I first met Ajahn Sumedho at the Centre for Higher Tibetan Studies in Switzerland in the spring of 1979. He had just finished giving a ten-day course in the mountains near Berne, and was invited to spend a couple of days at the Centre by its Abbot, Geshe Rabten.
One person who attended Bhikkhu Sumedho's course liked to be around him because 'he is just such a nice guy'. It was heartening for me to see a monk who kept strictly the rules of discipline, the Vinaya, yet maintained a softness and naturalness behind his observance of them.
To illustrate Sumedho's resoluteness about the importance of practice and meditation: While we were both walking around the hillside near the Centre, overlooking the French and Swiss Alps with Lake Geneva below, he asked me whether I had a desire to return to India. I answered that I would go if it were for the purpose of improving my Tibetan. I could then return to the West and act as an interpreter for a Tibetan master or work as a translator of Tibetan texts. His only response to that was: 'Why don't you just get enlightened?'
When Ajahn Sumedho ('Ajahn' is the Thai equivalent of the Pali/Sanskrit Achariya, or 'Master') came to the Insight Meditation Society in May of 1981, he conducted an eight-day work retreat. As the following interview will show, there is nothing special that is cultivated in the meditation; there is no particular technique that is taught. One's only responsibility is to remain mindful in all activities throughout the day. Live simply, be natural and watch the mind are the keys to his practice.
During the retreat the students performed various tasks around the Centre for two hours every afternoon. Some painted, some cleaned the building, others worked in the garden. We chanted prayers every morning and evening, and I was rather surprised to see how the twenty-five participants (most of whom were new to meditation) so quickly and easily adapted to the bowing and ceremony that the two monks, Sumedho, and the young English monk, Sucitto, who accompanied him, asked them to perform.
Ajahn Sumedho inspired the retreatants with his three daily impromptu talks, and casually spent his lunch hour and the one and one-half hour tea break willingly answering their questions about Dhamma practice and entertaining them with stories about monastic life in Thailand.
What was most encouraging for me was to see that there are monks who have the determination and the motivation to maintain the purity of a tradition. Many of the questions that I raised in my paper concerning the shortcomings of conformity and blind obedience to spiritual organizations and teachers were skilfully and wisely dealt with by Ajahn Sumedho. I appreciated his humour and patience with my persistent questions concerning organised religion. His views on the values of tradition and monastic life enabled me to see this matter from a different perspective.
The following is the major part of our three interviews.
RW: What attracted you to Buddhism? What did you feel it had to offer?
AS: The path of liberation.
RW: Had you tried other paths or methods as well?
AS: At one time I was quite a devout Christian, yet I later became disillusioned with Christianity, mainly because I did not understand the teachings and was not able to find anyone who could help me to comprehend them. There did not seem to be any way to practise Christianity, other than just believing or blindly accepting what was said.
What impressed me about Buddhism was that it did not ask one merely to believe. It was a way where one was free to doubt. It offered a practical way of finding out the truth through one's own experience, rather than through accepting the teachings of other people. I realised that was the way I had to do it, because it is my nature to doubt and question, rather than to believe. Therefore, religions that asked one to accept on faith were simply out. I could not even begin to get near them.
When I discovered Buddhism, it was like a revelation for me, since I saw that one's religious inclinations could be fulfilled in this way. Previously, I felt a sense of sorrow in the fact that I knew the material world was not satisfactory for me and yet the religion I had been brought up in offered no alternative way of practice other than just blind faith. Buddhism was quite a joyous discovery.
[Ajahn Sumedho mentioned being inspired by D.T. Suzuki's books, and having encountered Buddhism in Japan while in the navy during the Korean war.]
RW: Upon completion of your naval service, did you remain in California or did you return to Asia?
AS: After I left the navy, I went back to the University of Washington to finish my bachelor's degree in Far Eastern Studies. I then went to the University of California at Berkeley for an M.A. in Asian Studies. When I completed that in 1963, I went into the Peace Corps.
RW: What attracted you to Thailand more than to Japan, for example, where Suzuki's teachings originated?
