A reflection offered by Ajahn Amaro on 28 March 2016, during the Winter Retreat at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery
The changing weather is a fine teaching in adaptability. One day warm sunshine, spring flowers, birds singing. Now, howling winds and snow. Tomorrow what will it be? If we are wise then the heart will always adapt to receive the changing qualities of the present circumstance. Stillness and movement, calmness and wind, brightness, darkness, praise, criticism, gain and loss, the familiar or the unexpected.
As long as our practice, our peace of mind, is dependent on particular conditions or predictability, having things the way we expect or the way we like, we create the causes of dukkha right there. Why? Because everything is uncertain. Everything is uncertain: that’s the very nature of all things, mental and physical. If we look for certainty in that which is uncertain, what can the result be other than dukkha, stress and the feeling of wrongness? We’re looking for certainty where it can’t be found, looking for predictability where it can’t be found. So, how could we not be disappointed? If we’re looking for satisfaction in that which can’t satisfy, we’re looking in the wrong place. If we are looking for certainty, security, in that which is unstable, we’re looking in the wrong place.
So, the Buddha’s teachings train us in the quality of adaptability, to not go looking for the five khandhas¹ to be arranged in a particular way in order for us to be happy. If we try to find security, predictability, stability in the five khandhas, we have to be disappointed. The body, feelings, perceptions, mind-states, the world around us, are unstable. So stability can’t be found there.
The Refuges are where stability, security can be found. That’s why they are called Refuges. Like this Temple – it’s a warm, secure, still place while the storm rages outside, wailing winds and snow. On a physical level, this Temple is a refuge. On the internal level, the contemplative mind, the templum of wisdom, of vijjā, clear awareness, that is the refuge.
Just as sitting here in the Temple, we hear the winds howling and the snow blasting at the windows, but inside it is warm, still, peaceful. In exactly the same way, when the heart takes refuge in awareness, is attuned to the reality of the way things are, to Dhamma, then there is stillness, ease, security. Just as the weather can do whatever it likes outside the Temple, similarly, when the heart abides in the Triple Gem – tisāranā, the Three Refuges of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha – then the world of the senses, thoughts, feelings, the body, can do what it likes. It can rage away. Let the rain fall, the wind blow. Rain if you like, because the heart is the greatest shelter. That is why it is a refuge. It is reliable.
When we establish the Refuges in this way, we begin to trust more and more. The trusting heart can adapt to changing circumstances, to gain and loss, sickness and health, praise and criticism, happiness and unhappiness. And that adaptation is built around the attitude of ‘this is the way things are.’ The heart does not create a perception of wrongness. Even when what is perceived, the sense object, might be painful or ugly, unwanted, shocking; the heart does not add the feeling of wrongness to it. It does not create the idea that it shouldn’t be this way: ‘It’s not fair. Why is life doing this to me?’
When the heart takes refuge in Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, there is no feeling of wrongness. Everything belongs. Still, bright days belong. Wild and stormy days belong. Kindness and generosity belong. Violence and selfishness also belong. To be adaptable, then, is to be openhearted, to acknowledge that this is the way the world is. And on the basis of that acknowledgement, when the awake mind knows the way things are, when the Buddha sees the Dhamma, what arises is the Sangha, wholesome activity. Dhamma is the substance, Buddha is the function, Sangha is the manifestation. When the awake mind sees the way things are, it responds with wholesome action, unselfish action. This is how the Triple Gem works as a single unit.
So to be accepting of the way things are does not mean to be passive. It doesn’t mean being numb or uncaring, or to be violent just because such a feeling arises. Rather it is a total caring, but a caring not based on self-view. A caring that is not neurotic or idealistic. It is a caring based on attunement. The hand doesn’t have to decide about whether it cares about your ankle. If you’ve twisted your ankle, your hand will move to massage it. It is the same body. You don’t have to think about it. The body looks after itself.
The caring heart cares for all beings, cares for all things, but that caring manifests in accordance with time and place, situation. It intuits what can be done, what can’t be done. So when the awake mind knows the way things are, then that informs how to respond: Is it time to go outside or is it time to sit still? Is it time to speak up or is it time to be quiet? Is it time to crack a joke or is it time to be serious? We train the heart to be adaptable. It is not blown around by the wind, however, it knows the wind. It accommodates the tugging of the wind. It accommodates it, it knows it, it adapts to it.
When the retreat comes to an end, after the end of March, and the winds of our regular daily schedule start blowing, the heart can adapt in exactly the same way. Not hiding away, not being blown around, but being open to the changes, the possibilities of each moment. Having to interact with people, go places, make choices, take responsibility. If we have trained the heart to be adaptable, then whether there is engagement or withdrawal, whether there is responsibility or disengagement, the heart will be equally comfortable in all different circumstances. Whether things are quiet or whether they are busy, whether the air is still or wild – the heart which knows them is the same heart.
The more we develop the refuge in Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, the more adaptable, the more responsive the heart will be; comfortable with quietness and stillness and solitude, comfortable with activity and engagement; because the heart that knows stillness and silence is the same as the heart that knows activity and engagement. It is the same heart, the same refuge. The same Buddha, the same Dhamma, the same Sangha.
We use the time of retreat to develop spiritual skills in a direct, systematic, considered way; we develop these capacities in the optimal conditions. But if we become dependent on retreat, if we feel can only practise when the conditions are perfectly supportive, then we’ve used the conditions in a foolish way. We have made ourselves dependent, reliant. Rather than helping the heart to become adaptable, we’ve used the conditions of the retreat to become more fragile, more needy. We’ve created more causes for suffering.
Therefore we use the conditions of the retreat time understanding that it is a specific kind of environment – group meditation practice, the strict schedule, lack of necessity to engage in personal tasks – we create the optimal conditions, not to cling to them, but to take advantage of the possibilities that they present. Then with those advantages we learn skills that can accordingly be applied in every situation, whether there is retreat or encounter, stillness or activity, solitude or engagement. This is the skilful use of retreat time – not to make it a refuge in itself but to use the environment to develop adaptability, a profound flexibility of nature. To ‘take refuge’ means to embody the refuge of awakened awareness in this way. Embodying the Dhamma, being Dhamma. Embodying the Sangha.
In learning these skills, developing these qualities, we can see for ourselves how that enables the heart to be fully at peace in all circumstances. There’s gain and loss, sickness and health, praise and criticism, happiness and unhappiness. The heart is at ease, open, awake, malleable and ready to learn. Whatever each moment’s circumstance brings with it – whatever comes, moment by moment, day by day – the heart is ready to learn from that; it develops wisdom, understanding, on account of that.
These are the blessings of a training environment like this. We develop these skills to be robust, to be adaptable, to have independence. The heart is no longer reliant on particular conditions, such as being with the people you like, or having the food that you like, or the weather that you like, or the routine that you like. ‘Independent’ means not depending on any thing. What a blessing! How wonderful! What a delight! True independence, freedom. Let the world do what it likes. Let the weather do whatever it wants. Let the rain, the wind, the snow, let it blow, let it fall. The heart remains secure.
¹Five khandhas: form, feeling, perception, mental formations and discriminative consciousness.