PRINCIPLES IN THE PRACTICE,
PRINCEPLES IN THE HEART
January 19, 1977
The important point for a meditating
monk is to have principles in the heart. 'Principles in the heart' means the
various stages of concentration and levels of discernment, all the way to the
level of arahantship. These are called the principles in the heart for meditating
monks. If the principles in the heart are good, every aspect of the principles
in our practice will be good as well, because the heart is what gives the orders.
This is why we see the heart as having primary importance. When a person with
principles in the heart practices, it's very different from a person without
principles in the heart. When a person with principles in the heart makes compromises
in line with events at some times, in some places, and with some individuals,
and when he is strict with himself at normal times, he does so with reason --
which is different from a person who is simply determined, without having principles
in the heart. Even though such a person may be resolute and courageous, he's
pervaded with error, pride, and conceit. He's not as even as he should be in
his ascetic practices (dhutanga), which are means of cleansing away the defilements
of pride and conceit fermenting inside him. The body is an affair of the world,
like the world in general. It has to be involved with the world, which requires
compromises with certain people, in certain places, and on certain occasions.
But if, when we have to make compromises, we can't do so for fear that we're
sacrificing our strictness or our ascetic practices; or if once we compromise
we can't return to our strictness, it's a matter of pride in either case and
can't help but have an impact on ourselves and on others both when we should
be strict and when we should make compromises in line with events.
When a person with principles in the heart sees fitting, in line with reason, he makes compromises when he should with certain individuals, places, and events that may happen from time to time. But when that necessity is past, he returns to his original strictness without any difficulty in forcing himself. This is because reason, the Dhamma, is already in charge of his heart, so he has no difficulties both when making compromises and when following the ascetic practices strictly as he is accustomed to.
All of this is something I practiced when living with Ven. Acariya Mun. For example, I'd vow to follow a particular practice or several practices without telling him -- although he would know perfectly well, because I couldn't keep it secret from him. But because of my great respect for him, I'd have to make compromises, even though it bothered me (bothered my defilements).
As a rule, I wouldn't be willing to make compromises at all. That was a feeling set up like a barrier in the mind, because my intentions were really determined like that. I wouldn't let anything pass without my working right through it with this determination of mine.
The first year I went to stay with him, I heard him talk about the ascetic practices -- such as the practice of accepting only the food received on one's alms round -- because he himself was very strict in observing them. From that point on, I'd vow to take on special ascetic practices during the Rains Retreat, without ever slacking. I'd vow to eat only the food I got while on my alms round. If anyone else would try to put food in my bowl aside from the food I had received on my round, I wouldn't accept it and wouldn't be interested in it. Ever since then, I've kept to this without fail. I'd be sure that I for one wouldn't let this vow be broken. Once the Rains Retreat came, I'd have to make this vow as a rule in my heart, without missing even a single year.
The years we spent the rains at Baan Naa Mon, Ven. Acariya Mun was really observant and astute. Of all the sages of our day and age, who could be sharper than he? He knew I had vowed not to accept food that came afterwards, but on the occasions he would come to put food in my bowl, he'd say, 'Maha, please let me put a little food in your bowl. This is a gift from one contemplative to another.' That's what he'd say. 'This is a gift from a fellow contemplative. Please accept it.' That meant he was giving me the food himself.
Sometimes there'd be groups of lay people from Nong Khai, Sakon Nakhorn, or other places who would come to Baan Naa Mon to present food to Ven. Acariya Mun and the other monks in the monastery. This would happen once in a long, long while, because in those days there were no cars or buses. You'd have to travel on foot or by cart. These people would hire ox-carts to come and would spend a night or two -- but they wouldn't stay with the monks in the monastery. They'd stay in the shack in Yom Phaeng's rice field. When morning came, they'd prepare food and, instead of waiting outside the monastery to place the food in our bowls as we returned from our alms round, they'd bring it into the monastery to present it to us. I wouldn't dare accept their food, for fear that my observance would be broken. I'd walk right past them. As I noticed, though, Ven. Acariya Mun would accept their food out of pity for them.
