The Freedom to Suffer
Based on a talk given at The Karuna Institute (Psychotherapy Training Centre), Devon, in April 1997 and appearing in The Gift of Well-Being, a collection of Ajahn Munindo's talks.
It can take a long time before we find out what the real point of Buddhist practice is. There are innumerable doctrines, beliefs and techniques in this Way, but none of them is an end in itself. All of them are included in an overall training which is called cittabhavana, or 'the training of the heart'. The word citta is variously rendered in translation as 'heart', 'awareness', and sometimes as 'consciousness'. Bhavana literally means 'to bring into being'. So cittabhavana can also be translated as 'cultivation of awareness'. This subject is obviously central both to what you are doing here as psychotherapists and to what we are doing in our monastic training, so I am glad that we have this opportunity to consider it together. It is easy, as I said, for us to take quite some time before we get the core message that awareness itself is what we are working on. It is very important that we do come to see that all the different skilful means offered in Buddhism are in reference to this.
Back in the 1960s and '70s many of us were out in Asia looking for something that we hoped would fill up an emptiness we felt we had inside, an inner sense of lacking. In keeping with our expectations, we found a large variety of systems and substances, some more helpful than others. Buddhist monasteries and teachers were amongst what we came across. What we thought they were offering was this wonderful idea of enlightenment. We were tremendously inspired and believed this meant that if at some time in the future we fully grasped this idea, then we would be free from any sense of lacking for ever more; we would be free from suffering altogether. We were tending to approach what we found there in the same way that we approached our everyday life, that is, as consumers: "How can I become enlightened? What must I do to get this freedom from suffering?" I heard a story of a young Westerner travelling around Southeast Asia who was particularly concerned that he didn't join up with anything but the best tradition and so he proceeded to go from teacher to teacher conducting interviews with them. He asked each one in turn the question, "What was the Buddha doing under the Bodhi tree?" I imagine he planned to compare all the answers and then make his choice. Each teacher naturally replied from their own perspective. The first, a Japanese teacher living in Bodhgaya, said, "Oh, the Buddha was doing shikantaza." Then another teacher said, "The Buddha was definitely practising anapanasati." Another replied, "The Buddha was doing dzogchen." And further, "The Buddha was sitting in vipassana meditation." When this seeker visited Thailand and asked Ajahn Chah what the Buddha was doing under the Bodhi tree, Ajahn Chah replied: "Everywhere the Buddha went he was under the Bodhi tree. The Bodhi tree was a symbol for his Right View."
Whenever I recall this story, I like what it does to me. There is a turning around of attention and a remembering of the essential point of our practice. I find myself returning to the heart of the matter, or to the only place where I can make the kind of effort that brings about a difference. Of course it is understandable that we don't get it altogether right in the beginning and spend energy holding on to an initial idea about becoming enlightened. These ideas are the seeds which grow into a fuller way of practice. However, we do need to recognise that what is on offer in this Way is a complete training in awareness - not just an idea. We take up the training as we would take up an invitation; in this case an invitation to assume our own true place within our body/minds. The Buddha's path of training isn't a mere conditioning aimed at fitting us into anybody else's form or anybody else's understanding.
The model I find helpful in contemplating our training is that of awareness as capacity. Our experiences are all received into awareness. How well or how freely we receive life is dependent on our hearts' capacity; or, we could say, on the degree of awareness we are living as. With this model, we can examine exactly how, where and when we set the limitations on our capacity to receive experience, what the limitations we place on awareness are, and what this feels like.
One of the chants which we regularly recite in the monastery says: appamano Buddho, appamano Dhammo, appamano Sangho. The word appamana translates as 'without measure'. So this verse means: "Limitless is the Buddha, limitless is the Dhamma, limitless is the Sangha." One way of seeing what was unlimited about the Buddha is to look at his quality of awareness. The Buddha's heart capacity was boundless and accordingly he could accommodate unlimited experience without the slightest stress. He went beyond any compulsive tendency to set limitations on awareness and so was untroubled by anything that passed through his awareness. Hence we say, "I go for refuge to the Buddha"; or we orient all our conscious effort towards the possibility of limitless awareness.
