RW: I would like to return for a moment to the role of tradition. Do you feel that adherence to a particular tradition would naturally tend to separate one from another tradition that has a certain set of values?
AS: Well, on the level of convention, everything is separate anyway. You are separate from me as a person, as a body. That can only be solved when we merge by developing wisdom. With conventional form there is only separation. There will always be men and women and innumerable religious conventions. These are all on the level of sense perception, which is always discriminative and separative. It cannot be otherwise. Yet if one is mindful, those very conventions take one to the deathless, where we merge. There is no 'you' or 'me' there.
RW: 'Deathless' -- how do you use that term?
AS: It just means that which is never born and never dies. There is nothing more one can say, really, because words are birth and death.
RW: Could one say that the deathless is synonymous with the end of clinging and grasping?
AS: Non-attachment to mortal conditions.
RW: I find it more the case than the exception that when belonging to a group, there is a tendency to feel secure, and to condemn, belittle or speak condescendingly to those who do not share one's own religious beliefs or philosophical dogma. I was quite concerned about these matters when I left the Centre in Switzerland ... How does one overcome this feeling of separation, form versus the essence? How can one be free from getting enmeshed in form, whether it be in a study or meditative environment?
AS: Well, just be enlightened. It would solve all your problems.
RW: Thanks a lot.
AS: One has to make the best of all these things. Even here [at the Insight Meditation Society] the meditation is kind of spoon-fed. It is like sitting in a high chair and having your mommy come and dish it to you on a little plate. It is idealistic. For meditators there is hardly any friction; everything is secure and provided.
In places like Tharpa Choeling [the Tibetan Centre in Switzerland] there is more friction, much more to forgive, much more confusion to the mind. Chithurst is a good example of being neither the best nor the worst place. It is adequate. Some people will make use of it, some will not. I do not want it to be too perfect or ideal, because people need friction. Otherwise they become complacent and dull. One has to give people space to work through their biases and hang-ups.
In my own life I saw how I became attached to the teacher, the tradition and the rules. If one is serious and watching dukkha, then one begins to see that and let it go. That does not mean one has to throw away the tradition; it just means that one can be at ease with it.
I enjoy monasticism. I like being a monk. I think it is a very lovely way to live as a human being. But if it does not work anymore, when the time comes to end it -- it will end. That is it. It does not matter that much.
Yet there is no need to throw away the ordination either. I have grown because of it. I have not as yet seen a better way to live one's life. So I stay with this one until it is time to change. When the time for change comes, it will have to come on its own. It is not up to me to decide, 'Well, I'm fed up with this. I'm going to try something else.'
One can see the whole tenor of the life of a monk is very good. It is harmless, it is honourable; it is useful in society too. I know how to use it. I can teach through this tradition. I can teach people how to use the tradition, which I think is a good thing to know how to use. One can learn how to use conventions instead of just rejecting them.
If I give you a knife, you can use it for good or bad. It is not the knife's problem, is it? If you use it to murder me, would you say, 'The knife is bad'? The knife might be a very good knife, a well-made and useful tool. The same with the Theravada or Tibetan tradition; it is learning how to use them skilfully -- and that is up to you!
One has to recognise that Asian teachers come from a society (Tibet, for example) where everything is more or less taken for granted. They have been raised in a society that thinks and lives Buddhism. Whether they are devout or not does not make any difference. Nevertheless, it affects their whole outlook on themselves and the world. Whereas you come from a country which is materialistic, and where the values -- based on greed and competition, and trust and faith in conceptual learning -- have affected your mind. Our faith in America is in books, isn't it? In universities. In science. In conceptual learning. In being reasonable.
RW: Do you find that type of learning to be invalid? Or can that also be used properly?
AS: No. Right. It is learning how to use things like that correctly, with wisdom. Nothing in the universe is a waste. It is all perfect. There is nothing in it that needs to be rejected or added. There is nothing wrong, really.
One is looking for perfection, yet it is in the imperfect where most people go wrong. If one is looking for perfection in a Buddhist teacher or in a Buddhist tradition, one will be greatly disillusioned by it. If one looks for perfection in Krishnamurti or in anyone, or in the perfection of one's own body and the conditions of one's mind ... it is not possible! One cannot force the mind to think only good thoughts, or to be always compassionate and kind, without giving rise to even an impulse of aversion or anger.
The mind is like a mirror -- it reflects. So the wise man knows the reflections as reflections, and not as self. Reflections do not harm the mirror at all. The mirror can reflect the filthiest conditions and not be dirtied by it. And the reflections change. They are not permanent.
Filth and dirt also play an important part. Hatred and all the nasty things in one's mind are like manure. Manure stinks. It is not nice and one is not happy to be around it. Yet it does give a lot of good nourishment to the roots of the plants so that they will have beautiful flowers. If one is able to look at the manure and see it for what it is, rather than saying, 'Ugh, get it out of there! I don't want anything to do with it', then one can appreciate its value.
