Saturday, August 16, 2008

E-book Review: Intuitive Awareness by Ajahn Sumedho

Ajahn Sumedho: a truly awakened teacher

“In contemplating right understanding (samma-ditthi) I like to emphasise seeing it an an intuitive understanding and not a conceptual one. I have found it very helpful just contemplating the difference between analytical thinking and intuitive awareness, just to make it clear what that is, because there is a huge difference between the use of the mind to think, to analyse, reason, criticize, to have ideas, perceptions, views and opinions, and intuitive awareness which is non-critical.” (Intuitive Awareness, p.19)

The freely available e-book by Ajahn Sumedho Intuitive Awareness is a joy to read; full of the insight and humor that the abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery is famous for. The eleven chapters cover subjects from body contemplation to the sound of silence, and from the nature of consciousness to awareness of rebirth. They were all transcribed from spontaneous talks given by Ajahn Sumedho, and retain much of the vigor and liveliness he is renowned for. Throughout the book, he never strays far from the central theme of this work – mindfulness, or as he often describes it, intuitive awareness. Much of Ajahn Sumedho’s words revolve around making this clear consciousness the hub of one’s practice, remaining awake to the various thoughts, feelings, moods, and sensations that fill the mind’s attention. In doing so, the self-view (sakkaya-ditthi) dominates one’s perspective less, opening one up to the experience of life as it truly is: impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self.

This awareness is non-critical, as opposed to the use of the mind to think, analyze, criticize, and perceive; as it includes criticism, it’s not that intuitive awareness is exclusive, but that it sees the critical aspect of the mind as an object. This is a non-discriminating attitude of mind that’s very different to the intellect and its myriad meanderings, and yet at the same time is inclusive of this aspect of the mind. Ajahn Sumedho relates intuitive awareness to the traditional Buddhist approach to mindfulness known as sati-sampajanna (clarity and mindfulness), which he says includes such mind states as confusion, uncertainty and insecurity. It is a clarity of awareness that simply recognizes that this is the way things are in this moment, even if that includes negative states like confusion.

In the chapter called Intuitive Awareness, Ajahn Sumedho goes on to relate a story from his early days as a Buddhist renunciate, when he was considering how to let go of thoughts as a way to quieten the mind and achieve some peace in his practice. But, he says, there is no way to pacify the mind like this: just let it be and watch, and the mind will die down by itself:

“My insight came when I was a Samanera (novice monk).’ How do you stop thinking? Just stop. How do you just stop?’ The mind would always come back with ‘How? How can you do it?’, wanting to figure it out rather than trusting the immanence of it. Trusting is relaxing into it, it’s just attentiveness, which is an act of faith, it’s a ‘trustingness’ (saddha).” (Ibid. p.21)

Ajahn Sumedho also makes reference to the asubha (not beautiful) reflections used in Buddhism to quell sensuous desires by focusing on the less pleasant aspects of the human body. But he suggests that it’s not a case of hating or disliking the body that’s important in this kind of practice, but simply to become alive to the more unattractive nature of the human form, such as its pus and excrement. He makes an interesting reference to the practice of watching autopsies, which he notes can be pretty shocking as the body is cut up. Aversion can arise to the smells and appearance of the corpse, but if this shock is transcended, a cool feeling of dispassion can arise.

This cool awareness is not a cold one however, for it can just as easily be experienced by practicing metta (loving-kindness). Metta is not a kind of fuzzy feeling of love however that’s only available to those that we fond of, Ajahn Sumedho points out that metta should be applied to those we dislike or even hate. This is perhaps impossible on an intellectual level, but because metta is an emotion that’s not part of a discriminative process, it’s intuitive. He says that metta is non-critical, like intuitive awareness itself, and isn’t about dwelling on the reasons for hating somebody, but rather includes the feeling, the person, and one’s self. Metta isn’t about figuring things out: it’s about being open and accepting this present moment.

“When you try to conceive metta as ‘love’, loving something in terms of liking it, it makes it impossible to sustain metta when you get to things you can’t stand, people you hate and things like that. Metta is very hard to come to terms with on a conceptual level. To love your enemies, to love people you hate, who you can’t stand is, on the conceptual level, an impossible dilemma…Metta is not analytical; it’s not dwelling on why you hate somebody. It’s not trying to figure out why I hate this person, but it includes the whole thing – the feeling, the person, myself – all in the same moment. So it’s embracing, a point that includes and is non-critical.” (Ibid. p.25)

Ajahn Sumedho also talks about the Buddhist body-sweeping exercise, where one directs attention to slowly observe the body from head-to-feet and back again, becoming aware of its every sensation. This can a difficult practice, for as Luang Por relates, it can be easy to overlook the neutral feelings associated with the body and only focus on the pleasant or unpleasant feelings. This can give an imbalanced understanding of the body, however, and learning to be conscious of the more indifferent bodily sensations such as how the clothes rub against the skin, or the tongue touching the palate in the mouth, can reveal a more complete picture of what this body actually is: it’s like this. All this points to an important insight of Ajahn Sumedho’s: consciousness reflects like a mirror. It doesn’t only reflect the beautiful, but reflects the ugly too. It reflects anything that’s present: the space, as well as everything that’s in it.

