As a monk, you have only one duty. When sitting, be aware that you're sitting. Whatever issue you think about, know that you're thinking. Don't assume that any issue comes from anywhere other than from a lapse of mindfulness in your own heart, which makes wrong issues -- from minor ones to major ones -- start spreading to your own detriment. All of this comes from your own lack of watchfulness and restraint. It doesn't come from anything else. If you want to gain release from suffering and stress in this lifetime, then see the dangers of your own errors, your complacency, and your lack of mindfulness. See them as your enemies. If, in your eyes, the currents of the mind that spin to give rise to the cravings and mental effluents termed the origin of stress are something good, then you're sure to go under. Be quick to shed these things immediately. Don't let them lie fermenting in your heart.
Those who see danger in the round of rebirth must see the danger as lying in the accumulation of defilement. Your duties in the practice are like the fence and walls of a house that protect you stage by stage from danger. In performing your duties that constitute the effort of the practice, you have to keep your mindfulness with those duties and not let it lapse. Nourish your mindfulness and discernment so that they are always circumspect in all your affairs. Don't let them flow away on the habitual urges of the heart. You can then be sure that the affairs of the mind will not in any way lie beyond the power of your effort and control.
So I ask that each of you be mindful -- and don't let your mindfulness conjecture ahead or behind with thoughts of the past or future. Always keep it aware of your activities, and you will be able to go beyond this mass of suffering and stress. Even if your mind hasn't yet attained stillness, it will begin to be still through the power of mindfulness. There is no need to doubt this, for the mind can't lie beyond the power of mindfulness and discernment coupled with persistent effort.
Of the famous meditation masters of our present era, Ven. Acariya Mun is the one I admire and respect the most. In my opinion, he is the most outstanding teacher of our day and age. Living and studying with him, I never saw him act in any way at odds with the Dhamma and Vinaya. His behavior was in such harmony with the Dhamma and Vinaya that it was never a cause for doubt among those who studied with him. From my experience in living with him, I'd say that he was right in line with the path of those who practice rightly, straightly, methodically, and nobly. He never strayed from this path at all.
When he would tell us about the beginning stages of his practice, he'd talk about how he had tried to develop mindfulness. He liked to live alone. If others were living with him, they would get in the way of his meditation. If he could get away on his own, he'd find that mindfulness and discernment were coupled with his efforts at all times. He would stay with his efforts both day and night. It was as if his hand was never free from its work. Mindfulness converged with his mind so that they were never willing to leave their endeavors.
He had resolved never to return to this world of continual death and rebirth. No matter what, he would have to gain release from suffering and stress in this lifetime and never ask to be reborn again. Even being born into this present lifetime had him disgusted enough, but when he also saw the birth, ageing, illness, and death of human beings and living beings in general, day and night, together with the blatant sufferings caused by the oppression and cruelties of the strong over the weak, it made him feel even greater dismay, which is why he asked not to be reborn ever again. The way he asked not to be reborn was to take the effort of the practice as the witness within his heart. Wherever he lived, he asked to live with the effort of the practice. He didn't want anything else that would delay his release from suffering. This is what he would tell us when the opportunity arose.
Whatever knowledge or understanding he had gained in the various places he had lived, he wouldn't keep from us. When he lived there, his mind was like that; when he lived here, his mind was like this. He even told us about the time his mind realized the land of its hopes.
The way each person's mind progresses is purely an individual matter. It's not something we can imitate from one another. Even the various realizations we have and the means of expression we use in teaching ourselves, our fellow meditators, and people in general, have to be a matter of our own individual wealth, in line with our habits and capabilities, just as a millionaire with lots of wealth uses his own millionaire's wealth, while a poor person with little wealth makes use of his own wealth. Each person, no matter how rich or poor, makes use of the wealth he or she has been able to accumulate.
In the area of habits and capabilities, how much we may possess depends entirely on ourselves. These aren't things we can borrow from one another. We have to depend on the capabilities we develop from within. This is why our habits, manners, and conversation, our knowledge and intelligence, our shallowness and depth differ from person to person in line with our capabilities. Even though I studied with Ven. Acariya Mun for a long time, I can't guarantee that I could take his Dhamma as my own and teach it to others. All I can say is that I depend on however much my own knowledge and capabilities may be, in line with my own strengths, which is just right for me and doesn't overstep the bounds of what is fitting for me.
As for Ven. Acariya Mun, he was very astute at teaching. For example, he wouldn't talk about the major points. He'd talk only about how to get there. As soon as he'd get to the major points, he'd detour around them and reappear further on ahead. This is the way it would be every time. He was never willing to open up about the major points. At first I didn't understand what his intentions were in acting this way, and it was only later that I understood. Whether I'm right or wrong, I have to ask your forgiveness, for he was very astute, in keeping with the fact that he had taught so many students.
