A Dhamma article by Ajahn Sundara – On the Way to Liberation

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A reflection offered by Ajahn Sundara on 20 September 2015, at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery

Today there is beautiful weather. We notice how the human mind is influenced and affected by the brightness of sunshine. On a sunny day in England, I always get the feeling that the sunshine brings happiness into people’s minds. It feels like there is something radiant in the air, and it makes me think that probably many people have a very happy mind right now, which I share with them. I think it’s a very natural thing, and everybody gets along better when we are happy. When the mind is miserable, it is difficult to connect with people. In fact, we don’t even notice people around us.

So the clouds come, and then what happens to our minds?

The whole teaching of the Buddha is about finding a happiness that is different from conventional happiness. Conventional happiness keeps on breeding misery and unsatisfactory experiences. We tend to be experts in this kind of conditioned happiness; not a stable, fundamental happiness, but a very conditioned one, dependent on many things. Some of those things are healthy and helpful, other things are quite destructive and can lead us to being more miserable, sick, addicted and obsessed.

Buddhist teachings are a clear map to health. The path of Buddhism shows very clearly where the mind becomes diseased and points out the path that takes the mind to a state of health.

There are many aspects to the path. In my early years of practice, one of the first important teachings I learned from Ajahn Sumedho was how to approach the path with a skilled mind, and that means Right View. Right View, the way Luang Por Sumedho expressed it, was quite different from what you read in traditional books on Buddhism. He expressed Right View as the ability to see life as it is and to simply learn from life; to not fall into the traps of judging, of criticizing, of wanting things to be different, of feeling constantly discontented – just learning to receive life as it is, to be with life as it is. This is the first step toward living in reality rather than in dreams, which can easily turn into nightmares. I’m sure you already know about this. But dreams turn into nightmares only because you identify with them. If you are not identified with them, you can actually feel freedom in your heart; you can go through nightmares and through pleasant dreams, and not need to depend on any of them to be happy.

This is Right View: seeing life as it is, knowing life as it is, experiencing life as it is and letting go. This is not ‘me’ doing something, it is a clear seeing. Awareness itself is what enables the mind to let go.

We use this teaching as an entry into learning. This approach is very tolerant and accepting, benevolent and compassionate. It’s not an approach that continues to divide, dissect, make judgments and criticize. It is an approach that is encompassing, whole, wholesome; an approach of non-contention, as Ajahn Sumedho would describe it. We are not contending with the reality of now, we are able to just see things as they are. But this is not easy.

To see something as it is, there need to be certain conditions. We need to learn to appreciate what it means to be still. Stillness is not an end to itself. But what does it mean to be still? It simply means that you stop moving with the movements of your mind. You stop agitating yourself with that which is agitated in yourself. You stop being confused with that which is confused in yourself. You stop being unhappy with that which is unhappy in yourself. ‘Seeing’ is the condition that arises naturally when we reach the place of ‘stopping’. ‘Seeing’ is a mind that doesn’t move. It has stopped. It is here, now.

There are different methods of meditation, different techniques, different teachings. Should I do samatha or vipassanā? Should I watch the breath? And if I watch the breath, should I watch it at the nose or at the belly? Or should I use the sound of silence or a mantra? There are many methods and techniques and we can get enticed by these. We can have fun developing ānāpānasati, meditation on mindfulness of breathing. It’s interesting seeing what the mind does as we say a mantra, repeating words over and over. What does the mind do when the body is just breathing through the nostrils or the belly? What does the mind do when it’s just listening to the sound of silence? You begin to see what an object of meditation is.

My object of meditation is to go to that which is already stilled, already unmoving. This is called calm-meditation or stilling the mind, samatha practice. There are many methods for stilling the mind. It can be an aspect of concentration, focusing on one object.

Then you have vipassanā practice. Vipassanā has to do with exploration. You are exploring the mind and seeing the result of this exploration. When you explore with Right View, you clearly see what the Buddha called the Three Characteristics of Phenomena: everything is impermanent, everything is unsatisfactory and everything is not what you are.