We know we need to do this if we want to awaken out of the agonising sense of limited being. It is because we come up against the humiliating experience of "This is just too much - I can't take any more" that we have to train ourselves. We must understand what this 'I' is that finds it all too much. Our experience of the present moment is not too much for reality; reality is what's happening. The painful constriction we feel is the symptom of the limitations we place on awareness. This pain is the appropriate consequence of our habitual grasping.
Seeing it from this perspective, we realise that placing limitations is something we are responsible for doing. Our cramped hearts are not imposed on us. We come to see that we are not helpless victims of our conditioning. I'm always surprised when people tell me, "This is just the way I'm made," as if it's somebody else's fault for getting the design wrong. Working with a model of awareness as capacity, we discover (literally, 'un-cover') potential for change. With constant careful attention in this area there begins to dawn a quiet confidence in a way that we can cultivate.
In the world of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations and mental impressions we have no choice but to receive sense-impingement. Regardless of our lifestyle, be it as monk or nun or psychotherapist or any other occupation, we are all touched by the world of the senses. And these impressions are either received or not received. If we are rigid in our holding to the perception of ourselves as inherently limited in our ability to receive, then we feel put upon by the struggle; we feel obstructed. But to contemplate the possibility of opening and expanding our heart's capacity takes us beyond the feeling of being obliged to suffer.
If we make a discipline of paying attention to the very feeling of being obliged to suffer, then we are being mindful of the dynamic that actually creates the suffering. We are putting ourselves in the place where we can undo the cause of the feeling of limitation. Our untrained attention easily and understandably flows in the direction of being interested in maximising on possibilities for pleasure. It is natural for the sensual side of our character to want to follow what the senses appear to tell us is the best way to increased well-being - that is, if it feels good then take it; if it feels bad, reject it. But from our life experience we know that we need to look deeper than that. This is not to pass judgement but to accord with reality. Nobody is forcing us to look deeper, but if we don't then we remain more troubled by life's struggles than we have to be.
Here we see why there is an emphasis on suffering in Buddhism. Right attention paid at the right time and place shows what it is we are doing to maintain the felt perception of limited being. If we realise that we are responsible for doing this then we also realise we can choose to not-do it. What a relief!
So how we approach our struggles is our own choice. For example, in regard to body, suppose one day one of us discovers a painful, sensitive lump beneath an armpit. It is likely that to some degree we would rather not know about it. But we are all aware of the dangerous consequences of avoiding that kind of sign. Something within knows that pain is an organismic message calling for attention. If we offer it the suitable response of interest then further damage might be avoided. If we don't, then maybe the volume of the message will have to increase.
In our practice of training for awareness we learn to read heart-pain in the same way as we would interpret bodily symptoms. Heart-pain indicates that there is something which for some reason we are avoiding and to which we are not paying proper attention. Later it may be seen as a nudge towards awareness, but it begins in shock and suffering. Remember how it was for the Buddha when he first encountered old age, sickness and death.
Heeding this summons to attention and feeling inwardly, not turning away from the pain that is involved, we are able to witness the resistance we have. When we recognise what it is that we are doing we come to see the suffering for what it is. If our attention is careful, caring and well-informed enough, an easing of the holding to limited capacity occurs and a new understanding appears in its place. We then receive an unexpected affirmation which says that, for every increase in our capacity to receive life, there is a corresponding increase in discernment itself.
The ability to see clearly and feel accurately is already there in our open-heartedness. It is only the compulsive setting up and maintaining of restrictions on ourselves that creates obstructions. The larger capacity of heart already has within it what we are looking for. Our difficulty is that we prefer not to have to go through the doorway of fear and struggle to enter that larger reality. Yet all our efforts to become wise and compassionate by merely reading and strategising our lives leave us feeling self-centred and frustrated. Hence, there is great value in the encouragement we give each other in applying ourselves to the careful cultivation of this kind of training.
