So this evening we did the chanting for Brian"s mother, and in terms of meditation and our contemplation of the Buddha"s teachings, this aspect encompasses death and separation and it"s a really important quality to be allowing into the heart. Because the nature of the mind is to go towards acquiring, becoming that which is pleasing, comfortable, that makes us feel safe and secure. And of course that is quite necessary, but if it"s not balanced or if it"s not understood in the appropriate perspective, we"ll tend to be blown off course or feel shaken when we experience the inevitability of death and separation.
And of course it"s never pleasing or delightful to the heart but how do we have an understanding or awareness that allows that to be a part of reality or truth, because whether we like it or not, it actually already is. And that"s really the part of the practice is in meditation is how do we stretch our awareness and our understanding and our willingness to be aware of things actually as they are, rather than the way we want them to be or think they should be.
Traditionally in the chants at the time of a funeral or at the time of death, it"s actually considered an unwanted or inauspicious occasion, so you don"t do the traditional blessing chants. The chants that are chosen are considered to be more appropriate at the time of death, because they"re taken from the Abhidhamma and they"re pointing to much more fundamental profound truths that are really pointing to the way things are. The first one that we do “kusala Dhamma, akusala Dhamma, abhayakata Dhamma,” dhammas which are wholesome, dhammas which are unwholesome, dhammas which are unshakeable, so that the range of dhammas (in terms of things, phenomena) is covered in those three, and through the whole chant it"s pointing to the different aspects of existence that we have to understand, experience, that we have to face and penetrate.
And it"s interesting from that perspective, the tradition doesn"t pull any punches; it"s willing to lay it out there. And of course the desire, the wish is to for safety and security, that which is reassuring, and we"re always looking for reassurance in the conditioned realm, we"re always looking for reassurance and safety and security in conditions, whether the conditions are material conditions of the world, the material condition of the physical body or the immaterial conditions of our thoughts, feelings, emotions, ideas, and ideals. But they"re all within the realm of conditions. And if we don"t understand those conditions, then we"re disappointed by them or frustrated by them or confused by them. Because they don"t behave like they should. They"re not doing it like they should do. It shouldn"t be like that. And of course it shouldn"t. But that"s what they"re doing. And that"s what when we"re cultivating our meditation and our practice and our precepts and our reflections, on a certain level it"s all in order to gain the stability and basic foundation of clarity so that we can really start to be willing to be present for conditions as they are. And of course that"s dependent on conditions also, in the sense that our body and speech, wholesome mindful composed actions and speech – those are conditions – but it"s sort of learning how to work with those conditions. Our developing of meditation, cultivation of awareness, cultivation of stability of focus, ability to sustain attention within a pleasant and peaceful object, so that the heart becomes settled and clear.
It"s working within the realm of conditions. And it"s absolutely necessary and we have to rely on them. But we can"t take the conditions as a refuge -- we have to rely on them in the same way that we have to rely on the physical requisites of clothing and shelter, of food, of medicines. Those are all things in the conditioned realm. We can"t pooh pooh them away and say “it"s all empty and it doesn"t matter.” But we do have to recognize their conditioned nature so that we"re not building our expectation that they"ll always be there to please us, satisfy us, make us feel comfortable, make us feel at ease.
We start our whole process of expectations beginning at a very early age. Our mothers feed us when we"re little babies and we expect that to happen all the time. You know, when our stomachs grumble and growl, and we start crying and get upset, our expectation hasn"t been fulfilled and we begin at a very early age, and our mothers and family pick us up and and we feel secure and comfortable, and then they put us down and the world falls apart. “Waaaaahhh. It"s such an awful universe.”
It comes to mind when going down to the city for the talk at Berkeley, and staying at Kendall"s and she"s got this little baby, and it"s got a monitor in the bedroom and you can watch it"s every move. And we"re down in the kitchen, and the baby"s sleeping and all it does is move, and Kendall says, “Oh, look, she moved her leg!” (Laughs). I mean the level of attentivieness is pretty all encompassing and the security it brings. But we can"t be there all time. I mean ZiZi is pretty willful, so if she doesn"t get her way, she definitely lets people know.
