Sabbe sankhara anicca
Sabbe sankhara dukkha
Sabbe dhamma anatta
All conditioned things are impermanent,
All conditioned things are suffering,
All things are without a self.
During the rains-retreat, it’s important that we keep these evening Dhamma1 talks very simple, very simple but still very profound. If we make them too complicated, we end up thinking too much. We think too much already. Thinking has already caused us enough suffering in our life, and we don’t want to create even more suffering. We want to keep things simple. The whole ethos of a forest monastery is keeping things simple. We keep the monastic lifestyle simple by wearing simple robes and doing things simply. This hall is kept simple with very few furnishings. That simplicity goes against the worldly realm of complexity where life is so hard to understand. So we strive to keep things simple. Simple yet profound.
Sometimes people misunderstand complexity for profundity. They think if they can’t understand it, it must be deep. I rebelled against that sort of ignorance when I was a young monk—in fact even before I was a young monk, even as a lay Buddhist. I remember a quote from my science days. Werner Heisenberg, one of the great founders of quantum mechanics—which many people think is incomprehensible—said if you can’t explain quantum physics to the person serving you beer behind the bar, then you don’t understand it. That was a great statement by somebody who did know what he was talking about. So, if you are a Buddhist monk or nun and you know what you’re talking about, people should be able to understand it simply, profoundly and deeply. And this is my task, to take this Dhamma of the Buddha, to know it and then to present it in a way that you can understand, so that it is not superficial but goes to the very heart of things.
You can’t get deeper Dhamma, more profound Dhamma, than the teaching of the Dhammacakka Sutta which we chanted before this evening’s talk. It is a powerful teaching. Sometimes, because it looks easy to understand on the surface, people pass it by and look for something more complex so they can exercise their thinking. But instead we should pause and look at this sutta of the Buddha. Listening to that teaching, A¤¤à Koõóa¤¤a became the first stream-winner3. The Buddha said, “Indeed, Koõóa¤¤a has understood; indeed, he has understood”. And what did A¤¤à Koõóa¤¤a really understand? He understood this simple teaching: sabbe saïkhàrà dukkhà—all conditioned things are suffering. It’s important to understand this because, without understanding suffering, the extent of suffering and how suffering permeates everything, your meditation won’t take off. Sometimes people think they can separate meditation from the Dhamma or the precepts. It’s a foolish illusion to think that you can meditate and then go to a bar or have sex with your girlfriend and still get somewhere. I remember Ajahn Chah talking with a man who said he was still having sex but that he was not attached to it. Ajahn Chah just laughed and said, “Oh yes; that’s like having salt that isn’t salty”. Sayings like that from a great teacher really dispel these delusions that some people have. The reason people say such things is because they don’t see the whole depth of suffering, of dukkha, and how this path fits together as a whole. If one part is missing, the other parts don’t work.
At this time, because this is a forest monastery and it is the rains-retreat, we focus on meditation, developing peace, developing stillness and getting into these deep, joyful states of mind. I don’t mind having to keep pushing this point because this is the heart of the path. We are meditating monks. That’s why we are here: to end suffering—sabba saïkhàra samatha, to quieten all of the sankharas. That is what you do in meditation, quieten everything down. But you won’t be able to do that unless you keep very, very strong virtue: the virtue of harmlessness and harmony, of making peace, being gentle and being kind. So those of you who really want to achieve success in meditation over the next few months, watch your actions and especially your speech. Make sure that what comes out of your mouth is right speech, which as the Buddha said is gentle to the ear, peaceful, warm, kind and soft. It’s not anyone’s job in this monastery to bawl people out, to shout at them or order them around. If you do things like that, your meditation won’t work because the groundwork hasn’t been laid. Make sure your foundations of right speech and right action are strong. If you want to get deep meditation, you have to have that soft voice, those helping, kind and gentle actions. With the attitude of kindness and gentleness, you get your sila right.
You all have jobs to do. Sometimes you will forget to do those jobs but it doesn’t matter. If any one of you sees a job that needs to be done, then your attitude should never be: “Oh, it’s not my job; it’s somebody else’s”. One’s attitude should be that this is a wonderful opportunity to make good kamma7, to look after the monastery and to serve. Then you will do these things with happiness. In the first year that I was at Wat Pah Pong, I had that attitude that there should be a roster and everyone should do their job; no one else should do the job if they were not rostered. The Thais thought this was an absolutely stupid idea. Fortunately, I soon came to understand the idea of kamma and its place in the scheme of things. To be able to do good things, to serve, is a way of letting go of desires, of personal preferences. Giving is an important way of giving up craving and attachments. So we give, and we give with joy.
