Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Forest Walking III

"These are the five rewards for one who practices walking meditation. Which five?
He can endure traveling by foot; he can endure exertion; he becomes free from disease; whatever he has eaten & drunk, chewed & savored, becomes well-digested; the concentration he wins through walking meditation lasts for a long time.
These are the five rewards for one who practices walking meditation."
(The Buddha, in the Cankama Sutta*)

The Buddha taught many meditation & mindfulness techniques. One of them, called cankama in the Pali Canon (the Theravada Buddhist scriptures), was a form of mindfulness practice that he was particularly keen on early in the morning. In English, this is known as walking meditation, although this is somewhat misleading as Buddhist meditation involves the development of absorptive concentration which is done in the classic cross-legged position. Becoming unaware of the physical surroundings in one of these states of mind whilst walking could be pretty dangerous, if it's possible at all. In truth, cankama is more 'mindful walking' than walking meditation, but the latter term seems to have entered the English language Buddhist lexicon already, so we're stuck with it.

Mindful walking was not only a favorite practice of the Buddha. To this day it has remained a mainstay of both the Theravada & Zen forms of Buddhism. In Zen, it is known as kinhin (経行) in Japanese, and is practiced in-between long periods of zazen (sitting meditation). In Thai, mindful walking is called jong-grom (จงกรม), and is usually practiced on a designated stretch of land or floor.In the lineage of Ajahn Chah, it is widely used as a way to cultivate the long-lasting concentration referred to in the Cankama Sutta above. So, here in the International Forest Monastery in Northeast Thailand, I decided to use the sala (pavilion) situated in the forest to do a bit of mindful walking…with the Buddha watching over me. 

In Thailand, when entering a temple building - and many other places such as people's homes and some businesses - it is customary to remove one's footwear. Not to do so is considered most impolite, especially in a temple, and it can be very dirty too, as soil etcetera is trampled everywhere. So, prior to entering the sala, my flip-flops were deposited outside its perimeter, awaiting my return. Actually, being barefoot is great for mindful walking as it enhances the sensation of the feet touching the surface over which they are traversing. This, in turn, assists the mindfulness aspect of the practice, as the heightened feeling encourages attention.

I chose a section of the sala just in front of the Buddha statue, which itself is an image of the Lord Buddha walking. The tiled floor is nice and cool in the sala, so it has a nice soothing sensation on the feet as they paced up & down the two mats placed at two entrances of the sala. Focusing on the feet as each one touches the floor & then rises up, mindful walking is indeed a pleasant way to develop concentration. The trees at each end of the walk waved in the wind, as if encouraging my efforts. After a short time, awareness came to rest on the motion of the feet, and the view of those trees as they enlarged with each approach. Broadening out awareness to take in everything in view, I looked downwards. And this is what I saw: The one doing the walking was without a head! 

This is the view ever before me, but I am not always aware of it, despite being introduced to it by the teachings of a British philosopher called Douglas Harding nearly a quarter of a century ago.As he taught, however, this fluctuation between seeing what is thought to be here & what's actually seen is quite natural. Moreover, it's a fun way to cultivate mindfulness, being awake to the emptiness where others see a head. This doesn't mean, in my experience, that I don't have a head - I can feel it here. But it does point at, most directly, the emptiness that lies behind my face. One might call it, as many Zen masters have, the original face. Walking in this emptiness is a freeing experience. Whilst it is not an avoidance of everything that's present, it puts it all in a wider context than is normally experienced. So, rather than identifying with the headed self and all its concerns, we can act out of this spacious awareness, as the very emptiness in which all that is known arises.

As a bleak reminder as to why we might want to practice something such as mindful walking & seeing our nature as it is right now, the sala has a rather grim occupant. It is the skeleton of a woman that died many moons ago, and donated her remains to the monastery to use as a subject for reflection. (Presumably, she promised her body to the monastery prior to her demise, although here in Thailand you can never be too sure about these things!) So, there seems to be a choice here: remain committed to the idea of being a mortal being that will one day end up as bones, or look into actual experience and discover what the Buddha called the deathless (amatapada). Mindful walking & 'headless awareness' are two bonafide ways to develop awareness and see what we truly are. Then, we are free of death and suffering. Try it sometime!     