So we start really early – that expectation that conditions should satisfy us, that conditions should make us feel secure. That last chant that we did is a very important chant and it comes up through the Suttas and the Dhammapada. “Anicca wata sankhara …” All conditions are impermanent. Having the nature to arise, they pass away, they cease. Having arisen they pass away, but in cessation there is peace. In the pacifying of them. I mean they"re ceasing all the time, but the pacifying of them is where happiness lies. Pacifying (vupasamo) isn"t just sort of making them end, but the pacifying through understanding and awareness, bringing them to a place of noncomplication. The word that"s used for “ceasing” or “ending” (nirodha), is an interesting word in that it"s usually translated as ceasing or ending, but it can also be used in the way of non arising, non complication, When conditions no longer arise to create complications or conditions are non complicating, that"s where it comes to a place of peace or happiness. That"s where bliss arises.
So that"s where we need to be attentive, paying attention to how things are closed, how things are ended, how things cease. So that we"re beginning to be at peace with that. And a lot of it is becoming increasingly familiar with that which is impermanent, and being attentive to the impermanence of things in a way that"s not working from a place of expectation or hope of them being one way or the other. Whether they"re going to cease or whether they"re going to be stable or whether they"re going to arise again – all the desires and expectations that we put on them. Just by taking something very simple, like the breath – just watching and being attentive to its impermanence, its change, its arising and ceasing, its coming into being, the cessation of the breath. And that"s just a simple phenomenon of sankhara. That is a sankhara, in the same way that our body, our feelings, our minds, all beings in the world are similarly sankharas. It"s just making ourselves very very familiar with that simple process that we can access and be in constant contact with through the breath, and really whatever you start paying attention to. Whatever you start paying attention to, you start recognizing its changing. And whether it"s the actual change of the phenomenon itself, or whether it"s the change of the knower, our own awareness … It"s like if I pay attention to the clock , I might not notice any drastic change taking place in the clock itself, every minute the number ticks over. But the actual clock is somewhat stable for a period of time. Although if one thinks about the physics of it all, it"s changing as we"re watching it even though we may not notice it, but certainly just the awareness and the knower of the object is changing. So in itself, whatever we"re paying attention to, we can start recognizing impermanence, change, uncertainty – the unsure nature of things, conditions. We live in the conditioned realm, we live dependent on conditions, but in terms of the Buddha"s path, we need to be able to understand conditions in order to truly be at peace.
A while ago, I was listening to a talk of Ajahn Sucitto"s, and he was talking about the nature of conditions and how it came up for him, relating an incident at the monastery, and just that sense that with conditions, there is always something unraveling, something that is not quite right within the conditioned realm. He was saying that at his kuti, there was a tap that was dripping, and he thought, he put up with it for quite some time, and dealt with it by turning the water off. But of course you can"t always have the water turned off – you have to turn the water back on. So that was unsatisfactory. So he mustered up the energy to go ahead and fix it. So he got Ven. Thitadhammmo to come, and he showed up in the afternoon with some tools, and pointed out this tap that was dripping. So he said, “Oh it"s very simple to fix, just need to take out this little thing and replace the gasket.” Of course, he started to try to undo the tap and the screw was unyielding, and he had to go back to the shop for another screwdriver, came back and he still didn"t have the tools, and they ended up wrestling with it and fighting with it and finally deciding the only thing to do is to put some penetrating oil into it and leave it for a while…..”And thus endeth the first day.” That was the beginning of the dripping tap saga. The 2nd day he came back with more tools and wrestled and fought with it and ended up that day with the decision that the only way to actually fix it was to take the sink off, and of course they managed to take the sink off, and after finally getting it pulled apart, and put this little gasket in, and the fourth day they put the sink back together, recaulk it and get it all back in place. And then they turned the tap on, and “drip….drip…..drip.” Still dripping. So this is what conditions are like – the nature of the conditioned realm.
And we expect that it should work. And sometimes it does. And sometimes it doesn"t. It really doesn"t work. There"s the time when conditions being us as physical beings, our family, our friends, our teachers, our relatives, the condition is no longer able to work, to be stable, and they pass away. And that is so essential to be able to have that perspective. And that isn"t to diminish the feelings of our love, our respect, our feelings of what is appropriate, because even from the Buddha"s perspective, particularly with parents, the Buddha is very specific that it"s very difficult to repay the debt of gratitude for our parents. And from the Buddha"s perspective, we are always encouraged to be attentive to our duties or to those we are responsible for, or a sense of affiliation with, whether it"s a karmic affiliation of parents or family, or relatives, friends, teachers, fellow practitioners. There are areas of responsibility. So it"s not that the teaching on impermanence and conditioned things is just a way to shut things out – not at all. It actually gives us a much greater capacity to approach them and deal skillfully with them, because we"re looking more clearly and seeing “this is the way things are.” And our tendencies, and the habits that we form based on attachment tend to obscure and make it more complicated and less peaceful for ourselves.