I still remember the times as a young monk when I would help and serve others. A story about Ajahn Munindo comes to mind. We were talking one evening at Wat Pah Nanachat and he said, “Oh, it’s so hard to get up in the morning and meditate. I haven’t had enough sleep, the floor in the meditation hall is hard and it’s really hot”. I said, just as a joke, “Tomorrow morning, let me bring you a nice cup of tea in bed to wake you up.” He said, “Okay.” We normally got up when the bell went at three o’clock, but the next day I got up at two thirty, found some tea and made him a cup of tea. But it was not the cup of tea that woke him up. As I knocked on the door, I saw a snake crawling under the door into his room, a Banded Krait—they are very venomous, but they don’t usually bite. So I called out to him, “Venerable Munindo, here’s your cup of tea, and by the way there is a snake coming under your door right now”. He was very awake that morning, doubly awake!
I didn’t need to do these little acts of service, but I loved doing them. I think having that sort of attitude is why I have good meditation. If somebody asks me to do a favour, I do it as much as I can. You know how hard I work. It’s not only because I like to be kind and compassionate, but it also means I get good meditation.
You also need motivation to meditate. Why sit down and just watch your breath for a couple of hours? Why not just hang out or read a book, listen to the radio, go and have a chat with someone or just go to sleep? The reason is in the sutta we just chanted: we meditate to understand what the problem of life is, to see the four noble truths, and especially the problem of the suffering in life. Even here in this monastery you don’t get what you want. No matter how well we organize the monastery, it’s never perfect all the time. Sometimes it’s perfect, sometimes it’s good, but a lot of times it’s not. And sometimes your body is not perfect: you get a cold, or a bad knee or a back-ache. This is just samsara. If you’re complaining about somebody giving you a hard time, or your knee giving you a hard time, or it being too hot or too cold, you’re missing the point. As Ajahn Chah famously said, “It’s not the sound that disturbs you; it’s you who disturbs the sound”. It’s not samsara that disturbs you; it’s you who disturbs samsara. To be suffering is the nature of the world, the nature of this body, the nature of this mind.
Our problem is that we always presume that there can be some place somewhere in this world where we can escape from suffering. If you think you can come to this monastery and escape suffering, you’ve missed the point. You come to a monastery or a retreat not to escape from suffering but to understand suffering. It is when you understand suffering that you become free from suffering, especially free from mental suffering. The Buddha said there are two arrows of suffering, the mental arrow and the physical arrow. The physical arrow of suffering is the part that comes from having a body and mind, from having to struggle with things. The mental arrow of suffering is from reacting to the difficulties that we experience in life. We can do something about this mental suffering, and actually this is our practice: to understand the mental arrow of suffering.
Whenever we react, it is very much to do with what we are expecting, and sometimes we just expect too much. We expect too much from each other and sometimes even from ourselves. Whenever we suffer, we should just ask ourselves, “What do I expect?” I do that sometimes when I am meditating or working in the monastery or travelling. What do I expect from airlines? I expect them not to leave on time; I expect economy class to be uncomfortable. What do I expect from people? I expect people to ask me silly questions sometimes, to ring me up at all hours, because people are like that. So we understand that when suffering comes it’s because we expect what life can’t give us. That was my definition of suffering when a Singaporean in a hurry once asked me, “What is suffering? Quick, I’ve got to go”. I just told him, “Suffering is expecting from this world what it can never give you.”
I like that explanation: ‘expecting from this world what it will never give you’. When you understand this, you’ve got something to work with. You can then ask yourself, “What do I expect from my body? Can it give me an hour or two without any aches or pains, so that I can sit and meditate and watch my breath?” The answer is usually no. “Can it give me relief from cold and heat?” Again the answer is no. “Can it give me freedom from indigestion?” Not always. “Can it give me freedom from sickness, from getting a cold?” No. Suffering is when you ask for those things that you will never be able to get. So when you have a bad knee, a bad back, or when you have a cold, make peace with it, accept it, be kind to it, embrace it, understand it. It’s a teacher for us. It’s the teacher that shows us what this world really is like.
It’s the same with the world outside. You can ask yourself, “What do I expect from my family, the water tanks, the retreat centre, the nun’s monastery?” The world doesn’t work according to plans. I don’t expect the retreat centre to be perfect. I expect there to be hold-ups and difficulties. I expect it to cost much more than the money we’ve raised for it. It’s always that way. There’s always an overrun. That’s par for the course, and I expect that. You see, when you expect these things, where is the suffering? When you expect these things, you get the physical suffering but you’ve taken away the mental suffering.