*Cankama Sutta: Walking (AN 45:29), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 17 February 2012,
Link. Retrieved on 27 June 2012.
For more on the teachers mentioned in this article, Ajahn Chah & Douglas Harding, please click on the tab marked 'Teachers' above.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

D.T. Suzuki

"No amount of reading, no amount of teaching, 
no amount of contemplation will ever make one a Zen master. 
Life itself must be grasped in the midst of its flow; 
to stop it for examination and analysis is to kill it, 
leaving its cold corpse to be embraced."
(An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p.102)

Born in Japan in 1870, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (鈴木 大拙 貞太郎is the man often credited
as introducing the West to Zen Buddhism, through his many books and essays,
written in both Japanese and English. He also wrote on Shin Buddhism and Christian
mysticism, as well as translating major Mahayana Buddhist and Daoist scriptures into
English for the first time. As a professor, he lectured in many universities around the
world and resided at Otani University in Kyoto, Japan for many years. He tirelessly
promoted Buddhism in both Japan & the West until his death in 1966. His legacy
still lives on through those people that he met and influenced through his work.
Here's an example of his skill in writing of Zen, a notoriously difficult subject to put into

"Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one's own being, 
and it points the way from bondage to freedom. 
By making us drink right from the fountain of life, 
it liberates us from all the yokes under which we finite beings 
are usually suffering in this world. 
We can say that Zen liberates all the energies properly and naturally 
stored in each of us, which are in ordinary circumstances 
cramped and distorted so that they find no adequate channel for activity." 
(Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, p.3)

Daisetz (大拙) - sometimes written Daisetsu, although the 'u' is silent - was not Suzuki's
birth name. It was his Dharma name given him by his Zen master Soen Shaku. It means
'Great Humility' or 'Great Simplicity,' although it can also be read 'Greatly Clumsy' - it's
even been rendered 'Great Stupidity!' Suzuki displayed many qualities during his long life,
but clumsiness & stupidity were surely not amongst them; he was, however, a great
propagator of Buddhism. Whilst studying with Soen Shaku, Suzuki experienced satori
(enlightenment) whilst walking up a temple staircase. This came after a long period working
with a koan (a kind of Zen riddle), a practice he describes in great detail in his books, and
which has helped many readers to have similar experiences to himself. Suzuki writes:

"Ko-an literally means 'a public document' or 'authoritative statute' - 
a term coming into vogue toward the end of the T'ang dynasty. 
It now denotes some anecdote of an ancient master, 
or a dialogue between a master and monks, or a statement or question 
put forward by a teacher, all of which are used as the means for opening 
one's mind to the truth of Zen. In the beginning, of course, there was no 
koan as we understand it now; it is a kind of artificial instrument devised out of 
the fullness of heart by later Zen masters, who by this means would force the 
evolution of Zen consciousness in the minds of their less endowed disciples."
(An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p.72)

The above quote displays Suzuki's skill at explaining Zen in terms that modern western
minds would be able to grasp, at least superficially enough to gain their interest. The actual comprehension of Zen itself is another matter, but even here Suzuki possessed an unusual
talent, as will be explored below. The first major work of Suzuki's was Outlines of Mahayana 
Buddhism, and he also translated the Lankavatara Sutra into English, as well as a series of
talks by Soen Shaku called Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot. Some of his 'biggest hits' have
been Essays in Zen Buddhism (three volumes), Manual of Zen Buddhism, and An Introduction 
to Zen Buddhism. It was the last of these that inspired this author's initial awakening: 

Many, many moons ago, as I sat reading An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, something
peculiar and wonderful happened: 'I' saw what Suzuki was getting at. i put the first-person
singular in apostrophes here because at the heart of that experience there was no 'I' present.
there was the book, my hands grasping it, the room that I was sat in, but no 'I.' Sunlight
poured through the white net curtains, but it wasn't this that gave an illumined quality to
the room, it was the light of satori that shone so bright. In that moment - which is this moment - awareness was one with the room, the book, and with the long-deceased D.T. Suzuki.
(For the full article, click here: Daisetz Suzuki, Satori, & 'I')

As already mentioned, D.T.Suzuki did not only write about Zen, he also wrote extensively
about another form of Japanese Buddhism - Shin Buddhism. This type of Buddhism is very
populate in Japan, more popular than Zen, in fact. It is a peculiarly Japanese form of Pure
Land Buddhism, in which the worship of Amida Buddha (Amitabha in Sanskrit) is practiced, incorporating the recitation of the mantra Namu Amida Butsu ('Hail to Amitabha Buddha').
This form of Buddhism was the religion of Suzuki's mother, and he himself returned to study
& write on it later in life, describing it thus: "Of all the developments that Mahayana
Buddhism has achieved in East Asia, the most remarkable one is the Shin teaching of Pure
Land Buddhism." (Buddha of Infinite Light, p22.) Of Shin, he further writes:

"We find our inner self when NAMU-AMIDA-BUTSU is pronounced once and for all. 
My conclusion is that Amida is our inmost self, and when that inmost self is found, 
we are born in the Pure Land. The kind of Pure Land located elsewhere, 
besides where we are, is most undesirable. What is the use of lingering in the 
Pure Land, enjoying ourselves and doing nothing? 
Most people don't think about that, and it's a good thing. 
If they thought about it they would become dissatisfied with themselves 
and get themselves into trouble. It is better not to think of those things."
(Ibid. pp.41-43)

All of the books mentioned in this article are still in print, and some are available for free 
download as PDFs from the following links:

Related posts & web pages:

D.E. Harding

All eyes sternward!

