Letting go happens, but it’s not something we decide to do. It happens because there is understanding, and understanding brings change.
An excerpt from The Way It Is by Ajahn Sumedho:
The Buddha pointed to the way of seeing things as they are; this is what we mean by ‘enlightenment’. Seeing the way it actually is, we aren’t doomed to living in a realm which there’s no way out of. There’s a clear way out of that realm of misery; a very precise way. So the Buddha said “I teach only two things: suffering and the end of suffering.”
So Buddhism is a baffling religion to Westerners because it has no doctrinal position. It’s not making doctrinal statements about ultimate reality or anything: there’s just suffering and the end of suffering. That is to be realized now; to realize the end of suffering you have to admit and really know what suffering is because the problem isn’t with the suffering but with the delusion and the grasping. And we really have to understand suffering – so according to the sermon of the Four Noble Truths, suffering is to be understood. There is suffering. It should be understood.
In our daily life here at Amaravati we notice when we are suffering. We can blame it on the weather, blame it on the people or blame it on whatever, but that’s not the point; because even if someone is treating us badly, that’s just the way the world is. Sometimes people treat us well, sometimes they treat us badly because of this worldly concern for conditions; but the suffering is something we create.
In a monastery we’re trying to act in responsible ways so that we’re not intentionally causing anyone to suffer. We’re here to encourage each other towards moral responsibility, towards co-operation, kindness, compassion. That’s our intention.
Sometimes we get lost – we blow up at each other, or we do things that aren’t very nice – but that’s not our intention; these are the heedless moments. I conduct myself in a moral way not only for my own benefit, for my own practice, but out of respect for you and towards the Sangha, for the community around us: to be someone who lives within the restraints of the moral precepts.
Then my intention is towards my relationship with you, towards mettá, kindness and compassion, joy, calm, serenity. At least the intention for everyone of us is to do good, refrain from doing evil. And that helps us to look at the suffering we create in a community that’s aiming at that – because a lot of you really suffer here. And this is to be understood. It’s the First Noble Truth, dukkha, the suffering of not getting what we want; the suffering of things not being the way we want them, of separation from what we like; the suffering of having to do that which we don’t want to do, of having to be restrained when we want to be unrestrained.
I think of how easy it is to create you in my mind. “The nuns are like this: the anagarikas are like that, Bhikkhus are like this,” and so forth. One can have these biases: “Women are this way; men are that way, Americans are like this and the English are like that.” We can believe that, but these are perceptions of the mind, views that arise and cease. And yet we can create a lot of suffering about them. “This one doesn’t come to the morning chanting or that one isn’t doing their share of the work and this one thinks they’re too important” or whatever, but the important point is the suffering, the dukkha, because when we have that, we create despair in our minds. We get annoyed, indignant and that all takes us to a sense of despair. If we don’t understand dukkha here, then we’re not going to understand it wherever we are: in London or in Bangkok or in Washington DC; on a mountaintop or in a valley; with the good people or the bad people. So it’s really important to observe suffering to know the dukkha.
There are three insights into the First Noble Truth: there is dukkha; it should be understood; it has been understood. That’s how insight works; recognition of it; it’s something to understand; begin to know when we understand it. So that’s the three insights into the First Noble Truth.
The Second Noble Truth is the origin of dukkha: there is an origin; it’s due to the grasping of desire. The second insight of the Second Noble Truth is that this attachment to desire – this identification with desire being ‘me’ and ‘mine’, this following of desire – should be let go of, leaving it as it is. Then the third insight of the Second Noble Truth is: desire has been let go of – through practice. Dukkha has been let go of.
There is the first insight into each of the truths: pariyatti – an observing that there is suffering, its origin, and so forth. Then there’s the patipatti or the insight into practice. What we do. How we practice. And then the third insight is the pativedhi or the wisdom. It has been understood; it has been let go of.
