“Ajahn,” I said, hands in anjali (prayer position), I have a question. Welcome to tea time, a 90-minute period during which the eight of us junior monks meet with our beloved Ajahn in a relaxed setting, at 4:30 every afternoon. It is a time for questions, for sharing, for news of any kind. I always have questions, but I usually wait fifteen minutes or so before launching off, to see if anyone else might have anything to say. Faithful to Thai culture, they rarely seem to. Ajahn shone his benevolent smile toward me. I wonder if he’s really pleased that I have yet another question, or could he be mildly annoyed? “Yes?,” he replied. “Ajahn, I have a question about Buddhist practice, about our practice in particular. It occurs to me that the goal is to uproot suffering and produce lasting peace and happiness, but we deprive ourselves to the extent that the conditions of practice create suffering. Isn’t there a strange paradox here? How does happiness come out of deprivation?” He smiled again, “Good question,” he said.
As usual, he answered in English and occasionally stopped to summarize in Thai. Out of the seven others, three speak good English and probably understand everything, one probably gets 50%, and three don’t get anything. Ajahn has to play interpreter every day because of me. “I guess you could say Buddhism is a re-education system. The mind’s natural tendency is to seek happiness through fulfilling its cravings and desires, but this only provides temporary joys interspersed by much longer periods of seeking and dissatisfaction. The highs don’t last, and they make addicts out of us. Without realizing it, we become addicted to ME and MINE, and so much of what we do is motivated by seeking MY pleasure, MY satisfaction, MY likes and dislikes. And this looks perfectly normal, it is most people’s ordinary mode of functioning, and these people are not particularly selfish, they just don’t know any better. We all want happiness, but no one shows us how and where to find it except the Buddha, so we are left to our own devices, and we fumble in the dark, thinking that following our mind’s urges is the way to happiness.
“I think most of us on some level can sometimes see that this strategy doesn’t work, but they don’t know what else to do. Or they might think the problem is in the technique, not in the seeking itself. They think if they can just perfect their seeking, then surely they will always get what they want and therefore always be happy. But it doesn’t work that way, he said softly. Happiness is just not to be found in the satisfaction of our desires. This is the second Noble Truth of Buddhism. The Buddha is quite clear: not only does following our mind’s desires not produce happiness, it is in fact the very root of suffering. His instructions start with going against desires, to break the addiction right away.”
He launched into Thai to include the others, after which he turned to me again, and I asked, “Yes, and this immediately creates suffering, doesn’t it? So how does suffering lead to the end of suffering?” I thought I was so clever. He smiled. “Yes, it’s true, initially, the mind throws a tantrum. You’re cutting off supply at the source, and the addict in you reacts immediately. Where’s my fix? The mind wants its comforts, and we get to see just how geared we are to following the urges of our minds. We are really its slaves, always at its beck and call. This becomes clear when you say no to it.”
I was beginning to wonder if my questions were normal or stupid. As usual, no one else was joining in, and I was wondering am I the only one who feels deprived here? Does no one else wonder about this? “Sorry, the question might be a bit stupid, but I’ve been trying to answer it for the last four months. What exactly is the point of saying no to the mind?” “Well, he said, it’s the starting point of the Buddhist training, he said matter-of-factly. The Buddha left the comforts of the palace and did six years of harsh austerities to the point where he almost died. Lucky for us, he found this wasn’t necessary, but we do need to go against the habit of the mind right away. This is the first step of the training. But it’s not the goal, it’s just a means. The goal is lasting peace and happiness that are independent of circumstances. This is the nature of our minds, it’s already in us, and the path consists in clearing up the clutter so that its natural radiancy can shine forth.”
I began to feel excited now. I took notes while he translated into Thai. “The training consists in inviting the mind to turn from the source of suffering (craving and its offspring, anger, greed and delusion) toward the source of peace and joy. And this source is the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path. We cultivate higher values that naturally gladden the heart and purify the mind. Generosity, loving-kindness, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, truthfulness, equanimity, joy for others, not killing or stealing, faith in the Buddha and his Teaching. When you start aligning your life along these values, everything changes. You act in ways that don’t cause you remorse or guilt or shame. The momentary glimpses of pleasure you used to get from indulging your mind become less appealing, and they eventually get a bit repulsive because they will seem so selfish.”
“But you can’t know until you try for yourself. It would be like describing the taste of an orange to someone who’s always eaten sugar-coated cardboard. Until he tries the orange, he can only speculate about the effects of letting go of his precious cardboard. But once he’s had a taste of the orange, there is no going back. The cardboard becomes quite unappealing.” “So, I said, what we spend our lives chasing is like sugar-coated cardboard?” “Yes, he replied, laughing. And people will go to war over it.” “But if there are oranges around, why this addiction to cardboard?, I asked.” “This is our basic error, he replied. The cardboard is easy and available, whereas the oranges are higher up, more difficult to reach, hidden from sight. You even forget they’re there once you are used to the cardboard. Almost everyone falls prey to the tyranny of the mind.”
