What we are calling heart-matters are real matters; they are universal and personal concerns. We can learn about these matters by listening to ancient teachings and we can also learn from listening to ourselves. I suggest that these two must go together.
Thank you for the few minutes we have just spent being quiet together. I am pleased that we have this chance to meet and I am happy that we can begin our meeting in silence. When I’m in an unfamiliar situation with people that I don’t know, it’s helpful to have a few moments to feel where I am, to acknowledge that you’re here too, and generally to become aware that we’re in this together.
This evening I hope to be able to offer a very practical reflection on the essential aspects of the Buddhist Way. Regrettably, much of what is presented as religion ends up applying only to a very small part of our lives. However, the example of the Buddha and of those who have followed this path demonstrate that the essential aspects of this teaching apply in practical ways to the whole of our lives.
I would like to begin by acknowledging that often we are not even aware that there are profoundly important matters in life. The way we live sometimes causes us to forget that we really do care about certain things. What, then, are the things that we care about most? This is the question I would like to ask.
Based on a talk given at Edinburgh University, October 1996
What matters most and is truly worthy of our attention? While much in life sort of matters and many people tell us what they think really matters, I feel we need to make an attempt for ourselves to find out for sure what really matters. The guidance given in the Buddha’s Teachings supports this kind of inquiry.
It may come as a surprise to hear that the path that led to liberation for the human being known as the Buddha came as a result of personal life failures and disappointments, possibly not a lot different from what many of us experience. His investigations took place within the context of an elaborate culture with a vast array of proliferations on the theme of truth. It was similar to the context in which we live – where there is a tremendous proliferation of ideas, opinions and views about what religion is, what truth is, or as I prefer to say, about what really matters.
When I lead meditation retreats, I ask people early on to enter into a contemplation imagining that they are nearing the ends of their lives. I ask them to suppose that somebody they love dearly comes to them and says: “There’s so much in life that appears to be important; now that you’ve lived your life, can you please tell me what really matters, more than anything else?” The aim of introducing this question is not to have people find a ‘right’ answer, or remember something they’ve read in the scriptures, but rather to guide them to a place where they already have a felt sense of truly significant matters. I’m suggesting that we have a dimension within ourselves that already knows that some things do profoundly matter. This dimension is a place into which our religious guides and good friends can lead us.
In the Buddhist tradition there are three things that are said to really matter. We could call them ‘heart-matters’, as they are said to constitute “the Heart of the Buddha”. The first is wisdom, the second, compassion, and the third, purity. From the Buddhist perspective these qualities really matter and are worthy of our attention. Initially I’d like to talk about the qualities of wisdom and compassion, and then consider how further contemplation of the heart-matter of purity allows us to bring these other two qualities to maturity.
What then is wisdom? It’s a word that perhaps appeals to us because it’s got something to do with our heads, where we like to spend time, where we feel comfortable. We have been taught at school that we gain credentials by knowing how to be clever at moving around up there. Mental agility can get us lots of points, so perhaps we think wisdom is a virtuous way of being up in our heads. That’s one way of approaching wisdom. But what is wisdom really about? Wisdom is something that we still respect. What is it that we respect? In approaching these questions I’d suggest that we begin by asking, how does wisdom function?
Firstly, I would say that wisdom functions by seeing through the way things appear to be to the way things actually are. In the Buddhist Way, wisdom is a matter of insight, a ‘seeing into’ how things really are. In the daily chanting at our monastery, we recite some verses about the qualities of the Buddha, and one of the words we use (in the Pali language) is lokavidu. Loka means ‘the world’ and vidu means ‘seeing through’. It’s usually translated as ‘knower of the worlds’, but that’s not quite it. By ‘world’ here, we do not mean the planet. In the Buddhist understanding of the ‘world’, the important thing is the inner world, the psychological world, the world we construct in our minds, the subjective world we live in.
So one thing that we could say about wisdom is that it involves seeing through the way things appear to be in the world we have constructed in our minds, to the way things actually are. I would say this really matters. It really matters because we are so easily fooled by apparent reality. Some everyday situations seem difficult because we don’t see clearly yet these difficulties can lead to an understanding of truth. The legend of the Buddha’s own life is a powerful example of this.