So what we call vipassanā is actually the result of exploring the mind. It’s not a particular school of Buddhism. Vipassanā means to see deeply, to know profoundly, to be able to see clearly. When you see clearly, you have access to the reality of now. And it is not something you imagine. It is not something you have to believe. It is something you clearly see. Vipassanā is an invitation to explore. ‘Is this satisfactory, or is it unsatisfactory?’ Maybe you think you find greed extremely satisfactory. Maybe you think you find the object of your greed satisfactory. On the other hand, maybe you find that the feeling of greed arising in the heart is not so still and restful. The Buddha invites us to really examine the excitement of this world of desires. He draws our attention to the danger in believing in this world. The Buddha encourages us to really apply our attention, our questioning and investigating mind, to this world of sensuality and its complexities. Is this really the satisfactory world that we are seeking?

There are so many worldly things that we identify with, so many objects that we desire. Start bringing your mind into the meditation view, and bring the view of your mind into your meditation practice. If one technique works for you, use that technique. There is no need to be opinionated about other techniques. There isn’t one particular way of practising Buddhism. We can be very attached to our views about practice: ‘you have to do ānāpānasati, otherwise you can’t be a Buddhist’; ‘you have to read the scriptures’; ‘you have to be doing this technique, otherwise you’re doing it wrong.’ These views can be very strong, very solid, very compact. And we can hold them in relation to ourselves, in relation to our own practice: ‘This is my way, that’s the only way for me’; ‘this is my view, that’s the only view’; ‘this is my world, there is no other world that works for me.’ That may be true, but it’s always worth investigating. It is always worth questioning: is it really true?

Buddhism quite naturally takes you to that place of questioning. The basic practice is to actually look at the instrument that creates everything, that creates the world. That instrument is the source. It is what creates the world in you. And that which creates is delusion.

This insight can be really depressing for Westerners, because we can be so addicted to creating and inventing things. We can really be quite addicted to the whole creative world. I remember when I was younger, back when I was doing choreography, I thought it was amazing if something was ‘creative’ or if someone was a ‘creative person.’ But there was a question that kept coming up that I dreaded answering: who is creating? I became a Buddhist nun because I realized there was nobody creating. The news that the only creator in our world is avijjā, delusion, does not go down very well in our society, does it?

When the Buddha talks about creation, he is not talking about the creation of an enlightened mind. The mind that is created is a mind that is conditioned: conditioned by delusion, conditioned by personality, conditioned by views, opinions and attachments. The liberated mind is an instrument that is free, open to whatever happens.

Those of you who are artists have probably experienced the angst of thinking that you could never create anything new because everything has already been created in this world. Everything has already been done. Everything has already been written. ‘What can I bring? What can I create that is new?’ I used to find that really depressing, because I didn’t feel there was anything new that could be done. After all those centuries and millennia, all those great minds who had been alive had brought forth beautiful creative art and philosophical works, and there was nothing left to bring forth.

It didn’t occur to me that the mind is naturally, spontaneously a creator. The Buddha talks about creation in the context of a mind that is not yet free of delusion, not yet clear, not yet empty. A mind that is still caught up in the three poisons: greed, hatred and delusion.

When you go back to the practice, it’s very patient work. It takes energy and a very deep interest in discovering what the Buddha means by greed, hatred and delusion. If you don’t have that kind of interest, you might as well forget it. Very often, the interest comes when we are at the end of our rope. It’s not necessarily something that comes naturally. ‘Oh, let’s see what the Buddha means by dukkha – that will be fun.’ Many people come to practise because they have seen that suffering is not the way forward, limitation is not the way forward, that a confused mind is not the way forward. For many people, there is the realization that they are living in a subjective reality and they don’t want to carry on living in that kind of world. So we often start the practice with, ‘I’m fed up with that. I don’t want this anymore. I’ve had enough of suffering. I’ve had enough of being confused and deluded. I’ve had enough of being angry.’

Sometimes we don’t actually move in the right direction until we have been pushed by the sense of enough is enough. And it doesn’t have to be dramatic. Sometimes it is very subtle. Little by little you accumulate a sense of knowledge about anger, for example, and you realize that this state of anger is not really something you want to live in all the time or even part of the time or even a quarter of the time or even any time at all. Perhaps you realize that the mind can be quiet and peaceful, and you naturally feel the quiet loveliness of this peaceful mind. You have the sense of something that feels very special.

