A Dhamma talk given by Ajahn Sumedho at Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery on the Lunar Observance Night, June 18, 2008
This is the Uposatha Night and the full moon, the month of June, and you’ve gathered to listen to the Dhamma—for practicing. This evening you took refuge in Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha. This can be a Theravadin ceremony, or it can be a reminder of what a refuge is, and why we would repeat such words. Of course, this is the whole style of the Buddha’s teaching, to awaken consciousness, to observe the way it is. Even though human beings consider themselves conscious, in Buddhist terms they are not always awake, even though they may not be asleep. But we are!
From the time that we are born we are usually conditioned to see and think and feel through the language, cultural attitudes and customs that we’ve acquired, and develop a strong sense of separateness as a unique person or personality. These are conditions that we acquire after we are born. We’re not born with these. But when a baby is born it’s born with a physical body, and it’s conscious.
Consciousness and the body are natural conditions. To be able to see them in terms of Dhamma means to awaken to the way it is. The body, not as some personal identity but as this experience right now, is sitting here giving this reflection, and then there is consciousness. We usually don’t recognize pure consciousness because we are highly conditioned to think—we are attached to views and opinions, memories, emotional habits, to a sense of self. Then we create ourselves out of these various conditions: as Americans, or whatever. Ajahn Pasanno is now an American—legally! This we can consider as a convention.
In Thailand, they differentiate the conventional realities and the Ultimate Truth. We tend to regard conventional realities as ultimate, as the real world, and live according to our conditioning, to our prejudices, assumptions, and personal identities. But in awakened consciousness we are observing this. The Buddha emphasized mindfulness, and as far as I know this emphasis is not found in any other religious convention. It is very interesting that the Buddha takes this mindfulness and calls it the “Gate to the Deathless.” It’s very difficult for us to define it because it is indefinable. But it is recognizable.
When we’re obstructed by this sense of a separate identity as a personality, an ego, or by culturally and socially conditioned views that we’ve acquired, and the language that we think in, it always leads to some kind of insecurity or doubt. When these are not challenged or awakened to, then we tend to be operating from positions, taking sides, defining ourselves according to the religious convention, or the social condition we have, the gender of the body, the color of the skin, or whatever. These are our precious identities that we will fight over, quarrel over, and abuse each other endlessly around—the conditions that we’ve acquired, not out of wisdom and understanding, but out of ignorance. In this sense, ignorance is not like being illiterate, rather it’s not understanding, not knowing Dhamma. In other words, as long as one is limited and bound into the conditioned realm then there’s this ignorance. Consciousness operates and remains the same, but ignorance influences how we see and create the world around us.
About “mindfulness,” then. In England, it’s now the kind of word that people are really interested in. Say, ten or twenty years ago, with psychotherapists or people in the field of psychology, I’d never heard them really use it or give it any importance. But now it is the flavor of the year in the psychotherapy world, and this is a good thing. But then we tend to see it not in the profound terms that the Buddha meant it, but merely as being aware of how you feel, or being aware of the things around you. We can direct our awareness outward, like being mindful of where this person is sitting, and aware of the weather and whether it’s going to rain or not. But in terms of Sammā Sati (Right Mindfulness), what the Buddha was encouraging was an awareness that comes from the very center, an awareness that includes the totality; which includes our own feelings, physical body, and the objects that we experience through the senses.
It’s an all inclusive awareness. It’s not aimed particularly at one thing, just being aware of some external thing, or identifying with awareness as some kind of personal quality. Or maybe we think we’re not aware enough. People say, “I’m not terribly mindful, but I try to practice mindfulness all the time. I’m trying to be mindful. I’m trying to become mindful, and I have mindfulness practices.” These are the words that we use for sati. But then, in terms of how the Buddha means it, the point is not to try to become somebody who’s aware, but to be awareness itself in the present. So that is awakened consciousness here and now. It’s immediate, and it includes, it’s not excluding anything. It includes what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think and feel; emotional feelings that one is having; personal views, opinions, memories or attitudes… They are like this.