There are many personal details from Ajahn Sumedho’s monastic career as well that add another dimension to Intuitive Awareness, revealing his close relationship to his mentor Ajahn Chah, his analysis of his own personality traits, and his contemplative life as lived in both Thailand and England. We read of the poignant and amusing incident involving a bag of sugar and a fasting Venerable Sumedho – engineered by the ever-insightful Ajahn Chah! He also relates another episode from his early monastic life, when Ajahn Sumedho was a vegetarian and was trying to avoid eating anything with meat or fish products in it (which is not something expected of Thai Buddhists usually). Now, one day another monk who aware of the young Venerable Sumedho’s preference for vegetarian food gave him only a spoonful from the vegetarian dish. So incensed was Ajahn Sumedho that he splattered a lot of strong-smelling fermented fish sauce over his fellow monk’s food!

A really important aspect of this book is that it’s not a scholarly work revolving around complicated Buddhist philosophy and psychology (although Ajahn Sumedho does display admiral knowledge of Buddhist doctrine). Instead, the forest monk focuses on the meditative life as lived by real people with real problems and concerns, as reflected in the title of one of the transcribed talks: When You’re an Emotional Wreck. In this section of the book, the ajahn skillfully relates intuitive awareness to being open to any emotions or feelings that are present in the moment:

"Notice what it’s like when you open to emotional feeling, to moods, without judging it, not making any problem out of it, whatever its quality is, whether it’s emotional or physical, by learning to embrace it, o sustain your attention by holding it without trying to get rid of it, change it or think about it. Just totally accept the mood your in, the emotional state, of the physical sensations like pain, itching or whatever tensions, with this sense of well-being, of embracing.” (Ibid. p.59)

This pragmatic attitude of Ajahn Sumedho when conveying the Buddhadharma is an important factor in making Intuitive Awareness a true gem among the plethora of books on Buddhism available nowadays. It’s a work I have referred to many times, and I will return to it again and again over the coming years as an aid to my own mindfulness and meditation practice. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. To download this brilliant collection of Dharma talks, please go to the following address:

Intuitive Awareness by Ajahn Sumedho


JD said...

I would have to agree with you here G. This is a fantastic book. It's nice to see that it is available for download. I think most of these talks are in his book "The Sound of Silence" as well but you have to pay for that one.

His impressions on the body during autopsys is right on the money. I have never seen an autopsy but am certified to work in surgery so I have spent time in many an O.R. suite watching the body being explored and things like cancer being removed. It can foster much dispassion to be sure, especially when you see just how fragile this body is and the fact that you can carve and probe into every crevice and not find anything to call a self in there.

I like the fact that Ajahn Sumedho does explore the teachings as a living tradition and not in terms of scholarship. It gives great examples of how the Dhamma is to be lived and not just read about or analyzed. I appreciate your review, I hope it leads to others reading this great book. Wishing you well.

G said...

Yes, Justin, the talks here appear in 'The Sound of Silence', too. (There's a review of that book on 'Forest Wisdom')

I have sat with several dying people in my life, watching the life ebb away from them. It's both a privilege and an insight into the way of the Dharma.

And, yes, Ajahn Sumedho's skill in presenting the living Buddhadharma is a true gift to the world. We are fortunate to have encountered such a teacher!

They call him James Ure said...

Excellent review. Sounds like a wonderful book. I'll add it to my long list of books to read. I do love reading though. :)

G said...

There's not necessarily much wrong with a love of reading, James, is there? It just depends on what you like reading, and what you do with the words after you've finished...

G ;)

Unknown said...

Thanks G. That's a marvellous precis of a great book. You've probably already discussed this on your blog (I'm new to Buddha Space), but have you written about Ajahn Chah's Still Water Flowing?

G said...

Thanks Adam for such a nice comment.

There's a review of 'The Teachings of Ajahn Chah' which includes the talk 'Still, Flowing Water'. The review can be found in the free e-books reviews & links section on the right of the blog.

Be well, Adam.

Vejgaard Ambient said...

The download link seems to be out of order. The book can now be found here:

Thank you.

G said...

Thanks, Funny; it's really good of you to take the time to do this. I'll change the link in the article, too.