Douglas Edison Harding was an extraordinary man. Born in England in 1909, he grew up in a strict Christian sect called the Plymouth Brethren, apostatizing from the group at the age of twenty-one. This led to a search for the divine that culminated in an experience Douglas had about twelve years later when at the footsteps of the Himalayas, whilst serving in the British Army there. Douglas has given a vivid account of this experience in his classic little book On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious:

“Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. I forgot my name, my humanness, my thingness, all that could be called me or mine. Past and future dropped away. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouserlegs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in – absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not a head.” (‘On Having No Head’, pp.1 & 2)

From that moment on, Douglas was gobsmacked, as it were, spending the rest of his life exploring this headless experience and its implications, and sharing his insights with anyone who would listen. Facilitating countless workshops, he toured the world conducting experiments into our true nature as it appears in this present. He also wrote over a dozen books on the subject with such eye-catching titles as The Little Book of Life and Death, The Trial of the Man Who Said He Was God, and To Be and Not to Be, That is the Answer. Throughout these various activities, he continued to be an engaging and eloquent advocate of ‘the headless way’, even when in an article called *On Having a Head written later on in life, he admitted that in fact we do have a head, it’s just that we can’t see it. *Published in the book ‘Face to No-Face’ by Douglas E. Harding.

The central point of what Douglas often referred to as ‘seeing-who-we-really-are’ is that in place of a thing here at center, there is in fact no thing at all, as he indicated in the quote above. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, tactile objects, and mental objects all occur in a void; ‘I’ am empty of a self, if the facts are really looked at with an unbiased and clear eye right now. Moreover, as Douglas always emphasized, in place of my self here there is everything else: ‘I’ disappear in favor of you, and you – if you look – are empty for me, too. This is a concrete manifestation of the famous words in the Heart Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism:

Form does not differ from emptiness;
emptiness does not differ from form.
Form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form.

Here is where the subtitle of On Having No Head comes in: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious. For, after his initial in-seeing, Douglas searched for parallels in traditional religion, but found very little to match his experience, until his discovery of Zen Buddhism with its scriptures such the Heart Sutra, and the remarkable statements of its masters. Zen Buddhism is known as the direct path to enlightenment, as well as the most demanding. In the words of its many teachers, stretching back over one and a half thousand years, exist myriad ways to present the Truth to those of us somewhat slow to ‘get it’. In On Having No Head, Douglas Harding quotes them with much gusto:

“‘Mind and body dropped off!’ exclaims Dogen (1200-1253) in an ecstasy of release. ‘Dropped off! Dropped off! This state must be experienced by you all; it is like piling fruit into a basket without a bottom, it is like pouring water into a bowl with a hole in it.’ ‘All of a sudden you find your mind and body wiped out of existence,’ says Hakuin (1685-1768): ‘This is what is known as letting go your hold. As you regain your breath it is like drinking water and knowing it is cold. It is joy inexpressible.’” (‘On Having No Head’, p.29)

In such enigmatic remarks Douglas had found references to his own headless condition, all be it encased in the language of an exotic oriental religion, very different to the protestant upbringing he had received as a child. The Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Master Hui-neng, is well known in Zen circles for talking of Buddhist Awakening in terms of seeing one’s ‘original face’, in which he said nothing is hidden and all things are revealed. Douglas equated this original face with his own ‘no-face’. But, enough of words; let’s look and see what Douglas and Master Hui-neng were talking about, and if our original face is indeed no face at all:
  • Point at your feet, noticing their shape, color, size, and opacity – you can’t see what’s behind them.
  • Next, point to your legs, taking the time to perceive their particular characteristics.
  • Look at your trunk, working your way up slowly to your chest, seeing too that it is made up of specific qualities that you can note.
  • Now, point at your face. On present evidence – not memory, imagination or what you think is here – what do you see? At this end of that pointing finger is there a shape? What color is your face? How big is it? And, finally, is it opaque like the rest of your body, or is it in fact clear emptiness?
Here, I find that behind the tickles and throbs of what my hands can confirm to be a face is no such thing. What my eyes tell me is here – a clear, awake no-thing or void – is my ultimate reality beyond the sensations of mind & body. It’s not so much that no head can be found on these shoulders, but that at its center is this aware emptiness. For, if a truth is to an ultimate, unconditioned truth, then it cannot by definition be true for some of the senses and not others, as Douglas himself admitted. And a truth that’s true from the viewpoint of the eyes and ears but not the hands is a conditioned truth, dependent upon certain senses and not others. I do have a face, but it’s somewhat like a mask that hides my original face – the no-face that’s revealed when present reality is observed without preconditions.