The traditional texts tell a story of how, up until the age of twenty nine, the Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be) was protected by his father and prevented from encountering anything seriously unpleasant. Prince Siddhattha, as he was known, lived then secluded from the harsher realities of life, amidst wealth and privilege with unlimited resources for pleasure. With several palaces, a devoted family, fine clothes, skill in the arts and appreciation of beauty it was hoped that he would remain contented with royal life and follow his father in service to the realm. But as the prince approached thirty something happened; for the first time he came face to face with painful side of being human. On one of his journeys outside the palace walls he saw a crippled old man. And on subsequent occasions he saw someone who was sick and then a dead person.
In our world today, interconnected as it is by networks of travel and instant communication it is difficult to imagine the possibility let alone the consequences of being so cut off in a world set apart, protected from and, in effect ignorant of the realities that all human beings must confront. It was the shock of this awakening that caused the Buddha to later say that when a naïve, ordinary man sees another who is aged, sick or dead he is shocked, humiliated and disgusted for he has forgotten that he himself is no exception.
Such a sudden realisation of the unavoidable suffering that accompanies human life raised questions in the young prince, as it does for us all at some point – questions such as, “Why bother? What’s the point of it all if I am only going to get sick, old and die anyway?” Finding no answers for himself the Buddha-to-be lost perspective and gave in to despair.
But the story goes on; one day he also saw a renunciant, a monk or truth-seeker, one who wore the ochre robe, the classical Indian garb of renunciation. When the prince asked his companion, “Who’s this? What’s he up to?” his friend replied, “This person is in the same state as you are in. He is disillusioned with life and he can’t find answers outwardly in the world around him he has dedicated himself to looking within.”
The example of the man in the ochre robe impressed the unhappy prince. And it was then that he made the gesture called ‘going forth’ which has come to be known as the Great Renunciation. He left his palaces, his possessions and his family to begin the pursuit of truth. His experiences with suffering had aroused in him the intuition that there might be something more beyond the way things appeared to be. Enthusiastically he then set out on his own search for a path that would lead beyond feelings of frustration and despair.
We could speak of what then arose in him as an inclination or intuition of wisdom. But it is noteworthy that this inclination arose by way of suffering. That is an important part of the story. This was more than an intellectual conclusion that he had reached. When he renounced life as it had been lived both his mind and his heart were involved. His inclination was toward a deeper way.
So he travelled and studied with the great teachers of his time. He became an outstanding student of what they taught. But for all his labours and theirs, he didn’t find what he was seeking. There was no release from his suffering.
Through ascetic practices, eating little and extreme fasting he became emaciated and he was dangerously weak when he eventually arrived at the insight that “this path of practice too is not balanced.” Once more his intuition of wisdom drew him away, this time from any dependence at all on others, on any particular teacher or technique. He has initially left the path of indulgence in sensual pleasure and pursuit of the gratification of desire; then he had adopted the denial of pleasure and self-mortification, so this time that also had to be put aside. The intuition and urging towards wisdom brought him to what he could recognise and later refer to as the Middle Way.
I am considering wisdom as that capacity for clear seeing, for seeing through the way things appear to be to a reality that lies beyond subjective opinion. This is the function of a wisdom. And this wisdom can be cultivated by contemplating the truths passed down to us in the Buddha’s Teachings. One of the things the Buddha taught was that there are many ‘truths’ which, if you contemplate them, are not actually going to take you to the realisation that you are seeking. This is one of the problems with religion, with speculation: that there are all sorts of fascinating ideas to which we can pay attention in this human realm, but there are only a handful to which we really need to pay attention if we’re going to undo the tangles caused by our false seeing. This handful is what in Buddhism we call Dhamma: the Teaching which lead to the realisation for which we’re searching.
Once when the Buddha was in the forest with some of his closest disciples, they were remarking on the vast proliferation of things one could be engaged in trying to understand. The Buddha instructed: “You’ve got to be very disciplined about all this. You need to pay attention to the right things.” Then he picked up a bunch of leaves from the floor of the forest and said, “Tell me, which is greater, all the leaves on all the trees in this forest, or this handful of leaves in my hand?” Of course the disciple replied, “The handful of leaves is much fewer and the leaves on all the trees are much greater.” The Buddha continued, “Well, so it is with the truths of existence. They are much more than what I’ve taught, but what I’ve taught you is what you need to pay attention to if you want to arrive at what really matters.”