Of course, there is much more to suffering than that. That’s only a part of suffering, and just letting go is not enough. We have to go far deeper than that. Even if you let go of wanting, life still disappoints. It’s painful just having a body: even meditating and getting jhana is painful—you get a jhàna but it doesn’t last; you get deep experiences and they go away again. So you ask yourself, “What’s this all about?” And hopefully, you get the message that sabbe saïkhàrà dukkha, all compounded things are suffering. Having a body and a mind is painful. In other words, having senses is suffering: looking, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling the body—this irritating body that the Buddha compared to a cow without skin with flies crawling on its bare flesh. That’s a pretty graphic description of irritation! And it’s what this physical body is like. It’s always irritated. Sometimes you cough. Why? Because you feel an irritation in your throat. You’ve got aches and pains; there is probably no one in this room who hasn’t got a pain or an irritation somewhere in their body at this moment. This is why we see this body as suffering. When you understand this, you get the message that these senses are inherently suffering. To see is to suffer; to hear, to smell and even to taste are to suffer; and to feel this body is to suffer.
Recently a doctor sent me an article about the sensory nerve endings in our fingertips that are stimulated by touch. In our brain, it is the same stimulus whether the touch is pleasant or unpleasant. There’s no essential difference between a pleasant stimulus and an unpleasant stimulus; it’s just that we interpret them as pleasure or pain. If you understand this, you understand that all sensation is simply an irritation of the sensory system. The more mindful you are, the more you see that not only is suffering not getting what you want or having frustrated expectations, it’s also that the sensory experience is inherently suffering and painful. That degree of insight is what will motivate you to actually let go of sensory experience altogether. If you still think sensory experience is enjoyable, you’ll never be able to let go enough to get into deep meditation. That’s what it says in the Tàyana Sutta which we chant at the end of the patimokkha: nappahāya munī kāme, n’ekattam upapajjati, ‘without having abandoned sensual desires, a sage does not reach one-pointedness’. If you haven’t abandoned the five senses, you’ll never be able to gain oneness of mind, the singleness of deep meditation.
How can you abandon that attachment to the five senses? By seeing through them, by seeing what they really are. Once you get into jhana that truth becomes quite obvious. Until then, you need a little bit of insight to motivate yourself to let go in the first place. Otherwise you’ll be sitting in meditation and you’ll be dreaming or fantasizing about a nice monastery, or nice food, or girls or boys. Why do people fantasise about these things? Because they feel there is going to be some happiness there. Whenever there is a thought that doing this is going to lead to happiness, it leads to craving. Craving comes from the delusion that there is happiness here, and therefore you want it—whether it’s craving because it’s somebody’s birthday and you’ll get toast tomorrow morning, or it’s craving because your family has invited you home for dana and you can have your favourite foods.
As a young monk in Thailand, I used to crave for fish and chips. After seven years, I went back to England and visited my mother. I thought, “Mother’s cooking, at last!” As soon as I came into the kitchen I recognized the pan in which she used to fry the chips. She had used it for about ten or fifteen years, and the tradition was that that pan would never be washed or scrubbed because it would take the flavour away. But when I walked in, she looked up and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking of throwing that pan away”, and she threw it away right in front of me, putting it in the bin. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t say anything. I was stunned, shocked, in deep suffering—this was Màra12 playing games with me for sure.
Finally on that trip, the first time I was in England after seven years in Thailand, I did get chips, but only once and it was from a Thai man. Everyone else had thought, “Oh you must like rice”, and they fed me rice every day. So much for going home! Many years later, I was going to a funeral one morning here in Australia and Ajahn Jagaro said, “Just get yourself something to eat on the way back”. Great, I had chance to get fish and chips, real fish and chips for the first time in so long. And when I did, it was such a disappointment! When you get what you crave for, it never lives up to your expectations. So that was another thing I could tick off as not being a source of happiness, another thing that was suffering in this world.