Again, superfluous words are beginning to cloud the issue at hand, so let’s return to the main point – ultimately, there’s nobody home, or as Douglas delightfully put it, I’m permanently out to lunch! Prior to coming into contact with Douglas and his teachings, I also had a ‘Himalayan’ moment, although it took place in a suburban sitting room as opposed to in the shadows of the tallest mountain chain in the world. At the tender age of seventeen I was reading a book called An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki (a favorite author of Douglas Harding’s) that was a gift from a friend, when something incredible happened. Upon reading a certain passage, just like Douglas in the Himalayas, all thought stopped. Indeed, initially there was no thought, no emotion and no one here to produce either. Just the bare experience of a book, hands, and a room. Pure silence reigned, whilst a gradual bliss seemed to fill the room. Then the first thought, which arose in response to a teenage fear of my mortality which had been concerning me a lot at that time; if I die now, it really doesn’t matter! Following this initial thought, other thoughts came, until the usual flow of the mind was restored.

That experience changed my life, but at first I didn’t understand what had happened nor did I know how to repeat it. A week later it occurred again while I gazed momentarily at a plastic bag caught on the branch of a tree as it fluttered in the wind. After that, ‘it’ didn’t happen again for some time - despite desperate attempts to reread the same passage of the book looking for a repeat performance - until I read On Having No Head, which someone had deposited in the local library, and viola! No more haphazard approach to seeing this void, just point home, to what Ajahn Chah called our real home – and the innate Buddha-nature reveals itself most clearly. But here’s an important point to take note of: it’s not really my Buddha-nature or original face, for ‘I’ occur in it, arising from it, but it is not part of me and neither does it belong to me – quite the reverse!

“Seeing Who I am Here is not only a case of surrendering personal will. It is a case of surrendering the person who has the will. So implicitly and in principle, this in-seeing that we are talking about is already total surrender because it doesn’t leave a speck of anything Here. It doesn’t even leave a person to exercise will, let alone will.” (‘Face to No-Face’ by Douglas E. Harding, pp. 144 & 145)

In the early Nineties I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Douglas Harding many times, even staying at his house a couple of times. (He often played host to people who wanted to meet ‘the Headless Man’.) Douglas made it clear to me that what he promoted in the shape (or ‘no-shape') of seeing-who-we-really-are is no different to what Zen Buddhism calls seeing one’s Buddha-nature or becoming awakened. In my humble experience too, these two different approaches to seeing our true nature have the same result. A major difference is that Buddhists have the whole history and culture of the Buddhadharma to support (or hamper) their awakening, whereas headless types are pretty much left to their own devices, which can result in many problems also, as Douglas himself acknowledged. And yet, what are these systems of awakening we can call the Buddha Way and the Headless Way, but conditioned phenomena, even if they point to the unconditioned? And that which is conditioned is by its very nature imperfect and limiting, which is why such great Buddhists as Ajahn Sumedho have said that ultimately even Buddhism must be let go of to reach what he called ‘ultimate simplicity’.

Seeing who we really are, at least initially, is as easy or as hard as we make it for ourselves. In time comes the living of the truth, and it’s then that all the past karma that we’ve done will need to be ‘worked off’, or let go of. It’s during this period that the real problems with living as we truly are rather than as we think we are will arise to challenge the more enlightened perspective of the two. We may have times when we consider ourselves fully awakened just like the Buddha, and other times when we feel as wretched as the worst egotist in existence. But these are conditioned states arising in the unconditioned realty of our true Buddha-nature, and as such are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self. As conditioned things they will drop away of their own accord if we have the patience to let them be, resting as the unconditioned void in which they arise. And, as many followers of Ajahn Chah know, patient endurance was a quality that, like the Buddha, he emphasized to his disciples continuously.

