I have known a few Buddhist monks, both of whom ordained at the same monastery, though at different times. Their names; Venerable Anenja and Venerable Mudu. Bodhinyana, in Western Australia’s Serpentine area, is a beautiful, peaceful monastery and the atmosphere is welcoming and friendly. Residing for any length of time in the temple is like being softly cradled in the embrace of a great seraph -magnificent, overwheming peace. With my visits, at various occasions over the years, to catch up with Mudu and Anenja, I perceived a notable alteration in their demeanour and outlook, a perceptible shift to a more bright, joyful and imperturbable place within, a positive progression from their previous station in life outside the monastery gates. Part of this success, I believe, can be attributed to good teaching. Both monks undertook discipleship below the highly accomplished Ajahn Brahm, the monastery’s leader, whose teacher, in turn, was Ajahn Chah. This post looks at a few compelling ideas in Ajahn Chah’s Dhamma talk, “Still Flowing Water“, and makes a few connections to Christian ideas.
Idea 1: Calming the Defilements (Killing Sin)
Excerpt: “What people usually refer to as peace is simply the calming of the mind, not the calming of the defilements (ignorance, hatred and desire). You’re just sitting on top of your defilements, like a rock sitting on the grass. The grass can’t grow because the rock is sitting on it. In three or four days you take the rock off the grass and it starts growing again. The grass didn’t really die. It was just suppressed. The same holds for sitting in concentration: The mind is calmed but the defilements aren’t, which means that concentration isn’t for sure. To find real peace you have to contemplate. Concentration is one kind of peace, like the rock sitting on the grass. You can leave it there many days but when you pick it up the grass starts growing again. That’s only temporary peace. The peace of discernment is like never picking up the rock, just leaving it there where it is. The grass can’t possibly grow again. That’s real peace, the calming of the defilements for sure. That’s discernment.” (page 3)
Interpretation: Calming the mind through regular meditation practice is helpful, but not enough to enshrine lasting peace. While this is, assuredly, a nurturing discipline, that sets a salutary tone, elevates one’s position, and sheds the dross and turmoil of stress, the cycles of behaviour and thinking borne of the defilements -hatred, ignorance, desire- must be reigned in and quieted before a more substantial peace can set in. Conscious awareness and scrutiny of one’s own tendencies to succumb to such defilements needs to be observed. A mindful regime should be enforced to divert the suffering that springs from hatred, ignorance and desire. Explained further, defilements could take the form of censuring or ridiculing others (hatred), refusing to listen to the professed beliefs or position of others (ignorance), or lusting after people or things (desire). If these areas are not identified and treated with due trepidation, if conscious attention and discipline are not applied with respect to these danger zones, then those unwanted habits of heart and mind remain alive, they endure below the surface, they will reemerge and wreak pain in your life, they will grow, again and again, like the pestersome grass.
I was listening to a conversation of Baptist church leaders recently and they were discussing a similar thing, where the influence of sin persists and endures like a smouldering fire, even after the claiming of Christ by an individual. This state, this reality, this “holiness atop the enduring, heaving refuse of sin”, seems to be the way things are. The forces and dynamics that prompt the defilement of our fundamentally holy character are part of the fabric of our world, raging and boiling anon, below our feet, in the cavernous depths, and we must be aware of this. Although, it seems, the defilements can never be quelled and arrested to a zero point, the stilling and reduction of the defilements to the greatest possible degree should be the aim of anyone wanting to nurture and support a deep and persistent interior peace, and keep themselves from being thrown around as though in a washing machine. It is simple (but incredibly difficult). Don’t pick up the stone. Don’t touch. Leave it on the grass and do not disturb. Don’t let these things surface in any degree, if possible. Be vigilant and strong at a thought level. Guard from evil. Hold your tongue when goaded to anger, listen with patience and an open heart, know that you are perfection itself and therefore need nothing beyond what you already have. “Be killing sin or it will be killing you”, they say!
Archangel Michael is the Christian representative of this task. The image below, the “Altar of Archangel Michael”, by Gerard David, captures the spirit of maintaining a holy place that keeps evil underfoot, like the troublesome grass of the defilements under the stone.
Idea 2: Neither Right nor Wrong
Excerpt: “People these days keep studying, looking to understand what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good and evil, but they don’t know neither-rightness-nor-wrongness. All they’re looking to know is what’s right and wrong (…) People keep searching for what’s right and wrong, but they don’t try to find what’s neither-rightness-nor-wrongness. They study about good and bad, they search for merit and evil, but they don’t study the point where there’s neither merit nor evil. They study issues of long and short, but the issue of neither long nor short they don’t study.”
Interpretation: It’s somewhat awkward considering this concept of “neither right nor wrong” straight after a section promoting discernment, or the deliberate avoidance of defilements, as this concept certainly entails some degree of differentiation between right action and wrong action, what has a good or bad effect on one’s life. However, the emphasis here is different. Ajahn Chah is reminding us that it is not necessary to make an overt or overactive habit of putting things or experiences in categories of good and bad, right and wrong, merit and evil. Perceiving and appreciating things as they are requires the relinquishment of the will to categorise. It is necessary to be comfortable with “neither-rightness-nor-wrongness”, as he puts it. The dissolution of the desire to subject experiences to the categories of good and evil affords a liberation and peace of its own. The will to judge and categorise the world around us is often a fruitless diversion.
“If your attention is pulled to categorization, you overlook what is uncategorizable. If you imagine differences to be real, rather than appearances in reality, you suffer unnecessarily. Discovering reality releases you from the bondage of differences.” -Gangaji
Idea 3: Always Right is Wrong
Excerpt: “Whenever we feel that we are definitely right, so much so that we refuse to open up to anything or anybody else, right there we are wrong. It becomes wrong view. When suffering arises, where does it arise from? The cause is wrong view, the fruit of that being suffering. If it was right view it wouldn’t cause suffering.”