Silence, interestingly, has a way of making one feel connected. We notice our mind is silent, and suddenly we are back at home. A lot of the time our senses are taking us ‘out there.’ We don’t realize that actually the world begins in our hearts/minds (citta) and is triggered by ‘out there.’ The senses and their objects are constantly triggering our citta, so when we bring the to a place of coolness and calm, we have a chance to look at what is triggering us. This gives us the opportunity to understand how those triggers are affected by the outside world and how we respond to those triggers. A lot of the time we tend to blame what is outside of ourselves; we blame people, we blame situations, we blame the world. We still haven’t seen clearly that what manifests outside is very much a reflection of our mind itself.

It takes a while to realize that everything that happens to us comes from the mind, is created by the mind and is mind-made. But it’s not that clear at first, because as human beings we have so many things going on in our minds. It wasn’t clear to me for decades, how to truly know without any doubt that what I see outside is definitely my mind. We struggle so much because of that lack of clarity. We don’t clearly see how the mechanisms of our mind and body respond to things. It’s a very complex world. We double-react to things. We react and then we react again. We find ourselves trapped in reactions. But it’s not our fault. There is nobody to blame. If we want to blame something, we should blame avijjā. When I realized this, when I stopped blaming myself, I found freedom. It’s the freedom of realizing that you can take full responsibility for your mind.

What we call the human mind is basically a pretty blind thing. You can’t blame yourself for being blind. You haven’t asked to be blind. You haven’t invited blindness into your life. The blindness just came along with you and your body. So you can’t really feel bad about it. That’s why the Buddha doesn’t make a big issue about guilt. Instead, he draws our attention to studying, investigating, understanding these mechanisms, these triggers, these responses, this reactivity. When we look at the mind, we are entering a vast field of investigation.

Most of the path is about developing qualities that keep us interested in liberating the mind through understanding. What is the mind? ‘The mind is forerunner of all things. All things come from the mind and they are mind-made.’ These are simple, neutral words that I’ve paraphrased from the Dhammapada. They point to the complexities of our mind. The Dhammapada continues by saying that if you act with intention that is unskilful, then of course misery follows you ‘like the wheels of a cart follow the feet of an ox.’ The next verse is about its opposite, about that which brings you happiness. ‘The mind is the forerunner of all things. All things come from the mind. If you act with intention that is skilful, happiness follows like a shadow that never leaves.’ The Buddha uses quite ordinary images to extraordinary images, images that help us understand what the path is about so directly and intuitively, in a heartfelt way.

Sometimes, when we think we are practising religion, we are actually becoming engulfed in a lot of superficial, artificial practices that have nothing to do with the path of liberation. You feel that you have to ‘be’ something, to create yourself in accord with a particular teaching. But the teaching of liberation is a free vehicle. It doesn’t have a name. The Buddha never called his teaching Buddhism. Liberation is something that arises naturally from a free mind, a mind that is not caught up in delusion, anger and greed. The danger with religion is that grasped wrongly it can take you back to the same things – greed, hatred and delusion. You can see that everywhere in the world.

When you start following the Buddha’s path, and I think this would be the same for any religious path, there is suddenly a fear that you have to be a certain way, fear that if you do something wrong it’s going to be terrible, and fear that your freedom is going to be challenged. You begin to see yourself in a certain way and feel you have to constantly prop up this ‘self’ – propping up somebody who is Buddhist, who has to look good and be kind; has to play a part, in other words.

That’s not freedom.

Liberation is actually the letting go of images about yourself. It is not easy, because what we call the ego is made up of images. The images don’t disappear easily because a lot of them are built up by fear. It’s not like we have control over them. They just build up. We become ‘somebody’ in our minds – not because we created somebody, but just because it is created. Creation just manifests from greed, hatred, fear, delusion, envy, jealousy and a lot of unhealthy, unskilful mental states and intentions.

The Buddha has offered us a lot of very good, clear guidelines for integrating the path in our daily lives and helping the mind cultivate qualities that are rooted in goodness and kindness. These guidelines are from his own experience. If we trust the Buddha’s experiences, then we have confidence in what he presents. I have seen it for myself; something good that we do, say or think, any qualities that are skilful and healthy and sound, will always result in a happier mind. We don’t need to believe the Buddha for that. The more you apply close attention to your life, the more you can see the details of what I’m talking about.

