January  2001   2544   Number 55 

Simplicity; Ajahn Sundara
The Natural History of the Mind; Nick Scott
The Monastery - A Verse
Clearing Space; Ajahn Candasiri

Ajahn Sundara gave this talk at Amaravati at the end of vassa 1998, following her return to England after two years of intensive meditation practice in one of the forest monasteries in Thailand.

My stay in Thailand has been a great learning experience. It gave me the chance to be part of a culture that is incredibly different from ours in its outlook on life; this made me realise how much my mind was conditioned by all the Western values, its assumptions, prejudices and conceit.

At first, things were totally alien to me and almost impossible to understand but by the time I left, everything had become familiar and I felt quite at home. So I would like to share with you some aspects of the time spent in this beautiful country. In the rural area where the monastery is located the people are mostly farmers, simple people, living uncomplicated lives. Unlike us, they do not seem to be burdened with a lot of psychological concerns or existential crises. Their lives revolve around immediate needs such as food, sleep, getting through the day, and simple pleasures of life. Thai people are great at enjoying themselves!
I saw this 'Me', going through its usual programme with clever justifications, suddenly turn into a big cloud of proliferation! This was a wonderful insight.
When I met my teacher, Ajahn Anan, for the first time, he asked me how my practice was going. I said that I wasn't too happy with it, and that one of my interests in coming to Thailand was to have the opportunity to develop it. Then he asked me what my difficulties were, so I explained to him how I was feeling and so on. It was quite extraordinary, as I was talking suddenly to sense that I had a strong mirror in front of me and I saw this 'Me', going through its usual programme with clever justifications, suddenly turn into a big cloud of proliferation! This was a wonderful insight. With anybody else I might have been offended or felt that I had not been taken seriously but somehow, with him - maybe because he was just himself and deeply at ease - there was a huge sense of relief.
The way Thai people approach the teaching and themselves is deeply influenced by the Buddhist teaching and its psychology. Even their everyday language is mixed with many Pali words. I remember noticing how their way of speaking about the mind/heart could seem quite cold-hearted to us. If you were going through some great suffering, some fear or painful memories, the teacher would say: 'Well, it's just kilesa (unwholesome mental states).' Strangely enough, in that context such a statement completely deflates the habit to think in terms of: '"Me", having a huge problem that needs to be sorted out', and there was always a strong and compassionate mirror and reflection. If anyone else had reduced my 'problems' to a simple feeling of unhappiness I would have been really annoyed and felt dismissed, but with Ajahn Anan, in whom I had a deep trust, I was able to see the way my mind worked and, when there was confusion, to drop it. I would be reminded of the present moment by the question: 'What's going on? Is your heart unhappy?'

Of course, in the immediacy of the moment nothing was going on, because the monastery had a peaceful atmosphere. It was a simple place, quiet and secluded, and there was nothing to do all day except sweep one's path for about half an hour. That was all. My mind calmed down a lot. These experiences gave me a real taste for simplicity, and for the mind in its state of normality - the mind that does not create problems out of the way things are. I'm not saying that this seemingly simple and direct approach to the mind is right or wrong, but I found that practising in this context and culture over a period of two years had a powerful effect. It helped me to stop the habit of creating myself as a person - and this was quite a liberating thing. As the mind calmed down I could see the person, the sense of 'Self', really clearly every time it arose.

The teaching pointed out that if you suffer through the sense of Self, you can't actually go very far in your practice; insight cannot arise deeply enough to cut off attachment. The whole culture facilitates this approach. If you think too much, people consider that you are on the verge of madness. Ask any Thai: when someone thinks too much, they'll say that she or he has a 'hot heart' - and if you are 'hot' ('ron' in Thai), you're seen as deluded.

