small boat, great mountain PAR AMARO BHIKKHU

small boat,
great mountain
Theravadμ an Reflections on
The Natural Great Perfection
May whatever goodness that arises from reading
these pages be dedicated to the welfare of Patricia
Horner, my greatly beloved mother.
In kindness and unselfishness unsurpassed, she
showed me the beauty of the world in her endlessly
caring and generous heart.
Small Boat,
Great Mountain

small boat,
great mountain
Therava-dan Reflections on
the Natural Great Perfection
Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery
16201 Tomki Road
Redwood Valley, CA 95470
© 2003 Abhayagiri Monastic Foundation
Copyright is reserved only when reprinting for sale. Permission to
reprint for free distribution is hereby given as long as no changes
are made to the original.
Printed in the United States of America
First edition
1 2 3 4 5 / 07 06 05 04 03
This book has been sponsored for free distribution.
Front cover painting by Ajahn Jitindriyaμ
Brush drawings by Ajahn Amaro
Cover and text design by Margery Cantor
isbn 0-9620640-6-8
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammaμsambuddhassa
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammaμsambuddhassa
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammaμsambuddhassa

by Ven. Tsoknyi Rinpoche ix
by Guy Armstrong xi
Acknowledgements xvii
Abbreviations xix
essence of mind
one Ultimate and Conventional Reality 3
two The Place of Nonabiding 15
being buddha
three The View from the Forest 35
four Cessation of Consciousness 55
five Immanent and Transcendent 73
who are you?
six No Buddha Elsewhere 97
seven Off the Wheel 121
eight The Portable Retreat 147
Selected Chants 159
Glossary 171
Index 179

jahn amaro is a true follower of the Buddha and
holder of the teaching lineage of the Theravaμda tradition.
Though his early life was as an ordinary person, from an early
age he was curious about spiritual matters and so journeyed to
Thailand. There, through his karmic good fortune, he readily
connected with a Buddhist teacher. He received full instructions
and meditated there for many years. He has mainly followed
Buddhist teachers of the Forest monk tradition; his emphasis has
been the “renunciation wheel of meditation practice.”
Amaro’s main practice has been the direct application of the
Four Noble Truths: acknowledging suffering, eliminating the origin,
realizing the cessation, and following the path. These four
truths encapsulate the main teaching of the Buddha, and among
them—suffering, origin, cessation, and path—in the contemplation
of the twelve links of dependent origination the focus is
mainly on eliminating the origins of suffering.
I have had a karmic bond with Ajahn Amaro over the course
of my visits to the U.S., where we met on several occasions and
taught together at Spirit Rock Center in California. I feel confident
that he is someone who has thoroughly both studied and practiced
the Theravaμda path. In addition he has also met several Vajrayaμna
masters, including Dudjom Rinpoche, and I therefore feel he has
an open-minded appreciation of the Vajrayaμna teachings.
Seen from my point of view, the Buddha taught what we call
Three Vehicles. Each of them contains a complete path for sentient
beings to eliminate their negative emotions—desire, hatred,
ignorance, pride, and envy—with all their 84,000 proliferations
and variations. It is therefore entirely possible when someone
practices free of laziness and procrastination any of these three
paths to attain the same level as Buddha Shakyamuni.
Moreover, it is possible for any person to practice all three
vehicles in combination without any conflict whatsoever. This is
often the case in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, where many
practitioners have practiced the three vehicles either separately
or unified into a single system.
In the present time, when we see a growing interest in Buddhist
practice all over the world, I find it important that people
come to understand the primary emphasis and special qualities
of each of these three vehicles. Free of bias, and with clarity, each
person is then free to adopt what is closest to their inclinations—
whether one of the vehicles alone or the three in combination. I
therefore encourage everyone to understand the vital points in
Buddha’s three vehicles.
I have found, and deeply appreciate, that among the many current
Dharma teachers, Ajahn Amaro is one who respects this nonsectarian
principle—and embodies an understanding of it as well.
—Drubwang Tsoknyi Rinpoche
putuo shan island
October 2002
Small Boat, Great Mountain
s a buddhist monk in the early 1980s, I was living
and practicing at Wat Suan Mokkh, a forest monastery in the
south of Thailand established by Ajahn Buddhadaμsa, one of the
greatest Thai meditation masters and scholars of the last 50
years. I had a deep appreciation for the Theravaμdan lineage of
Buddhism expressed in that country and for its profound allegiance
to the original teachings of the Buddha as recorded in the
Pali Canon.
At one of my first morning meals in the open-air dining hall
at Suan Mokkh, I was quite surprised to see nearby, atop a fivefoot-
high pedestal, a bust of Avalokitesvaμra, the Mahaμyaμna deity
of compassion. What on earth, I wondered, was a Mahaμyaμna
deity doing in a Theravaμdan monastery? The two schools had
split apart in northern India some 2,000 years ago. At that time
I assumed, quite mistakenly, that they had never spoken again,
like a childless couple after an acrimonious divorce.
Small Boat, Great Mountain
Looking around the Buddhist world circa 1980, there was
little evidence to the contrary. Zen masters rarely spoke to
Tibetan lamas; the Theravaμdan monks of Thailand and Burma
had little contact outside their own countries. The image of
Avalokitesvaμra at Wat Suan Mokkh was mysterious because it
flew in the face of centuries of separation. Even more striking
was my discovery of an entire building within the monastery,
then called the Spiritual Theatre (shades of Steppenwolf, I
thought to myself), dedicated to original paintings and facsimiles
of spiritual art from Theravaμdan, Zen, Tibetan, and even Western
sources. This variety very much reflected the open-mindedness
of Ajahn Buddhadaμsa, whose appreciation for truth ran far deeper
than his loyalty to any historical lineage.
But the Avalokitesvaμra bust was another question. I was told
that it had been unearthed in the last century near the town of
Chaiya, a few miles from Suan Mokkh. Its origin, however, was
traced to the ninth century c.e. It thus became clear that over
1,000 years ago, Mahaμyaμna Buddhism had flourished in this
region. In fact, historians tell us that Theravaμda and Mahaμyaμna
coexisted in Thailand, along with Vajrayaμna and Hinduism,
until the fourteenth century. After a change in the political
sphere, Theravaμda began to dominate, as it has ever since.
So perhaps it should not be too surprising that in the modern
Thai forest tradition we find an understanding of Dharma with
strong parallels to the central tenets of Mahaμyaμna and Tibetan
Buddhism. The Mahaμyaμna doctrine of Buddha-nature, for
instance, tells us that our very essence is an unborn and undying
awareness. In a later expression of the teachings through the
Dzogchen school, specific meditation techniques have been
developed to allow practitioners to recognize and abide in this
nature. Ajahn Amaro (whose name means “deathless”) once
commented that this specific teaching is the national anthem of
the Thai forest tradition.
Ajahn Chah, a Thai master who is considered the head of
Ajahn Amaro’s lineage (and the teacher of Ajahn Sumedho and
Jack Kornfield), referred often to the “One Who Knows” as a
pointer to the inherent wisdom within awareness itself. Ajahn
Buddhadasa says that “emptiness and mindfulness are one.”
Ajahn MahaμBoowa, a contemporary of Ajahn Chah’s who
learned from the same master, Ajahn Mun, says of impermanence:
“This vanishes, that vanishes, but that which knows
their vanishing doesn’t vanish. . . . All that remains is simple
awareness, utterly pure.”
This notion of an intrinsic awareness as an aspect of the
deathless nature is generally considered a Mahaμyaμna innovation.
Yet it is found often in the Thai forest tradition as well. Tracing
its genesis, one can find hints of this idea in the Pali Canon, the
traditional sourcebook for Theravaμda, but the references are
infrequent and somewhat ambiguous. One of the delights of
Small Boat, Great Mountain is that Ajahn Amaro has enumerated
many of these references and provided clear and compelling
explanations of them. In orthodox circles in Burma and Sri
Lanka, however, this notion is frankly heretical, since awareness
(or consciousness, viññaμna) is considered impermanent.
The issue is of particular interest at the current time. Over
the last 10 years, many Western vipassanaμteachers and students
have sought teachings from Dzogchen masters. Among the
Tibetan teachers who have been especially helpful to vipassanaμ
seekers have been the late Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, his son
Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and the late Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche. Having
been inspired by the profound view and techniques of this lineage,
many vipassanaμpractitioners are grappling to reconcile
Small Boat, Great Mountain
Dzogchen understandings with their Theravaμdan backgrounds.
Ajahn Amaro’s talks as recorded in this book are a very important
contribution to this dialogue. As such, a few words about the
occasion on which they were given may be of interest.
In the fall of 1997 the Dharma teachers of Spirit Rock Meditation
Center (among whom we are delighted to count Ajahn
Amaro) were meeting to talk about inviting Tsoknyi Rinpoche to
lead a retreat at Spirit Rock. When we invite teachers outside our
tradition, we like to pair them with a Spirit Rock teacher in order
to minimize the potential for confusion among students who,
like us, may be grappling with differences in vocabulary and
understanding. We were discussing who might teach the retreat
with Tsoknyi Rinpoche when Ajahn Amaro’s name came up.
One teacher enthusiastically supported the nomination with the
endorsement, “Yes! The tulku and the bhikkhu!” And so it came
to be.
Dialogue across different spiritual traditions is fraught with
obstacles, even within a shared Buddhist heritage. Over the thousands
of years since the death of the Buddha, different schools
have evolved in their own unique ways. Typical of the pitfalls was
a meeting in the late 1970s between a Korean Zen master and a
respected Tibetan rinpoche. The meeting had, of course, been set
up by their Western students in hopes of fostering an exchange
between two lineages long estranged. The Zen master began with
a Dharma challenge. Holding out an orange, he asked forcefully,
“What is this!” The Tibetan master sat in silence and continued
to thumb through the beads of his mala. The Zen master asked
again: “What is this!” The rinpoche turned to his translator and
inquired softly, “Don’t they have oranges in his country?”
Even today the divisions among different Buddhist schools
have hardly mended at all. I listened recently to a recorded conxv
versation between a Western Theravaμdan teacher and a Tibetan
Dzogchen master, through an excellent translator, about some
important Dharma insights. The teachers may as well have been
from different planets. I found myself first puzzled, then frustrated,
and finally amused by their inability to find common ground
despite the obvious goodwill of all three parties. They kept just
missing one another because of the difficulties of translation in
the spheres of language, culture, and Dharma philosophy.
So it was by no means assured that the retreat with Ajahn
Amaro and Tsoknyi Rinpoche would be a success. Both are charismatic
and assured teachers used to leading retreats on their own.
Such a pairing had never been tried before. I wondered if this was
the first time a Theravaμdan and a Vajrayaμna teacher had shared
the same platform since NaμlandaμUniversity in northern India,
which was destroyed by Muslim invaders in the twelfth century.
There were delicate issues of status to address. Rinpoche generally
teaches from a throne, a high and ornate chair meant to
convey the high respect that the listener should accord the teachings,
somewhat independent of the teacher. Would Ajahn Amaro
feel comfortable in a high stand decorated with colorful Tibetan
silk tapestries? Or would the Theravaμdan monk be relegated to
the ordinary wooden platform? But this could be problematic
because the Vinaya, the monk’s code of discipline, prohibits a
monk from teaching if any layman is seated higher than he. The
organizers were all relieved when Ajahn Amaro explained that
the throne was a common teaching device in his forest tradition
and he would very happily speak from it.
Quite contrary to our concerns, the retreat was an unqualified
success. As a student at that retreat, I was very appreciative of
both teachers. Rinpoche’s daily exposition of the Dzogchen
teachings was very skillfully formatted for Westerners, as one
Small Boat, Great Mountain
can see from his book Carefree Dignity. Ajahn Amaro’s evening
talks, as represented here, were a beautiful complement and
helped to make Rinpoche’s teachings more accessible to vipassanaμpractitioners.
I sat in awe each night as Ajahn Amaro delivered
talks which covered technical aspects of meditation and
philosophy, with long quotations from the Buddha’s discourses,
without notes. Delivered in a fresh and almost extemporaneous
style, it was a virtuoso display. Equally impressive was his overall
demeanor. Many of us remarked on his unfailing cheerfulness.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche summed it up at the end when he expressed
his appreciation for Ajahn Amaro’s part in the retreat: “I’ve never
met anyone like him before. His Vinaya is very strict. Usually
when the Vinaya is strict, inside, the monk is very tight. But he
is very loose inside and always happy.”
In the lineage of Ajahn Chah, a teacher is not supposed to prepare
much for a Dharma talk. Rather the teacher is encouraged
to trust in his or her sense of the moment and to intuit from the
setting and the audience what words are most appropriate. I
believe that Ajahn Amaro followed this guideline during the
retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and that we are most fortunate
to have this record of the extraordinary talks that the situation
evoked. In their erudition, humor, and profundity, they are a
unique and accurate transmission of the atmosphere of that
special retreat. May their message lead all those who read them
directly to their own Buddha-nature and to the vast freedom of
the Natural Great Perfection.
—Guy Armstrong
spirit rock meditation center
July 2002
ll books are the work of many hands, hearts, and discriminative
faculties. I would like to express my gratitude first of
all to Ven. Tsoknyi Rinpoche: for the opportunity to study under
his guidance, to teach together with him and for the foreword he
kindly wrote for this volume. Secondly I would like to thank
Guy Armstrong, who originally had the idea for this book, both
for his encouragement in bringing these teachings into print and
for his generous preface.
The talks and dialogues were transcribed by a team of scrupulous
and patient people: Laura Collins, Kondañña, Joyce Radelet,
Toby Gidal, and Joan Andras. The main, rough-hewn editorial
work was undertaken with great skill and vision by Ronna
Kabatznick, with assistance from Rachel Markowitz; the fine
tuning and shaping of ends was carried out by Joseph Curran.
Marianne Dresser kindly donated her services as indexer, while
Small Boat, Great Mountain
the overall design, layout, and production were taken care of with
great expertise and sensitivity by Margery Cantor and Dennis
Crean. Dee Cuthbert-Cope lent her meticulous proofreading
abilities. The artistic skills of Ajahn Jitindriyaμwere also a blessing
to the project—she provided both the beautiful cover painting
and helped formulate many of the elements of graphic design.
Other greatly appreciated assistance was offered by Madhu
Cannon, secretary for Tsoknyi Rimpoche in Kathmandu, and
by Erik Pema Kunsang, translator and advisor with respect to
Tibetan language questions.
Lastly, I would like to make a nod of appreciation, for post
facto inspiration, to René Daumal and his unfinished spiritual
masterpiece Mount Analogue. The story describes the journey
of a group of spiritual adventurers, sailing in a small boat named
“The Impossible,” to a hidden island whereon is found the vast
and soaring Mount Analogue, which they aspire to scale. It was
not until the talks had been transcribed for Small Boat, Great
Mountain, and the title decided upon, that I read Daumal’s excellent
little tale.
d Digμ ha Nikaμya, The Long Discourses of the Buddha.
m Majjhima Nikaμya, The Middle Length Discourses.
a An≥guttara Nikaμya, The Discourses Related by Numbers.
s Sam|yutta Nikaμya, The Discourses Related by Subject.
sn Sutta Nipaμta, A collection of the Buddha’s teachings
in verse form.
ud Udaμna, The Inspired Utterances.
mv Mahaμvagga, The Great Chapter, from the books of
monastic discipline.

essence of mind

he meeting of spiritual traditions, including that
of Theravaμda wisdom teachings and Dzogchen, two great expressions
of the Buddha-Dharma, is one of the major beneficial
aspects of life in these times. The technological revolution makes
the ability to travel, to communicate, and to study across traditions
very simple. Most of the world’s great spiritual texts are
online, and a steady stream of conferences and retreats brings
meditators, scholars, and spiritual masters together to practice
and to openly discuss their lineages, insights, and knowledge.
The breakdown of separate spiritual encampments that is occurring
nowadays is both remarkable and unprecedented. For the
first time, we can enjoy a broad view of all traditions and see
where they merge as well as where they collide.
I was reminded of this marvelous confluence of traditions the
other evening, just as this retreat began. Shortly before 7:00 p.m.,
I was sitting in my room. In the midst of the quiet and calm, I
Ultimate and
Conventional Reality
heard a loud thumping noise coming from outside. We were doing
a lot of earth moving at the monastery at the time, so the noise
made me think that maybe some heavy equipment was being
brought in to help us along. I imagined large yellow mechanical
devices rolling up the road to the retreat center. But then I heard
what I thought was a huge engine making bang! bang! bang! noises.
Eventually that stopped and was replaced by a loud trumpeting
sound. I thought, “Maybe it’s one of those Dzogchen parties, and
the powers that be think the bhikkhus shouldn’t be invited.” But
then I realized that that kind of party, the Dharma feast, is at the
end rather than the beginning of the retreats. So I continued to
wonder, “What could this mean? What is this loud ruckus?” I
figured I’d find out at some point.
It slowly dawned on me that it was the beginning of the
Jewish New Year, and I recollected that one Jewish tradition had
something to do with blowing horns and banging drums. Then
I remembered that in the Tibetan tradition it is said that when
the Buddha was invited to teach by the brahma gods, the gods
came along with a conch horn and a Dharma wheel to make
their request. I thought, “Maybe this isn’t a Jewish tradition after
all. Perhaps it’s the brahma gods coming down with their conch
horns and Dharma wheels to invite the teachings.”
In fact, the sounds I heard were part of the Jewish New Year’s
ritual, and it was Wes Nisker who was blowing the shofar, the
ram’s horn trumpet. I later learned that the harsh blast of the
shofar symbolizes the call to awaken out of unconsciousness.
Hearing the shofar serves as a reminder of our higher calling,
of our true purpose—to awaken and be free.
This is a wonderful time to be alive and to be present for such
camaraderie as this between different spiritual traditions, both
within the Buddhist world and between religions. These inter-
Small Boat, Great Mountain
connections encourage us to see beyond the externals of a spiritual
tradition, yet they also illuminate the conundrum that we
live with. On the one hand, we have the verbal teachings, traditions,
and structures that enable the insights and values to be
carried through time and space across the planet. On the other
hand, those same structures can become the things that inhibit
and obstruct the very truths they are trying to convey.
We are extremely lucky that Buddhism is so new in the West.
Many people have reflected on the notion that “these are the
good ol’ days.” In 100 years, we will have a Buddhist president,
there will be big grants from philanthropists, and Buddhism will
have become institutionalized. People will become Buddhist to
climb the social ladder, and the glory days will all be over. So we
are lucky to be practicing before Buddhism becomes part of the
social norm. To be a Buddhist at this point in time is to be out on
the fringes. After all, in conventional terms, there is very little
social value in being a Buddhist. One of the biggest drawbacks I
find to being a monk in Asia is the automatic value that people
give us because we have shaved heads and robes. People in Asia
think we are something special, while in the West they think we
are just kooks. We get shouted at in the street with all kind of
remarks. In England, it’s usually something like, “Skinhead!”
“Hari Krishna!” or “‘Allo ’Ari!”
This coming together of different spiritual expressions, in
which there’s both an understanding of religious forms and a
commitment to them, is indeed precious. But there’s always the
challenge within this supportive context to see beyond that—to
use the form and, at the same time, to see through it. We need
to be able to pick up the convention and use it merely as that.
On the inside, we need to be completely free, without boundaries;
we need to let go of everything. On the outside, we need
Ultimate and Conventional Reality
to be really strict and proper, to follow the routine and do everything
according to the rules. My own experience is that it takes
a while to appreciate the true meaning of this.
The Search for Freedom
Probably like many people, I wrestled at length with the question
of freedom in my teens and early twenties. I was a late flower
child, having been born in 1956. I just caught the tail end of
the good stuff. Through much of my early years, I worshipped the
ideal of freedom and longed for the true experience of it. Rather
than becoming a bomb-throwing anarchist, though, I became
more of a flower-waving, philosophical anarchist. Nevertheless,
I took this aspiration to freedom very seriously. And I had a
profound intuition that freedom is possible—that there is this
potential we have as human beings to be totally free, and that
there is something utterly pure, uninhibited, and uninhibitable
within us. My experience, however, was one of colliding
with endless restrictions and frustrations. First it was getting
away from my parents; then it was the law; and then it was not
having enough money. I thought that this or that was standing in
my way, and if only it wasn’t there, I would be free.
I was completely bewildered. No matter how much I tried
to be free and unhindered by conventions, forms, and structures
(mostly by defying these things), there always seemed to be
another layer and another layer and another layer. I kept meeting
up with limitations, and as a result I was constantly feeling
frustrated. I was suffering, and I had no idea why.
I left England and began my travels in hopes of finding freedom
somewhere, anywhere. I went to Southeast Asia and pursued
a Dionysian lifestyle of eat, drink, be merry; sex, drugs, rock and
roll; dancing in the moonlight on the beaches, with one hand
Small Boat, Great Mountain
waving free. But inside me was a feeling that I was coming to a
desperate crunch; I knew intuitively that this decadent path really
was not leading to freedom. So I searched some more.
I took off to the northeast of Thailand, where hardly any
Western tourists ever went, and found myself wandering into a
forest monastery. It was the branch of Ajahn Chah’s monastery
where his Western monks lived. It’s important to know that the
Thai forest tradition is the stiff end of an already narrow orthodoxy;
it’s the strict observance of an already conservative tradition.
What was immediately apparent to me, however, was that
these people were living the most bizarrely austere life, yet they
were also the most cheerful characters I’d ever met. They were
getting up at three o’clock in the morning, eating one meal a day,
drinking a cup of tea twice a week, sleeping on thin grass mats,
having no sex—definitely no sex—no drugs, alcohol, or rock and
roll. Yet they were fully at ease, very friendly, and uncomplicated
people. I asked myself, “What have they got to laugh about? How
come they are so happy when their lifestyle is so restricted?”
Then I met Ajahn Chah, the teacher. If I’d thought the monks
seemed pretty content with their lot, meeting him was even
more striking. Ajahn Chah appeared to be the happiest man in
the world. He had been living as a monk in the forest without
any sex, music, or drink for 40 years. You would imagine someone
would be pretty dried up by then. But here was a man who
was totally at ease with life. In fact, he was thoroughly enjoying
it, totally content.
The monastery routine was extremely restrained. It was aimed
at simplifying all the externals so that one could put one’s attention
directly, very pointedly at the one place where one can find
freedom—in the inner world. So rather than monastery life being
a negation of the sense world or a criticism, hatred, or fear of it,
Ultimate and Conventional Reality
the whole style of life was built around simplicity of living. It
was the monks’ job to place attention on the inner dimension,
where one could truly be free. I was so taken by this way of being
that, to my amazement, I found myself staying. When I’d showed
up, I hadn’t thought I would stay for more than three days.
I quickly realized that I had been looking for freedom in the
wrong place. I remember opening up to myself and chuckling,
“How could I have been so stupid?” It never crossed my mind that
freedom could come only from within. Until then, I had been
looking for freedom in that which was inherently bounded. My
misguided way of finding freedom was by defying conventions,
by trying not to be inhibited by the rules of society or the dictates
of my personality or the conditioning of my body. I
appeared free on the outside, but on the inside I was a prisoner
of my beliefs and behaviors. It was only by turning my attention
inward that I could discover the freedom that was already there.
I realized that the external forms and structures that we pick up
and use (for example, the retreat routines and schedules, the language
and jargon of Buddhism, the different meditation techniques)
are designed to help us direct our attention to where we
are already totally free. It is not like we need to become free. It is
a matter of discovering that quality of being that is inherently
unhindered and unbounded.
Conventional Truth and Ultimate Truth
The longer I stayed, the more I began to pay attention to Ajahn
Chah’s repeated emphasis on the relationship between convention
and liberation, conventional reality and ultimate reality. The
things of this world are merely conventions of our own creation.
Once we establish them, we proceed to get lost in or blinded by
them. This gives rise to confusion, difficulty, and struggle. One of
Small Boat, Great Mountain
the great challenges of spiritual practice is to create the conventions,
pick them up, and use them without confusion. We can
recite the Buddha’s name, bow, chant, follow techniques and
routines, pick up all these attributes of being a Buddhist, and then,
without any hypocrisy, also recognize that everything is totally
empty. There is no Buddhist! This is something Ajahn Chah
focused on a great deal over the years: if you think you really are
a Buddhist, you are totally lost. He would sometimes be sitting
up on the Dharma seat, giving a talk to the whole assembly of
monastics and laypeople, and say, “There are no monks or nuns
here, there are no lay people, no women or men—these are all
merely empty conventions that we create.”
The capacity we have to commit ourselves sincerely to something
and simultaneously to see through it is something we find
difficult to exercise in the West. We tend to be extremists.
Either we grab onto something and identify with it or we
think it is meaningless and reject it, since it’s not real anyway.
So the Middle Way is not necessarily a comfortable one for us.
The Middle Way is the simultaneous holding of the conventional
truth and the ultimate truth, and seeing that the one does not contradict
or belie the other.
There is a story I am reminded of that happened at a Buddhist
conference in Europe. A Tibetan lama was there, and a member
of the audience was an extremely serious German student. The
rinpoche had been teaching visualizations of Taμra and the puμjaμ
to the 21 Taμraμs. During the course of this teaching, this student,
with great sincerity, put his hands together and asked the question:
“Rinpoche, Rinpoche, I have zis big doubt. You see, all day
we do the puμjaμ to the 21 Taμra and, you know, I am very committed
to zis practice. I vant to do everything right. But I have zis
doubt: Taμraμ, does she exist or does she not? Really Rinpoche, is
Ultimate and Conventional Reality
she zhere or not? If she is zhere, I can have a full heart. But if
she’s not zhere, zen I don’t vant to do zhe puμjaμ. So please,
Rinpoche, once and for all, tell us, does she exist or does she
not?” The lama closed his eyes for a while, then smiled and
replied, “She knows she is not real.” It is not recorded how the
student responded.
What Is a Living Being?
A certain amount of spiritual maturity hinges on understanding
the nature of conventional reality. So much of our conditioning
is predicated on the assumption that there is such a thing as a
“real” living being. We see ourselves in terms of the limitations
of the body and the personality, and we define what we are within
those bounds. We assume then that other beings are also limited
little pockets of beingness that float around in the cosmos. But
a lot of what the practice is doing is deconstructing that model.
Rather than taking the body and personality as the defining features
of what we are, we take the Dharma as the basic reference
point of what we are. (Or, if you like using the Vajrayaμna language,
you take the Dharmakaμya as the basic reference point.)
Then we see the body and personality as being merely minuscule
subsets of that, and as a result, we relate to our own nature in a
very different way. The body and personality are recognized as
little windows that the Dharma-nature is filtered through.
Through the matrix of the body, personality, and our mental
faculties, that nature of reality can be realized; it is not some little
thing that is tacked on at the edge. Within all Buddhist traditions,
understanding what a living being is means revisioning
that whole structure, the habitual image of what we are.
It’s quite a common expression in the Mahaμyaμna Buddhist
world (for instance in the Vajra Sutra) for the teachings to say
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such things as, “‘Living beings are numberless, I vow to save
them all.’ And how do you save all living beings? You realize that
there are no living beings. That is how you save living beings.”
But does saying that there aren’t any beings mean that they don’t
exist? We can’t quite say that either. A true understanding of this
expression means we are seeing beyond the normal limitations of
the senses.
Where Are We?
You can practice understanding the experience of limitation. Try
taking out the physical element of what you are and just look at
yourself in terms of mind. You will find that the whole quality
of boundary breaks up, as does the idea of “where I am” and
“where other people are.” You will see that the body, its location,
and three-dimensional space only apply to ruμpa-khandha—
only to the world of material form. In fact, “inside” and “outside,”
“here” and “there,” “space” and “spatial relations” only
apply to form; they do not apply to mind. Mind does not exist in
space. Three-dimensional space exists only in relationship to the
world of physical form.
That’s why meditating with our eyes open is a good test. It
seems that there are separate bodies out there. There’s one here,
there’s one there. With our eyes closed, it’s easier to get a feeling
of unity. The material form is giving us the clue of separateness,
but that separateness is entirely dependent on the material
world. In terms of mind, place does not apply. The mind is not
anywhere.We are here, but we are not here. Those limitations
of separate individuality are conventions that have a relative but
not an absolute value.
We create the illusion of separateness and individuality
through our belief in the sense world. When we start to let go of
Ultimate and Conventional Reality
the sense world, particularly the way we relate to physical form,
then we start being able to expand the vision of what we are as
beings. It’s not even a matter of seeing how we overlap with
other beings; it’s a matter of realizing that we are of a piece
with other beings.
The Middle Way
Meditation is a special kind of dance in which we commit ourselves
wholeheartedly to the practice of deconstructing the
materialistic view of reality. The challenge is simultaneously to
hold on and to let go; it is to see clearly what we are doing and at
the same time see through it. To do this, it’s important to cultivate
a feeling for the Middle Way. This is the balance point. The
Middle Way is not just halfway between two extremes—it’s not
a 50-50 kind of thing. It’s more like saying [holds the bell striker
vertically and moves the lower end to the left] existence is over
here and nonexistence is over here [moves the lower end to the
right]. The Middle Way is the hinge-point at the top where the
two pivot, rather than the lower end of the striker just being
halfway along its arc. It’s actually the source from which the two
emanate. This is just one way of describing it.
Some people may be familiar with Tibetan practice, others
more familiar with Theraμvada and vipassanaμpractice. The questions
often arise: “How do we mesh the two? Can we? Should
we?” If we are looking to align the different methodologies, we
can get really tangled up and confused, because this one says do
this and the other one says do that. I therefore encourage everyone
to recognize that every technique, every form of expression
is just a convention that we’re picking up and using for a single
goal: to transcend suffering and to be liberated. That’s what any
technique points us toward.
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The way to know if what we are doing is worthwhile is to ask,
“Does this lead to the end of suffering or does it not?” If it does,
continue. If it does not, we need to switch our attention to what
will. We can simply ask ourselves, “Am I experiencing dukkha?
Is there a feeling of alienation or difficulty?” If there is, it means
that we are clinging or hanging on to something. We need to see
that the heart is attached somewhere and then make the gesture
to loosen up, to let go. Sometimes we don’t notice where the suffering
gets generated. We get so used to doing things in a particular
way that we take it as a standard. But in meditation, we challenge
the status quo. We investigate where there is a feeling of
“dis-ease” and look to see what’s causing it. By stepping back
and scanning the inner domain, it’s possible to find out where
the attachment is and what’s causing it. Ajahn Chah would say,
“If you have an itch on your leg, you don’t scratch your ear.” In
other words, go to where the dukkha is, no matter how subtle it
may be; notice it and let go. That’s how we allow the dukkha to
disperse. This is how we will know whether the practices we are
doing are effective or not.
My suggestions and recommendations on how to understand
ultimate and conventional reality are not anything you need to
believe in. Buddhist teachings are always put out as themes for
us to contemplate. You need to find out for yourself if what I’m
saying makes sense or rings true. Don’t worry if you’re getting
contradicting instructions. Do your best not to spend too much
energy or attention getting everything to match. Otherwise
you’ll just stay confused. The fact is, things in life don’t match.
You can’t align all the loose ends. But you can go to the place
where they come from.
Ultimate and Conventional Reality

