(Editor’s Note: In honor of Luang Por Sumedho’s 80th birthday on July 27th and his recent visit to Abhayagiri, we will be posting a series of Luang Por Sumedho reflections.)
Bring your attention to this moment, here and now. Whatever you’re feeling physically or emotionally, whatever its quality, this is the way it is. And this knowing of the way it is is consciousness; it’s how we experience the now. Be aware of this. When we’re fully conscious, aware of here and now with no attachment, then we’re not trying to solve our problems, remembering the past, or planning for the future. And if we are doing these things, then we stop and recognize what we’re doing. Non attachment means that we’re not creating anything more in our minds; we’re just aware. This is reflecting on the way it is. When we’re thinking, planning, dreading, anticipating, hoping, expecting something in the future, this is all taking place in the here and now, isn’t it? These are mental states we’re creating in the present. What is the future? What is the past? There’s only now, this present moment. We may then wonder, “What is it that knows?” We always want to define the subject. Is that the real me? Is that my true self? This subjectivity and questioning and wanting to find some identity is also a creation in the now. If we trust in the silence, there’s nobody. We can’t find anybody in the sound of silence. The whole problem ceases.
How much substance does any memory have in the present? Does it have any permanent essence? Is somebody you remember really a person? Think of your mother right now. Even if your mother passed away many years ago, you can still think of “mother” and perceptions, memories come up. Where is your mother right now as you’re sitting thinking about her? She’s a perception in the mind. Knowing that memory and perception are created in the present is not a criticism or negation; it’s simply putting thoughts into a context of what they really are.
We often live in a realm of time and self and believe it totally, lost in our own creations. But
we’re finding a way out of this trap of the mind. Our society totally believes in these delusions, so we can’t expect much help from society. For instance, we love history, don’t we? “You know, Buddha was actually a living human being. It’s a historical fact.” That makes it real to us because we have all the confidence in history. But what is history? It’s memory. If we read different histories about the same period, they sound very different. I studied British colonial history in India. An account written by a British historian is very different than one written by an Indian historian. Is one of them lying? No, they’re probably honorable scholars, both of them, but they each see and remember in different ways. Memory’s like that.
So when you explore memory, just observe that memories come and go. And when they’re gone, consciousness is what remains. Consciousness is now. This is the path, here and now, the way it is. Use what is happening now as the path rather than going along with the idea that you are somebody from the past who needs to practice to get rid of all your defilements in order to become enlightened in the future. That is just a self you create and believe in.
We suffer a lot, feeling guilty about memories of the past. We remember things we’ve said or done, or shouldn’t have done, and feel terrible. Or we hope everything will go well in the future and then worry about whether everything will go wrong. Well, things could go all wrong, or they could go all right. Or partially right and partially wrong. Anything can happen in the future. That’s why we worry, isn’t it? We like to go to fortune tellers because we think the future may be very frightening for us, not knowing. What will be the result of our decisions? Have I made the right choice?
The only thing that’s certain about the future—the death of the body—is something we try to ignore. Just thinking about the word death stops the mind, doesn’t it? It does for me. It’s not particularly polite or politically correct to speak of death in casual conversation. What is death? What will happen when I die? Not knowing upsets us. But it is unknown, isn’t it? We don’t know what will happen when the body dies. We have various theories—like reincarnation or being rewarded by a better rebirth or being punished by a worse birth. Some people speculate that once you’ve attained human birth, you may still be reborn as a lower creature. And then there’s the school that says no, once you’ve taken birth in the human form, then you cannot be reborn as a lower creature. Or the belief in oblivion—once you’re dead, you’re dead. That’s it. Nothing left. Finito. The truth of the matter is that nobody really knows. So we often just ignore it or suppress it.
But this is all happening in the now. We’re thinking of the concept of death in the present. The way the word death affects consciousness is like this. This is knowing not knowing in the now. It’s not trying to prove any theory. It’s knowing: the breath is like this; the body like this; the moods and mental states are like this. This is developing the path. Saying “like this” is just a way of reminding oneself to see this moment as it is rather than to be caught in some idea that we’ve got to do something or find something or control something or get rid of something.
Developing the path, cultivating bhavana is not only formal meditation that we can only do at a certain place, under certain conditions, with certain teachers. That’s just another view we’re creating in the present. Observe how you practice in daily life—at home, with your family, on the job. The word bhavana means being aware of the mind wherever you are in the present moment. I can give you advice about developing sitting meditation—so many minutes every morning and every evening—which is certainly to be considered. It’s useful to develop discipline, to take some time in your daily life to stop your activities, the momentum of duties, the responsibilities and habits. But what I’ve found to really help me the most has been to reflect and pay attention to the here and now.
It’s so easy to be planning the future or remembering the past especially when nothing really important is happening right now: “I’m going to be teaching a meditation retreat in the future,” or “My trip to Bhutan was a really special visit to an exotic country in the Himalayas.” But so much of life is not special; it’s like this. And even going to marvelous places in the Himalayas is what it is—trees, sky, consciousness; it’s not all that different. It’s just the hype we give it. I also hear people suffering a lot about things they’ve done or things they shouldn’t have done—mistakes, crimes, terrible things they said in the past. They can become obsessed because once they start remembering the mistakes of the past it creates a whole mood. All the guilty moments of the past can come flooding back in and destroy one’s life in the present. Many people end up stuck in a very miserable hell realm that they’ve created for themselves.
But this is all happening in the present, which is why this present moment is the door to liberation. It’s the gate to the Deathless. Awakening to this is not suppressing, denying, dismissing, defending, justifying, or blaming; it is what it is, attending to a memory. “This is a memory” is an honest statement. It’s not a dismissal of the thought, but it’s no longer regarding it with such personal attachment. Memories, when seen clearly, have no essence. They dissolve into thin air.
Try taking a guilty memory and deliberately sustaining it. Think of some terrible thing you’ve done in the past, then determine to keep it in your consciousness for five minutes. By trying to keep thinking about it, you will find how difficult it is to sustain. But when that same memory arises and you resist it or wallow in it or believe in it, then it can hang around the whole day. A whole lifetime can be filled with guilt and remorse.
So just by awakening, seeing it the way it is, is a refuge. Every time you’re aware of what you’re thinking—not critical, even if you’re thinking something really ugly and nasty—you’re getting to be an expert. This is what you can trust. As you develop this, have more confidence in it. Your awareness will become a stronger force than your emotions, your defilements, your fears and desires. At first it may seem like emotions and desires are much stronger, that it’s impossible to simply be aware. You may have only a few brief moments of awareness and then back into the raging storm. It may seem hopeless, but it’s not. The more you test it out, investigate and trust this awareness, the more stable it becomes. The seemingly invincible power of the emotional qualities, obsessions, and habits will lose that sense of being the stronger force. You will find that your real strength is in awareness, not in controlling the ocean and waves and cyclones and tsunamis and all the rest that you can’t possible ever control anyway. It’s only in trusting in this one point—here and now—that you realize liberation.
Luang Por Sumedho was born in Seattle, Washington. In 1966, he went to Thailand to practice meditation and not long afterwards, he went forth as a monk. He took dependence from Luang Por Chah and remained under his close guidance for ten years. In 1977, he accompanied Luang Por Chah to England, helping to establish Chithurst Monastery and later Amaravati.