Dhamma talk by Ajahn Khemanando
Dhamma talk given by Tan Ajahn Khemanando for the 25th Anniversary of Vimokkharam Forest Hermitage in Kallista, Victoria, Australia on 23rd July 2023.
Please see below for transcript.
Brahmā ca lokādhipatī sahampati
Kat’añjalī anadhivaraṁ ayācatha
Desetu dhammaṁ anukamp’imaṁ pajaṁ
Okay, if anyone’s unfamiliar with that, that’s a traditional invitation to give a Dhamma talk. I’ll explain what this is all about. Now, I wasn’t actually completely sure until I saw people this morning. I’ve never been in a monastery that just has its own birthday and does anniversaries. So I’m not sure what the form is – I’m just winging it at the moment. But a couple of misconceptions I’d like to disabuse you of: I’m not the founding father of this place and this is not my home. So, all the people who have been welcoming me home – I mean it’s not actually my home. Bhikkhus, by definition, are actually homeless. I stayed here quite a long time – in fact, it’s the longest time I’ve ever spent anywhere in my entire life, because I had a whole childhood of being a child of an air force family, moving around amongst royal air force bases in the UK and abroad. It’s a very, rather unusual childhood, to say the least. So, this is a place I have a long association with, I think – probably longer than anyone else at the moment, until another few years when Ajahn Hāsa here reaches the 10-year mark.
But that’s not really the issue – the issue is to celebrate the fact that you have a place like this where monks can live in reasonable comfort and in a traditional way that the Buddha recommended for monks, which is to seek solitude, seclusion and close to nature, in forests. Because he saw the benefit of that – he himself spent a lot of the time like that, and he recommended that anyone of his monks who still has health and strength, as long as possible, this is what you do. You wander around places finding or visiting other monks and teachers occasionally, but also spending long periods in just living quietly. The Forest Tradition – most people are going to a Buddhist country like Thailand in the present day, and a lot of things have changed quite radically. There’s not an awful lot of forest actually left, and the forest monasteries that were forest monasteries a long time ago are now on the edge of town and you’ve got a particularly well-developed economy, a cashed-up middle class and they’re very well-developed places, in many instances. And they are also very big. It’s not uncommon to find monasteries with dozens and dozens of monks. At the time of Ajahn Mun, actually, he spent most of his time as a wanderer in northeastern, far northern Thailand in the mountains, and it was normal to have just three, four, five monks, and only being together really, actually in the rainy season – the three or four months – and apart from that, sort of splitting up and going individually. And this is what the way was at the time of Buddha. They probably go and pay respects to the Buddha at the end of the Rains and then probably get some pity little verse of inspiration to take with them to wherever they choose for meditation. But to have this in a modern developed country like Australia is an asset you should treasure. It’s a precious thing to be able to live this way, it’s really a privilege to be supported in this way. And this is how Buddhism will always thrive, prosper – maybe not materially, but you’ll have a good resource in the monks and the teachers who do live this way and develop, and are diligent, and obviously keep the rules of monks that the Buddha instituted.
So, this is quite a thing to reflect on. So that’s why originally this place was called Sanghāloka – ‘light of the Sangha’, because the idea was to have living and breathing real Sangha living like this and keeping it kind of lowkey and relatively small. Because being in a materialistic society, things tend to be proliferated and expanded and developed progressively, and monasteries are not exempt from this. It’s actually very hard when you’re in a big, developed Buddhist country to keep things small and quiet. So, you’re very fortunate to have a place like this and the new infrastructure you have here is really well-thought-out, well-designed. It’s comfortable. Probably minimal maintenance. It’s perfect, really. Very hard to find. I mean, even in a Buddhist country like Thailand, actually it’s quite hard to find a really quiet place, with really nice trees and good support long-term – it’s not easily found. So, it’s not my home, but I feel at home in a place like this. It’s certainly conducive to meditation, to a contemplative life.
Because when the Buddha pointed out the obstructions to a monk’s development, he would describe a list of, I think, about 6 things: being preoccupied or obsessed or overly delighting in things – sometimes necessary things, unavoidable things. But the problem is excessive preoccupation or delight or being distracted by work, socialising, too much talking, and community itself – like the bonding and togetherness or individuals within a community – is a source of support or even distraction. And delighting in just what’s called papañca, which is like the potential for creativeness of the human mind. You can think, you can think in your mind abstractly, you can think pictures in your mind, you can plan things, design things, imagine things, and delighting in all these things, like the work, socialising, community, and your own capacity to think creatively is actually delighting in what’s called sakkāya. You’re delighting in the fact of being a self, being a person, able to do all this. They’re obstructive in that if you’re delighting in sakkāya, you will not achieve the purpose of being a monk in the first place, which is to penetrate the illusion of it and abandon sakkāya-ditthi and achieve a level of awakening and actually seeing the truth and understanding the truth, which is the point of the exercise. Delighting in any aspect of normal life excessively or without circumspection, without caution, without restraint is actually perpetuating the problem, or the illusion of the sense of self, of ownership and control of basically being someone, doing something, going somewhere, getting something – which is the perception we all have of what life is all about.
