DM Liang: I’d like to revisit the topic of surrendering with the monastic life. A chapter in the Avatamsaka Sutra talks about a young seeker who sought Dharma from 53 teachers. One teacher told him to climb the mountain of knives and jump into a pit of fire. He did it. And it ended up being an oasis. This is very important in practice.
Ajahn Pasanno: One of the aspects of what distinguishes monastic and lay practitioners is the institutionalized relinquishment structured into the monastic system. It’s not about how many sutras we recite, how many precepts we’re keeping, or how fine our meditation, but it’s about the small increment of letting go on a day-to-day basis. We give up and give to any situation that we face, be it chanting with the community or being alone. We give up our time and give ourselves to the Dharma.
Renunciation, relinquishment, surrendering—these words don’t fully capture this idea of giving up and giving. To give to the Dharma, we have to give up. To illustrate this principle, I’ll talk about one of the monks at Abhyagiri. He had finished five years of training as a teacher and was doing a tudong [walk] from New Orleans to a branch in Canada.
He was surrendering himself to this long walk and giving up to whatever happened. He could put up with rednecks and sleep in grungy places. He also did well in terms of material support, but he got sick about a month into the pilgrimage. He could not fulfill his ideal of a walking pilgrimage and had to give up to being sick. Success is not measured on reaching the goal set but on the sense of giving up. He stopped the walk because of this sickness, but he found the Dharma. I believe he learned more by giving up to the sickness.
The Buddha taught us the four bases of success, whether for worldly success or success in the Dharma. These set the purpose for a successful endeavor:
1. interest, desire, enthusiasm.
3. application of mind steadily.
4. investigation; viewing what we’re doing, which feeds back to interest. This is a cycle.
Jin Rou Shr: After a while we know the ceremonies, and they become boring. What do we do?
Ajahn Pasanno: One of the characteristics common to ceremonies, whether they be Theravadan Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, or Christianity, is a quality of repetition. We have to keep them refreshing and interesting all the time. We can reflect on what is it that is boring. I remember when I was on retreat in England for a year. About six months into the retreat, a laywoman whom I’ve known for many years asked me what I do on retreat. I told her I get up in the morning, do sitting meditation, do walking meditation, have a meal, meditate, listen to the Dharma and meditate some more. She had a horrified look on her face, “So boring!” Boring means that you’re not being mindful.
We bring attention to what we’re doing. We can watch our breath while reciting a mantra. We bring the mind back and wrestle with it, which doesn’t mean that we try to push it down the way we do to a puppy into its excrement, we find ways to enjoy what we’re doing. Notice the quality of tension and relaxation in the mind or body and we gain insight. Am I looking for distractions?
Jin Ji Shr: Ajahn Chah taught one of his disciples when he contracted malaria, to subdue the demon of sickness by sitting meditation, not by going to a doctor. However, if the sickness is incurable, do we still have to practice sitting?
Ajahn Pasanno: Our most serious illnesses are greed, hatred, and delusion. We focus our attention on what relieves us from greed, hatred, and delusion. Attachment and ignorance cloud the mind. One of the practices that we can do is to connect with wisdom and catch the amount of worry and fear that’s in the mind. Trust the mind instead of falling into doubt. “Am I torturing myself? Am I going in too deep? Am I completely and permanently disabled because of this?”
Having experimented with both sides of the extremes, we develop a confidence that isn’t intimidated by illness or the voice of guilt: you’re being lazy, you’re not good enough, you’re not hard enough on yourself. These things keep us off balance and ill at ease, so that we’re always suffering. Pay attention to the inner critic, the doubter, the slacker. See the extremes for what they really are; illness is a part of that. We’re far more resilient than we think we are. We cannot trust what our body says. Ajahn Chah said that the fastest way to liberation is by looking directly at the mind.
One of the important aspects of living in community is that we have the support and encouragement of other practitioners. We don’t see some things for ourselves. It’s helpful and necessary to be close to a teacher and fellow practitioners whom we trust and whose judgment we respect.
Ajahn Chah never had a fixed response for people or circumstances. In my early years as a monk in Northeast Thailand where it was very poor, we had a diet that consisted of bamboo shoots, frogs, fermented fish etc.— a diet that shut down my entire digestive system. Ajahn Sumedho was the abbot at the time and he was worried about me. He went to Ajahn Chah and the Supreme Sangha Council and asked to see if I may drink some liquid foods in the afternoon. Ajahn Chah denied the request and said, “just have him drink some water!” Conversely, another monk who had been sick was given two meals a day and rice water to drink. Ajahn Chah was being a mirror to us, to see what we would do.
Jin Fu Shr: Out of all the major and minor, big and small lessons you’ve learned from Ajahn Chah, they should all be valued. However, for your cultivation, what was the most important teaching of him?
Ajahn Pasanno: I spent a lot of time with him. What impressed me the most about him was his integrity and commitment. He was a good monk and a good teacher. He never raised himself above the community. It’s easy for a teacher to hide behind position and respect. He respected the Dharma and never compromised.
Jin An Shr: Will you please elaborate how to gather in the six sense faculties?
Ajahn Pasanno: Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind for monastics, especially, are ways of relating and speaking in public situations. We listen to the teachings and watch our deportment. The senses wander as they are pulled from the mind to form, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations. As monastics, we should not be drawn into those. We recognize the barriers and restrain ourselves. In public situations we do not look around, we do not chatter or talk to other monks, especially in a loud voice. We turn our attention inward.
Another example. We eat one meal a day and our minds get excited about that. It’s interesting to see that our sensual hit is not in the chomping, chewing, or salivating but in scooping up the next spoonful of food. We train ourselves to walk back from desire. A really important element in our training is to see how much energy we spend on the next spoonful, the next sight, the next sound. When we restrain our senses, we are in the present.
Jin Rou Shr: After our ordination, we will be sent to different temples around the world. Most people are Asians and speak Chinese. In temples in the United States, they want Americans. How can we be courageous and get Westerners to become Buddhists?
Ajahn Pasanno: We have to remember, as monastics especially, we don’t have to teach anybody. We don’t have to be anybody special for anybody. We simply put the Dharma into our lives the best we can.
Anybody who comes to a monastery is concerned about suffering; they’re looking for peace, that’s all. Everybody is seeking what you’re seeking. All you have to do is to apply attention to that creation of goodness, well-being, and ease. By looking after yourself, all beings nearby are benefited. As in teaching others, wisdom motivates you to go forth.