming - then, when the opposite comes, we tend to try to push it away. There is no reflection, there is just some kind of idea or expectation that we attach to, and then frustration when this can`t be met. But if we look at it differently we see that experience is just a process, and in that process there is something that we have to discover, something we have to look at. We have to understand what is the cause of conflict.
So it's not the experience that is the problem: lust is not the problem; fear is not the problem; boredom is not the problem. The problem is the attachment to these. What does this word `attachment' mean? What is attachment? This moment is the way it is now. Why do I make it a problem, why does there have to be conflict? This isn't a judgement; it's not saying I shouldn't have conflict, it's saying awaken to the cause. When there is a welcoming attitude to the predicament we're in, we begin to see what attachment and letting go is. Attachment is always bound up with a sense of `I'; letting go is an open acceptance of this moment the way it is. This is something that we have to discover, we have to see it quite clearly. This is the path of insight.
Training (bhavana in Pali): we have to make effort. Sometimes this teaching of letting go can sound like a sort of complacent acceptance. I might get angry and punch someone in the nose and say: "It's all right, just let go. No problem!" Then get angry again and punch you in the eye, and say: "I'm an angry person. That's just the way it is!" - but that's not it, is it? - There is training to be done.
It's because we don't understand that we make mistakes, so the trick is to
make as few mistakes as possible - and not to make the same mistakes again and again.
The two things that I find very helpful in training are: 1) to see cause and effect, and 2) intention. We can always reflect upon cause and effect, asking for example: "What is the result of my practice? How long have I been practising and what's the result? Am I more at ease with life than I was ten years ago? Or, a year ago? Or am I more up-tight?" If I'm more up-tight, then I need to consider my practice! If I'm more at ease, then also I should consider my practice. So we look at cause and effect asking: "What is the result of my life, the way I live my life?" Quite simply. Not as a judgement, saying: "There I go, getting angry again." - that kind of attitude is not reflective. Instead notice: "The way I speak - what's the result of that?" "The way I consume the objects of the sense-world, whether it's ideas in books or ham sandwiches: What is the result of that?" "What is the result of my sitting meditation? What's the effect on my mind and body, on the society around me?" These are things we can contemplate. It's simple, but very important - to see what works and what doesn't work.
It's because we don't understand that we make mistakes, so the trick is to make as few mistakes as possible - and not to make the same mistakes again and again. Yet sometimes we have this blindness, and we don't see why we have suffering in our lives. Ignorance blinds us. So then what can we do?... Wherever there is suffering, or confusion we can begin to look at that pattern of our lives. If we look at this whole pattern, we can discover the causes of suffering, and begin to make intentions to not allow those causes to come up all the time.
Let's say I'm a person who is always making wisecracks at people. I watch them cringe, I begin to notice that no one likes me, and I hate myself. So I reflect: "This kind of speech brings me remorse and regret, and brings other people suffering." And I see: "Ah, that's the result. So then what can I do?" Now this is when it's important to know the difference between remorse and guilt. Remorse is a healthy response to inappropriate action or speech, or thought; it's a healthy response, because it's telling me: "This is painful." But most of us probably make that into guilt: there is remorse, but also an inappropriate amount of self-flagellation; this is the unhealthy activity of guilt.
For me, it seems that guilt is a kind of cover-up of the pain; I numb the pain, covering it over with these thoughts of guilt: "Yes. You are rotten to the core, Viradhammo!". But this is self-view. What does it feel like when we just go to the pain? If I say something which is unkind to someone, and then see them get hurt, I think: "Oh, I did it again!" - and there's the jab.
This is why meditation is so important, because when we sit we get the results of our life. Sometimes it's difficult to sit when there is suffering, because we want to get away from that suffering. If we actually sit and feel the pain, without judgement - really feel the physical and emotional feeling of that - we can contemplate: "This is the result of that; with this, there is that." We see dependent origination: that the origin of this feeling depends on a certain activity. If we really feel the pain, that registers in our minds in a way that is intuitive, in a way that is quite fundamental. We understand that when we do certain things we are going to suffer. We realise cause and effect.