AS: Well, I was in that part of the world. Also, I remembered the cold winters of Japan. Since Thailand had such a nice, sunny climate, I felt I might as well see what it had to offer, because I dreaded having to live through those cold winters.
RW: Did you immediately go to Ajahn Chah's monastery?
AS: No, I went first to Bangkok where I practised meditation as a layman. During the mornings I taught English at Thammasat University and in the afternoons I went off to practise meditation.
I later decided to ordain, but I did not want to live in Bangkok because I did not find it very suitable for me. While I was on vacation in Laos, I met a Canadian monk who recommended that I ordain in a Thai town across the Mekong River. So, I followed his advice and ordained at a temple in Nong Kai. That year I mainly practised on my own, without a teacher. The following year I met a disciple of Ajahn Chah, a Thai monk who spoke English. He then took me to meet Ajahn Chah.
RW: And you remained at Ajahn Chah's monastery for ten years?
RW: You mentioned that it was the doubting aspect of Buddhism that attracted you to it. One was able to doubt. It very often happens that people are attracted to the Tibetan tradition because of the personality or wisdom of the teacher. Does the teacher have such a significant role in the Theravada tradition?
AS: No. They try to de-emphasize that; yet people are often attracted to teachers, which is very natural. However, the discipline itself is arranged so that one is not to adore a teacher. One keeps within the discipline by respectful attitudes and compassionate actions towards any teacher or anyone. I was not really looking for a teacher. I did not have the feeling that I needed a particular kind of teacher. Yet I had confidence in the Buddha's teaching. When I met Ajahn Chah, my confidence in him grew when I realised what a wise man he was. At first I liked him but I did not feel any great devotion. But I stayed there and I really do not know why because there were many things I did not like about the place. Yet, I just seemed to stay there ... for ten years!
RS: How would Ajahn Chah instruct the disciples under him?
AS: Ajahn Chah set up a monastery which provided the opportunity for people to ordain and practise Buddhist meditation. So mainly what he offers is a place, a conducive environment.
The teaching itself is just the traditional Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths. He adheres to the Vinaya discipline. Part of the agreement to live there is that the monks adapt their behaviour to the traditional discipline. I felt that was what I needed very much. It was an opportunity to live under a convention of that kind. My background was very permissive and freewheeling and I realised that was a great weakness in my nature. I resented authority and did not know how to conform to discipline in any way. So I was quite glad to have the opportunity to do that. It was a good challenge for me and I knew that was what I needed to do. Much conceit still existed in me, wanting to live on my own terms. Ajahn Chah was very strict. We had to live on the terms established by the monastery. I learned to do that there.
Ajahn Chah does not stress method. He stresses just being aware during the day and night, being mindful and watching the impermanence of conditions as one experiences life.
During the first year while I was in Bangkok, I meditated alone. Since I understood the meditation technique, when I went to Wat Pah Pong [the name of the monastery], Ajahn Chah just encouraged me to keep doing what I had learned in Bangkok. He did not demand that I adapt my behaviour to any particular form or technique other than the Vinaya discipline of the monks.
* * * * *
RW: I would like to read to you something from Krishnamurti concerning tradition. He says: 'To carry the past over to the present, to translate the movement of the present in terms of the past destroys the living beauty of the present. There is nothing sacred about tradition, however ancient or modern. The brain carries the memories of yesterday, which is tradition and is frightened to let go because it cannot face something new. Tradition becomes our security and when the mind is secure it is in decay. One must take the journey unburdened, sweetly, without any effort, never stopping at any shrine, at any monument, or for any hero, social or religious, alone with beauty and love.'
Now, Sucitto's and your presence here has been an obvious display of the carrying on of a tradition that has been going on for over 2500 years. Concerning this quotation, I wonder if one could get too caught up in form, missing the intended purpose? Or, another way of stating it, how does one avoid getting caught up in form?
AS: Well, it is like driving a car. One could dismiss the convention of a car and say, 'I am not going to depend on that because it is from the past. So I'll just walk on my own to New York City.' Or, 'I'll invent my own car, because I don't want to copy someone else and take something that is from the past and bring it into the present.' I could do that, and maybe I would succeed. I don't know.