There were two reasons why he wouldn't open up about the major points. One is that those who weren't really intent on the Dhamma would take his teachings as a shield, claiming them to be their own as a way of advertising themselves and making a living. The other reason is that the Dhamma that was a principle of nature he had known and might describe was not something that could be conjectured about in advance. Once those who were strongly intent on the Dhamma reached those points in their investigation, if they had heard him describe those points beforehand, would be sure to have subtle assumptions or presuppositions infiltrating their minds at that moment, and so they would assume that they understood that level of Dhamma when actually those assumptions would be a cause for self-delusion without their even realizing it.
As far as these two considerations are concerned, I must admit that I'm very foolish because of my good intentions toward those who come intent on studying with me. I'm not the least bit secretive. I've revealed everything all along, without holding anything back, not even the things that should be held back. I've been open to the full extent of my ability, which has turned into a kind of foolishness without my being aware of it. This has caused those who are really intent on studying with me to misunderstand, latching onto these things as assumptions that turn into their enemies, concealing the true Dhamma, all because I may lack some circumspection with regard to this second consideration.
Ven. Acariya Mun was very astute both in external and in internal matters. On the external level, he wouldn't be willing to disclose things too readily. Sometimes, after listening to him, you'd have to take two or three days to figure out what he meant. This, at least, was the way things were for me. Whether or not this was the way they were for my fellow students, I never had the chance to find out. But as for me, I'd use all my strength to ponder anything he might say that seemed to suggest an approach to the practice, and sometimes after three days of pondering the riddle of his words I still couldn't make heads or tails of it. I'd have to go and tell him, 'What you said the other day: I've been pondering it for three days and still can't understand what you meant. I don't know where to grab hold of it so that I can put it to use, or how much meaning your words had.'
He'd smile a bit and say, 'Oh? So there's someone actually pondering what I say?'
So I'd answer, 'I'm pondering, but pondering out of stupidity, not with any intelligence.'
He'd then respond a little by saying, 'We all have to start out by being stupid. No one has ever brought intelligence or wealth along at birth. Only after we set our mind on learning and pondering things persistently can we become intelligent and astute to the point where we can gain wealth and status, and can have other people depend on us. The same holds true with the Dhamma. No one has ever been a millionaire in the Dhamma or an arahant at birth.'
That's all he would say. He wouldn't disclose what the right way would be to interpret the teaching that had preoccupied me for two or three days running. It was only later that I realized why he wouldn't disclose this. If he had disclosed it, he would have been encouraging my stupidity. If we get used simply to having things handed to us ready-made from other people, without producing anything with our own intelligence, then when the time comes where we're in a tight spot and can't depend on anything ready-made from other people, we're sure to go under if we can't think of a way to help ourselves. This is probably what he was thinking, which is why he wouldn't solve this sort of problem when I'd ask him.
Studying with him wasn't simply a matter of studying teachings about the Dhamma. You had to adapt and accustom yourself to the practices he followed until they were firmly impressed in your own thoughts, words, and deeds. Living with him a long time was the way to observe his habits, practices, virtues, and understanding, bit by bit, day by day, until they were solid within you. There was a lot of safety in living with him. By and large, people who studied with him have received a great deal of trust and respect, because he himself was all Dhamma. Those who lived with him were bound to pick up that Dhamma in line with their abilities. At the same time, staying with him made you accustomed to being watchful and restrained. If you left him, and were intent on the Dhamma, you'd be able to take care of yourself using the various approaches you had gained from him.
When you'd stay with him, it was as if the paths, fruitions, and nibbana were right within reach. Everything you did was solid and got results step by step. But when you left him, it wouldn't be that way at all. It would turn into the other side of the world: If the mind didn't yet have a firm basis, that's the way it would usually be. But if the mind had a firm basis -- in other words, if it had concentration and discernment looking after it -- then you could benefit from living anywhere. If any doubts arose that you couldn't handle yourself, you'd have to go running back to him for advice. Once he'd suggest a solution, the problem would usually disappear in an instant, as if he had cut it away for you. For me, at least, that's the way it would be. Sometimes I would have left him for only five or six days when a problem started bothering me, and I couldn't stand to wait another two or three days. If I couldn't solve this sort of problem the moment it arose, then the next morning I'd have to head right back to him, because some of these problems could be very critical. Once they arose, and I couldn't solve them myself, I'd have to hurry back to him for advice. But other problems aren't especially critical. Even when they arise, you can wait. Problems of this sort are like diseases. When some diseases arise, there's no need to hurry for a doctor. But with other diseases, if we can't get the doctor to come, we have to go to the doctor ourselves. Otherwise our life will be in danger.
When these critical sorts of problems arise, if we can't handle them ourselves, we have to hurry to find a teacher. We can't just leave them alone, hoping that they'll go away on their own. The results that can come from these problems that we don't take to our teachers to solve: At the very least, we can become disoriented, deluded, or unbalanced; at worst, we can go crazy. When they say that a person's meditation 'crashes,' it usually comes from this sort of problem that he or she doesn't know how to solve -- isn't willing to solve -- and simply lets fester until one of these two sorts of results appear. I myself have had these sorts of problems with my mind, which is why I'm telling you about them so that you can know how to deal with them.
