Fulfillment and Liberation
- A talk by Ajahn Viradhammo given at Amaravati in 1996
In Buddhism we speak of two levels of consideration. The first is the conventional level of 'me', as a person, and 'you', as a person. For example, there is 'Viradhammo': fifty-ish, quickly getting out of shape, has duties, is a senior monk at Amaravati; his Mom is in Canada - and he has a little scar on his head with three stitches. That is 'me', as a person. There is the sense here of a person, of social responsibility, of a position in society; of the age of the body, of its genetic and cultural make-up. This is the packaged sense of self that a typical person works with, which is quite valid.
At this level, the considerations are morality, right livelihood, responsibility for the environment, social action, expression and creativity. This is one level we operate on, where we can find all kinds of fulfillment; it is a very rewarding thing to be able to work to express and create something. However, it is not liberating - because things change. We really notice that it is not liberating when someone criticises what we are doing. You might think you are doing a great job but when someone pokes a few holes in it, then you see how un-liberating it is - how bound one can be to it. If all we are trying to do is to find fulfillment on the level of family, social action and creativity, then of course our hearts are never fully appeased, because those conditions are always changing and they depend on so many other factors which are beyond our control. If my whole sense of fulfillment is my family, but then my kids leave home, or someone dies, or my child comes home with a red Mohican... what do I do if my whole life is dependent on that?! So we would say that fulfillment on this level is not where liberation lies, it is not a refuge - although that is not to put it down.
The second level is the Dhamma level, the level of liberation of the heart. When we develop a Buddhist lifestyle, we can see how our families and our social positions can actually be our `monasteries'. They are the place where we practise inner vigilance and contemplation. Whether you are an artist, a doctor, a photographer or on the dole, that is your monastery, that is where you practise.
I was in New Zealand for nine years and was involved with a very beautiful monastery project. During that time there was the necessity to function on the social level - I had to work and to organise things - but, through all that, the most important things to consider were suffering and non-suffering: the inner world. We built this lovely meditation hall (half my monastic life has been spent on building sites!). One whole side of it was open, and we had doors that were ten feet by ten feet - pretty big doors! However, the joiner who was making the doors up was not very efficient. He would always tell us that the doors were coming next week - and this went on for four months! On the wordly level, we had to say to him, "Hey, listen! We have a contract, you are not meeting your responsibilities." But on the inner level, we all had to take responsibility for our annoyance at this joiner. So both levels were operating.
This meditation hall is convertible. There is a cloister at the front, onto which these huge doors open. On top of the cloister we had a marquee custom-made, so we could double the size of the hall on big occasions. We got the best tentmaker in New Zealand to make this marquee - but it was faulty. We had to take tough steps to ensure he didn't rip us off, but we still could not hate him. Sometimes we wanted to; the mind was saying, 'What a rip-off! What are we paying this man all this money for?' Our practice was right there; the tentmaker was our monastery. So without denying the necessity and the challenge of living in the world, we also recognise the inner world. If we view those two worlds skilfully we find a balance between conventional reality and the inner work. Then the tentmaker becomes a person with whom I learn to stand up for what is right, rather than putting my tail between my legs and running away. He helps me learn to be patient.
This inner world is what we work with on a retreat. Although we should not forget the conventional world - Buddhism is not just a weird experience called retreat! We cannot spend our life on a retreat, we have to live in the world. The gift of a retreat, of course, is that we don't have to do so much social re-organising. If the toast is burned, it's burned; we don't sue the cooks. So we work with whatever we have, and we have the freedom to observe. A retreat offers the opportunity to look at suffering and non-suffering.
Maybe in your own lives you have difficulties to deal with - mortgages or recalcitrant teenagers? Don't try to solve those problems now! Instead, I suggest you work with that very feeling of anxiety or worry as a present condition. This is the skill of moving from the conventional, social level of 'me', as a person, to the impersonal level of basic Dhamma elements. This level of the teaching then breaks down our conscious experience to fundamentals which we can look at, no matter what our social situation is. For example, thought - mental activity - is one of the fundamental things we have been looking at. If this activity is always kept on the personal level, it's, 'Well, what am I going to do tomorrow? I don't know... We need to do this; but what if we do that? Yes, let's try this, then we'll do that...' All that is on the personal level - but on the Dhamma level, this is simply planning, worry, thought.