There would be a lot of food left over from presenting it to the monks, so they'd bring it to the meeting hall -- fruit, individual servings of food wrapped in banana leaves -- but we wouldn't take any of it. It'd get passed around without making a ripple. No one, except sometimes one or two of the monks, would take any of it. It must have looked not just a little strange to the lay people. As for me, I wouldn't dare take any of it, for fear that my observance of this ascetic practice would be broken. Several days later, Ven. Acariya Mun asked to put food in my bowl, saying, 'This is a gift from a fellow contemplative. Please let me put it in your bowl.' And then he put it in my bowl. He did it himself, you know. Normally -- who would I let put anything in my bowl! I'd be afraid that my observance would be broken or at the very least wouldn't be complete. But he probably saw that there was pride lurking in my vow to observe this practice, so he helped bend it a little to give me a number of things to think about, so that I wouldn't be simply a straight-arrow type. This was why he'd find various ways to teach me both directly and indirectly.
I in particular was very straight-arrow. I was very set on things in that way, which is why I wouldn't let anyone destroy my ascetic practice by putting food in my bowl -- except for Ven. Acariya Mun, whom I respected with all my heart. With him, I'd give in and let him put food in my bowl the times he saw fit. I was solidly determined not to let this observance be deficient, not even the least little bit. This was something that kept chafing in the heart. I'd have to be complete both in terms of the observance I was following and in terms of my determination, but because of my love and respect for him, I'd accept his gifts even though I didn't feel comfortable about it. This is the difference between a principle in the practice and a principle in the heart.
I admit that I was right in the earnestness of my practice, but I wasn't right in terms of the levels of Dhamma that were higher and more subtle than that. Looking at myself and looking at Ven. Acariya Mun, I could see that we were very different. Ven. Acariya Mun, when looking at something, would see it thoroughly, in a way that was just right from every angle in the heart -- which wasn't like the rest of us, who would view things in our stupid way from one side only. We didn't use discernment the way he did. That was something we'd have to admit. Here I've been talking about practicing the Dhamma with Ven. Acariya Mun at Baan Naa Mon.
When we moved to Baan Nong Phue, I vowed again to observe this particular practice. Wherever I'd go, I'd stick to my guns as far as this practice was concerned and wouldn't retreat. I wouldn't let it be broken. Coming back from my alms round, I'd quickly put my bowl in order, taking just a little of whatever I'd eat -- because during the rains I'd never eat my fill. I'd never eat my fill at all. I'd tell myself to take only so-and-so much, around 60 to 70 percent. For example, out of 100 percent full, I'd cut back about 30 to 40 percent, which seemed about right, because there were a number of us living together as a group. If I were to go without food altogether, it wouldn't be convenient, because we always had duties involved with the group. I myself was like one of the senior members of the group, in a behind-the-scenes sort of way, though I never let on. I was involved in looking after the peace and order within the group in the monastery. I didn't have much seniority -- just over ten rains in the monkhood -- but it seemed that Ven. Acariya Mun was kind enough to trust me -- also behind the scenes -- in helping him look after the monks and novices.
When the rains would begin, all of us in the monastery would vow to observe different ascetic practices, and after not too many days this or that person would fall back. This showed how earnest or lackadaisical the members of the group were, and made me even more meticulous and determined in my duties and my ascetic practices. When I'd see my fellow meditators acting like this, I'd feel disillusioned with them in many ways. My mind would become even more fired up, and I'd encourage myself to be unrelenting. I'd ask myself, 'With events all around you like this, are you going to fall back?' And the confident answer I'd get would be, 'What is there to fall back? Who is this if not me? I've always been this sort of person from the very beginning. Whatever I do, I have to take it seriously. Once I decide to do something, I have to be earnest with it. I don't know how to fool around. I won't fall back unless I die, which is something beyond my control. I won't let anyone put food in my bowl under any circumstances.' Listen to that -- 'under any circumstances.' That was how I felt at the time.
