Born Robert Jackman, Seattle, Washington 1934. Studied Chinese and history
at university. Spent 4 years as a navy medic during the Korean war. During
this time contacted the Buddhist Society of Japan. After the war completed
a BA in Far Eastern studies. Worked for a year as a red cross social
worker. In 1963 completed a masters degree in South Asian studies. From
1964 to 1966 taught English in Sabali, Borneo for the Peace Corps.
In June 1966 ordained as a samanera at Wat Sri Saket, Nong Khai province.
Fully ordained May 1967. 1967-77 sought out and meditated under Ajahn
Chah, the famous Thai meditation master at Wat Pa Pong. 1973 undertook a
tudong pilgrimage to India. 1975 established the forest monastery Wat Pah
Nanachat, the international forest monastery, in Ubon province, Thailand.
1977 visited England with Ajahn Chah. Seeing an interest in Buddhism
there, Chah decided Sumedho should stay in England to set up an English
order. The English Sangha Trust invited Ajahn Sumedho to run their
Hampstead vihara. In 1979 the Trust sold the vihara and bought Chithurst
House [now Wat Pa Cittaviveka] in West Sussex. Cittaviveka grew,
especially after a sima [boundary] was established in 1981 and Ajahn
Sumedho was given ordination authority. It now includes a nuns' vihara.
Since then, monasteries have opened in Northumberland, Devon, California,
New Zealand, Switzerland and Italy. In August 1984 Amaravati Buddhist
centre opened in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. Ajahn Sumedho now resides
there as abbot.
Ajahn Sumedho is the senior Western disciple of Ajahn Chah, the revered
Thai meditation master. A famous monk, he is known for the humour and
accessibility of his teachings. He is a founding figure of the Thai Forest
monastic order in Britain and other countries.
Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah.
Amaravati Buddhist Monastery
Herts HP1 3BZ England
Tel: 01422 842455
Fax: 01442 843721
The Way It Is
The Dharma talk by Ven. Ajahn Sumedho
Today is the full-moon of
January and the beginning of our winter retreat. We can have an all-night
meditation sitting tonight to commemorate the auspiciousness of the
occasion. It's very fortunate to have an opportunity such as this to
devote ourselves for two months to one-pointed reflection on Dhamma.
The teaching of the Buddha is the understanding of The Way Things Are -
being able to look, to be awake. It means developing attentiveness,
brightness, and wisdom - developing the Eightfold Path, which we call
Now when we're reflecting on things as they are, we're 'seeing', rather
than interpreting through a veil of self-view. The big obstacle all of us
have to face is this insidious belief in the 'I am' - attachment to
self-view. It's so ingrained in us that we're like fish in the water:
water is so much a part of the fish's life that it doesn't notice it. The
sensory world we've been swimming in since our birth is like that for us.
If we don't take time to observe it for what it really is then we'll die
without getting any the wiser.
But this opportunity as a human being has the great advantage for us of
our being able to reflect - we can reflect on the water we're swimming in.
We can observe the sensory realm for what it is. We're not trying to get
rid of it. We're not complicating it by trying to add to it - we're just
being aware of it as it is. We're no longer deluding ourselves by
appearances, by fears, desires and all the things we create in our mind
This is what we mean when we use such terms like: 'It is as it is.' If
you ask someone who is swimming in water, 'What is water like?', then they
simply bring attention to it and say, 'Well, it feels like this. It's this
way.' Then you ask, 'How is it exactly? Is it wet or cold or warm or hot.
..?' All of these words can describe it. Water can be cold, warm, hot,
pleasant, unpleasant. But it's just like this. The sensory realm we're
swimming in for a lifetime is this way! It feels like this! You feel it!
Sometimes it's pleasant. Sometimes it's unpleasant. Most of the time it's
neither pleasant nor unpleasant. But always it's just this way. Things
come and go and change, and there's nothing that you can depend on as
being totally stable. The sensory realm is all energy and change and
movement; all flux and flow. Sensory consciousness is this way.