“When you suffer, it’s natural to chase after pleasure, as a way to make yourself feel better. This is the way most people live. The Buddha’s way is counter-intuitive: you drop the cardboard, you stop listening to your mind and let it scream a little, and you turn instead toward higher qualities. This is the Holy Life. The result of this is a reduction of the sense of me and mine and my needs, and a gradual lightening and gladdening of the heart.” He waited for my next question. “So we turn the mind away from habits that we think will make us happy but actually cause suffering to habits that are more difficult to acquire but actually make us happy? That’s the Noble Eightfold Path?,” I asked innocently. I felt like a child.
“Yes, it’s an essential part of the Buddhist path. Not the whole thing, as you know, but an essential component. Renunciation is only unpleasant in the beginning, because it looks like hardship. You have to give up your precious cardboard, and you don’t see clearly yet what you’ll get in return. Then as you start tasting the fruit of the practice, as your mind gets lighter and your heart more joyful, you realize how good this tastes, and the wholesome qualities in you become natural and easy. There is no way you would go back to your old habits. It becomes easier to be generous and kind than to always be on the lookout for a way to indulge in your personal pleasure. You have no more remorse, your mind becomes light because it is no longer burdened by a ME and all its worries and troubles.” He looked at me calmly. I looked around to see if the others were following or had any questions of their own. Everything looked alright.
“But isn’t it natural to move toward what you like and away from what you dislike? Even single-cell organisms move toward sources nourishment and away from discomfort.” He thought for a second before resuming: “Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s entirely natural to move toward the pleasant and away from the unpleasant. The problem is, it doesn’t provide what we’re really after, lasting peace and happiness. So yes, it’s natural, but according to the Buddha, not only does it not give us what we really want, but it is actually the root of suffering. And I don’t know, it seems to me that the higher qualities are perhaps even more natural than sensual desires and pleasure-seeking. The mind is essentially bright and peaceful, even when it’s obscured by our craving habits. You could just as easily argue that these unskilful habits are unnatural, because they come and cloud over our natural clarity. Buddhist practice just cleanses the mind of impurities and returns it to its bright original condition.” He paused for a second. “Or maybe all of it is natural, both the undefiled mind and the defilements that we somehow acquire. All of it is natural, and none of it is bad or sinful. Cardboard is as natural as oranges, it just isn’t as nourishing or tasty.”
He paused for a minute, gazing into space. “One of the most important fruits of practice is a drastic reduction of selfishness. Wise teachers don’t think a lot about themselves, and they derive a lot of joy from others’ happiness. So they can be happy all the time, and this has a compounding effect. The mind becomes more open, vast, less attached to self and self-concerns. This tastes infinitely better than sensual pleasures, which are short-lasted and attached to regret and anxiety.”
I thought about this for a second. “But why does the tradition put so much emphasis on the negative aspects of craving, on renunciation, if really the meat of the teaching is the uncovering of our luminous hearts?” He answered immediately: “Two reasons. First, because Thai culture values renunciation and the forest monk lifestyle. And second, because the positive qualities are a natural result, something that happens through this practice, and so it doesn’t seem so necessary to emphasize them.”
He continued: “You know, the aim of the practice is extremely positive. Through meditation, we develop a happy mind, which becomes a protection from the difficulties of life. A happiness independent of circumstances. And it is only from this solid foundation that we can investigate suffering. Only a happy mind can grasp the roots of suffering.” I have so many questions, I thought. I wonder if he gets tired of them sometimes. “But Ajahn, if these fruits of practice are so incomparably tastier than sensual pleasures and self-centred seeking, why do we need to put so much emphasis on renunciation right from the start? Why not cultivate the positive qualities and let self-centred seeking fall away of its own accord?”
“This, he replied, is just part of the tradition, and fundamental to the Buddha’s teaching in the Pali Canon. However, other Buddhist traditions may be different. In this one, we attack craving directly, and we think that this greatly promotes the growth of the fruit of practice. In other words, renunciation is an important part of the practice. We think it will be difficult to obtain the fruit if you don’t follow the path of renunciation, because craving is so strong and clever. If you don’t tackle it full-on, it will continue to rule your life is subtle ways. If you don’t commit to the full practice, the results might not be as fruitful as they could be.”
He turned to the others to summarize in Thai, and I wrote my notes. I felt a little guilty for having taken up so much of the conversation time, especially as some of the other monks don’t speak English. But these teachings are so useful to me, and I figure to them as well. And I don’t always monopolize tea time, only when I have questions. I felt so grateful to Ajahn, and thought of how much I’ve learned over the past four months thanks to him.