So the practice, and training, and meditation and investigation give us the opportunity to see things more clearly. You know, sometimes our perspectives are in line with Dhamma, or in line with how we would expect things to be. I think of an example of Ajahn Chah when there was a lay man who was one of the first city people who started going to Wat Pah Pong, Ajahn Chah"s monastery, and he and his wife and family started coming out regularly, and they were merchants and so were very supportive. They also encouraged their friends to come out, and created a connection – sort of a broader community. And at one point the lay man took a temporary ordination, so had a strong connection with the monastery. And after a full life he got older, got sick and was dying. And he was very serious ill, and the family were coming back and forth. And Ajahn Chah would visit from time to time. And family came out and asked if Ajahn Chah would come and do some blessing chants for him, and for some reason Ajahn Chah didn"t go. And then and the family came back out the next day, and said that his condition had started going downhill, please come, and Ajahn Chah sort of thought a bit, and thought “tomorrow I"m going in to the army camp for a meal invitation – I"ll go out after the meal.” And they said, “Oh I don"t think he"s going to last.” They were actually quite upset with Ajahn Chah. So the next day Ajahn Cha went to the camp, had the meal with a group of monks, and did the blessing. And after the meal the commander of the camp asked him if there was anything he could do to help, and Ajahn Chah asked for a truck. One of these kinds of trucks that they use in Thailand with seats in the back that they use for transporting people. And then they went to visit the old lay supporter, and he was still alive, although he hadn"t been very conscious, and soon as Ajahn Chah arrived, he brightened up and Ajah Chah just spent some time giving some advice, instruction, spoke with him. And then he died. And then Ajahn Chah said “Put him on the truck and we"ll take him out to Wat Pah Pong for the funeral ceremonies.”
And the family had been hoping that Ajahn Chah would be chanting and giving blessings that would prolong his life and make him happy and well, and Ajahn Chah had a very different idea of what was going to be unfolding – that broader vision is sometimes when we see according to Dhamma, we have a much broader perspective, and things are as they are.
So that in terms of our practice, these are very very important reflections to be reflecting on impermanence, on the uncertainty of the conditioned realm, of death. It"s not in a morbid sense or in a fearful sense, but it"s actually to understand what are we facing in the human realm. How do we work with it, how do we deal with it, how do we come to a place of peace with it. How not to be flummoxed by it. So that"s what the teachings are really for. And if we think of it or consider it in terms of ordinary circumstances, then that"s a skillful approach.
Edward was visiting yesterday and today, and he noticed the hand held computer on my desk, and said that he had offered one to Ajahn Sumedho just like that and was wondering how Ajahn Sumedho was doing with it. And I was just sort of talking about it and for myself having a small computer like that I can only sort of do it because of the tech support of the other people around in the monastery. Because I don"t have the knowledge or understanding of how to work it, or if something goes wrong with it I don"t know what to do. I can do simple or basic things, but….
In terms of living in the world, we can sort of do simple or basic things, but we need the tech support to be able to deal with the real problems. And the Buddha and the Buddha"s teachings are the real tech support for dealing with real life. Being able to get through an existence without creating too many problems, or tripping over the problems or difficulties. So taking the teaching and really learning how to put them into practice, and being willing to look at the things that may be unsettling. Impermanence is unsettling, suffering is unsettling, death and separation are unsettling.
When we use the tools, say the skills, the tech support that the Buddha has been willing to give us, it gives us the opportunity to really deal with those gritty problems of existence. And that"s something that the Buddha recognized: that those are always going to be problems in human life. When we do the chanting in the morning, we reflect on the fundamental teachings: what is suffering. Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, association with the disliked is suffering, not getting what we want is suffering, the emotional realm, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering. So that was true in the Buddha"s time, and it"s true in this time. In modern times we still have those difficulties, and that"s what the future is going to be like. So it"s a timeless teaching. And we have that opportunity to really put those teachings into practice, and then really come to a place of settling, of peace: vupasamo sukkho. That"s one of the recollections that the Buddha encourages: recollections of peace. What is it that is actually peaceful, where is true peace to be found? How do we enter and abide in that which is truly peaceful? The peace of freedom, of not holding on to anything anymore. These are tools for us to work with and develop and become skilled at.
So I offer that for reflection.