ne of the topics that Ajahn Chah most liked to emphasize
was the principle of nonabiding. During the brief two
years that I was with him in Thailand, he spoke about it many
times. In various ways he tried to convey that nonabiding was
the essence of the path, a basis of peace, and a doorway into
the world of freedom.
The Limitations of the Conditioned Mind
During the summer of 1981, Ajahn Chah gave a very significant
teaching to Ajahn Sumedho on the liberating quality of nonabiding.
Ajahn Sumedho had been in England for a few years
when a letter arrived from Thailand. Even though Ajahn Chah
could read and write, he rarely did. In fact, he hardly wrote anything,
and he never wrote letters. The message began with a
note from a fellow Western monk. It said: “Well, Ajahn Sumedho,
you are not going to believe this, but Luang Por decided he wanted
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to write you a letter, so he asked me to take his dictation.” The
message from Ajahn Chah was very brief, and this is what it said:
“Whenever you have feelings of love or hate for anything whatsoever,
these will be your aides and partners in building paμrami.
The Buddha-Dharma is not to be found in moving forwards, nor
in moving backwards, nor in standing still. This, Sumedho, is
your place of nonabiding.”
It still gives me goose bumps.
A few weeks later, Ajahn Chah had a stroke and became
unable to speak, walk, or move. His verbal teaching career was
over. This letter contained his final instructions. Ajahn Chah
was well aware of all the tasks and difficulties involved in establishing
a monastery, having done this many times himself. One
would think that when he offered advice, it would be along the
lines of “Do this, don’t do that, and always remember to . . .” But
no, none of that; this was not Ajahn Chah’s way. He simply said,
“The Buddha-Dharma is not to be found in moving forwards, nor
in moving backwards, nor in standing still.”
At his monastery in Thailand, Ajahn Chah would sit on a
wicker bench in the open area underneath his hut and receive
visitors from ten o’clock in the morning until late at night.
Every day. Sometimes until two or three in the morning.
Amongst the many ways in which he would convey the
teachings, Ajahn Chah sometimes liked to test, to tease his visitors.
He would put various conundrums out to them, queries or
puzzles designed to frustrate and then break through the limitations
of the conditioned mind. He would ask such questions as:
“Is this stick long or short?” “Where did you come from and
where are you going?” Or, as here, “If you can’t go forwards and
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you can’t go back and you can’t stand still, where do you go?”
And when he’d put forth these questions, he’d have a look on his
face like a cobra.
Some of the more courageous responders would try a reasonable
answer: “Go to the side?”
“Nope, can’t go to the side either.”
“Up or down?”
He would keep pushing people as they struggled to come up
with a “right” answer. The more creative or clever they got, the
more he would make them squirm: “No, no! That’s not it.”
Ajahn Chah was trying to push his inquirers up against the
limitations of the conditioned mind, in hopes of opening up a
space for the unconditioned to shine through. The principle of
nonabiding is exceedingly frustrating to the conceptual/thinking
mind, because that mind has built up such an edifice out of “me”
and “you,” out of “here” and “there,” out of “past” and “future,”
and out of “this” and “that.”
As long as we conceive reality in terms of self and time, as
a “me” who is someplace and can go some other place, then
we are not realizing that going forwards, going backwards, and
standing still are all entirely dependent upon the relative truths
of self, locality, and time. In terms of physical reality, there is a
coming and going. But there’s also that place of transcendence
where there is no coming or going. Think about it. Where can
we truly go? Do we ever really go anywhere? Wherever we go we
are always “here,” right? To resolve the question, “Where can
you go?” we have to let go—let go of self, let go of time, let go of
place. In that abandonment of self, time, and place, all questions
are resolved.
The Place of Nonabiding
Ancient Teachings on Nonabiding
This principle of nonabiding is also contained within the ancient
Theravaμda teachings. It wasn’t just Ajahn Chah’s personal insight
or the legacy of some stray Nyingmapa lama who wandered
over the mountains and fetched up in northeast Thailand 100
years ago. Right in the Pali Canon, the Buddha points directly
to this. In the Udaμna (the collection of “Inspired Utterances”
of the Buddha), he says:
There is that sphere of being where there is no earth,
no water, no fire, nor wind; no experience of infinity
of space, of infinity of consciousness, of no-thingness,
or even of neither-perception-nor-non-perception; here
there is neither this world nor another world, neither
moon nor sun; this sphere of being I call neither a coming
nor a going nor a staying still, neither a dying nor
a reappearance; it has no basis, no evolution, and no
support: it is the end of dukkha. (ud. 8.1)
Rigpa, nondual awareness, is the direct knowing of this. It’s
the quality of mind that knows, while abiding nowhere.
Another teaching from the same collection recounts the story
of a wanderer named Baμhiya. He stopped the Buddha on the
street in Saμvatthiμ and said, “Venerable Sir, you are the Saman|a
Gotama. Your Dharma is famous throughout the land. Please
teach me that I may understand the truth.”
The Buddha replied, “We’re on our almsround, Baμhiya. This is
not the right time.”
“Life is uncertain, Venerable Sir. We never know when we are
going to die; please teach me the Dharma.”
This dialogue repeats itself three times. Three times over, the
Buddha says the same thing, and Baμhiya responds in the same
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way. Finally, the Buddha says, “When a Tathagμ ata is pressed
three times, he has to answer. Listen carefully, Baμhiya, and
attend to what I say:
In the seen, there is only the seen,
in the heard, there is only the heard,
in the sensed, there is only the sensed,
in the cognized, there is only the cognized.
Thus you should see that
indeed there is no thing here;
this, Baμhiya, is how you should train yourself.
Since, Baμhiya, there is for you
in the seen, only the seen,
in the heard, only the heard,
in the sensed, only the sensed,
in the cognized, only the cognized,
and you see that there is no thing here,
you will therefore see that
indeed there is no thing there.
As you see that there is no thing there,
you will see that
you are therefore located neither in the world of this,
nor in the world of that,
nor in any place
betwixt the two.
This alone is the end of suffering.” (ud. 1.10)
Upon hearing these words, Baμhiya was immediately enlightened.
Moments later he was killed by a runaway cow. So he was
right: life is uncertain. Later Baμhiya was awarded the title of
“The Disciple Who Understood the Teaching Most Quickly.”
The Place of Nonabiding
“Where” Does Not Apply
What does it mean to say, “There is no thing there”? It is talking
about the realm of the object; it implies that we recognize that
“the seen is merely the seen.” That’s it. There are forms, shapes,
colors, and so forth, but there is no thing there. There is no real
substance, no solidity, and no self-existent reality. All there is,
is the quality of experience itself. No more, no less. There is just
seeing, hearing, feeling, sensing, cognizing. And the mind naming
it all is also just another experience: “the space of the
Dharma hall,” “Ajahn Amaro’s voice,” “here is the thought,
‘Am I understanding this?’ Now another thought, ‘Am I not
understanding this?’”
There is what is seen, heard, tasted, and so on, but there is no
thing-ness, no solid, independent entity that this experience
refers to.
As this insight matures, not only do we realize that there is
no thing “out there,” but we also realize there is no solid thing
“in here,” no independent and fixed entity that is the experiencer.
This is talking about the realm of the subject.
The practice of nonabiding is a process of emptying out the
objective and subjective domains, truly seeing that both the
object and subject are intrinsically empty. If we can see that both
the subjective and objective are empty, if there’s no real “in
here” or “out there,” where could the feeling of I-ness and meness
and my-ness locate itself? As the Buddha said to Baμhiya,
“You will not be able to find your self either in the world of this
[subject] or in the world of that [object] or anywhere between
the two.”
There is a similar and much lengthier exchange between the
Buddha and AÂnanda in the Shurangama Sutra, which is a text
much referred to in the Ch’an school of the Chinese tradition.
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For pages and pages the Buddha asks AÂnanda, in multifarious
ways, if he can define exactly where his mind is. No matter how
hard he tries, AÂnanda cannot establish it precisely. Eventually
he is forced to the conclusion that “I cannot find my mind anywhere.”
But the Buddha says, “Your mind does exist, though,
doesn’t it?”
AÂnanda is finally drawn to the conclusion that “where” does
not apply.
This is the point that these teachings on nonabiding are trying
to draw us to. The whole concept and construct of where-ness,
the act of conceiving ourselves as this individual entity living
at this spot in space and time, is a presumption. And it’s only by
frustrating our habitual judgments in this way that we’re forced
into loosening our grip.
This view of things pulls the plug, takes the props away, and,
above all, shakes up our standard frames of reference. This is
exactly what Ajahn Chah did with people when he asked, “If you
can’t go forward and you can’t go back and you can’t stand still,
where can you go?” He was pointing to the place of nonabiding:
the timeless, selfless quality that is independent of location.
Interestingly enough, some current scientific research has
also reached a comparable conclusion about the fundamental
nature of matter. In the world of quantum physics, scientists
now use such terms as “the well of being” or “the sea of potential”
to refer to the primordial level of physical reality from
which all particles and energies crystallize and into which they
subsequently dissolve. The principle of non-locality in this realm
means that the “place where something happens” cannot truly
be defined, and that a single event can have exactly simultaneous
effects in (apparently) widely separated places. Particles can
The Place of Nonabiding
accurately be described as being smeared out over the entirety of
time and space.
Terms like “single place” and “separate places” are seen to
apply only as convenient fictions at certain levels of scale; at the
level of the ultimate field, the sea of quantum foam, “place” has
no real meaning. When you get down into the fine, subatomic
realm, where-ness simply does not apply. There is no there there.
Whether this principle is called nonabiding or non-locality, it’s
both interesting and noteworthy that the same principle applies
in both the physical and mental realms. For the intellectuals and
rationalists among us, this parallel is probably very comforting.
I first started to investigate this type of contemplation when I
was on a long retreat in our monastery and doing a lot of solitary
practice. It suddenly occurred to me that even though I might
have let go of the feeling of self—the feeling of this and that
and so on—whatever the experience of reality was, it was still
“here.” There was still here-ness. For several weeks I contemplated
the question, “Where is here?” Not using the question to
get a verbal answer, more just to illuminate and aid the abandonment
of the clinging that was present.
Recognizing this kind of conditioning is half the job—
recognizing that, as soon as there is a here-ness, there is a subtle
presence of a there-ness. Similarly, establishing a “this,” brings
up a “that.” As soon as we define “inside,” up pops “outside.”
It’s crucial to acknowledge such subtle feelings of grasping; it
happens so fast and at so many different layers and levels.
This simple act of apprehending the experience is shining the
light of wisdom onto what the heart is grasping. Once the defilements
are in the spotlight, they get a little nervous and uncomfortable.
Clinging operates best when we are not looking. When
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clinging is the focus of our awareness, it can’t function properly.
In short, clinging can’t cling if there is too much wisdom around.
Still Flowing Water
Ajahn Chah would put the same “Where do you go?” question to
people for a few months. As they got used to it, he would switch
questions. Throughout his teaching career, he posed a number of
different ones. The very last questions he came up with before
his health deteriorated were in the form of a little series: “Have
you ever seen still water?”
They would nod, “Yes, of course, we’ve seen still water
before.” At the same time, they were probably saying inwardly,
“Now that’s a pretty strange question.” But outwardly everyone
was very respectful to Ajahn Chah, as he was one of Thailand’s
great meditation masters.
Then he would ask, “Well then, have you ever seen flowing
water?” And that also seemed a strange thing to ask. They’d
respond, “Yes, we’ve seen flowing water.”
“So, did you ever see still, flowing water?” In Thai you would
phrase that as nahm lai ning. “Have you ever seen nahm lai ning?”
“No. That we have never seen.”
He loved to get that bewilderment effect.
Ajahn Chah would then explain that the mind’s nature is
still, yet it’s flowing. It’s flowing, yet it is still. He would use the
word “citta” for the knowing mind, the mind of awareness. The
citta itself is totally still. It has no movement; it is not related to
all that arises and ceases. It is silent and spacious. Mind objects—
sights, sounds, smell, taste, touch, thoughts, and emotions—flow
through it. Problems arise because the clarity of the mind gets
entangled with sense impressions. The untrained heart chases
The Place of Nonabiding
the delightful, runs away from the painful, and as a result, finds
itself struggling, alienated, and miserable. By contemplating our
own experience, we can make a clear distinction between the
mind that knows (citta) and the sense impressions that flow
through it. By refusing to get entangled with any sense impressions,
we find refuge in that quality of stillness, silence, and
spaciousness, which is the mind’s own nature. This policy of
noninterference allows everything and is disturbed by nothing.
The natural ability to separate mind (or mind-essence, to
use Dzogchen terminology) and mind objects is clearly reflected
in the Pali language. There are actually two different verbs
meaning “to be,” and they correspond to the conventional or
conditioned, and to the unconditioned. The verb “hoti” refers
to that which is conditioned and passes through time. These
are the common activities and the labels of various sense
impressions that we use regularly, and, for the most part,
unconsciously. Everyone agrees, for example, that water is
wet, the body is heavy, there are seven days in the week, and
I am a man.
The second verb, “atthi,” refers to the transcendental qualities
of being-ness. Being-ness, in this case, does not imply a
becoming, the world of time or identity. It reflects the unconditioned,
the unmanifest nature of mind. So, for example, in
the passages from the Udaμna about the unborn and “that
sphere of being where . . . there is neither a coming nor a going
nor a staying still,” the verb “atthi” is always used. It indicates
a supramundane, timeless is-ness. The fact that the distinctions
between the mind (citta) and mind objects are embedded
in the language itself offers both a reflection on and a reminder
of this basic truth.
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“Who” and “What” Do Not Apply
In order to discover the place of nonabiding, we have to find a
way of letting go of the conditioned, the world of becoming. We
need to recognize the strong identification we have with our bodies
and personalities, with all of our credentials, and with how
we take it all as inarguable truth: “I am Joe Schmoe; I was born
in this place; this is my age; this is what I do for a living; this is
who I am.”
It seems so reasonable to think like this, and on one level, it
makes total sense. But when we identify with those concepts,
there is no freedom. There’s no space for awareness. But then,
when we recognize how seriously and absolutely we take this
identity, we open ourselves to the possibility of freedom. We
taste the sense of self and feel how gritty that is and how real
it seems to be. In recognizing the feeling of it, we are able to
know, “This is just a feeling.” The feelings of I-ness and my-ness
(aham|kara and mamam|kara in Pali) are as transparent as any
other feelings.
When the mind is calm and steady, I like to ask myself, “Who
is watching?” or “Who is aware?” or “Who is knowing this?” I
also like asking, “What is knowing?” “What is aware?” “What is
practicing non-meditation?” The whole point of posing questions
like these is not to find answers. In fact, if you get a verbal
answer, it is the wrong one. The point of asking “who” or “what”
questions is to puncture our standard presumptions. In the
spaciousness of the mind, the words “who” and “what” start
sounding ridiculous. There is no real “who” or “what.” There is
only the quality of knowing. And, as we work with this in a more
and more refined way, we see that feeling of personhood become
more and more transparent; its solidity falls away, and the heart
is able to open and settle back further and further.
The Place of Nonabiding
Vipassanaμand Dzogchen practices are trying to outline very
clearly for us how we are constantly making solid that which is
inherently not solid. These methods are trying to illuminate the
subtler and subtler kinds of clinging that we create around the
feelings of self, time, identity, and location.
By framing our world in these ways, we are unconsciously
concretizing it. Questions like “Who are you?” automatically
imply the reality of personhood. Answering with one’s name is
a reasonable answer on the relative level. But the trouble comes
in when we blindly allow the relative to slide into the absolute.
We believe this name is a real thing. “I am a real person; I am
Amaro.” Similarly, when we ask, “What day is it?” that question
automatically implies the reality of time. If we’re not mindful,
we go from acknowledging a human convention—brought about
by the passage of our planet around the sun, somewhere in the
middle of this particular galaxy—to creating an absolute, universal
The corollary to this noncreation of solidity in the realm
of perceptions and conventions—just in case we’re afraid of
losing all forms of reality—is that we don’t have to create or
somehow obtain the Dharma to replace the familiar basis we
are losing. When we stop creating the obscurations, the Dharma
is always here.
As soon as we see where the subtle and coarse forms of clinging
are happening, and that stranglehold loosens—when we
remind ourselves, “There it is; there’s that grip, the contraction
of identity”—there’s an openness and spaciousness. That freedom
of heart comes from recognizing how we habitually create
things and then accept them as real. When that is truly seen and
known, the clenching contractedness can’t sustain itself and the
Dharma manifests instead.
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“When” Does Not Apply
Time is another area in which we should notice subtle clinging.
We may experience resting in awareness and have an attendant
sense of clarity and spaciousness, but we may also have a firm
sensation that this is happening now. When we do, without
noticing it, we have turned that now-ness into a solid quality.
The process of letting go happens layer by layer. As one layer
falls away, we can get all excited and think, “Oh, great. I’m free
now. This open space is wonderful.” But then we start to realize,
“Something isn’t quite right here. There is still some stickiness
in the system.” We notice the solidification of time and the limitation
we have created of the present.
There’s a verse about time by the Sixth Zen Patriarch that
I love to quote. It says:
In this moment there is nothing which comes to be.
In this moment there is nothing which ceases to be.
Thus, in this moment, there is no birth and death to be
brought to an end.
Thus, the absolute peace is this present moment.
Although it is just this moment,there is no limit to
this moment,
And herein is eternal delight.
Birth and death depend on time. Something apparently born
in the past, living now, will die in the future. Once we let go of
time, and if we also let go of thing-ness, we see there can be no
real “thing” coming into being or dying; there is just the suchness
of the present. In this way, there is no birth or death to be
brought to an end.
That’s how this moment is absolutely peaceful; it is outside
of time, akaμliko.
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We use such phrases as “this moment,” but they are not quite
accurate because they still can give us an impression of the present
as a small fragment of time. For even though it is just a moment,
the present is limitless. In letting go of the structures of the
past and future, we realize that this present is an infinite ocean,
and the result of this realization is living in the eternal, the timeless.
We needn’t solidify and conceive the present in contradistinction
to a past or future—it is its own self-sustaining vastness.
We’re talking here about the abandonment of clinging at a
very subtle level, a practice that takes a lot of quick and careful
spiritual footwork. When we see our mind getting caught up
with something, we can apply the classic vipassanaμtechnique—
just hit it with impermanence, not-self, and suffering, the old
one, two, three. If we have a good sense of anattaμ, we chop it
with a “not me, not mine” and down it goes. But it is important
to remember that clinging is extraordinarily wiley. There we are
gloating over our success, but we don’t realize that this is a tag
match that’s going on. Another character is bearing down on us
from behind while we look at our knockout on the floor. The
partner is about to clobber us. We just barely let go of the attachment
to time when attachment to opinions starts moving fullspeed
ahead. We drop that, then here-ness takes over. Then it’s
the body. . . . Clinging takes shape in many, many different ways
and we need to notice them all.
Oil and Water
Up until the point when Ajahn Chah met his teacher Ajahn
Mun, he said he never really understood that mind and its
objects existed as separate qualities, and that, because of getting
the two confused and tangled up, he could never find peace. But
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what he had got from Ajahn Mun—in the three short days he
spent with him—was the clear sense that there is the knowing
mind, the poo roo, the one who knows, and then there are the
objects of knowing. These are like a mirror and the images that
are reflected in it. The mirror is utterly unembellished and
uncorrupted by either the beauty or the ugliness of the objects
appearing in it. The mirror doesn’t even get bored. Even when
there is nothing reflected in it, it is utterly equanimous, serene.
This was a key insight for Ajahn Chah, and it became a major
theme for his practice and teaching from that time onward.
He would compare the mind and its objects to oil and water
contained in the same bottle. The knowing mind is like the oil,
and the sense impressions are like the water. Primarily because
our minds and lives are very busy and turbulent, the oil and
water get shaken up together. It thus appears that the knowing
mind and its objects are all one substance. But if we let the system
calm down, then the oil and the water separate out; they are
essentially immiscible.
There’s the awareness, the Buddha-mind, and the impressions
of thought, the sensory world, and all other patterns of consciousness.
The two naturally separate out from each other; we
don’t have to do a thing to make it happen. Intrinsically, they are
not mixed. They will separate themselves out if we let them.
At this point, we can truly can see that the mind is one thing
and the mind-objects are another. We can see the true nature of
mind, mind-essence, which knows experience and in which all
of life happens; and we can see that that transcendent quality is
devoid of relationship to individuality, space, time, and movement.
All of the objects of the world—its people, our routines
and mind states—appear and disappear within that space.
The Place of Nonabiding
Breathing and Walking
The effort to make a clear distinction between the mind that
knows and mind-objects is thus very important to our practice.
Mindfulness of breathing is a good way to work with this insight.
Just notice the feeling of the breath as you follow the sensation
of it. The breath is moving, but that which knows the breath is
not moving.
Perhaps we first pick this up by catching the space at the end
of the out-breath and then at the end of the in-breath. We notice
there is a pause, a space there. But, if we extend our vision, we
begin to notice that that spaciousness and stillness are actually
always there. As the breath flows in and out, there is an eternal
spaciousness of the mind that remains unobstructed by the
movement of the breath.
We can also extend this practice to walking meditation. If we
stand still, with our eyes open or closed, we can notice that all
of the sensations of the body are known within our mind. The
feeling of the feet on the ground, the body standing, the feeling
of the air, and so on are all held and known within the mind. It
can take a few minutes to really get to that point, but if we make
the effort, soon we will have that sense of mind established.
Then we simply let the body start walking.
Usually when we walk, we’re going someplace; this can complicate
the picture. Actually there’s no essential difference in
walking somewhere and going nowhere. Walking meditation
is very helpful in this way; it simplifies things a lot. We know
we’re going absolutely nowhere. It’s deliberately a completely
pointless exercise on the level of trying to get someplace.
By working with the moving body in meditation, we can use
it as an opportunity to witness the body walking without going
anywhere. As the body walks along at a gentle pace, we begin to
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see that even though the body is moving, the mind that knows
the body is not moving. Movement does not apply to awareness.
There are movements of the body, but the mind that knows the
movements aren’t moving. There’s stillness, but there’s flow.
The body flows, perceptions flow, but there is stillness. As
soon as the mind grabs it and we think we are going somewhere,
then the oil and water are mixed up. There’s a “me” going some
“place.” But in that moment of recognizing—“Oh, look, the stillness
of the mind is utterly unaffected by the movement in the
body”—we know that quality of still, flowing water.
There’s an appreciation of freedom. That which is moving is
not-self. That which is moving is the aspect of flow and change.
And the heart naturally takes refuge in that quality of spaciousness,
stillness, and openness that knows but is unentangled.
I find meditation with the eyes open is also very helpful in
this respect. With the eyes open, there’s more of a challenge to
exercise the same quality that is normally established only in
walking meditation. If we keep our eyes open and hold the space
of the room, we see the coming and going of people, the gentle
swaying of the bodies in the breeze, the changing light, the waxing
and waning of the afternoon sun.
We can let all of this just come and go and be held in that
space of knowing, where there is a conscious experience of both
the conventional and ultimate truths. There’s the ultimate view
of no person, no time, and no space, of timeless knowing and
radiance. Then there are the conventions: you and me, here and
there, sitting and walking, coming and going. The two truths are
totally interfused; one is not obstructing the other. This is a way
of directly appreciating that nonabiding is not just some kind of
abstruse philosophy but is something we can taste and value.
The Place of Nonabiding
In the moment we really understand the principle, the heart
realizes, “The body is moving, the world is coming and going,
but it’s absolutely going nowhere.” Birth and death have ended
right there.
And we don’t have to be sitting still or walking in slow
motion to awaken to this insight. We can be running, even playing
tennis, and still find the same quality. It pertains equally
when we are physically motionless and when we are moving at
a high speed, even racing along the freeway.
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being buddha