Now with sati and paññā (wisdom), this leads to discernment, to seeing Dhamma, rather than in seeing a conditioned attitude or a positioning in the conditioned realm. With sati and sampajañña—awareness, mindfulness, apperception—there is the ability that each one of us has to open to the totality of this moment, in which it’s not a thought, it’s not a perception, but it is recognizable: it’s like this. That is consciousness. We’re suddenly recognizing consciousness itself, which is that which is ordinary and that we’re experiencing all the time. But when we’re always perceiving ourselves through conditioning, then we don’t recognize consciousness. We’re merely using consciousness and projecting into it our own sense of self, conditioned attitudes, emotional habits, and identities.
The actual word Buddha means Awakened. It’s a “wake-up” teaching. Somebody asked me one time, “Could you describe Buddhism in one sentence?” And I said, “I can do it in one word.” He said, “What’s that?” “Wake-up!” This isn’t about me waking up, but it’s an invitation to pay attention, to be open, receptive, here and now, in which the sense of your thinking process, ego, cultural assumptions, the thought process itself, recedes. It’s not about getting rid of desire, or getting rid of your self; but of not limiting yourself to the language, the thoughts, the memories, the identities that we tend to when we’re not fully awake. Taking refuge in Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, on a practical level, a functional level, is this waking up.
Consider that we’re very attached to thinking—we want to figure everything out. We come from a society, a culture that has developed the thinking process. We can think in rational terms, with logic. We can analyze, can manipulate the conditioned world, we have Western science, psychology, all these ways of thinking and perceiving through concepts that we’ve developed. And then we see ourselves through this same conditioned habit of thinking. So in mindfulness, we’re even getting outside our own thinking process. That was one of the great challenges that I found, because even though I understood that as an idea, at first I couldn’t figure it out because I was thinking about it. How do you let go of thinking? “I know I should let go of thinking; and yet, how do you do it?” You wind yourself up trying to figure how to stop thinking.
Now thinking is not something to be despised or rejected, but attachment to thinking always leads to division. The thinking process is a critical function, and that’s its purpose: to compare, analyze, criticize; “This is bigger than that, this is white, this is blue, this is green.” We discriminate, and then we decide what we like and what we don’t like; what should be and what shouldn’t be; right and wrong; good and bad. Then we apply this to meditation. How many of you practice meditation with the assumption of yourself, “I am an unenlightened person who has come here to practice meditation in order to become enlightened in the future”? During the retreat at Spirit Rock, I kept throwing this at the retreatants. I’ve noticed over the years of teaching how some people never get outside this thing, “I’m an unenlightened person who still has to get my samādhi, get insight, get all kinds of other things, in order to become enlightened, or hopefully to get some insight in the future.” This is all based on sakkāya ditthi—the ego, the self view, or personality view—and the grasping of Buddhism, not Dhamma. This is from the sakkāya ditthi, from the self perception, which is based on time. When I think of myself, then I think, “I am Ajahn Sumedho,” and then I can recite my history, my biography. I was born 74 years ago… that’s sakkāya ditthi, or just conventional reality—you can use the words in terms of the cultural convention. If I really believe that: I am this person, I was born at such and such a time, and I’ve done this and that; and never question it… This is not to dismiss it, but to be able to see that this is the thinking process. When I attach to this assumption, “I am this unenlightened person, who’s here to practice in order to become…” If I never challenge that perception, then I can spend the rest of my life with this blinding me to awakened consciousness. The other one is, “I am enlightened, I’m pure already, I don’t need to practice”: it’s still the same problem because it’s all attachment to the sense of, “I am somebody who is already enlightened,” or “I am somebody who is not yet enlightened.”