Even hatred is Dhamma teaching us that it is impermanent and not-self. Everything takes us into the ultimate truth, through seeing that whatever arises passes away. So even the dirtiest thought in one's mind is just that; it is merely that condition changing. If one does not resist or indulge, it arises up from the void and goes back into the void. It is perfect. There is nothing that is wrong and that is why there is nothing to fear.
If one starts trying to think of ways to change the world so that it will be perfect, one will become very bitter and disappointed. People get very upset when I say that, because they think that I am just not going to do anything. What needs to be done, I am doing. What does not need to be done, I leave undone.
Just this condition: One does good and refrains from doing evil. That is all I can be responsible for. I cannot make the world (my concept of world) anything other than it is. That concept of world will change as we arouse wisdom within ourselves. We will then be able to look at the world as it is, rather than believe in the world as we think it is.
The truth is not Buddhist. It is not that Buddhists have any special insight into the truth. It is just that it is a way that works.
* * * * *
RW: You mentioned that the emphasis at Ajahn Chah's monastery is on the maintaining of the Vinaya, the monks' discipline. Do any of his monks study scripture: the Abhidhamma for example? Does he find that necessary or place any importance on study at all?
AS: The monks do study. There exist for monks the governmental examinations, of which one can take up to three levels. Ajahn Chah encourages the monks to take these examinations, which are a basic intellectual understanding of the Dhamma and Vinaya. So he encourages the monks to do that much.
Ajahn Chah will send those monks, who have the inclination and aptitude for learning the Pali language, to a special monastery where the language is taught. However, he does not go out of his way to encourage that because he realises it is not necessary to know Pali grammar in order to attain enlightenment.
It is a very individual thing. One cannot make just one suit of clothes to fit everyone. However, the general pattern encouraged at the monastery is to develop one's mindfulness while living under the Vinaya discipline.
RW: Does Ajahn Chah expect his monks to teach at one point or another?
AS: When they are ready, he has them start teaching.
RW: Then, most or all of the monks will one day teach?
AS: It also depends on the monk. Some monks cannot teach; they just do not have that kind of ability -- that is, in a structured way. Some teach in other ways, just by their living example.
RW: You said earlier that you had many difficulties when you were at Wat Pah Pong. What were they? Of course, in the beginning you could not speak the language at all. I am sure that was a big one.
AS: Well, it is just a strange culture and language. In that situation one has to give up practically everything that one is accustomed to in one's own life.
RW: How did you deal with that?
AS: I just did it, actually. I do not quite know how to say how I dealt with it. If one wanted to stay and learn from that place, one just did what one had to do. I managed to change my ways to adapt to their ways.
The Thai monks were always very kind. It was not a place where people made things difficult for one. There was always generosity and kindness. It was just getting used to doing things in different ways, eating strange food and speaking a different language.
RW: Sometimes, when people from two different cultures meet, a kind of cultural arrogance may arise from one side or the other, or both. Did you encounter this?
AS: Well, yes. The Thai people have feelings like anyone else about their culture and society. However, we all shared in common living in a monastery, where the emphasis is not on cultural inheritance but rather on the Buddha's teaching. So the cultural differences did not seem to be of any great significance to anyone.
I was much more sophisticated than they were. I had travelled a great deal and had lived in different places and knew much more about the world in general. Their superiority to me was in their ability to live so well and to coordinate in the only tradition that they knew. Oftentimes I felt very clumsy and foolish, like a very oafish person, because I did not tend to have the physical coordination or agility in bodily action that they had.
RW: We were talking the other day about traditions and routines, and how a complacent attitude may arise towards one's practice. There is often the tendency for a young monk to be very strict about his vows and to keep a strict discipline. Later one finds one is not really digging in or doing the practice seriously. One tends to become mechanical in one's actions and maybe that will to discover the truth becomes stifled by the weight of the organisation or the tradition. Did you find that kind of degeneration at Wat Pah Pong?
AS: Well, I did not find it for myself, because I had plenty of motivation on my own -- and I did not let any tradition stop me. Yet I could see that some monks were not very motivated. They were in it just because it is their tradition. Therefore, they tend to sink into habitual living as a monk.
Ajahn Chah is quite an expert at pushing people out of ruts. Yet he cannot keep doing that all the time. One cannot expect him to play nursemaid to all the monks. I think he did that very much at first. I noticed that he now takes it all much easier and leaves it pretty much up to the monk to develop. That is the way it should be. This is a very mature practice. The teacher should not be constantly called up to prod and arouse the students. We should do that ourselves. Yet there are Thai and Western monks who just seem to sink into habits. They would do that anywhere they were. They do not have that 'urgency' in their lives.
RW: I think you are poking fun at me ... Krishnamurti says, 'The guru's role is to point out. Finished. Then let the person learn. If he inquires, he will find out. But if you tell him everything, then you are treating him just like a child. There is no meaning to it.'
AS: Right, right.
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