Briefly, let’s recall a familiar example of one of the fundamental truths that is beyond opinion, and that is worthy of attention – namely, that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent. Everything that is conditioned, programmed, born, made or constructed will deconstruct or die. All that arises will cease, is unstable. This is given as a teaching, a wisdom teaching, as an encouragement for contemplation. A teacher says, “Stop and consider impermanence.” You stop, you look around and you can see that things are impermanent outwardly, things are impermanent inwardly. The perception of impermanence can stimulate meaningful investigation of our experience, and this is one way of cultivating wisdom.
Learning to Exercise Attention
Another aspect of our cultivation is the discipline of attention. This means relinquishing the proliferation of thoughts, the temptation to follow just anything that happens to come into the mind. If we’re interested in arriving at this heart-matter of wisdom. Of seeing through the way things appear to be to the way things actually are, it calls for precision in the application of attention. Our cultivation of wisdom involves contemplating such tings as impermanence, but it also involves working directly with our ability to attend. The idea that attention is something we can train is a fundamental and basic teaching. It’s well known in all the ancient religions of the world that you can exercise and concentrate attention. This is the same as concentrating light; everyday light is useful, but if you concentrate it, you get laser light, which is useful in other ways. The common or garden variety of attention is likewise fine for shopping or reading a book, but if we want to penetrate through the way things appear to be we need to focus attention.
Sometimes we come across heavy inner conditioning and we know we must go into it. To go through to the way things actually are – not for the sake of mere speculation, but for realisation – requires us to exercise trained, focused attention. Learning this skill is an important part of meditation. If we’re working only with an everyday quality of attention, it’s no wonder that we don’t understand a lot of things about life. It’s like having a troch with weak batteries – no wonder we can’t see the way. If we have good batteries, we can see more clearly – likewise with the quality of attention.
I’m reminded of once walking with a friend, from our monastery in Northumberland over the Cheviot Hills to Coldstream, hoping for sunshine and pleasant walking. But the weather was terrible, the walking was boggy, my socks and gaiters were wet, and I just wanted to get there as quickly as I could. I became intensely focused on walking.
Towards the end, as we were approaching the bridge which connects England and Scotland, I was struck by something on the pavement: a dandelion coming up through it. Normally, I wouldn’t have noticed it, but because of the heightened state of awareness I was in at that moment, the dandelion seemed to jump up at me. I thought, “How did that dandelion get through the tarmac? Dandelions are so small.” It struck me that, if it could think when it was underneath the asphalt that dandelion would have thought, “My goodness, this is not possible, it’s too black and dense to even try!”, because that was the apparent nature of things.
Fortunately, however, a dandelion doesn’t think like this. It’s in the nature of the dandelion to penetrate through the tarmac and to blossom. That’s the way of the dandelion. It also happens to be the way of the human heart. Even when the apparent nature of things is so black and thick that it appears impenetrable, if we’re present for life with concentrated attention, and not continually caught in our thinking, the heart will find its way through.
Wisdom – clear seeing – and its precursor, faith – the intuition towards wisdom – are what enable us to stay with life and to accord with our true nature, which is to penetrate through the apparent nature of things to that which is.
A Way of ‘Feeling with’
Like wisdom, from one perspective compassion is just another word. Some groups hold it up as a banner and claim to have a monopoly on it. But nobody owns compassion. We could talk a lot about compassion, but the mere conceptual understanding of these issues doesn’t take us very far. Concepts alone don’t serve our true needs. We need to know this quality of compassion ourselves, not just have ideas about it and assume that we know it because we talk about it. The Buddha said himself said about the teachings that he gave: “All I can do is point the way. I can’t become enlightened for you. I can’t give it to you.” I’m sure he would have also said, “I would if I could but I can’t.” In approaching this heart-matter of compassion then, let’s consider it practically and see if we can move towards realising it for ourselves.
