Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ajahn Sumedho on Identity

Ajahn Sumedho: Without any real core or essence

We’ll sacrifice our life for an illusion, to try to protect our identities, our positions, our territories. We’re very territorial. We think this England here belongs to the English. When we take that apart, does this plot of land here say it’s England? When I do jongrom (walking meditation) outside, does the earth come up and say, “You’re walking on me — England.” It’s never said that, never! But I say I’m walking here in England. I’m the one who’s calling it England, and that is an identity, a conventional identity. We all agree to call this plot of land here ‘England’, but it’s not really that; it is what it is. Yet we’ll fight, torture and commit the most atrocious acts over territory, quibbling about just one inch of property on a border. The land doesn’t belong to anybody; even if I own land legally — “This belongs to Ajahn Sumedho” — it doesn’t really; that’s just a convention.

When we bind ourselves to these conventions and these illusions, then of course we’re troubled because these are so unstable and not in line with Dharma. We end up wasting our lives around trying to increase this sense of identification, the sense of, “It’s mine, it belongs to me and I want to protect it. I want to hand it down to future generations.” On and on like this, into future lives and the generations that follow. We create a whole realm of illusion, personality and identity with the perceptions that we create in our minds, which arise and cease, which have no real core to them, no essence.

We can be very threatened when these illusions are threatened. I remember first questioning the reality of my personality. It scared me to death. When I started questioning, even though I didn’t have particularly over-confident, high self-esteem (I have never been prone towards seeing myself in megalomaniac perceptions; usually the opposite, very self-critical), even then, I felt very threatened when that security, that confidence in being this screwed-up personality was being threatened. There is a sense of stability even with people who are identified with illnesses or negative things, like alcoholics. Being identified with some sort of mental disease like paranoia, schizophrenia or whatever gives us a sense that we know what we are and we can justify the way that we are. We can say, “I can’t help the way I am. I’m a schizophrenic.” That gives us a sense of allowing us to be a certain way. It may be a sense of confidence or stability in the fact that our identities are labelled and we all agree to look at each other in this way, with this label, with this perception.

So you realise the kind of courage it takes to question, to allow the illusory world that we have created to fall apart, such as with a nervous breakdown, where the world falls apart. When the security that is offered, the safety and confidence that we gain from that illusion starts cracking and falling apart, it’s very frightening. Yet within us there’s something that guides us through it. What brings us into this monastic life? It’s some intuitive sense, a sense behind the sense, an intelligence behind all the knowledge and the cleverness of our minds. Yet we can’t claim it on a personal level. We always have to let go of the personal perceptions, because as soon as we claim them, we’re creating another illusion again. Instead of claiming, identifying or attaching, we begin to realise or recognise the way it is. This is the practice of awareness (sati-sampajanna), paying attention. In other words, it’s going to the centre point, to the Buddho (the one who knows) position. This Buddha image in the temple: it’s the still point. If you look at this Buddha-rupa, it’s a symbol, an image representing the human form at the still point.

(Ajahn Sumedho is the senior monk of the Western Forest Sangha, as well as former abbot of Wat Nanachat in Thailand & Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England. His teachings are highly regarded across the globe. In the above talk, I have replaced the Pali word Dhamma with the more widely known Sanskrit term Dharma, both meaning 'Buddhist teachings' & 'the truth of the way things are.')

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Happy Buddha Day!

Today is Buddha Day, or, to give it its Pali name Visakha Puja, also known as Vesak. This is the day when Buddhists across the globe celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Not all Buddhist traditions celebrate Buddha Day today, but many do, and here in Thailand it is the main Buddhist festival of the year (and there are lots!). But why bother to commemorate the Buddha's life and enlightenment in this way? Well, it is an occasion that we can use skillfully to encourage reflection on his life and teachings in relation to our own existence. And, what's more, it is an opportunity to consider the debt that we owe him for showing us the way to liberation from suffering.

The Buddha's birth is a special event, of course, as it is not often that a fully-awakened one is born into the world. If Shakyamuni Buddha was never born, then the Buddhadharma would never have been established for us to use to awaken with.Similarly, if the Buddha had not realized the cessation of suffering under the Bodhi Tree, then we too would not know how to do the same. Furthermore, his apparent demise shows us that rebirth and continual suffering of these separated selves can be transcended, allowing the spacious awareness that we truly are to shine forth. Homage to the Blessed, Noble, and Perfectly Awakened One, indeed!

To mark this day of days, we need not go to a temple and take part in rituals if we cannot or would rather not. It's up to us to find appropriate ways to express our recognition and gratitude to the Buddha for what he has done for us. Perhaps this might be a simple ceremony conducted in front of a small shrine at home, or maybe a brief reflection on his qualities and teachings coupled with meditation will suffice. Of course, if we do decide to attend a full-blown public ritual with all the trimmings, then that can be wonderful too. As long as it's respectful and from the heart, go for it!

Another way to mark Buddha Day is to recognize the Buddha within. This, again, is best attempted with a modicum of decorum and a certain sincerity. Quietly looking home at where you are looking from, you might notice that where others see your face, and where you feel it, there is also an awareness that although empty in itself, is nevertheless full of all that you experience. This knowing is not your knowing as so-and-so, nor does it belong to somebody else, such as a god. It is what it is: clarity gazing upon the world. Staying with this unconditioned wakefulness, every conditioned thing or process can be observed to arise, exist, and end, including all these thoughts, memories, emotions, and sensations that we normally take to be 'me.' What better way than this, whether we take part in ceremonies or not, to acknowledge the Buddha. Happy Buddha Day!