In working to go beyond habitual or ignorant existence, we will at some stage be called to look at just how it is that we find a personal sense of security - our identity. For all of us this arises to some degree by taking a position for or against what is happening. We recognise this as feeling safe when we know where we stand in relation to an experience we are having or some issue that is presented to us. This ability to secure ourselves by discriminating is a normal disposition for us, but only suitable up to a certain point. When this discriminating faculty takes over and becomes who and what we are, we have a big problem. It means we can never be free from taking sides, from agreeing and disagreeing even in subtle ways, and that keeps our minds busy. Accordingly, we are never simply aware of the activity of our minds. Our wish to abide in quiet investigation ends up as a struggle with resistance and confusion.
We can find help in this area if we consider the consequences of the kind of messages we were given early on in life about what represents Ultimate Reality. For instance, what is the effect if the idea didn't get through that God is love, that the ultimate reality in all existence is all-pervading, all-inclusive, caring, but instead we got the idea that God is a Being who eternally accepts and rejects according to some agenda that we have no say in - that there is an Omnipotent Being who is taking some up and sending some down - for ever? The effect is that the highest aspect of our psyche is continuously discriminating and we are effectively locked into a process that is inherently frustrating. We are in a state of chronic stress.
There is no possibility of freedom in such a conditioned view. It is very important to examine this. Imagine what happens, for example, if we are tired or unwell and not in touch with much compassion. If an habitual taking sides for good and against bad is dominating then we can't receive ourselves in that state. All we do is act out of a chronically judging mind: "I shouldn't be this way." Habitually seeking an identity by holding a view for or against keeps us locked into or bonded to an imaginary programme that is ultimately right. But what is right about it? Finding identity by seeking security in the conditioned activity of our minds can be contrasted with the spiritual path of finding well-being and identity in awareness itself. Those who are committed to awakening move beyond a search for security in a personal identity born out of fixed views and opinions; they move through the insecure and unfamiliar world of not knowing where they stand, and eventually reach non-judgemental awareness. If we don't have to know who we are or be assured we are right, but can rather receive, in freedom of awareness, how this moment is manifesting, we leave behind our addiction to certainty, with its predictability and limited possibility. Our lives enter a different mode altogether. We don't have to have guarantees that our group is the best or that everything will turn out all right. We can tolerate uncertainty - and that is wonderfully liberating. We find the possibility of being able to accord with all the activity of our totally uncertain world without being driven heedlessly into taking sides. The discovery is a welcome one.
As our investigation continues, we arrive at a point of seeing how all the picking and choosing activity going on is simply activity taking place in awareness. During the first interview I had with my first teacher in Thailand, the Venerable Ajahn Thate, I was told that my task was to learn to see the difference between the activity taking place in awareness and awareness itself. End of interview!
This instruction still underlies all my practice. I feel very fortunate to have had such clear, simple guidance. The suggestion this teaching gives us lifts us out of believing we are the activity that is taking place. We can grow into seeing all the content of our minds, including the picking and choosing and evaluating and so on, as the natural waves that pass across the ocean of awareness that is our life. We are positively disinclined to struggle with what arises within us. Instead, we know that the judging mind is just so. It is natural activity - no blame; no taking a position for or against the judging mind or any activity. If we are aware of the inclination to grasp onto a view about what we see, we remember, 'no judging the judging mind'. We have to get quite subtle about it. Abiding as awareness, wise reflection is energised and inspired. And it is this very awareness which in turn gradually dissolves our false identity as inherently limited, conditioned beings. In terms of training, we commit ourselves to a practice of mindfulness of the felt perception of 'struggle'. If we can remember to be conscious of the struggle that is taking place in any given moment and then further remember to not judge the struggle, we find ourselves elevated into an awareness that already has in it the understanding and sensitivity that brings about letting go. Letting go happens; it is not something we do. Rather, it is conditioned by our not-doing - our not taking a position for or against. The way forward then becomes clear.