In this consideration, it is essential that we feel for what is being addressed – we need to feel for how compassion functions. We can look at the Latin roots of the word ‘compassion’ to give us a hint: passion means ‘feeling’, com means ‘with’, so ‘compassion’ suggests ‘feeling with’. Compassion means feeling with life, particularly feeling with suffering. “If you want to know what compassion is,” the Buddhas said, “well, you see what’s in a mother’s eyes when her child is sick.” The quality you observe says, “May you be free from suffering.” Compassion is a feeling of empathetic relationship in the context of suffering. It means feeling the suffering of others, with no judgement, no barrier.
From one point of view, the capacity to judge is an aspect of intelligence. But sadly, when we judge heedlessly compassion is excluded, and effectively we bring down the shutters: “I don’t want to feel what you’re feeling, so I’ll judge it. You’re wrong for suffering.” When there is this kind of judgement, empathetic relationship is impossible; all that is left of compassion is the word.
The function of compassion is to feel with the suffering of beings and it’s useful to know how this and wisdom go together. Wisdom is seeing through, and with this wisdom there’s an appreciation and use of discriminative intelligence – the capacity to identify and to analyse and compare. With compassion, on the other hand, a mother does not necessarily analyse the child’s suffering. She responds. Analysis is not the essence of compassion.
What is the quality of compassion? It’s a feeling-appreciation of where the other person is at, with an intelligence that is different from wisdom. It has a distinctly different tone to it; it’s a unitive intelligence. Sometimes compassion doesn’t understand anything in itself. That’s not its function; that’s the function of wisdom. Compassion doesn’t have to understand. Compassion feels, holds and receives the situation.
We Western Buddhists are good at conceptualising things. Maybe some of you have suffered the misfortune that I have, and may even have perpetrated the same mistake that I have. When somebody comes to us in suffering the important thing is that they know they are received. They don’t need us telling them how we understand their problem, talking about anicca or something. Coming out with some kind of impressive presentation of paticca-samuppada, (the dependent origination teachings) is probably not what’s called for. If all we come up with is a clever interpretation of somebody’s suffering, it is doubtful that they will feel as if we have offered them anything at all. We haven’t met that person on a level that matters. Surely meeting on such a level is what religion can offer us: if we can’t find an enhanced capacity for receiving suffering, our own and others’, then what’s the point of our religion?
Let’s try and be clear then about the particular functions of wisdom and compassion. It is vital to recognise that there is a profound form of intelligence associated with the capacity to receive and empathise with the suffering of living beings. This recognition can bring into focus both the usefulness and the limitations of discriminative understanding, which for many of us is the kind of understanding with which we’re more familiar.
I hesitate to use this as an illustration because it’s very painful, but I heard a leader of the Christian Church here in Scotland speaking on the radio shortly after the Dunblane massacre. The interviewer asked, “How do you explain this massacre? You’re a religious leader and many people feel they need an explanation.” We all suffer from the painful longing for explanations – it is one of our most immediate tendencies. But the man who was questioned responded profoundly: “To try to explain this event is not the way; this is not the time for trying to understand something of this order.” Understanding might emerge; but the way to understanding in this case is to hold the pain with those who have suffered so much. The function of compassion is the holding of the pain. It is that capacity or dimension within ourselves that is able to hold pain without judgement, even without being able to explain anything at all.
The Cultivation of Compassion
As in all the great religious disciplines, Buddhism teaches that compassion can be cultivated by way of formal meditation; accordingly there are techniques for holding in mind images which bring about its direct personal experience. I won’t go into these here, because there are so many possibilities, but an important point I’d like to make is that it is possible to cultivate compassion, as with attention and insight.
Sometimes we can think, yes, compassion is a wonderful thing and I should have more of it. But then, watching the news on TV, maybe we think, “But how do I handle this?” Some of you young people are probably at the stage in life where you can feel yourselves starting to cut off, because it’s too much, it’s too awful. I can remember at times finding that the news was too painful. I didn’t want to know about it. I was sometimes quite dishonest about not wanting to know about it, and I would distract myself in heedless ways, as maybe some of you are doing. But if we’re really honest, we can come back and ask, “What are we not wanting to know about?” Then we may find that it’s not actually the pain of life that we are avoiding, but that we are afraid of not being able to handle our reaction to the pain.
