Excerpt from: Ajahn Sumedho [AS] Interviewed by Roger Wheeler [RW], Part 2:
RW: …Now, your and [Ajahn] Sucitto’s presence here has been an obvious display of the carrying on of a tradition that has existed for over 2,500 years…I wonder if one could get too caught up in form, missing the intended purpose? Or another way of stating it, how does one avoid getting caught up in form?
AS: Well, it’s like driving a car. One could dismiss the convention of a car and say, ‘I am not going to depend on that because it’s from the past, so I’ll just walk on my own to New York City’, or, ‘I’ll invent my own car, because I don’t want to copy someone else and take something that is from the past and bring it into the present.’ I could do that and maybe I would succeed. I don’t know.
The point is not so much in the vehicle that is used, but in getting to New York City. Whether one goes slowly or quickly, one should take what is available, whatever vehicle one finds around. If there isn’t any, invent one or just walk. One must do the best one can. But if there is one already around, why not learn to use it, especially if it’s still operable? Tradition is like that. It’s not clinging.
One can also cling to the idea that one does not need tradition, which is just another opinion or view. The problem, you see…does not lie in the tradition but in the clinging. This body is a conventional form that came from the past. The language that we use, the world we live in and the societies we are part of are all conventional forms that were born in the past. So one could say that one does not want anything to do with them, in which case one should stop talking completely…
We live in a conventional world. It’s not a matter of depending on conventions, but of learning how to use them skilfully. We can use language for gossip, lying and becoming obsessed speakers; we can become perfectionists, fussbudgets with language. The important thing to understand is that language is communication.
When I communicate something to you, I try to speak as directly and clearly as possible. It’s a skill. But if my tongue were cut out I would just learn to live without speaking, that’s all. That would not be any great sorrow – but a bit of an inconvenience for some things; it might be convenient for many other things.
Religious traditions are just conventions that can be used or not, according to time and place. If one knows how to use them through the tradition, one is much better off than someone who does not know, who thinks that they are all just a waste of time.
One can go to a Christian church, a Theravada monastery or a synagogue and respect, get a feeling for the convention one finds there, without feeling that it’s bad or wrong. It’s not up to us to decide about that. They are all based on doing good, refraining from doing evil. But if one clings to them, one is bound to them.
If one regards religion as just a convention, one can learn how to use it properly. It’s the raft that takes one across.
These reflections by Luang Por Sumedho are from the book, Ajahn Sumedho Anthology, Volume 2—Seeds of Understanding, (pdf) pp.81-83.