So then, the reason why we live so radically different – the Buddha pointed out that it was a teaching or a way that does go against the stream. We live this way – majority of lay people, householders, would not find this a particularly interesting thing to do – not in the long-term anyway. You might go away to quiet places for a holiday but it’s usually pretty limited. As a lifestyle that you continue for an entire life of decades is something else altogether. But it’s a necessary precursor – the Buddha pointed out that one who is embedded in a very busy, active community, one who delights in community life, will not find pleasure in seclusion and being alone. And you probably know that for yourself – very few people can actually find contentment and peace, inner happiness just by being alone. Because you are dependent on having all this stimulation, dependent on external things that you have to either seek all the time, and possess, and enjoy, to feel secure in yourself, to feel some affirmation or justification for who you think you are. So, he really recommended seclusion from the distractions of what would count as an ordinary life, and solitude, because one who lives in solitude with a degree of contentment is quite happy – the mind is at peace, the mind is stable, and you live without unnecessary distractions. Some things become possible that in a normal lifetime you might actually miss. In Pali, it was called cittassa nimittaṁ, which literally means ‘the sign of the mind’, or the actual aspect of awareness. That’s very important because that’s the beginning of maturing the mind. To be able to distinguish awareness from thinking, from the conditions and changes and reactions and whatnot, within the mind – that awareness is one thing and thinking is another. That is the beginning of being able to uncover the truth of things, which is what Dhamma is about. Dhamma is study of nature – your own nature; what it means to be, what it means to feel, what it means to be a thinker. What it means to receive sense impressions all the time. What it means to be finding yourself in this situation and not knowing the truth of it, and trying to struggle to survive and do what we do, have a livelihood, procreate, try to enjoy as much as you can. And then it ends.
Especially these days, people don’t really sit still long enough to really contemplate the situation they’re in, as it stands. So they don’t really get to the issue, and you probably wouldn’t find the deeper aspects of the Buddha’s teachings particularly intelligible – what does it mean? But if you study yourself- this is the point – you’re in a situation, you’re experiencing things, you have ideas about things and attachments to things, but you’re not really learning from that, you don’t observe them with a degree of detachment. You don’t have a mind that has the quality able to do that. And in principle, it’s not necessarily that difficult because what’s presenting the truth that the Buddha wanted us to uncover really, is the nature of things. Things are like that all the time, but you’re just overlooking them. You have other priorities. You’re distracted.
So, it takes a degree of commitment to a life of seclusion and solitude for the nature of awareness to be sort of distinct, to become available. And it changes your perspective on things – the way you see things, the way you experience the world can change. Your perception of things changes. So, it’s an absolute essential resource really, if the Buddha-sāsana is going to be preserved with integrity and not be entirely lost, or just perverted in many ways that you can see in these days.
The ability to provide opportunities for good, practiced monks to live as the Buddha instructed is just a huge amount of merit – to be supporting that. Because that’s what it’s all about – the refinement of consciousness, and to have the whole institution of renunciate, ascetic forest monks who live in a completely different way, (with a) different rationale for doing things, and who are committed to the refinement of mind as a main preoccupation. Because ultimately, we’re not really here for anything else. It may look like prison to the average householder because to live without family, without Mummy, without insurance, all that stuff – it looks a bit bleak.
I used to go to prison just up the road from Bodhinyana Monastery in Perth – it was an open prison – and have chats with prisoners who called themselves Buddhist. They were just really impressed. The way we lived was far more ascetic than they were – they were in jail and supposed to be locked up all the time, but we were doing it voluntarily, on one meal a day, with no friends, no social distractions, no parties, no drinking, nothing. They couldn’t believe that you would voluntarily do that. And they regarded their situation – which from our point of view, looks quite nice. Everything’s provided for them. They’ve got no responsibilities for work or anything. They just sit around. But you see, they do not enjoy solitude and seclusion. We don’t have minds that do that. In fact, it’s a torture. It’s recognised torture – to punish stubborn prisoners who don’t keep the rules or something, they’re put into solitary confinement. That’s considered the worst possible thing that you can do to somebody – is leave them alone with themselves. Now, what does that say about our culture? And it’s true. And you can do this at home. Try. Sit alone in an empty room, even just half a day, see what happens. Are you happy? Are you at ease? Are you peaceful? No. Probably within an hour, most people would be climbing the walls or just be completely overwhelmed by proliferating thoughts and images – past, future, worry, doubt. That’s the story of the Five Hindrances. Because when you do grow up a bit, you realise that the only thing between you and seeing the truth is actually thinking. Vipassana only arises to a mind of awareness, not a mind of thinking and analysing and conceptualising. As soon as you start analysing, you’ve lost it. You’re deliberately using the mind to think. And so just the simple, silent reality of things as they are is lost in that moment. I mean, it’s not that that sort of thinking and analysing analytically is not useful – it is, to some extent. But it’s kind of like the realm of psychotherapy more than Buddhist teaching, and the Buddhist path of development is not psychotherapy of any description – and for the reason that the problem, the spiritual problem that we’re trying to resolve, which is common to all human beings in all places at all times, is the illusion of self, and to see it and to discover that, that holding onto things or identifying with things, and the stress and anxiety and fear are all sort of bound up with that – is the definition of dukkha, really. But very few people can see it.