As we see these details, we find it fascinating that we did not see them before. ‘Wow – it’s so obvious to me now. How on Earth did I not see this particular pattern before?’ That’s because of ignorance, avijjā. Sometimes we call it the unconscious, or the subconscious. There are layers upon layers of things that we don’t see yet. That is why it’s really worthwhile to pursue this path. If we really want to check out what it is to free our mind, we do it by paying deep attention to the mind itself, clearly seeing cause and result. We don’t have to be perfect. If we had to be perfect we would be waiting a long time!

How many of us have been discouraged by seeing our delusion and almost abandoning any interest in the path because we feel, ‘I’m so greedy, I can’t do it. I’m so impatient, I can’t do it. I’m so angry all the time, I can’t do. I can’t do this path. I can’t be a Buddhist because I am so deluded.’

It is because we are deluded that we need to walk the Path. And we need to make peace with our delusion. What else do we have to work with? There wouldn’t be Buddhism if we didn’t have anger, greed and ignorance. The Buddha brought this path to the world of humans, to illuminate those mind-states, not to make us believe that by just reading his books or listening to his teachings or meditating we’re going to instantly turn into a holy being or a saint.

If we pay attention to our minds, how much of that belief system is in place? How many times are we disappointed with ourselves? How many times are we disappointed in others? Looking at the mind in this way really uncovers our expectations about things. We tend to filter reality in such a way that the mind re-enacts itself again and again and again. If you feel that somebody is unkind to you, that’s going to be re-enacted over and over in your mind. I’ve done this many times. We start missing many things in life that would make life so much happier.

Once we become more mindful, we start noticing small things that we would have missed before. We start noticing little details of the kindness of people, small things they do, small things they say, small things they manifest in thought and words. We begin to notice the details of kindness and our world becomes much happier. We can easily create a world of anger – a negative, critical and undermining world – simply because we don’t notice the details of noble qualities in people. Through mindfulness we break our habits of creating negativity, of undermining people and ourselves. Through mindfulness we notice when people are kind, when people are generous. We notice small things that make us see the world in a happier way. It has certainly made a big difference in me.

If our minds are miserable, we can look at our belief systems. We may have very strong beliefs that are not conducive to happiness: ‘Nobody likes me – the world is this way. I can’t stand that person. I’m no good.’ We may find attachment to rites and rituals, attachment to doubt, attachment to many things. We see those things and we acknowledge them in a way that is liberating. We don’t have to eradicate our mind. We don’t have to kill it, trample it, squeeze it, squish it, and turn it into something completely dead and miserable. We start by using the instrument we have at our disposal, and this instrument is called ‘mind and body’. We use this instrument to face life as it is, and to face our ‘self’ as it is. It takes strength. It takes energy. It takes interest. It takes fearlessness. It takes compassion and patience. It takes many things to be able to look at reality as it is.

One of the teachers in the Thai Forest tradition taught me that when we meet someone, we needn’t be overly romantic – we are meeting a big bag of kilesas (defilements), to put it bluntly. Once we see this reality as it is, we don’t have unrealistic expectations. Many times I’ve suffered because people’s minds were not the way I thought they were. I thought they were in charge. I thought they ought to be loving and caring. But remember that all we are seeing is just a bunch of kilesas. This helps, because attachment is a kilesa as well, even attachment to goodness and kindness. Attachment skews your view. If you attach to goodness and kindness, or being a Buddhist, then somebody who doesn’t fit the mode is suddenly ‘not right’. Many times, people say (or think), ‘How can you be angry and be a Buddhist? If you were a true Buddhist, you would be really patient with me. If you were a true Buddhist you would be able to control your mind!’ No. A true Buddhist is somebody who can see when they don’t control their mind. They see their mind as it is, they don’t get caught up with an idea of how the mind should be. As true Buddhists, we have the wisdom to know what makes us turn into hellish beings with hellish lives, and the wisdom to know how to bring life into a place of goodness, kindness, love and peace, the qualities that make a liveable world. A world that is real. Reality is very energetic. Mental states don’t have as much energy as reality. That is why mental states usually drag you down if you attach to them. Reality is made up of mental states that keep coming and going. It’s not something fixed. It is a flow. That is reality – the reality of life is flowing, and that flow is present right here, right now.