The point is not so much in the vehicle that is used, but in getting to New York City. Whether one goes slow or fast, one should take what is available, whatever vehicle one finds around oneself. If there isn't any, invent one, or just walk. One must do the best one can. But if there is one already around, why not learn to use it? -- especially if it is still operable.
So, tradition is like that. It is not ... clinging. One can also cling to the idea that one does not need tradition, which is just another opinion or view. Quotations like that are tremendously inspiring, but they are not always very practical because one forms another opinion that traditions are wrong or harmful.
The problem, you see (I am sure Krishnamurti must realise this) does not lie in the tradition, but in the clinging. This body is a conventional form that came from the past. The language that we use, the world we live in, and the societies we are a part of are all conventional forms that were born in the past. So, one could say that one does not want anything to do with them. In that case one should stop talking completely. Krishnamurti should stop having books published.
RW: He asks his listeners, 'I don't know why you buy these books.'
AS: We live in a conventional world. It is not a matter of depending on conventions, but learning how to use them skilfully. We can use language for gossip, lying, and becoming obsessed speakers; we can become perfectionists, fuss-budgets with language. The important thing to understand is that language is communication. When I communicate something to you, I try to speak as directly and clearly as possible. It is a skill. But if my tongue were cut out, I would just learn to live without speaking -- that's all. That would not be any great sorrow, but a bit of an inconvenience -- for some things; it might be convenient for many other things.
Religious traditions are just conventions that can be used or not, according to time and place. If one knows how to use it through the tradition, one is much better off than another who does not know, who thinks that they are all just a waste of time. One can go to a Christian church, a Theravada monastery or a Synagogue, and respect, get a feeling for the convention that one finds oneself with, without feeling that it is bad or wrong. It is not up to us to decide about that. They are all based on doing good, refraining from doing evil. Therefore, if one clings to them, then one is bound to them. If one regards religion as just a convention, then one can learn how to use it properly. It is the raft that takes one across.
RW: You mentioned that traditions can be used according to the time and place. I noticed that you and Sucitto go on 'alms round' in Barre in the morning. On the one hand, I find this quite admirable. On the other hand, I wonder what kind of effect this has on a society that is not Buddhist. To the average householder, a person wearing orange or red robes could be anything from a Hare Krishna devottee to -- whatever.
Is following the tradition, at this time and in this place, doing more harm than good? Could it be offensive to these people? Would it have been offensive for me to go and listen to Krishnamurti in Saanen wearing my robes (which, in that context, I chose not to do)?
AS: Well, the intention is good, the time is now, and the place is here. Some people will be upset; some will find it very nice. In England it upsets some people, but sometimes people need to be upset. They need to be shaken a bit, because people are very complacent in these countries.
Going on alms round also attracts good people, who seem to like it. Since our intention is not to shock or harm, how my appearance affects others is their problem. I am modestly covered and am not out to lure them into any kind of relationship or harm them in any way. On the contrary; it gives them the opportunity to offer dana (charity) if they are so inclined.
In England, admittedly, most people do not understand it. Yet it seems to me that making the alms round is one of the religious conventions that is worth maintaining, because the people in countries like this have forgotten how to give. It is like putting juice back in the religious body again. It is getting monks moving within the society.
When the Buddha was a prince [before he was enlightened], he left the palace and saw four messengers who changed his life. The first one was an old man, the second was a sick person, the third was a corpse and the fourth was a monk meditating under a tree. I look at this as a message. I do not carry it around as a duty I have to perform, but just part of my life, the way I live my life. If people object and find it very wrong, if it is causing people all kinds of problems, then I will not do it. That has not happened yet.
People thought that I should not go on alms round in the village. They thought it was stupid. Some English people, as well as Buddhists, felt that we should adapt to the English customs. However, I decided to take it as it came. Rather than deciding whether or not I should adapt to the English customs, I simply brought the tradition and played it by ear. I felt it would take its own form, accordingly. If one trims the tradition down before even planting the seed, one often severs or slightens its whole spirit. The entire tradition is based on charity, kindness, goodness, morality ... and I am not doing anything wrong. I may be doing things that people do not understand ...