Douglas certainly seemed to cultivate such patience himself, experimenting with and sharing ‘Seeing’ with thousands of people, not always to their liking, resulting in many instances of people questioning or rejecting his well-intended efforts. Indeed, he lived until the ripe old age of ninety-seven, still sharing this vision in his last years even though restricted to a wheelchair. An example to us all of the dedication and determination required if we want to live a life of awakening to the Buddha within us all. To end this limited account of the limitless, let’s return to the lively language of Douglas Edison Harding, propagator of Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious:

“For all of us, our two-way meditation is essentially the same, whatever sense we happen to be employing. Always the set-up is two-sided yet absolutely asymmetrical. That birdsong drops into the Silence here; the taste of those strawberries makes itself felt against this steady backdrop of No-taste; that horrid smell arises in contrast to this on-going absence-of-smell, to this Freshness; and so on. Similarly our thoughts and feelings appear only on the blank screen here which Zen calls No-mind, and leave no trace on it as they disappear. Just as, when I ‘confront’ you, it’s your face there presented to my absence-of-face here – face to no-face – so, whatever I’m taking in, I have to be free  of: to be filled with water the cup has to be empty of it. The difference is total. This doesn’t mean that, engaged in our two-way ‘meditation for the marketplace,’ we think of all this: we just get on with the job of not losing touch with our Absence.” (‘On Having No Head’, pp. 58 &59)

The books mentioned in this article – On Having No Head, Face To No-Face, The Trial of the Man Who Said He Was God, The Little Book of Life and Death, and To Be and Not To Be, That is the Answer - are all available from the following website:


“The Buddha’s perfection is complete;
There is no more work to be done.
No measure is there for his wisdom;
No limits are there to be found.
In what way could he be distracted from truth?”
(Verse 179, The Dhammapada, rendered by Ajahn Munindo)

At the heart of the monolithic religion called Buddhism sits a man: the Buddha. As represented in the quotation above, Theravada Buddhism describes the Buddha as essentially a man that discovered the truth of the way things are (the Dharma), and who lived over 2,500 years ago. Mahayana Buddhism has a much more imaginative description of the Buddha, however, portraying him as a kind of cosmic man, who continues to guide aspirants along the path to spiritual awakening to this day. Who is right?

Theravada Buddhism, which predominates amongst the Sri Lankans, Burmese, Thais, Laotians and Cambodians claims to have the older, more authentic scriptures that give a pretty accurate description of the Buddha and his teachings. Mahayana Buddhism, which is practiced amongst the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Tibetans, states that it has the more complete scriptures that improve on the Theravadan Tripitaka (The name of the Buddhist ‘holy books’). In its view, the Buddha that appears in the older scriptures didn’t reveal himself to all and sundry because they weren’t all able to receive such a vision.

The Buddha himself, in the Theravadan Tripitaka says that “whoever sees the Dharma sees me, and whoever sees me sees the Dharma”. This suggests that there was more to the Blessed One than simply being a man who acquired an enlightening knowledge. In some sense, he was (and is) that knowledge. There is a strong thread of reasoning in the above scripture that the Buddha was in fact indefinable. In a revealing, if not somewhat perplexing – dialogue with the Brahman Dona, the Buddha points to his transcendent nature:

“‘Sir, are you a god?’
‘No, Brahman.’
‘Sir, are you a heavenly angel?’
‘No, Brahman.’
‘Sir, are you a spirit?’
‘No, Brahman.’
‘Sir, are you a human being?’
‘No, Brahman.’”
(Anguttara Nikaya 4:36, Pali Tripitaka)

The Buddha goes on to state that he has abandoned all taints that might result in him being a god or a heavenly angel or a spirit or a human being. He is one who is enlightened: living in the world, but not of it. He is the Dharma, the unconditioned Truth that lies at the heart of all phenomena, devoid of particular characteristics and the very enlightenment that is the heart of the Buddhadharma.

In Mahayana understanding, the Buddha has three bodies, which in turn are known as the ‘Transformation Body’, the ‘Dharma Body’, and the ‘Enjoyment Body’. The Transformation Body is the human form he takes in the world; not an actual physical form as such, but an emanation of the Dharma Body, where the Buddha and Dharma are one and the same – note the similarity with the quotation above where the Buddha and the Dharma are said to be the same also. The Enjoyment Body is the form that appears before bodhisattvas in the heavenly realms, where the Dharma is taught and experienced by all those residing therein. The Dharma Body is considered the original form of the Buddha, the others being the skillful means by which the Dharma is taught to gods, angels, and human beings.

It is interesting to note again that in the Theravadan Tripitaka the Buddha is described as ultimately indescribable, something that occurs in the Diamond Sutra also, when he refers to himself in a way that seems to transcend all the above descriptions of what he may or may not be:

“If one sees me in forms,
If one seeks me in sounds,
He practices a deviant way,
And cannot see the Tathagata.”