Interpretation: Obviously a critical point, and worth underscoring, again and again, as we attempt to become better listeners. So essential to understand that the failure to listen to those around us results in relationship deterioration and suffering. A delicate skill, no doubt, as we seek to preserve a distance that shelters our own sanity, but make equal effort to reach out and connect thoughtfully and appreciatively with the characters that shape our world and lives. The willingness to relent and revise an old position in light of new information, or a newly communicated idea, is a core life-skill. It is particularly important, I think, to exercise this sentiment towards our greatest enemies and detractors, to open up to those we see with disdain. To be willing to understand and learn from those we mark as most different from ourselves is a pivotal thing. An exciting and hopeful prospect, though, should a viable and mutual connection appear. The ability to view one’s own philosophy as probational rather than fixed, evolving rather than reified, is a poignant proviso to be conscious of.
This ties in closely with the idea from Colossians of suffering together and bearing with each other. A closed heart and mind forsakes this togetherness, which is the overriding objective, before all else. Togetherness, oneness, is the goal of foremost worth. “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Colossians 3:13
If we make an island of ourselves, rather than listening, rather than regularly processing and communicating with others, we become like a dammed up body of water, according to Ajahn Chah. If we can’t listen, we have to inevitably scramble around at a future point, trying to balance up the scales, feverishly taking on board the messages intended for our consideration and use all along.
Idea 4: Not For Sure
Excerpt: “You have to let the mind encounter different things, then register them and bring them up to contemplate. Contemplate to know what? Contemplate to see, “Oh. That’s inconstant. Stressful. Not-self. It’s not for sure.” Everything is not for sure, let me tell you.
“This is so beautiful, I really like it.” That’s not for sure.
“I don’t like this at all.” Tell it: It too is not for sure. Right? Absolutely. No mistake. But look at what happens. “This time I’m going to get this thing right for sure.” You’ve gone off the track already. Don’t. No matter how much you like something, you should reflect that it’s not for sure.
When we eat some kinds of food we think, “Wow. That’s so delicious. I really like that.” There will be that feeling in the heart, but you have to reflect, “It’s not for sure.” Do you want to test how it’s not for sure? Take your favorite food and eat it every day. Every single day, okay? Eventually you’ll complain, “This doesn’t taste so good anymore.” You’ll think, “Actually I prefer that kind of food.” That’s not for sure either! Everything has to go from one thing to the next, just like breathing in and out. We have to breathe in and breathe out. We exist because of change. Everything depends on change like this.
Start knowing from your own mind and body, seeing them as inconstant. They’re not for sure, neither body nor mind. The same goes for everything. It’s not for sure. Keep this in mind when you think food is so delicious. You have to tell yourself: “It’s not for sure!” You have to punch your likes first. Whatever the mind likes, you have to tell it, “It’s not for sure.” Punch it first. But usually these things just punch you every time. If you don’t like something and suffer because you don’t like it, it’s punched you. “If she likes me, I like her”: It’s punched you. You don’t punch it at all. You have to understand in this way. Whenever you like anything, just say to yourself, “This isn’t for sure!” Whenever you don’t like something, say to yourself, “This isn’t for sure!” Keep at this and you’ll see the Dhamma for sure. That’s how it has to be.
If you meet a sakadagami, go and pay respects to him. When he sees you, he’ll simply say, “Not a sure thing!” If there’s an anagami, go and bow to him. He’ll tell you only one thing. “Uncertain!” If you meet even an arahant, go and bow to him. He’ll tell you even more firmly, “It’s all even more uncertain!” You’ll hear the words of the Noble Ones: “Everything is uncertain. Don’t cling to anything!”
Interpretation: I really enjoyed reading these simple lines and ruminating on the idea of all-pervading impermanence, and, further, the practice of preemptively treating all people, things, experiences and situations as not for sure. Consciously designating them as not for sure. This awareness fades and slides with time; it’s good to assert the ephemeral quality of it all as a habit of mind. It is a liberating and consoling notion, rather than a frightening one. The drama and torture of our condition is fueled by forgetting this simple truth and taking things as highly important, definite, fixed or non-negotiable. The urge to perpetuate and fabricate enjoyable experiences, and suppress negative ones, is a natural impulse, but the evanescent and fleeting quality of it all should be borne in mind as a mechanism to see the truth, as it is. One of the underlying themes within this talk is willing mutability. It is the capacity to face the challenges of alternative perspectives, but not feel threatened by them, because they are as ‘not for sure’ as your own position, they are important to listen to, important to understand, but are most decidedly ‘not for sure’.
In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not”.
Idea 5: Still Flowing Water
Excerpt: “Have you ever seen flowing water?… Have you ever seen still water?… If your mind is peaceful it will be just like still, flowing water. Have you ever seen still, flowing water? There! You’ve only ever seen flowing water and still water, haven’t you? But you’ve never seen still, flowing water. Right there, right where your thinking cannot take you, even though it’s peaceful you can develop wisdom. Your mind will be like flowing water, and yet it’s still. It’s almost as if it were still, and yet it’s flowing. So I call it ”still, flowing water.” Wisdom can arise here.”
Interpretation: The aim is comfort in a paradox, a personal facility with a dual yet united mode of existence; deep peace superimposed over total instability. Motionlessness integrated in unrelenting flux. Some might use the words, the union of microcosm and macrocosm, where the human interface with the divine finds perfection and its truest expression. The willing dismissal of the concept of a set or real self, in exchange for the humbling and humorous thought that the whole parade is predictably not for sure.
Renfield H. Bizarre, 06.02.16