RW: In my own mind, and I imagine in the minds of others as well, the alms round might seem to be a type of clinging to form, to tradition.
AS: Then one is not being mindful. It would just be clinging to a method. Yet it is still better than what most people cling to, isn't it?
RW: I am not sure. Is it possible to place a value judgment on clinging? However how does one keep the mind awake, day and night? While performing certain rituals, chanting or on alms round, how can one avoid the repetitive, mechanical routineness of our daily existence?
AS: Daily existence is mechanical and routine. The body is mechanical and routine. Society is that way. All compounded things just keep doing the same thing over and over. But our minds do not have to be deluded by those habits anymore.
RW: Krishnamurti says that 'religious people, those who live in a monastery, in isolation, or go off to a mountain or a desert, are forcing their minds to conform to an established pattern.' You said earlier that at Ajahn Chah's monastery, you were conforming to an authority because you felt that previously ...
AS: One is conforming one's bodily action to a pattern. That is all.
RW: Yes, Krishnamurti says: 'forcing the minds to a pattern.' Minds do conform to an established pattern, not just the body. They are dependent.
AS: Right. That is samatha [tranquility, concentration] practice: believing in doctrines and absorbing into conditions. But that is not the purpose of Buddhist meditation.
RW: Samatha practice is conforming to doctrines?
AS: If one believes in doctrines, the thoughts in one's mind to accept certain doctrinal teachings, and reject those which do not fit. Then there is also the samatha practice of tranquility, where one trains the mind to concentrate on an object This practice calms and steadies the mind.
RW: And you are calling that 'an established pattern'?
AS: Yes. The normal rhythm of one's breath is an established pattern that you cling and are attached to, isn't it? It gives some tranquility to the mind.
RW: One does not 'cling' to the breath. Breathing happens naturally. One might say that one observes the breath ...
AS: One focuses solely on the breath. At one particular moment one is concentrating and not noticing any other object.
RW: I do not quite follow. What does that have to do with the mind habitually following dogma?
AS: Whatever is a pattern or a condition [sankhara], if one believes in that sankhara, one becomes that. If one attaches to any object, then one becomes that object. So, when one is concentrating on the normal breath, then one becomes that normal breath. Mentally, one's form takes that, one becomes one with that object for as long as the concentration lasts.
The same holds with doctrines. They are the worlds of forms, conventions and habits. One can be likened to a (doctrinal) belief in the thoughts of others, in teachings and creeds, in what other people say, in Krishnamurti (which is the problem with his disciples).
Mindfulness is not clinging. What Krishnamurti is pointing to is the awareness of the changing nature, the way things really are in the moment. But he seems to delude people by the fact that he started [teaching] from a very high place. Most people, even if they think about what he is teaching, cannot understand it.
It is something one knows through letting go -- even of believing in Krishnamurti, or of trying to figure out what he is talking about. One has to come down to a very low level of humility, what Ajahn Chah calls an earthworm, just being very simple and not expecting any results. Doing good and refraining from doing evil with body, speech and mind, and being mindful.
RW: Why do religions degenerate?
AS: Because they are only conventional truth. They are not ultimate truth.
RW: But people do not practise. They practise mechanically. When a teacher conducts a course here, the question often arises, 'Buddhism is known as a peaceful religion, and it is said that a war has never begun in the cause of Buddhism.' But look at Tibet and Cambodia. People were massacred. In Laos the monks are working in the field. One visiting Cambodian monk said that, basically, people do not practise, and that is why it falls apart, why there is so much trouble.
AS: Well, why is the world as it is? Why did they annihilate two million Cambodians? One can speculate. But the only thing that one can know is that the conditions of one's mind -- greed, hatred and delusion -- are the reflection of the world, the way it is. The world has murders, death, atrocities and destruction because we do it all the time in our minds, too.