Now you’re probably thinking, well what am I supposed to do? It leaves you with really nothing. But you can start from that position—that’s how we all start. That’s how I started anyway: “I’m a confused person, I don’t know what to do with my life, I’m unhappy, I want to do something in order to find some kind of relief from the suffering.” Going to Thailand and practicing meditation, becoming a monk, it was all done with, “I need to do this, in order to become something.” It’s not to disparage that, but to point to it. I found various ways to try to figure this out. It doesn’t work. You have to really look at yourself thinking, and in order to see yourself thinking you have to deliberately think, intentionally think: “I am this unenlightened person sitting practicing here in order to become.” It’s as simple as that. There’s an awareness of this assumption, and I’m intentionally thinking this, but at the same moment being aware of it. And this awareness is not a thought. After a while, if you keep pursuing this, you begin to see very clearly that the thinking process is one thing, but that consciousness with awareness is not thinking. It doesn’t exclude thinking, it includes it. But it’s not attached to thinking.
In this way the Buddha pointed out that the real problem lies in ignorance and attachment to conditions. It’s not conditioned phenomena that are the problem. It’s not desire, it’s not the body, and it’s not the senses. It’s the ignorance, not knowing this simple reality, and the attachments we have. It’s that blind way we commit ourselves to our sense of self, to the unquestioned attitudes we have about cultural ideals, or cultural assumptions, and then the strong obsessive attachment to the thinking process, trying to figure everything out, trying to figure Buddhism out, to figure out the Dhamma. You see it in the Buddhist world here in California. There’s so many opinions and views circulating around Mahāyāna, Vajrayāna, Hīnayāna, Zen, Nichiren… or modern variations, American Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, and on and on like this—there’s a free range of “anything goes.” And then we form views. Whatever group or convention we particularly incline to, happen to encounter first, or are influenced by, we tend to attach to. That’s fine, because there was certainly a time when I attached to Theravada, Thai forest tradition… But at the same time Ajahn Chah was saying, “Wake up and see the attachment,” to this sense of “I am this,” and the way that I would attach to the convention of Theravadin views and opinions, Thai Buddhism, Thai forest Ajahn Mun tradition. Being attached to it still limits you.
So the aim is not to become a Theravadin Buddhist, or a forest bhikkhu, but to use these conventions for awakening. It’s not liberating just to become a Buddhist, to just condition yourself with Buddhist ideas and Buddhist prejudices and attitudes, or take sides. You might be attaching to something very good, but there’s still the suffering. It will not awaken you until you dare to question, to observe. Not to question in the sense of trying to figure it out, but taking that step from attachment to non-attachment, which is what awareness really amounts to.
With this sense of awakened consciousness, when there is this, then we recognize, we realize Dhamma. We recognize the conditions in terms of Dhamma, we discern all conditions are impermanent. It’s not attaching to a view that, “All conditions are impermanent.” We actually know this, we discern it. And then we also discern the unconditioned. We recognize nibbāna, anattā, suññata, nirodha. These are the words for the unborn, uncreated, unformed, unconditioned. This is in the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, and is recognizable. I’ve used this teaching now for all of my monastic life and have been putting it to the test. As I get older, conditions change, so that whatever happens, whatever experiences, success or failure, praise or blame, prosperity or poverty, the aim is to be able to learn from both sides of the worldly conditions. That applies to one’s ordinary life, in terms of living as a Buddhist monk and the changes that occur internally and externally; because you get praised, and you get blamed, and you have successes and failures, just like anyone else. This is not an easy ride, monastic life. But it is, if used properly, a form that helps, that encourages awareness. It’s not for attachment, but for awakening.
So, how can we use this convention for awakening, rather than for attachment? Do we become a Theravadin Buddhist, or become a bhikkhu, or bhikkhuni, something like this; or we can awaken to Dhamma. Mindfulness in this way is non-critical, it’s non-divisive. Mindfulness then includes everything, it embraces the totality, both the good and the bad, the praise and the blame, happiness, suffering—the whole lot. The critical mind will pick and choose: it wants happiness, it doesn’t want suffering, wants to be praised and respected and appreciated; doesn’t want to be blamed and despised, it wants to be successful, not a failure. In this way the worldly dhammas are formed out of thinking.
