Being Nobody

by Ajahn Sumedho


Ajahn Sumedho, reflecting on his own training under Luang Por Chah, concludes that what was most significant about the life in the austere forest monastery, with its accomplished master, was its ordinariness.

The first year that I practised I was on my own and I could get into highly-developed concentrated states of mind, which I really enjoyed. Then I went to Wat Pah Pong, where the emphasis was on the way of life, in accordance with Vinaya discipline and a routine. There one had to go out on alms-round every morning, and do the morning chanting and evening chanting. If you were young and healthy you were expected to go on these very long alms-rounds - they had shorter ones that the old feeble monks could go on. In those days I was very vigorous so I was always going on these long, long alms-rounds and then I'd come back tired, then there would be the meal and then in the afternoon we all had chores to do. It was not possible under those conditions to stay in a concentrated state. Most of the day was taken up by daily life routine.

So I got fed up with all this and went to see Luang Por Chah and said, 'I can't meditate here', and he started laughing at me and telling everyone that, 'Sumedho can't meditate here!' I was seeing meditation as this very special experience that I'd had and quite enjoyed and then Luang Por Chah was obviously pointing to the ordinariness of daily life, the getting up, the alms-rounds, the routine work, the chores: the whole thing was for mindfulness. And he didn't seem at all eager to support me in my desires to have strong sensory deprivation experience by not having to do all these little daily tasks. He didn't seem to go along with that; so I ended up having to conform and learn to meditate in the ordinariness of daily life. And in the long run that has been the most helpful.
It has not always been what I wanted, because one wants the special, one would love to have blazing light and marvelous insights in Technicolor and have incredible bliss and ecstasy and rapture. Not be just happy and calm - but over the moon!

But reflecting on life in this human form: it is just like this, it's being able to sit peacefully and get up peacefully and be content with what you have; it's that which makes our life as a daily experience something that is joyful and not suffering. And this is how most of our life can be lived - you can't live in ecstatic states of rapture and bliss and do the dishes, can you? I used to read about the lives of saints that were so caught up in ecstasies they couldn't do anything on any practical level. Even though the blood would flow from their palms and they could do feats that the faithful would rush to look at, when it came to anything practical or realistic they were quite incapable.

And yet when you contemplate the Vinaya discipline itself, it is a training in being mindful. It's about mindfulness with regard to making robes, collecting alms food, eating food, taking care of your kuti; what to do in this situation or that situation. It's all very practical advice about the daily life of a bhikkhu. An ordinary day in the life of Bhikkhu Sumedho isn't about exploding into rapture, but getting up and going to the toilet and putting on a robe and bathing and doing this or that; it's just about being mindful while one is living in this form and learning to awaken to the way things are, to the Dhamma.
That's why whenever we contemplate cessation we're not looking for the end of the universe but just the exhalation of the breath or the end of the day or the end of the thought or the end of the feeling. To notice that, means that we have to pay attention to the flow of life - we have to really notice the way it is rather than wait for some kind of fantastic experience of marvellous light descending on us, zapping us or whatever.

Now just contemplate the ordinary breathing of your body. You notice when you're inhaling that it's easy to concentrate. When you're filling your lungs you feel a sense of growth and development and strength. When you say somebody's "puffed up" then they're probably inhaling. It's hard to feel puffed up while you're exhaling. Expand your chest and you have a sense of being somebody big and powerful. However, when I first started paying attention to exhaling, my mind would wander; exhaling didn't seem as important as inhaling - you were just doing it so that you could get on to the next inhalation.

Now reflect: one can observe breathing, so what is it that can observe? What is it that observes and knows the inhalation and the exhalation - that's not the breathing, is it? You can also observe the panic that comes if you want to catch a breath and you can't; but the observer, that which knows, is not an emotion, not panic-stricken, is not an exhalation or an inhalation. So our refuge in Buddha is being that knowing; being the witness rather than the emotion or the breath or the body.

This way you begin to see a way of being mindful, of bringing mindfulness to the ordinary routine things and experiences of life. I have a nice little picture in my room that I'm very fond of - of this old man with a coffee mug in his hand, looking out of the window into an English garden with the rain coming down. The title of the picture is 'Waiting'. That's how I think of myself; an old man with my coffee mug sitting there at the window, waiting, waiting.. watching the rain or the sun or whatever. I don't find that a depressing image but rather a peaceful one. This life is just about waiting isn't it? We're waiting all the time - this experience of waiting. So we notice that. We're not waiting for anything, but we can be just waiting. And then we respond to the things of life, to the time of day, the duties, the way things move and change, the society we are in. That response isn't from the force of habits of greed, hatred and delusion but it's a response of wisdom and mindfulness.

Forest Sangha Newsletter: April 1992, Number 20



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