If you look deeply, you see things as they truly are. You see that to eat, to read, to listen is just an irritation of the senses. If you realize that, you have an opportunity to turn away from the sensory world. Those people who turn away from the sensory world, who turn away from speech, from sights and from comfortable feelings, realize there is no happiness to be found there. They don’t look at the pretty girls who come into the monastery. They know there is no happiness to be found there; it’s just an irritation, a stirring up. They don’t worry about looking at pretty pictures or listening to music; it’s just more irritation. Once we realize that all this stuff is just a bundle of suffering, sabbe sankara dukkha, then we’re no longer interested in it and we have the motivation to let it go. We walk away from sights. We don’t sit on the hillside watching the sun go down; instead we sit in the darkness of our hut watching the breath go in and out. We try to end conversations. We don’t even listen to so many Dhamma talks; instead we just listen to the silence. We don’t massage the body; instead we sit still and allow the body to disappear. And when we do close our eyes, we don’t go into what the Buddha called kàma vitakka: thoughts about the sensory world. We don’t start fantasizing, dreaming or planning, because even the thoughts about the sensory world are suffering. And so you turn away from the world. You lessen the sensory stimulus in your life, using the phone less, writing less, listening less and seeing less. You seek solitude; you seek places where there is very little sensory stimulus. You realize this outside world of the five senses promises you very much, but it never meets its promises. It always disappoints. It can be good, but not quite good enough. It always leaves you empty, wanting more afterwards.
After a while, you don’t want to follow that outside path; you want to follow the inner path instead. The motivation arises from seeing the suffering in the sensory world. Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching are dukkha. Thinking about hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and about physical feelings is also dukkha. If you contemplate that very deeply, you’ll find that there is less and less to take you away from the serenity of your mind. You are using the Dhamma of the Buddha to motivate you to go inwards rather than outwards. These teachings tranquilize you, they calm you. They take you inside. When you are meditating and watching the breath, if a thought grabs you and takes you away, it is usually just a thought of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching. So you let those thoughts go. How do you let them go? You see them as they truly are, as suffering. With insight, with samdahi, you see things as they truly are; you see suffering fully. But even if you haven’t got samadhi yet, you have enough experience, enough wisdom, to understand that these things are suffering. Just reflect on your life and reflect on everything that you think is happiness. And then ask, “Is that really happiness?” Be honest about it. If you are truly honest about it, it may seem to be happiness, but you will see that it is so superficial and it always leaves you wanting something more afterwards. It’s never fulfilling. It’s like half-happiness, and half-happiness is not good enough. If you look very deeply and carefully, you should be able to see by your own insight and wisdom that it is suffering. Remember that when you meditate. That will really motivate you and help you to go deeply inside.
So we leave all the externals aside. We don’t have to worry about the monastery: it is just sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches. The Buddhist Society of Western Australia is just sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches. Committee meetings are sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches. Retreat centres are sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches. All your friends and relations are just sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches. Everything is just the five senses. It’s suffering. Drop it. You’re allowed to do that here. There are so few places where you are permitted to leave the world, but in monasteries you are allowed to go into your hut and put aside all the books, all the projects, all the letters and just sit. Motivate yourself by saying, “Sight is suffering, sound is suffering, smells and tastes are suffering, physical sensations are suffering”. In this way you get repulsion, nibbida, towards them. And that feeling of repulsion towards the five sense world will make it quite easy for you to just watch the breath. It will be like an escape. That abandoning of suffering motivates you. So you sit and walk, not thinking, not looking around, just letting go of all sensory impressions, moving away from them, moving inwards to the mind. You watch the breath. Sounds and thoughts come up; you’re not interested.
Motivating yourself that way stops the craving for the sense sphere. Sometimes people ask, “Why are all the great teachers in Thailand born in the North East?” Well, the North East is a most unspectacular plain with very few hills. Because of the poor soil, there is nothing very beautiful to see except along the Mekong River. So why do you get great meditation teachers in the North East? It’s because there’s nothing to look at! If you are living in a forest or living in a cave and there is nothing to look at, you close your eyes and look inwards; because there is nothing to hear you just look inwards; because there is nothing to smell or taste, and you don’t have anything to eat in the evenings, there is nothing to do except to go in. You realize, “Yes, it’s true. Those five senses are suffering”. When you do that, you find that quite naturally the mind goes deeper.
Remember what I said earlier: craving comes from delusion. The delusion that you crave for is happiness. If you realize the object of your craving is a heap of dung, you will never grab onto it; you’ll never look for it and you’ll never move towards it. Instead you’ll move away in the same way you would from a snake or a fire. This is how you motivate yourself. And as you get into those deep meditation states, you realize what they are and how they come about. It becomes even clearer to you that all this seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching really is suffering. You had seen it superficially, but now you’re seeing it deeper and deeper and deeper. The Buddha was right. This is the Dhamma, and it is a simple Dhamma. You don’t have to be a university graduate or have a great education to understand it. You understand it from your own experience that this is the way to peace, to freedom, to happiness. When the mind completely lets go of the five senses, those deep states of mind, jhana, develop and it’s blissful. You can’t feel your body or hear any sounds. You’ve only got the mind there. It’s a beautiful state to be in. You’re deep inside of yourself, like in a cave. The Buddha called this the cave of the heart.