So the changes in my fellow meditators were like a sermon for me to listen to and take to heart. I haven't forgotten it, even to this day. As soon as I returned from my alms round, I'd quickly take whatever I was going to eat, put my bowl in order, and then quickly prepare whatever I had that I'd put in Ven. Acariya Mun's bowl -- this or that serving that I had noticed seemed to go well with his health, as far as I knew and understood. I'd set aside whatever should be set aside and prepare whatever should go into his bowl. Then I'd return to my seat, my eyes watchful and my ears ready to hear whatever he might say before we'd start eating.
As for my own bowl, when I had put it in order, I'd put it out of the way behind my seat, right against the wall next to a post. I'd put the lid on and cover it with a cloth to make doubly sure that no one would mess with it and put any food in it. At that time I wouldn't allow anyone to put food in my bowl at all. I made that clear in no uncertain terms. But when Ven. Acariya Mun put food in my bowl, he'd have his way of doing it. After I had prepared the food I would give to him and had returned to my place; after we had given our blessings and during the period of silence when we were contemplating our food -- that's when he'd do it: right when we were about to eat. I have no idea where he had arranged the food to put in my bowl -- but he wouldn't do it repeatedly. He knew and he sympathized with me. On the occasions when he'd put food in my bowl, he'd say, 'Maha, please let me put food in your bowl. These lay people came late . . . .' -- and his hand was already in my bowl -- right when I had placed my bowl in front of me and was contemplating my food. I didn't know what to do, because of my respect for him. So I had to let him do it in his kindness -- but I wouldn't let anyone else do it. He'd do it only once in a long while. In one Rains Retreat, he'd do it only three or four times at most. He wouldn't do it repeatedly, because he was every astute. The word majjhima -- just right: You'd have to hand it to him, without being able to find anything to fault.
So ever since then I've stuck to my practice all along, up to the present. As for the monks and novices who couldn't get it together, they all ended up in failure, which has made me think -- made me think without ceasing -- about my fellow meditators: 'What is it with their hearts that they don't have any firm principles, that they keep failing like this? What mainstay can they have for the future when the present is already a failure?' Events like this have kept me thinking in this way without ceasing, all the way up to the meditators who are living with me at present.
For this reason, the ascetic observances are very important principles in the practice. Eating from the bowl: There are many people, monks among them, who don't see the value of eating from the bowl. In addition to not seeing the value of this ascetic practice, they may see it as unbecoming or inappropriate, both in the monastery and in society at large, in that all sorts of food -- meat dishes, desserts, etc. -- get mixed together in the one bowl. They may even think that it's ugly or messy -- which is an opinion of the defilements trying to efface the truth of the Dhamma. There are few who see the value of any of the thirteen ascetic practices, even though all thirteen are tools for us monks to wash away defilement. It's well known that the defilements and the Dhamma have always worked at cross-purposes from time immemorial. Those who give their hearts and lives in homage to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha will practice in line with what the Buddha taught. Those who give their hearts and lives in homage to the cycle of defilement will practice in line with the opinions of defilement. So to whom are we going to pay homage now? Hurry up and decide. Don't delay. Otherwise the defilements will pull you up to the chopping block -- don't say I didn't warn you. The Dhamma has already been taught, so hurry up and start walking. Don't waste your time being afraid that it's out of date, or you won't be able to make a step.
Pansukula-civaram -- the practice of wearing robes made from cast-off cloth: This is to counteract our feeling for price, ostentation, pride, and excess -- the type of beauty that promotes defilement and steps all over the Dhamma -- so that these things don't encumber the hearts of meditators whose duty is to eliminate the defilements in order to promote the Dhamma and nourish the heart to be gracious and fine. The items of consumption we collect from what is thrown away are good for killing the defilements of greed, ostentation, and excess, love for beauty and haughtiness. Sages have thus praised and followed this practice all along up to the present. We can see their footprints in using this method to kill defilement as a treat for our hearts and eyes so that we won't die in vain in having followed the homeless life.