Again I reiterate that statement that thinking’s function is divisive, it is dualistic. You have success and failure, happiness, suffering, heaven, hell, right and wrong. And that’s why when we just attach, when we try to figure everything out with the thinking process, it only takes us so far and then it doesn’t work. You can’t get enlightened through attachment to thinking, no matter how clever your intellect might be, because it’s not that way: it’s conditioned. English language is something I learned after I was born. I wasn’t born speaking English, I learned it afterwards. But I was born conscious. Consciousness is not a thought; consciousness is reality, it’s not personal, it’s not “my consciousness” as my special kind of consciousness and you have a different kind of consciousness. That’s how we talk, “my life” and “my reality” and “my world” and “what I think,” and “what I like”: it tends to create this sense of separation. If I’m always thinking in terms of “me and mine,” and “I am this person, and you’re that person,” that is dividing, isn’t it? On an ideal level we might think, “We’re all one in the Dhamma” and that’s a beautiful ideal, but that’s not what we’re really experiencing through thinking about it. When we think about it, then we always feel this sense of division, loneliness, and isolation, or we feel in conflict with some- body who doesn’t agree with us. Or we’re in conflict with ourselves, because we can be very clever on the thinking level, and emotionally very immature. We can have very high-minded, altruistic goals in life, and beautiful ideals, and at the same time, emotionally feel like a victim, like being persecuted, paranoia, on and on like this. So even though the intellectual side says, “Don’t be silly, you’re just making it up,” if we don’t understand the emotional side also, then we tend to criticize it, because our emotional life is not an ideal, but it is like this. We feel.
The emotions are “My love, my hate, my rights, my beliefs, my happiness, my greed, my sexual desire, my anger, my jealousy and fear.” Emotions have this sense of really being me. When you’re really feeling some strong emotion, it’s more real and more me than anything else, but there’s also this awakenedness to it. Whatever the emotion is, no matter how strong or powerful, or how subtle it might be, there’s an awareness of it. So this is what the Buddha was pointing to: waking up to conditioned phenomena, in whatever form, in the myriad forms that might be appearing in your consciousness.
Now, the thinking process is limited to a linear way of looking at everything, and that’s why it’s dualistic. You can only have one thought at a time; you can’t think two thoughts at the same moment. One thought connects to another, they associate. The thinking process is about conditioning yourself with grammar to communicate messages to other people. We have a thinking habit that’s based on the grammatical structure of a language, and one thought associates with another. Also, memories will become very strong, will arouse emotions: somebody criticizes me, says some kind of harsh criticism, and I feel it emotionally. Or you can remember things in your past, things where you’ve been mistreated or abused in the past, and even though those conditions aren’t present now, when you start grasping at memory, you can get just as angry. I used to experiment in Thailand with this. I noticed how I could really wind myself up, sitting in a kuti in the forest. You’re getting bored and dull, and you think of some indignity you suffered, something that was really unfair that happened in your past, maybe 20 years before. I could be sitting in that kuti with none of the conditions present, and, without really intending to, get all excited and indignant over something just by attaching to a memory of being mistreated in the past. You can see this all the time in yourself, like the racial prejudices, or the memories of what people have done, ethnic wars, and the problems that we have in terms of racial issues, the way the white people treated the blacks, or the Native Americans… one could get very indignant. In Northern Ireland—now it’s getting better—but just between Catholics and Protestants, just remembering what the Protestants did, or what the English did to the Irish. That’s no longer what’s happening, but one still carries the memories and associations of a culture and the prejudices that generate from that particular conditioning.