Now when there’s that insight:, ‘The origin of suffering has been let go of’, there is knowledge of that result – actually letting go. You know what it’s like not to be attached to something. Like this clock. This is holding the clock; it’s like this. And now I’m aware of what it’s like not holding the clock. If I’m holding things and I’m heedless, then I don’t even notice I’m not holding things. When there’s no grasping, I’m not aware of it. A really ignorant and heedless person is so caught up with grasping that even though they’re not grasping something all the time, the habit is such that they only notice when they are grasping at something. Like now, many of you feel fully alive only when you’re filled with greed or anger of some form or other. So letting go can be quite frightening to people; when they let go of things, they feel like they’re no longer alive.
There’s a lot of investment in being a person. Even the view that ‘I have a bad temper; I have a lot of anger,’ can be a kind of conceit. If I’m angry I feel very much alive. Sexual desire makes the ‘I’ feel alive – and that’s why there’s so much obsession with sex in modern European lives. And when there’s no sexual desire, no anger, I want to fall asleep. I’m nothing. When there’s no mindfulness at all, one just has to seek more sensual pleasure – to eat something, to drink something, take drugs or watch something on the TV, read something or do something dangerous. You can break the law just because it’s exciting to do so.
Now imagine trying to get people to spend a weekend just holding a clock noticing what it is like holding a clock! What a waste of time, I could be out terrorizing the police, I could be at a disco – with strobe lights, with music blaring in my ears, with pot and L.S.D. and Scotch! Being attentive to the way things are, no longer just distracting the mind, sounds really painful by comparison.
This evening we’re going to sit in meditation until midnight. It’s a chance to observe more fully what it’s like to be sitting; what it’s like when the mind is filled with thoughts and when there are no thoughts; when there is suffering and when there isn’t suffering. If you have a view that sitting until midnight is going to be suffering you have already committed yourself to suffering until midnight.
But if you start examining that very view, or fear, or doubt in your mind for what it is you can observe when it’s present and when it’s not present. If you’re suffering then you’re not thinking there’s any suffering. Then there’s this feeling of suffering and you’re attached to the view ‘I’m suffering and I have to sit up and I’m tired.’ So the First Noble Truth: ‘there’s suffering, suffering is to be understood’, and this is through an admission, a recognition and an understanding.
The insight of the Second Noble Truth is to let go of it, to leave it alone – don’t make anything out of an all-night sitting. These are perceptions. They’re nothing, really: if you’re using the situation for reflection and contemplation of when there is suffering – then there isn’t suffering. I’m aware of holding this thought, grasping this thought, or of not grasping this thought. One can pick things up or put them down, knowing how to use these things rather than having a blind obsession of grasping or rejecting. I can put down the clock, but I don’t have to throw it away, do I? It’s not that holding the clock is wrong, unless there is ignorance about it. One is aware of the grasping and the non-grasping, holding and not holding.
So the Third Noble Truth – there is the cessation of suffering. When you let go of something and you realize letting go, your habits become your teachers. When you let go of suffering, suffering ceases. ‘There is cessation and it should be realized’ – this is the second insight into the Third Noble Truth. And this is our practice: to realize cessation, to notice when suffering ceases. It’s not that everything’s going to disappear, but the feeling of suffering and ‘I am’ ceases. This is not to be believed, but to be realized – and then there is the third insight: that cessation has been realized.
This leads to the insight into the Fourth Noble Truth concerning the Eightfold Path, the Way out of suffering. These insights connect to one another. It’s not that first you do one and then you do the other – they support each other. As we have the insight into letting go, as we realize cessation then there is the right understanding and the rest follows from that – the development of wisdom or paññá.
Now don’t see this as something that deals with just very deep and important issues, because it’s about the here and now, the way things are. We’re not thinking about extreme situations to work with, but just sitting, standing, walking, lying down, breathing, feeling as normal beings, living in a moral environment with the way it is. We don’t have to go into hell to really see suffering; we’re not seeking it.
