July  1996   2539   Number 37 
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Puja; Ajahn Succito
An Invitation to Awaken; Venerable Chandako
Kiwi Practice; Ajahn Subbato
Seeking the Buddha's Footprints; Angela Coton
Upasika news; Three Reflections
Ballad of Amaravati's Bridge; Samanera Thitadhammo
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Puja
In this talk, given during a winter monastic retreat at Amaravati, Ajahn Sucitto describes how we can continue our act of devotion after the chanting is over by celebrating and honouring each moment of existence.


Every morning we start the day with a puja. It's a celebration of the Buddha's awakening, an act of praise and recognition. So even when we have completed the chanting if we stay with the puja and continue the act of offering, we can see this as a very good spiritual yoga. Whereas chanting some words and then going away, forgetting the puja as soon as the chanting finishes, is not a true exercise of the spirit. There might well be a fleeting arousal of energy but then we go away, we leave it. Maybe we go back to looking at the five khandas, and stumble around in thoughts, perceptions and feelings - not so much grasping them as being gripped by them. But if we pause to reflect on this teaching, this training in the Dhamma, then we realise that this is not a worldly teaching. It involves the activation of the five support faculties, the five indriyas, making them strong, in order to bring forth the spirit and faith. The puja, then, is a bringing forth, a waking up, an arousing, an activation of the spirit. We can activate the spirit with faith when we recollect the Buddha touching the earth, bringing Enlightenment into the world, into consciousness.

In our spiritual development, quite a lot is made of concentration and calming, but we still need to bring forth the right attitude - the element of faith - before we start concentrating and calming down. Without faith, we concentrate on the attachments and the old habits within the five khandas, just getting stuck in established perceptions and mind formations; not concentrating on the right thing. If the quality of mindfulness has not been aroused we remain fixated upon the old grasping, or being-grasped, experience.

When we undertake a puja then, without calming the mind and going inwards into some space beyond sensory impingement, then the puja isn't completed or fulfilled. If we just shut down and go away, without taking time to cultivate mindfulness of breathing, without due recollection, the entire experience becomes something we just slot into, without thought. Instead of mindfulness, we develop attachment to techniques, rituals, rules and systems. And this is one of the great hindrances. Chanting, mindfulness of breathing - even meditation practice itself - can be just another ritual that we do blindly or automatically, without sensitivity. Meditation can become another habit, a way of not actually relating to or experiencing anything - a blind response, an escape from here and now. Then we are not being mindful but just 'dozing', falling asleep, or getting into a stale glutinous state of mind. Although we might imagine ourselves to be breathing, actually we fall into a perceptual mode that is far more likely to be one of stagnation than of calm; it is easy to mistake the two. Things may be still, but it is not the stillness of a clear mind, it's not an enlightened calm; it can be just stagnation in the mind, not feeling or hearing very much - a dull, dead state.
 
Chanting, mindfulness of breathing - even meditation practice itself - can be just another ritual that we do blindly or automatically, without sensitivity.
 
The puja, properly used, has the effect of energising our faith - although, for all appearances, it is just an outward form which can be done in a more or less perfunctory and automatic fashion every day. We think, 'Well, this is what we do'....but when we've done it every day for five years or so, we can become completely anaesthetised and resigned to it, rather than giving in to it. Maybe we begin to feel resistance or negativity arising, but we have to realise that this is only because the puja is not being done properly. The offering of one's spirit is not happening so, instead, it's just a repeated meaningless activity, a sankhara of the mind.

So what is this faith that is said to arise? How can it be aroused? We need purposefully to make the puja into our offering to the Triple Gem - to the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha - and to stay mentally alert by activating and exercising the spiritual faculties. This is done by focussing first on the qualities of the Buddha, recollecting his enlightenment and his teaching of the Eightfold Path, giving him full recognition as the awakened one; and realising for ourselves the Four Noble Truths. At this moment too, we see arising within the world all the pain and pleasure, boredom and doubt, greed and so on - all the positive and negative forces of the mind. Then there is Dhamma, the ultimate truth - a quality that is ever-present, total, unifying and absolute; and which is within all conditions, whether they are painful, pleasant, subtle or gross, physical or mental. It is something we must realise for ourselves. We don't have to find it or become it, we just have to open to it. It's all-embracing and inviting; it welcomes us, it's not something aloof. It has a loving, expansive quality: "Please come", rather than, "Don't come in here with your grubby mind stamping all over me!" attitude. This 'ehipassiko, opaniyiko' is something that we can all experience when faith is aroused. We are invited to reach up to it, the Dhamma. This is all one can say, because words themselves are unsatisfactory and changing. But if we can open to the here and now, if we can but bring this reflection into our hearts, we open ourselves to a great movement of the spirit. Then there is faith in the Sangha. That is the potential for the personal, localised kammic experience that we call our self to actually connect to, associate with and be resumed into the Ultimate. This is one of the many miraculous things - they are all miracles in the Triple Gem - that there can be occasions when one experiences a state of wholeness or completion, a fulfilment.
Most religions recognise and evoke this spirit of the Divine, the Sublime, the Brahma, the Atman or God the Almighty, but then it's always: "But how do we get to it?" The Sangha is a quality of faith and energy, a mindful reflection that we bring to the present moment, to recognise that even the aspiration to be with Dhamma, IS Dhamma. It already is it. We look at that which brings us here: what it is that actually moves us to come together for a morning puja, or to go forth in the Holy Life? What is that? We might think, "I want to do it" or, "I felt like doing it" or, "If I didn't do it, I'd get blamed or feel negative about myself" or, "It seemed like a good idea at the time". All these attitudes and thoughts can come up, but this is just a screen of thoughts - often stained with self-deprecation.