We need to acknowledge for ourselves our blind and habitual rejection of fear, because it’s fear we’re really afraid of, not the pain of the world. We already know that pain is a part of life. None of us is now naïve enough to think that we’re going to totally avoid pain; we all know pain is part of this package. What we’re actually afraid of, and what we’re turning away from, is our sense of a lack of capacity to receive it, to bear with pain in a sane way. In his Middle Way the Buddha discovered that pain just is, and pleasure just is. Pleasure and pain are not right or wrong. But while we don’t usually have a problem with pleasure, except that sometimes we forget ourselves with it, we do have a big problem with pain. It motivates us to do all sorts of things that become addictions or other avoidance strategies, which are very wasteful of energy, both inwardly and outwardly.
So the point to register is that compassion can be cultivated. It isn’t helpful to approach compassion or any of these heart-matters, with the idea of having or not-having it; compassion is a potential in all of us. But it needs to be cultivated, and there are techniques, suggestions and encouragements for this.
One of the best encouragements, I suggest, is to intentionally witness compassionate beings. One of the most inspiring people around at the moment is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Here is a man who has every reason to be indignant, every reason to be upset, and every reason to try and avoid his responsibilities. And yet he doesn’t avoid responsibility. He meets it. Over and over again, everywhere he goes on the planet, he meets it. Even with the troubles inside his own tradition, he meets his responsibilities. And he does so with a particular quality of heart, which, if you witness it, you can’t help but be touched. One way, then, to cultivate compassion would be to find a way of observing the Dalai Lama as often as we are able and to become aware of what impresses us. These days one doesn’t have to go to India or Tibet to do this. With the advantage of current technology we can have the opportunity to view people like His Holiness on video or television and if we apply mindfulness to our viewing this can be a great blessing.
Just as our individual characters are unique, so our pathways into realisation of these heart-qualities will vary. For some it may be the case that the heart-quality of compassion leads to insight, or wisdom; whilst for others a mature understanding can be the gateway into an experience of selfless compassion.
A couple of weeks ago I was speaking to a gathering of people who came to our monastery for a Practice Day. One of the questions that was asked at the end was: “It seems to me that compassionate people are just taken advantage of or dismissed, so what’s the point of cultivating it?” When I heard this question, I thought, “This person has never seen a truly compassionate being.” If you’ve witnessed a truly compassionate being you’ve also seen a truly wise being and a wise being isn’t going to be taken advantage of. Wisdom and compassion are the qualities which command authentic respect.
Wisdom and compassion are like the front and the back of a hand: they go together. When we have an accurate, non-judgemental sensitivity to the suffering of living beings, we also have an understanding of the actuality of life – that this is not my suffering, this is just suffering. This is life – not mine, not yours. When we meet and share in this life together truly, we experience the benefit of wisdom functioning as it penetrates into what Buddhists call the non-self nature of existence.
This is utterly extraordinary, and this uniting of wisdom and compassion is not something one can fake. On an abstract level we can get an impression of the Buddha’s Teachings; we can be impressed by them. An impression is made, and perhaps an alteration occurs, but that’s only the first stage and not yet real transformation. We can be altered momentarily – just as taking drugs alters something – but we aren’t transformed. The transformation occurs when wisdom and compassion come together in direct experience, when the discriminative and the unitive intelligence are both functioning together.
I have said that the Heart of the Buddha is made up of wisdom, compassion and purity – three different qualities. This Heart is one, but with three dimensions to it, or three ways of talking about it. We have to feel for how these dimensions relate to each other.
Early on during my time in Thailand I was accompanied by another Western monk. He was very good at the meditation practice set for him – brilliant at deep concentration. He was much better at it than I was, and received all the praise. One day, after an interview with the teacher, my friend came away feeling extremely pleased with himself because the teacher had told him how good he was. However, the next day he fell into hell. He came to see me and told me what had happened. After he had been praised by our teacher he went away and sat in meditation again, and again got into feeling really pleased with himself. But then he saw it, the conceit that had all the time been growing. When he felt the pain of this conceit he found it intolerable, it hurt so much.
