Letters from Nina

by Nina van Gorkom | 1971 | 26,358 words

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Ninth Letter

Jakarta, July 15, '83

July 15, '83.

Dear Khun Charupan,

When I was in Bangkok recently I was glad to meet you and my other friends again in Khun Sujin's house and also in the temple. I appreciate it that all of you help Khun Sujin to explain the Dhamma to others, be it in the way of printing books, transcribing Khun Sujin's radio talks or translating. The copies of the tapes made by Khun Sukol Kalyanamit when your group had Dhamma discussions in India are of great benefit to many people. I listen to them often. Khun Sujin told me that Khun Sukol sent one set of these tapes to a blind monk in Bangkok, but that the monk did not receive them. Instead of having aversion Khun Sukol rejoiced since he thought of the benefit which someone else who received these tapes would have. He then sent another set to the blind monk. The monk wanted to show his appreciation by arranging to send fresh milk to all those who would be present on Sunday in the temple (Wat Bovornives) listening to Khun Sujin's lecture. I happened to be present when the milk was given and thus I could also rejoice in the monk's kind and thoughtful gesture. My husband commented that this sounds like a story from the suttas in the Buddha's time. He appreciated it that Khun Sukol, instead of being annoyed about the loss of tapes, thought of someone else's benefit. When there is wise attention to the object which is experienced at that moment, there can be kusala citta instead of akusala citta.

You asked my comment on a few Dhamma questions. These are questions we all have and I find it helpful to think about the answers since this gives me an opportunity to consider Dhamma. I shall repeat your questions and comment on them.

Question : What is the characteristic of fear and how can it be overcome? I
have fear of old age, sickness and death. I fear sickness and death of those
who are dear to me. I have many kinds of fears. I also fear an unhappy
rebirth. So long as one is not a sotapanna (streamwinner, the person who
has attained the first stage of enlightenment), one may be reborn in an
unhappy plane where there is no opportunity to develop satipatthana. The
good deeds one performs in this life are no guarantee for a happy rebirth. A
bad deed performed even in a past life may condition an unhappy rebirth.

Answer : Unwholesome fear is a form of dosa, aversion. When dosa arises
we do not like the object which is experienced at that moment. There are
many forms of dosa. It may be a slight aversion or it may be hate, or it may
take the form of fear or dread. When there is fear we shrink back from the
object and would like to flee from it, or we may think with worry and dread
about an unpleasant event which may happen in the future, such as old age,
sickness and death, or an unhappy rebirth.

Fear arises so long as there are still conditions for its arising. It cannot be eradicated at once, only the anagami (non-returner, the person who has attained the third stage of enlightenment) has eradicated it completely. The development of right understanding is the only way leading to the eradication of fear. When fear arises it should be seen as it is: only a conditioned reality, not self. Fear is conditioned by ignorance and by clinging. We cling to all the pleasant objects and we have fear to lose them. We read in the 'Gradual Saying' (Book of the Sixes, Ch III, par. 3, Fear) about different names given to sense-desires, in order to show their dangers. One of these names is fear. We read:

...And wherefore, monks, is fear a name for sense-desires? Monks,
impassioned by sensuous passions, bound by passionate desire, neither in
this world is one free from fear, not in the next world is one free from fear.

Therefore 'fear' is a name for sense-desires....

In order to develop right understanding there should be awareness of any reality which appears and we should not reject anything as object of awareness. When fear appears it can be object of awareness.

We may have theoretical understanding of the fact that we cannot control any reality which arises and that we thus cannot control the rebirth-consciousness of the next life. However, we still may be troubled by fear of rebirth. It is love of 'self' which conditions this fear. We are worried about what will happen to the 'self' after we die and we are afraid that this 'self' will not be successful in the development of insight in the next life. The sotapanna does not worry about what would happen to a self, because he has eradicated belief in a self. Moreover, he has no more conditions for an unhappy rebirth. So long as one is not a Sotapanna one clings to a self and there are conditions for an unhappy rebirth.