So what is it that urges us to awaken? That, in itself, is an aspect of awakening. It, too, is an essential aspect of Dhamma; it is like the Dhamma seeking itself, or praising itself. When we participate in a puja, we're not particularly aiming to calm down - because it's a celebration, a recognition and a gladness for the world. In this way we can look at our ability to see and feel, as an aspect of Dhamma. We can note our embodiment - just sensations in the body - or the thinking quality of the mind: what are they? Who does it? Where do they come from? We get so caught up in self-view, into feeling good about this and bad about that, wondering what to do, trying to get away from this or that. But instead we can note that there IS feeling; there Is consciousness....So what is it? What is it that can actually see; what is it that can note seeing, or be aware of thoughts, moods and feelings, and note that they change? In the puja we are not trying to meditate in some preconceived system. It's a great shake-out. It's a celebration and sweeping around to establish and bring forth faith, energy and mindfulness. Why go anywhere - why retreat into the numbness of the mind? In this celebration and recognition of the wonders of the Triple Gem our spirit can come forth to hearing, to seeing, to the feelings in the body, sensations of coolness or warmth, or the breathing; while with its self view, our physical form remains just a limp 'bag of perceptions'. Even the mind itself can simply regurgitate habitual phrases, moods and feelings - repeating, like a weary old parrot nattering away on your shoulder, 'Polly wants a cracker'! But we can rejuvenate this somewhat limp, bedraggled 'bird' of a mind - preen it, brighten it up, make it dance, make it sing. We can mentally 'fly around', noting: there is a thought, there is a feeling - all changing, moment by moment. It's all just an immediate dance of the present moment. So why go away from this beautiful puja of the spirit, why not join it? Whether we listen inwardly to the silence in the ear (we can hear different tones in the perception of silence) or listen outwardly to silence or sounds, our perception changes. When these aggregates are not adhered to they are fields of arousal of the spirit.

The Buddha was awakened within the five khandas; for example, within perception, by noticing the way it changes and moves. Noticing our thoughts and drives is an arousing sign; we observe the energy arising, whether it's slow or agitated, or where it goes. When we don't hold or grasp at the aggregates, they become a basis for the realisation of the momentary, dancing nature of experience. So when we find that the mind is bogged down, we can always turn to the five khandhas, the six sense spheres or consciousness. The eye, eye consciousness and the objects of the eye; the ear, ear consciousness and the objects of the ear - these are all available. There are plenty of possibilities for us to consider; rather than lying around being pummelled by some obsessive habit, mood, or dullness. We can actually 'step out' and go to our skin, to the bones, to the back, the head, the eyes - even to the fact that there is consciousness arising; consciousness moving and ever-changing. All these can be looked at, seen as miraculous - celebrated and observed clearly in their changing and evanescent qualities. Then, when we get stuck in stale perceptions we can work with them, by returning to a feeling. Is the feeling pleasant or unpleasant? Generally, when one is stuck, it is unpleasant, humdrum, boring and dull. Or we can go to the form: what actually is the feeling of a hand resting on one's leg? Which part do you feel - the palm, or the knuckle, the finger nail or the thumb? In this way we go back to form itself. What actually is this apparent material form that is being experienced with sensations arising in it? Where do they arise, and what do they do? What are the perceptions that are created around them?

These are exercises in mindfulness and application. There are many opportunities to investigate the almost limitless manifoldness that we are. All of them are avenues to the Unconditioned - because all of these things are changing, and none of them are self; when they are grasped they are all unsatisfactory. These three characteristics of being will always guide and steer is. If we experience unsatisfactoriness, it's because we are grasping. And with change, there is the vibration of feeling, the movement of thought, the ebbing and flowing of the emotions and so on. What is it that notices their changing, and can stay with that - with the seeing eye, the listening ear - with a patient heart, and the faith of the spirit? This is the Buddha, this is the Dhamma, this is the Sangha - an eternal, timeless quality which is outside of circumstances and yet, at the same time, totally involved with them. So for the welfare of the world, we can practise these ways of the spirit within this body and mind; within the five khandas and the six sense spheres. When this world of which we seem to be the centre, this world of consciousness, of forms and change, is rehearsed with the spirit - when the spirit moves through it - then it's a delight, a place of truth, love and boundlessness.