Now we're not judging it; we're not saying it's good or it's bad, or
you should like it, or you shouldn't; we're just bringing attention to it
- like the water. The sensory realm is a realm of feeling. We are born
into it and we feel it. From the time the umbilical cord is severed we're
physically independent beings; we're no longer physically tied to anybody
else. We feel hunger; we feel pleasure; we feel pain, heat, and cold. As
we grow, we feel all kinds of things. We feel with the eyes, the ears, the
nose, the tongue, the body; and with the mind itself. There is the ability
to think and remember, to perceive and conceive. All this is feeling. It
can be lots of fun and wonderful, but it can also be depressing, mean and
miserable; or it can be neutral - neither pleasant nor painful. So all
sensory impingement is The Way It Is. Pleasure is this way; pain is this
way. The feeling of neither pleasure nor pain is this way.
To be able to truly reflect on these things, you have to be alert and
attentive. Some people think that it is up to me to tell them how it is:
'Ajahn Sumedho, how should I be feeling right now?' But we're not telling
anybody how it is; we're being open and receptive to how it is. There's no
need to tell someone how it is when they can find out for themselves. So
this two months of finding out how it is, is a valuable opportunity. Many
human beings it seems, are not even aware that such a development of
wisdom is possible.
What do we mean when we use this word wisdom? From birth to death, this
is the way it is. There's always going to be a certain amount of pain, and
discomfort, unpleasantness and ugliness.
And if we're not aware of it as it really is - see it as Dhamma - then
we tend to create a problem out of it. The span between birth and death
becomes all very personal; it becomes fraught with all kinds of fears and
desires and complications.
We suffer a lot in our society from loneliness. So much of our life is
an attempt to not be lonely: 'Let's talk to each other; let's do things
together so we won't be lonely.' And yet inevitably, we are really alone
in these human forms. We can pretend; we can entertain each other; but
that's about the best we can do. When it comes to the actual experience of
life, we're very much alone; and to expect anyone else to take away our
loneliness is asking too much.
When there's physical birth, notice how it makes us seem separate.
We're not physically joined to each other, are we? With attachment to this
body we feel separate and vulnerable; we dread being left alone and we
create a world of our own that we can live in. We have all kinds of
interesting companions: imaginary friends, physical friends, enemies, but
the whole lot of it comes and goes, begins and ends. Everything is born
and dies in our own minds. So we reflect that birth conditions death.
Birth and death; beginning and ending.
During this retreat, this kind of reflection is highly encouraged:
contemplate what birth is. Right now we can say: 'This is the result of
being born; this body. It's like this: it's conscious and it feels,
there's intelligence, there's memory, there's emotion.' All these can be
contemplated because they are mind objects; they are dhammas. If we attach
to the body as a subject, or to opinions and views and feelings as 'me'
and 'mine', then we feel loneliness and despair; there's always going to
be the threat of separation and ending. Attachment to mortality brings
fear and desire into our lives. We can feel anxious and worried even when
life is quite all right. So long as there's ignorance - avijja - regarding
the true nature of things, fear is always going to dominate consciousness.
But anxiety is not ultimately true. It's something we create. Worry is
just that much. Love and joy and all the best in life, if we are attached
to them, are going to bring the opposite along also. That's why in
meditation we practise accepting the feeling of these things. When we
accept things for what they are, we're no longer attached to them. They
just are what they are; they arise and cease, they're not a self.
Now from the perspective of our cultural background, how does it
appear? Our society tends to reinforce the view that everything is 'me'
and 'mine'. 'This body is me; I look like this; I am a man; I am an
American; I am 54 years old; I am an abbot.' But these are just
conventions, aren't they? We're not saying I'm not these things; rather
we're observing how we tend to complicate them by believing in the 'I am'.
If we attach to them, life becomes so much more than it actually is; it
becomes like a sticky web. It gets so complicated; whatever we touch
sticks to us. And the longer we live the more complicated we make it. So
much fear and desire comes from that commitment to 'I am' - to being
somebody. Eventually they take us to anxiety and despair; life seems much
more difficult and painful than it really is.
But when we just observe life for what it is, then it's all right: the
delights, the beauty, the pleasures, are just that. The pain, the
discomfort, the sickness, is what they are. We can always cope with the
way life moves and changes. The mind of an enlightened human being is
flexible and adaptable. The mind of the ignorant person is conditioned and
Whatever we fix on is going to be miserable. Being a man, or being a
woman, as a permanent belief, is always going to make life difficult. Any
class we identify with - middle class, working class, American, British,
Buddhist, Theravadin Buddhist - grasping to any of these will produce some
kind of complication, frustration and despair.