So, if it's not in forms or sounds (or any other phenomena), where should we be looking for the Buddha? Well, the use of meditation throughout the history of Buddhism, and across many different schools within both its Theravada & Mahayana branches, would suggest the answer is right…here, rather than in the world of things. But, according to the Buddha, there are six senses, not five, the mind being considered a set of things or processes, also. Therefore, it is no more the mind that is Buddha or our True Nature than the physical body and the world that it exists within. So, turning our search within, what exactly are we looking for if it isn't a thing?

Well, with the help of a British spiritual teacher called Douglas Harding, we can look for & perhaps locate this non-thing that lies at the heart of each and every one of us, and is equatable with the Buddha. Douglas Harding, though not a Buddhist himself, was very familiar with Buddhist teachings, especially those associated with Zen Buddhism. And, as with the great masters of that wonderful sect, Harding was primarily concerned with seeing the truth for himself, as opposed to merely believing it or thinking about it. He explored the question of who we really are, which is the same question as who the Buddha is, by simply looking, using what he termed 'experiments,' such as the one below.

Look at your surroundings, noticing their colours, shapes, and solidity, next focusing on  your own body, starting at the feet and working towards your face. And when you reach where your face should be seen, be honest as to what is actually here: What do you see? Is there a face here or no-face, what a Zennist might deem the Original Face? Do you see another created thing here or a spacious No-thing, empty of itself yet full of the world? The same can be done with thoughts, sounds, and other sense objects. Things – including psychological states such as greed, hatred, and delusion – stop right here, where the self should be, but where instead there is No-thing at all. Could this be the end of thinking that I am merely ‘I,’ and discovering in actual experience that the sense of being an ‘I’ is indeed a delusion, just as the Buddha taught two-and-a-half thousand years ago?

I am not interested in doctrinal battles here, nor in philosophizing about which came first, the Theravada or the Mahayana, nor in seeking out the differences between the traditions at the expense of the obvious similarities. But a question that persists nevertheless is, “Who is the Buddha?” In Theravada Buddhism, he is both an enlightened man and yet no such thing, and in Mahayana Buddhism he is described as three-bodied and yet without any form at all. We are left with various Zen masters reply to the question, “Who is the Buddha?”

“One made of clay and decorated with gold.”
“He is no Buddha.”
“The dirt-scraper all dried up.”
“See the eastern mountains moving over the waves.”
“The mouth is the gate of woe.”
(From ‘An Introduction to Zen Buddhism’ by D.T. Suzuki)

What do you think, feel, or experience the Buddha to be? Was he a man who died over two-and-a-half millennia ago? Is he somehow still alive today in the form of the Dharma, or is he merely a statue that simple folk bow to? Or is he this No-thing that lies at the heart of all things? Or is he a dirt-scraper all dried up?! Please feel free to leave a comment by clicking on the word ‘comments’ below, and we can learn together to see the non-existent transcendent Buddha – at least that’s the best description I can muster right now. If only I had a Zen master at hand…

Ajahn Sumedho

Ajahn Sumedho, a truly awakened teacher.

“In contemplating right understanding (samma-ditthi) I like to emphasize 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 analyze, reason, criticize, to have ideas, perceptions, views and opinions, and intuitive awareness which is non-critical.” 
(Intuitive Awareness, p.19)

Ajahn Sumedho (1934 to present) is the senior monk in the Thai forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism. Born in America, he became a monk in Thailand in 1967, studying with the renowned meditation master Ajahn Chah. He has been a major force in the transference of living Buddhist teachings and practices to the West, and was the first western abbot of a Thai monastery (Wat Pa Nanachat near Ubon Ratchathani), and abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastary in the U.K. from 1984 until 2010. He is a widely respected and loved figure in Buddhist circles, and his talks and books have reached thousands of people across the English-speaking world.

In the freely available e-book Intuitive Awareness (see link below), Ajahn Sumedho displays the insight and humor that he is famous for. Throughout the book, he never strays far from the central theme of his 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, 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 that's also entitled 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 teaches 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 he 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.

Ajahn Sumedho has used incidents from his own life to illustrate otherwise abstract Buddhist ideas, and 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). One day, another monk who was 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 Ajahn Sumedho's teaching style is that it isn't overly scholarly in nature, and doesn't revolve 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 in Intuitive AwarenessWhen 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

Ajahn Chah

“To define Buddhism without a lot of words and phrases, we can simply say, ‘Don’t cling or hold on to anything. Harmonize with actuality, with things as they are.’”
(The Teachings of Ajahn Chah, p.26)

Among the most famous of Thai monks in Thailand and across the world is Ajahn Chah (อาจารย์ชา), who lived from 1918 to 1992. Born in a small farming village near Ubon Ratchathani in the Northeast of Thailand, he ordained at the age of twenty and spent the first seven years of his monastic career studying Buddhist teachings as written in the ancient Indian language Pali.  Disenchanted with the fact that this brought him no nearer to enlightenment, or Nirvana, he wandered his homeland as a forest monk, meditating on nature and his mind. 