It is understandable that we worry about the possibility of developing right understanding in a next life. However, we should remember that a moment of awareness of a reality is never lost, it conditions the arising of awareness again, later on. Also awareness which arises now is conditioned, it is conditioned by moments of listening to the Dhamma and considering it in the past, even in past lives. Even so awareness which arises now, although it falls away, conditions awareness in the future since it is accumulated. Even if the next birth would be in an unhappy plane, where there is no opportunity to develop insight, there will be following lives again in other planes where the development of insight can continue. Even the Bodhisatta was once reborn in a hell plane, but after that life he was reborn in the human plane where he continued to develop satipatthana.

Unwholesome fear, which is a form of dosa, is harmful for mind and body.

However, there is also wholesome fear, which is fear of akusala and its consequences. This fear is different from dosa. Each kusala citta is accompanied by the sobhana cetasikas which are hiri, shame of akusala, and ottappa, fear of blame, fear of the consequences of akusala. When these two cetasikas perform their functions, there cannot be akusala citta at that moment. Wholesome fear of the danger of being in the cycle of birth and death can urge us to persevere with the development of insight until all defilements are eradicated. Then there will be no more rebirth.

When the Buddha was still a Bodhisatta he developed satipatthana with patience and perseverance in order to attain Buddhahood and thus to be able to teach other beings as well the way leading to the end of birth. The 'Mugapakkha Jataka' (VI, no. 538) gives an impressive account of the Bodhisatta's heroism. He never was neglectful of his task of developing wisdom, since he had a wholesome fear of rebirth in Hell. He had to suffer severe tribulations, but he was always perfectly composed and never showed any weak point. When we are in difficult situations do we have perseverance to develop insight? Can there be awareness of any reality which appears through one of the six doors? We may find it difficult to develop right understanding when we are very busy or when we are with other people. We could consider such circumstances as a test or an examination we have to pass. If we fail we have to begin again and again. When we read the 'Mugapakkha Jataka' we can be reminded not to be neglectful in the development of insight. If we realize that it is dangerous to be in the cycle of birth and death there can be a wholesome fear which urges us to be mindful

We read in the 'Mughapakkha Jataka' that the Bodhisatta was born as the son of the King of Kasi and received the name 'Temiya'. He remembered that in a former life when he was a King he condemned people to death. As a result of akusala kamma he was reborn in hell. After that he was reborn as Prince Temiya. When he remembered these former lives he decided that he did not want to succeed his father as King and therefore he pretended to be cripple, deaf and dumb. Five hundred infants born to the concubines of the King were his companions. When they cried for milk he did not cry, reflecting that to die of thirst would be better than to reign as king and risk rebirth in hell. In order to test him he was given milk after the proper time or not at all, but he did not cry. The nurses spent one year in trying him but did not discover any weak point. In order to test him the other children were given cakes and dainties and they quarrelled and struck one another. The Bodhisatta would not look at the cakes and dainties. He said : 'O Temiya, eat the cakes and dainties if you wish for hell'. People kept on trying him in many ways but he was always patient and composed, realizing the danger of an unhappy rebirth. People tried to frighten him with a wild elephant and with serpents but they did not succeed. They tempted him with pleasant objects.

Performances of mimes were given and the other children shouted 'bravo' and laughed, but Temiya did not want to look and remained motionless, reflecting that in hell there never would be a moment of laughter and joy. In order to find out whether he was really deaf they let conch blowers make a burst of sound , but they could not through a whole day detect in him any confusion of thought or any disturbance of hand or foot, or even a single start. They smeared his body with molasses and put him in a place infested with flies which bit him, but he remained motionless and perfectly apathetic. When he was sixteen years old they tried to tempt him with beautiful women who were dancing and singing. We read: '...but he looked at them in his perfect wisdom and stopped his inhalations and exhalations in fear lest they should touch his body, so that his body became quite rigid.'

