|October 1997||2541||Number 42|
Wings of the Eagle
Ajahn Jayasaro, who is currently Abbot at Wat Pah Nanachat, gave the following teaching during a retreat for the monastic community in 1995.
In Thai language they speak of two kinds of friends. There are 'eating friends', who are friends when there is something to eat, when everything is going well, but who disappear as soon as things get heavy; and 'dying friends', who would die for you. I sometimes think of those phrases in reflecting on our Dhamma practice. There are practices that we use as refuges when things are going well, but they disappear as soon as things start to get tough. It reminds me also of a scene in a movie I saw many years ago, in which the hero, Woody Allen, had thought up a clever idea of how to escape from jail. He had a bar of soap, which he carved into the shape of a hand gun, painting it black with boot polish. But then there was a heavy rain storm on the night he was planning to make his get-away, and there he was, trying to look really fierce, with the boot polish beginning to run down his arms -- until eventually the revolver just disappeared into a mass of soapy suds! Sometimes in the early years of practice we can feel that we're using the Buddha's teachings rather like Woody Allen with his soap revolver -- as soon as it begins to rain the whole thing dissolves.
We have to put effort into developing our practice because these teaching that we have discovered are still fragile, they don't stand up to adverse circumstances. We have to nurture and protect them, and sometimes we have humbly to accept that there are certain things that our minds are not strong enough to deal with yet. So we need to give attention to developing wisdom in relating to various phenomena or problems that arise in our practice. In the Sabbasava Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 2) the Buddha gives many different methods of dealing with asavas* or their manifestations.
(*asavas -- the basic outflowing energies that prevent us from seeing things clearly. These are sensual desire, the desire for eternal existence and ignorance.)
There are certain things to be avoided, for a monk they'd be parajika* offences. It would be like walking along too close to the edge of a cliff, which is a practice to be avoided -- not one in which we would just endure, or practise letting go. Then there are other things to be endured, like heat and cold, hunger and thirst and so on, and other things to be used mindfully, wisely. For example, the requisites of food, clothing, shelter and medicines -- we can't let go of these. It is necessary to have some kind of association with them, even though they are part of the sensory realm, because our bodies have to dwell in the sensory realm; they are part of it. So the Buddha taught the principle of wise reflection (yoniso patisankha) on the use of the things which we have to use. Other asavas are dealt with by gradual reduction and wearing away at them through our practice.
* Parajika -- the most serious offence for a bhikkhu. The penalty is that one is no longer considered to be part of the Bhikkhu Sangha.
So we have to put effort into developing our practice because these teachings that we have discovered are still fragile, they don't stand up to adverse circumstances.
There's not just one blanket practice to be used in all circumstances, so we
need to develop a sensitivity and awareness of the nature of the conditions
with which we are faced, and the knowledge and strength of mind to relate to
that condition in the correct way. This can save us a lot of frustration,
because if we lack that wisdom faculty, then sometimes we can be enduring
things that should be cut off, or trying to cut off things that should be
endured. Or we may be avoiding things which have to be used in a mindful way,
or trying to be mindful and careful in our usage of things which should be
avoided altogether. Again and again we come back to the importance of right
view, which is the wisdom faculty.
If we are experiencing a recurrent difficulty in our practice, we need to take up that difficulty, and start looking at it from various angles. In certain cases, it may be like using a soap revolver in a rain storm: we have the teaching, we're doing the right thing but we're not applying it in the right way. We're lacking vigour in our application, we're lacking integrity and continuity so, instead of the real thing, we end up -- through our slack grasping of it -- with a poor replica. It doesn't do the job. In other cases we can be using the wrong tool for the job, or perhaps we take up a particular practice, without a full understanding of its relationship to other factors which are necessary supports for it.
So if we are getting stuck in our practice the indriyas* can be used as the basis for our investigation. Suppose we are having trouble in maintaining mindfulness, then we can look to the foundation for mindfulness which, according to the five indriyas, is viriya (energy, vigour). And we can ask: 'Is our mindfulness slack because we're lacking in vigour? Is there some way that we can put more effort into practice?' -- because right effort will naturally support right mindfulness.... If we then find that there is a lack of effort, and we can't seem to do much with will power or resolution (adhitthana), we can go back a step further and we come to faith (saddha). So if right effort is lacking and we can't seem to get it together really to put any concerted effort into our practice, we can ask whether the faculty of faith is weak.
(* Indriyas -- the five spiritual faculties: Saddha/faith; viriya/energy, effort; sati/mindfulness; samadhi/concentration, collectedness; pañña/wisdom.)
Faith here may be of different kinds. There is the basic underlying faith of a Buddhist, which is faith in enlightenment of the Buddha as a human being, and therefore faith in the human potential for enlightenment and in our own potential for enlightenment. Do we have that kind of faith?...Or are we getting caught up in self-critical kind of mind states, thinking that we can't really do it or that our problems are too intractable -- generally taking a very dreary and depressed view of things? If we are, it means that at that particular moment the faculty of faith is lacking. And if the faculty of faith is lacking, viriya will be lacking; if viriya is lacking sati will be lacking, so there'll be no samadhi, no pañña.
