|October 1996||2539||Number 38|
Who We Really Are
When we are contemplating the Dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha, it is very skilful to question what a personality really is: the sense of our own separateness, individuality, the perception of ourselves as a person that's separate from the rest. Nowadays people are beginning to understand more and more about the nature of consciousness, but although it is an experience that we all have, it is probably the least understood. Scientists are studying consciousness, trying to find a physical base for it. Is it in the brain? What is it?... but it's like trying to find our real self. The more we try to find out who we really are, the more we seem to be going in circles or chasing after shadows; we can't really get hold of anything for very long and it vanishes.
However, it is not the self - who or what we are - that is the problem. Rather, it's our delusions around the perceptions of what we are, the conditioning of the mind that we acquire after birth. When we are born, the new baby child is conscious but it has no sense of being a person, a personality; this is something that is instilled into us as we grow up. All kinds of impressions and assumptions are given to us through our parents, our peers, and the society that we live in. We are continually fed with information about what we are and what we should be. So the thrust of meditation is to begin to realise the true nature of the mind that isn't conditioned by perception, cultural conditioning, thought or memory.
If we try to think about meditation practice as this or that, we're creating an image that we're trying to realise, rather than just trusting in the attentiveness of the mind, in mindfulness; letting go of the desire to find or grasp anything. As soon as we think about ourselves, we become a person - somebody - but when we are not thinking, the mind is quite empty and there is no sense of person. There is still consciousness, sensitivity, but it's not seen in terms of being a person, of being a man or a woman; there is just awareness of what is happening - what the feeling is, the mood, the atmosphere that one is experiencing in this moment. We can call this intuitive awareness. It is not programmed and conditioned by thought or memory or perception.
The thrust of meditation is to begin to realise the true nature of the mind that isn't conditioned by perception, cultural conditioning, thought or memory.
Now one of the big problems in meditation is that we can take ourselves too seriously. We can see ourselves as religious people dedicated towards serious things, such as realising truth. We feel important; we are not just frivolous or ordinary people, going about our lives, just going shopping in the supermarket and watching television. Of course this seriousness has advantages; it might encourage us to give up foolish activities for more serious ones. But the process can lead to arrogance and conceit: a sense of being someone who has special moral precepts or some altruistic goal, or of being exceptional in some way, having come onto the planet as some kind of messiah... we get people like that sometimes visiting us at Amaravati; strange characters who come in and announce themselves as the Maitreya Buddha! This conceit, this arrogance of our human state is a problem that has been going on since Adam and Eve, or since Lucifer was thrown out of heaven. It's a kind of pride that can make human beings lose all perspective; so we need humour to point to the absurdity of our self-obsession. In the monastic life we can become incredibly serious about our moral purity, our discipline, our dedication and so on. To a worldly person, it can seem that monks and nuns are making life unnecessarily difficult or complicated for themselves or for others. But one way of looking at religious conventions, such as the Theravadan School, where the emphasis is on the Vinaya discipline, practising meditation, the purity of the tradition, is as concepts that are true but not right, right but not true.
At one time I went to see a teacher who said that we don't need the discipline or the Vinaya rules: "All you have to do is be mindful. Mindfulness is enough." So I went back and told Ajahn Chah, and he said: "True but not right, right but not true!" Because, ultimately, we don't need rules, just being mindful is the Way. But most of us don't start from the enlightened experience, we more or less have to use expedient means to contemplate and to develop mindfulness. So the meditation techniques, disciplinary rules and so on are tools for reflection and mindfulness.
The religious life is a life of renunciation. We are renouncing, abandoning, letting go of things. To the worldly mind, it might sound as though we're getting rid of something, or condemning the sense world, the pleasures and the beauty that we can all experience as human beings; rejecting it, because we see it as evil or wrong. But renunciation isn't a moral judgement against anything. Rather, it's a moving away from that which complicates and makes life difficult, towards the ultimate simplicity of pure mindfulness in the present moment; because enlightenment is here and now, the Truth is now. There is not anyone who can become anything, there is not anyone who is born or who will die - there is only this eternal now. This awareness is what we can tune into, as we let go of the appearances and the habitual tendencies, and incline towards this simple reflection on the present.
Now we say this and we can understand it and it sounds quite simple. But the tendency of the mind is to make it into a problem. We don't have the faith or the trust or the willingness to just totally let go in the moment. So the statement: "Enlightenment is now" can bring a feeling of uncertainty or bewilderment.
There are different ideas about enlightenment: instant or gradual. Some may say: "Enlightenment is now", while others say that it has to be done gradually, stage by stage, lifetime by lifetime. Both these are true - but not right, right but not true. They are just different ways of contemplating and reflecting on the experience of the moment. The idea of instant enlightenment is very appealing to the modern mind: one LSD tablet and we're there - without having to go through a monastic training or give up anything at all; instant enlightenment!
But we have to recognise the limitation of the thinking mind. These concepts - instant and gradual - are just ways of reflecting, they're not positions that we take. Take the word, 'enlightenment', itself: maybe we see it as some kind of absolutely fantastic experience in which we are completely taken over by the light and totally transformed from a selfish, deluded being into a completely wise one - seeing it as something very great and grand. Most of us feel that we cannot reach such a high state, because the personality view is very negative. We tend to emphasise what is wrong, our faults, weaknesses, our bad habits; these are seen as obstructions to this experience of enlightenment. But such thoughts cannot be trusted. So I often say to people: "Whatever you think you are, that's not what you are!"
The aim of Buddhist meditation is to let go of these conditions of the mind, which doesn't mean denying, or getting rid of, or judging them. It means not believing them or following them; instead we listen to them as Dhamma, as conditions of the mind that arise and cease.With an attitude of awakened, attentive awareness, we learn to trust in just being the listener, the watcher, rather than being somebody trying to meditate to get some kind of result.