We can create hell at Amaravati, not because Amaravati is hell, but because we create it with all kinds of miserable things from our mind, and this is the suffering we can work with. It’s just the suffering in this normal human realm where our intentions are to refrain from doing evil, to do good, to develop virtue, and to be kind. There’s still enough suffering here to contemplate these Four Noble Truths with their twelve aspects.
You can memorize them; then, wherever you are, you’ve got something to contemplate. Eventually you let go of all these things because they aren’t ends in themselves either, but like tools they are to be used. You learn to use these tools, and when you’ve finished you don’t need to hang on to them. Signifying this, the Buddha referred to his teaching as a raft, which you can make out of the things around you. You don’t have to have a special motorboat or submarine or luxury liner. A raft is something you make from the things around, just to get across to the other shore. We’re not trying to make a super-duper vehicle; we’re able to use what’s around us for enlightenment. The raft is to carry us across the sea of ignorance and when we get to the other shore, we can let it go – which doesn’t mean you have to throw it away.
This ‘other shore’ can also be a delusion, because the other shore and this one are really the same shore. It’s merely an allegory. We have never really left the other shore, we’ve always been on the other shore anyway; and the raft is something we use to remind us that we don’t really need a raft. So there’s absolutely nothing to do, to be mindful, to be able to sit, stand, walk, lie down, eat your food, breathe – all the opportunities as humans to do good. We have this lovely opportunity in the human realm to be good, to be kind, to be generous, to love others, to serve others, to help others. This is one of the most lovely qualities of being human.
We can decide not to do evil. We don’t have to kill, lie, steal, go around distracting ourselves and drugging ourselves, getting lost in moods and feelings. We can be free from all that. It’s a wonderful opportunity in the human form to refrain from evil and to do good – not in order to store up merit for the next life, but because this is the beauty of our humanity. Being a human can be a joyful experience rather than an onerous task.
And so when we contemplate this, we begin to really appreciate this birth in a human form. We feel grateful to have this opportunity to live with our teacher, the Buddha, and our practice, the Dhamma; and to live in the Sangha.
Sangha represents the human community as unified in virtuousness and moral restraint; it is the soul force of the human realm. That which is truly benevolent in humanity has its effect on the moral aspects that abide in the human realm. So all sentient beings are benefited by that. What would it be like if there were just a selfish humanity, with every man for himself, endlessly making demands, not caring about each other at all? It would be a terrible place to live. Therefore we don’t do that; we abide in the Sangha, an abiding where we live together within a convention that encourages morality and respect for each other. This is for reflection, for contemplation; you have to know it for yourself; nobody can realize it for you. You have to arouse yourself, and not depend on something external pushing you or holding you up.
We even have to let go of our need to be inspired. We have to develop the strength to where we no longer need any kind of inspiration or encouragement from anyone else – because inspiration isn’t wisdom, is it. You get high – ‘Ajahn Sumedho’s wonderful’ – and then after a while you don’t get high on me any more, and then: ‘Ajahn Sumedho’s disappointing, he’s let me down’. Inspiration is like eating chocolate: it tastes good and it’s very attractive but it’s not going to nourish you; it only energizes momentarily and that’s all it can do. So it’s not wise to depend on whether people live in the way that you want them to or whether they never disappoint you.
It’s so important to develop insight through practice, because inspiration just wears out – and if you are attached and blinded by it, then you are in for terrible disillusionment and bitterness. There’s a lot of this with different charismatic, guru-figures that teach around the world. It’s not balanced, is it? As intoxicated as you can get with somebody else’s charisma, you can’t maintain it. So it inevitably involves falling down into some lower state.
The way of mindfulness is however always appropriate to the time and the place, to the way things are in their good and bad aspects. Then suffering isn’t dependent on the world being good or bad, but on how willing we are to use wisdom in this present moment. The way out of suffering is now, in being able to see things as they are.
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