This book contains a collection of teachings of Ajahn Sumedho given to people who are familiar with the conventions of Theravada Buddhism and have some experience of meditation. Although it is not possible to render the tonal depth and variety of these talks in a printed work, the mixture of short exhortations and pointers, longer contemplative reflections mingled with the chants that the monks and nuns will be reciting daily and have been doing so for years may suggest the atmosphere and scope within which the teachings are offered. During the monastic retreats Ajahn Sumedho frequently teaches the Dependent Origination paticca-samuppada based on the approach of anatta. The Dependent Origination traces the process whereby suffering dukkha is compounded out of ignorance avijja and conversely suffering is eliminated or rather not created with the cessation of ignorance. Not that he is trying to annihilate or reject some personal qualities but rather to point out how suffering arises through attempting to sustain an identity denoted by body and mind. It can be detected in a latent state as self-consciousness, or as habitual mood of the mind such as conceit or self-criticism, or it can manifest as selfish bodily or verbal activity.
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Today is the full-moon of January and the beginning of our winter retreat. We can have an all-night meditation sitting tonight to commemorate the auspiciousness of the occasion. It's very fortunate to have an opportunity such as this to devote ourselves for two months to one-pointed reflection on Dhamma. The teaching of the Buddha is the understanding of The Way Things Are - being able to look, to be awake.
It means developing attentiveness, brightness, and wisdom - developing the Eightfold Path, which we call bhavana. Now when we're reflecting on things as they are, we're 'seeing', rather than interpreting through a veil of self-view.
The big obstacle all of us have to face is this insidious belief in the 'I am' - attachment to self-view. It's so ingrained in us that we're like fish in the water: water is so much a part of the fish's life that it doesn't notice it. The sensory world we've been swimming in since our birth is like that for us.
If we don't take time to observe it for what it really is then we'll die without getting any the wiser. But this opportunity as a human being has the great advantage for us of our being able to reflect - we can reflect on the water we're swimming in. We can observe the sensory realm for what it is. We're not trying to get rid of it. We're not complicating it by trying to add to it - we're just being aware of it as it is. We're no longer deluding ourselves by appearances, by fears, desires and all the things we create in our mind about it.
This is what we mean when we use such terms like: 'It is as it is. It's this way. Is it wet or cold or warm or hot. Water can be cold, warm, hot, pleasant, unpleasant. But it's just like this. The sensory realm we're swimming in for a lifetime is this way! It feels like this! You feel it! Sometimes it's pleasant. Sometimes it's unpleasant. Most of the time it's neither pleasant nor unpleasant. But always it's just this way.
Things come and go and change, and there's nothing that you can depend on as being totally stable. The sensory realm is all energy and change and movement; all flux and flow. Sensory consciousness is this way. Now we're not judging it; we're not saying it's good or it's bad, or you should like it, or you shouldn't; we're just bringing attention to it - like the water. The sensory realm is a realm of feeling. We are born into it and we feel it.
From the time the umbilical cord is severed we're physically independent beings; we're no longer physically tied to anybody else. We feel hunger; we feel pleasure; we feel pain, heat, and cold. As we grow, we feel all kinds of things. We feel with the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue, the body; and with the mind itself. There is the ability to think and remember, to perceive and conceive. All this is feeling. It can be lots of fun and wonderful, but it can also be depressing, mean and miserable; or it can be neutral - neither pleasant nor painful.
So all sensory impingement is The Way It Is. Pleasure is this way; pain is this way. The feeling of neither pleasure nor pain is this way.
To be able to truly reflect on these things, you have to be alert and attentive. Some people think that it is up to me to tell them how it is: 'Ajahn Sumedho, how should I be feeling right now? There's no need to tell someone how it is when they can find out for themselves. So this two months of finding out how it is, is a valuable opportunity. Many human beings it seems, are not even aware that such a development of wisdom is possible.