When we emphasise our personality we create problems, because the personal qualities are different for each one of us. We have our common human problems: old age, sickness and death; all men have certain things in common; all women have certain conditions in common. But then there are certain attitudes, cultural expectations and assumptions, which are conditioned into the mind, instilled into us after we are born. Through mindfulness, we are able to get beyond this conditioning of the mind to the pure consciousness that isn't conditioned, but which is like the background, the emptiness, the blank sheet on which words are written. Our perceptions arise and cease on that blank sheet, that emptiness.
So contemplate this. As we begin to listen and watch more, rather than just trying to get some samadhi or concentrated states that we read about in books; as we relax, and watch and listen then we have a much greater possibility of experiencing that emptiness. We use words like relinquishment and abandonment which can sound very heavy to the worldly mind, but it's not a heavy act of annihilation or destruction. Rather, it's a willingness to let things go, to allow things to be what they are, to let them cease - not holding on or identifying with anything, but just trusting in that pure state of aware attentiveness in the present moment.
One of the big delusions that we have in regard to meditation is that it is something I am doing, something I have got to do. We follow the guidelines with the idea of attaining and achieving different levels of realisation, like getting a university degree. It is interesting to see how some of the Westerners who become monks or nuns within the Theravadan tradition can be very intelligent and well educated, but because of the way that their minds have been conditioned they tend always to interpret the Holy life in terms of personal attainment - of becoming somebody special.
There is a rule within our monastic tradition that prohibits us from going around announcing our attainments. But in Thailand, everyone said that Ajahn Chah was an arahant - though he never said so. Then people would see him smoking a cigarette, and they'd think, "Arahants wouldn't smoke cigarettes, he couldn't be an arahant!" The conditioned mind tends to hold on to a fixed idea of an arahant as an absolutely, totally refined, goody-good person who'd never do anything coarse, but is always perfect in what they say and how they live. We want them to be perfect, according to our idea, so when we see any kind of flaw we become critical, disappointed, disillusioned and doubtful about them.
But this is a function of our mind. We are creating our own arahants, and therefore whatever we create in our own mind can easily become the opposite. What we can do is to observe this whole process of projection; of our creation of an ideal person, the ideal teacher. We begin to see how it is just an ideal. The perfect ideal is always the same, like a marble image. If, say, a teacher does something which is totally opposite to what we think should be done, to what we imagine is perfect, we can feel quite upset or disappointed. So we may feel that somehow we have to deal with it, to justify it: "He can behave like that because he is an enlightened being." We are willing to overlook crude or bad manners, or worse than that; we won't allow doubt to arise in our mind with regard to that person. Or, at the other extreme, we think: "That person is a bad person, they couldn't be enlightened." We dismiss them. But if we keep to this practice of mindfulness, we see that it's not really up to us to make a categorical moral judgement about other people or about our teachers. It's not our business to judge them as good or bad. And that's a relief. But what we can always do is to listen and be aware of our own conditioned reactions to anything that we are experiencing.
Now the five precepts provide a moral standard for the establishment of mindfulness. We can use them as standards or guidelines for actions and speech. They will help us to be mindful. Whereas, the idea of being free and doing whatever we want so long as we are mindful is just an ideal, isn't it? A 'right but not true' problem: it's right, but not necessarily true all the time. If we grasp such an idea, we can condone anything. For example, we might think that one can be very mindful while robbing a bank or performing the perfect murder! But, without a moral standard to reflect upon, it is simply the attentiveness of an animal in danger of being caught. The situation itself demands mindfulness, alertness and awareness.
This is also true in situations where we are right on the edge of death - like mountain climbing. We forget about ourselves and our problems, we are automatically right with the moment. There is a kind of exhilaration in that state of mind because we are far from the dreariness and greyness of daily life. Our perception becomes very concentrated and one-pointed. But we can't always live life on the edge. Most of our life is not particularly exciting. It just is what it is. We do ordinary things. We eat food, we take baths, we get dressed, undressed, we have to cook, wash the dishes, hoover the carpets, wash the car, feed the cat, go to work, and get along with our spouse, our children, our fellow workers. Then, on a special day like a holiday, we may do something exciting like rock climbing.
Meditation is not an extreme experience, not something really dangerous, that forces us to be mindful. We usually meditate in places that are safe. We sit, stand, walk or lie down, and we contemplate the breathing of the body. The aim is simply to observe our habitual tendencies as conditions that arise and cease. In this state, the repressed fears and emotional states can rise up, reach the surface; but rather than going off and doing some distracting thing to avoid them, we begin to allow them into consciousness. We're more and more willing to allow what we do not like or want into consciousness and, through that willingness to see it, we let go of it. We abandon it, relinquishing that state - not suppressing it, but leaving it alone.
The personality, the self-consciousness, the fears and the desires of the mind are what they are; we are not trying to dismiss them or add to them, or make any problems or difficulties around them. We are willing to let them be what they are. They feel this way, they have this quality; they arise and cease. In that cessation there's the realisation of the peace, the bliss or the serenity of being, and there's no self in it. Everyone has that potential, that ability to realise this. We describe it as seeing the Dhamma, the way it is - it's not a matter of becoming anything at all.
Sometimes in meditation we experience a moment, or several moments, of complete calm and peacefulness in the mind, and we think, "I want this" but of course it goes! Then the next day when we go to meditate, we try to get it back - but we can't, because we're trying to get something we remember, rather than trusting and letting things fall away according to their true nature. It's not that we've got to do something, or become anything at all. So then, without that pressure, without that compulsiveness of the mind, we can learn from life itself; the Truth is revealed to us.