The Bodhisatta looked with perfect composure and with wisdom at the beautiful women. While he was motionless during his trials and tests he was not idle, he was mindful. In order to attain Buddhahood he had to develop satipatthana with perseverance. He was mindful of realities, no matter in what situation. Although this is not mentioned in the Jatakas all the time, it is implied.

Finally the King was adviced to bury him alive. When the charioteer was digging the hole for his grave, Temiya was adorned by Sakka with heavenly ornaments. He then told the charioteer that he was not cripple, deaf and dumb. He became an ascetic and preached to his parents about impermanence:

'It is death who smites this world, old age who watches at our gate,

And it is the nights which pass and win their purpose soon or late.

As when the lady at her loom sits weaving all the day,

Her task grows ever less and less- so waste our lives away.

As speeds the hurrying river's course on, with no backward flow,

So in its course the life of men does ever forward go;

And as the river sweeps away trees from its banks upturn,

So are we men carried along by age and death in headlong ruin.'

He explained to his father that he did not want the kingdom, stating that wealth, youth, wife and children and all other joys do not last. He said:

'Do what you have to do today,

Who can ensure the morrow's sun?

Death is the Master-general

Who gives his guarantee to none.'

These words can remind us not to put off our task of developing right understanding of any reality which appears. The Bodhisatta was unshakeable in his resolution to develop right understanding. Also when he was put to severe tests, he sid not prefer anything else to the development of wisdom.

Are we resolute as well? Or are we forgetful of what is really worthwhile in our life? Wisdom is more precious than any kind of possession, honour or praise.

After I had written about the Bodhisatta Temiya, I had an opportunity to practice patience and perseverance in mindfulness. That same evening my husband and I had to attend an official Rotary dinner. My husband was placed at the head table, but I was separated from him and placed somewhere else, at a side-table in the midst of people I did not know very well. There were moments of aversion but I also remembered Khun Sujin's remarks that it is so good to be 'nobody', not 'somebody'. We like to be 'somebody' but in reality there are no people, only conditioned namas and rupas. In order to become really convinced of the truth it is urgent to develop understanding of colour, sound, or any other reality which appears now. We had to wait for our food for a long time since there were many speeches. I remembered

Bodhisatta Temiya who was patient and composed in all circumstances. Since he saw the danger of rebirth in hell he never was neglectful as to the development of wisdom. He said to himself time and again when he was tortured: 'Worse than these tortures are the tortures in hell.' I had moments of dosa but I also remembered the conversation you had with Khun Sujin in India about aversion and which I heard on the tape. You spoke about having aversion because you had awareness only of hardness and softness and not of colour or seeing. Khun Sujin said that thinking with aversion is also a reality, it is conditioned and beyond control, not self. Also aversion can be object of awareness so that it can be realized as not self. We should continue to develop understanding of each reality which appears and not leave out unpleasant realities. When the food was finally served that evening I had attachment to flavour, but also that reality can be an object of awareness. Although there cannot be clear understanding yet after only a few moments of awareness we can begin again and again in order to develop it.

Although the evening was not pleasant or interesting, when there is mindfulness time is not wasted. There were ceremonies such as the instalment of the new board and the exchange of banners with visitors from other Rotary Clubs. I noticed that people attached great importance to such ceremonies, but then, don't we all attach importance to the events of our life: to what people say or do to us, to our likes or dislikes? So long as we do not see realities as they are, as only nama and rupa, we find ourselves very important and we are anxious about what will happen to the 'self'. The 'Mughapakkha Jataka' can remind us to prefer nothing else to the development of right understanding. When we consider the danger of being in the cycle of birth and death there can be, instead of unwholesome fear, wholesome fear so that we are urged to be aware now.

Next time I shall comment on your other questions .

With Metta,
Nina van Gorkom

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