We have the Croats and Serbs, Israelis and Palestinians, Shias and Sunnis, Tamils and Sinhalese, and it goes on and on. One can carry things from one generation to the next just through remembering the indignities, and we can feel very angry and resentful. But with awareness of this present moment here and now, that which is aware is not indignant or angry, but it’s aware of this emotion: righteous indignation is like this. The feeling, the emotional impact of feeling really wired-up to seek revenge, a vendetta, to get even with the oppressor, is like this. In this way you’re opening yourself to observing the way it is. When there’s attachment to this emotion and I keep thinking and believing and feeling this memory, then I feel like this: I’m angry, and righteously indignant, and want to seek justice and revenge. This is all from ignorance: not understanding Dhamma. Then we seek revenge, we get angry and believe it, we carry the religious biases or ethnic biases, racial biases, from one generation to the next. That’s why the world is like this; why there’s so much war and persecution, because human beings are not awake, they are operating from their conditioning.
So this awakened mindfulness, sati-sampajañña—seeing, knowing, investigating, realizing, and taking refuge in Dhamma—it’s Buddha that knows the Dhamma, or the Truth of the way it is; it’s not me, Ajahn Sumedho, knowing the Dhamma. It’s not “my Dhamma,” or “I know the Dhamma,” things like that—that doesn’t make sense. But it’s this knowing…
In the Thai forest tradition they use this word Buddho (which is a kind of mantra form of Buddha) and means “awakened consciousness.” Buddha, then, is a word that has great meaning to me because I’ve used it for so long. It’s not just sentimental or an attachment to the founder of what we know as Buddhism today. It is a real sense of awakened consciousness, recognizing, realizing “this is real,” and relating to the conditions, to my karmic tendencies, my sense of myself as a separate person in whatever way that is; emotional habits, pleasant, unpleasant, good, bad, foolish, intelligent, whatever. There’s this awareness that includes the whole gamut, the whole range of conditioned phenomena. It’s also seeing conditioned phenomena no longer in the critical way, but in the discerning: “All conditions are impermanent, sabbe sankhārā anicca.” That which knows conditions are impermanent is not a condition. One condition can’t know another condition. My right hand can’t know my left hand, but they’re both in consciousness. There’s an awareness of the left hand’s here, the right hand’s here, simple as that. How do you feel about my left hand? It doesn’t make sense, it’s ridiculous! But that which is aware of the right hand… If I just get absorbed into my right hand, then I forget about the left one, and I’m getting caught and bound into my right hand—where’s my left one? But if I don’t absorb into a condition, just receive it, then both have equal value in consciousness. This consciousness receives and it discerns. But discerning isn’t a thought process; it’s discernment, a wise recognition of the way it is, that conditioned phenomena are impermanent, not self. I might say, “My right hand, my left hand”: that’s a convention. But it is what it is. I don’t have to call it “mine” to be fully aware.
As you develop this practice more and more, when you let go of conditioned phenomena, when you’re no longer clutching after things, trying to get hold of, get rid of, trying to control or figure everything out, you begin to recognize that this unconditioned is reality. One begins to relax and open, to receive, not in order to make myself at ease: “Because I’m so tense I want to relax.” It’s not for personal needs on that level. It’s an attitude of receptivity and allowing conditioned phenomena to be the way they are rather than liking this and not liking that. Reflecting, then, that this realization, the reality of awareness with consciousness at this moment, is this. This is not a fantasy I’ve made up or a Buddhist doctrine; this is real—this is reality. The Dhamma is reality, and that which knows the Dhamma isn’t a person. That’s why you can’t claim it personally: “I know the Dhamma.”
In this tradition we take refuge: “Buddham saranam gacchami, Dhammam saranam gacchami, Sangham saranam gacchāmi,”— the Three Refuges. The English word refuge is a place where we feel safe. We are seeking a place of safety, or that which is safe from the dangerous conditions that one can experience. We’re looking for refuge, and this refuge will never fail you. It’s always safe, no matter where you are, even in the battlefield, if there is this sense of awakened attention, collectedness, awareness, and seeing Dhamma rather than judging everything according to cultural conditioning, personal preferences, the ego, likes and dislikes, and ideals.
Just think of how much we suffer in this country from our idealism. I’ve watched this a lot in my life because the United States is a very idealistic society. It is founded on very fine ideals of freedom and equality and rights, and it’s very high-minded in its ideals. But then the reality… We’re always feeling disappointed and critical because the United States isn’t living up to its ideals, its principles, its standards. At this point in time we can feel incredibly cynical and embittered by the fact that the United States isn’t what it should be because it should be a country where everything is perfect, and it’s not.