In this consideration of three heart-matters – wisdom, compassion and purity – I’d like to suggest that what purity refers to is the absence of the conceit that ‘this is mine’ in one’s experience. There must be many other ways of explaining purity, but one way is to say that even wisdom, even compassion, are impure when there is a sense that ‘this is mine.’ One can read a lot of teachings and do a lot of retreats; one can enter into therapy and put energy into one’s ‘process’. All this can be perfectly well-motivated, and one can come a long way; nevertheless, when we hold our achievements possessively, they become impure. This becomes abundantly clear is we meet somebody who is really free: one thing that we are likely to feel in their company is the ‘taint’ or the pain of our own selfishness, our grasped-at perception of ‘mine’. Even when there’s wisdom and compassion, there can still be this taint. The Buddha called it a ‘stench’, the foulest stench in all of existence. And if you can smell this stench in somebody, you will want to get away from it. The same applies to oneself.
Directly feeling the pain of selfishness is a powerful motivation for going beyond it. We can’t be with it just through philosophising, speculating or moralising about how bad it is to be selfish. To actually and personally feel the agony of the contraction of selfishness motivates us to investigate what’s really going on. What is this holding, this grasping this limitation of being, that we impose upon ourselves or that we identify with? What is it? If we can feel this pain, then little by little we can learn to release it. If wisdom and compassion are pure in the Buddhist sense, then any tendency to grasp at them as being ‘mine’ will be recognised and released. And so I would suggest that we see wisdom and compassion as aspects of nature and not as personal possessions.
Thank you for your attention.
Questioner: You mentioned earlier about according with my true nature and not getting caught up in thinking. I’ve often asked myself, “How did I lose sight of my true nature, if it is in fact already my true nature?” Can you help me?
Ajahn Munindo: Well, I’d be very happy if I could help you because I know the pain of feeling alienation from the intuition for awakening. If we see that impulse to realisation alive in somebody, we can feel the lack of it in ourselves. So this is an important question to ask ourselves. I think there are a lot of things about our lifestyle that obstruct the board the consequences of that. We are intensely complicated materially and psychologically; this makes our minds very busy, and the busier our mind are, the less we feel the heart’s natural impulse to awaken.
I think that it’s faith you’re asking about. Faith is a quality that sustains us, and when we know it’s alive within us, it radiates an energy that keeps us going. To feel for this faith is so important. For me, faith is the capacity to hold doubt. Many of us don’t know that capacity, and therefore get crushed by doubts. We try then to understand these doubts, try to think our way out of them. One of the reasons for this, perhaps, is that our environment makes us so busy that we think, think, think all the time. We’re watching television and eating food so much that it all becomes mechanical. Our senses are so stimulated we go into automatic, and lose a lot of sensitivity.
I also feel there is a problem with education, with the views that we’ve been taught. If we have been given views that we deeply reject because they do not accord with our experience, then an over-reaction can set in, whereby we then dismiss the dimension of faith altogether, even when to do so creates a disadvantage for us. For instance, we may not rationally decide to reject the Buddhist path, but as an emotional over-reaction we say, “There isn’t really a religious path.” In other words, we don’t have faith in anything anymore. This may originate with a sense of betrayal. If we get a bad religious education – and this is not a blame anybody, but to recognise the law of cause and effect – if we’re given religious beliefs and we’re taught “this is true, that is true,” and none of it accords with our experience of reality, then the heart can just switch off and reject everything. This over-reaction needs to be recognised because faith is essential. Remember the dandelion!
Faith is sometimes all we have – we feel like we haven’t got enough wisdom and like we haven’t even any compassion. We can feel as if we have nothing left anymore. But if we know how to be in faith, we can hold the doubts that arise, and we’re not crushed by them. Re-educating ourselves, asking the right questions, going to meet someone who spends their life contemplating what really matters – these are ways to remember our essential nature. Find someone who is committed, visit a holy man or holy woman – that’s what people used to do. In older times, you would have gone to find a renunciant somewhere to talk to about these things; that was the traditional way of dealing with such questions. Now, unfortunately, such people are hard to find. We should realise what a tremendous misfortune that is: it’s bad news. It’s a problem for us that we don’t have wise mentors who can trigger faith in us. Even if our faith was triggered at some point, the momentum of our commitment to doubt could obscure it again.