This is why the Noble Truth of dukkha is called a ‘Noble Truth’, because it’s the preserve, it’s the knowledge of a Noble, like an ariya – minimum like a sotāpanna – who sees, who has seen the truth and understands, sees the Noble Truth of dukkha. Normal people don’t understand that. It’s very profound. Most people would hear the Noble Truth of dukkha and just find it objectionable. It’s rejected. It’s unintelligible – why is life dukkha? It’s not all dukkha. There’s nice bits. I mean, you can have and you can see happiness and pleasure and pain sort of alternating. Now, to see the whole thing as dukkha is a very profound thing. Normal people don’t see that, normal people have personal problems that you try to fix by various methods and strategies, wholesome and unwholesome – but mostly living in a state of distraction or denial because there’s no other alternatives. Nobody’s ever pointed out that you’re actually in a prison cell and it’s not a very good place to be. So, the message of mind’s liberation is unheard, and it’s unheard because nobody’s actually realised it – until you have a genius at the level of the Buddha, who has the knowledge and vision of the nature of things. Because the nature of things is just the nature of things – I mean, in principle, it’s life, it’s your present experience, the things that you are holding to and worried about and calculating and planning for, and in life: Who are you? What is this about? So, these things become clearer, and the kind of quality of mind you need to develop of stability or samadhi and detachment is possible by having this maturity of awareness. Sati with sampajañña – an awareness that can distinguish itself from that of which it is aware. This is the potential of the human mind. So that’s why Buddhas appear in the human realm, they don’t appear as devas and whatnot. Because human beings have the most potential for realisation or seeing the truth, because we have just the right mixture of pleasure and pain that, you know, you can get detached from both of them. They’re not completely like a hell realm – it’s just permanent pain – and a deva realm – it’s permanent happiness, and you don’t see much change at all. You don’t see the nature of things very much. You’re not even inclined to, and you’re probably just overwhelmed by the experience. But the human realm, you don’t have to be overwhelmed, you can be in mindfulness – the awareness that can observe, introspect, reflect on things. And eventually that must involve some level of intentional thought, based on what you’ve understood and what you know, but ultimately, it’s awareness. And that cittassa nimittaṁ is the essential precursor for samma samadhi. Without that, samadhi is not ‘samma samadhi’. It’s just like blatant willpower and control, suppressing defilements, but no sampajañña. Before the Buddha, there were samadhi practices of all kinds, and very high level, but what they were lacking was sampajañña, and they didn’t actually see the problem of sakkāya – embodiment, this view that we have, wrong view. So, with samma samadhi as essential for samma ditthi, and samma ditthi – the mind is disentangling itself, abandoning the roots of defilement and you achieve the realisation of the truth, which is actually right before you day and night. But first, we’re not aware of it and not interested in it and have other priorities like dramatizing your story – who we are, our journey, our dream, whatever. And I think, people in this day and age don’t seem to be naturally very reflective and observe the content of experience. How does it look from the inside? You’re always looking for something outside yourself to fix things or to hold onto or to stimulate you. But actually, the knowledge that you need is already latent within you – it’s just simply knowing the truth of your own nature. And living this way, which is what the Buddha recommended, is really an essential part of it.
It would be much, much harder to mature and develop the mind if you were just as busy as a householder and had all the problems of householders. So, it’s a real privilege to live this way, and to provide the opportunity to live this way to monks you respect, is a huge amount of merit, and it’s really impressive that this can happen in a sort of modern culture – materialistic as it is, hedonistic as it is, but yet on the fringes you can have an opportunity like this. So, it’s very inspiring to see that. I’m glad to have come back after nine years (it’s not that long, really, in the whole scheme of things, in our lifetime), you know, and see how it’s still available, that this is still possible. Because without it, if it fades out completely, then the sāsana is lost, and this has happened over and over again in history, when for various reasons, the Sangha gets corrupted or just disappears because there’s not enough monks to do ordinations and stuff like that. In some places, you just wouldn’t survive as a Buddhist monk at all unless you had royal patronage, and everything depended on impressing the emperor or the king. And if he lost faith then Buddhism would just disappear – and that’s happened several times in different places. To have a continuity of people who are actually interested and have the potential, and find an opportunity like this, you would never be short of having good teachers around – people who can explain the Dhamma, which of course is an important resource for the householder. So, we have the symbiosis of this – it’s essential. It’s really, you know, very impressive that all this can be achieved. I’m not really very aware of what happened in the last nine years, but if this is the result, it wasn’t all bad. It’s really pleasant to see this. There’s not an awful left to do here, I don’t think, other than… well, you can do the driveway – I noticed that straight away. Apart from that, there’s very little to do here except meditate. The mind can blossom.
I congratulate you all on your efforts here, all those who have contributed.