In this sense, the Buddha wasn’t coming from idealizing how things should be, but pointing to the way things are: All conditions are impermanent. That’s not an ideal, that’s not the Buddha’s ideal, somehow idealizing impermanence. Impermanence is still a word, it’s a suggestion, a way of looking. It’s not a belief and it’s not for grasping. But it is an awakening suggestion to the mind to see how thoughts, emotions, sensory experiences, physical experiences, emotional experiences – when you really observe – are always changing. There’s no permanent substance or essence in any of them. But the Buddha wasn’t an annihilationist either. He wasn’t saying that because everything is impermanent all conditions are bad and we should just get rid of them, or that there’s anything wrong with conditions, that we’ve got to sort it all out and promote all the good ones and annihilate all the bad ones! We’ve got to kill the devil, annihilate the axis of evil, kill the enemy, kill Saddam Hussein, get rid of the wicked and the bad; and then we’ll have only the good left. That’s not how things really are. In the very act of killing, we are doing something unwholesome. We want a utopian society where everything is good but we try to create it by annihilating the pests and things that we don’t like. That’s certainly not going to lead towards this utopian ideal we cherish. People tried it with genocide and attempts to annihilate the enemy in various ways and it only leads to more anger, hatred, vendetta, misery for everybody concerned.
In this way, awakenedness, mindfulness, and wisdom, are within the potential of human individuals. This is not a teaching for specially refined types of human beings, but it’s based on the most common experience of any human being: suffering, dukkha, the First Noble Truth. There’s nothing esoteric or subtle about it. It’s a common experience that every human being can recognize, whether you’re rich or poor, male or female, European, Asian, African. There’s nobody who gets away from it. From Queen Elizabeth, the King of Thailand, people in the most fortunate, wealthy positions, to the most miserable beggars, suffering is common to all of us. This is why this awakening to suffering is not grasping hold of suffering as a kind of negative, depressing resignation to misery. But it’s awakening to understand suffering. We have to recognize it. How many of you really are aware of suffering? People would say, “I don’t suffer. I’m happy all the time.”They’re not. They don’t understand it. And happiness is something depending on the conditions supporting it. It’s impossible to be happy all the time because that’s not the way it is.
Sometimes life is miserable and unfair and unjust and painful. Things change. You’re not just independent, living in a bubble where you can create the illusion of a permanent happy state. Like the cyclone in Burma, or the earthquake in China, or the hurricanes in the Southeast, they’re natural catastrophes that can affect us. We can have the most fortunate life, yet it’s subject to change in ways that we most dread and fear. Then the society changes. When you’re my age, you’re seeing inexorable change in ways that I never expected when I was young, both in my own life and in the society around me. But what doesn’t change? That which isn’t changeable—consciousness— remains the same all the time. That you can’t find; you recognize it. That’s what awareness is. You suddenly recognize: this is it. It’s not an object that you can get by getting rid of the conditioned realm or by blindfolding yourself and plugging up your ears, or sensory deprivation. Consciousness is now. It’s not created out of ignorance. It’s not cultural. It’s not male or female. And it’s not good or bad. But it is real. This is vipassanā practice, investigating, looking into suffering, its causes and its cessation. Then you realize the way of non-suffering. The Buddha said, “I teach only two things: suffering and the end of suffering.” Then, one thinks to end suffering, “Maybe I should kill myself because I’m getting old. The body isn’t like it was. It’s stiff and clumsy and going up hills is no longer very easy for me. My knees ache, I have lousy feet, and my digestion isn’t very good any more.” Suffering, indigestion, arthritis, stiffness, old age. But do I suffer from it? This is the way the body goes: it’s born, grows up, gets old, and dies. That’s the way it’s supposed to go.