If we remain on the personal level, there will always be this to-ing and fro-ing - struggling. It is only on that impersonal level of consciousness that we can understand not-self (anatta). It's not that life itself is impersonal - we still have our individual kamma, but it is on this level that we can penetrate to a liberating understanding, by passing beyond ignorance. We are not going to avoid the tentmakers and the joiners altogether; life is always going to be that way.
There are many teachings that can help us; for example the Four Noble Truths or Dependent Origination (paticca-samuppada). Sometimes, we might feel over-whelmed if we try to figure these out, but in time we come to see that it's a really beautiful package, intellectually very lovely. More than that, these teachings encourage us to look in the right place, and show us the path to freedom. They take us away from the personal situation with the joiner or the tentmaker, directly to a fundamental sense of stress. So we develop the ability to examine on this level all the time. If I can look at the 'aggro' I feel towards the joiner and take it out of the personal realm by simply looking at it as stress, then I will be able to understand any 'aggro' I may have for the rest of my life and know how to deal with it.
The Buddha encouraged us to consider how human consciousness and the human body are involved with pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings and sensations; to use feeling (vedana) as a framework for contemplation. When you are thirsty, you drink a glass of orange juice; it is pleasant. When you are sitting here and your knees hurt, that is unpleasant. That is very obvious. So no matter what you are finding pleasant or unpleasant - the body, the weather, a person, or your own mind - notice the feeling of pleasant-unpleasant-neutral; consider attraction-repulsion-neutrality. When we are not in touch with Dhamma we often don't consider these fundamental states of mind. We just enjoy the pleasant and try to minimise the unpleasant - which seems like a logical thing to do. But then that keeps us very restless, because no matter how hard we try to do this, there will always be pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. Sense-consciousness is this way.
Seeking the pleasant, trying to be rid of the unpleasant is samsara. The more we do this, the more we want to do it, and the more we have to do it. We become addicted to this way of operating. We get into this very restless phenomenon called rebirth - becoming, doing, all the time. And this takes us away from our real home. This takes us away from the unconditioned, because pleasure and pain are always conditioned. As they change, we feel the need to change. As we grasp pleasure and pain, we find ourselves being spun around the samsaric wheel.
The wheel is one of our traditional images. The rim of the wheel represents sense experience - the contacts we experience, pleasant and unpleasant - all of it spinning around. Grasping the rim of a wheel simply wrings us around with the general momentum. So grasping the pleasant, then trying to hold onto it and afraid of losing it, we make tremendous effort to keep it going; or getting angry at the unpleasant - in both cases we continue to spin around endlessly. But the hub of the wheel is the centre of knowing and being, and this can take it all. This is where the unconditioned lies. If we can summon awareness and be that still centre of knowing, there are still comings and goings - but we have a refuge. This is what Ajahn Chah called, 'our real home.'
This is the basic structure that the Buddha asks us to look at. Our sensitive body contacts objects. That contact produces pleasant, unpleasant, neutral feelings - vedana. From there comes craving (tanha), the grasping of craving (upadana), and the whole process of becoming (bhava) and rebirth (jati). If one carries on like this over time, it becomes a habit. It is then very difficult to return to the still centre of being, because one is so restlessly engaged with that which moves, with the emotions and the thoughts.
Why are we kidnapped so much? Even though we sit here determining, 'I will not get kidnapped!' - it's very hard, isn't it? Don't think you are alone in this, we are all in the same boat! It is very difficult because of our habits, our kamma. Even though we might have really good intentions, situations arise where we feel anger or fear. That is kamma.