It is important also to have faith in our meditation object, so we should ask: 'How much faith, how much confidence, do we have in our meditation, in the meditation process? How important is it to us? Do we really think that the practice of meditation can lead us to enlightenment?' If we don't, if the mind is lacking in faith, then again energy is not going to be there and so we will not be able to maintain sati.
These indriya are all things that go against the stream, they don't just arise naturally. Their opposites arise naturally: lack of faith, laziness, heedlessness, distraction, delusion -- these things arise very easily, they're natural to the untrained mind. But those virtuous qualities which oppose them -- faith, energy, mindfulness, samadhi, pañña -- are brought into existence with difficulty.
Now the very fact that one finds practice difficult is not surprising; in fact, that is what gives it its spice, it's what makes it so challenging and enjoyable. If it was easy, it would be really boring. Why would we want to do it, if it was so easy? Once we've flipped a problem over into a challenge it's easy to feel strengthened and inspired by it, and for energy to arise. If you look at something just as a problem then you can feel oppressed and discouraged by it. So we ask ourselves: 'Do we feel weighed down, oppressed or averse to the particular things that we're working with? Do we think it should be some other way?' The way we feel about our practice and how we interpret it has an effect on the practice itself -- it's a two way thing. We can bypass quite a lot of suffering by skill in our way of looking at things.
The ability to use thought wisely and intelligently is what the
Buddha called yoniso manasikara. Without it, thought -- instead of simply
resting in a neutral state -- becomes ayoniso manasikara ; it naturally takes
the path of unwholesomeness. So we are using the wisdom faculty to evaluate
and to adapt. We come to know what things have to be endured and to recognise
the various kinds of wrong thought (micchasankappa), which are not things
just to abide with patiently and allow to pass away by themselves. For
example, sexual fantasy or thoughts of hatred and ill will are habits that
are extremely heavy kamma in the mind. They intoxicate the mind, they make it
lose its sense of balance and can lead it into hell realms very easily, so
the Buddha said: 'At the moment that we become aware of such thoughts, we cut
them off without a moment's hesitation. We give no harbour to them'. In our
practice we need many different kinds of qualities -- a vast array of tools
or weapons. So we need warm and gentle kindness, compassion, forgiveness and
also, at the same time, a ruthlessness of mind as regards unwholesome
Through it all we develop a strong wish to be free of cyclic existence -- free of the attachment to those things that make up the personality: form, feelings, sensations, mental formations and consciousness. By constantly reflecting on the suffering of attachment -- not just as a theoretical study, but through our own experiences -- we gradually turn away from things. This is not with aversion or the desire to get rid of things (vibhavatanha). It's more as if, while driving along a road we see a left turn ahead that looks a beautiful way to go with trees and mountains and beautiful views, but it is not the way we want to go. We don't feel, 'Maybe I could go along that road...', we make a definite choice not to go that way because we see that it's not the way that we want to go. The mind is cool, there's not the heat, the movement of aversion; there's no need to be angry or to feel any ill will. So although forms, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and the various kinds of consciousness may have pleasant, loveable and enticing aspects, they are not where we want to go -- because we have been doing that for so long. We've been attaching to these conditions for life after life, and where has it got us?...In times of pain and distress, loneliness, anxieties, fears or depression arising in the mind, what can all the past pleasures and wonderful experiences do for us then? Nothing.
So we train ourselves to see that forms are just forms, sounds are just
sounds, odours are just odours, tastes are just tastes, physical sensation.
They're just that, they are just part of the material world; they're just
dhammata, as they say in Thai. But then the moment there is craving or
attachment to anything in the mind, it is no longer just dhammata, it isn't
just ordinary -- the way it is -- it automatically grows in significance; we
project onto it, giving it importance, meaning. Whereas seeing things as
dhammata means that we're aware of phenomena simply for what they are. But
when habitual thoughts come up: 'It shouldn't be like this!', 'Why me?', 'He
shouldn't have said that!', these kinds of judgements are all based on the
feeling that things should be other than the way they are.
Guilt is based on the feeling that we shouldn't have said what we did say or we should have said something that we didn't say, that somehow we should have been better than we actually are. However the understanding of dhammata is that things are exactly this way because of certain causes and conditions. When we understand this then we can see that, at this moment, it could not be any other way. In response to a question: 'How could someone possibly act in such a crude gross fashion?'... we see that it's because of all the causes and conditions, maybe right back to things that happened in childhood or in a past life. Or it may be due to some illness or a particular mental state that's causing the person to act in a very unpleasant way. We realise that given the way the components or khandas* which make up that person have been conditioned, it was in fact the perfect manifestation at that particular moment.