Even Gotama the Buddha got old and died. It’s not like the end of suffering is that you don’t feel anything anymore, that you’re so evolved that you don’t feel arthritis or painful feet. You don’t feel it. You’re beyond all that, so you don’t suffer. That’s not it. You just don’t create suffering around the way it is. Not to create suffering around the body is to receive the body in all its aspects, the way it is, in its illnesses, sicknesses, fevers, its good health, its vigor, its fatigue, its youth, and its old age. And that’s not the suffering of the person. That’s just the way conditioned phenomena are. The nature of conditioned phenomena is dukkha. It’s changing. The body has no ability to sustain itself in a peak moment, where I could reach this peak age, maybe 25, and just stay that way forever. Now at my age, 74, you don’t want to live forever in a 74 year old body. I’m quite looking forward to death, getting rid of this thing, but there’s no need to create suffering around it.
This is where mindfulness allows us to receive the conditioned realities of the present with non-attachment: they are like this. The suffering, then, is not wanting them to be like this, not wanting to get old, not wanting physical discomfort; wanting to be young again, wanting to be healthy, wanting to be vigorous. That’s the suffering we create. That’s the unbearable misery of human ignorance: always wanting something you don’t have, or not wanting what you have, or for a thing not to be the way it is.
This is a society based on discontentment, isn’t it? It wants you to be discontented with what you have. The economy would collapse if everyone were content. To make you envious and jealous and discontented is to keep the economy going. The society we live in is very much based on creating this sense of yourself, self-importance, “what I think,” “my rights, my attitudes. My life is the important one.” This is very much part of our cultural conditioning. The result of that is a lot of stress, fear, self-consciousness, insecurity, in so many personal ways. Then as you get older, if you’ve never challenged or looked any deeper than that, it gets worse: “I’m old; nobody loves you when you’re old and gray. I might as well die. I’m no longer productive in this society, and I’m just a drain on the economy.”
Now they talk in Europe about how they’re going to have all these old people to look after, because we live longer now. You’re getting an enormous amount of the aged, who just hang on, that the young people have to support. “I’m not economically producing anything, just a drain on the economy.” You can think things like that! But in terms of Dhamma, old age is not suffering, no matter how pleasant or painful it might be. Disease, suffering, terminal illness, loss, all these are part of a human lifetime, aren’t they? We all have to experience the loss of loved ones. Our parents get old and die, we lose that which we love and are attached to. This is part of every human experience of life. Old age, sickness, death, loss of the loved… This is not suffering, this is the nature of this realm, the conditioned realm, the sense realm is like this. Being a human being is like this. We feel, we’re sensitive, intelligent creatures, but we’re ignorant until we awaken. We create more suffering for ourselves than other creatures because we can really worry about the future in a way that animals don’t at all. Even when we have lots of money in the bank and guaranteed security to the grave, we can still be totally miserable through what: Ignorance, attachment to conditions, not wanting things to be the way they are, wanting something we don’t have.
In this way the Buddha encouraged us to really look at this wanting—desire. And that which is aware of desire is not desire. It’s not annihilating desire. This is the desire realm. But rather recognizing desire is like this, without attaching to it. Once you recognize desire then you’re not just blindly attaching to every desire that enters your consciousness.
So this is an encouragement for you to reflect on what I’ve said this evening. Here in California the opportunities now are very good for hearing the Dhamma and practicing it. When I lived here 50 years ago, there was nothing like this, or Spirit Rock, or anything. There were no teachers. I looked everywhere for a Buddhist teacher. I lived in Berkeley and I couldn’t find any, not even in Berkeley! Now every street corner has some meditation group or yoga group or something. I’ve seen this over 50 years, this incredible interest which was, say 50 years ago, hardly noticeable in the average life of American society. This is really something to appreciate—a good thing about living here. It allows for monasteries to develop, meditation centers, where we can be reminded. We need to have things that remind us because it’s so easy to be forgetful or to be intimidated by all the worldly pressures and demands that our society places on us, or that we project onto it.
So I offer this for your reflection.