ften when i am in the presence of Dzogchen teachings,
I have a strange sense of hearing the echoes and seeing the
images of my own teachers, Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho—
not just in the way those teachings describe principles I am
familiar with, but even down to the use of the same analogies
and phrases. When this concordance first sank in, it made me
realize that I’ve been practicing in a way somewhat akin to
Dzogchen for at least the latter half of my monastic life, since
about 1987. If I had eyebrows, I would raise them a little bit.
But perhaps the convergence shouldn’t be that surprising.
After all, we all have the same teacher: the Dharma comes from
the Buddha and is rooted in our own nature. There may be 84,000
different Dharma doors, but fundamentally there is one Dharma.
There are several Tibetan teachings I have come to appreciate
over time, but especially those that describe the fine anatomy
and nuances of rigpa, otherwise known as the view. The Thai
Adapted from a talk given during a retreat led by Ven.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche, held at Wisdom House in Litchfield,
Connecticut, in September of 1997. A longer version of
this talk was published in Broad View, Boundless Heart
under the title “Ajahn Chah’s View of the View.”
The View from the Forest
forest tradition, the lineage I have mostly trained in, is much
more dependent on the eloquence and inspiration of particular
teachers extemporizing on themes of Dharma that occur to
them in the moment. This keeps the teachings alive and fresh,
but it also means that there can be a lot of inconsistency in the
ways that things are expressed. So I have learned a great deal
from the very structured and well-patterned nature of the
Dzogchen teachings.
Ajahn Chah’s teachings covered a very broad range, but he
was particularly notable for the open, skilled, and free way in
which he spoke of the realm of ultimate truth. And this was to
anyone he felt was able to understand, whether layperson or
monastic. His ways of speaking of this domain, and about the
awareness that knows it—his view of the view—reflect many
similarities with Dzogchen, so I thought it might be helpful to
describe some of these, as well as some of the methods taught
by Ajahn Sumedho, his senior Western student. I will also try
to provide other angles or points of view from the Theravaμda
tradition that have some bearing on our understanding and practice
in this area.
The Faster You Hurry, the Slower You Go
It’s easy to get very busy with spiritual life, even driven and
obsessive. During the first 10 years of my monastic life, I
became a somewhat fanatical monk. This might sound like an
oxymoron, but it is by no means impossible. I was trying to do
everything 120 percent. I would get up super early in the morning
and do all sorts of ascetic practices, all kinds of special puμjaμs
and suchlike. I wasn’t even lying down; I didn’t lie down to sleep
for about three years. Finally I realized I had far too many things
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going; there was no sense of any internal spaciousness throughout
the day.
I was desperately busy with the meditation. During that time,
my life was jammed full. I was always half fretful and fussy. I
couldn’t even eat or walk across the courtyard without it being a
thing. Finally I had to ask myself: “Why am I doing this? This life
is supposed to be lived for peace, for realization, for freedom, and
my days are all clogged up.”
I should have gotten the message long before. I used to sit flat
on the floor, the use of a zafu being a sign of weakness in my
eyes. Well, one of the nuns was getting so fed up watching me
fall asleep during every sitting that she came up to me and asked,
“Could I offer you a cushion, Ajahn?”
“Thank you very much; I don’t need it.”
She replied, “I think you do.”
Eventually I went to Ajahn Sumedho and said, “I’ve decided
to give up all my ascetic practices. I’m just going to follow the
ordinary routine and do everything absolutely normally.” It was
the first time I ever saw him get excited. “At last!” was his
response. I thought he was going to say, “Oh well, if you must.”
He was waiting for me to realize that it wasn’t the amount of
stuff that I did, the hours that I put in on the cushion, the number
of mantras that I recited, or how strictly I kept all the rules.
It was more about embodying the spirit of nonbecoming, nonstriving
in everything I did. It then dawned on me that the
importance of nonstriving was something Ajahn Sumedho had
been teaching for many years; I just hadn’t been hearing it.
Ajahn Sumedho would encourage an awareness of what we
call “the becoming tendency.” In Pali the word for this is “bhava,”
and in the Tibetan tradition the word is used in the same way. It
The View from the Forest
describes the desire to become something. You do this to get that.
It’s that kind of busy-ness and doing-ness—taking hold of the
method, the practices, the rules, and the mechanics of it in order
to get somewhere. This habit is the cause of many of our troubles.
For seeds to grow we need soil, manure, water, and sunlight.
But if the bag of seed remains in the potting shed, we are missing
the essential piece. When we lug the manure and the water
around, we feel like we are doing something. “I’m really working
hard at my practice here!” Meanwhile there’s the teacher standing
by the seed bag reminding us [gestures as if pointing at a sack
in the corner].
Ajahn Sumedho talked repeatedly about being enlightened
rather than becoming enlightened. Be awake now; be enlightened
to the present moment. It is not about doing something now to
become enlightened in the future. That kind of thinking is bound
up with self and time and bears no fruit. Dzogchen teachings are
the same. It’s not a matter of finding rigpa as an object or doing
something now to get rigpa in the future; it’s about actually
being rigpa now. As soon as we start to do something with it
or say, “Hey, look, I got it” or “How can I keep this?” the mind
takes hold of that thought and leaves rigpa—unless the thought
is witnessed as just another transparent formation within the
space of rigpa.
Ajahn Sumedho himself was not always so clear on this point.
He would often tell the story about his own obsessions with
being “a meditator.” Ajahn Chah’s method of teaching emphasized
formal meditation practice to quite a great extent. But he
was also extremely keen on not making the formal meditation
distinct from the rest of life. He spoke about maintaining a continuity
of practice whether one was walking, standing, sitting,
or lying down. The same was true for eating, using the bathroom,
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and working. The point was always to sustain a continuity of
awareness. He used to say, “If your peace rests on the meditation
mat, when you leave the mat you leave your peace behind.”
Ajahn Chah was once given a piece of forested land on a hilltop
in his home province. The very generous supporter who had
donated it said to him, “If you can find a way to make a road
up to the top of the mountain, I will build a monastery there
for you.” Always up for a challenge of this nature, Ajahn Chah
spent a week or two on the mountain and found a pathway up.
He then moved the entire monastic community out there to
make the road.
Ajahn Sumedho was a recently arrived monk. He had been
there a year or two by this time and was a very serious meditator.
He hadn’t been keen to leave the settled life at the main
monastery, Wat Nong Pah Pong, but he joined in and there he
was—breaking rocks in the sun, pushing barrows of rubble
around, and working hard with the rest of the community. After
two or three days, he was getting hot, sweaty, and cranky. At the
end of the day, after a 12-hour shift, everyone would sit down to
meditate and would be reeling. Ajahn Sumedho thought, “This
is useless. I’m wasting my time. My meditation has fallen apart
completely. This is not helping the holy life at all.”
He carefully explained his concerns to Ajahn Chah: “I’m finding
that all the work we are doing is harmful to my meditation.
I really think it would be much better for me if I didn’t take part
in it. I need to do more sitting and walking meditation, more formal
practice. That would be very helpful for me and it’s what I
think would be for the best.”
Ajahn Chah said, “Okay, Sumedho. Yes, you can do that. But
I’d better inform the Sangha so that everyone knows what’s happening.”
He could be really wicked in this way.
The View from the Forest
At the Sangha meeting he said, “I want to make an announcement
to everybody. Now, I know that we have all come up here
to make this road. And I know that we are all working hard at
breaking rocks and carrying gravel. I know this is important work
for us to do, but the work of meditation is also very important.
Tan Sumedho has asked me if he can practice meditation while
we build the road, and I have told him that this is absolutely all
right. I do not want any of you to think any critical thoughts of
him. It is absolutely all right with me. He can stay alone and
meditate, and we will continue building the road.”
Ajahn Chah was out there from dawn until dusk. When he
wasn’t working on the road, he was receiving guests and teaching
Dharma. So he was really cranking it out. In the meantime,
Ajahn Sumedho stayed alone and meditated. He felt pretty bad
on the first day and even worse on the second. By the third day,
he couldn’t stand it any longer. He felt tortured and finally left
his solitude. He rejoined the monks, broke rocks, carried gravel,
and really gave himself to the work.
Ajahn Chah looked at the enthusiastic young monk with a
foot-wide grin and asked, “You enjoying the work, Sumedho?”
“Yes, Luang Por.”
“Isn’t it strange that your mind is happier now in the heat and
the dust than it was when you were meditating alone?”
“Yes, Luang Por.”
The lesson? Ajahn Sumedho had created a false division about
what meditation is and isn’t, when in fact, there is no division at
all. When we give our hearts to whatever we do, to whatever we
experience, or to what is happening around us, without personal
agendas or preferences taking over, the space of rigpa, the space
of awareness, is exactly the same.
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The Buddha Is Awareness
Ajahn Chah’s teachings also parallel Dzogchen in regard to the
nature of the Buddha. When you come right down to it, awareness
is not a thing. Nevertheless, it is an attribute of the fundamental
nature of mind. Ajahn Chah would refer to that awareness,
that knowing nature of mind, as Buddha: “This is the true
Buddha, the one who knows (poo roo).” The customary way
of talking about awareness for both Ajahn Chah and other
masters of the forest tradition was to use the term “Buddha”
in this way—the fully aware, awake quality of our own mind.
This is the Buddha.
He would say things like, “The Buddha who passed into
parinibbaμna 2,500 years ago is not the Buddha who is a refuge.”
He liked to shock people sometimes, when he felt he needed to
bring their attention to the teachings. When he said something
like this, they would think they had a heretic in front of them.
“How can that Buddha be a refuge? He is gone. Gone, really gone.
That’s no refuge. A refuge is a safe place. So how can this great
being who lived 2,500 years ago provide safety? Thinking about
him can make us feel good, but that feeling is also unstable. It’s
an inspiring feeling, but it is easily disturbed.”
When there is resting in the knowing, then nothing can touch
the heart. It’s this resting in the knowing that makes that Buddha
a refuge. That knowing nature is invulnerable, inviolable. What
happens to the body, emotions, and perceptions is secondary,
because that knowing is beyond the phenomenal world. So that
is the true refuge. Whether we experience pleasure or pain, success
or failure, praise or criticism, that knowing nature of the
mind is utterly serene. It is undisturbed and incorruptible. Just
as a mirror is unembellished and untainted by the images it
The View from the Forest
reflects, the knowing cannot be touched by any sense perception,
any thought, any emotion, any mood, any feeling. It’s of a transcendent
order. The Dzogchen teachings say this too: “There is
not one hair’s tip of involvement of the mind-objects in awareness,
in the nature of mind itself.” That is why awareness is a
refuge; awareness is the very heart of our nature.
Has Anybody Seen My Eyes?
Another parallel between Dzogchen and Ajahn Chah’s teachings
comes in the form of a warning: do not look for the unconditioned,
or rigpa, with the conditioned mind. In the verses of the
Third Zen Patriarch it says, “To seek Mind with the discriminating
mind is the greatest of all mistakes.” Ajahn Chah expressed
the futility and absurdity of this tendency by giving the example
of riding a horse and looking for it at the same time. We are riding
along, asking, “Has anyone seen my horse? Anyone see my
horse?” Everyone looks at us like we are crazy. So we ride over to
the next village and ask the same thing: “Anyone seen my horse?”
Ajahn Sumedho offers a similar example. Instead of looking for
a horse, he uses the image of looking for our eyes. The very organ
with which we see is doing the seeing, yet we go out searching:
“Has anyone seen my eyes? I can’t see my eyes anywhere. They
must be around here somewhere but I can’t find them.”
We can’t see our eyes, but we can see. This means that awareness
cannot be an object. But there can be awareness. Ajahn
Chah and other forest masters would use the expression “being
the knowing.” It is like being rigpa. In that state, there is the
mind knowing its own nature, Dharma knowing its own nature.
That’s all. As soon as we try to make an object of that, then a
dualistic structure has been created, a subject here looking at an
object there. There is resolution only when we let go of that dual-
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ity and relinquish that “looking for.” Then the heart just abides
in the knowing. But the habit is to think, “I’m not looking hard
enough. I haven’t found them yet. My eyes must be here somewhere.
After all, I can see. I need to try harder to find them.”
Have you ever been in a retreat interview where you describe
your meditation practice and the teacher looks at you and says,
“More effort is necessary”? You think, “But I’m dancing as fast
as I can!” We need to put effort in, but we need to do it in a skillful
way. The type of effort we need to develop is that which
involves being clearer but doing less. This quality of relaxation
is seen as crucial, not only within the Dzogchen teachings but
also in Theravaμdan monastic practice.
It’s an ironic point that this relaxation is necessarily built on
top of a vast array of preparatory practices. Within the Tibetan
ngondro training one performs 100,000 prostrations, 100,000
visualizations, 100,000 mantras, and then years of study, keeping
all the silμ a, and so on. Similarly, within the Theravaμda tradition,
we have siμla: the practices of virtue for the lay and the monastic
communities, as well as the refinements of the training in
Vinaya discipline. We do a lot of chanting and devotional practice,
plus a huge amount of training in meditation techniques,
such as mindfulness of breathing, mindfulness of the body, and
so forth. Then there’s the practice of living in community. (One
of the elder monks of my Sangha once referred to communal
monastic training as being the practice of 100,000 frustrations—
we don’t qualify until we’ve had our hundred thousandth.) So
there is an enormous amount of preparatory work that is
required to make that relaxation effective.
I like to think of this relaxation as a type of overdrive. We use
the fifth gear, the same speed but less revs. Until I told Ajahn
Sumedho that I had given up my ascetic practices, I was in fourth
The View from the Forest
gear and racing. There was always a pushing, a take-it-to-thelimit
attitude. When I dropped back one notch and was not
quite so fanatical about the rules and doing everything perfectly
the whole time, that one little element of relaxation allowed
the whole thing to be consummated; simply because there was
a letting go of the stress, I stopped pushing. The irony was that
I was still fulfilling 99.9 percent of my spiritual duties and
practices. But I did them without being driven. We can relax
without switching off, and consequently we can enjoy the fruits
of our work. This is what we mean by letting go of becoming
and learning to be. If we’re too tense and eager to get to the
other end, we’re bound to fall off the tightrope.
Realizing Cessation
Another very important aspect of the view is its resonance
with the experience of cessation, nirodha. The experience of
rigpa is synonymous with the experience of dukkha-nirodha,
the cessation of suffering.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? We practice to end suffering, yet we
get so attached to working with things in the mind that when
the dukkha stops and the heart becomes spacious and empty,
we can find ourselves feeling lost. We don’t know how to leave
that experience alone: “Oh!—whoom—everything is open,
clear, spacious . . . so now what do I do?” Our conditioning
says, “I am supposed to be doing something. This isn’t what it
means to be progressing on the path.” We don’t know how to
be awake and yet to leave that spaciousness alone.
When that space in the mind appears, it can bewilder us or
we can easily overlook it. It is as if each of us were a thief who
breaks into a house, looks around, and decides, “Well, there is
not much to take here so I’ll just keep going, find some other
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place.” We miss the realization that when we let go, dukkha
ceases. Instead, we ignore that still, open, clear quality and go
looking for the next thing, and then the next and the next. We
don’t, as the expression goes, “taste the nectar,” the juice of
rigpa. We just zoom straight through the juice bar. It looks like
there is nothing here. Everything looks kind of boring: no lust
or fear or other issues to deal with. So we busy ourselves with
attitudes like: “I am being irresponsible; I should have an object
to concentrate on; or I should at least be contemplating impermanence;
I’m not dealing with my issues. Quick, let me go and
find something challenging to work with.” Out of the best of
intentions, we fail to taste the juice that’s right here.
When grasping ceases, the ultimate truth appears. It’s that
AÂnanda and another monk had been debating about the
nature of the deathless state and they decided to consult the
Buddha. They wanted to know: “What is the nature of deathlessness?”
They prepared themselves for a long, expansive explanation.
But the Buddha’s response was brief and succinct. He
replied, “The cessation of grasping is deathlessness.” That’s it.
On this point, the Dzogchen and Theravaμdan teachings are identical.
When grasping stops, there is rigpa, there is deathlessness,
the ending of suffering, dukkha-nirodha.
The Buddha’s very first teaching on the Four Noble Truths
spoke directly about this. For each of the four truths, there is
a way in which it is to be handled. The First Noble Truth—
of dukkha, dissatisfaction—is “to be apprehended.” We need
to recognize: “This is dukkha. This is not rigpa. This is marigpa
(unawareness, ignorance) and is therefore unsatisfactory.”
The Second Noble Truth, the cause of dukkha, is self-centered
desire, craving. It is “to be let go of, relinquished, abandoned.”
The View from the Forest
The Fourth Noble Truth, the Eightfold Path, is “to be cultivated
and developed.”
But what is interesting, especially in this context, is that
the Third Noble Truth, dukkha-nirodha, the ending of dukkha,
is “to be realized.” That means when the dukkha stops, notice
it. Notice: “Oh! Everything is okay.” That’s when we go into
overdrive—we can just be, without becoming.
“Aha”—taste the nectar of rigpa—“aaah, this is all right.”
The conscious realization of the ending of dukkha, of emptiness,
and of the space of the mind are considered crucial elements
of right practice within the Theravaμda tradition. Realizing nirodha
is in some ways the most important of all the aspects of working
with the Four Noble Truths. It seems inconsequential, it’s the
least tangible of them all, but it’s the one that contains the jewel,
the seed of enlightenment.
Although the experience of dukkha-nirodha is not a thing,
this doesn’t mean that there is nothing or no quality there. It is
actually the experience of ultimate truth. If we don’t rush through
looking for the next hit and we pay attention to the ending of
dukkha, we open ourselves to purity, radiance, and peacefulness.
By allowing our heart to fully taste what’s here, all so-called
ordinary experience blossoms and opens, beautifully adorned
like a golden orchid; it keeps getting brighter and clearer.
Not Made of That
All Buddhist practitioners, regardless of tradition, are familiar
with the three characteristics of existence—anicca, dukkha,
anattaμ(impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, selflessness). These
are “chapter one, page one” Buddhism. But the Theravaμdins also
talk about another three characteristics of existence, at a more
refined level: suññataμ, tathataμ, and atammayataμ. Suññataμ is
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emptiness. The term derives from saying “no” to the phenomenal
world: “I’m not going to believe in this. This is not entirely
real.” Tathataμmeans suchness. It is a quality very similar to
suññataμbut derives from saying “yes” to the universe. There is
nothing, yet there is something. The quality of suchness is like
the texture of ultimate reality. Suññataμand tathataμ—emptiness
and suchness—the teachings talk in these ways.
This third quality, atammayataμ, is not well known. In
Theravaμda, atammayataμhas been referred to as the ultimate
concept. It literally means “not made of that.” But atammayataμ
can be rendered in many different ways, giving it a variety of
subtle shades of meaning. Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Ñanamoli
(in their translation of the Majjhima Nikaμya) render it as “nonidentification”—
picking up on the “subject” side of the equation.
Other translators call it “nonfashioning” or “unconcoctability,”
thus pointing more to the ”object” element of it. Either way, it
refers primarily to the quality of awareness prior to or without
a subject-object duality.
The ancient Indian origins of this term seem to lie in a theory
of sense perception in which the grasping hand supplies the dominant
analogy: the hand takes the shape of what it apprehends.
The process of vision, for example, is explained as the eye sending
out some kind of ray, which then takes the shape of what we
see and comes back with it. Similarly with thought: mental energy
conforms to its object (e.g., a thought) and then returns to the
subject. This idea is encapsulated in the term “tan-mayataμ,” “consisting
of that.” The mental energy of the experiencer (subject)
becomes consubstantial with the thing (object) being realized.
The opposite quality, atammayataμ, refers to a state in which
the mind’s energy does not “go out” to the object and occupy it.
It makes neither an objective “thing” nor a subjective “observer”
The View from the Forest
knowing it. Hence, nonidentification refers to the subjective
aspect and nonfabrication to the objective.
The way emptiness is usually discussed in Dzogchen circles
makes it very clear that it is a characteristic of ultimate reality.
But in other usages of emptiness or suchness, there still can be a
sense of an agent (a subject) which is a this looking at a that, and
the that is empty. Or the that is such, thus. Atammayataμ is the
realization that, in truth, there cannot be anything other than
ultimate reality. There is no that. In letting go, in the complete
abandonment of that, the whole relative subject-object world,
even at its subtlest level, is broken apart and dissolved.
I particularly like the word “atammayataμ” because of the message
it conveys. Among its other qualities, this concept deeply
addresses that persistent sense of always wondering, “What is
that over there?” There’s that hint that something over there
might be a little more interesting than what is here. Even the
subtlest sense of overlooking this to get to that, not being content
with this and wanting to become that, is an error. Atammayataμ
is that quality in us that knows, “There is no that. There is only
this.” Then even this-ness becomes meaningless. Atammayataμ
helps the heart break the subtlest habits of restlessness as well as
still the reverberations of the root duality of subject and object.
That abandonment brings the heart to a realization: there is only
the wholeness of the Dharma, complete spaciousness, and fulfillment.
The apparent dualities of this and that, subject and object
are seen to be essentially meaningless.
One way that we can use this on a practical level is with a
technique Ajahn Sumedho has often suggested. Thinking the
mind is in the body, we say, “my mind” [points at head] or “my
mind” [points at chest]. Right? “It’s all in my mind.” Actually
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we’ve got it wrong. The body is in our mind rather than the mind
in the body, right?
What do we know about our body? We can see it. We can hear
it. We can smell it. We can touch it. Where does seeing happen?
In the mind. Where do we experience touch? In the mind. Where
do we experience smelling? Where does that happen? In the mind.
Everything that we know about the body, now and at any previous
time, has been known through the agency of our mind. We
have never known anything about our body except through our
mind. So our entire life, ever since infancy, everything we have
ever known about our body and the world has happened in our
mind. So, where is our body?
It doesn’t mean to say there isn’t a physical world, but what
we can say is that the experience of the body, and the experience
of the world, happens within our mind. It doesn’t happen anywhere
else. It’s all happening here. And in that here-ness, the
world’s externality, its separateness has ceased. The word “cessation,”
(nirodha), may also be used here. Along with its more
familiar rendition, the word also means “to hold in check,” so it
can mean that the separateness has ceased. When we realize that
we hold the whole world within us, its thing-ness, its other-ness
has been checked. We are better able to recognize its true nature.
This shift of vision is an interesting little meditation tool that
we can use anytime, as was described before with reference to
walking meditation. It is a very useful device because it leads
us to the truth of the matter. Whenever we apply it, it flips the
world inside out, because we are then able to see that this body is
indeed just a set of perceptions. It doesn’t negate our functioning
freely, but it puts everything into context. “It’s all happening
within the space of rigpa, within the space of the knowing
The View from the Forest
mind.” In holding things in this way, we suddenly find our body,
the mind, and the world arriving at a resolution, a strange realization
of perfection. It all happens here. This method may seem
a little obscure, but sometimes the most abstruse and subtle
tools can bring about the most radical changes of heart.
Reflective Inquiry
Reflective inquiry was another of the methods that Ajahn Chah
would use in sustaining the view, or we may say, in sustaining
right view. It involves the deliberate use of verbal thought to investigate
the teachings as well as particular attachments, fears, and
hopes, and especially the feeling of identification itself. He would
talk about it almost in terms of having a dialogue with himself.
Oftentimes thinking gets painted as the big villain in meditation
circles: “Yeah, my mind. . . . If only I could stop thinking, I’d
be happy.” But actually, the thinking mind can be the most wonderful
of helpers when it is used in the right way, particularly
when investigating the feeling of selfhood. There’s a missed
opportunity when we overlook the use of conceptual thought in
this way. When you are experiencing, seeing, or doing something,
ask a question like: “What is it that’s aware of this feeling? Who
owns this moment? What is it that knows rigpa?”
The deliberate use of reflective thought or inquiry can reveal
a set of unconscious assumptions, habits, and compulsions that
we have set in motion. This can be very helpful and can yield
great insight. We establish a steady, open mindfulness and then
ask: “What is it that knows this? What is aware of this moment?
Who is it that feels pain? Who is it that is having this fantasy?
Who is it that is wondering about supper?” At that moment
a gap opens up. Milarepa once said something along the lines of,
“When the flow of discursive thinking is broken, the doorway to
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liberation opens.” In exactly the same way, when we pose that
kind of question, it is like an awl being worked into a knotted
tangle of identification and loosening its strands. It breaks the
habit, the pattern of discursive thinking. When we ask “who” or
“what,” for a moment the thinking mind trips over its own feet.
It fumbles. In that space, before it can piece together an answer
or an identity, there is timeless peace and freedom. Through that
peaceful space the innate quality of mind, mind-essence, appears.
It’s only by frustrating our habitual judgments, the partial realities
that we have unconsciously determined into existence, that
we are forced to loosen our grip and to let go of our misguided
way of thinking.
Fear of Freedom
The Buddha said that the letting go of the sense of “I” is the
supreme happiness (e.g., in ud. 2.1, and 4.1). But over the years
we have become very fond of this character, haven’t we? As
Ajahn Chah once said, “It is like having a dear friend whom
you’ve known your whole life. You’ve been inseparable. Then
the Buddha comes along and says that you and your friend have
got to split up.” It’s heartbreaking. The ego is bereft. There is
the feeling of diminution and loss. Then comes the sinking feeling
of desperation.
To the sense of self, being is always defined in terms of being
some thing. But the practice and teachings clearly emphasize
undefined being, an awareness: edgeless, colorless, infinite,
omnipresent—you name it. When being is undefined in this way,
it seems like death to the ego. And death is the worst thing. The
ego-based habits kick in with a vengeance and search for something
to fill up the space. Anything will do: “Quick, give me
a problem, a meditation practice (that’s legal!). Or how about
The View from the Forest
some kind of memory, a hope, a responsibility I haven’t fulfilled,
something to anguish over or feel guilty about, anything!”
I have experienced this many times. In that spaciousness, it is
as if there’s a hungry dog at the door desperately trying to get in:
“C’mon, lemme in, lemme in.” The hungry dog wants to know:
“When is that guy going to pay attention to me? He’s been sitting
there for hours like some goddamn Buddha. Doesn’t he know I’m
hungry out here? Doesn’t he know it’s cold and wet? Doesn’t he
care about me?”
“All sank˘ harμ as are impermanent. All dharmas are such and
empty. There is no other. . . .” [makes forlorn hungry-dog noises].
These experiences have provided some of the most revealing
moments in my own spiritual practice and exploration. They
contain such a rabid hungering to be. Anything will do, anything,
in order just to be something: a failure, a success, a messiah,
a blight upon the world, a mass murderer. “Just let me be
something, please, God, Buddha, anybody.”
To which Buddha wisdom responds, “No.”
It takes incredible internal resources and strength to be
able to say “no” in this way. The pathetic pleading of the ego
becomes phenomenally intense, visceral. The body may shake
and our legs start twitching to run. “Get me out of this place!”
Perhaps our feet even begin moving to get to the door because
that urge is so strong.
At this point, we are shining the light of wisdom right at the
root of separate existence. That root is a tough one. It takes a lot
of work to get to that root and to cut through it. So we should
expect a great deal of friction and difficulty in engaging in this
kind of work.
Intense anxiety does arise. Don’t be intimidated by it. Leave
the urge alone. It’s normal to experience grief and strong feelings
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of bereavement. There’s a little being that just died here. The
heart feels a wave of loss. Stay with that and let it pass through.
The feeling that “something is going to be lost if I don’t follow
this urge” is the deceptive message of desire. Whether it’s a subtle
little flicker of restlessness or a grand declaration—“I am
going to die of heartbreak if I don’t follow this!”—know them all
as desire’s deceptive allure.
There is a wonderful line in a poem by Rumi where he says,
“When were you ever made any the less by dying?” Let that
surge of the ego be born, and let it die. Then, lo and behold, not
only is the heart not diminished, it is actually more radiant, vast,
and joyful than ever before. There’s spaciousness, contentment,
and an infinite ease that cannot be attained through grasping or
identifying with any attribute of life whatsoever.
No matter how genuine the problems, the responsibilities,
the passions, the experiences seem to be, we don’t have to be
that. There is no identity that we have to be. Nothing whatsoever
should be grasped at.
The View from the Forest