When you come out of these deep states of meditation, you ask, “Why was that so much happiness? It’s obvious what the answer is. Even the most beautiful sights are just nothing compared to being in a jhana. Some laypeople say, “Oh, seeing the birth of my first child was just the most amazing experience,” but that’s nothing compared with when you’re not seeing anything at all! Hearing Beethoven’s Fifth played by the Berlin Philharmonic, that’s nothing compared to the silence, the deep silence. Also going to the best restaurant, which is usually your mother’s kitchen, that’s nothing compared to when you’re not tasting anything at all. Even sex, the best sex, is nothing compared to when the body is not irritating you at all, when it’s not demanding any more attention, and it’s just gone. People who experience deep meditation say it changes the whole way they look at life.
Why is it so wonderful? Eventually it dawns on you, especially when you repeat those experiences again and again. It’s because seeing is suffering—any type of seeing, even the most beautiful things. And so too with the best sounds, the best physical experiences, they are nothing compared to when we sit and things have disappeared. Why is this so? It’s because those things are suffering, and when you let them go, it is happiness. You are letting go of your attachment and craving to sensory things. And when you let go of these things, all you are doing is letting go of suffering. You will never crave for them again. It’s only because we’re deluded that we think these things are happiness.
So how do we end craving? We end it through understanding the nature of things, by seeing them as they truly are. When you see them as suffering, you move away. When you move away, there is only one place you can go, and that’s deep into the mind. That’s how people become wise. Anagamis, the non-returners, have no problem getting into jhana. Why? Because they’ve seen that all sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches are suffering. They just move away; and when they move away, there is only one place they go, into the mind and jhana. True, there’s still the mind to let go of, but as most teachers say, that’s relatively easy. It’s the other five senses that are hard to let go of.
So if you keep thinking and doing things, it means you haven’t fully understood the four noble truths yet. You’ve seen some suffering—enough suffering to come into this monastery. Half of you is in the monastery, but the other half is still in the world, fantasizing, dreaming and hoping. When you stop all that, then you can be said to be fully in this monastery. You’ve left the world and, by really seeing suffering, you have access to deep meditation. When there is nothing between you and those jhanas, you become an anàgàmã, a non-returner. If you become an anagami by the end of this rains retreat, you’ll be a happy monk, a happy nun, a happy layperson, and certainly I’ll be a happy teacher. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing? Such attainments are measured by your ability to be peaceful, to be calm, to be still. If you can’t be still, it means your insights aren’t deep enough. When your mind is absolutely still, so still that the external world vanishes, you are not craving for that outside world anymore. And why aren’t you craving? It’s because you’ve seen that that outside world is suffering. Who can crave for suffering? You can’t; it’s an impossibility to want what you know is painful. If you really know it as pain and suffering, there is no way you would want it.
So how can you improve your meditation? Learn how to recognize the suffering of the five senses by seeing them more deeply, more fully. See why it is that you get attached to things. Why is it you get attached to food? Why do you crave these things? It’s only because you think they are going to make you happy. Question these attachments, challenge them. Challenge them until you see through the delusion. When you see through these delusions, your meditation will take off. So empower your meditation. You only have one place to resort to, one refuge deep in the mind. Find that and you won’t take refuge in the world ever again.
Dhamma: The teachings of the Buddha; the truth; nature.
Sutta: Discourse of the Buddha, or one of his chief disciples.
Sotapanna: Stream-winner, the first stage of enlightenment. One guaranteed to attain full enlightenment within seven lifetimes at most.
Sankhara: In the suttas it usually means the will. Sometimes it is used to refer to that which is conditioned, or arises dependent on causes.
Sila: Moral practice; code of morality.
Kamma: Action or activity created by volition.
Samsara: The continuous round of death and rebirth (literally: ‘wandering on’).
Jhana: The deep meditation states of letting go.
Patimokkha: The collection of precepts for monks and nuns contained in the Vinaya.
Dana: Generosity. Also, the giving of food and other requisites to monks and nuns.
Mara: Often called ‘the Evil One’ (literally, ‘the killer’), Māra is a tempter figure who seeks to keep beings bound to the round of rebirth.
Samadhi: Sustained attention on one thing.
Nibbida: Aversion, repulsion or revulsion, especially towards the round of existence. It is a consequence of insight.