(* Khandas -- form, feeling, perceptions, mental formation, consciousness.)
Teaching ourselves to see things in terms of causes and conditions, as the only or the perfect manifestation of the causes and conditions in existence at any one time, doesn't just take us to a kind of dull passivity: 'Well that's the way things are, and they'll always be that way'....It means things are like this because of causes and conditions at this moment; but causes and conditions change. It is only when the mind has realised equanimity that it will be able to respond in an appropriate way, in a creative way. This directly opposes quite a common view in the West that you have to be passionate before you can get anything done. To be passionately involved in something is highly praised nowadays -- people think that positive change, action, can only spring from passion -- dispassion is not a word that one hears bandied around very much. But the Buddha said that actions springing from passion will always be slightly distorted, will never quite fit the situation. They will always lack a certain circumspection and maturity of vision.
So the way to resolution and to peace lies, first of all, in the recognition and acceptance of the situation as dhammata. It's like this, because of past experiences, past situations and so forth, which have culminated now in these particular phenomena. With the recognition and acceptance of dhammata, aversion and various unwholesome dhammas are abandoned. The mind enters a cool state of equanimity, just as a car shifts into the neutral gear before going on to a higher gear. We see that equanimity is a necessary stage, which then leads on to the active stage of speaking or keeping silent, of doing or not doing, or whatever.
One basic truth of the human mind that the Buddha pointed to very often is that wisdom and compassion are inseparable. In one of the traditional similes there is the giant bird, the great eagle with two wings, one wing of which is wisdom and the other is compassion. The Buddha pointed out that the more clearly we see the nature of suffering, the more clearly we understand that suffering is conditioned by desire born of ignorance; we see the efficacy of the Eightfold Path in alleviating that suffering, and we begin to see cessation. As our understanding of the Four Noble Truths deepens, we feel more compassion for ourselves and for others -- indeed for all sentient beings. So the test, if you like, of the wisdom that we have developed through our practice is the amount of compassion there is, and a test of the compassion in our heart -- knowing whether it's true compassion, and not mere pity or sentimentalism -- is the wisdom faculty.
Where there is true wisdom there is compassion, where there is true compassion there is wisdom. But if compassion lacks wisdom it can do more harm than good. There is an old English saying: 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions.' Sometimes people try to do good or to help, without understanding their own mind and motivation, and without understanding the people they want to help. They have no sensitivity to time and place or to their own capacity, and so they don't achieve the results that they hope for. Then they can become angry, disillusioned or offended and if there is any criticism, such a person will feel even more hurt. They might think that the action must have been correct because it was based on a good intention, that their hearts were pure in their intention. But purity of intention is not enough, it has to be based on wisdom: understanding the nature of suffering, how it comes into existence and how it is alleviated. It has to be based on the true understanding of suffering.
So the more we look at ourselves in practice, the more we see suffering in all its myriad forms -- from the gross to the very subtle -- and the ubiquitous presence of tanha (craving) every time we suffer. We begin to see how unnecessary suffering is, and deep compassion arises for ourselves and for other people. In fact, the distinction between self and others becomes far less rigid. It may almost disappear as the mind becomes firm and strong, bright and powerful, through our practice. At the same time, paradoxically, it becomes incredibly sensitive to suffering, we find suffering intolerable; and the inability to withstand suffering is a sign of a compassionate mind. Through the threefold training (s^la, samadhi, pañña) we gradually free the mind giving it a true independence, an integrity. We are increasing its wisdom and understanding of the way things are, and a sense of compassion arises towards all sentient beings, including ourselves.
So as we practise, we can try to look at our practice as a challenge. When any particular problem comes up, that's our challenge, that's our practice, it's not a distraction from it. Sometimes we can learn a lot from these particular challenges, since a particular kind of habit or imbalance may become clear in our formal meditation practice. When we see such a recurrent pattern, we realise that is obviously unlikely to be restricted to our meditation practice -- it is usually symptomatic of our whole approach to life. It's as though, in meditation, we're looking through a magnifying glass at the germs of the things which cause us suffering. So there is a lot to be learnt from what is preventing us from realising samadhi.
We begin to regard whatever arises, whether it's hindrances or enlightenment factors or whatever, as dhammata; these are conditioned phenomena, they are this way because of specific conditions. Realising this, we can actually enter into the stream of causality and affect it in a positive way. Through just recognising things as being dhammata we remove the instinctive emotional reaction to them, whether of like or dislike, and come to a state of equanimity. Then from equanimity, the neutral state, the mind can shift into the active mode which is most appropriate to dealing with that phenomenon. If it's an unwholesome phenomenon we make effort to abandon it, if it's a positive wholesome phenomenon we can mindfully encourage and develop it. The more and the closer we look, the more we understand and the more compassion arises in the heart. So if wisdom is being developed as a practice it's not just a one-sided development, it includes the whole being -- because wisdom and compassion are the two wings of the bird.