he translation of terms can be very interesting, especially
out on the borders where words expire. I remember years
ago looking in the glossary of a collection of Vedanta teachings.
Where the Sanskrit had a one-word term, the English explanation
was a paragraph long. In refined areas of consciousness,
English is pretty impoverished. Our language is great at emotions.
We’ve got scads of words for every shade of feeling. But for
the fine details of the inner reaches of consciousness, it’s hard to
find words that really give an accurate and complete picture and
that do not cause us to lose our way.
Attending to the Deathless
In the Theravaμda teachings, one of the ways the Buddha talked
about how to be liberated is very similar to a central principle of
Dzogchen. As far as I can gather, both traditions emphasize that
at a certain point we need to let go of everything and awaken to
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the presence of the Dharma. Even the most skillful states must
not be clung to. This principle is translated in various ways, but
the one that feels most accurate is “attending to the deathless.”
In Pali, that last word is “amatadhaμtu.”
A great passage in the suttas (a 3.128) presents an exchange
between two of the Buddha’s elder monks. Venerable Saμriputta is
the Buddha’s chief disciple, the one most eminent in wisdom and
also in meditative accomplishments. Although he had no psychic
powers whatsoever, he was the grand master of meditators.
The other elder disciple of the Buddha, Venerable Anuruddha,
had spectacular psychic powers. He was the one most blessed
with “the divine eye”; he could see into all different realms.
The two disciples were an interesting mix. Saμriputta’s weakness
was Anuruddha’s great gift. Anyway, shortly before his
enlightenment, Anuruddha came to Saμriputta and said, “With
the divine eye purified and perfected I can see the entire 10,000-
fold universal system. My meditation is firmly established; my
mindfulness is steady as a rock. I have unremitting energy, and
the body is totally relaxed and calm. And yet still my heart is not
free from the outflows and confusions. What am I getting wrong?”
Saμriputta replied, “Friend, your ability to see into the 10,000-
fold universal system is connected to your conceit. Your persistent
energy, your sharp mindfulness, your physical calm, and
your one-pointedness of mind have to do with your restlessness.
And the fact that you still have not released the heart from the
aμsavas and defilements is tied up with your anxiety. It would
be good, friend, if rather than occupying yourself with these
concerns, you turned your attention to the deathless element.”
(By the way, the Pali Canon has a lot of humor in it like this,
although it’s rather similar to English humor and sometimes is
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easy to miss.) So, of course, Anuruddha said, “Thank you very
much,” and off he went. Shortly thereafter, he realized complete
enlightenment. This was very understated humor.
The point of their discussion, however, is really quite serious.
As long as we are saying, “Look at how complicated my problems
are” or “Look at my powers of concentration,” we will stay stuck
in sam|saμra. In essence, Saμriputta told his colleague, “You’re so
busy with all of the doingness and the effects that come from
that, so busy with all of these proliferations, you’ll never be free.
You’re looking in the wrong direction. You’re heading out, looking
at the meditation object out there, the 10,000-fold universal
system out there. Just shift your view to the context of experience
and attend to the deathless element instead.”
All it took was a slight shift of focus for Anuruddha to realize:
“It’s not just a matter of all the fascinating objects or all the
noble stuff I have been doing—that’s all conditioned, born, compounded,
and deathbound. The timeless Dharma is being missed.
Look within, look more broadly. Attend to the deathless.”
There are also a few places in the suttas (e.g., m 64.9 and a 9.36)
where the Buddha talked about the same process with respect to
development of concentration and meditative absorption. He
even made the point that, when the mind is in first jhaμna, second
jhaμna, third jhaμna, all the way out to the higher formless jhaμnas,
we can look at those states and recognize all of them as being
conditioned and dependent. This, he said, is the true development
of wisdom: the mindfulness to recognize the conditioned
nature of a state, to turn away from it, and to attend to the deathless,
even while the state is still around. When the mind is concentrated
and very pure and bright, we can recognize that state
as conditioned, dependent, alien, or something that is void,
empty. There is the presence of mind to reflect on the truth that:
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All of this is conditioned and thus gross, but there is the deathless
element. And in inclining toward the deathless element, the
heart is released.
In a way it is like looking at a picture. Normally the attention
goes to the figure in a picture and not the background. Or imagine
being in a room with someone who is sitting in a chair. When
you look across the room you would probably not attend to the
space in front of or beside that person. Your attention would go
to the figure in the chair, right? Similarly, if you’ve ever painted
a picture or a wall, there’s usually one spot where there’s a
glitch or a smudge. So where does the eye go when you look
at the wall? It beams straight in on the flaw. In exactly the same
way, our perceptual systems are geared to aim for the figure, not
the ground. Even if an object looks like the ground—such as limitless
light, for example—we still need to know how to turn back
from that object.
Incidentally, this is why in Buddhist meditation circles there’s
often a warning about deep states of absorption. When one is in
one, it can be very difficult to develop insight—much more so
than when the mind is somewhat less intensely concentrated.
The absorption state is such a good facsimile of liberation that it
feels like the real gold. So we think: “It’s here, why bother going
any further? This is really good.” We get tricked and, as a result,
we miss the opportunity to turn away and attend to the deathless.
In cosmological terms, the best place for liberation is in the
human realm. There’s a good mixture of suffering and bliss, happiness
and unhappiness here. If we are off in the deva realms, it’s
difficult to become liberated because it’s like being at an ongoing
party. And we don’t even have to clean up afterwards. We just
hang out in the Nandana Grove. Devas drop grapes in our mouths
as we waft around with flocks of adoring beings of our favorite
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gender floating in close proximity. And, of course, there’s not
much competition; you’re always the star of the show in those
places. Up in the brahma realms it’s even worse. Who is going
to come back down to grubby old earth and deal with tax returns
and building permits?
This cosmology is a reflection of our internal world. Thus the
brahma realms are the equivalent of formless states of absorption.
One of the great meditation masters of Thailand, Venerable
Ajahn Tate, was such an adept at concentration that, as soon as
he sat down to meditate, he would go straight into aruμpa-jhaμna,
formless states of absorption. It took him 12 years after he met
his teacher, Venerable Ajahn Mun, to train himself not to do that
and to keep his concentration at a level where he could develop
insight. In those formless states, it is just so nice. It’s easy to ask:
“What’s the point of cultivating wise reflection or investigating
the nature of experience? The experience itself is so seamlessly
delicious, why bother?” The reason we bother is that those are
not dependable states. They are unreliable and they are not ours.
Probably not many people have the problem of getting stuck in
aruμpa-jhaμna. Nonetheless, it is helpful to understand why these
principles are discussed and emphasized.
This gesture of attending to the deathless is thus a core spiritual
practice but not a complicated one. We simply withdraw our
attention from the objects of the mind and incline the attention
towards the deathless, the unborn. This is not a massive reconstruction
program. It’s not like we have to do a whole lot. It’s
very simple and natural. We relax and notice that which has been
here all along, like noticing the space in a room. We don’t notice
space, because it doesn’t grab our attention, it isn’t exciting.
Similarly, nibbaμna has no feature, no color, no taste, and no form,
so we don’t realize it’s right here. The perceptual systems and the
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naming activity of the mind work on forms; that’s what they go
to first. Therefore we tend to miss what’s always here. Actually,
because it has no living quality to it, space is the worst as well as
the best example, but sometimes it is reasonable to use it.
Unsupported Consciousness
In the Theravaμda teachings, the Buddha also talked about this
quality in terms of “unsupported consciousness.” This means that
there is cognition, there is knowing, but it’s not landing anyplace,
it’s not abiding anywhere. “Attending to the deathless” and
“unsupported consciousness” are somewhat synonymous. They
are like descriptions of the same tree from different angles.
In describing unsupported consciousness, the Buddha taught
that “Wherever there is something that is intended, something
that is acted upon, or something that lies dormant, then that
becomes the basis for consciousness to land. And where consciousness
lands, that then is the cause for confusion, attachment,
becoming and rebirth, and so on.
“But if there is nothing intended, acted upon, or lying latent,
then consciousness has no basis to land upon. And having no
basis to land, consciousness is released. One recognizes, ‘Consciousness,
thus unestablished, is released.’ Owing to its staying
firm, the heart is contented. Owing to its contentment, it is not
agitated. Not agitated, such a one realizes complete, perfect
nibbaμna within themselves.” (s 12.38 and s 22.53)
The Buddha used a whole galaxy of images, similes, and
forms like this because they spoke to different people in different
ways. In another passage the Buddha asked his disciples, “If there
was a house with a wall that faced out towards the east and in
that wall there was a window, when the sun came up in the
morning, where would the shaft of sunlight fall?”
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One of his monks replied, “On the western wall.” The
Buddha then asked, “And if there’s no western wall, where
would the sunlight land?”
The monk answered, “On the ground.” Then the Buddha
responded, “And if there’s no ground, where will it land?” The
monk replied, “On the water.”
The Buddha pushed it a bit further and asked, “And if there’s
no water, where will it land?” The monk answered correctly
when he said, “If there is no water, then it will not land.” The
Buddha ended the exchange by saying, “Exactly so. When
the heart is released from clinging to what are called the four
nutriments—physical food, sense contact (sight, sound, smell,
taste, touch), intention, and consciousness—then consciousness
does not land anywhere. That state, I tell you, is without sorrow,
affliction, or despair.” (s 12.64)
Consciousness: Invisible, Radiant, Limitless
In several instances, the language of the Dzogchen tradition
seems strikingly similar to that of the Theravaμda. In Dzogchen,
the common description of the qualities of rigpa, nondual awareness,
is “empty in essence, cognizant in nature, and unconfined
in capacity.” A different translation of these three qualities is
“emptiness, knowing, and lucidity, or clarity.” In the Pali scriptures
(d 11.85 and m 49.25), the Buddha talks about the mind of
the arahant as “consciousness which is unmanifest, signless,
infinite, and radiant in all directions.” The Pali words are
viññaμn|am| (consciousness); aniddassanam| (empty, invisible or
signless, non-manifestative); anantam| (limitless, unconfined,
infinite); and sabbato pabham (radiant in all directions, accessible
from all sides).
Cessation of Consciousness
One of the places the Buddha uses this description is at the
end of a long illustrative tale. A monk has asked, “Where is it
that earth, water, fire, and wind fade out and cease without remainder?”
To which the Buddha replies that the monk has asked
the wrong question. What he should have asked is, “Where is
it that earth, water, fire, and wind can find no footing?” The
Buddha then answers this question himself, saying it is in
“the consciousness which is invisible, limitless, and radiant
in all directions” that the four great elements “and long and
short, and coarse and fine, and pure and impure can find no footing.
There it is that naμma-ruμpa (body-and-mind, name-and-form,
subject-and-object) both come to an end. With this stopping, this
cessation of consciousness, all things here are brought to an end.”
Such unsupported and unsupportive consciousness is not
an abstract principle. In fact, it was the basis of the Buddha’s
enlightenment. As the Buddha was sitting under the bodhi tree,
the hordes of Maμra attacked him. Armies were hurling themselves
at the Buddha, and yet nothing could get into the space
under the tree. All the weapons and spears they threw turned
into rays of light; the arrows that they fired turned into flowers
that came sprinkling down around the Buddha. Nothing harmful
to the Buddha could get into that space. There was nowhere for
it to land. Sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, long and short,
coarse and fine, pure and impure are all aspects of body and
mind. They represent attributes of all phenomena. Yet none of
them could find a footing. The Buddha was in a non-stick realm.
Everything that came toward him kept falling away. Nothing
stuck; nothing could get in and harm the Buddha in any way. To
get a better sense of this quality of unsupported consciousness,
it’s helpful to reflect on this image. Also very useful are the
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phrases at the end of the passage just quoted, particularly where
the Buddha says, “When consciousness ceases, all things here are
brought to an end.”
The Anatomy of Cessation
The concept of cessation is very familiar in the Theravaμda tradition.
Even though it’s supposed to be synonymous with nibbaμna,
it’s sometimes put forth as some event that we’re all seeking,
where all experience will vanish and then we’ll be fine. “A great
god will come from the sky, take away everything, and make
everybody feel high.” I don’t want to get obsessed about words,
but we suffer a lot, or get confused, because of misunderstandings
like this. When we talk about stopping consciousness, do
you think that means “let’s all get unconscious”? It can’t be that,
can it? The Buddha was not extolling the virtues of unconsciousness.
Otherwise thorazine or barbiturates would be the way:
“Give me the anesthetic and we’re on our way to nibbaμna.” But
obviously that’s not it. Understanding what is meant by stopping
or cessation is thus pretty crucial here.
I’ve known people, particularly those who have practiced in
the Theravaμda tradition, who have been taught and trained that
the idea of meditation is to get to a place of cessation. We might
get to a place where we don’t feel or see anything; there is awareness
but everything is gone. An absence of sight, sound, smell,
taste, touch, the body—it all vanishes. And then these students
are told, “This is the greatest thing. That’s what there is to look
forward to.” The teacher encourages them to put tremendous
hours and diligence into their meditation. When one of these students
told her teacher that she had arrived at that kind of state,
he got really excited. He then asked her, “So what did it feel
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like?” and she said, “It was like drinking a glass of cold water
but without the water and without the glass.” On another occasion
she said, “It was like being shut inside a refrigerator.”
This is not the only way of understanding cessation. The
root of the word “nirodha” is rudh, which means “to not arise,
to end, check, or hold”—like holding a horse in check with the
reins. So nirodha also has a meaning of holding everything,
embracing its scope. “Stopping of consciousness” can thus
imply that somehow everything is held in check rather than
that it simply vanishes. It’s a redrawing of the internal map.
A story from the time of the Buddha might help to expand
our understanding of what this means. One night while the
Buddha was meditating, a brilliant and beautiful devataμnamed
Rohitassa appeared in front of him. He told the Buddha, “When
I was a human being, I was a spiritual seeker of great psychic
power, a sky walker. Even though I journeyed for 100 years to
reach the end of the world, with great determination and resolution,
I could not come to the end of the world. I died on the
journey before I had found it. So can you tell me, is it possible
to journey to the end of the world?”
And the Buddha replied, “It is not possible to reach the end
of the world by walking, but I also tell you that unless you
reach the end of the world, you will not reach the end of suffering.”
Rohitassa was a bit puzzled and said, “Please explain this
to me, Venerable Sir.” The Buddha replied, “In this very fathomlong
body is the world, the origin of the world, the cessation
of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the
world.” (a 4.45, s 2.26)
In that instance the Buddha used the exact same formulation
as in the Four Noble Truths. The world, “loka,” in this
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respect means the world of our experience. And that’s how the
Buddha almost always uses the term “the world.” He’s referring
to the world as we experience it. This includes only sight, sound,
smell, taste, touch, thought, emotion, feeling. That’s it. That’s
what “the world” is—my world, your world. It’s not the abstracted,
geographical planet, universe-type world. It’s the direct experience
of the planet, the people, and the cosmos. Here is the origin
of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading
to the cessation of the world.
He said that as long as we create “me and my experience”—
“me in here” and “the world out there”—we’re stuck in the
world of subject and object. Then there is dukkha. And the way
leading to the cessation of that duality is the way leading to the
cessation of suffering. Geographically, it is impossible to journey
to the end of the world. It’s only when we come to the cessation of
the world, which literally means the cessation of its otherness,
its thingness, will we reach the end of dukkha, unsatisfactoriness.
When we stop creating sense objects as absolute realities and stop
seeing thoughts and feelings as solid things, there is cessation.
To see that the world is within our minds is one way of working
with these principles. The whole universe is embraced when
we realize that it’s happening within our minds. And in that
moment when we recognize that it all happens here, it ceases. Its
thingness ceases. Its otherness ceases. Its substantiality ceases.
This is just one way of talking and thinking about it. But I
find this brings us much closer to the truth, because in that
respect, it’s held in check. It’s known. But there’s also the quality
of its emptiness. Its insubstantiality is known. We’re not imputing
solidity to it, a reality that it doesn’t possess. We’re just looking
directly at the world, knowing it fully and completely.
Cessation of Consciousness
So, what happens when the world ceases? I remember one
time Ajahn Sumedho was giving a talk about this same subject.
He said, “Now I’m going to make the world completely disappear.
I’m going to make the world come to an end.” He just
sat there and said: “Okay, are you ready? . . . The world just
ended. . . . Do you want me to bring it back into being again?
Okay . . . welcome back.”
Nothing was apparent from the outside. It all happens internally.
When we stop creating the world, we stop creating each
other. We stop imputing the sense of solidity that creates a sense
of separation. Yet we do not shut off the senses in any way. Actually,
we shed the veneer, the films of confusion, of opinion, of
judgment, of our conditioning, so that we can see the way things
really are. At that moment, dukkha ceases. This is what we can
call the experience of rigpa. There is knowing. There is liberation
and freedom. There is no dukkha.
Is the Sound Annoying You?
In this respect, it’s again striking to me how closely the language
of the Dzogchen teachings matches the kind of expressions used
by the Thai forest masters. These are exactly the kinds of teachings
they dwell on and employ a great deal, particularly my own
teacher, Ajahn Chah.
If people were trying to meditate and wanted to shut the world
out, he used to give them a very hard time. If he came across a
nun or a monk who had barricaded the windows of their heart
and was trying to block everything out, he would really put them
through it. One monk of this type he drew in as his attendant for
a while and he would never let him sit still. As soon as he saw
the monk close his eyes to “go into meditation” he would imme-
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diately send him off on some errand. Ajahn Chah knew that cutting
yourself off was not the place of true inner peace. This was
because of his own years of trying to make the world shut up and
leave him alone. He failed miserably. Eventually he was able to
see this is not how to find completion and resolution.
Years ago he was a wandering monk, living on his own on
a mountainside above a village and keeping a strict meditation
schedule. In Thailand they love outdoor night-long film shows
because the nights are cool compared to the very hot days.
Whenever there was a party, it tended to go on all night. About
50 years ago, public address systems were just starting to be used
in Thailand and every decent event had to have a PA going. It
blasted as loud as it possibly could all through the night. One
time, Ajahn Chah was quietly meditating up on the mountain
while there was a festival going on down in the village. All the
local folk songs and pop music were amplified throughout the
area. Ajahn Chah was sitting there seething and thinking, “Don’t
they realize all the bad karma involved in disturbing my meditation?
They know I’m up here. After all, I’m their teacher. Haven’t
they learned anything? And what about the five precepts? I bet
they’re boozing and out of control,” and so on and so forth.
But Ajahn Chah was a pretty smart fellow. As he listened to
himself complaining, he quickly realized, “Well, they’re just having
a good time down there. I’m making myself miserable up here.
No matter how upset I get, my anger is just making more noise
internally.” And then he had this insight: “Oh, the sound is just
the sound. It’s me who is going out to annoy it. If I leave the sound
alone, it won’t annoy me. It’s just doing what it has to do. That’s
what sound does. It makes sound. This is its job. So if I don’t go
out and bother the sound, it’s not going to bother me. Aha!”
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As it turned out, this insight had such a profound effect that
it became a principle that he espoused from that time on. If any
of the monks displayed an urge to try and get away from people,
stimulation, the world of things and responsibilities, he would
tend to shove them straight into it. He would put that monk in
charge of the cement-mixing crew or take him to do every house
blessing that came up on the calendar. He would make sure that
the monk had to get involved in things because he was trying
to teach him to let go of seeing meditation as needing sterile
conditions—to see, in fact, that most wisdom arises from the
skilful handling of the world’s abrasions.
Ajahn Chah was passing along an important insight. It’s
pointless to try to find peace through nullifying or erasing the
sense world. Peace only comes through not giving that world
more substantiality or more reality than it actually possesses.
Touching the Earth
Sometimes when I use the example of the Buddha sitting under
the bodhi tree, people still feel that this is a negation of the sense
world. There is an intimation of condescension, a looking down
on that. We get afraid when we hear people talking about dispassion
towards the sense world as it can offend our habits of life
The balance—and this is something we can experience for
ourselves—is not in negation. It comes from when we stop creating
each other and allow ourselves to relax into a pure quality of
knowing. In not fabricating the world, our selves, or our stories,
there is a gentle relaxation and, ironically, we find ourselves far
more attuned to life than ever. This cannot happen while we are
busy carrying around “me and you” and “it’s my life” and “my
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past” and “my future” and the rest of the world with all its problems.
Actually, the result of this relinquishment is not a kind of
numbness or a distancing but an astonishing attunement.
Buddhist cosmology and the stories of the suttas always have
an historical, a mythical, and a psychological element to them.
When we talk about the Buddha under the bodhi tree, we sometimes
wonder, “Was it actually that tree? Are we sure that he
really sat beside the river Nerañjaraμnear Bodh-gayaμ? How can
anyone know it was actually there?” The story goes that perhaps
the Buddha did sit under a tree, or a Nepalese prince sat under a
tree, and something happened (or stopped happening) somewhere
in India a couple of thousand years or so ago. In other words,
there are both historical and mythological aspects to the story.
But the most crucial element is how this maps onto our own psychology.
How does this symbolize our experience?
The pattern of the story is that, even though the Buddha has
totally penetrated the cycles of dependent origination and his
heart is utterly free, Maμra’s army doesn’t retreat. Maμra has sent
in the horrors, he has sent in his beautiful daughters, he’s even
sent in the parental pressure factor: “Well, son, you could have
done a great job; you’re such a natural leader, you would have
made a great king. Now there’s only your half-brother, Nanda,
and he’s a bit of a wimp, no good on the battlefield. Well, I guess
if you’re going to do this monk thing, the kingdom is going to
rack and ruin. But that’s all right, it’s fine. You just do whatever
you want to do. Just be aware that you’re ruining my life; but
don’t worry, it’s fine, it’s okay.”
The forces of allure, fear, and responsibility are all there. Yet
the Buddha doesn’t just close his eyes and escape into blissful
absorption. As the armies of Maμra come at him, he looks straight
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at them and says, “I know you, Maμra. I know what this is.” The
Buddha doesn’t argue with Maμra, he doesn’t give rise to aversion
towards Maμra. He stays undeluded; he doesn’t react against
what’s happening in that moment. No matter what Maμra’s
armies do, none can get into that space under the bodhi tree. All
their weapons turn to flowers and incense and to beams of light
illuminating the vajra seat.
But even when the Buddha’s heart is totally liberated, Maμra
still won’t retreat. He says to the Buddha, “What right do you
have to claim the royal seat at the immovable spot. I’m the king
of this world. I’m the one who should be sitting there. I’m in
charge here. I’m the one who deserves to be there, aren’t I?” And
he turns around to his horde, his army 700,000 strong, and they
all say, “Yes, indeed, Sire!” “See,” says Maμra, “everyone agrees. I
belong there, not you. I’m supposed to be the great one.”
What happens then is that, just as Maμra has called his witnesses
to back him up, the Buddha calls on the mother goddess,
Maer Toranee, as his witness. The Buddha reaches down to the
ground, touches the earth, and calls forth the earth mother. She
appears and says, “This is my true son. He has every right to
claim the vajra seat at the immovable spot. He has developed
all the virtues necessary to claim the sovereignty of perfect and
complete enlightenment. You do not belong there, Maμra.” The
mother goddess then produces a flood from her hair, and the
armies of Maμra are all washed away. Later they come back full of
apologies, offering gifts and flowers and asking for forgiveness:
“Terribly sorry about that, Mother, I didn’t really mean it.”
It’s very interesting that he thus did not become a fully
enlightened, teaching Buddha without the help of the mother
goddess and then, later, of the father god. It was Brahmaμ
Sahampati, the creator god, the ceo of the universe, who came
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and asked the Buddha to teach. Without those two figures, he
would not have left the immovable spot and he wouldn’t have
started teaching. So, mythologically, there are some interesting
little quirks to the tale.
The Buddha’s gentle gesture of touching the earth is a magnificent
metaphor. It is saying that even though we might have this
enlightened, free space internally, it needs to be interfaced with
the phenomenal world. Otherwise, there is no completion. This
is why meditating with the eyes open is, in a way, such a useful
bridge. We cultivate a vast internal space, but it is necessarily
connected to the phenomenal world. If there is only an internal,
subjective experience of enlightenment, we’re still caught.
Maμra’s army won’t retreat. The hassles are everywhere—the tax
returns, the permits, the jealousies. We can see that they are
empty, but they are still coming at us from all directions.
But in reaching out to touch the earth, the Buddha recognized,
yes, there is that which is transcendent and unconditioned.
But humility demands not simply holding to the unconditioned
and the transcendent. The Buddha recognized and
acknowledged that: “There is the conditioned. There is the
sense world. There is the earth that makes up my body and my
breath and the food that I eat.”
That gesture of reaching out from the transcendent is saying:
“How could fully engaging with the sense world possibly corrupt
the innate freedom of the heart? This freedom is uninterruptible,
incorruptible, unconfusable by any sense experience. Therefore
why not allow it all in? By openly, freely acknowledging the
limited—needing to call the great mother to bear witness, for
example—the unlimited manifests its full potential. If there is
hesitency and the caution to keep the conditioned at bay, that
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betrays a basic lack of faith in the natural inviolability of the
Another phrase that expresses this same principle is “cittam|
pabhassaram|, akandukehi kilesehi,” meaning “the heart’s nature
is intrinsically radiant; defilements are only visitors.” (a 1.61)
It’s pointing out the fact that the heart’s nature is intrinsically
pure and perfect. The things that appear to defile this purity
are only visitors passing through, just wandering or drifting by.
The heart’s nature cannot truly be corrupted by any of that.
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f the practice that we do is going to result in true and
unshakeable freedom, we need to pay close attention to the motivations
that guide our hearts.
In working with the mind, it is very easy to become unconscious
of a somewhat fierce and self-obsessed attitude. The
Tibetan word “trekcho” means “cutting”—and the cutting
of the cord of clinging is a very important part of the practice of
wisdom.We see beautiful images of Mañjushri with his flaming
sword that severs delusion, and as a religious symbol, that’s very
significant. It’s that kind of clarity we need to cut through the
tangle of ignorance, to snap out of it, to be able to break through
the blockages. But it is also very easy to make that cutting gesture
the sole habit, pervading all of our efforts at meditation,
even when we are aiming to practice within the mindset of nonmeditation.
We can get pretty brutal and imbalanced in the way
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that we operate. I’m definitely speaking from personal experience
here; I have often found that tendency in myself.
When I first came across the Buddha’s wisdom teachings,
my attitude—even though I’m a friendly sort of fellow, quite
a chummy, kindly type—was: “Give me the essence of the vajra
teachings. Let’s just get in there and cut off all the defilements.
Compassion and loving-kindness, that’s kindergarten stuff; give
me the ultimate!” Most of us want the best, the highest, the ultimatest,
the purest, the mostest, the secret essence of the essence—
“the most precious and refined essential quintessence of all possible
teachings”—we don’t want to muck around with what
seems like something inferior or shallow. We want the real goods,
the deep-tissue stuff. People hear teachings or read books and
feel, “Yeah, wow, right, ultimate emptiness, I want that. Let’s do
it.” And even though that element is a crucial part of it, it’s also
significant how the chanting we all do on this retreat includes
the dedication of merit with every teaching. This Dzogchen
practice is, in essence, dedicated to the realization of these same
ultrahigh wisdom qualities, yet here too, as in the Mahaμyaμna
tradition as a whole, there is a constant recollection of dedicating
our practice for the benefit of all beings.
Some of the chants I like to do on retreat are “The Four
Brahma-vihaμras,” the “Discourse on Loving-Kindness,” the
“Reflections on Universal Well-being,” and the “Sharing of
Blessings.” These “soft” recollections are the sweet, gentle,
loving expressions of the Dharma. I feel it is really significant
that we do these chants. Probably many people, especially those
who have practiced a lot of vipassanaμin the West, are not used to
doing much chanting during retreats. There’s not a big devotional
or ceremonial element in these circles. Personally, I encourage
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everyone not to look at these chants just as little mood embellishments,
like the flowers on the shrine, but to see them as a
very significant part of the practice. Chanting is not just about
brightening up the general environment. Chanting reflects our
collective commitment to embody the Buddha’s way. After all,
the words are his but the voices are ours. Again, this is something
confessional. I treated the morning and evening chanting
with absolute contempt for years and years. I recited all the
words and made all the requisite gestures, but my inner feeling
was: “Let’s get to the real stuff. Let’s get down there and cut
through. Let’s be done with all of this pussyfooting and mucking
around. Loving-kindness, devotion, humbug!”
Clarifying Compassionate Intention
The first time I had a revelation about this was nearly 20 years
ago now. I was a very zealous young monk. And, although my
mind was often extremely busy and all over the place, after three
or four years of monastic training, I found that meditation came
quite easily to me and that I could attain quite strong states of
concentration. This was also the early years of our community in
England, when Ajahn Sumedho would be giving two or three
Dharma talks a day and it seemed like there was a constant
stream of high wisdom. It was a very inspired time. There was
a feeling that enlightenment was just so close, that it was an obvious
reality. It was just a matter of cutting through the last few
defilements and, boom! it would all be there.
We developed a tradition of having a winter retreat during the
cold, dark months of January and February. About three weeks
into one of these early retreats, I was working very diligently
and was extremely focused on the meditation. I wasn’t talking
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to anyone or looking at anything. Every lunar quarter we would
have an all-night meditation vigil. This was the full moon in
January. I was really charged up and was convinced, “Okay,
tonight’s the night.” It was a crystal clear evening in the middle
of an English winter. There were brilliant stars in the sky, and
the full moon was blazing brightly. I really had the juice going.
We came to the evening sitting, did the chanting, listened to the
Dharma talk, and so forth, and then, once those were over, the
rest of the night was open—just walking and sitting meditation,
as one chose.
So, I’m sitting there with a very bright and clear mind and this
thought keeps floating in, “Any minute now, any second now.”
We all know that one: “Left a bit, right a bit, okay, now relax a
bit, straighten up a bit, looking good, okay, hold steady, don’t do
anything, all right, all right.” It’s very familiar terrain to everyone,
I’m sure.
This was going on for hours. My mind was getting more and
more energized, brighter and brighter, cutting through defilements
and obscurations left and right. The clues were getting
more and more prolific, like: “Something big is about to happen.”
At about two in the morning, noises began to filter into my consciousness:
thump, thump, thump, rumble, rumble, rumble, doors
opening and closing, heavy footsteps in the hallway. I thought,
“Shoes in the hallway? Who’s wearing shoes in the hallway?”
Thump, thump. “What’s going on out there?” As you can tell,
there was a little interference to my enlightenment program.
But I decided just to ignore it, telling myself, “It’s only a noise
[humming]. Just me and the moon humming our way to nibbaμna.”
Even though I tried my best to ignore the noise, I then
noticed there was a presence in front of me. I opened my eyes.
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One of the monks was leaning down and saying, “Um, could you
come outside for a moment?” And my first thought was, “What
do you mean, ‘come outside’? This is my big night. I’m busy.” I
resisted the impulse to act out my thoughts, left the room, and
found policemen in the hall. “Police? What’s going on here?”
What had transpired was that one of the novices, a very erratic
young man called Robert, had got himself into some trouble. All
the meditation during the winter retreat, coupled with never
having done that kind of concentrated practice before, could send
many people to the wrong side of the border. Young Robert not
only had gone over the border but had traveled many miles. He
also had emptied the petty cash box before leaving. Down at the
local pub, Robert had bought everybody drinks and was discoursing
to the entire assembly. Because he was in a slightly crazy but
hyperlucid state, he also found he now could read people’s minds.
He was eyeballing people in the pub and saying, “You’re doing
this and you’re thinking that; I know what you’re up to.” So
people were seriously freaking out. Remember, this was England,
and English village life really isn’t ready for shaven-headed young
men in white coming into the sanctity of the local pub, offering
gifts, and revealing people’s inner secrets. The English really are
not very good at revealing secrets in the best of times. But to have
someone behave so strangely and to divulge people’s thoughts
was distinctly unacceptable. So they called the law. The police,
with equally great English common sense and compassion,
understood this fellow was a little bit off and brought him back
to the monastery. By then he really had lost it. He started raving
and ranting, saying he wanted to kill himself.
The monk standing above me said: “Robert’s in deep trouble.
He’s in a very weird state and wants to throw himself in the lake.
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Can you go help him? You’re the only one who can do it.” This
was true. Because I was one of the most junior members of the
Sangha, like him, I had been quite close to this novice and was
one of the few people in the community who could relate to him
at all.
At the time, Robert was living in a kuti| μin the forest. Most of
the community lived either in the main house or at the nuns’
cottage, and the kuti|μin the forest was about a half-hour walk
away. Part of my mind was going, “But, but, but, look, this is my
big enlightenment night.” And so my first impulse was to say,
“Not tonight.” But then something in me said, “Don’t be stupid,
go, you have no choice.” So they loaded me up with thermoses of
hot chocolate, candies, and other allowable goodies that monastics
can have at that hour, and I went charging up to the woods.
To cut a long story short, I spent the next three hours or so in
his company drinking tea and cocoa and trying to talk him down.
I let him talk and talk and talk and talk and talk. Finally he
exhausted himself, and around dawn he wanted to sleep. I realized
he was okay and knew he was not going to do anything
stupid. So I left him and set off back to the house.
I was charging down the hill when I suddenly thought, “What’s
the hurry? Why am I racing?” I slowed down and slowed down
and finally I just stopped and looked up. There was the full moon
setting on the other side of the lake. And then all of the voices
that had been going on in my mind during the first part of the
night started coming back to me: “Any minute now. This is my
big night. I’m really going places.” And it also came to me that,
throughout that entire scenario, I hadn’t for one second thought
about anyone but me—me and my enlightenment program, me
awakening, me getting liberated. I realized I hadn’t had a vestige
of concern for practicing for anyone else’s benefit. I felt about
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this small. [Holds finger and thumb a quarter inch apart.] How
could I have been so incredibly stupid?
Just through having been in the presence of one suffering
being, I could now see how my attention while meditating had
shrunk so much that all other beings had been completely shut
out. What started with a good intention—wanting to develop
spiritually and be liberated, which seemed like the finest thing
anyone could do with a life—had narrowed, narrowed, and narrowed
until it became a matter of me winning the big prize. The
incredibly shallow motivation of my practice was revealed. I
wondered, “What was all that effort really for?”
It then struck me deeply how important the altruistic principle
is. For even though one might be doing a lot of inner work
and developing very good qualities and skillful means, that kind
of neglect of others undermines the true purpose of our practice.
Other beings aren’t just a token reference. Our community used
to chant the “Sharing of Blessings” every day, and it was only
after this incident that I realized, “Oh, real people really suffering.
Oh, right, real people . . . oh.”
Having been so close to Robert when my mind was in a very
alert and sensitive state, this notion of practicing for the benefit
of all beings really sank in. From that time on, I started paying
a lot more attention to the whole element of altruism and to consciously
bringing in a concern for other beings. This wasn’t just
a concept. I really internalized it.
At that time, many of the Mahaμyaμna teachings started to
make considerably more sense to me. I saw how that narrowing
emphasis on enlightenment for the individual had become one
of the driving spirits behind what I was doing. Through that
“personal enlightenment” perspective, the mind naturally starts
to drift towards a neglect of the greater picture.
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Clarifying the Practice of Wisdom
During the early years of our community in England, there had
been something of an “onwards and upwards” spirit to life. It
was as if we were saying, “At last, the Dharma is coming to the
West!” Ajahn Sumedho was the glorious leader. Everything was
golden, fertile, and expansive, and there was a tremendous vigor
and enthusiasm. A Dharma charge was in the air.
The first monastery we had, down in West Sussex, had a large
forest but was limited in the way of buildings; it wasn’t really
conducive to a large communal living situation or to group
retreats. We had been expanding very rapidly, so the community
had bought an old school in Hertfordshire, and many of the
Sangha had moved up there. This was AmaravatiμMonastery.
About 30 to 35 monastics and probably about 20 laypeople were
in residence there.
By 1986 the onwards-and-upwards theme had been developing
for a while, and it peaked at the winter retreat that year. We
decided on a “no prisoners taken, death or glory” approach. The
practice schedule went from three in the morning until eleven at
night; it was a nonstop routine. Some of the really vigorous folks
were breaking the ice on the fishpond and jumping in at 3:00 a.m.
to freshen themselves up for the morning sitting. (We had spare
testosterone floating around, so that was very popular with the
males.) The monastics lammed into this whole program with
great glee.
Even though Ajahn Sumedho didn’t say much at the time, the
next year, when we were talking about how we were going to run
the winter retreat, he said, “Well, I didn’t really like the results
of what we were doing last year; there was certainly some fire
in the air, but it didn’t have a good effect on people.” After surveying
the terrain of what was happening with the Sangha, he
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concluded, “I don’t really like this kind of spirit; this is going in
the wrong direction.”
And so for about the first two or three weeks of the winter
retreat in 1987, Ajahn Sumedho kept telling people not to meditate:
“Just be awake.”
He would say to us over and over again, “Stop it, stop meditating!”
He stressed this repeatedly and gave two or three
Dharma talks a day on not meditating. He would tell people to
open their eyes and stop trying to concentrate. Sometimes there
would be the plaintive cry, “But what are we supposed to do?”
For which the person would receive a response in thunderbolts
saying, “do!? Don’t do anything. You already are it. Don’t do
anything.” The methodology was identical to the “undistracted
nonmeditation” employed in Dzogchen practice.
He was trying to point out that dimension of doingness, busyness,
that becoming quality that so easily takes over the meditation.
It can permeate the whole effort of spiritual practice. The
becoming tendency takes over and gets legitimized by being called
meditation or “me becoming enlightened.” Meanwhile, we miss
the fact that we are losing the main point and that what we are
doing has turned into a self-based program. We get caught in the
illusion, trying to make the self become something other. As a
result, we lose track of the real essence of the practice. Making
the effort to see how this happens made this a very fruitful
retreat. After about two or three weeks we were beginning to get
a sense of what it means to stay present: “Don’t do something
now to become enlightened in the future. Just be awake now.”
Being Buddha
Ajahn Sumedho also began to talk a lot about “being Buddha.”
I came to appreciate this teaching greatly because, even though
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my practice was by then a lot more balanced in terms of altruistic
motivation, I still had been motoring at full speed and still
thought I was going places. This was the first time it dawned on
me that perhaps any kind of “going places” wasn’t necessarily
such a good idea.
When I came across the Dzogchen teachings a while ago, they
reminded me very much of that quality of “being Buddha.” How
do we balance, within undistracted nonmeditation, both acute
attention—clear, highly focused awareness—and not doing anything?
A phrase I like to use in this context is “diligent effortlessness.”
There is a putting forth of energy. There is a commitment.
There is a unity or integrity of purpose. Yet there is also effortlessness.
Not pushing, not straining, not trying to get some
thing, but just allowing the natural energy of the heart to function
in a focused and free way. “Be still and you will move forward
on the tide of the spirit,” as they say in the Taoist tradition.
Compassion and Wisdom: Immanent and Transcendent
This “being Buddha” essentially involves the integration of compassion
and wisdom and getting a sense for how they work
Mañjushri wielding the flaming sword, symbolizing the wisdom
element, is a very masculine portrayal of the archetype of
a penetrating light and an energy that cuts through. Avalokitesvaμra,
also known as Kuan Yin in Chinese and Chenrezig in
Tibetan, characterizes compassion, which is a receptive energy,
often symbolized by a gentle feminine form. The name means
“The One Who Listens to the Sounds of the World.” Whereas
Mañjushri has the masculine, outgoing, cutting-through energy
and the imagery of vision, Avalokiteshvaμra has the imagery of
listening, receptivity, and acceptance.
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It is also interesting that Avalokiteshvaμra, in all the scriptures
from India, China, and Tibet, started out as male. In China, as
the centuries went by Avalokitesvaμra transformed into a female
figure. The current images most often have a feminine form. He
became a she. And it’s quite appropriate and understandable
for her to manifest as female because this image represents that
quality which is intrinsically more receptive and feminine.
If our practice doesn’t embrace both qualities—wisdom and
compassion, Mañjushri and Kuan Yin—if we lean too far in one
direction or the other, we tend to become seriously imbalanced.
It’s always a question of holding that duality. It’s the challenge of
emptying everything out and yet also appreciating the wholeness
of things.
One other way that I reflect on this is in the word the Buddha
used to refer to himself, “Tathaμgata.” The Buddha coined this
word, and it’s made up of two different parts. The first part,
“tathaμ,” means “such” or “thus”; and the second part, “agata,”
means “come.” Meanwhile the word “gata” means “gone.” So
a long debate has been going on: Is it “Tath-aμgata” or “Tathaμ-
gata”? Is the Buddha “thus come” or “thus gone?” Is he totally
here or is he totally gone? Is he utterly immanent or utterly transcendent?
Scholars have been bashing each other over the heads
with this issue for millennia.
The Buddha loved wordplay and irony. He used double entendre
many times, so my feeling is that he deliberately used an
ambiguous term. It means both “completely gone” and “completely
here.” The “gone” aspect is that of transcendent wisdom:
gone, empty, no thing, utterly transparent. “Thus come,” “come
to thusness,” “come to suchness,” are the aspects of being utterly
here, completely immanent, utterly attuned to all things,
utterly attentive to and embodied in all things. The compassion
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element is what represents the “thus come” meaning, where
everything is self. In the wisdom element, nothing is self.
In the Sutta Nipaμta, the Buddha says, “The wise do not take
anything in the world as belonging to them, nor do they take
anything in the world as not belonging to them either.” (sn 858)
This is a wonderful illustration of what it means to hold that
Wise Kindness: Loving Is Not Liking
How should we use and understand kindness and compassion
in this respect? For myself, I don’t like to teach loving-kindness
meditation as a separate feature of spiritual practice. I find that
it’s far more skillful to cultivate loving-kindness as a background
theme, as a kind and loving presence that informs and infuses
every effort that is made in our spiritual training. The way that
we pick up any aspect of the training needs to have this quality
of loving-kindness in it. As a preface to that, it’s also important
to understand that loving everything doesn’t mean we have to
like everything. Sometimes it’s misunderstood that to have lovingkindness
we need to attempt to make ourselves like everything.
For instance, we may try to convince ourselves that we like pain,
grief, unrequited love, an overdraft, decaying sense faculties, or
an ex who continues to haunt us. This is a misguided way of
practicing loving-kindness.
Mettaμis better understood as “the heart that does not dwell
in aversion.” Not dwelling in aversion towards anything, even
our enemies. Someone quoted me a passage in one of the Dalai
Lama’s recent books where he was talking about the Chinese. He
referred to them as “my friends, the enemy.” So loving-kindness
is that quality whereby we are able to refrain from piling on aversion,
even toward that which is bitter, painful, ugly, cruel, and
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harmful. It’s a matter of realizing that place in our hearts where
we know that this too has its role in nature. Yes, including the
whole spectrum of the seemingly unlikable, the repulsive, and
the utterly despicable.
Loving-kindness is the quality of allowing and accepting
these things as part of the whole picture. It’s not about saying we
approve of everything or we think things like torture, deceit, and
malice are good. It’s about accepting that they exist and fully
acknowledging that they are a part of life’s panorama. Here they
are. When we establish loving acceptance as a basis for practice,
then whatever we’re dealing with in terms of our own minds
and our world, there’s the fundamental quality of accord. And for
myself, I find that that needs to be there whether I’m doing concentration
practice, insight practice, or the nonduality practice of
Dzogchen—completely letting go of everything in the subjective
and the objective realms. We need to recognize that there is no
enemy. There is Dharma. There is no them or that or it. It all
belongs. Fundamentally, everything belongs and has its place
in nature.
The brahma-vihaμras chant that we do in English appears in the
Buddha’s teaching called “The Simile of the Saw.” What he
teaches there is that, “If you were captured by bandits and they
were sawing your body into pieces, limb by limb with a twohandled
saw, anyone who gave rise to a thought of aversion
towards them on account of that would not be practicing my
teaching.” (m 21.20)
I realize that some people find this an incredibly daunting and
unrealistic teaching. But to me it is actually extremely helpful
and skillful. It’s saying that hatred cannot be in accord with
Dharma and is therefore never justified.
Immanent and Transcendent
The Buddha used an extreme, almost absurd example where it
would seem utterly reasonable to feel some aversion toward
those sawing you up bit by bit. One would think a little irritation,
just a snippet of negativity here or there, would be quite
allowable. But the Buddha didn’t say that, did he? He said, “Not
one hair’s tip of aversion is appropriate.” As soon as the heart
lurches into, “No, this doesn’t belong, this shouldn’t be. You are
evil. Why me?” then the Dharma has been obscured, lost. That’s
the fact. Something in us may revolt, but the heart knows it’s
true. Any dwelling in aversion points it out very clearly, and
because of that, the aversion is a unambiguous sign that “the
Dharma has been lost.”
As soon as we find ourselves judging our own minds or the
people around us with harshness, cultivating justifiable hatred
for the government or our thinking minds or our erratic emotions
or our damaged lives, there’s no vision of reality; it’s
obscured. The attitude is not in accord with truth. So that hatred,
that aversion becomes a sign for us that we’ve lost the path.
This standard of training described by the Buddha may seem
totally impractical, but it is doable. I think it’s helpful to recognize
this because what we think we’re capable of is very different
from what we actually are capable of. We might think, “I could
never do that. That’s impossible for me.” Yet I tell you, it is possible.
That potential is there for all of us. And when we find that
quality of total acceptance and absolute nonaversion, where
there’s kindness and compassion, then there’s a tremendous
quality of ease and release, a real nondiscrimination at last. For
what kind of wisdom are we developing if it packs up and departs
as soon as the going gets rough—as soon as the weather gets too
hot, the “wrong” person is put in charge, or the body gets sick
and uncomfortable?
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A sincere spirit of loving-kindness is the most challenging
thing to establish in the face of extreme bitterness and pain
because to do so requires finding spaciousness around these experiences.
This is where the heart most easily contracts and impacts
itself. But we can pick up that quality and say, “Yes, this too is part
of nature. This too is just the way it is.” Then, at that moment,
there’s an expansion around it. We feel the space of emptiness that
surrounds and pervades it and we see the whole thing is transparent.
No matter how dense and real the feeling of “I and me and
mine” is in that holding, we see in that spaciousness that not only
is there space around it, but there is also light coming through.
When the Worst Happens
One of the stories I like to tell in this regard is a tale of Venerable
Master Hsüan Hua’s teacher. Master Hua was the abbot of the
City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. He was the person who gave us
the land where our monastery is situated, and he and Ajahn
Sumedho were very good friends. Master Hua’s teacher, Venerable
Master Hsü Yün, was the patriarch of all five lineages of
Buddhism in China and was very highly respected. He was the
head of the Ch’an lineage, the sutra lineage, the mantra lineage,
the Vinaya lineage, and the esoteric lineage. It’s no secret that
different sects tend to argue with each other. Yet he was so indisputably
pure and skilled that everyone wanted him to be the
head. When the Red Chinese took over, they were trying to wipe
out religion altogether and so he became a very obvious target.
The Chinese army attacked his monastery when he was about
110 years old. They beat him with wooden clubs until he was a
bloody heap on the ground and left him for dead. Even though he
had broken bones and damaged organs, he recovered. The news
of his survival spread around the area. A while later the Red
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Army came back and used iron bars to beat him until he was a
complete mess. This frail old man was really smashed up and
seriously injured, and yet he still didn’t die.
His disciples were nursing him and trying to help heal his
deep and serious wounds. All of them were amazed that he was
still alive. Needless to say, he had incredible meditative powers,
so his disciples were convinced that he was sustaining his life
energy for them. They believed that the master realized the feeling
of grief they would have when he died because they were all
very devoted to him. And so they implored him: “Please, don’t
stay alive just for our sakes. We’re very touched that you would
endure the weeks and weeks of pain and misery because of not
wanting to leave us grief stricken. But if it’s time for you to die,
we would prefer that you just let yourself go peacefully instead
of enduring all this agony.” And he said, “What I’m doing is not
for you. It’s true I’m keeping myself alive, but it’s not for your
sake, it’s for the soldiers. If I died as a result of their beatings, the
karmic retribution for those who attacked me would be so great,
I couldn’t bear to be responsible for that.” After that, the army
left him alone. He survived and even taught retreats again. The
books Ch’an and Zen Training, translated by Charles Luk, are
from the Dharma talks that he gave at a retreat four years later.
He died when he was 120. He had made a vow to be a monk for
one hundred years.
So not dwelling in aversion toward anything is, in fact, doable.
There’s another relevant story about a slightly less exalted
being, one of our monks, who was on a pilgrimage in India. He
was visiting the holy places as part of 1,000-mile walk. Together
with a layman, they traveled around India for six months, living
mostly on alms food. Village India can be pretty dangerous in
many respects, and they kept being told, in different places they
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went to, “Be careful, be careful, there are bandits out there; you
might get robbed.” They walked right on in spite of these warnings
and thought, “Oh, no, not us, we’re on this holy pilgrimage,
nothing’s going to touch us.” They were doing protective chants
and had received blessings from various great masters before they
left. And since they had already gone through some dangerous
areas without any kind of hassle at all, they were getting a little
cocky: “Hey, we’re doing pretty good here.”
Before this monk had left for India, Master Hua had been
visiting AmaravatiμMonastery. One time, when he was giving an
informal talk to a whole group of us, the monk who went on the
pilgrimage asked him a question. Master Hua, who didn’t know
he was going to go to India, answered the question by saying,
“When you go to practice in the place of the Buddha, you should
not find fault with anyone for any reason.” So, when he went to
India, the monk took that as something of a mantra and embedded
it in his consciousness.
The monk and his lay companion were traveling through the
forested countryside between Naμlandaμand Rajgir, and, lo and
behold, they met up with a group of surly-looking men who had
been cutting trees in the forest. They all had axes and staves of
wood. It was a very lonely area and this group immediately surrounded
them. They wanted to take all their things. So the layman
who was with our monk, trying to be protective, started
fighting with the men. After getting knocked around, the layman
ran off and a couple of the robbers ran after him. This left four of
them alone with the monk. They made it obvious that they were
going to kill him. Because the monk spoke a little bit of Hindi,
he was able to understand what they were saying. Also the head
bandit was brandishing an axe over his head. The situation was
pretty unambiguous.
Immanent and Transcendent
Then suddenly the thought flashed into his mind, “When you
go to practice in the place of the Buddha, do not find fault with
anyone for any reason.” He realized, “If this is what’s happening,
I can’t escape. I’m not going to fight these people, and if I did,
they would win anyway. So I’ll just give myself to them.” He
then bowed his head, put his hands together, and started chanting,
“Namo tassa . . .” He stood calmly waiting for the axe to fall.
But nothing happened. He looked up and saw that the man holding
the axe over his head couldn’t bring it down. Then the monk
got a bit cheeky and went like this. [Drawing a line down the
middle of his head with his finger.] But again the bandit couldn’t
bring himself to harm him.
At this point, the layman, who’d been hiding, realized, “Hey,
wait a minute, I’m supposed to be protecting the monk. I’m not
doing my job.” He ran back and tried to help out. They had
another scuffle. The layperson realized he was in real danger
again and ran off once more. He hid in the bushes at the bottom
of some scree. As it turned out, the bandits took all of their
things. The monk was left with his lower robe and his sandals.
Everything else went.
However, through all this, the monk didn’t get a scratch on
him. The layman who fought back got thumped around quite a
bit and was torn up by thorn bushes and the tumble down the
scree. Later on, when they were discussing what had happened,
the monk realized that, “If I had died, I would have died with my
mind focused on the Triple Gem.” The layman realized, “If I had
died, I would have died with the mind of a hunted animal.”
These are deliberately dramatic images. Yet they characterize
a certain precious quality very clearly. These stories encourage
us to turn towards that which is most frightening or most offputting.
When the man with the axe is threatening us, we can
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turn towards him and say, “Please, I’m ready.” Even when we’re
getting the axe internally, such as intense waves of greed or
waves of fear and anxiety or waves of nostalgia and longing, it’s
that gesture of turning towards these experiences and accepting
them as they are that allows the heart to be free. True wisdom,
far from being beyond the practice of kindness, actually depends
on such undiscriminating acceptance of the beautiful and the
ugly alike. When we stop running away from things that are
apparently painful, even unbearable, and fully engage in the
gesture of acceptance and surrender, there is a magical transformation.
We transform the so-called difficulty and move into an
entirely different state.
When we look back to a situation where someone came at us
in a rage and we just received that energy without any reaction,
we became a mirror, right? Or if we go flying at someone and the
person just gently says, “Oh, you’re having a really bad day today,
aren’t you?” it comes straight back to us. We recognize, “Oh,
right, sorry about that.” Intensity is transformed by the purity
of reflection. And when we are dealing with our own emotional
life, that same kind of open and clear reception has a way of
transmuting the emotional state. It doesn’t suppress it. The emotion
shrivels; the energy of it gets changed into something that
actually enlivens and brightens the mind—the heat is transformed
into light.
Two-Way Traffic
There are many structures that we come across in the Buddha’s
teaching—such as the brahma-vihaμras, (loving-kindness, compassion,
sympathetic joy, and equanimity)—that are talked about
as specific practices we can develop. It’s the same with the seven
factors of enlightenment. With effort, these states of heart and
Immanent and Transcendent
mind can be cultivated. But it’s helpful to understand the whole
picture. When the heart is completely enlightened and liberated,
when there’s rigpa, nondual awareness, then the natural disposition
of the heart is loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
These qualities naturally radiate forth when the heart is
completely free. This is not some “thing” that “I do.” This is the
innate disposition of the pure heart. It’s the same with the factors
of enlightenment (mindfulness, contemplation of reality, energy,
joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity). These are
intrinsic qualities of the liberated mind, of the awakened and
enlightened heart. They are the immanent manifestations of that
transcendent reality.
Or take the five precepts: when the heart is completely liberated,
it’s impossible to deliberately harm another being. It’s
impossible to act acquisitively. It’s impossible to take advantage
of another being sexually or use your sense world indulgently. It
is simply impossible. You can’t lie or use speech in a harmful or
deceitful way. It’s as if the force of spiritual gravity won’t allow
it. There’s nothing there that could cause you to bend the truth.
When we say, “I will now practice loving-kindness” or “I will
develop compassion” or “I will keep the five precepts,” we overtly
take that particular quality as a practice. In fact, what we are really
doing is aligning the conditions of our dualistic mind with the
reality of our own nature. We are helping the conditioned be resonant,
harmonious with the unconditioned, and through that
resonance, that synchrony, there is a spaciousness between conditions
that opens up through which the unconditioned is realized.
By practicing the seven factors of enlightenment or the
brahma-vihaμras, we set the conditions so the gap is right there.
What’s “outside” in terms of the conditioned is completely
attuned to what is “inside.” It’s a practice and process that works
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both ways. As we practice loving-kindness, our heart automatically
comes into accord with reality and we feel good. And when
our heart is awakened to reality, it automatically functions with
loving-kindness or with one of the other brahma-vihaμras. It’s like
two-way traffic on a highway between the conditioned and the
There are the intrinsic qualities that come forth and the practices
that lead in. We get the strings in tune so that we line up
our behaviors and attitudes “outside” with what is already the
case “inside.” Goodness feels good because the attitude resonates
with reality. Lying and harming feel bad because they are dissonant
with that reality of what we are. It’s as simple as that. The
Buddha said the brahma-vihaμras are not transcendent qualities;
they are a peaceful and a beautiful abiding. By doing these kinds
of practices, we create an alignment so that things match up.
The conditions are set so that the gap is visible and very close.
Then as soon as the gap opens, boom! It’s right there, in alignment,
and in that moment, the heart is free.
As a postscript to the story about the monk and his attendant
who got robbed: within about three days, not only were all of
their things replaced, but many of the things they were given
were much better than what they had before.
Immanent and Transcendent