Yet conventionally, one can be all these things - a man, an American, a
Buddhist, a Theravadin; these are merely perceptions of mind. They are
adequate for communication; but they're nothing more than that. They're
what is called sammuttidhamma - 'conventional reality'. When I say, 'I'm
Ajahn Sumedho,' that's not a self, not a person; it's a convention. Being
a Buddhist monk is not a person - it's a convention; being a man is not a
person, it's a convention. Conventions are as they are. When we attach to
them out of ignorance, we become bound and limited. That's the sticky web!
We're blinded; being deluded by the convention.
When we let go of the conventions, we don't throw them away. I don't
have to kill myself or disrobe; the conventions are all right. There's no
suffering involved in any of these if there is the awakened mind seeing
them for what they are; they just are as they are. They're merely a
convenience; expedient to time and place.
With the realization of 'ultimate reality' (paramatthadhamma}, there is
the freedom of Nibbana. We are free from the delusions of desire and fear;
this freedom from conventions is the Deathless. But to realize this we
have to really look at what attachment is. What is it all about? What is
suffering, and attachment to the 'I am' process? What is it? We're not
asking anybody to deny themselves; attachment to the view of being nobody
is still somebody. It's not a matter of affirmation or negation but of
realization; of seeing. To do this we use mindfulness.
With mindfulness we can open to the totality. In the beginning of this
retreat, we open to the whole two months. On the first day, we've already
accepted in full awareness all possibilities: sickness and health, success
and failure, happiness and suffering, enlightenment or total despair.
We're not thinking, 'I'm only going to get. .., I only want to have. .., I
want to have only the nice things happen to me. And I've got to protect
myself so that I'll have an idyllic retreat; be perfectly safe and
tranquillized for two months.' That in itself is a miserable state, isn't
it? Instead, we take all the possibilities, from the best to the worst.
And we're doing this consciously. That means: everything that happens
during these two months is part of the retreat - it's a part of our
practice. The Way Things Are is Dhamma for us: happiness and suffering,
enlightenment or total despair - everything!
If we practise this way, then despair and anguish take us to calm and
peace. When I was in Thailand I had a lot of negative states - loneliness,
boredom, anxiety, doubt, worry and despair. But accepted as they are, they
cease. And what's left when there's no more despair?
The Dhamma that we're looking at now, is subtle. Not subtle in the
sense that it's high up - it's so ordinary, so very much here and now that
we don't notice it. Just like the water for the fish. Water is so much a
part of its life the fish doesn't notice it; even though it's swimming in
it. Sensory consciousness is here, now. It's this way. It's not distant.
It's not really difficult. It's just a matter of paying attention to it.
The way out of suffering is the way of mindfulness: mindful - awareness or
So we keep bringing our attention to the way things are. If you have
nasty thoughts, or feel resentful, bitter or irritated, then notice what
it feels like in your heart. If we're frustrated and angry during this
time, it's all right because we've already allowed for that to happen.
It's a part of the practice; it's the way things are. Remember, we're not
trying to become angels and saints -we're not trying to get rid of all our
impurities and coarseness and just be happy. The human realm is like this!
It can be very coarse and it can be pure. Pure and impure are a pair. To
know purity and impurity is mindfulness-wisdom. To know that impurity is
impermanent and not-self is wisdom. But the minute we make it personal -
'Oh, I shouldn't have impure thoughts! ' - we're stuck again in the realm
of despair. The more we try to have only pure thoughts, the more the
impure thoughts keep coming. That way we make sure we're going to be
miserable for the whole two months; guarantee it. Out of ignorance we
create a realm for ourselves that can only be miserable.
So in mindfulness, or full-mindedness, all misery and all happiness are
of equal value: no preferences. Happiness is this way. Misery is this way.
They arise and they cease. Happiness is still happiness; it's not misery.
And misery is still misery; it's not happiness. But it is what it is. And
it's nobody's and it's only that much. And we don't suffer from it. We
accept it, we know it and we understand it. All that arises ceases. All
dhamma is not self.
So I offer this for your reflection.
Update : 01-04-2003