To have 'ronchai' (hot heart) is quite negative, even insulting. People there are not much into thinking - I'm not saying it's good or bad, but they don't trust the thinking mind. This was very different from the culture I came from where thinking is worshiped, tons of books are written, and people rely on and trust the intellect a lot. So it was interesting to be in a culture that functioned so differently - so much more intuitive, more feminine.
What struck me most when I came back to Europe was the complexity of the Western way of life. I could see that having access to many traditions and teachers had turned our society on the spiritual level into a vast supermarket. This is not all negative, but it's extremely challenging for the mind that is already struggling with all it receives through the senses. No wonder people become neurotic after being exposed to so much information and choices! When you're in the forest out there, you're just with a few birds, a few creepy-crawlies and nature all around. Days come, rise, and pass away with nothing much happening, and you get used to a very simple, peaceful rhythm. I found that extremely pleasant and I knew that it was conducive to deepening the practice. In fact, I felt quite at home and very privileged to have that opportunity.

The culture itself being predominantly Buddhist keeps things simple, the whole atmosphere was not one in which you felt intellectually stimulated; it's quite amazing the effect that this has on the mind. It would naturally slow down a lot, and become quite still. So I was scared to come back to the West, and whenever I thought of coming back, my mind would conjure up the image of drowning in a huge ocean of thought - not a terribly auspicious sign! Even though I had to adapt and to follow the Thai maechee etiquette - 'the Thai nuns' choreography', as I used to call it: walking in line to receive my food behind very young boys, crouching down every time I spoke to a monk - it was little compared to the blessings and support I received there.
So I was not sure that I would cope with the life and rhythm of Amaravati. I decided that if I had to teach, I would keep things simple; I would just speak about practice, just facts: anapanasati, the Five Khandhas or Dependent Origination. I would not complicate people's lives with more words, concepts and ideas. But it was a great lesson in letting go when, a few weeks ago, I went to teach at a Buddhist group. As I was being driven there, I said innocently to the leader of the group: 'How do you see the weekend?' Of course, I already had some ideas: 'I'll just meditate with them. I'll really teach them how to do it, rather than to think about it - then we can share our experience afterwards.' But the person answered: 'Well, Sister, we really want to talk with you about practice, and ask you questions, and have some discussion on Dhamma, and ...' I thought, 'Oh dear! Never mind.' I just had to let go. I was reminded of the teaching of Luang Por Sumedho: 'Just receive life as it is. Don't make a problem about it. Open yourself to the way things are.'
It is interesting that most Thai people do not seem to suffer much from self hatred; they don't even seem to know what it means! Once, out of curiosity, I asked a woman who came to talk to me about her practice: 'Do you ever dislike yourself?' and she said, 'No, never.' I was amazed. Self negativity does not seem to be part of their psychological make up, whereas we are riddled with it. So we have a difficult beginning, because the first step on this path is to have peace in one's heart - which doesn't happen if there is a lot of self hatred. Fortunately our teacher has devised a very good way of dealing with this - just recognising and receiving it within a peaceful space of acceptance, love and ease. This is a mature step as most of us find it very difficult to create a space around experience, we tend to absorb into what comes through our minds and to create a Self around it. Let's say we absorb into boredom; if there is no mindfulness, we become somebody who is bored, who has got a problem with boredom and needs to fix it. This approach hugely complicates a simple experience like boredom, whereas Ajahn Anan would just say: 'Well it's just one of the hindrances.' That's it. Simple, isn't it? Just boredom, dullness. But often, for us, it can't be just an ordinary boredom - it's got to be a very personal and special one!
One of the things that attracted me most to the Buddhist teaching was the simplicity of its approach - I think this is what all of us would like to nurture in our practice and in our lives. The Buddha said: 'Just look at yourself. Who are you? What do you think you are?... Take a look at your eyes, visual objects and at how you receive that experience of sense contact? What are the eyes, nose, tongue, body and ears?' He asks us to inquire into sensory experience rather than absorb into it, and react to pain or pleasure. He said just observe and actually see the nature of experience, very simply, very directly without fuss. Just bring peacefulness and calm into your heart, and take a look.