who are you?

ipassanaμ practice is usually taught and cultivated
with a very particular and detailed attention placed on mental
objects, objects of experience. Regardless of whether the objects
are physical sensations or thoughts, feelings, sounds, or emotions,
we pay scrupulous attention to their nature, watching
very closely how the objects of experience come, go, and change.
Also, we meet each of those objects with the recognition of their
impermanent, selfless, and unsatisfactory natures. So the primary
focus of the practice is the fine attention on the object, the
objective world.
My own training in vipassanaμ, both in Ajahn Chah’s monasteries
and in the Thai forest tradition in general, has not been
quite so fixed or associated with such a specific technique. The
attention is on the object, but there is also a sense of the field
of awareness in which the object appears. There is the observing
of the coming and going of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions
No Buddha Elsewhere
and so on, but there is also the holding of that experience within
the space of awareness. The object is perceived within a context.
These distinctions are sweeping generalizations, but I would like
to offer this as a somewhat more expansive picture of vipassanaμ
practice than that which is often presented.
Being the Knowing
It is also important to extend from the objective realm to the
subjective one and to the quality of knowing. Various masters
in Thailand, such as Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Buddhadaμsa, and Ajahn
Brahmamuni, as well as other leading meditation teachers,
would often talk about letting go of the objective realm altogether
and just being the knowing. In Thai, there’s an expression, “yoo
gap roo,” which literally means “there with the knowing.”
It seems that the practice of rigpa deals with something very
similar. It includes a specific turning away from the object. We
deliberately do not pay much attention to it. Instead we put most
of our attention on the nature of the subject. There is an inclining
away from the seductive pull of the senses and a focus on,
and a nonidentification with, the subject.
Similar to the Thai forest teachings, rigpa is ultimately about
emptying out both the subjective and objective realms. The aim
of the practice is subjectless, objectless awareness. The heart
rests in rigpa, the quality of open, spacious knowing and there
is the recognition of the mind’s own intrinsic nature: it is
empty, lucid, awake, and bright. The Thai people love alliterations,
and Ajahn Buddhadaμsa and Ajahn Chah used to use the
phrase “sawang sa-aht sangoup” to speak about this quality.
Sawang means “radiance” or “bright light.” Sa-aht means “pure.”
Sangoup means “peaceful.” Sawang sa-aht sangoup: radiance,
purity, and peacefulness.
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So in using the term “vipassanaμ,” it is important to know
that it includes a variety of ways of practice, such as this “being
the knowing;” and it doesn’t refer just to one particular systematic
technique. We can employ a range of practices to arrive at
the quality of liberation, of realizing the mind’s own nature.
There are many ways to support emptying out and letting go,
disidentification with thought, feeling, the body, the mind, and
the world around us. All can help us toward such realizations.
When I listen to the Dzogchen teachings, I am often reminded
of a couple of lines from the verses of the Third Zen Patriarch,
where he says, “All is empty, clear, self-illuminating, with no
exertion of the mind’s power.” These teachings have been around
for years, haven’t they? It seems to me that this is exactly the
guidance we receive from the Tibetan tradition, particularly
that last line, “with no exertion of the mind’s power”—no person
doing anything. This is pointing to the intrinsically pure and free
quality of mind. We take on certain conventional practices, like
calming or brightening the mind, or waking up the mind, but we
are just bringing the conditioned realm into alignment with the
already existent basic reality. The intrinsic nature of mind is
already totally peaceful, totally energetic, and totally awake.
That’s its inherent nature.
Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
It is also interesting to reflect on ordinary taking refuge and extraordinary
taking refuge (see “Selected Chants” on page 159) and
on the different levels of understanding they reflect. How can we
look at Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as aspects or ways of talking
about the qualities of emptiness, knowing, and lucidity? One
way of speaking about lucidity is to regard it as being a combination
or the coexistence of knowing and emptiness. Another is by
No Buddha Elsewhere
seeing the two as manifesting together as compassion, or innate
compassionate activity.
I find this a very helpful way of talking about it: the Buddha
is that which is awake, that which knows, so taking refuge in
the Buddha is taking refuge in the awareness of the mind. The
Buddha arises from the Dharma. The Buddha is an attribute,
knowing is an attribute of that fundamental reality. The Dharma
is the ultimate object, the way things are. Its characteristic is
emptiness. The Buddha is the ultimate subject, that which
knows, that which is awake. So when the ultimate subject
knows the ultimate object, when the mind that knows is aware
of the way things are, what comes forth is Sangha, compassionate
action. Sangha intrinsically flows forth from that quality.
When there’s awareness of the way things are, then compassionate
skillful means naturally arise and flow from that. The three
refuges, as you can see, are all interwoven.
It is useful to think of them simply as separate attributes
of the same essential quality. For example, water has wetness.
We can talk about wetness, but we can’t separate wetness from
water. And there’s such qualities as the fluidity and the temperature
of the water that we also can’t extract. They are distinct
qualities; we can distinguish them, but we can’t separate them.
When we are investigating this quality of rigpa, the nature of
mind, it is helpful to see how all its attributes are intrinsically
interwoven and intermingled with each other. We can’t actually
separate them out; they are of one piece.
A way of holding this all together is reflected in a phase often
used by Ajahn Chah: “Inside is Dharma. Outside is Dharma.
Everything is Dharma.” Whether we can see it or not, it is all
Dharma. It is like saying of the sea: “This is water. Inside is water.
Outside is water. Everything is water.” The mind is Dharma.
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The knowing is Dharma. The physical world around us is
Dharma. All the beings around us, every one, are all a part of
nature. “Nature,” by the way, is another translation for Dharma.
Dharma Aware of Its Own Nature
When the heart is resting in rigpa, we can say that this is Dharma
being aware of its own nature. Now it’s easy to think that this
way of phrasing things might make us a bit inflated. However,
during certain visualization practices, such as seeing our body,
speech, and mind as the Buddha’s body, speech, and mind, we are
also creating an ideal that we can live up to. These practices and
ways of speaking help us to arouse our intuition of what is
already the case.
We visualize the Buddha sending forth qualities of kindness,
compassion, and wisdom, beaming that into us, and this body,
having been beamed into, then becomes filled with brightness.
We become completely possessed by this radiant being. All of
the “little me” has been driven out, and there’s just this Buddha
occupying our frame. It’s a way of using our imagination, but it’s
also designed to trigger an intuition or recognition. Perhaps it is
already the case that the wisdom of our mind is no different by
a hair’s breadth from the wisdom of a Buddha. It’s just that that
quality here is somewhat more obscured than that which is going
on in the mind or the life of a Buddha. We can get very personal
about such things and start questioning this method: “Am I just
trying to fool myself? Is he telling me that I’m some kind of wonderful
avatar?” Try to lay all that aside and use these phrases as
a way of helping to illuminate those self-limiting restrictions
and let them go; use them as ways of helping the heart awaken
to that realization.
No Buddha Elsewhere
When we say to ourselves, “This is just Dharma aware of its
own nature,” we are reflecting the basis of faith. What aspect of
you is not Dharma? What aspect of you is not a part of nature?
Can you name one? Your problems? Your obsessions? Your
ingrown toenails? Your mind? Mind essence? Your ideas? All
of it, every single part, is a part of the natural order. There is no
element of our being or anything around us, physical or mental,
that doesn’t belong to the natural order. And when we say, “this
is Dharma aware of its own nature,” even that knowing mind is
an aspect of Dharma.
Seeing in terms of Dharma knowing itself can be used to
permeate our self-centered perceptions and habits of thinking.
It’s like blasting them through with the light of wisdom—
irradiating, pervading them so that something in us starts to
awaken to the realization, “Oh, maybe me too. . . .” “Me? A
swan?” [Singing.] “And a very fine swan indeed! Look in the
lake, look in the lake.” That’s exactly what we’re doing. Go take
a look.
There are the wonderful words in the verses of the first Tsoknyi
Rinpoche: “There is no Buddha elsewhere. Look at your own
face” (see page 164). “Look at your own face” doesn’t mean look
at your wrinkles or pimples, your beautiful eyes. It means look at
your original face. There is something beyond the wrinkles, the
beauty, and the mediocrity. So when we go to the lake, what does
it mean to look at our original face?
During this retreat we have all been participating in the practice
of visualizing the Buddha Vajrasattva, the embodiment of
purifying wisdom. The question might arise (as it did for the
young man asking about Taμraμ): “Does Vajrasattva really exist
or does he not?” Many students unfamiliar with these practices
may have been slightly taken aback with some of the visualiza-
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tions and instructions. I must say I blinked a couple of times
when I was first instructed: “Imagine Vajrasattva with consort,
replete with jewelry, floating on a lotus in front of you with a
moon disk and a vajra, while both repeating the hundred-syllable
mantra and visualizing it circling round them.” The presumption
being that, to begin with, we can actually spell in Sanskrit! Then
being asked to visualize amrita dripping down over Vajrasattva
and the consort and then flowing onto you. I could maybe conjure
up a little feeling of some sort of goldenish light somewhere
in the vicinity, but my Sanskrit spelling was not up to snuff.
Of course for some people it may be all be marvelously clear,
blissful, and liberating from the start. But for many, it really triggers
a Western skeptical materialist program: “Am I supposed to
believe in this, or feel like I am just not good enough because I
can’t buy into it? Or do I just sit here and mindfully tolerate my
emotional reactions?” Or alternatively, “Do I give my heart to
the visualization and hope that the meaning will become clear
sometime?” We can be stuck with this puzzle.
“To Be, or Not to Be” Is the Wrong Question
A large chunk of the Buddha’s teaching explores this very question.
One of AÂcarya Nagμ arμ juna’s treatises, the Mulμ a Madμ hyamaka
Karμ ika,μ is based partly upon a passage from the Pali Canon.
Naμgaμrjuna was a great philosopher, and many of his teachings
became central tenets of the Mahaμyaμna tradition. But apparently
many of his teachings and commentaries were based upon the
Pali Canon. The particular passage that this exegesis is derived
from goes something like, “When one sees the arising aspect of
experience, the coming into being of the world, with right wisdom,
then ‘non-existence’ with respect to the world does not
occur to one. And when one sees with right wisdom, as it actually
No Buddha Elsewhere
is, the cessation of the world, the fading away of conditions, then
‘existence’ with respect to the world does not occur to one. . . .
‘All exists’ is one extreme; ‘Nothing exists’ is the other extreme.
Instead of resorting to either extreme, the Tathagata expounds
the Dharma by the Middle Way: It is with ignorance as condition
that formations come to be; it is with formations as condition
that consciousness comes to be. . .” (s 12.15) Then he continues
with the whole pattern of dependent origination.
It is interesting that the word “rigpa” is a translation of the
Pali word “vijjaμ.” What we have in this passage is what usually
begins the cycle of dependent origination. “With ignorance as
condition formations come to be. . .” When there’s marigpa,
when rigpa is lost, then the whole cycle begins. The Buddha
wouldn’t take the side of existence, being, and he wouldn’t take
the side of nonbeing. He points out that “being is true” and “I
am” both side with eternalism. And to say “nonexistence is
true” or “I am not” sides with annihilationism, with nihilism.
This used to frustrate his contemporary philosophers like
crazy because they felt he wouldn’t give a straight answer. But
every single time, he would point out that the teaching of the
Tathaμgata is the middle way. And he would say that the whole
duality of existence/nonexistence—really there/not really
there—arises because of ignorance, because of not seeing clearly.
When vijjaμis lost, when knowing is lost, there is san≥khaμra, duality,
this/that, subject/object, here/there; and the whole cycle of
self/other, me here and the world out there, kicks into being.
All these dualistic judgments arise from that.
When people would try to nail the Buddha down to the question
of being or nonbeing, they would get answers like: “‘Exists’
does not apply. ‘Does not exist’ does not apply. ‘Both exists and
does not exist’ does not apply. ‘Neither exists nor does not exist’
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does not apply. The Tathaμgata teaches the fact that the truth
is other than this. It is with ignorance as condition that formations
. . .” To the critical mind this sometimes can look like
a completely pointless approach. “Look, just give me a straight
answer: once and for all, does the self exist or not?” What is
perhaps more helpful is to come at these issues from the experiential
side so we can find out for ourselves.
The Power to Purify
We need to ask ourselves, “What can these teachings be talking
about?” It is a matter of investigating what “Vajrasattva as the
embodiment of all the Buddhas” might mean beyond its face
value. In practical and more realistic terms, the important question
is: What could that quality be? What is that quality of being,
either internal or external, that could completely purify our
karma, completely purify the heart from any kind of fault, any
kind of wrongdoing, any kind of negative obstacle? What has that
power to purify?
When reflecting on this, we see that it can only be the insight
into emptiness, nonidentification, complete letting go. This is
the recognition that nothing whatsoever could be me or mine,
whether material, physical, or mental. Whatever occurs, whatever
is experienced, this is not me, this is not mine, this is not
my self, this is devoid of real existence. That insight itself, not
the idea, but that actual quality of seeing, means that regardless
of what Maμra is throwing at us, regardless of how fierce,
strong, or wild these things are, we invite them in, “Come in,
come in, yes, you’re all welcome. Whoever shows up, you’re all
welcome to join the party.” It’s no problem, because there is this
fundamental recognition of emptiness.
No Buddha Elsewhere
The verses of the first Tsoknyi Rinpoche tell us:
Maμra is the mind clinging to like and dislike,
so look into the essence of this magic,
free from dualistic fixation.
Realize that your mind is unfabricated primordial purity.
There is no Buddha elsewhere. Look at your own face.
What these teachings are saying to us is that this visualization,
the invocation of the principle of Vajrasattva, is intended simply
to help us awaken to that quality of transcendent wisdom within
us. We take an external object because generally we are more
able to idealize something external. This is usually much easier
than idealizing something about ourselves. We then revere that
object and thereby awaken and cultivate the intuition that actually
that quality is already here within each one of us. Eventually
it leads the heart to the realization of this vivid emptiness, and
this is what we mean by “looking at our original face.”
No Buddha Elsewhere
This central teaching reminds me of a story about Ajahn
Sumedho when he was a young monk in Thailand. He started
out life at Ajahn Chah’s monastery as a very zealous, hyperkeen
monk. Within a few months of being there, he was convinced
that Ajahn Chah was the greatest Dharma teacher and the most
enlightened master on the planet. He was also certain that Wat
Pah Pong was the greatest monastery in the world and that
Theravaμda Buddhism was the answer to all problems. He was
really flaming. But of course, as we all know, after a while the
fuel runs down.
The months and years went by, and Ajahn Sumedho started
to notice a few faults in the way Ajahn Chah handled certain sit-
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uations, and in some of his personal habits, such as the way he
chewed betel nut. No one else at the monastery was allowed to
chew betel nut. Not that Ajahn Sumedho wanted to chew betel
nut, but a lot of the other monks did. Although Ajahn Chah
banned it, he could do as he pleased. He also banned cigarettes,
which are quite popular amongst the monks in Thailand. His
was the first monastery in Thailand where cigarettes were
banned, but Ajahn Chah still smoked on occasion. And then,
even though he had said he was going to stop smoking, Ajahn
Sumedho came across him on a back path one day with a cigarette
in his mouth. He caught the master in the act, but Ajahn
Chah just looked at Ajahn Sumedho and gave him a big grin.
Then he took a deep toke and carried on. So these kinds of frustrations
were mounting slowly but surely.
More time went by. Being a true Western rationalist, Ajahn
Sumedho eventually decided enough was enough. Ajahn Chah
was so exalted by all of the Thai people—the monks, the laypeople,
and the larger monastic community—that no one would
ever dare criticize him. There was no way the nuns would ever
say a word. Even the monks, some of whom were quite tough
guys and straightforward people, all held Ajahn Chah in such
high respect that none of them was ever going to say anything.
Ajahn Sumedho thought it over and decided: “Well, I know I’m
only a junior monk, but I really should do my duty. I’d better get
prepared for this.”
He developed a list that carefully enumerated all of Ajahn
Chah’s faults. He wanted to be prepared and to have all the facts
straight and ready for his teacher. So he got his list together,
chose a moment, and asked Ajahn Chah: “Would it be convenient
to talk sometime? I have a few things to discuss.”
No Buddha Elsewhere
Ajahn Chah’s life was pretty open and uncomplicated. Actually,
he didn’t have a private life. He would sleep in his little hut
for about four hours a night maybe. That was it, that was his private
life. The rest of the time he was fair game.
Ajahn Chah agreed to talk with his student. And because
Ajahn Sumedho didn’t want to embarrass his teacher in front of
everyone, he tried to choose a time when there weren’t too many
other people around. How very thoughtful of him. You can imagine
the blade hovering overhead, ready to fall. Ajahn Sumedho
plucked up his courage and finally approached Ajahn Chah. He
had earnestly memorized his list of all the things he felt compelled
to bring up. He began to recount it to his teacher: “You’re
really putting on weight, and you’re actually quite a bit heavier
than you need to be. You spend so much time talking with people
instead of meditating with the rest of us, and often what you
are saying is not really good Dharma. It’s just kind of chitchat
and shooting the breeze, such as talking about this year’s mango
crop or how the chickens are doing or giving someone advice
about how to look after the water buffalo. What’s the purpose of
discussing life in northeast Thailand so much? And then there’s
the double standard around betel nuts and cigarettes when you
are supposed to be setting an example for the monks.”
By the way, I’m extemporizing a little bit here, taking poetic
license, but please be aware that Ajahn Sumedho has told this
story himself uncountable times, so it is not privy information.
Finally he completes his long, detailed delivery and is just
waiting the cold rebuff, or to get blasted. In normal human circumstances
it is reasonable to expect that kind of reaction. But
Ajahn Chah looked at him gently and said, “Well, I’m very grateful
to you, Sumedho, for bringing these things up to me. I’ll really
consider what you’ve said and see what can be done. But also you
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should bear in mind that perhaps it’s a good thing that I’m not
perfect. Otherwise you might be looking for the Buddha somewhere
outside your own mind.” There was a long and poignant
silence. Then the young Sumedho crawled away simultaneously
heartened and chastened.
Entering Room 101
I mentioned the insight that Ajahn Chah had in studying with
Ajahn Mun when he spent a few days with him: there is the mind
and there are its objects, and the two are intrinsically separate
from each other. In Theravaμda phraseology, this is the way it’s put:
mind with a big “m,” Mind, and mind-objects. The Dzogchen tradition
has a similar way of addressing this same insight: there is
mind (small “m”) and there is mind-essence. The word “mind”
is used here as meaning the conditioned mind, the dualistic mind,
and the term “mind-essence” is used for the unconditioned
mind. There is the conditioned and the unconditioned. As you
can see, a powerful resonance exists between the two practices
even though they might use the same words in different ways.
Another way that Ajahn Mun phrased it, in his enlightenment
verses called “The Ballad of Liberation from the
Khandhas,” is with this show stopper:
The Dhamma stays as the Dhamma,
the khandhas stay as the khandhas.
That’s all.
In the Sanskrit that would be skandhas: the body, feelings,
perceptions, mental formations, consciousness. So the Dharma is
the Dharma and the skandhas are the skandhas. There is the conditioned;
there is the unconditioned. There is mind; there is
mind-essence. That’s it. This is all we need to know.
No Buddha Elsewhere
Ajahn Chah had heard that from Ajahn Mun and was profoundly
affected by it. But then he also used to talk about the
occasion when the principle really came to life for him. In
Thailand, there’s a very strong ghost culture. Although many
of us last worried about ghosts when we were small children, in
Thailand ghosts are a very strong cultural presence. We had some
pretty scary ghost stories when I was a child, but the ones the
Thais tell their kids are really gory, nasty. They are filled with all
sorts of blood and guts, evil and malevolence. Everyone is raised
with these kinds of images, so culturally there is an immensely
powerful fear of ghosts.
This fear was something that had really bothered Ajahn
Chah. He had been a monk for quite some time and was well
aware that he had been avoiding this fear. It was something he had
never really resolved. When he was a young kid, he was known to
be both strong and self-reliant. As an adult, he was also a pretty
tough nut. Yet well into his monastic life, he was terrified of
ghosts and had a very strong fear of corpses. Whenever he went
to stay on his own in the forest, he would recite protective verses
to keep the ghoulies and the ghosties at a distance.
Being a deep-end kind of guy, he decided to go straight at this
fear. He would deal with his problems this way whenever there
was something he needed to learn. He decided he had been running
away from his fear of ghosts for long enough; he was going
to confront it once and for all.
Ajahn Chah decided to set up his mosquito net and camping
place in the burning ground outside the village where he had
been staying. Probably it is difficult for us to comprehend what
this might have been like, but the monk who wrote his biography
said that it was rather like what happened in the novel 1984.
It was in Room 101 where you met the most visceral fear, the
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most nameless and primordial terror for you. Going into the
burning ground for Ajahn Chah was like the protagonist of 1984
going into Room 101. He said it took every ounce of his effort
and his willpower to put one foot in front of the other.
As dusk was falling, his mind was screaming: “Don’t be
ridiculous. Don’t do this. It’s not good for your samaμdhi. Be reasonable.
Maybe you can do this later, next year when you’ve got
your practice more together.” But he willed himself to stay and
set up his camping place. Once he put up the mosquito net, he
went in and just sat there.
There had been a cremation of a young child that day. During
the funeral, Ajahn Chah was fine since everyone was around.
Then everyone left and he was there on his own. His biography
contains a long description of the first night that is filled with
lurid images and an account of the sheer willpower he needed
to get through to the next day. Ajahn Chah was so afraid he just
locked himself in one spot. When dawn came, he said to himself,
“Ah, great, I’ve done it. I’ve done my cremation thing. I’m off.”
You know that kind of reaction: “I’ve done my bit. OK, I’ve qualified
now. I’ve done my suffering. I don’t have to do that anymore.
Please, can I go now, sir?”
But Ajahn Chah realized, “No, no, no, no, no. That’s not transcending
fear; that’s just enduring it. I haven’t got through this at
all. I’m still absolutely terrified. I can give myself the excuse that
I don’t have to do it, but the terror is still here in front of me and
I’m determined to get through this.”
He was really pleased that he was going to stay on. And then
he thought, “At least there isn’t going to be another burning.” But
sure enough, an adult died that second day. So Ajahn Chah stayed
there through that cremation and then, again, everyone left. All
he had to protect himself was his practice and his mosquito net.
No Buddha Elsewhere
Now you might not think that a mosquito net provides very
much protection. But any of you who’ve camped out in the
Himalayas, Yosemite, or some other place where there are dangerous
wild animals know that the thinnest little layer of netting
or plastic can make you feel protected. “Grizzly bears? Hah! No
problem. Grizzlies, schmizzlies. Easy.”
I found this out for myself when I was camping in the middle
of our forest at Abhayagiri last year, where we have bears and
some mountain lions. I was camped by this little creek way off in
the woods a mile and a half away from everyone else, fasting for a
few days and living off the water from the stream. For the first
couple of days, every leaf and twig that dropped from the trees
was the equivalent of at least three bears and a mountain lion.
Every time. When night fell, the animals tripled in number. After
a few days I got used to this, but believe me, having the mosquito
net set up with a candle inside made me feel like I was in Fort
Knox. No problem. Put the candle out and it gets a bit hairier.
Then lift the mosquito net and . . . you’ve got almost 360˚ vision.
Ajahn Chah said that, “My mosquito net felt like a fortress
circled with seven concentric walls. Even the presence of my
almsbowl was reassuring.” He made the resolution to sit there
and to be with his feelings, knowing this was the best way to get
through the fear. The night before, as he had sat locked in place,
there had been the usual animal noises, crickets going on all
night long, and leaves and twigs dropping from the trees. There
was nothing special, just familiar sounds. On the second night,
things changed. He was sitting there around midnight when he
thought he heard footsteps. When you live in the forest you get
to know what animals make what kinds of sounds. You know
the difference between deer and bear sounds. Lizards and snakes
make very distinct noises.
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Ajahn Chah was sitting there thinking: “I hear footsteps. It’s
not an animal. It’s a two-footed creature, and the person is coming
from the fire.” So he said to himself: “Don’t be ridiculous.
Maybe it’s one of the villagers coming to see if I’m all right. Maybe
they’ve come to offer me something and, if they do, they will
come up and say hello.” Nevertheless, he was determined to just
sit there with his eyes closed. Then he heard these footsteps—
thump, thump, thump, thump—getting closer and closer. He
started to tighten up. The sweat poured out of him, and he told
himself: “Oh, don’t panic. It is just one of the villagers with
heavy steps.”
In his mind’s eye he could see the charred body. He could see
a skeleton with guts hanging out, the scorched bits of flesh hanging
off, skin and eyes dropping down the cheek, and a half-burned
mouth. As he felt this rank mess of flesh walking towards him,
he told himself: “Don’t believe it. This is just your imagination.
Stop, be still, concentrate, and let go of the fear.” In the meantime,
the footsteps were getting closer and closer. Then he heard
the steps going around and around him. Thump, thump, thump,
circling around again and again. By this time he was in a state of
white-hot fear. He had gone beyond anxiety. His body was locked
solid and sweating bullets; he was absolutely rigid.
Then this presence came and stood right in front of him.
Ajahn Chah was still determined to keep his eyes closed, not
even a peek. At this point, he was so completely fear-stricken it
burst. The fear system was going at absolutely full force when
suddenly he had the thought: “All these years I’ve been reciting,
‘The body is impermanent, feeling is impermanent, perceptions
are impermanent. The body is not self, feelings are not self, perceptions
are not self, mental formations are not self, consciousness
is not self.’” So he wasn’t just afraid, he was also very con-
No Buddha Elsewhere
centrated and very alert. The insight flashed into his consciousness:
“Even if this is some terrible ghoulish monster that is going
to attack me, all that it can attack is that which is not me. All
that it can harm is the body, the feelings, the perceptions, mental
formations, and consciousness. That is the only stuff that can get
damaged, and that’s not me, that’s not self. That which knows all
of these cannot be touched.”
And instantly the feelings of terror evaporated. It was like
switching on a light. It disappeared completely and he went into
an incredibly blissful state. He went straight from total
dukkha—pain and incandescent fear—to an extraordinary bliss.
His mind was alert, and as that happened he heard the footsteps—
thump, thump, thump—getting fainter. Eventually the
footsteps disappeared. He never found out their source.
Ajahn Chah sat there without moving until dawn. During the
night it poured. Tears of rapture ran down his face and mixed
with the rain. Nothing in the world could have moved him.
Comparing that experience of freedom from fear with the
abject terror of the first half of the night burnt into him the fact
that the Buddha is our true refuge. The Buddha-mind is our refuge.
That is the safe place. Or as the first Tsoknyi Rinpoche said:
“There’s nothing else to search for. Rest in your own place.” And
he realized: “That is it. Regardless of the situation, no matter
what I meet, it is just a matter of doing this, of remembering this.”
Fear of Failure
This is quite a dramatic tale. We might think, “Cremation
grounds, ghosts and stuff, what does this have to do with me?”
So maybe I can bring this teaching a bit closer to home. One of
the things I am fond of quoting is a little fact I find extremely
significant. A number of years ago, a survey was done with many
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thousands of people. I think it was conducted by Harvard’s psychology
department. The purpose of the survey was to find out
what makes people afraid. In the top ten, dying of cancer was
about number four. I forget what number three was; number
two was nuclear war. The number-one fear was public speaking.
Essentially, this says that we are more prepared to live with
the destruction of the entire planet than we are to live with public
embarrassment (also known as ego death in some circles).
Isn’t that interesting? The other top-ten items were things like
losing all your possessions or being physically attacked. None of
these are exactly fun, but it is notable that the number-one fear
was public speaking. We are more afraid of dying on stage than
we are of our own physical demise.
A lot of this has to do with the fact that nowadays physical
death is abstracted and not allowed in American society. Even
when you’re in the coffin, you’re supposed to look like you’re on
your way to a dance. You’re dressed in a nice frock or suit, there’s
a little carnation in your lapel, and you’re all made up and ready
to go.
Aging is also out. And if a patient dies, the doctor has failed.
There’s no recognition of the fact that the cause of death is birth.
Culturally we sustain a massive denial of physical death, so it
is off the screen for a lot of us; it’s just an abstraction. Most of
us don’t live with any contact with physical death. If you don’t
do hospice work or work in a hospital, you may live well into
adult life without seeing a dead body. My mother said when my
father died at the age of 80 that his was the first corpse she had
ever seen.
Perhaps this denial is related to a fear of failure. Just reflect on
how many times you’ve said to yourself or have heard other people
say: “Well, I don’t mind dying; I just don’t want to experience a
No Buddha Elsewhere
lot of pain. I’m not really afraid of death.” But then if you ask
someone: “How do you feel about failing? How do you feel about
making an idiot of yourself in public? How do you feel about
launching some project and then having it collapse? How do
you feel about being rejected by your lover? How do you feel
about being told that what you’ve done or what you represent is
completely useless or even just boring?” Get the taste? We only
have to run a few of these scenarios. We all have our favorites,
such as: “I’m no longer a very attractive person; I used to be quite
good-looking, but now it’s all gone.” We can see that there is
more identification with our appearance, personality, and ego
than there is with the very life of the body. For most of us anyway,
that is the case.
It thus may be more skillful and appropriate just to work with
those situations where our ego is challenged rather than to seek
out dramatic physical dangers or adventure sports. For myself, I
realized that I had a lifetime fear of failure. I found I was competent
in a lot of things, but I also could see that I only chose to do
things that I would succeed at. I wouldn’t participate in things
that I wasn’t good at. Well into monastic life, I could see that
there was this serious investment in looking good all the time.
Dharma teachers know that one of the most radical places of
exposure is giving Dharma talks. When I first started doing this,
I noticed I would give a talk and then, even though it might feel
like it had gone down well, I wanted more validation than that
provided by my own intuition. Sometimes, particularly in
monasteries, people can be quite unresponsive. The lights are
dim, and you’re up on the high seat, and you can’t really see
whether the monks and nuns are snoozing. The sleeping monastic
posture is perfectly balanced but totally unconscious. Anyway,
after my talks, I would find myself at Amaravatiμin this little
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vestibule room, hanging out by the doorway. All the monks
would have to pass through this room before leaving the building.
I would hover around in a nebulous state of fear and anxiety.
“Oh my god, how did it go? Did people like it? What did they
think of me? Am I OK?”
All it would take would be someone to say, “Great talk!” and
then, aahhh, bliss. Or sometimes it would not be until the next
day. People would be walking by me and I would still be tense
with unknowing about the talk. “Did I totally blow it? Do people
think I’m a complete idiot?” And then somebody would come up
to me and say: “You know, what you said last night was the most
useful thing I’ve ever heard said. It was really a treasure.” Aahhh,
bliss again. “What a wise and discerning nun. She really understands
the Dharma.”
What I really meant was, “Thanks for pampering my ego.”
I began to notice this trait and realized, “Hey, this is an ailment
that needs some attention.”
We’d have a big breakfast-time meeting every day during
which Ajahn Sumedho would give teachings and we’d organize
the day’s work. Ajahn Sumedho would be at the center of the
group and the rest of the community would be arranged around
the hall; I’d be near him off to one side. Every so often there’d be
an opportunity for a comment or a wisecrack, and I would jump
in and make some remark. I began to notice that when I said
something and everyone laughed I would feel a distinct glow,
like the cat that got the cream. “Ooh, feels so good.” And I began
to realize that this was pretty sick. I was so addicted to that relishing
feeling—“Didn’t Amaro do good? Scored a point there.”
Similarly, if I chimed in and then said something that I thought
was witty but that fell completely flat, I would find myself
breaking into a million pieces. “Oh my god, this is terrible. This
No Buddha Elsewhere
is a disaster. This is awful.” And it wouldn’t even take the form
of words. It was a feeling of being shattered. I began to realize:
“Oh, one feeling I chase after with great vehemence and the
other I run from. Interesting.”
So I made a conscious decision to deliberately allow myself to
fail. This approach took a lot of doing. Granted, it was not quite
as dramatic as Ajahn Chah in the burning ground, but to me it
was. I began to take more risks by putting myself into situations
where I knew I wasn’t particularly skilful and by letting my selfishness
be seen, and by learning just to stay with that feeling of
shatteredness, of the ego being broken apart (when, for example,
it didn’t get what it wanted or didn’t get the strokes). Actually it
took a long time just to be able to stay with those feelings burbling
and blabbering inside me, even for five or ten minutes. I
finally realized, “This is just a feeling.” And then, as I turned
towards the feelings and allowed myself to risk that much more,
I began to see how much energy I’d put into avoidance. There’d
been a strong undercurrent of fear and terror.
Actually turning towards a feeling, allowing its presence, and
going into the avoidance, just as Ajahn Chah had done in the
burning ground was half the solution. After a time I really began
to see how this was a prime opportunity to witness the collapsing
of the ego program. To my amazement, after a couple of
years, I began to find myself relishing being misunderstood or
misrepresented, of people not liking me or having critical opinions.
It was amazing. I’m not just saying this because there was
a kind of achievement. But it was staggering to me. The heart
actually rejoices in seeing the reality of the way things are, rather
than in having the ego flattered.
So in terms of learning to trust the quality of knowing, of
establishing rigpa and cultivating it, one of the most difficult
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areas is this ego charge. The whole area of “I” making choices,
“me” succeeding, “me” failing, anything that gets loaded with
I-ness and me-ness and my-ness is very interesting to investigate.
When we make a choice that gets labeled success, we feel beautiful.
There is a soft, warm, golden glow that feels so good. And
when we make a choice or a decision that collapses and falls apart,
we take the failure personally. “I have failed.” And yet no element
of that is shut out of insight. All of it, every place where the ego
feeling arises, needs to be brought into awareness so that it doesn’t
obstruct the innate spaciousness and brightness. Regardless of
how dense and thick that self-sense might seem or feel, it is actually
transparent. Isn’t it a great relief to find this is so?
No Buddha Elsewhere