Q: Can you say something about mindfulness mediation, about how to cultivate mindfulness?
A.M.: Actually, I’ve only just got around to letting myself use the word ‘mindfulness’, because I feel that the word automatically starts taking us up into our heads which causes us to lose touch with our bodies. It’s a translation of a word in Pali, satti, which I prefer to be translated as ‘awareness’. The first point is that it can be cultivated; we must be quite conscious of that. In fact, one of the things that we encourage ourselves to do in the cultivation of awareness is to see what happens when we don’t have it, when we blow it and get heedless; we need to feel deeply the consequences. We shouldn’t moralise and say, “Oh, that was terrible, I’m a really hopeless Buddhist. I’m not very mindful.” This is actually avoidance. We should say, “I’m really interested in this. I’m really interested in the quality of my life, and this is what it’s like.” We should let it sink into our bones: so much of our experience is a consequence of heedlessness. Judging – inwardly and outwardly – only obstructs awareness. To be able to bring a quality of non-judgemental attention to the very experience of the consequences of heedlessness is a primary means of cultivating mindfulness.
I hesitate to talk about meditation techniques, because there’s an aspect of our minds that just wants to get something to ‘fix ourselves’, so that we can become how we want to be. But technique isn’t going to fix us. If anything can help us it is following our own thoroughly investigated inclination towards the realisation of what really matters. From that understanding of ourselves we can really want to meditate: not because some clever person or popular religion or book said it was a good idea but because we want to be in the centre of our life, present for every experience, moment by moment. Meditation is not about preparing for the future with fearful manipulation, but about wanting to live with presence. If we can feel the point of this, and happen to discover an inspiration to meditate, we’ll meditate successfully. But it has got to come from that sort of motivation.
If we don’t exercise our minds, then just as with a physical limb, atrophy sets in. If you have had a broken leg and it’s been in plaster for a month or two you will know how, when they take off the cast, there’s just a withered thing. When you want to do something with it, it won’t function. Even though your head tells you this limb should do such and such, and you want to do it, it won’t do it through lack of exercise. Similarly, if we don’t exercise the discipline of attention that engages the limb of mindfulness, it atrophies.
Counting the breath is one basic, simple exercise that you can practice to cultivate mindfulness. When I teach people to count the breath as a meditation technique, I always try to encourage them to do it with a sense of humour, as a kind of game, because the last thing we need is for meditation to become another aspect of the compulsive part of ourselves. We count the out-breaths, from one up to ten and back to one. It’s fine to sit in a chair; you don’t have to get all ‘yogic’ about it, although it’s good if you can. We count, and get lost, and begin again; we find all kinds of feelings arising which we just notice. We can contemplate them: are these aspects of ourselves obligations, or are they choices? Little by little, we’ll see how much our preoccupations are a matter of choice. We have a choice, we can choose to follow or not to follow certain ways. This is how we find our own centre. You’ll be very pleased when that happens.
This is only one way of using the meditation on breath, and there are other ways of doing it. But whichever mindfulness practice you take up, please remember to be relaxed about it – otherwise you may compound things that don’t need compounding.
Q: What is the place of physical exercise in the Theravada tradition?
A.M.: Practice that is based in the body is important throughout the training, from beginning to end. Traditionally, in Theravada, physical exercise go together in the form of walking. One teacher I visited used to do three, three-hour periods of walking meditation every day. Another teacher became so used to his walking meditation track that even when in his nineties, disabled and in a wheelchair, he would have his attendant-monk wheel him up and down the track. Ajahn Chah used to tell us he went around checking to see how deep the meditation tracks were by each monk’s hut to find out how diligent we were. Every day the monks in our monastery in Thailand start by walking several miles on alms-round. Here in Britain many of the monks and nuns have developed their own routine of doing yoga or tai chi. But nevertheless here in the West I think we might be developing a problem. Walking practice, where we are ‘in the body’, is very important, but it is difficult to feel good pacing up and down on a meditation track covered in snow and mud. We have to look into this.