January  1996   2538   Number 35 

Don't Get Off The Train; Ajahn Thanavaro
Vision and Focus; Sister Thanasanti
Saving Forests; Nick Scott interviews Ajahn Pasanno
The Retreat of Light; Reflections from California
Sutta Class: Morals & Ethics; Ajahn Thiradhammo
The Open Road; Sister Candasiri
Signs of Change:


Don't Get Off The Train
Magha Puja commemorates the spontaneous gathering of 1200 arahants, around the Buddha, on the full moon of March. Ajahn Thanavaro reflects on his own journey into the Mandala of Sangha during a talk given at Amaravati on the 8th of March 1995.

By actually entering consciously into the Mandala, we are making a statement - a conscious statement - whereby we take full responsibility for what we are doing. Since I have been given the opportunity to speak tonight, I would like to bring your attention back to a word that has been very helpful in my own practice. It is not a very common word in the Theravada tradition, but nevertheless we do actually experience at all levels the meaning of the word that I will present to you tonight. It is the word 'Mandala'.

I came across this word back in 1979, when I was working in the walled garden at Chithurst. At that time I was a novice, and I was asked to put the garden in order as it had been neglected for a number of years. It was full of nettles. I spent about a week pulling these nettles - they were taller than myself; I gave the very top of the leaves to the kitchen staff. In those days we did not have much food so we used to have nettle-soup, which was delicious and very nourishing. It brought back the story of the famous Tibetan Yogi, Milarepa, who had spent nine years living in solitary retreat in the mountains.

Entering the Sangha, the Mandala, might be mistaken as a quest for leadership whereby we view the practice as a way to gain power and authority over other people.
He was a layman who wanted to purify himself. After having spent a number of years developing psychic powers, he attacked and killed his relatives using black magic, to avenge the disinheritance and rejection of his mother. He wanted to purify his mind because he had realized the negative effect of that act. Part of his training under his master, Marpa, was undertaking to build a tower. But then, every time that Milarepa had actually built the tower, Marpa came along and said: "Who told you to build the tower here?" Milarepa was completely flabbergasted by this, but as he was very devoted to his Master, he would obey his orders and start to build a tower in another place that Marpa located. Then, after building the tower in the new place, Marpa would come along and say: "Who told you to build the tower here?" So in the end Milarepa had actually built this tower seven times. You can imagine how much devotion and giving up was necessary at that time to give himself to the practice of service.

As an anagarika here, the practice is also very much the practice of service; one becomes worthy of the teaching by giving one's energy. So I think it is important to bring back into our mind the very motivation that brought us to make that step of entering, of giving ourselves to the Sangha, the group of samanas. We are admitted into this Sangha society, so that we can associate with wise people, by means of a ceremony - the Precept Ceremony. For those of you that have taken the Eight Precepts (or the Siladhara or 227 Bhikkhu Precepts) this ceremony is an important step in the life. It is the process of entering into the society of samanas. In Sanskrit the word for group, or society, is 'Mandala'.

As in any group of society we are called to follow some rules; we are also given some guidance so that our behaviour conforms with the purpose of our coming together. All of this requires discipline; it requires a kind of integrity and a sense of responsibility. By actually entering consciously into the Mandala, we are making a statement - a conscious statement - whereby we take full responsibility for what we are doing and what we are here for. This should be very clear for all of us that have taken that step. Every time we forget that, we will be reminded by our spiritual companions. Entering into the group of samanas, the outer Mandala, leads to a journey of exploration of consciousness - towards discovering the inner Mandala.

As you know, any society or group of people is structured in a certain way, and usually there is a centre to that structure. People in societies usually refer to a leader, and throughout history the quest for leadership has been a predominant quest in the life of many people. Entering the Sangha, the Mandala, might be mistaken as a quest for leadership whereby we view the practice as a way to gain power and authority over other people. But fortunately that is not possible until we have gone through a process of breaking down. This is the safeguard of the society of samanas. We won't be given the power to teach and to guide other people unless we have renounced the egocentric view. Without such renunciation there comes to be a collapse of the energy which is entrusted and given to us through that very process of transformation. So, before you are opened up to the practice of meditation and receive that transformation energy, you will need to get out of the way because if you interfere during this process, you discover sooner or later that you got into a sinking ship and you are destined to perish.

I remember reading a book way back in the seventies. And in this book by Suzuki Roshi, 'Zen Mind Beginner's Mind', there is a clear statement about this. Suzuki Roshi said: "Remember and consider well before entering and beginning your spiritual journey. Because it is like getting on a train; it is terribly difficult, and truly most dangerous, to try to get off while the train is still running." Throughout our monastic life we will be confronted with the dilemma: When is the train going to stop? When will we arrive at the next station? We don't want to endanger ourselves, we don't want to get injured, but of course, if it were up to us, the train would stop every time we had a doubt. If we would be the driver, we would stop that train and get off. But there is a surprise. The surprise is that we discover that we are just another passenger, and that the train will keep going until it gets to the destination - with or without us.

So, we have to consider that we are not indispensable, none of us here is indispensable to the society or to the Sangha. The Sangha throughout the ages has been the vehicle that has taken those who have relaxed to the destination. I think that is a very good description of the state of relaxation meant by the expression, 'letting go'. That very phrase, that very advice given so many times by our teachers is in fact indicating that all we need to do is to relax, to just enjoy the scenery - because the train keeps on going anyway.