n the theravaμda buddhist world, the Sutta on Loving-
Kindness is one of the best known, best loved, and most often
recited of the Buddha’s discourses. I had known the Pali version
for a long time, but when my community first translated it into
English and we started reciting it regularly, it struck me that
only 90 percent of the teaching was about having kindness for
all beings.
The first part was a straightforward description of sending
forth this quality of pure love. For example:
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
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Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!
But then the last four lines of the sutta presented a very
different message:
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.
Until those last four lines, there’s a seamless flow of ideas,
a deeply inspiring sentiment that the Buddha encourages for all
of us. It continues to get more exalted and bright, and suddenly
there’s the punch line: “Not born again into this world.” That’s
quite a dramatic change of gear. And it takes us aback. What happened
to loving all beings? Something else has come into play,
but what is it?
These last lines remind us of something that many of us
would like to forget: the notion of not being born again. This
has not exactly taken root as a cultural ideal in the West. Instead,
things like comfortable retirement plans and good medical coverage
are very popular. There’s nothing wrong with these things,
but they are not our lives’ purpose.
Particularly in the Western Buddhist world, we don’t really
think in terms of birth and death. We may have a vague idea that
after death something might happen, but we’re not quite sure
what and most of us don’t seem to care very much. Our main
concern is getting on with our practice, which is all well and
good, but even this important focus is not the culmination. So
it can be useful to take a step back and consider our cultural con-
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ditioning and how that has an impact on our understanding of
what it means “not to be reborn.”
Life Affirmation and Negation
The West is a very life-affirming culture. We look upon our lives
and the world and we want to respect all living things, to develop
a sense of love, unity, and being at one with nature. We want to
have compassion and kindness for our bodies and to be healthy
and happy. Having “a full life” means doing lots of things, enjoying
ourselves, and feeling contented. These are sweeping generalizations,
of course. Nevertheless, they reflect the culture that
surrounds us. So when there’s a suggestion that the consummation
of the path is not being born again, people often say, “Oh,
well, actually I’d rather like to come back. Now that I have it
together and have got used to this human business, why would
I want to give it up?” With that kind of mind-set, there can be
disappointment and strong feelings that this teaching runs
counter to the notion that life is good. Some people protest:
“There’s the whole ecological movement to attend to, and the
ambition to love the planet and cherish nature. Why would I
want to leave it all for ever?”
Such responses may have some legitimacy. Some translations
of Theravaμda teachings, particularly in the Commentaries, give
the impression that the whole material world is a botched experiment.
If you get your stuff together and get yourself out of this
place, you don’t look back. “Bye-bye, cheerio. I’m off. Good luck
to all of you left behind.” It’s rather a coarse way of putting it,
but there is that side of things. When it is presented like this,
some people say, “Well, that’s strange. What is that about?”
Throughout the generations, people have picked up
Theravaμda teachings and fallen in love with meditation and
Off the Wheel
many of the principles, yet when they learn about not being
reborn, some go into major doubt mode. Things take on a
negative tinge: “Hmm, I’m not too sure about that. Maybe the
Buddha was secretly a sourpuss who just wanted to get out of
the whole thing, who just didn’t want to bother.”
The criticism that Buddhism is nihilistic is not at all unique
to these times. The Buddha was regularly accused of being a
nihilist, of having a negative view of life and the world. He
responded by explaining that this was a misunderstanding of the
teaching. “Those who say that I teach the annihilation of an existent
being misrepresent me, misunderstand me. They do not
teach what I teach. They do not say what I say.” (m 22.37)
The Buddha’s analogy of the snake and the rope is very relevant
here. Suppose you are walking along through the grass when
suddenly you see a circular shape on the pathway. It looks like a
snake, and you become frozen with fear. But when you look
closely you see that it’s not a snake at all, it’s just a coil of rope.
Relief rushes through your body and the fear disappears.
Everything is OK again. After offering this analogy, the Buddha
would pose the question, “What happened to the snake when the
coil of rope was recognized?” The answer is, nothing. Nothing
happened to the snake because there never was one.
So, similarly, when people ask, “What happens to the self
when the body dies?” The answer is basically the same. The
whole conception of the self is based upon a misapprehension, so
the question doesn’t apply. The way we see our “selves” is a fundamental
misapprehension that needs to be corrected. The practice
is about learning to see clearly, to awaken to what really is.
There is a well-known character in the Theravaμda teachings
called Vacchagotta. He started out as a member of another sect,
but he was one of these wandering yogis who often showed
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up for the Buddha’s teachings. At different times he came and
asked the Buddha questions. On one occasion, he approached the
Buddha and asked, “What happens to enlightened beings after
their bodies die?”
Vacchagotta probed for what he thought might be the answer:
“Do they reappear in another realm?” The Buddha said,
“‘Reappear’ does not apply.”
Vacchagotta tried again. He asked, “Well, do they not reappear
somewhere?” The Buddha said, “‘Do not reappear’ does
not apply.”
A persistent seeker, Vacchagotta then tried, “So do they both
reappear and not reappear?” The Buddha said, “‘Both reappear
and not reappear’ does not apply.”
Vacchagotta inquired yet again, “Do they neither reappear nor
not reappear?” And the Buddha said, “‘Neither reappear nor not
reappear’ does not apply.” This time Vacchagotta surrendered:
“I’m really confused. How can this be? At least one of these four
must somehow be applicable.”
“Not so, Vacchagotta,” said the Buddha. “Let me give you an
example. Suppose we have a little fire burning here, made out of
grass and sticks. And I say to you, ‘Have we a little fire here?’
You would say, ‘Yes, there’s a fire here.’ If we put the fire out,
and then I ask you the question, ‘Where did the fire go? Did it go
north, south, east, or west?’ What would you reply?” Vacchagotta
said, “Well, the question doesn’t apply. It didn’t go anywhere, it
just went out.” And the Buddha said, “Exactly so, Vacchagotta.
The way you phrased the question presumes a reality that does
not exist. Therefore, your question is not answerable in its own
terms. ‘Reappear’ does not apply; ‘does not reappear’ does not
apply . . .” (m 72.16-20)
Off the Wheel
This is one point on which the Buddha was extraordinarily
thorough. No matter how many times he was pressed, or what
situation he was in, he would never try to describe how it is.
People would ask: “So, you do all this practice, cranking it out
for years and years, doing walking and sitting meditation, keeping
all these rules. Finally you get off the wheel, and then, and
then . . .” And the Buddha would reply, “Nothing is spoken of;
this is not referred to” (e.g., at m 63, s 44, and a 10.95.) And then
he would encourage people to get on with their meditation practice.
Not getting an answer to such an enquiry about what happens
can be very frustrating and really get the mind going.
The Unrevealed
When I first came across these teachings in Thailand, I thought
that perhaps there were some secret oral transmissions that had
been passed down through the ages. Maybe Ajahn Chah was one
of those who had received this hidden teaching and he had it
under wraps. This was not for public knowledge, of course,
but only for the really committed and developed meditators. I
thought that maybe if I hung around long enough I’d get the real
scoop. As you can see, I had my own brand of confusion about
what the Buddha was teaching.
Since the Buddha consistently refused to respond to certain
questions, many people thought that he didn’t really know the
answers. Again, the teachings seem to have a nihilistic tinge to
them: the disappearance of the self, not being born again, and not
even a hint of eternal bliss. We may feel that the whole off-thewheel
thing is a bit off-putting. And this is something that the
Theravaμda masters have referred to again and again. People like
the idea of going to heaven, but they get afraid of meditating too
much because they might end up in the high brahmaμrealms and
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start to miss their families, their spouses, and the kids. So who
knows what’s going to happen if they realize nibbaμna? Then
you’re really gone. At least in the deva realms you might have
your family and friends so you could all hang out in bliss for a
few thousand eons. But nibbaμna, now that’s serious. It’s like the
bell rings and you say good-bye to everything.
Even in Asian cultures it comes up over and over again—people
are often frightened of nibbaμna. There are these hilarious dialogues
that go on between seekers and great masters: “Do you think that
the Buddha would have promised you something or encouraged
you to do something that was really horrible?” And they say, “Oh,
no, no, of course he wouldn’t.” “Then do you want to go to nibbaμna?”
And their response is: “No. We’ll go to heaven first, thank
you.” It’s like they’re aching to spend some time in one of these
retirement communities where they can play golf, swim around
in the lakes, enjoy gardens with beautiful flowerbeds, beautiful
people, and beautiful surroundings. Then, when they get tired of
all of that, maybe nibbaμna will become more attractive.
I recently finished editing a Buddhist novel that was written
in 1906. At that time, there was a lot of criticism of Buddhism by
the Christian establishment. It was seen as a negative, nihilistic
teaching, and nibbaμna was viewed as some kind of glorious extinction.
The author does a good job of righting that misunderstanding.
One of the main plot features of this novel is the hero,
Kaμmaniμta, unknowingly meeting the Buddha. Before they meet,
Kaμmaniμta has already committed himself to being a disciple of
the Buddha. Knowing that he is the greatest master around, and
convinced that the Buddha has promised a blessed and eternal
life after death, Kaμmaniμta sets out to find him. After some years
of wandering, the hero stays one night in a little dharmasaμlaμ,
a pilgrim’s shelter, at the house of a potter. The Buddha happens
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to be traveling through the same town. He also happens to stop
there and stay in the same shelter.
The roommates begin talking, and the Buddha inquires, “Who
are you, and where do you come from?”
The young man replies, “My name is Kaμmaniμta. I’m a disciple
of Gotama Buddha.”
“Oh,” says the Buddha. “Have you ever met him?”
“No,” says Kaμmaniμta, “unfortunately I never have.”
“If you met him would you recognize him?”
“ I don’t think so.”
“So why are you a disciple of the Buddha?”
“He teaches bliss in the beginning, bliss in the middle, bliss
in the end. And after a lifetime of sincere devotion, one can look
forward to blessed and eternal life after death.”
“Oh, really,” says the Buddha. Having the sense of humor
that he did, the Buddha doesn’t reveal who he is. He lets
Kaμmaniμta talk a bit longer. Then the Buddha says, “Well, I could
recount the Buddha’s teaching to you if you like.”
“Really? That would be marvelous,” says the enthusiastic
Kaμmaniμta. (This initial part of the story is derived from Sutta
m 140.)
The Buddha first gives his teaching on the Four Noble Truths.
Then he teaches the three characteristics: anicca, dukkha, and
anattaμ. Finally he teaches dependent origination. In the meantime,
Kaμmaniμta is getting antsy and thinking: “Oh, this doesn’t
sound right at all. I don’t like this.” He keeps pressing the
Buddha: “What about after death? Maybe life is unsatisfactory,
but what about after death?”
The Buddha responds simply, “The Master has revealed nothing
concerning this.”
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“Well, that’s impossible,” says Kaμmaniμta. “He must have said
something. How can you keep going if you don’t have a life of
eternal bliss to look forward to?”
The Buddha offers an analogy as a way of making his point:
If a house is burning and the servant rushes to warn the master
that they all have to leave immediately, it would be ludicrous for
the master to respond to the emergency by asking, “Is there is a
rainstorm outside or is it a fine moonlit night?”—implying that,
if the former were the case, he would choose not to leave. One
would have to conclude that the master of the house doesn’t
understand the gravity of the situation. Otherwise he wouldn’t
make such a foolish response; he wouldn’t ignore reality. In this
vein, the Buddha tells Kaμmaniμta: “You should also act as if your
head were encompassed by flames, as if your house were on fire.
And what fire? The world! And set on fire by what flame? By the
flame of desire, by the flame of hate, by the flame of delusion.”
He also made the point that, if the Tathaμgata had talked in
terms of an “eternal and blessed life,” many of his disciples
indeed would have been delighted with the idea but would have
tended to cling to it with a passionate longing that would disturb
all true peace and freedom. They thus would have become enmeshed
in the powerful net of craving for existence. And while
clinging to the idea of a beyond, for which by necessity they had
to borrow all the coloring from this life, would they not have
clung even more to the present, the more they pursued that
imaginary beyond?
Kaμmaniμta took offense at what was being taught and refused
to believe it. He remained convinced that the Buddha’s true
teachings led to an eternal life, full of supreme joy. It’s a long,
long story, but the thrust of it is that Kaμmaniμta has the same
experience that many people do. He meets this supposedly
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negative expression and does not want to give up the notion of
eternal bliss. It’s not until a lot further along in the book that
Kaμmaniμta realizes that he actually had shared a room with the
Buddha and had received the true teachings directly from him.
This exchange and others like it perplexed me for some
years. Why didn’t the Buddha just say something? Every religious
tradition has a way of expressing what the destination
of the path is. Yet all we get as Theravaμda Buddhists is that
we need to understand what it means to be reborn, and to stop
doing it.
The Unapprehendable
Actually, in a couple of places the Buddha is asked similar
questions about the nature of an enlightened being after death
and he gives us a little more to play with. He says, “Such a one,
after the breaking up of the body after death, passes out of the
range of knowledge of gods and humans.” (d 1.3.73) That gives
us a little snippet. At another point, a young man called
Upasiva asks him: “Those who have reached the end, do they
no longer exist? Or are they made immortal, perfectly free?”
The Buddha replies: “Those who have reached the end have
no criterion by which they can be measured. That which could
be spoken of is no more. You cannot say ‘they do not exist.’ But
when all modes of being, all phenomena, have been removed,
all ways of speaking have gone too.” (sn 1076)
This is what we refer to as parinibbaμna; it is where words and
thoughts run out. It’s the rigpa zone. All language is based upon
dualistic conceptions. So the Buddha is really being resolute by
saying, “All ways of speaking have gone, too.” Beyond here, the
buses don’t run. This is the end, the borderline. Language and
concept can apply up to this point but not any further.
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As I have contemplated this principle over the years, it has
slowly begun to make more and more sense. Now I have a profound
respect for the Buddha for saying absolutely nothing. And
I feel that it was through a true faithfulness to reality that he was
that resolute when he said: “No, nothing can be said. Any image,
any form, any description has to be wide of the mark. It cannot
represent the reality.”
In another situation, one of the Buddha’s disciples has been
asked the question, “What does your teacher say about what
happens to an enlightened being when he dies?” The disciple
responds, “The Tathaμgata has revealed nothing concerning this.”
His questioners then say, “You must be either newly ordained or,
if you are an elder, you must be an incompetent fool,” and they
promptly get up and leave. The disciple returns to the Buddha
to see if he has answered rightly, and the Buddha then questions
him back and forth.
He asks, “Here and now, Anuraμdha, with the Tathaμgata sitting
in front of you, can you truly say that the Tathaμgata is the
five khandhas (body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations,
and consciousness)?
“No, one cannot truly say that is so.”
“Can you say that the Tathaμgata is in the five khandhas?”
“No, one cannot truly say that.”
“Can you say that the Tathaμgata is apart from the five
“No, one cannot truly say that.”
“Can you say that he owns the five khandhas?”
“No, one cannot say that.”
“Can you say that he does not own the five khandhas? That
he does not have the five khandhas?”
“No, one cannot say that either.”
Off the Wheel
The Buddha then says, “If the Tathaμgata is not in truth apprehendable
while sitting in front of you here and now, then how
much more so after the breaking up of the body after death can
nothing be said?” (s 22.86)
The Buddha is trying to discourage the habit of filling up
space with ideas or some kind of belief or form. Instead, he is
encouraging a direct realization of the truth so that we know
for ourselves what that transcendent quality is.
He’s encouraging us to establish that quality of knowing, of
rigpa. Rather than creating an idea about something or an image
or a memory of it or a plan to get it, we need to keep waking up
to that, to keep coming to that. And that in itself is indescribable.
We can talk about things like knowing, emptiness, lucidity,
clarity, and so forth, but when the mind is fully awake to its own
nature, the words run out. This is the “parinibbaμna effect”; it
is an event horizon and marks a boundary with that which is
beyond the realm of words.
When the mind is truly awake, do we evaporate? Are we
frozen solid? No. In fact, we are more alive than we have ever
been before. There is a quality of total aliveness. Yet there’s also
a complete lack of definition. In that moment we’re not male,
we’re not female, we’re not old, we’re not young, we’re not any
place, there is no time. It’s ownerless, timeless is-ness. When we
experience that, does that feel good? It feels good to me; it feels
very good. This is the result of ending rebirth.
The Process of Rebirth
When we talk about being born again, what we’re talking about
is that moment when the clinging strikes and the heart gets
caught and is carried away. The verse at the end of the Mettaμ
Sutta encourages us to let go of clinging and thus not be born
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again. Not being born again is like the consummation of pure love
or rigpa. We don’t get identified with any aspect of the internal,
external, psychological, or material worlds of our bodies, thoughts,
feelings, emotions, Buddha-fields, or whatever. As soon as there
is that formulation, that crystallization, there’s birth.
What are the four kinds of clinging? They are:
kaμmupaμdaμna: clinging to sense pleasure;
ditthupaμdaμna: clinging to views and opinions;
silμabbatupaμdaμna: clinging to conventions, to gurus,
to meditation techniques, to an ethic, to specific
religious forms; and
attavadμ upaμdaμna: clinging to the idea of self.
The last four lines of the MettaμSutta are about the ending
of clinging:
By not holding to fixed views (ditthupaμdaμna),
the pure-hearted one (siμlabbatupaμdaμna, clinging to
virtues, to ethics, to rules, to forms),
having clarity of vision (this has to do with clinging
to self, attavaμdupaμdaμna),
being freed from all sense desires (kaμmupaμdaμna),
is not born again into this world (as the clinging stops,
so does being born again).
There is no loss of rigpa. If avijjaμ, ignorance, does not arise,
there is no ignorance. As soon as avijjaμ kicks in, the rebirth
process is triggered. Rebirth cannot happen without ignorance
and clinging.
The Buddha discovered a way of mapping out the path to freedom.
This insight, which came at the time of his enlightenment,
was formulated in terms of the process of dependent origination.
Off the Wheel
The first week after his enlightenment he spent his entire time
sitting under the bodhi tree investigating the pattern of how
dukkha, suffering, arises.
In the beginning, when there is avijjaμ, then sankhaμraμ (mental,
volitional formations, separateness) come into being. Sankhaμraμ
condition consciousness. Consciousness conditions naμma-ruμpa:
body-and-mind, name-and-form, subject-and-object. Naμma-ruμpa
conditions the six senses.
When there’s a body and a mind, the six senses are present.
Because of the six senses, there are sense contacts: hearing,
feeling, smelling, tasting, and touching.
Because of sense contact, feeling arises—pleasant, painful,
and neutral feelings.
And when a feeling kicks in, if there is enough ignorance in
the mix, the feeling conditions craving: “That’s nice; that looks
good; I want more of that,” or “I don’t like that; how dare he?”
Feelings of discomfort condition aversion.
Craving (tanhaμ) conditions clinging (upaμdaμna).
Clinging conditions becoming. There is a sense experience:
“Oh, what’s this? Hmm, very nice. I wonder whom this belongs
to? Can I keep it?” There’s an attraction toward it. Then there’s
an absorption into it. “Oh, that’s very nice. Great, must get some
more of that. I wonder if they have any of this in the refrigerator.
I’ll go help myself to it.” This is becoming.
Contact, feeling, craving, clinging, becoming. Then becoming
leads to birth.
At birth, there’s no turning back. The baby can’t go back
inside again. At becoming it is almost too late to break the
cycle. Once there is birth then it’s sealed—there is necessarily
the whole lifespan, and during that lifespan there’s going to be
sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair, aging, sickness, death.
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Dukkha. Although there are sure to be some pleasant bits, too.
Once there is birth, once we have grabbed hold of the condition,
once we’ve followed something, we’ve given our hearts to
it; we’re hooked. The becoming moment is the time of maximum
gratification; it is when we get what we want—the sweetness
of the bait. The entire consumer culture runs on the hit of
bhava, of becoming. It’s that yes moment: “I like it, I’ve got it,
and it’s mine.” Everything is geared to that thrill, that electric
charge. Once that process has kicked in, then there’s the charge
on your credit as well: “Whoops, how did that number get so big?
Who has been playing with this? Who took my plastic?”
The Buddha spent this whole first week watching how the
rebirth process works. He spent the second week watching how
the process does not get launched. If the mind stays in vijjaμ, in
knowing, in rigpa, then there is no ignorance. If there is no ignorance,
there’s no sankhaμra. If there’s no sankhaμra, there’s no
naμma-ruμpa, and so on and so forth. The process doesn’t kick in.
He spent the whole second week exploring this pattern of
how the heart breaks free of the cycle. He contemplated that
when there’s no ignorance, there’s no trouble. There’s no arising
of the alienation, the separation, the confusion of being pulled
by thoughts or feelings or sense objects. In the third week under
the bodhi tree he investigated both the arising and cessation of
dukkha together—contemplating the process both “with the
grain” (anuloma) and “against the grain” (patiloma).
So he spent three weeks simply sitting and reflecting on this
process. The core of the Four Noble Truths is described here—
how dukkha arises, how it ceases, and what we need to do in
order to make it cease. In terms of Buddha-Dharma, this is the
seed, the heart of the seed, the kernel, the quintessence.
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In very practical terms, the nature of ultimate reality is not
the problem—it sustains itself. The problem is that the heart
loses sight of reality because of its addiction to craving.
The Buddha’s first teaching after his enlightenment was given
to a wanderer he met on the road. The Buddha was unusually
tall, incredibly handsome, and had the bearing of the warrior
noble prince that he had been. He was also radiant, shining with
his recent experience of illumination. Clearly he was an extremely
striking figure, and as he was walking, this other character, called
Upaka, stopped him and said: “Excuse me, you are so radiant and
bright. Your face is so clear. Surely you must have had some wonderful
realization. What kind of practice do you do? How have
you got to this? Who are you? Who is your teacher?”
The Buddha responded: “I have no teacher. I am fully selfenlightened.
In fact, I am the only enlightened being in the entire
world. There is no one I can look to as my teacher or my elder.
I alone am fully awakened.”
Upaka said, “Good for you, friend,” and, shaking his head,
quickly left by another path. (mv 1.6)
The Buddha realized that this kind of response didn’t work.
Meeting someone who says, “You look happy; how did you get
this way?” and telling them, “I’m the ultimate reality” obviously
was not the best way to communicate the insight.
So the Buddha changed his approach. He realized that, “Perhaps
introducing the ultimate truth straight into the system doesn’t
work. Perhaps if I started at the other end of the story. . . . Let’s
go to marigpa, ignorance; let’s go to how life is habitually experienced.”
We don’t feel unremitting bliss all the time, do we? If we
intuit that there is an ultimate reality, which is pure and perfect
and blissful, why don’t we continually experience that? What’s in
the way? That is why the Buddha began with dukkha. If we intuit
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the perfection and purity of our own nature, it’s reasonable to
want to know how come it’s not on the screen the whole time.
The reason is because of avijjaμand tanhaμ, ignorance and craving.
We pursue the analysis just like a medical diagnosis. The
problem is “there is dukkha”; the cause is self-centered clinging;
the prognosis is “it is fixable, the ending of dukkha is possible”;
the medicine is the Noble Eightfold Path.
Exit Points from the Cycle
Many people are concerned as to whether these teachings on dependent
origination are practical or not. However, we don’t need
to look very far to see this pattern in our everyday lives. We can
see how over and over again the cycle of dependent origination is
enacted in our being, moment after moment, hour after hour, day
after day. We get caught in things we love, things we hate, things
we have opinions about, in feelings about ourselves, feelings
about others, in liking, disliking, hoping, fearing. It goes on and
on. The good news is that there are several different places where
we can catch this cycle and ultimately free the heart.
One could do a month-long workshop on dependent origination
and not exhaust it. So I will just give a few of the key points here.
Let’s say the worst has happened. Something very painful has
taken place. We’ve come to surrounded by broken glass. We’ve
had an argument with someone. We took something that wasn’t
ours. We were selfish or greedy. Someone has hurt us. How did
we get ourselves into this mess? This is life. We are experiencing
the anguish of dukkha. But we don’t need to feel like a victim or
fly into a “Why me?” tantrum.
One of the Buddha’s most beautiful teachings is that the experience
of suffering can go in two directions. One, it can compound
our misery and confusion. Two, it can ripen in search.
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When everything has gone wrong, we have a choice. Do we just
wallow? Or do we say: “Why is it like this? What am I doing to
make this a problem?” The search kicks in, to find where we are
clinging and why we are looking for happiness where it cannot
be found. (a 6.63)
Even at the birth, aging, sickness, death, sorrow, lamentation,
pain, grief, and despair end of the cycle, we can use that pain as
the cause to help us wake up. Actually, the Buddha points out in
some of his teachings that the very experience of dukkha can
cause faith to come into existence. (s 12.23) The pain is saying:
“This really hurts. But somehow I know that this is not the ultimate
reality.” We also know that “I can do something about this;
it’s up to me.” So the faith that something is doable arises, and
that faith is what launches us on the path of transcendence.
Another place to investigate is at the link between feeling
and craving, between vedanaμand tanha. Tanha literally means
“thirst.” Often it is translated as “desire,” but there are wholesome
desires as well as unwholesome ones. That’s why craving is
a much better word. It has an intrinsic agitated, frantic, “me, me,
me” element to it. Feeling is a world of innocence. We can have
an intensely blissful, exciting, pleasant feeling. We can have an
extremely painful feeling. We can have a fuzzy, neutral feeling
through the body or the mind. Feeling by itself is utterly innocent.
There is no intrinsic positive or negative quality to it at all.
If there’s sufficient awareness, then all mental and sense phenomena,
and the pleasant, painful, or neutral feelings associated
with them, can be known, without clinging, as appearances. As
soon as ignorance, marigpa, enters the picture, the heart begins
to crave: if it’s beautiful, “I want it.” If it’s ugly, “Get it out of
here; it stinks.” Somewhere between these two we will generally
create an opinion about it. This is a point in meditation where
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we can clearly cut the cycle, where we can avoid getting reborn,
where we can stay with the quality of the wholeness of the
Dharma. There is feeling, sight, smell, taste, and touch, and we
recognize the emotions that go along with them, but it’s just the
world of feeling—pure and innocent.
Often I encourage people to do clinging exercises so they can
really get to know the quality of that experience directly. Crave
or cling deliberately, until you know the texture of it so clearly
that, as soon as it kicks in, even in the simplest ways, you’re
aware of it. It’s like picking up an object and clinging [picks up
the bell striker and grasps it tightly]. This is clinging. There is
clinging, and as you hold it within awareness, slowly the clinging
stops [hand relaxes]. We don’t throw it away; we don’t break it.
We loosen the grip. We do these little exercises so that we know
as soon as a feeling turns into “I want it” or “I have got to” or
“they shouldn’t” or “more” or “less” or “let me out of here”
or “ouch,” we recognize it as craving and clinging. Even in the
subtlest areas, we can see, “There is clinging.”
The Dzogchen teachings offer a wonderful analysis of the
anatomy of clinging. They describe all kinds of subtle areas and
types of it. It’s very useful to have it matched so finely with our
own direct experience, like mapping the fine details of the tissues
that we’re physically made from. By getting to know the
quality of clinging, we can recognize that, as soon as we let go
of it, there’s no problem. Everything is absolutely fine just the
way it is. The cycle of rebirth is broken right there.
A story that Ajahn Sumedho tells is relevant here. It’s one of
his stories that has stuck vividly in my mind. It took place many
years ago when he was a young monk at Ajahn Chah’s monastery.
It was a superstrict monastery, so life was pretty austere.
And there was always a somewhat desolate aura there; not a lot
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of thrills going on, and everything very plain for the senses.
What’s more, Wat Pah Pong had the worst food in the world. If
the cooks tried to make it tastier, Ajahn Chah would go to the
kitchen and scold them. Maybe there was a cup of tea once or
twice a week. Sometimes it was a hot fruit juice or some of a
local brew known as borupet. Borupet is a bitter vine, and it is
a challenge to describe its taste. If you strip the bark of an elder
tree and taste the sap, it’s like that. The taste is really foul and
astringent. It is supposed to be very good for you, but it is ghastly
stuff to eat or drink.
Every week there was an all-night vigil and the novices would
bring out a few big steaming kettles. Once Ajahn Chah asked
the newly arrived Ajahn Sumedho, who had a big cup, “Would
you like some?” and Ajahn Sumedho, not knowing the contents
of the kettle, said, “Fill ‘er up!” or words to that effect. They
filled his big cup with borupet. He took one sip and reacted with
a loud, “Waaaaa!” Ajahn Chah smiled and said, “Drink up,
Sumedho.” Yes, clinging to desire is dukkha.
“I Like, but I Don’t Want”
Here’s another story Ajahn Sumedho often tells. Sometimes
Ajahn Chah would invite him out to meet visitors to the monastery.
One day a group of attractive young women came to Wat
Pah Pong. I believe they were students from the local nursing
college in Ubon Ratchathani. A few dozen of them were sitting
there, all arranged very respectfully in their beautiful turquoise
and white uniforms. Ajahn Chah gave them a Dharma talk and
chatted with their teachers, professors, and so on. Ajahn Sumedho
sat next to him for the several hours that this session went on.
Sitting in the company of several dozen attractive young women
Small Boat, Great Mountain
at such close quarters was not something that happened often to
the young Bhikkhu Sumedho.
Ajahn Chah liked to test his disciples every so often to see
where they were at, so after the party from the college had gone,
Ajahn Chah turned around and asked, “So, Sumedho, how do
you feel? What did that do to your mind?” Bear in mind that the
whole relationship to sexuality is much more simple and
straightforward in Southeast Asia. And Ajahn Sumedho said in
Thai, “Chorp, daer my ao,” meaning, “I like, but I don’t want.”
Ajahn Chah was very pleased with this response. In fact, he was
so impressed by it, that at every Dharma talk for the next two or
three weeks, he referred to it, “This is the essential practice of
the Dharma. There is the acknowledgement that this is attractive,
this is beautiful, but then there is also the choice: Do I really
want it? Do I have to possess it? Do I need to chase after it? No,
I don’t have to. Without fear, repression, or aversion, there is a
turning away.”
If Ajahn Sumedho had snarled, “I sat there turning them all
into corpses,” then Ajahn Chah might have thought, “OK, very
good. But it sounds like he is probably an aversion type, frightened
of sexual attraction or of the realm of sex. He’s doing his
duty as a monk trying to restrain the passions but perhaps not
aware of the deeper Dharma.” Or if he had said, “It was all I
could do to hold myself down on the floor,” Ajahn Chah would
have then thought, “OK, duly noted. He’s a greed type; we’ll need
to navigate that carefully as time goes by.” But Ajahn Chah saw
that Ajahn Sumedho had really found the middle. “This is what
it is: it is very attractive, beautiful, and delicious, but I don’t
want to possess it. I am not pushing this away, but I don’t need
to own it either. It is the way it is.”
Off the Wheel
In the Beginning
The last part of the pattern I want to discuss is actually at the beginning
of the story, at the very start of the dependent origination
cycle: Avijjaμpaccayaμsankhaμraμ, ignorance conditions formations.
I’ve been on retreats during which Ajahn Sumedho spent three
weeks on this one phrase: “Ignorance conditions formations.”
Literally every Dharma talk, two or three times a day, on “Ignorance
conditions formations.” He would condense this Dharma
teaching down to one phrase and would repeat it endlessly,
“Ignorance complicates everything.” What does this mean?
Sankhaμra is a broad term that fundamentally means “that
which is compounded,” and it gets translated many ways: karmic
formations, concoctions, fabrications, volitional formations,
subject/object duality—there’s a large constellation of meanings.
What this phrase, “Ignorance complicates everything,” is saying
is that as soon as there is no vijjaμ, as soon as rigpa is lost, then
instantly the seeds of duality start to form and sprout. There’s
an observer and an observed; there is a this and a that; a here
and a there; a me and a world. Even at its most subtle, germinal
stage, this is what it is talking about. As soon as there is avijjaμ,
sankhaμra is caused to be there. Then it becomes a vortex; the
tiniest little movement and it starts to grow, to spiral out.
Sankhaμraμpaccayaμviññanam : sankhaμra conditions consciousness.
Consciousness conditions mind and body. Mind and body
conditions the six senses. The six senses condition feeling, craving,
and so on.
By the time we get down to the six senses, there is the body
here and there’s the world out there, and we experience them as
apparently solid realities.
If it’s only just started to head down the line, it’s a matter of
quickly catching it. We can step back and see where an observer
Small Boat, Great Mountain
and an observed have already been created. As it is said, “Sankhaμra
sticks its head out” like a tortoise—meaning some form
is trying to poke its head into rigpa. But if 80 percent of the rigpa,
the knowing, is there, we can still catch it and come back to rest
in that open awareness.
We are talking about the subtle area of movement where,
as soon as there is a slippage of mindfulness or the faintest coloration
or distortion of that awareness, duality kicks in. And
that’s the seed of the whole thing. If it’s seen at that point and
not followed, then that seed, that primal movement, will not
grow further, it will cease right there. If it’s not seen, the vortex
will build and build until there is “me in here, the world out
there.” And then: “I want it, I can’t stand it, I’ve got to have it.
How marvelous, how wonderful, I am going places”—sorrow,
lamentation, pain, grief and despair.
Endless Hunger
What happens at that latter end of the cycle, when the dukkha
hasn’t ripened in the search for truth and we’ve let our misery get
compounded? We feel incomplete. There’s “me” feeling unhappy,
miserable, insecure, incomplete, alienated. Then as soon as
there’s an idea or a feeling or an emotion or a sense object that
might possibly make us feel complete again, we jump on it.
“Well, that looks interesting. Perhaps this will do the trick.”
There is a feeling of hunger, a lack, or a longing that comes
from the experience of suffering. If we are not awake to what’s
going on, we think that what we lack is some thing—the new
job, the new car, the new partner. Or we lack perfect health.
We lack a decent meditation practice. We shouldn’t be hanging
out with the Tibetan lamas; we should join the Theravaμdins at
Abhayagiri. We should rejoin the Christians. We should move to
Off the Wheel
Hawaii. It goes on and on. We go after any kind of external object
or internal program to find the missing piece.
This is the cycle of addiction, and it is a very common experience.
I am sure everyone has had such experiences. In spite of our
best intentions, we find ourselves back in trouble again. We see
that we have pursued some kind of desire—for a job, a partner,
a meditation technique, a teacher, a car, something to satisfy us.
Then we get it and believe, “Ah, this is great.” But is it really?
A while back, we got two new vehicles at our monastery. One
is a pickup. It’s a Ford f250 v8 5.7-liter with a timber rack. On the
first day we had it I noticed that somebody had put a big dent in
the back license plate. We had had this pickup only one day and
the clinging was already there. I was upset and wanted to know,
“Who did this? Who backed into our truck?” This is dukkha.
It was so easy to fall into the feeling that the new white Ford
f250 v8 5.7-liter pickup was going to make us happy and make
things so completely better. And to a certain extent it has, no
question about it. There is gratification for a while. That feeling
is definitely there and it is real. The mind contracts around it and
at that moment of “Yes!” we are absolutely gratified. The universe
has shrunk to that one minuscule zone: “Me happy. Got
nice thing.” The trouble is that the universe is not actually that
small. We can only hold it together while the thrill lasts. We
taste delicious food, we have an inspiring retreat, we see an
exciting movie, we enjoy the smell of a new car, and then it’s
gone. These objects don’t satisfy us anymore. The place where
the piece was missing opens up again and there is dukkha once
more. If we don’t realize what is happening, we seek another
object to fill that gap, and the cycle of rebirth goes around and
around, again and again. It happens thousands of times a day.
Small Boat, Great Mountain
Map the process out for yourself. Take notes. You’ll see that
it happens very quickly. Ajahn Chah used to say that following
dependent origination is like dropping out of a tree and trying to
count the branches on the way down. It’s that quick. The whole
process can play out from beginning to end in a second and a half.
Pow. We can hardly track what’s happening but—thump!—we
know it hurts when we hit the ground. We can see the urge to
cling in any moment. When we see this clearly, when we have
made it deeply familiar to us, we can stop the process and let go
of the cycle of birth and death.
To encourage this familiarization and relinquishment it’s
important to experience and acknowledge the disadvantages of
cyclic existence. Above all, it hurts. Just as the thrill is real, so
is the pain. We don’t get the thrill without the pain. That would
be nice, wouldn’t it? When the pain comes, we see that it is
empty. When the thrill comes, we experience it as absolutely
real. You’ve got to be really quick on your feet to pull that one
off. There are a lot of people trying it, that’s for sure. As the
pleasure is rising, we feel “real, real, happy, happy, happy,
happy.” As the pleasant feelings diminish, we try to see that
the pain and disappointment is “empty, empty, empty, empty.”
As we say in California, “Dream on.” Life is not that way.
Off the Wheel