What did you do before you ordained, or even while you are ordained? You try to annihilate a lot of things out of your mind, don't you? If you have anger, jealousy, nasty thoughts, you annihilate them, because you think that is the way to solve the problem. One annihilates that which one thinks is the cause of one's suffering.
Now apply that to a country like Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge government believed that the middle class bourgeoisie was the cause of all suffering so the government annihilated it. It works on the same principle.
Buddhist teachings are non-violent. One does not annihilate the pests, but understands that even the pests of the mind are impermanent and non-self. They will disappear on their own.
Many things that we are frightened of are really our best friends -- like fear itself. We are afraid of the unknown, but the unknown is the way to enlightenment. Not-knowing is what brings terror into people's lives. Many people spend much of their life just trying to find security in some form or another, because of fear. Fear drives them to become this, or get hold of that, to save up a lot of money, to seek pleasure or a safe place to live, or to find some ideal person they hope will make them happy forever. That is fear of being alone, fear of the unknown -- of that we cannot know. In meditation, when one is mindful, that very fear -- seeing it as it really is -- leads us into the deathless, the silence. Yet fear is something that we react to very strongly.
So, if one cannot be at peace with the pest of one's mind, one cannot very well expect a stupid government like the Khmer Rouge, or most elements of the world, to be any better. We have no right to point the blame at such things as big as society. To find fault with America -- that is easy to do -- or with Cambodia or Tibet ... because the monks did not practise hard enough or the Cambodian people were not good Buddhists ... that is a bit silly, actually.
What are you doing about it? That is what I am saying. I cannot help Mr.Pol Pot's screwed-up version of the world. How he intended to solve the problem was idiocy. But I have seen that very same idiocy in myself: the desire to wipe out that which I do not like or that which I think is the cause of the world's or my own suffering. That is where one can see what the problem arises from. One can say, 'Oh, the monks weren't good enough', but that is not fair, really.
[The next question was not recorded].
AS: I have had a very fortunate experience with a Buddhist monk, Ajahn Chah, and I see what a very happy, tolerant and harmonious being he is. Of course, many of his disciples do not understand what he is teaching, either. Yet he certainly makes it all very clear and offers them every occasion to practise and find out.
When one talks about dukkha [suffering], the first noble truth, one is not talking abstractly about dukkha out there, that exists as some sort of nameless thing. I am talking about that very feeling in one, in here [points to himself], that does not feel quite happy or feels a bit upset, worried, discontented, insecure, or ill-at-ease. One experiences the first noble truth within oneself.
One is not pointing to dukkha as some sort of vague thing that hovers over the world. If one really looks at one's mind, one finds discontentment, restlessness, fear and worry. That is something one can see oneself. One does not have to believe. It would be idiocy to say 'I believe in the first noble truth', or, 'I don't believe in the first noble truth. I believe that everything is wonderful.' It is not a matter of believing or disbelieving, but rather one looks inside and asks oneself, 'Do I always feel wonderful and happy? Is life just a constant source of joy and gaiety? Or do I sometimes feel depression, doubt, fear, etc?'
Just speaking from my own experience, I could very much see the first noble truth. It was not that I wanted a more depressing ideology to accept. I recognised that there was fear, uncertainty and uneasiness in myself. Yet the first noble truth is not a doctrine. It is not saying 'life is suffering', but rather it is just saying, 'there is this'. It comes and goes. It arises (the second noble truth), it ceases (the third noble truth), and from that understanding comes the eight-fold path (the fourth noble truth), which is the clear vision into the transcendence of it all -- through mindfulness. The eight-fold path is just being mindful in daily life.
RW: Yet mindfulness itself is not a wholesome factor.
AS: Neutral. It does not belong to anybody. It is not something one is lacking; it is not a personal possession.
RW: There are wholesome and unwholesome mental factors, and there are factors which are always present, like mindfulness. Mindfulness is not innately good.
AS: It is awareness of good and evil as change. By using the wisdom factor of discriminating alertness (satipa˝˝a), one sees the conditions of good and evil as impermanent and not-self. This mindfulness liberates one from the delusion that these conditions tend to give.
Go to Ajahn Sumedho Interviewed (continued)
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