It is important not to make your practice-world separate from reality. The practice and your life is one single unit. You may be practising sitting in full-lotus or on a chair, or lying down or walking or running – the mind is with you all the time. The mind is not just the brain or the intellect. It is the reality that you experience in each moment. This experience includes feelings, mental constructs, memories, desires, sensations – whatever experience is present here and now, this is the mind, the citta.

The practice is so beautifully simple. All the techniques, methods and teachings, are simply to bring us back to the present moment – here and now – to bring us back to seeing clearly. All the techniques and methods are like a good pair of spectacles. We wear them so that we don’t have blurry eyesight. When we look at the world through a bad pair of spectacles, through lenses of greed, hatred or delusion, we look at a very blurry world. And yet, as meditators we can become attached to clarity. We attach to purity. We attach to wanting a perfect view. But for a long time we don’t have perfect view. We have blurry eyesight. Our vision is not clear yet, and that’s just the way it is.

The Buddha encourages us to develop Right Effort, Right Concentration and Right Mindfulness to come to a balance of clear vision. These are the balancing factors to help us little by little. It is a skill we develop. We don’t get this straightaway. We’re not working with an inanimate object. We’re working with energy – a big energy body that doesn’t always tell you in advance how it’s going to respond to your practice. So we have to become skilled in receiving this energy without freaking out, basically; without interpreting it in a wrong way or being confused by the energetic movement of mind and body.

According the Buddha’s teaching, integration with the real world begins with sīla (ethics); that is the foundation. Ethics require a huge amount of effort. It is the first step, and the hardest one for most people. Meditating on a cushion, attaining samādhi (concentration or a unification of mind) – most people can get that at some point. We may have to wait a bit, but it’s not so difficult. But to actually develop the mind at the ethical level – to see the mind as it manifests in our actions and speech – that’s the hardest part. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because everybody can see you, so there is a terrific amount of angst and proliferation as the mind tries to justify our actions and speech when we are wrong. We feel so embarrassed. There is a huge amount of self involved when we’re seen doing something that we don’t feel so proud about, or that we regret afterwards.

In the Thai Forest Tradition, sīla is the foundation work, the most important work. Meditation is important too, of course, and it supports sīla. Meditation keeps the mind balanced in our activity and speech, because speech and thought come together. Thoughts break into speech. What you say begins as a thought that occurred in your mind. That’s why it is important to check the mind out. Sīla is a great mirror of the mind. It can really focus us on our actions and speech. If we’re really interested in knowing ourselves, sīla and meditation working together are a great blessing.

In Buddhism, because we experience our mind and use our lives and minds to see and understand the world, we begin to really know what a blessing is. Basically it means happiness or merit. The Buddha said, ‘Do not fear merit, bhikkhus. Merit is another word for happiness.’ I was dumfounded when I read that. Everybody is okay with happiness. Everybody can understand that word. ‘Merit is a blessing. Merit is another word for happiness. Do not fear merit. Offer yourselves blessings by making merit.’ Okay? There is happiness in merit: the happiness of accumulating good conditions, accumulating good roots, good factors, good experiences. All of that brings happiness to our hearts. That is why merit is another word for happiness.

Remember, these methods give us a lot of tools that we can use, but that’s still not liberation. Liberation is when we start letting go, when we start freeing the heart through renouncing all the things that are redundant in our minds. We have a lot of redundant things that keep us miserable: depression, despair, lack of confidence, fear, anxiety. We think, ‘Oh, there is something wrong with me.’ No. There is nothing wrong with us. As I become older, I see more and more clearly that human life is really difficult. We have so many things to do, so many things to attend to just to survive at the physical level. Then we have to look after people. Some of us have to be married, and look after the children and the dog and the cat and the house and the car and the bank accounts. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just really not easy to live a human live. It demands a lot of energy to attend to all these things. It’s not an obstacle to liberation necessarily, but if you feel your life is difficult and troublesome, don’t blame yourself; it is just human life. You’re living a human life, and it’s just like that.

So I leave you on this: hopefully you can make peace. You can make peace with being human, with the joy and the misery of a human life, and continue to develop a sense of great gratitude towards the Buddha’s teachings for enabling us to live our human life with a sense that it is worthwhile. It doesn’t need to have a meaning. I think it is a little bit difficult to search for meaning. We never find meaning. The meaning is life itself – just being a human being and exploring our human life to understand why we were born, how we were born and to make the best of it while we are still alive.