he end of a retreat is a special time. For the past ten
days we have created a safe haven by observing the precepts and
respecting each other’s personal space. This refuge has allowed
us to practice the Dharma intensively and to see the laws of
nature for ourselves. But like everything in life, our precious
time together soon will end. The inevitable and delicate process
of being dispersed into the differentiated will begin. Some people
are holding on to every last moment of silence and reflection,
while others probably can’t wait to bolt out the door. Whatever
your mind is doing, let it be. Try to relax and enjoy these final
moments we have together.
Unlike traditions, including Dzogchen, that are known for
their elaborate rituals, the Theravaμda school has rituals that are
quite plain. Wine and fancy foods are not passed around, and
there is no drumming or costumed dancing. Nevertheless, our
rituals are very beautiful in their simplicity and profundity. The
The Portable Retreat
custom of ending retreats with a ceremony of blessing and farewell
helps us make the transition between retreat life and the
life of work, family, dirty dishes, carpools, and so on. It’s another
level of experience we share together, one that is participatory,
tactile, and rich in meaning. The ritual of chanting the refuges
and precepts helps complete the circle; we chanted them on the
day we arrived, and we chant them now before we leave. By now,
however, everyone is probably aware that there is no real beginning
or ending. Integrity and wholeness are always here.
Anatomy of a Ritual
This ceremony involves some basic principles and symbols. The
symbols include a long thread of pure cotton, a bowl of water, a
few drops of fragrant oil, a beeswax candle, and a Buddha image.
The Buddha represents the primordial spiritual principle, and the
thread represents the quality of purity, that fundamental spiritual
principle as it manifests in the world of form. The ceremony
begins by wrapping the thread three times around the Buddha
image and then three times around the bowl of water.
The thread then passes through the hands of the monastics
and goes around the whole room, weaving in and out of everyone
else’s hands. It physically connects us and symbolically represents
the intrinsic purity that both unites us as human beings
and binds our hearts to the Buddha principle; it reminds us that
our hearts, in essence, are the Buddha principle.
The ceremony is primarily focused on the bowl of water. Of
the four elements—earth, water, fire, and air—water represents
cohesion and symbolizes compassion. It is the symbol for that
which holds everything together. Some special holy fragrant oil,
with sandalwood and other precious substances in it, is sprinkled
into the water.
Small Boat, Great Mountain
As the chanting begins, I burn the beeswax candle over the
top of the bowl. The wax drips into the water, and as the burning
wax hits the water, the four elements are brought together. The
earth element is embodied in the wax of the candle; the fire is
the flame; the air is that which the fire is burning in and the wax
falling through; and lastly there is the water. The four elements
are also fused with the presence of the Buddha’s teachings, as
embodied in the sound of the chanting, and with the final element
of consciousness—the attention we pay to the whole event.
On a symbolic level, at least, the four elements of our own
physical nature are being infused with the presence of the Buddha-
Dharma, for the thread connects it all to us, the participants.
The first part of the chanting is an invocation. It calls upon
the brahmaμs, the devataμs, the earth spirits, the naμgas (celestial
dragons), and all beings in the universe that might be benevolently
disposed toward this gathering. It is an invitation for them to
come and bless us with their presence, empower our lives, and
strengthen us in our spiritual endeavors.
We can look at this aspect of the ceremony in several ways.
Sometimes people have trouble with the idea of invisible beings
such as angels, brahmaμs, Buddhas, and bodhisattvas. If that’s the
case with you, feel free to think of this as a calling forth from
inside of all the benevolent forces that are intrinsic to our fundamental
nature, all the bright, wholesome states within our own
being. So the first level of invocation could be said to involve the
external radiant and wholesome beings, and the second the internal
“beings”—those states of our own mind that are comparably
resplendent, noble, and potent. Thirdly, there’s the level of invocation
where the Dharma is simply blessed by its own nature;
here occurs the great effortless gesture of the heart realizing its
innately sacred essence.
The Portable Retreat
However we view it, remember that inside and outside are
convenient fictions, conventions; they are not ultimate truths.
So whether we call the blessing forces out from within or in from
without, or simply realize them, basically we are inviting those
radiant qualities to the surface of consciousness.
The chanting is a recitation of the Buddha’s teachings, verses
of praise about him, and verses recited by him for protection,
healing, and the dispelling of demonic forces. I will chant these
in the Pali language as you, the Dharma assembly, listen in
silence. Many of the words might not be recognizable. Rather
than let the mind get tangled up in a search for meaning, however,
just relax. The point is to provide an opportunity, through the
agency of the sound and the ritual itself, for the blessings to be
received and for them to manifest and blossom.
In this ceremony, the quality of right attitude is crucial on the
part of both the persons conducting the ritual and those who are
receiving the blessings. If we genuinely wish to be blessed, we
need to “make a hook” to snag the wholesome and help it grow
in the Dharma garden of our heart. Even if there are a multitude
of benevolent beings out there or radiant virtues in here, that
openness of the heart, like a fertile field, is necessary in order for
the blessings to “catch.”
If the heart holds this in the correct way, then true blessings
will rain upon us, emerge from us, manifest within our hearts. So
sit and be open. Don’t try to do anything (of course). Simply
allow the sound to wash freely through your awareness.
Once the chanting ends, we wind up the thread. Later on the
thread is cut, as in the Tibetan tradition, and everyone is given
a length of it to be tied around their wrist as a kind of “Dharma
handcuff,” a visible reminder of this retreat and of our primordial
connection and commitment to the Buddha-Dharma.
Small Boat, Great Mountain
I was performing this ceremony once as a wedding blessing
at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a large monastery in the
Chinese tradition, near Ukiah, California. One of the monks
there asked to watch the ceremony, as he had never seen a
wedding blessing before in either the Northern or the Southern
Buddhist tradition.
At the end of the ceremony, he said, “I thought Theravaμdins
didn’t have this kind of stuff! You do realize that this is pure
The resonance of the four elements externally (in the bowl),
and internally (in our bodies), together with the transformation
of energy, is something the ceremony can accomplish if the
quality of right attitude is present.
Refuges and Precepts
If there is one predictable question that people ask at the end of
retreats, it is: “How can I sustain the practice once the retreat is
over and I’m back in the world of violence, greed, starving children,
poor health care, and not enough parking space?” This is a
wonderful question because it requires us to pay attention to the
skillful desire to integrate our spiritual practice into our daily
lives. For spiritual life to develop, there’s no need to become a
“retreat junkie,” begrudgingly tolerating the periods when we
have to deal with family and work just so that we can gather
enough time and resources to go on retreat again. Probably more
useful than this is making a commitment to establish a basis of
moral conduct in daily life. In this light, the five precepts are
offered not as rigid commandments but as guidelines for living.
They are practical strategies to help us exist and function more
The Portable Retreat
I could suggest many ways to sustain the spirit of retreat after
you leave here, ranging from meditating daily to creating a sacred
space somewhere in your home. But the single most important
guidance I can offer is this: along with internalizing the three
refuges (as was talked about in Chapter Six) I would encourage
you to cherish the five precepts deeply. Abide by them as a devotional
practice, as a mindfulness practice, as a concentration
practice, and as a practice of conduct. All these different elements
are contained within these simple principles. Taking the
precepts is an act of arousing the intention to accord with and to
be as kind as possible to yourself and to the world around you.
When visitors go to monasteries in Theravaμda countries, it is
customary for them to take the refuges and precepts as a simple
and regular reminder. In the West, we take them at the beginning
and ending of retreats, at daylong sittings, and even before
Sangha meetings. Taking precepts is not a one-shot deal, as if
when we take them they transform us forever—not at all. They
are principles that require constant recollection, cultivation, and
exploration. Wisdom can develop only in a mind that is continually
reoriented and grounded in truth and selflessness.
Two Kinds of People
Two kinds of people are described in the Theravaμda scriptures:
puggalas and manussas. Being a puggala means that you have a
human body but might not be fully human—internally you
might be operating more like an animal or a hungry ghost. If you
are a manussa, you are truly human. In Buddhist cosmology the
realms of existence are divided into the heavens (devas), the jealous
gods (asuras), the animals, the hungry ghosts (petas), the
denizens of hell (niraya), and the humans. To be born in the
human division of the six realms means that you are a manussa.
Small Boat, Great Mountain
A manussa is one who lives at least according to the five precepts.
That is to say, the chief characteristic of one who is truly
human is the quality of virtue, of beautiful conduct.
I find this to be a helpful reflection and one that we can test
for ourselves: when we behave in ways that are ugly, selfish,
cruel, or greedy, what does that feel like? At those times we are
less than human; we are out of harmony with life; we feel bad
about ourselves. There is an imbalance in the system. The heart
can’t open in the midst of this chaos.
We can also see for ourselves what happens when we behave
in kind and skillful ways. What does that feel like? We feel good
about ourselves, and there’s a sense of harmony with all things.
The heart is open and receptive to the whole panoply of life. We
still may be ignorant in many ways, and still prone to all kinds
of suffering, but to have this basic sensitivity and nobility of conduct
is synonymous with true humanity.
A Natural Law
The five precepts were not just conjured up by the Buddha. They
are part of the natural order. They aren’t imposed as a Buddhist
idea, nor are they unique to the Buddhist tradition. Every country
in the world has laws that enable human beings to function
freely and harmoniously. These laws relate to respect for human
life, to property, to the appropriate use of sexuality, and to honesty.
The Buddha pointed out that they are innate to the human
condition. If we take life, if we misappropriate things, if we take
advantage of others—through our sexuality or by living indulgently—
if we are deceitful or aggressive, harmful with our
speech, then pain intrinsically will follow. In the opening verses
of the Dhammapada it says, “If you speak or act with a corrupt
mind, then pain will follow like the wheels of the cart following
The Portable Retreat
the ox that pulls it.” The Buddha referred to these precepts as
pakati-silμa—natural or genuine virtue. They are contrasted with
pannatti-silμa—prescribed ethics—which are the product of local
customs and religions or rules peculiar to certain professions.
I like to compare the five precepts to the driver’s manual in
a new car: “Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of a
human life. Let me introduce you to your vehicle.” Well, perhaps
they’re not so much like a driver’s manual as they are like road
signs, such as dangerous curve or do not enter—wrong
way or slow. Try to understand the precepts in this way. They
are road signs for our life as human beings. They help us look and
see that “life is really this way, not that way.”
These signs protect us from danger. They warn us where the
obstacles are and help the heart stay on track. Perhaps you’ve
noticed that if you don’t follow the road signs, you tend to get lost,
problems start to multiply, and there is a lot of tension and frustration
involved. But when you pay attention and follow the laws and
road signs, there’s flexibility, sensitivity to time and place, and we
usually get where we’re going. The precepts should be understood
in exactly the same way. We pick them up and use them as helpful
guides through the areas of life where we lose our way most easily,
where there is the most emotional charge: around issues of life and
death, around property and ownership, around sexuality, around
honesty and deceit, around speech and communication.
The Fifth Precept
It’s interesting that when the Buddha describes the moral precepts,
he often doesn’t actually mention the fifth one. The
Buddha did not always label the precept against using intoxicants
as intrinsically moral. When I say this, some people perk up and
get very interested! The point, though, is that when the mind is
Small Boat, Great Mountain
in a heedless state, it is much easier to fall headlong into the first
four danger zones than it is when the mind is attentive, balanced,
and undrugged. To continue the driving analogy: just consider the
number of accidents caused by people under the influence of drink
and other intoxicants. So it may be that we wouldn’t experience
the inescapable negative karmic result that we would, say, when
telling a deliberate lie, but the precept against using intoxicants is
included in the five because it’s a linchpin for all the others—when
it goes, the wheels start to wobble.
For myself, I like to encourage the understanding of the fifth
precept—“I undertake the precept to refrain from consuming intoxicating
drink and drugs which lead to carelessness”—to be a
refraining from consuming the substances at all, not just a refraining
from intoxication. It’s a favorite idea, isn’t it, to think, “Just to
have a beer now and then, or a glass of wine with dinner, that’s not
against the precepts, is it?” Quite, honestly, I’d say that it is.
To have the standard of abstinence is a great kindness to yourself
and a kindness to other people by the example that you set.
I’m not asking people to be rigid or fanatical about it, but it can
be extremely helpful for ourselves to make a clear commitment.
It is like saying, “Mindfulness is a precious and fragile commodity,
why endanger or weaken it?” So, personally, I try to encourage
a strict observance of the precepts, including that of refraining
from intoxicants. This is out of no reason other than my love for
you and all other beings. You will find it is the most helpful support
to all dimensions of Buddhist practice to respect the precepts
in this way.
Silμa Is Another Word for Happiness
The five precepts are not about morality alone. They are also a
great mindfulness tool. We don’t get a signal when we start to
The Portable Retreat
drift from rigpa to marigpa, from clear awareness to heedlessness,
do we? It’s not as though we have a little warning light
on the dashboard for when a defilement or some deluded state
comes into existence. It is not like when you create a document
on your computer and the machine prints the file name
and path, the date you wrote it, and so forth. “This is a greed
condition, third degree, generated at 15:41, 1-6-02.” “This is a
self-based deluded condition. . .” They are not tagged like that.
But when we give our hearts to the precepts and really
respect them, they let us know, they give a warning. As the
heart drifts unwittingly into unawareness, deluded attractions,
and aversions, there’s a warning buzz in the system. It enables
the heart to wake up before we lose sight of our innate purity,
before the negative states have been compounded, and before
we get ourselves into trouble. To go back to the driving analogy,
they are like the serrated strip at the side of the freeway that
makes the wheels vibrate when we drift too far toward the
hard shoulder: “Oops! Dozed off for a moment there. How did
that happen? Better brighten up or I’ll be in trouble and never
make it.”
After the recitation of the precepts, the person who is giving
them chants:
Silμa is the source of happiness,
silμa is the source of true wealth,
silμa is the cause of peacefulness,
therefore, let silμa be purified.
So this is all about how to be happy. We take these principles
of kindness and virtue to heart and let them guide us. The
cradle of Dharma stays with us.
It is a portable retreat.
Small Boat, Great Mountain