The day Ven. Acariya Mun died, I was filled with a strong sense of despair from the feeling that I had lost a mainstay for my heart, because at the time there was still a lot of unsettled business in my heart, and it was the sort of knowledge that wasn't willing to submit easily to anyone's approaches if they weren't right on target -- the way Ven. Acariya Mun had been, and that had given results -- with the spots where I was stuck and that I was pondering. At the same time, it was a period in which I was accelerating my efforts at full speed. So when Ven. Acariya Mun died, I couldn't stand staying with my fellow students. My only thought was that I wanted to live alone. So I tried to find a place where I could stay by myself. I was determined that I would stay alone until every sort of problem in my heart had been completely resolved. Only then would I stay with others and accept students as the occasion arose.
After Ven. Acariya Mun's death, I went to bow down at his feet and then sat there reflecting with dismay for almost two hours, my tears flowing into a pool at his feet. At the same time, I was pondering in my heart the Dhamma and the teachings he had been so kind to give me during the eight years I had lived with him. Living together for such a long time as this, even a husband and wife or parents and children who love one another deeply are bound to have some problems or resentments from time to time. But between Ven. Acariya Mun and the students who had come to depend on his sheltering influence for such a long time, there had never been any issues at all. The longer I had stayed with him, the more I had felt an unlimited love and respect for him. And now he had left me and all my well-intentioned fellow students. Anicca vata sankharan: Formations -- how inconstant they are! His body lay still, looking noble and more precious than my life, which I would have readily given up for his sake out of my love for him. My body was also still as I sat there, but my mind was in agitation from a sense of despair and my loss of his sheltering influence. Both bodies were subject to the same principle of the Dhamma -- inconstancy -- and followed the teaching that says, 'uppajjitva nirujjhanti': Having been born, they are bound to die. There's no other way it could be.
But as for Ven. Acariya Mun, he had taken a path different from that of conventional reality, in line with the teaching, 'tesam vupasamo sukho': In their stilling is ease. He had died in this lifetime, lying still for just this brief span of time so that his students could reflect with resignation on the Dhamma, but from now on he would never be reborn to be a source for his students' tears again. His mind had now separated from becoming and birth in the same way that a rock split into two pieces can never be truly rejoined.
So I sat there, reflecting with despair. The problems in my heart that I had once unburdened with him: With whom would I unburden them now? There was no longer anyone who could unburden and erase my problems the way he had. I was left to fend for myself. It was as if he had been a doctor who had cured my illnesses countless times and who was the one person with whom I had entrusted my life -- and now the doctor who had given me life was gone. I'd have to become a beast of the forest, for I had no more medicine to treat my inner diseases.
While I was sitting there, reminiscing sadly about him with love, respect, and despair, I came to a number of realizations. How had he taught me while he was still alive? Those were the points I'd have to take as my teachers. What was the point he had stressed repeatedly? 'Don't ever stray from your foundation, namely "what knows" within the heart. Whenever the mind comes to any unusual knowledge or realizations that could become detrimental, if you aren't able to investigate your way past that sort of knowledge, then turn the mind back within itself and, no matter what, no damage will be done.' That was what he had taught, so I took hold of that point and continued to apply it in my own practice to the full extent of my ability.
To be a senior monk comes from being a junior monk, as we see all around us and will all experience. We all meet with difficulties, whether we're junior or senior. This is the path we all must take. We must follow the path of difficulty that is the path toward progress, both in the area of the world and in the area of the Dhamma. No one has ever become a millionaire by being lazy or by lying around doing nothing. To be a millionaire has to come from being persevering, which in turn has to take the path of difficulty -- difficulty for the sake of our proper aims. This is the path wealthy and astute people always follow.
Even in the area of the Dhamma, we should realize that difficulty is the path of sages on every level, beginning with the Buddha himself. The Dhamma affirms this: Dukkhassanantaram sukham -- people gain ease by following the path of difficulty. As for the path to suffering, sukhassanantaram dukkham -- people gain difficulties by following the path of ease. Whoever is diligent and doesn't regard difficulty as an obstacle, whoever explores without ceasing the conditions of nature all around him, will become that third sort of person: the sort who doesn't ask to be reborn in this world, the sort who tesam vupasamo sukho -- eradicates the seeds for the rebirth of any sort of formation, experiencing an ease undisturbed by worldly baits, an ease that is genuinely satisfying.
So. I ask that all of you as meditators keep these three sorts of people in mind and choose for yourselves which of the three is the most outstanding within you right now -- because we can all make ourselves outstanding, with no need to fear that it will kill us. The effort to gain release from suffering and stress in the Lord Buddha's footsteps isn't an executioner waiting to behead the person who strives in the right direction. Be brave in freeing yourself from your bonds and entanglements. The stress and difficulties that come as a shadow of the khandhas are things that everyone has to bear as a burden. We can't lie to one another about this. Each person has to suffer from worries and stress because of his or her own khandhas. Know that the entire world has to suffer in the same way you do with the khandhas you are overseeing right now.