What we are trying to do is to break up all these kammic patterns. The way we can do this is by beginning to look at Dhamma, rather than remaining stuck on the level of personality. The contemplation of feelings (vedanupassana) is one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. It requires careful attention to notice this basic structure of the way that some things attract our attention, while others repel. We can try it with an emotion, with a bodily feeling, with a thought; or with people. On this retreat maybe you find difficulty with someone, or maybe you fall in love with them. Notice how some people are physically very attractive, while some are not. Some people have a lot of charisma, and others don't. Notice how you are attracted or repelled; look at that very simple movement of the heart. This is where our habitual emotions are really arising from.
If you can know that movement and learn to not follow or react to it, then you begin not to suffer. For example, your own psyche, the things you don't like about yourself, the emotions you think should not be there; all these come up as very unpleasant. So ask, 'What does an unpleasant emotion feel like?' Or in meditation you might sometimes experience tranquillity, bliss or bright lights, or notice how beautiful silence is, how really attractive that is... but then comes the coarseness of the sound of the JCB! So we attach to the pleasant and the refined, and we try to get rid of the ugly. But what is it that knows pleasant and unpleasant?
Sometimes when you are sitting, the mind is bored, the eyes look around, and you find yourself attracted to someone... ah!... and then you start to create. Romance. There is the creation of 'me' and 'that person', and what 'we' are going to do, what is going to happen to 'us' - sometimes it's called a 'vipassana marriage' - and then suddenly the bell rings! It can happen with hatred too, for example when there is something unappealing about someone. Rather than just noticing our desire to pull away from them, sitting with that until it reaches neutrality - we become very critical, caught in aversion, and try to push them away. But in contemplation of feelings, we can simply bring up an image of a person, and be mindful of the attraction or aversion. That takes us to peace of the mind - to neutrality, rather than identification with the feeling itself.
Quite often we are so caught up with the craving for pleasure that we don't even notice neutrality, which we find boring. As Luang Por Chah said, the neutral, the ordinary is like the space between the end of the out-breath and the beginning of the in-breath. It is very calming but we don't tend to notice it, because we want excitement - we seek to react to difficult or frightening things.
The practice of vedanupassana requires refined attention; taking this theme for contemplation to break down the whole self-structure. So no matter what you may be as a self, as a person, suggest to yourself that today you are going to simply try to notice attraction and repulsion in the mind. That way you are contemplating Dhamma, instead of just being a person. Then ask, 'What is it that knows that which you are noticing?' That knowing is where we find our freedom.
You have a body with senses; you live in an environment with which you have contact; that contact produces pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings. Right there is where you work. Then you have tanha: wanting the pleasant, not wanting the unpleasant, and the sleepiness and delusion around the neutrality. When that wanting arises, there might be grasping of it, believing in it; you really think that if you follow it you will be truly happy, or that to get rid of it will be the right thing to do. So there is belief in the wanting, and the grasping (upadana). From the grasping comes the sense of becoming; one gets involved in this whole process and is reborn into the new situation. From there emerges the sense of dissatisfaction, and you get lost in that: 'Oh, here I go again!'
Notice how birth and death work. You are bored with meditation, your knees are hurting, you want to get up and do something interesting. Then we get a pleasant, beautiful, creative idea that is really going to help the world. Rather than simply noticing this as a pleasant idea, craving develops to keep it going. We start to think, we grasp the craving and then we create something. This is where we seek rebirth; we go on from one to the next to another. It is important to notice this, because at that point we have a choice. If we can see craving clearly and not grasp it, we save ourselves a rebirth, and experience the silence of the mind. If, on the other hand we choose to be reborn then our next option will be a death. Death is when the dancing will not stop; it continues on and on in the mind. That is the decline, the kamma of attachment; rather than face that decline into despair and boredom, we seek an alternative rebirth. That is why boredom and disillusionment are so very important. If we can simply bear to be with the ending of a cycle, that acceptance can take us beyond rebirth.
So we choose. Sometimes we will be able to notice that movement towards the pleasant, and we will say, 'No, I don't really need that'. At other times we will get caught up with the pleasure. Then we will experience its decline, and have to bear with that. Remember that if you are reborn, you will need to die again!
Nibbana, liberation, is that which is not born and does not die, it carries us beyond the cycle - not in terms of whether we will be a rabbit in the next life - but right now. If you get that principle right, it will always work for us in this way.