In my opinion, we don't get very far in practice as meditators or as psychotherapists until we are well-acquainted with the reality of not-judging. Without access to it we simply won't have the inner space to hold the intensity of dilemma with which a life committed to transformation will most certainly challenge us. If we do know the non-judgmental mind, then we know the place of resolution, the place of spontaneity, of creativity, of intelligence. This is where what we are looking for already exists. Until we enter this dimension, all our wise words will be mere imitation. When we speak we will always be quoting others.
Now let's turn to talking specifically about training. I use this word not in the sense, for instance, of training a parrot to talk, which is better considered as conditioning, but in the way of giving a direction to something that is moving. At the centre of the cluster of buildings that comprise our monastery, there is a garden dedicated to the memory of the late Venerable Ajahn Chah. In the centre of the garden there is a stupa (reliquary) containing relics of our teacher, and this stupa sits in a beautiful small pond. To keep the pond fresh and filled up, the rain water from the roof of the adjacent Meditation Hall is gathered and 'trained' to flow towards the stupa. Behind the stupa there is a variegated ivy growing and I am trying to train it to climb the wall. Anyone who does gardening knows that this kind of training can only work if it is in the nature of the plant to go that way. Right training must accord with the true nature of that which is being trained. And this training does most definitely mean going against our unruly nature. Some gardeners might prefer wildness, which I understand. But if we follow the way of undirected, untrained wildness in the area of human passions, we cause a lot of suffering for ourselves and others. So we willingly give ourselves into a training. If it is Buddhist training it must involve body, speech and mind.
When we look at our present quality of life, we should see it as the result of our past actions (kamma). Our being is conditioned by actions of body (kayakamma), actions of speech (vacikamma) and actions of mind (manokamma). Bringing our passionate nature into line with the path of realisation must involve all of our being. Many of our formal rituals are aimed at elevating awareness of these three dimensions. As we bow in front of the Buddha image we are lowering our bodily form in an acknowledgement of our experience of limitation. With our body we are saying 'I', as separate ego, willingly submit myself to the 'way of what is', in contrast to the stiff-necked 'I can handle it, I don't need anybody' kind of attitude. And as we offer candles and incense to the Triple Gem, we perform with our body gestures of respect and gratitude, which bring into relief the self-oriented activity of our lives that is always taking from the world for 'me'. Similarly, as we recite the morning and evening chanting, we utter words that resonate with the deepest aspects of our hearts. By intentionally acting with body and speech in the form of regular ritual, we are reminded of where the real responsibility for our actions lies.
Mindfully engaging each other in dialogue on matters of truth also serves to cultivate a felt sense of the significance of training. It is encouraging to see that more and more people are wanting to meet to support each other in this way. If we don't train, then, like the water off the roof that never reaches the pond but merely seeps away, so the precious passion of our hearts fails to enliven our commitment to the Way.
If training accords with the true nature of that which is being trained, there is an ease, even if at times we feel challenged. Training is challenging because it is not what 'I' want. But then, when does 'I' ever truly get what it wants? Is it possible for this separate 'I' to be genuinely contented? No! Because, by being identified as the activity of wanting and not as awareness itself, we are compelled to feel always busy. When we understand this then we start wanting to train. And such wanting is essential. The meditation master Venerable Ajahn Mahabua, when asked, "What is the place of desire for liberation in this Way?", replied that it is the Way. When we fully want to submit ourselves to a training because we long to go beyond a sense of cramped limitation, then the interest and creativity that we will need for the task ahead becomes available to us.
If hearing talks or reading books about practice inspires us to take up training, then that is good. But we need to know that we are doing it because we want to do it. It is only from this perspective that we can learn from what our own discernment faculty has to tell us. If we are imitating someone else's practice, then we are compromising this faculty.
We need to assess, as we proceed, if this way is our way. Entering into training is like entering a mountain stream to bathe: we wouldn't just dive in because it looks attractive. Maybe it's only a foot deep and we would be badly hurt. It's better to go carefully, feeling our way until we are confident about what we are getting ourselves into.
