Sunday, June 24, 2012

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

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