What do we mean when we use this word wisdom? From birth to death, this is the way it is. There's always going to be a certain amount of pain, and discomfort, unpleasantness and ugliness. And if we're not aware of it as it really is - see it as Dhamma - then we tend to create a problem out of it. The span between birth and death becomes all very personal; it becomes fraught with all kinds of fears and desires and complications.
We suffer a lot in our society from loneliness. So much of our life is an attempt to not be lonely: 'Let's talk to each other; let's do things together so we won't be lonely. We can pretend; we can entertain each other; but that's about the best we can do. When it comes to the actual experience of life, we're very much alone; and to expect anyone else to take away our loneliness is asking too much.
When there's physical birth, notice how it makes us seem separate. We're not physically joined to each other, are we? With attachment to this body we feel separate and vulnerable; we dread being left alone and we create a world of our own that we can live in.
We have all kinds of interesting companions: imaginary friends, physical friends, enemies, but the whole lot of it comes and goes, begins and ends. Everything is born and dies in our own minds. So we reflect that birth conditions death. Birth and death; beginning and ending.
During this retreat, this kind of reflection is highly encouraged: contemplate what birth is. Right now we can say: 'This is the result of being born; this body. It's like this: it's conscious and it feels, there's intelligence, there's memory, there's emotion. If we attach to the body as a subject, or to opinions and views and feelings as 'me' and 'mine', then we feel loneliness and despair; there's always going to be the threat of separation and ending. Attachment to mortality brings fear and desire into our lives.
We can feel anxious and worried even when life is quite all right. So long as there's ignorance - avijja - regarding the true nature of things, fear is always going to dominate consciousness.
But anxiety is not ultimately true. It's something we create. Worry is just that much. Love and joy and all the best in life, if we are attached to them, are going to bring the opposite along also. That's why in meditation we practise accepting the feeling of these things. When we accept things for what they are, we're no longer attached to them. They just are what they are; they arise and cease, they're not a self. Now from the perspective of our cultural background, how does it appear?
Our society tends to reinforce the view that everything is 'me' and 'mine'. We're not saying I'm not these things; rather we're observing how we tend to complicate them by believing in the 'I am'.
If we attach to them, life becomes so much more than it actually is; it becomes like a sticky web. It gets so complicated; whatever we touch sticks to us. And the longer we live the more complicated we make it. So much fear and desire comes from that commitment to 'I am' - to being somebody. Eventually they take us to anxiety and despair; life seems much more difficult and painful than it really is. But when we just observe life for what it is, then it's all right: the delights, the beauty, the pleasures, are just that.
The pain, the discomfort, the sickness, is what they are. We can always cope with the way life moves and changes. The mind of an enlightened human being is flexible and adaptable. The mind of the ignorant person is conditioned and fixed. Whatever we fix on is going to be miserable. Being a man, or being a woman, as a permanent belief, is always going to make life difficult. Any class we identify with - middle class, working class, American, British, Buddhist, Theravadin Buddhist - grasping to any of these will produce some kind of complication, frustration and despair.
Yet conventionally, one can be all these things - a man, an American, a Buddhist, a Theravadin; these are merely perceptions of mind. They are adequate for communication; but they're nothing more than that. They're what is called sammuttidhamma - 'conventional reality'.
When I say, 'I'm Ajahn Sumedho,' that's not a self, not a person; it's a convention. Being a Buddhist monk is not a person - it's a convention; being a man is not a person, it's a convention.
The Way It Is
Today is the full-moon of January and the beginning of our winter retreat. We can have an all-night meditation sitting tonight to commemorate the auspiciousness of the occasion. It's very fortunate to have an opportunity such as this to devote ourselves for two months to one-pointed reflection on Dhamma. The teaching of the Buddha is the understanding of The Way Things Are - being able to look, to be awake. It means developing attentiveness, brightness, and wisdom - developing the Eightfold Path, which we call bhavana.
He was abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery , UK, from its consecration in until his retirement in A bhikkhu since , Sumedho is considered a seminal figure in the transmission of the Buddha's teachings to the West. He ordained as a bhikkhu Buddhist monk in May the following year. He has come to be regarded as the latter's most influential Western disciple.