Tibetan chants from translations by Tony Duff and Erik Pema Kunsang
taking refuge theravaμda
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammaμsambuddhassa
Homage to the Blessed, Noble and Perfectly
Enlightened One
(3 times)
Buddham| saranam| gacchaμmi
Dhammam| saranam| gacchaμmi
Sangham| saranam| gacchaμmi
To the Buddha I go for refuge
To the Dhamma I go for refuge
To the Sangha I go for refuge
(3 times)
Selected Chants
ordinary taking refuge &
arousing bodhicitta tibetan
Until becoming enlightened, I take refuge
In the Buddha, the Dharma and the Supreme Assembly;
May the merits from my generosity and other virtues,
Result in Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.
(3 times)
extra-ordinary taking refuge tibetan
Namo: The essence, empty, Dharmakaμya;
The nature, clarity, Sambhogakaμya;
The compassion, manifold, Nirmaμnakaμya;
In that I take refuge until enlightenment.
(3 times)
naμgaμrjuna’s dedication of merit tibetan
By this merit may we obtain omniscience then
Having defeated the enemies, wrong-doings,
May we liberate living beings from the ocean of existence,
With its stormy waves of birth, old-age, sickness and death.
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reflections on sharing blessings theravaμda
Through the goodness that arises from my practice,
May my spiritual teachers and guides of great virtue,
My mother, my father and my relatives,
The sun and the moon,
And all virtuous leaders of the world;
May the highest gods and evil forces;
Celestial beings, guardian spirits of the Earth
And the Lord of Death;
May those who are friendly, indifferent or hostile;
May all beings receive the blessings of my life,
May they soon attain the threefold bliss
And realize the Deathless.
Through the goodness that arises from my practice,
And through this act of sharing,
May all desires and attachments quickly cease
And all harmful states of mind.
Until I realize nibbaμna,
In every kind of birth,
May I have an upright mind
With mindfulness and wisdom, austerity and vigor.
May the forces of delusion not take hold
Nor weaken my resolve.
The Buddha is my excellent refuge,
Unsurpassed is the protection of the Dhamma,
The Solitary Buddha is my noble Lord,
The Sangha is my supreme support.
Through the supreme power of all these,
May darkness and delusion be dispelled.
Selected Chants
vajrasatva 100 syllable mantra tibetan
the buddha’s
words on loving kindness theravaμda
This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways,
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skilful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
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Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born—
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.
Selected Chants
vajra song of the
first tsoknyi rinpoche tibetan
Don’t wander, don’t wander, place mindfulness on guard;
Along the road of distraction, Maμra lies in ambush.
Maμra is the mind, clinging to like and dislike,
So look into the essence of this magic, free from
dualistic fixation.
Realize that your mind is unfabricated primordial purity;
There is no Buddha elsewhere, look at your own face;
There is nothing else to search for, rest in your own place;
Non-meditation is spontaneous perfection so capture the
royal seat.
suffusion with the divine abidings theravaμda
I will abide pervading one quarter with a heart imbued
with loving-kindness—
Likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth—
So above and below, around and everywhere
and to all as to myself.
I will abide pervading the all-encompassing world
with a heart imbued with loving-kindness;
abundant, exalted, immeasurable,
without hostility and without ill will.
Small Boat, Great Mountain
I will abide pervading one quarter with a heart imbued
with compassion—
likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth—
so above and below, around and everywhere
and to all as to myself.
I will abide pervading the all-encompassing world
with a heart imbued with compassion;
abundant, exalted, immeasurable
without hostility and without ill will.
I will abide pervading one quarter with a heart imbued
with gladness—
likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth—
so above and below, around and everywhere
and to all as to myself.
I will abide pervading the all-encompassing world
with a heart imbued with gladness;
abundant, exalted, immeasurable,
without hostility and without ill will.
I will abide pervading one quarter with a heart imbued
with equanimity—
likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth—
so above and below, around and everywhere
and to all as to myself.
I will abide pervading the all-encompassing world
with a heart imbued with equanimity;
abundant, exalted, immeasurable,
without hostility and without ill will.
Selected Chants
aspiration for bodhicitta tibetan
May the precious bodhicitta arise
Where it has not arisen,
And where it has arisen may it not decrease
But increase further and further.
extra-ordinary arousing bodhicitta tibetan
Ho: In order to set all living beings, as extensive as space
On the level of a Buddha,
I will use the upadesha of the Great Perfection
To realize self-arising rigpa Dharmakaμya.
Small Boat, Great Mountain
reflections on
universal well-being theravaμda
May I abide in well-being
In freedom from affliction
In freedom from hostility
In freedom from ill will
In freedom from anxiety
And may I maintain well-being in myself.
May everyone abide in well-being
In freedom from hostility
In freedom from ill will
In freedom from anxiety
And may they maintain well-being in themselves.
May all beings be released from all suffering
And may they not be parted from
The good fortune they have attained.
All beings are the owners of their actions
And inherit their results.
Their future is born from such actions
Companion to such actions
And their results will be their home.
All kinds of actions,
Be they skillful or harmful,
Of such acts,
They will be the heirs.
Selected Chants
dependent origination & cessation theravaμda
With ignorance as condition formations come to be.
With formations as condition consciousness comes to be.
With consciousness as condition materiality/mentality
comes to be.
With materiality/mentality as condition the six senses
come to be.
With the six senses as condition contact comes to be.
With contact as condition feeling comes to be.
With feeling as condition craving comes to be.
With craving as condition clinging comes to be.
With clinging as condition becoming comes to be.
With becoming as condition birth comes to be.
With birth as condition, then old age and death, sorrow,
lamentation, pain, grief and despair all come into being.
Such is the origination of this entire mass of suffering.
Now, with the remainderless fading, cessation and absence
of that very ignorance comes the cessation, the nonarising
of formations.
With the cessation, the non-arising of formations comes
the cessation, the non-arising of consciousness.
Small Boat, Great Mountain
With the cessation, the non-arising of consciousness comes
the cessation, the non-arising of materiality/mentality.
With the cessation, the non-arising of materiality/mentality
comes the cessation, the non-arising of the six senses.
With the cessation, the non-arising of the six senses comes
the cessation, the non-arising of contact.
With the cessation, the non-arising of contact comes the
cessation, the non-arising of feeling.
With the cessation, the non-arising of feeling comes the
cessation, the non-arising of craving.
With the cessation, the non-arising of craving comes the
cessation, the non-arising of clinging.
With the cessation, the non-arising of clinging comes the
cessation, the non-arising of becoming.
With the cessation, the non-arising of becoming comes the
cessation, the non-arising of birth.
With the cessation, the non-arising of birth, then old age
and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair
all fail to arise, they cease.
Such is the cessation, the non-arising of this entire mass
of suffering.
Selected Chants
the five precepts theravaμda
1. Paμn|aμtipaμtaμveramaniμsikkhaμpadam| samaμdiyaμmi.
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking the life of
any living creature.
2. Adinnaμdaμnaμveramaniμsikkhaμpadam| samaμdiyaμmi.
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which
is not given.
3. Kamesu micchaμcaμraμveramaniμsikkhaμpadam| samaμdiyaμmi.
I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
4. Musaμvaμdaμveramaniμsikkhaμpadam samaμdiyaμmi.
I undertake the precept to refrain from false and
harmful speech.
5. Suramμ eraya-majja-pamadμ att| h| anμ aμveramaniμsikkhapμ adam|
I undertake the precept to refrain from consuming
intoxicating drink and drugs, which lead to carelessness.
Leader: Imaμni pañca sikkhaμpadaμni
Silμena sugatim yanti
Silμena bhogasampadaμ
Silμena nibbutim| yanti
Tasmaμsilμam| visodhaye
These are the five precepts:
silμa is the source of happiness,
silμa is the source of true wealth,
silμa is the cause of peacefulness,
therefore, let silμa be purified.
Small Boat, Great Mountain
In general, Pali terms have been used when referring to Theravaμda teachings
and Sanskrit when referring to Mayaμhaμna and Vajrayaμna teachings, except
when Sanskrit terms (for example, Dharma) are more commonly used in
the West.
Aham|kara the feeling of “I-ness”; literally, “made of ‘I am’”
Akaμliko timelessness
Amatadhaμtu the deathless element; a synonym for
Amrita (Skt.) the nectar of immortality
Anaμgaμmi literally, “non-returner”; one who has reached the
penultimate stage of enlightenment
Anattaμ literally, “not-self”; one of the three characteristics
of all phenomena
Small Boat, Great Mountain
Anicca impermanence, uncertainty; one of the three characteristics
of all phenomena
Anantam| infinite, limitless
Anidassanam| non-manivestative, invisible, formless
Anuloma literally, “with the grain”; referring to the arising
dimension of the dependent origination cycle
Arahant a fully enlightened being
Aruμpa-jhaμna formless absorption; the most refined types of meditative
AÂsava the “outflows”; the unwholesome habits of the heart:
sense desire, views, becoming, and ignorance
Asuraμ the jealous gods, titans; one of the six realms of Buddhist
cosmology, symbolzing righteous indignation and power combined
with violence
Atammayataμ literally, “not made of that”; nonidentification or
Attavaμdupaμdaμna clinging to ideas and feelings of self
Atthi the verb “to be,” implying the transcendent state
Avalokiteshvaμra (Skt.) literally, “The One Who Listens to the
Sounds of the World,” the bodhisattva of compassion; also
known as Chenrezig (Tib.) and Kuan Yin (Chin.)
Avijjaμ ignorance, nescience, unawareness; one of the links in
the chain of dependent origination; “marigpa” in Tibetan
Bhava becoming, being; one of the links in the chain of dependent
Bhikkhu Buddhist monk; literally “one who sees the danger in
sam|saμra” or “one who lives on alms”
Bodhi tree the tree under which the Buddha sat during the night
of his enlightenment
Borupet a bitter medicinal vine, native to Thailand
Brahmaμ the gods of the most refined realms in Buddhist
Brahma-vihaμras the four sublime or divine states of mind, representing
the emotional world at its most refined and wholesome;
mettaμ(loving-kindness), karunaμ(compassion), muditaμ
(joy at the good fortune of others), upekkhaμ(equanimity);
also known as “pleasant abidings,” although not transcendent
in themselves
Buddha-Dharma (Skt.)/Dhamma (Pali) the teachings of the
Ch’an (Chin.) literally, “meditative absorption”; Chinese for the
word “jhana” in Pali and “zen” in Japanese
Chenrezig (Tib.) see Avalokiteshvaμra
Citta heart or mind
Cittam| pabhassaram| akandukehi kilesehi “the heart is naturally
radiant, defilements are only visitors”
Deva/devataμ celestial beings in the heavenly realms
Dharma (Skt.)/Dhamma (Pali) the truth of the way things are;
the teachings of the Buddha that reveal that truth and elucidate
the means of realizing it as a direct experience
Dharmakaμya (Skt.) literally, “the body of the Dharma”; the
unmanifest element of the three bodies of the Buddha, in
the teachings of the Northern tradition
Small Boat, Great Mountain
Dharmasaμlaμ (Skt.) pilgrims’ rest house
Ditt|h| upaμdaμna clinging to views and opinions
Dukkha suffering, unsatisfactoriness; the inherent insecurity,
instability, and imperfection of things; one of the three characteristics
of all phenomena
Dukkha-nirodha the cessation of dukkha; the Third Noble Truth
Dzogchen (Tib.) literally, “the natural great perfection,”
“great peak,” or “great summit”; Tibetan for the mahaμ-ati
in Sanskrit
Hoti the verb “to be,” implying the mundane, conditioned state
Jhaμna meditative absorption
Kaμmupaμdaμna clinging to sense pleasure
Khandha (Pali)/skandha (Skt.) group, collection, or aggregate;
usually meaning one of the five basic constituents of the
mental and physical realm: form (esp. the body), feeling,
perception, mental formations, and consciousness
Kuan Yin (Chin.) see Avalokiteshvaμra
Kutiμ hut, monastic dwelling
Loka world, realm, or universe
Luang Por (Thai) a respectful and friendly form of address
meaning “venerable father”
Mahaμyaμna the “Great Vehicle,” or Northern tradition
of Buddhism
Mamam|kara “me-ness”; literally, “made of ‘me’”
Mañjushri (Skt.) the bodhisattva of wisdom
Marigpa (Tib.) ignorance (see avijjaμ)
Mettaμ loving-kindness, one of the brahma-vihaμras
Mind-essence the transcendent, unconditioned attribute of mind
Nahm lai ning (Thai) still, flowing water
Naμma-ruμpa mind-and-body; name-and-form; subject-and-object;
one of the links in the chain of dependent origination
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammaμsambuddhassa “Homage
to the Blessed, Noble, and Perfectly Enlightened One”; the
classic phrase used to open most ceremonies, recitations of
teachings, and blessings in Pali
Nandana Grove a pleasure garden in the Heaven of the Thirty-
Three Gods
Ngondro (Tib.) preliminary practices
Niraya the hell realms; one of the six realms of Buddhist
cosmology, symbolizing states of rage, extreme suffering,
and passion
Nirodha cessation; a synonym for nirvaμna (Skt.)/nibbaμna (Pali)
Nirvaμna (Skt.)/nibbaμna (Pali) peace, the goal of the Buddhist path;
literally, “coolness”
Nyingmapa (Tib.) literally, “The Ancient Ones”; the oldest
school of Tibetan Buddhism, keepers and transmitters of the
Dzogchen teachings
Paccaya to condition, cause, or affect
Paμrami/paμramitaμ spiritual perfections
Small Boat, Great Mountain
Parinibbaμna (Pali) /parinirvaμna (Skt.) complete or final nirvaμna;
a term usually used to refer to the passing away of an enlightened
Pati|loma literally, “against the grain”; referring to the cessation
dimension of the dependent origination cycle
Peta (Pali)/preta (Skt.) hungry ghosts; one of the six realms
of Buddhist cosmology, symbolzing the state of insatiable
Poo roo (Thai) the “one who knows”; the faculty of knowing
Puμjaμ devotional recitation of scripture and ritual practice
Rigpa (Tib.) nondual awareness; authentic recogntion of mindessence;
also known as “the view”; the Pali “vijjaμ”or Sanskrit
“vidyaμ” are equivalent
Rinpoche (Tib.) literally, “precious one”; an honorific title
usually given to lamas deemed to have developed many
perfections (paμramitaμs) in previous lives
Ruμpa-khandha the physical or form aspect of existence; one of
the five khandhas (see above)
Sabbato pabham| radiant in all directions or accessible from
all sides
Saman|a Gotama the Buddha; literally, “the ascetic wanderer of
the Gotama clan”
Sam|saμra literally, “endless wandering”; the realm of birth and
Sankhaμraμ mental formations; one of the five khandhas; one of
the links in the chain of dependent origination
Siμla virtue; moral precepts
Siμlabbatupaμdaμna clinging to rules, conventions, and observances
Skandha (Skt.)/khandha (Pali) (see above)
Suññataμ emptiness
Sutta (Pali)/sutra (Skt.) literally, “thread”; scriptural teaching
Tan an honorific meaning “venerable friend,” used in Thailand
for younger monks and novices
Tan|haμ literally, “thirst”; craving; one of the links in the chain of
dependent origination
Taμraμ (Skt.) literally, “She who carries across”; a bodhisattva
who was born from one of the tears of Avalokiteshvaμra; she
is the wisdom aspect of Amoghasiddhi Buddha
Tathataμ suchness
Tathaμgata the epithet that the Buddha used to refer to himself;
literally, “one gone to suchness and come to suchness”
Theravaμda literally, “The Way of the Elders”; the Southern
tradition of Buddhism
Trekcho (Tib.) literally, “cutting”; an aspect of Tibetan Buddhist
meditation practice
Udaμna the “Inspired Utterances of the Buddha”; one of the
books of the collection of canonical discourses
Upaμdaμna clinging, grasping; one of the links in the chain of
dependent origination
Upadesha (Skt.) pointing out, instruction, indication
Vajra (Skt.) literally, “diamond,” “indestructible,” “thunderbolt”;
usually refers to the supreme or ultimate aspect of
Vajrasattva (Skt.) literally, “indestructible being”; a member
of the Tibetan pantheon representing the emodiment of the
wisdom of all the Buddhas – a highly significant figure in
Dzogchen practice
Vajrayaμna (Skt.) literally, “The Diamond Vehicle” or “The
Supreme Vehicle”; the tantric aspect of the Northern tradition
of Buddhism
Vedanaμ feeling; one of the five khandhas; also one of the links
in the chain of dependent origination
Vijjaμ transcendent knowing; true knowledge; see rigpa
Viññaμn|a discriminative consciousness; one of the five
khandhas; also one of the links in the chain of dependent
Vipassanaμ insight; insight meditation
Zafu (Jap.) meditation cushion
Small Boat, Great Mountain
Abhayagiri Monastery 112, 143
abiding(s) 18, 60, 93, 164
absorption 57, 58–9, 69, 134
addiction 136, 144
aging (see also old age) 115, 134, 138
Ajahn Amaro ix, x, xii, xiii, xiv, xv, xvi, 20, 26, 117
Ajahn Brahmamuni 98
Ajahn Buddhadaμsa xi, xii, xiii, 98
Ajahn Chah xiii, xvi, 7, 8, 9, 13, 15–7, 18, 21, 23, 28–9, 35, 36, 39–40, 41, 42, 50,
51, 66–8, 97, 98, 100, 106–9, 110–4, 118, 126, 139–40, 140–1, 145
Ajahn MahaμBoowa xiii
Ajahn Mun xiii, 28–9, 59, 109–10
Ajahn Sumedho xiii, 15–6, 35, 36, 37–8, 39–40, 42, 43, 48, 66, 75, 80–1, 87,
106–9, 117, 139–40, 140–1, 142
Ajahn Tate 59
almsbowl 112
almsfood 88
almsround 18
altruism, altruistic, 79, 82
amatadhaμtu. See deathless
AmaravatiμMonastery 80, 89, 116
amrita 103
AÂnanda 20, 21, 45
anattaμ (see also not-self) 28, 46, 128
angel(s) (see also deva) 149
anicca (see also impermanence) 46, 128
Anuraμdha 131
Anuruddha 56, 57
anxiety 52, 56, 91, 113, 117, 167
arahant 61
aruμpa-jhaμna. See absorption; jhaμna
aμsava 56
ascetic practices 36–7, 43
Asia, Asian (see also Burma; India; Southeast Asia; Sri Lanka; Thailand) 5, 127
aspiration 6, 166
atammayataμ (see also nonidentification) 46, 47–8
attachment(s) 13, 28, 50, 60
Avalokiteshvaμra (see also Chenrezig; Kuan Yin) xi, xii, 82, 83
avatar 101
aversion(s) 70, 84, 85–6, 88, 134, 141, 156
avijjaμ (see also ignorance; marigpa) 133, 134, 137, 142
awareness xiii, 23, 25, 27, 29, 31, 36, 37, 39, 40, 41–2, 47, 51, 82, 97–8, 100, 119,
138, 139, 143, 150, 156
nondual (see also rigpa) 18, 61, 92
Baμhiya 18–9, 20
“Ballad of Liberation from the Khandhas, The” (Ajahn Mun) 109
becoming (see also bhava) 24, 25, 37–8, 44, 46, 60, 81, 134, 135
being, beingness 8, 18, 21, 24, 27, 51, 66, 98–9, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 149
betel nut 107, 108
bhava (see also becoming) 37, 135
Small Boat, Great Mountain
bhikkhu(s) (see also monastic; monk) xi, xiv, 4
Bhikkhu Bodhi 47
Bhikkhu Ñaμn|amoli 47
birth (see also birth and death; rebirth) 115, 133, 134, 135, 138, 160, 161, 168,
birth and death (see also birth; rebirth) 27, 32, 122, 145
blessing(s) 68, 89, 148, 150, 151, 161
bliss 58, 114, 117, 126, 127, 128, 129, 130, 136, 161
Bodh-gayaμ 69
bodhicitta 160, 166
bodhisattva(s) 149
bodhi tree 62, 68, 69, 70, 134, 135
body (see also khandhas, five) 8, 10, 11, 24, 28, 30–1, 32, 41, 43, 48–50, 52, 56,
62, 63, 64, 71, 85, 86, 99, 101, 109, 113, 114, 116, 124, 130, 131, 132, 134,
138, 142, 152
borupet 140
brahmaμ(s) 4, 149
brahma realms 59, 126
BrahmaμSahampati 70
brahma-vihaμras (see also loving-kindness; compassion; joy; equanimity) 74,
85, 91–3
Broad View, Boundless Heart (Ajahn Amaro) 35
Buddha (see also Tathaμgata) ix, x, xi, xiv, xvi, 4, 9, 35, 41, 45, 51, 52, 55, 56, 57,
60–1, 64, 68, 74, 75, 81–4, 85–6, 89, 90, 91, 93, 97, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104,
106, 109, 114, 122, 126, 133–4, 135, 136, 137, 138, 148, 149, 150, 153, 154,
159, 160, 161, 162, 164, 166
and AÂnanda 20–1
and Anuraμdha 131–2
and Baμhiya 18–9, 20
and Kaμmaniμta 127–30
and Maμra 69–71
and Rohitassa 64–5
and Upaka 136
and Vacchagotta 124–5
as refuge 41, 114
discourses of xvi, 121
enlightenment of 62–3, 70–1, 133–4, 136
Buddhahood 160
Buddha-Dharma (see also Dharma) 3, 16, 135, 149, 150
Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha (see also three refuges; Triple Gem) 99–100
Buddha-mind 29, 114
Buddha-nature xii, xvi
Buddhas 105, 149
Buddhism x, xi, xii, xix, 5, 8, 46, 87, 106, 124, 127
Buddhist(s) xii, xiv, 4, 5, 9, 10, 13, 46, 58, 121, 122, 127, 130, 153, 155
Buddhist cosmology 69, 152
Buddhist tradition(s) (see also Ch’an; Mahaμyaμna; Theravaμda; Vajrayaμna; Zen) 10,
Northern 151
Southern 151
Burma xii, xiii
burning ground 110–1, 118
California 145, 151
Carefree Dignity (Tsoknyi Rinpoche) xvi
ceremony(ies) 148–51
cessation (see also nirodha) ix, 44–5, 49, 63–4, 65, 104, 168–9
of consciousness 55–62
of suffering 44, 65, 135
Chaiya (Thailand) xii
Ch’an (see also Zen) 20, 87
Ch’an and Zen Training (Master Hsü Yün) 88
chant(s) 9, 74–5, 79, 85, 89, 99, 102
Aspiration for Bodhicitta 166
Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness, The 74, 162–3
Dependent Origination and Cessation 168–9
Extra-Ordinary Arousing Bodhicitta 166
Five Precepts, The 170
Naμgaμrjuna’s Dedication of Merit 160
Reflections on Universal Well-being 74, 167
Sharing of Blessings 74, 79, 160, 161
Suffusion with the Divine Abidings 164–5
Small Boat, Great Mountain
Taking Refuge 159, 160
Vajrasattva 100 Syllable Mantra 162
Vajra Song of the First Tsoknyi Rinpoche 106, 164
chanting 43, 74–5, 76, 90, 148, 149–50
Chenrezig (see also Avalokiteshvaμra; Kuan Yin) 82
China 83, 87
Chinese 20, 82, 84, 87, 151
Christian, Christianity 127, 143
citta (see also knowing mind; mind, that knows) 23, 24
City of Ten Thousand Buddhas 87, 151
clinging (see also grasping) 13, 22–3, 26, 27–8, 61, 73, 106, 129, 132–3, 134,
137, 138–9, 140, 144, 164, 168, 169
four kinds of 133
Commentaries 123
compassion (see also brahma-vihaμras) 74, 77, 82, 83–4, 86, 91, 92, 100, 101, 123,
148, 165
concentration 57, 59, 75, 92, 152
condition(s) 68, 92, 104, 105, 156, 168
conditioned (see also mind, conditioned) 15, 16, 17, 24, 25, 57–8, 71, 92–3, 99,
conditioning 8, 10, 22, 44, 66, 134, 142
consciousness (see also khandhas, five) xiii, 18, 29, 55, 60, 61–3, 64, 89, 104,
109, 114, 131, 134, 142, 149, 150, 168, 169
unsupported 60, 62
contact (see also sense, contact) 134, 168, 169
contemplation 22, 92
convention(s) 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 26, 31, 133, 150
corpse(s) 110, 115, 141
craving (see also tan|haμ) 45, 129, 134, 136, 137, 138, 139, 142, 168, 169
cremation 111, 114
cycle, cyclic existence (see also samsaμra; wheel, of existence) 69, 104, 134–5,
137–9, 142, 143–5
Dalai Lama 84
death (see also birth and death) 51, 80, 115–6, 122, 127, 128, 130, 132, 134, 138,
154, 160, 168, 169
deathless, deathlessness 45, 55–8, 59, 60, 161
defilement(s) 22, 56, 72, 74, 75, 76, 156
delusion(s) 73, 129, 161
dependent origination ix, 69, 104, 128, 133–5, 137, 142, 145, 168–9
desire(s) x, 38, 45, 53, 122, 129, 133, 138, 140, 144, 151, 161, 163
deva(s), devataμ(s) (see also angel) 58, 64, 149, 152
deva realms 58, 127
devotion, devotional practices 43, 74, 75, 128, 152
Dhamma (see also Dharma) 109, 159, 161
Dhammapada 153
Dharma (see also Buddha-Dharma; Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; Dhamma)
xii, xiv, xv, 4, 9, 10, 18, 20, 26, 35, 36, 40, 42, 48, 56, 57, 74, 80, 85, 86,
100–2, 104, 108, 109, 117, 139, 141, 142, 147, 149, 150, 156, 160
Dharmakaμya 10, 160, 166
Dharma-nature 10
dharmasaμlaμ 127
Dharma teacher(s) x, xiv, 106, 116
Dharma talk(s) xvi, 75, 76, 81, 88, 116, 140, 141, 142
disciple(s) 19, 56, 60, 88, 127, 128, 129, 131
Discourse on Loving-Kindness 74
dualism, dualistic 92, 104, 106, 109, 130, 164
duality (see also subject and object) 42–3, 47, 48, 65, 83, 84, 104, 142, 143
Dudjom Rinpoche x
dukkha (see also suffering) 13, 18, 44–5, 46, 65, 66, 114, 128, 134, 135, 136, 137,
138, 140, 143, 144
dukkha-nirodha (see also cessation, of suffering) 44, 45, 46
Dzogchen (see also Great Perfection) xii, xiii, xiv, xv, 3, 4, 24, 26, 35, 36, 38, 41,
42, 43, 45, 48, 55, 61, 66, 74, 81, 82, 85, 99, 109, 139, 147
earth spirit(s) 149
ego 51, 52, 53, 115, 116, 117, 118–9
Eightfold Path 46, 137
emptiness xiii, 46–7, 48, 61, 65, 74, 99, 100, 105, 106, 132
energy 13, 56, 82, 88, 91, 92, 118, 151
England 5, 6, 15, 75, 77, 80
Small Boat, Great Mountain
enlightenment (see also Buddha, enlightenment of) 46, 56, 57, 71, 75, 76, 78, 79,
109, 160
seven factors of 91–3
equanimity (see also brahma-vihaμras) 91, 92, 165
existence (see also cycle, cyclic existence) 12, 51, 52, 104, 105, 129, 156, 160
six realms of 152
three characteristics of 46–7, 128
faith 72, 102, 138
fear 7, 45, 50, 51, 69, 91, 110–11, 112, 113, 114–16, 117, 118, 124, 141
feeling(s) (see also khandhas, five) 20, 42, 50, 55, 65, 97, 99, 109, 113–14, 118,
131, 133, 134, 135, 137, 138–9, 142, 143, 168, 169
First Noble Truth 45
five precepts (see also precept) 67, 92, 151–2, 153–4, 155–6
forest(s) 7, 35, 78, 80, 89, 110, 112
master(s) 41, 42, 66
monastery xi, 7
tradition ix, xii, xiii, xv, 7, 36, 41, 97, 98
form(s) 5, 6, 8, 12, 20, 26, 59, 60, 62, 131, 132, 134, 143
world of 11, 148
formations (see also khandhas, five) 38, 104, 105, 109, 113, 114, 131, 134, 142,
four elements 62, 148–9, 151
Four Noble Truths 45–6, 64, 128, 135
four nutriments 61
Fourth Noble Truth 46
freedom xvi, 6–8, 15, 25, 31, 37, 51, 66, 71, 73, 114, 129, 133, 167
ghost(s) 110, 114
god(s), goddess(es) 4, 63, 70, 130, 152, 161
Gotama. See Buddha
grasping (see also clinging) 22, 45, 47, 53
Great Perfection (see also Dzogchen) xvi, 166
Harvard 115
Hawaii 144
Hertfordshire 80
Himalayas 112
Hinduism xii
hungry ghost(s) 152
ignorance (see also avijjaμ; marigpa) x, 45, 73, 104, 105, 133, 134, 135, 136, 137,
138, 142, 168
immanence, immanent 73, 82–3, 92
impermanence, impermanent (see also anicca) xiii, 28, 46, 52, 97, 113
India, Indian xi, xv, 47, 69, 83, 88, 89
insight(s) 3, 5, 18, 20, 29, 30, 32, 50, 58, 59, 67–8, 85, 105, 109, 114, 119, 133,
Jewish tradition 4
jhaμna(s) (see also absorption) 57
joy (see also brahma-vihaμras) 91, 92, 129
Kaμmaniμta 127–30
karma, karmic ix, x, 67, 88, 105, 142, 155
khandhas (see also ruμpa-khandha; skandhas) 109
five 131
kindness (see also loving-kindness) 84, 86, 91, 101, 121, 123, 155, 156, 163
knowing, knowing mind (see also mind, that knows; rigpa) 18, 23, 25, 29, 30–1,
41–2, 43, 48, 49–50, 60, 61, 66, 68, 98–102, 104, 118, 132, 135, 143
Korean xiv
Kornfield, Jack xiii
Kuan Yin (see also Avalokiteshvaμra; Chenrezig) 82, 83
lama(s) xii, 9, 10, 18, 143
lay community(ies) 43
layman xv, 88, 89, 90
laypeople, layperson 9, 36, 80, 90, 107
liberation 8, 51, 58, 66, 99
lineage(s) xi, xii, xiii, xiv, 3, 36, 87
Small Boat, Great Mountain
five 87
loving-kindness (see also brahma-vihaμras; mettaμ) 74, 75, 84–6, 91, 92–3, 162,
lucidity 61, 99–100, 132
Luk, Charles 88
Maer Toranee 70
Mahaμyaμna xi, xii, xiii, 10, 74, 79
Majjhima Nikaμya 47
Mañjushri 73, 82, 83
mantra(s) 37, 43, 87, 89
hundred-syllable 162
Maμra 62, 69–70, 71, 105, 164
marigpa (see also ignorance; avijjaμ) 45, 104, 136, 138, 156
master(s) (see also forest, master; meditation, master) x, xi, xii, xiii, xiv, xv, 3,
23, 41, 42, 56, 59, 66, 88, 98, 106, 107, 126, 127
Master Hsüan Hua 87, 89
Master Hsü Yün 87–8
materiality 168, 169
meditation ix, xi, xvi, 12, 13, 23, 30, 37, 38, 39, 40, 43, 49, 51, 56, 57, 58, 59, 63,
66, 67, 68, 73, 75–6, 77, 81, 84, 98, 123, 126, 138, 143
master(s) xi, 23, 59
sitting 39, 76, 126
technique(s) xii, 8, 43, 133, 144
walking 30–1, 39, 49, 76, 126
with eyes open 11, 31, 71
merit 160
dedication of 74, 160
mettaμ (see also loving-kindness) 84
MettaμSutta (see also Sutta on Loving-Kindness) 132–3
Middle Way 9, 12, 104
Milarepa 50
Mind 42, 109
mind (see also Buddha-mind) 11, 17, 20, 21, 23–4, 25, 28–9, 30–1, 38, 40, 41–2,
44, 46, 47, 48–50, 51, 57–8, 60, 61, 62, 65, 73, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 85, 86, 90,
91, 92, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 105, 106, 109, 126, 132, 134, 135, 138, 139, 141,
142, 144, 147, 149, 150, 152, 153, 154–5, 161, 164
conditioned 15, 16–7, 42, 109
dualistic 92, 109
nature of 23, 24, 29, 41, 42, 98–9, 100, 132
objects 23, 24, 28–9, 30, 42, 59, 109
one-pointedness of 56
that knows (see also knowing mind) 18, 24, 30, 31, 100
thinking 17, 50, 51, 86
unconditioned 24, 109
mind-essence 24, 29, 51, 102, 109
mindful, mindfulness xiii, 28, 50, 56, 57, 92, 143, 152, 155, 161, 164
of the body 43
of breathing 30, 43
monastery(ies) (see also forest, monastery) 4, 7, 16, 22, 39, 77, 80, 87, 97, 106,
107, 116, 139, 144, 151, 152
monastic(s) (see also bhikkhu; monk; nun) 9, 36, 78, 80, 116, 148
monastic community(ies) 39, 43, 107
monastic life, training 7, 35, 36, 43, 75, 110, 116
monk(s) (see also bhikkhu; monastic; Western, monk) ix, xi, xv, xvi, 5, 7, 8, 9,
15, 36, 39, 40, 43, 45, 56, 61, 62, 66, 67, 68, 69, 75, 77, 88, 89, 90, 93, 106,
107, 108, 110, 116, 117, 139, 141, 151
moral conduct, morality (see also precepts; siμla) 151, 154, 155
Muμla Maμdhyamaka Kaμrikaμ 103
Muslims xv
naμga(s) 149
Naμgaμrjuna 103, 160
Naμla| ndaμUniversity xv, 89
naμma-ruμpa 62, 134, 135
Nanda 69
Nandana Grove 58
nature 85, 87, 101, 123
Nepalese 69
Nerañjaraμriver 69
ngondro 43
nibbaμna 59, 60, 63, 127
Small Boat, Great Mountain
nihilism, nihilistic 104, 124, 126, 127
1984 (Orwell) 110–1
nirmaμnakaμya 160
nirodha (see also cessation) 44, 46, 49, 64
Nisker, Wes 4
nonabiding 15–22, 25, 31
nonbeing 104
nondiscrimination 86
nondual, nonduality (see also awareness, nondual) 18, 85
nonexistence 12, 103, 104
nonidentification (see also atammayata) 47–8, 98, 105
nonmeditation 25, 73, 164
undistracted 81, 82
not-self (see also anatta; selflessness) 28, 31
novice(s) 77, 78, 140
nun(s) 9, 37, 66, 78, 107, 116, 117
Nyingmapa 18
Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche xiii
object(s) (see also mind, objects; sense, objects; subject and object) 20, 29, 38,
42, 45, 47, 57, 58, 97–8, 100, 106, 139, 144
obstacle(s) 105, 154
old age (see also aging) 160, 168, 169
original face 102, 106
pain 41, 50, 84, 86, 88, 96, 114, 116, 134, 138, 143, 145, 153, 168, 169
Pali Canon, scriptures xi, xiii, 18, 56, 61, 103
Pali language xix, 24, 25, 37, 56, 61, 104, 121, 150
paμrami 16
parinibbaμna 41, 130, 132
passions 53, 141
path ix, 7, 15, 44, 86, 123, 130, 133, 138, 162
peace, peacefulness 15, 27, 28, 37, 39, 46, 51, 67, 68, 98, 129, 156, 162
perception(s) (see also khandhas, five; sense, perception) 18, 26, 31, 41, 49, 97,
102, 109, 113, 114, 131
Small Boat, Great Mountain
personality, personhood (see also self, selfhood) 8, 10, 25, 26
pilgrimage 88, 89
poo roo (see also knowing mind; mind, that knows) 29, 41
practice(s) (see also spiritual practice) 9, 10, 12, 13, 20, 22, 26, 28, 29, 30, 38,
43–4, 46, 51, 73, 74, 75, 77, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 91, 92–3, 97, 98, 99,
101, 109, 111, 122, 126, 136, 141, 143, 151, 152, 155, 161
ascetic 36, 37, 43
devotional 152
formal 38, 39
preparatory 43
visualization 101, 102
precepts (see also five precepts; moral conduct, morality; siμla) 147, 148, 151–2,
154–6, 170
fifth 154–5
present moment 27–8, 38
prostrations 43
puμjaμ(s) 10, 36
of 21 Taμraμs 9
Rajgir 89
reality 10, 12, 17, 20, 21, 22, 26, 65, 68, 75, 86, 92, 93, 99, 100, 118, 125, 129,
131, 136
conventional 3, 8, 10, 13
ultimate 3, 8, 13, 47, 48, 136, 138
realization(s) 28, 37, 74, 99, 101, 102, 106, 132, 136
rebirth (see also birth; birth and death; cycle, cyclic existence) 45, 46, 48, 60,
132–3, 135, 139, 144
reflective inquiry 50–1
refuge(s) (see also three refuges; Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; Triple Gem) 24,
31, 41–2, 99, 100, 114, 147, 148, 151–2, 159, 160, 161
retreat(s) xiv, xv, xvi, 3, 4, 8, 22, 35, 43, 74, 75, 80, 81, 88, 102, 142, 144, 147,
148, 150, 151, 152
portable 147–56
winter 75, 77, 80–1
rigpa (see also awareness, nondual; knowing mind) 18, 35, 38, 40, 42, 44, 45,
46, 49, 50, 61, 66, 92, 98, 100, 101, 104, 118, 130, 132, 133, 135, 142, 143,
156, 166
ritual(s) 4, 147, 148–50
Rohitassa 64–5
Rumi 53
ruμpa-khandha (see also khandhas) 11
samaμdhi 111
sambhogakaμya 160
sam|saμra (see also cycle, cyclic existence; wheel, of existence) 57
sandalwood 148
Sangha (see also Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) 39, 40, 43, 78, 80, 100, 152, 159,
sankhaμra (see also duality) 134, 135, 142, 143
Sanskrit xix, 55
Saμriputta 56, 57
Saμvatthiμ 18
Second Noble Truth 45
science, scientific research 21
scripture(s) 83, 152
self, selfhood (see also personhood) 17, 20, 22, 25, 26, 38, 50, 51, 81, 84, 104,
105, 113, 114, 119, 124, 126, 133
selfless, selflessness (see also not-self) 21, 46, 97, 152
sense(s) 11, 66, 71, 84, 98, 122, 133, 134, 138, 140, 142, 163, 168, 169
contact(s) 61, 134
impressions 24, 29
objects 65, 135, 143
six 134, 142
perception(s) 42, 47
sense world 7, 11–12, 68, 71, 92
sex, sexuality 6, 7, 92, 141, 153, 154
Shakyamuni. See Buddha
Shurangama Sutra 20
siμla (see also moral conduct, morality; precepts) 43, 154, 155–6, 170
Simile of the Saw 85–6
Sixth Zen Patriarch 27
skandhas (see also khandhas) 109
skillful means 79, 100
snake and rope, analogy of 124
Southeast Asia 6, 141
space 5, 11, 17, 18, 21, 22, 25, 27, 29, 30, 31, 51, 59–60, 62, 70, 71, 87, 132
of awareness 40, 98
of the mind 44, 46, 49
of rigpa 38, 40, 49
spacious, spaciousness 24, 25, 26, 27, 30, 31, 37, 44, 48, 52, 53, 87, 92, 98, 119
Spirit Rock Meditation Center x, xiv
spiritual (see also practice) 3, 5, 10, 16, 18, 36, 44, 64, 85, 92, 148, 149, 151
practice 9, 52, 59, 81, 151
traditions xiv, 3, 4–5
Sri Lanka xiii
subject and object (see also duality) 20, 42, 47–8, 62, 65, 100, 104, 134, 142
substantiality 65, 68
suchness 47, 48, 83
suffering (see also dukkha) ix, 6, 12–3, 19, 28, 44, 45, 58, 65, 79, 111, 134, 137,
143, 167, 153, 168, 169
suññataμ. See emptiness
sutta(s) 56, 57, 69, 122, 128
Sutta on Loving-Kindness (see also MettaμSutta) 121–2
Sutta Nipaμta 84
tan|haμ (see also craving) 134, 138
Tantra 151
Taoist tradition 82
Taμraμ 9–10
Tathaμgata (see also Buddha) 19, 83, 104, 105, 129, 131, 132
tathataμ. See suchness
teaching(s) xii, xv, xvii, 4, 5, 13, 16, 36, 47, 50, 51, 66, 74, 81, 85, 91, 103, 104,
105–6, 114, 125, 126, 127, 128, 129, 130, 136, 137, 138, 149, 150
of Ajahn Chah 15, 29, 36, 38, 41, 42
of Ajahn Sumedho 117, 142
Small Boat, Great Mountain
Dzogchen 36, 38, 42, 43, 45, 66, 82, 99, 139
Mahaμyaμna 10, 79
Theravaμda 3, 18, 45, 55, 60, 98, 121, 123–4, 126
Tibetan 9–10, 35
Thailand 7, 15, 16, 18, 23, 59, 67, 98, 106, 107, 108, 110, 126
Thai language 23, 41, 98, 141
Thai people 98, 107, 110
Theravaμda, Theravaμdan, Theravaμdin(s) ix, x, xi, xii, xii, xiv, xv, 3, 12, 18, 36, 43,
45, 46, 47, 55, 60, 61, 63, 106, 109, 121, 123, 124, 126, 130, 143, 147, 151,
152, 159, 161
Third Noble Truth 46
Third Zen Patriarch 42, 99
three refuges (see also Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; Triple Gem) 100, 152
three vehicles x
Tibet, Tibetan x, xii, xiii, xiv, xv, xviii, 4, 9, 12, 35, 37, 43, 73, 82, 83, 99, 143, 150,
tranquility 92
transcendence, transcendent 71, 73, 82–3, 92, 93, 106, 132, 138
transmission xvi
secret oral 126
Triple Gem (see also Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; three refuges) 90
truth(s) 5, 17, 18, 24, 25, 26, 31, 48, 49, 57, 65, 86, 92, 105, 132, 143, 152
conventional 8–9, 31
ultimate 8–9, 31, 36, 45, 46, 136, 150
Tsoknyi Rinpoche x, xiii, xiv, xv, xvi, xvii, xviii, 35, 164
first 102, 106, 114, 164
tulku xi, xiv
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche xiii
Ubon Ratchathani (Thailand) 140
Udaμna 18
Ukiah (California) 151
unconditioned 17, 24, 42, 72, 92–3, 109
upaμdaμna. See clinging
Upaka 136
Upasiva 130
Vacchagotta 124–5
Vajrasattva 102–3, 105, 106, 162
vajra 70, 74, 103, 162, 164
Vajra Sutra 10
Vajrayaμna x, xii, xv, 10
vedanaμ. See feeling
Vedanta 55
view(s) 3, 12, 21, 31, 35, 36, 44, 50, 57, 122, 124, 133, 163
vijjaμ (see also knowing mind; rigpa) 104, 135, 142
Vinaya xv, xvi, 43, 87
vipassanaμ xiii, xvi, 12, 26, 28, 74, 97–8, 99
visualization(s) 9, 43, 101, 102–3, 106
Wat Nong Pah Pong 39, 106, 140
Wat Suan Mokkh xi, xii
West, the 5, 9, 74, 80, 122, 123, 152
Western, Westerner(s) xii, xv, 7, 103, 107, 122
monk(s) 7, 15
student(s) xiv, 36
West Sussex (England) 80
wheel, of existence (see also samsaμra) 121, 126
wisdom 3, 22, 23, 52, 56, 57, 68, 73, 74, 75, 80, 82, 83, 84, 86, 91, 101, 102, 103,
152, 161
transcendent 83, 106
Wisdom House 35
yogi(s) 124
zafu 37
Zen (see also Ch’an) xii, xiv
Small Boat, Great Mountain

Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery
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