Sometimes people have a problem in this area of wholeheartedly wanting to progress in their training, because Buddhist Teachings so insistently call attention to the fact that suffering is rooted in desire. Such people jump to the conclusion that to want anything at all is not the Way. This is very unfortunate. As we know, where there is desire there is energy. If because of some ill-informed assumptions about desire we disown this energy, then who is taking responsibility for it? Who is taking care of it if we aren't? It doesn't just go away because we don't think it's a good idea. The last thing that the world needs is for more heedlessness around desire. What does help, though, is to know what we want more than anything else. I am suggesting the reason that we take up this training is because we want to find out what this is.
At Ratanagiri Monastery, we have a regular meeting on Sunday nights at which the local Buddhists like to gather for chanting, meditation and discussion. We begin with the recitation of the Three Refuges and Five Precepts. For a long time this took place with very little volume, until one day it occurred to me that they sounded embarrassed about doing it. I asked if we should stop; but no, they wanted to continue with it. So I suggested that unless the group were feeling apologetic about wanting to do it, we should shout the recitation out. These days we don't exactly shout, but there is a good strong communal voice resonating around the Hall, reaffirming our determination to offer ourselves into the training. The need to know that we are doing our own practice stays with us.
We can easily become habituated to the training forms that we have acquired and because of this they cease to work for us. However, if these forms are rightly grasped then they enthuse and energise us. So we keep checking to see if we are doing it because we want to. When we reach a point of genuinely wanting to train, we can enjoy practice much more. Obviously, there will be times when we feel like we don't want to do it anymore. If we have cultivated the skilful habit of inquiring of ourselves, with interest, as to what motivates our actions, when this feeling of not-wanting arises we will be in the best place to find out whether or not we really don't want to do it. Superficially, our desires come and go, conditioned by many different casual concerns; but at the deepest level, as Buddhism sees it, all beings want to be free. So if we look long enough, we will penetrate beyond the not-wanting and remember what we are in this for.
We all have a problem with keeping effort fresh. Simply going through the routine of doing formal practice is not enough. A few decades ago out in Asia we were quick to criticise what we saw as pointless superstitious carry-on, like the waving of incense in front of golden Buddhas. Yet our sitting meditation can be the same. If we aren't doing it with freshness it becomes pointless carry-on; in fact, it's worse than pointless. If we are not fully involved with all our body, heart and mind in meditation, then we can be compounding the already established patterns of limitation. How unfortunate!
For it to be the profound and radical ritual that meditation can truly be, we need to remember what we have to do to keep our effort fresh and alive. Whilst formal sitting is one valid way, there are other ways; we need to re-examine the whole area of devotion and what it means to us. It is almost certain that to imitate Asian devotional practices will not work, but it is vitally important to find out what does work. Actually, in my experience, developing a devotional practice of a daily offering of incense to the shrine is tremendously helpful in sustaining spiritual aliveness. I might not sit meditation on some days but I almost never omit my devotional efforts.
It is by remembering what brought us to training, and remembering to rediscover right effort moment by moment, that clear understanding of the functioning of awareness dawns on us. With this new dawning of the inherent value and beauty of awareness, a new letting go of the security of old familiar identities occurs; even letting go of the idea of becoming better or developing ourselves - even letting go of the idea of enlightenment. We now value this clear-seeing so highly that we are positively disinclined to settle for anything less.
There can even be a letting go of the preoccupation with the idea of becoming free from suffering. We are more interested now in how accurately we are meeting any suffering in this moment. We begin to find our security and well-being in the freedom to suffer: "Can I suffer and remain free at the same time?" Our interest in cultivating awareness has brought us full circle to discover not freedom from suffering but a vast capacity to suffer. This vast capacity to suffer is the vast compassion we are all looking for. How fortunate it would be for the world if there were more beings around with such compassion.
Thank you for the opportunity to look into these matters.