|October 2003||2546||Number 66|
As Prepared as We Can Be
I'd like to start by talking about a really good Dhamma book that I've just finished reading. It's not one that you will find in the Tipitaka. It's called 'Savage Arena' by Joe Taska. Some of you may have come across it, those of you that are into mountain climbing. It's full of stories about impossible situations, about determination, concentration, focus and cooperation, things that I can relate to from the perspective of a commitment to the contemplative life, including the experience of seeing your friend fall off the cliff and wishing desperately it hadn't happened....
There was one area of the story that strongly held my attention and which I would like to discuss this evening. It was about that aspect of the journey that wasn't the most glorious part. The most glorious part of course was reaching for the summit. However, one of the most important parts of the journey was the preparation. So, every time the climbers went out on a trip, there was a huge amount of effort went into preparation - preparing the gear, preparing the funds, preparing the food, sorting out the politics, getting visas ready. And this part of the journey can be tedious. They found it tedious.
In the case of the monastic life, the intense experiences and profound insights are the bits that we tend to most readily focus on. But so many of the teachings recorded in the scriptures and given to us by our teachers are really about preparation. So this is what I would like to contemplate this evening.
There's a tape recording I have of a talk of Luang Por Chah, probably one of the last recordings of anything he said. It was taken at Tum Saeng Pet when Luang Por was receiving some lay guests. They were just about to come over to visit us here in England, and so when they were with Luang Por they gave him a tape recorder and suggested he might like to send a message to the Sangha in Britain. So Luang Por took the tape recorder and started going through the names 'Oh, Sumedho, Sucitto, Anando...' and gave a friendly and uplifting talk. One of the things he mentioned was how being an abbot is like being a rubbish tin, where you just sit there and be dumped on. That's your job. If nobody else dumps on you, you process your own rubbish. That was helpful, and to the point. When he'd finished giving this specific message, the tape was left running and he just started chatting informally about practice. In the course of this, at one stage he said 'You know, people think sitting on their cushion is practice. They've got it all wrong'. He said, 'This is preparation, and it is very important. We've got to do the preparation, but the practice is when the "arom kattup jai"', which means that when the passions impact on the heart, are you there for it? He said 'That's the moment of practice'. And it's not something we can do actually. You don't go on a course and learn how to do that. We sit and prepare ourselves, so that when it happens we are ready.
What I didn't see was that the radiance I was enjoying was dependent on getting my own way all the time
So I have this perspective, that there are these two aspects of the journey, preparation and practice. Of course we all want 'to be there for the moment' but aspiration is only one aspect of training. There's also the preparation, and if we don't do it, then there are consequences. Many of you will have your own experiences of being not properly prepared. I certainly have mine.
There's a verse in the Pali that we know as the Ovadapatimokkha. This gathering that we're having now is something that in previous years used to occur around Magha Puja, when by tradition, we would recite this verse. I'm sure you know it:|
The last line of the verse, etam buddhanasasanam, translates as 'This is the teaching of all the Buddhas'. I find that so inspiring! It's great to know that not only Gotama Buddha said it, but all the other Buddhas said it as well. The story goes that Ananda went to see the Buddha and said 'Can you tell us about Konagamana and Vipassi and all the great noble Buddhas of the past: What were their teachings?' And this verse is reported as being what the Lord Buddha said.
I'd had my initial insights when I was living with a group of beautiful friends in Mullumbimbee in Australia. I have happy memories of being up there on the ridge meditating all day long, hugging trees, sitting in samadhi and crying with tears of bliss. I used to like to bake bread and let it rise for 40 minutes while I walked meditation. Then, with samadhi, I'd come back, and would quietly, sensitively break it and savour the aroma. Then, with samadhi, I would share it with my fellow hippies.
In those days I had some very inspiring and encouraging insights. However, what I didn't see was that the radiance I was enjoying was dependent on getting my own way all the time.
I decided I wanted to head off to Asia - which is where I believed all the enlightened people were. I needed some money, so I went down to Sydney to find work. When I found myself in a position where I had to work at things I disliked, and live with people who didn't share the same values and interests, and who were not impressed with my refined spirituality, the inner sense of radiance disappeared.
Losing my peaceful mental states was agonizing for me. In losing something inherently beautiful, I can still remember the pain. A few weeks earlier up there on the ridge, looking out from Byron Bay at the sunrise, sitting and feeling so peaceful, there had been something very appropriate and truly beautiful. At that time I wasn't smoking anything either. It was a natural reconnecting with something wonderful that I found was already there. And it was there - I wasn't imaging it! When I would go back to it, it was still there - a natural self-existent peace. All that was needed was for me to focus attention in a certain way, and I could go back to this wonderful beautiful place of tremendous joy. But when I went to Sydney I couldn't find it anymore. It wasn't because of the change in environment. That was something that I realized even then, although I tried for some time to pretend otherwise. In fact, it was because of my lack of restraint, for sure.
I can remember, during those few weeks that I was in Sydney, thinking, 'If ever I'm in a position where I am encouraging people to practise meditation, there's one thing I want to do: encourage people to learn restraint', because if you potentize consciousness and yet haven't learned restraint, then the consequences are excruciating. Ignoring this stage of preparation is like a man already sick, setting out to climb Everest without a medicine kit.