He returned to Ubon Ratchathani to inhabit what was considered by locals as a haunted forest, and there established a training monastery. The emphasis in this monastery was centered on meditation, mindfulness, and the Vinaya, or monastic code. Ajahn Chah was very popular both with native Thais and Westerners wishing to learn the Dharma from a living master, some as laypeople, and others as monks or nuns living under his leadership in Northeast Thailand. A flavor of the way he instructed his disciples comes in the introduction to the book 'The Teachings of Ajahn Chah':

"He taught villagers how to manage their family lives and finances, yet he might be just as likely to tell them about making causes for realization of Nibbana. He could instruct a visiting group on the basis of morality, without moralizing and in a way that was uplifting, but would gently remind them of their morality at the end of infusing them with his infectious happiness; or he might scold the daylights out of local monastics and laypeople. He could start a discourse by expounding on the most basic Buddhist ideas and seamlessly move on to talking about ultimate reality."
(From the foreword by Paul Breiter)

One classic talk to be found in the same book is also one of my own favorites entitled Our Real Home. It was a talk addressed to an aging lay disciple approaching her death, and uses all of his teaching skills. Ajahn Chah begins this instruction by using the analogy of household utensils such as cups, saucers, plates and so on as examples of aging and impermanence. He tells the disciple to accept that the body too ages and decays just like her kitchen ware, and through contemplating this fact she can come to terms with her own impending mortality. He doesn’t stop here, however; the talk winds on, leading to a most striking description of the meditative process by using the mantra Buddho (a variant of the word Buddha), which leads to a letting go of all that is impermanent. He tells her that:

“Anyone can build a house of wood and bricks, but the Buddha taught that that sort of home is not our real home, it’s only nominally ours. It’s home in the world and it follows the ways of the world. Our real home is inner peace. An external, material home may well be pretty but it is not very peaceful. There’s this worry and then that, this anxiety and then that. So we say it’s not our real home, it’s external to us.”
(The Teachings of Ajahn Chah, p. 218)

Ajahn Chah's focus was on what might be deemed the basics of Buddhism such as the four noble truths, suffering and its ending, Samadhi (meditative concentration), morality, vinaya (the monk’s rules of conduct), and emptiness, to name but a few. According to the people that knew him, Ajahn Chah was someone totally at peace with himself and the world, and has often been described by those that met him as the happiest person they ever met. As a strict forest monk, he kept to the monk’s discipline assiduously, and demanded the same from his ordained disciples. Yet, he could also be incredibly humorous or tactful when the occasion required such. He was even referred to by some senior Thai monks as a sort of ‘Zen-Theravada Buddhist’, with his tendency to sacrifice orthodoxy when the situation asked for something more vital and direct. The following extract could well have been said by a Mahayana monk:

“This emptiness is something people don’t usually understand, only those who reach it see the real value of it. It’s not the emptiness of not having anything, it’s emptiness within the things that are here. Like this flashlight: we should see this flashlight is empty; because of the flashlight there is emptiness. It’s not the emptiness where we can’t see anything, it’s not like that. People who understand like that have got it all wrong. You must understand emptiness within the things that are here.”
(Ibid. p.182)

Another aspect to his teaching style was its directness, Ajahn Chah never being someone to overcomplicate things or philosophize where simple, succinct words would do. This gave him the air of someone that had realized what life was about, and was living from this knowledge. Many of his followers, including those closest to him, consider Ajahn Chah to have been a arahant, or enlightened being. And yet, he remained an ordinary man in many ways, willing to meet others on their terms, not too haughty or self-important. A wonderful anecdote of Ajahn Chah's non-philosophical style of teaching is the following tale:

"One day, a famous woman lecturer on Buddhist metaphysics came to see Ajahn Chah. This woman gave periodic teachings in Bangkok on the abhidharma and complex Buddhist psychology. In talking to Ajahn Chah, she detailed how important it was for people to understand Buddhist psychology and how much her students benefitted from their study with her. She asked him whether he agreed with the importance of such understanding.
'Yes, very important,' he agreed.
Delighted, she further questioned whether he had his own students learn abhidharma.
'Oh, yes, of course.'
And where, she asked, did he recommend they start, which books and studies were best?
'Only here,' he said, pointing to his heart, 'Only here.'"
(A Still Forest Pool, by Jack Kornfield & Paul Breiter, p.12)