I think this advice is very helpful, and it is important to remember it, because the practice is that simple: just to give oneself to the vehicle and relax. But of course, we are not the only passengers on that vehicle and, as you know, living together requires also some interaction. As we are being driven to our destination, we need to find ways to enable our journey, our common journey to be pleasurable and harmonious, to be a happy one. I don't know, if you have used the train or travelled through Italy - but what happens on the Italian trains perhaps happens almost everywhere in the world - most of the time people going on a long journey engage in conversation. That is the way they kill time; or else they read a book or some newspaper, or they eat, or sleep. In our monastic life we might be involved in similar activities - reading, studying, as well as eating, talking to each other, all that kind of thing. Those activities are all fine. In some situations we may be more drawn to one kind of activity or another, but what is most important is not to engage into those activities out of avoidance, the need for escape. In other words, it is important not to isolate our individual journey from an active participation with the journey of another person. But in fact that is what happens every time we talk, and don't really listen to the other person; or we just go to sleep, and therefore live in an unconscious state. Although we might be here physically we are kind of asleep, very much in our own world; there is no real conscious participation and awareness of where we are, where we are going and who we are travelling with.

I think we are all at one time or another faced with the difficulty of relating to an object. It may be an inner object, a state of mind, or an outer object - something that is perceived through the eyes or through the ears, the nose or the tongue. The problem of addiction arises when the craving for a particular object is so strong, and so repetitive that it takes over and disempowers us from looking away or not picking it up, from being mindful. Every time we are heedless, in fact we fall under the spell of a certain mental state; we are enslaved by a sense experience. We can be enslaved by the eyes, the ears and the nose, the tongue, the body and the mind. And the mind is the most clever trickster. It can really fool us. It will try time and time again to take away the energy of attention. Now, without that energy, without the ability of focusing the mind, we are done, we are finished. The match is already over. We are completely impotent to stand on our feet or to make right decisions, right and conscious decisions about our life.

Some of us may approach the Path with that very feeling of inability to decide for ourselves what we do; we come to the Sangha already in that state. We knock at the door, somebody opens the door. Somebody will tell us that if we can follow certain rules, we can be admitted into this group. Now we might be willing to do that, but not out of conviction - only because we are not able to stand on our feet and work for our living, make our own decisions, engage in relationships, suffer and be creative. So because of that feeling of impotence we give all our wealth, all our spiritual wealth, to somebody else: ‘Dear Master, please enlighten me; please guide me; please empower me. Please allow me to enter into the sacred circle of initiates.'

This type of dependence is also a form of addiction, and truly is the most dangerous one. Such an association will support your life, to a certain extent, but will never make you free. On the other hand, it will make your master - whoever that may be - a great person. But that means you will never be great. That means, that you will never know for yourself what is right, what is wrong, what is the right decision, where you are going, what you will do with your life. In this way you are defeated from the very beginning. Your potential for awakening is forgotten, disregarded, is not clear, and not important.

No doubt most of us have felt a bit like that at certain times in our spiritual quest - a bit too weak to make the conscious decision to be awake, to be joyful, to be truly ourselves. Sometimes it's very difficult. However, if we become aware that there is much more to spiritual practice than just giving up our own discernment to somebody else, then we'll take up responsibility for the praise and blame that we receive.

We also take responsibility for what we are doing to our fellow human beings, to the people that are involved in this journey; beginning with our wise adviser. Are we prepared to kill the image that we ourselves have constructed and projected onto the wise adviser? Are we prepared to go through the grief of being an orphan? If we want to grow up as children, from children to adulthood, we need to kill our parents. Of course not the physical body, not the sense of respect, but we need to kill the false image and the umbilical cord that creates an emotional dependence. Well, if we are prepared to look carefully to our well being; if we are prepared to look honestly, and recognize firstly our own mistakes and weaknesses and also those of our fellow human beings, then we discover the kind of confidence that gives us the strength to work; to work seriously on ourselves.

You might say or ask yourself: where is the joy and happiness in all of this? It seems so terribly hard and difficult. Well, for those who have the curiosity and the courage to investigate the dark areas of consciousness, there will be a very nice surprise. We discover that the joy and the happiness is another grain of sand, buried away under a mass of sand, not too different from the others. That is why it requires a great deal of attention and insight to be discovered.

Usually we are not able to see it because we play the game of the ostrich - the game of avoidance. So whenever we can't handle a situation, we put our head into the sand, like an ostrich, hoping that the particular situation will pass. And of course, it eventually will pass but if our eyes have been closed, we won't have seen it for what it is, we won't have learnt the lesson, so that very situation will come back. Instead we have to face it; we have to come so close, that we see it for what it is: empty of self nature. Any energy structure, any pattern of behaviour, any phenomenon, any mental formation is empty of self nature. This means that it is supported by and exists only in relation to causes and conditions. Whenever we identify with the mental formation, whenever we react to it, we are entering into a pattern that produces kamma. It produces another effect, another cause; it creates a continuity of becoming.

What enables us to resolve the problems that come up in our minds is an acceptance of their presence. For instance when we are troubled by something, we are already in the midst of the hurricane and we cannot extricate ourselves from it - unless we step out of it. The only way we can do that is by being increasingly more aware of what is happening; that ability to be aware provides us with a greater perspective on what is happening. But it is not happening any more to us, because we are not to be found anywhere, whether above or below or in between the two. So, by not reacting to what is perceived, the problem of relationship is being resolved at its root, and we can relax in an open awareness. Then we can enjoy life as it presents itself.

So, these are a few words I wanted to share with you perhaps to provide you with some considerations and some insights about the nature of your commitment.

I wish you all the best and, please, don't fall off the train!