The next line of the verse is kusalass' upasampada: to cultivate the powers of goodness within ourselves, to cultivate that which is truly good. We can cultivate, generate and maintain wonderful things. And it counts! There are wonderful things that I know I can do. When I know that, then I don't feel powerless; I don't feel ashamed; I don't feel guilty; I don't feel any sense that I'm abdicating responsibility. I'm doing what is mine to do.
So refraining from that which is unskilful, unwholesome, shouldn't be done; and cultivating that which is good: for me this is preparation. And if we're not prepared, then we take the consequences, and don't go blaming somebody else. Like those climbers on the mountain; at one stage they went up without enough food. They could have done the summit if they'd taken more food. In the event, they couldn't do it. They were stuck in a snow cave for three days. On another occasion they didn't take enough gas, so they couldn't melt the snow. They were so dehydrated they barely made it down the mountain.
So it is with us. If we don't prepare ourselves, then when the passions impact on the heart, as Luang Por Chah was saying, we are not able to practise. This is what I would call sacitta-pariyodapanam - the purification of the heart, the purification of awareness. The purification happens in those rare precious moments where I can't handle myself. I can't handle it anymore. It's beyond me. Such moments, we can't strategize. People may disagree, but I don't feel we can strategize practice. We can prepare ourselves for it, we can equip ourselves for it, but when it happens, it happens, and it's usually not convenient. Once when I was having a Dhamma conversation with the Venerable Myokyoni, I fell into complaining about how difficult practice can be at times. I am most grateful to her for the comment she made. She said, 'Venerable, when it's the real thing, it's too much, too soon.'
I remember listening to Luang Por Chah talk about certain states that you can get into in practice. Some of you will be familiar with the story he told about a stage of practice that was unfamiliar to him that he once got stuck in. Having prepared himself as a young monk with conceptual understanding, he then threw himself into practice with tremendous enthusiasm and apparently made rapid and good progress. Then he says he reached a point where an image would come to him in meditation, where he was crossing a bridge. He got to this point on the bridge where it was like there was nothing there. He was used to getting somewhere in his practice, and he got to this point where he was stuck. He said that every time he'd sit in meditation, this same image would come back, and he'd just have to walk back to the beginning of the bridge. He kept going at it like this for nearly two years, until eventually he met Ajahn Wung, a contemporary of Ajahn Lee, a very impressive Dhammayut monk.
When Ajahn Chah came across Ajahn Wung out in the forest, he was inspired by him as soon as he saw him. He just saw him and he knew - he knew. So he started talking about the struggle of his practice and Ajahn Wung said 'Oh, that's what's been happening to you. You want to hear what's been happening to me! I had this experience where I was doing walking meditation, and I got to the end of my meditation track and it was like, I just started sinking into the earth. I don't know how far I sank; I just sank as far as you could sink. It was a long way. Then I started coming back up again. And I came to the ground level - it really appeared that this was happening - I came to the level of the ground, and then I levitated! I went up into the air and my body hit the branches. When my body hit the branches, it exploded. I could see my large intestines thrown over there, my small intestines over here, and my liver and kidneys hanging somewhere else. And I thought "This is really unpleasant!" But,' he said, 'I was prepared for it. I knew this is just the way it appears to be. There was sufficient mindfulness, so I didn't lose perspective.' And so Luang Por Chah said 'Well that's very strange, but what can you say about me?' He told him his story, and Ajahn Wung said to him, 'You need to understand that you've reached what can be called "the edge of perception". And if you keep pushing, you're going to suffer.' He said, 'When you reach the edge of perception what do you do? You stand there. You wait.'
The ability to wait like that takes an agility of practice, which is a force of goodness. If we haven't equipped ourselves with this ability to just wait, then we keep hammering away at the same technique, doing the same thing we've been doing. We hammer away, but it doesn't work. We need to be willing, we need to be agile enough, to wait. What's called for is just standing there, just being. And that can be the transformation. Then the Way happens. It's astounding.
I'm very grateful to Luang Por Chah for telling that story. I remembered it just at the right time some years ago. I was in America, and having an exceptionally bad time. I was having one of those moments where I had dropped into my own perfectly defined black hole, as unique in its way as everyone else's. I can still remember the day very well. It was one of the worst days of my life. We were at the Grand Canyon. I had decided it was better to be on my own. I left the people I was with, and walked off along this edge of the Grand Canyon. I was feeling really bad, I mean really bad. I reached a particular point where the ground just dropped away. It seemed to drop away forever. I was standing there, right on the edge of this, looking. My belief in rebirth is such that suicide has never been an option in my life; so that wasn't in my mind. There was a shaking; there was a trembling going on. I looked up just off to the left, and there was a sign that said 'The Abyss'. It was around that time that I remembered Luang Por's story, while standing on the edge of this abyss and not knowing what to do. So I just sat down and waited. It wasn't enlightenment, but it was an important moment for me, a moment when I remembered that when you reach a point where you can't handle it any more, you need to be agile enough to change tack. To just keep moving forward is not always there for you.