So then what can we do? Well, we can use skilful thinking rather than guilt thinking. We can say: "From now on, I'm going to try not to speak in those ways." We can make that intention; and that intention makes us more mindful. So, five days later when I say the same thing again, instead of thinking: "There you go again. You're no good, you're rotten to the core!" I can go back and examine: "What's the result?" "It hurts, it really hurts!" I feel it. That pain can teach me: With the arising of this condition you get that condition, but when this condition isn't there you won't get that." If I go through that process again and again and again, with those habitual patterns of suffering, eventually I begin to see the arising of that unwholesome condition. Mindfulness is now established. Mindfulness is very powerful, it's like recollection or remembering. It sees: "Ah, there it is...- but I'm not going to react to that, I'm not going to follow that one." I button my lip, I don't say it. Then there's the joy: "I didn't do it! I didn't get sucked in." The heart is freed from that particular habit.
Now in all of that there has been no hatred; there has been intention but it hasn't been bound up with self-view, there has been no activity of desire. I'm not trying to become a person who doesn't do that. There is no activity of aversion. There is mindfulness, awakeness. That's training, always working from awakeness and intention: I'm going to be awake - not become anything, just be awake and aware of the way things are.
Purification, the third consideration that I find helpful, is probably one of the most difficult parts, because it's so boring. Of course, I can only speak for monastic life because I never really developed the training as a lay-person. I know that monastic life is not fun, it's not meant to be. Though I love the brotherhood and find the monks inspiring, there are times when I don't like the people, or feel annoyed or intimidated or fed up. But I have the freedom to watch that, and this is the purification. This is where we have to have tremendous patience. The line is: `Infinite patience, boundless compassion.' This is the practice. When it all begins to surface - when you start to feel annoyed at the apartment and the marriage, or fed up with the kids - desire manifests as frustration. But then if we can bear with the frustration, not judge it, we go through a purification. So we have to allow this stuff to surface into the mind, we have to allow the rubbish to become conscious.
That peace is not something we get by becoming anything
but by letting go, allowing things to cease.
This is why the teaching of anatta and anicca, non-personality and change, is so important - because if we didn't have that teaching, we would take it personally. But the more we contemplate this teaching and discover that it's true, the more courage we have to allow these things to come up into consciousness. The more courage we have to let them up into consciousness - the more patience we have to bear with them - the more we realise the underlying peace of the mind.
That peace is not something we get by becoming anything but by letting go, allowing things to cease. That's why we talk so much about cessation. Say, when I'm feeling grumpy, I remember the teaching: "That's going to change. Don't make it a problem." So I allow myself to be grumpy, which isn't an indulgence in being grumpy or laying that mood onto the other monks but neither is it a denial of that grumpiness. It's just recognising that that which has a nature to arise has a nature to cease; I can awaken to that - and then it does cease. I realise that more and more, it becomes a path of courage and confidence. There is the confidence to allow these things to be there, to make them fully conscious - to allow fear, anger or whatever to be fully conscious.
The tendency of repression is powerful. We are panicked by conditions and then they can become a threat; we try to push them away, but they come back. So if we find that conditions keep coming up in our lives, then we have to consider: "Am I really allowing them to be conscious, or am I pushing them away?..." This balance between indulgence and repression is hard to find, although actually it's very simple - it's just awakening to the way it is right now.
It's a very moment to moment practice, so when the question comes up: "Am I repressing or am I indulging?" see that as doubt, just a condition in the mind: "This is the way it is now," "I feel this way now" - awakening, making things conscious. Notice that there is no desire in that, no aversion, it's not bound up with the desire to become anything or to get rid of anything, or sensual desire. There is no movement away from this moment towards another moment. It's timeless. It's immediate. It's awakening here and now.