Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Wonderful Text

In response to my entry a couple of days on "Alms", my friend Paul at Parami Press (note, in passing, the cover of my soon to be published book at Paul's site!)--referred me to a text by Ajahn Chandako at the Vimutti Monastery in New Zealand. It's the story of a "tudong", a traditional walkabout by Thai Forest monks, in the glorious landscape of New Zealand's South Island, without money, food, or even plans. The Ajahn's narrative (scroll down to the entry "Wandering Forest Monks" and hit "Read the full story) is at once a wonderful, sometimes funny, always beautifully descriptive read, well worth he time you spend with it. More than just a journey, it reads with unusual clarity as an introduction to Buddhist thought and practice, and explores some of the key terms in a delightfully approachable manner. Take, for example, this passage on "vedana":

Beautiful, ugly, comfortable, uncomfortable, delicious or yucky—these are examples of the manifestations of vedana, the Pali term for the very basic and quick reactions we have to sense experience at any of the six sense doors (the traditional five senses plus the mind). The sense experience itself is quite simple: merely electromagnetic waves or particles, chemical reactions or mental energy that manifests as color, sound, smell, taste, physical sensations or thoughts. The vedana is then experienced as positive, negative or neutral, depending on basic human nature and conditioned preferences. Seeing an attractive young woman or man will usually give rise to the positive vedana that we call ‘beautiful’ or ‘cute’. Stubbing your toe or smelling a skunk will normally bring on a basic human reaction of unpleasant vedana. Other reactions are more dependent upon our cultural backgrounds and past experiences in life. Beauty is literally in the eye—or mind—of the beholder. Some smells immediately bring up a warm memory even before we think about it. At this basic level of sensory interaction with our environment we can try to maximize the odds of experiencing pleasant vedana, but it is impossible to totally eliminate the experience of the unpleasant in our lives. In fact, the constant pressure to maintain a high level of pleasant experience can in itself become a tiring burden, while a life dedicated to it suffers from hollowness of meaning.

Another important step of the sensory experience is when we recognize the color, shape, sound or feeling and label it. A sight, for example, may be initially neutral until we recognize the shape as a friend. Then it suddenly turns positive. Vedana arising from these perceptions are highly personal. The sight of a furry opossum in New Zealand may bring up a heart warming reaction of ‘cute’ in one person or a gut-tightening hate in another. And then they can argue about it. At the level of sense contact and vedana life is still pretty simple. However, once our minds start projecting perceptions of like and dislike, good and bad, mine and yours, all hell breaks loose. A sight is no longer merely color and shape. We interpret it, judge it, desire or hate it. A thought is no longer merely a thought, but ‘my’ thought, a ‘great’ thought, a ‘bunch of useless’ thoughts, a ‘judgmental’ thought about how something should be different than the way it is, or even a ‘bad’ thought that feeds self- perceptions of unworthiness. This is where we can cause ourselves a huge amount of unnecessary suffering. This is where the tangled pile of knotted string called the unenlightened mind offers us the opportunity to patiently wind it up neatly. And this is where, through acceptance of how things actually are in the present, we can experience some measure of freedom and peace.

The Ajahn's story is full of such asides, the sum of which form a skillful introduction to the wisdom of the Buddha and the ways in which it can be useful to us in the way we choose to live our lives. His month-long journey with an associate, is full of unexpected encounters, all of which lead to new insights and wisdom. I liked especially the story of the ferry-boat haunted by the spirit of its former captain, a liberal drinker who died of a heart attack and, though dead already, seemed disinclined to leave his post--to the dismay of the boat's crew, who called upon the monk's to help them with their problem. While disclaiming expertise as ghostbusters, the ajahn and his sidekick did delve into their Buddhist training for some surprisingly sane and excellent thoughts about ghosts and how to relate to them.

Or there is the story of their encounter with the hostile fundamentalist Christian who wants to convert them to his own beliefs. Here's Ajahn Chandako, again, spinning straw into gold:

I suppose I could have told our Kiwi crusader that I had an undergraduate degree in comparative religion, and that I was not unfamiliar with the Bible and the teachings of popular Christianity. I could have explained that of all the religions I had studied, it was the teachings of the Buddha that touched my heart most deeply and seemed to me to be the most profound. I could have challenged him a bit by saying that I felt the stated Christian goal of everlasting heaven seemed shallow compared with the Buddha’s explanation of enlightenment (Nibbana or Nirvana). Or I could have questioned the common sense behind the ‘gift of grace’ that supposedly condemns good people of other faiths to an eternity in hell, while promising that no matter how much evil you have committed in your life, simply believing in God before you die ensures your place in paradise. And it might have been interesting to see his reaction if I suggested that even if a Christian path did lead to heaven, it offered no lasting solution to the search for eternal freedom and happiness. But that would have likely extended our conversation without much prospect of benefit, so instead I just decided to say, “thank you.”

I respected his right to believe whatever he wished, and I wasn’t about to try to convince him otherwise. However, in my own experience it is not belief, per se, that determines one’s future, but the motivations fueling one’s thoughts, speech and actions. Religious beliefs hopefully lead to positive and harmonious motivations, but all too often lead to their opposites. In Buddhism, mere belief—no matter how strong—has little relevance compared with direct insight into the nature of reality. It is wisdom and kindness, not belief, that is the litmus test for a good heart.

I'm still in the middle of reading this excellent story. I hope you'll join me along the way, and find as much to delight and inform you as I have done. My thanks to Paul for recommending it!


mandt said...


Pete Hoge said...

"tangled pile of knotted string"

that about says it.

Not sure that I like Ajahn's
comments about Christianity,
I am in no position to argue about
it yet. However I will say that
the Kingdom of God is a lasting
solution to the problems of

Thanks for posting this.