Ajahn Chah’s rich and non-doctrinal teaching style wasn’t indicative of a man who lived the life of a libertine, however. As mentioned above, he promoted strict adherence to the Vinaya (monk’s rules), and as often been said, he lived with the absolute basic necessities of life, giving away many fancy gifts that laypeople felt inspired to give him. This isn’t to say that he didn’t appreciate the generosity of the local population that supported his community of monks and nuns with their material needs. Indeed, he was very keen to instill in the ordained community at his monasteries a sense of gratitude to such laity, saying that:

“Right now, they have the faith to support us with material offerings, giving us our requisites for living. I’ve considered this: it’s quite a big deal. It’s no small thing. Donating our food, our dwellings, the medicines to treat our illnesses, is not a small thing. We are practicing for the attainment of Nibbana. If we don’t have any food to eat, that will be pretty difficult. How would we sit in meditation? How would we be able to build this monastery?”
(The Teachings of Ajahn Chah, p. 607)

Ajahn Chah was a powerful teacher, according to former students such Paul Breiter, author of Venerable Father: A Life With Ajahn Chah. He use a variety of techniques to elicit the best from those that practiced with him, including encouragement, criticism, sincerity & humor. He especially liked to cajole the monks under his direction by way of chastisement on one hand, and humor on the other. When asked how he taught westerners Buddhism when they didn't speak Thai and he didn't speak their languages, he replied that a farmer trains a buffalo without knowing buffalo language! (Buffalos are symbols of stupidity in Thailand.) Foreign monks did learn Thai after some time, however, and Ajahn Chah would then communicate to them in the colorful manner which he was famous for. In the book Venerable Father, Breiter recalls the following discussion about a western monk called Aranyabho: 

"As I sat down Ajahn Chah said, 'Aranyabho's got dogshit in his pocket. He goes somewhere and sits down but there's a bad smell, so he thinks hmmm, this place is no good. He gets up and goes somewhere else, but he notices the bad smell again so then he goes somewhere else…He doesn't realize he's carrying the dogshit around with him wherever he goes…' There was never any bad feeling when he talked to people like this, because we knew it came from a pure, loving heart; he was offering us, right then and there, a clear and simple solution to our problems, one which he had obviously practiced. His words, and his whole being, simply said, let go - now."
(Venerable Father, p.54)

A distinct concept that Ajahn Chah used in his teachings was what he called in Thai poo roo (ผู้รู้) - 'the one who knows.' This is the faculty of the mind that is aware of whatever is arising at present; it is what enables you to be aware of these words right now. And, it is not a personality; it is an impersonal operation of the mind. Students that had been exposed to other forms of Buddhism or other kinds of religion and philosophy would often ask Ajahn Chah about concepts from these traditions. He would be open to such approaches, as in the following dialogue that involves both 'the one who knows' and the Zen Buddhist idea of 'original mind.' (Perhaps it is conversations like this one that resulted in more orthodox Thai monks labeling him 'Zen-Theravada,' as mentioned above.)

"Student: Are 'the one who knows' and 'original mind' the same?
Ajahn Chah: No no. the one who knows is something that can change. It is our awareness…Everyone has this.
S: So not everyone has original mind?
AC: The original mind is in every person. Everyone has the one who knows. But the one who knows is something you can never reach conclusion with. Original mind exists in everyone, but not everyone can see it.
S: Is the one who knows a self?
AC: It isn't - it's only an awareness arising.
Questioning like this only leads to endless conclusion. You won't come to clear knowledge just from hearing another's words. Thinking that if you have the right questions about all the fine details you can find out the truth is not how it wrks. It is really something to be realized for yourself. But take the words and investigate what they point to."
(Being Dharma, by Paul Breiter, pp.107-108)

It’s a blessing to be exposed to such a rich depth of wisdom that Ajahn Chah clearly possessed. The teachings that he gave are a treasury of wisdom & compassion. It is an injunction too, however, for it's a call to arms, to take up the practice of the Buddhadharma with sincerity and endeavor to cultivate the wisdom and compassion required to transcend this world of suffering. Moreover, in the life and teachings of Ajahn Chah, we have the perfect example of the selfless sharing of such realization that true wisdom brings.

‘The Teachings of Ajahn Chah’ may be downloaded free of charge from Wat Nong Pah Pong’s website at the following address: The Teachings of Ajahn Chah.

The books 'A Still Forest Pool,' 'Being Dharma,' and Venerable Father' are all commercially available.