Extracts from Parami, Ways to Cross Life’s Floods by Ajahn Sucitto. Ajahn continues with his studies of the Resolve Parami, a close analysis of the smallest mind moments in order to find the way leading to Nibbana.
POSTCARD#418: Bangkok: In monastic life, there is the Rains Retreat, a three-month period every year for more intense practice, and taking on a resolution is a customary part of that. Three months of keeping a resolution is a good effort because what sounds like an inspiring resolution on day one gets to be a tedious burden by day sixty. Therefore you have to bear with it, and this strengthens the power of witnessing the changes of mood and inclination.
During my first Rains Retreat in England, I considered that I was very fond of ideas and I always wanted to have bright and interesting things in my mind. So I determined a few things to work against that trend. Firstly I resolved not to read anything, because I was aware of how much time I’d spend casually reading stuff just to fill the holes in the day and keep the mind stimulated. When I put that habit aside, the hours began to yawn open. This was even more the case, as for this three-month period, I was refraining from conversation. On top of these, the other resolution was the ‘sitter’s practice,’ wherein one resolves not to lie down at any time during the three months. So there were many hours where there was nothing whatsoever to feed the mind, and no oblivion to sink into to get away from its poverty.
Also, because refraining from lying down lessens the amount of sleep you can get — which makes the mind dull and dreamy — a lot of the time I just had to sit and be with inconsequential ramblings of thought and weird daydreams and give up the attachment to bright mind states. I had to learn to hold and work with, and not shy away from, the inconclusive, dribbling, dreary mind. This meant staying with it and attending to it as if it were worthy of attention. This practice was very good for developing compassion.
Compassion is a wonderful idea when you read about it in a book. But meeting one’s personal dreary, muttering mind with an unflinching and tender heart is more demanding than experiencing compassion for the starving people of the world. When one thinks of the starving millions, that readily inspires compassion. But when you take away the worthy cause, you see that the nature of the mind is to need something to engage with. Then you feel what it’s like if there’s nothing interesting or worthwhile to do. The mind gets moody, bored and lifeless. And you have to learn to simply hold it, as you would a baby — holding it, rocking it, bearing with it, listening to it. This is great for strengthening and broadening the heart, building up tolerance, and letting go of conceit.
Of course one can also develop resolve with the wrong motivation — such as trying to prove oneself, or just to get through the tedium of a monastic day. I could sense that to develop the resolve to be with the raggedness, chaos and disorderliness of samsāra without conceit or irritation is in itself conducive to Nibbāna. To open to the woundedness and wackiness of my own kamma as well as that of other people – and to experience compassion rather than judgment – this was the opportunity to further the practice.
Resolve has to be developed wisely. It first strengthens the individual will and integrity, but then if you sustain that in relationship to others, resolve opens the mind into a broad field of wisdom and compassion. It penetrates the isolation of the watchful meditator and reveals what the watchfulness can cover: the rawness that says, ‘I want to be unmoved and not have to get involved.’ The watcher can be affected by the wish to not be here, which can provide a basis for self-view and bias. So although stillness is useful, it too is not to be clung to. Unless stillness furthers letting go, it doesn’t lead to final freedom — the freedom from the biases and standpoints of self-view.
Opening to Compassion
This understanding can really broaden our perspectives. We all want to be happy, and yet normally we get disappointed. This is because we imagine happiness to be a colorful emotion of gratification, but this is not as deeply meaningful and steady as compassion. Compassion is something we can all share, at any time, no matter whether we are up or down, or whether everybody else is up or down. We can all share in it. The happiness that derives from pleasure isn’t something we are designed for as human beings. We can experience little bits of it, maybe, but it’s sporadic. The uplifted attitude of compassion is more our measure. Compassion is the only way to hold the world.
It’s not that compassion is always about doing something. Rather, it’s the intention to replace the contraction and agitation we experience around pain with openness. Sometimes there are things we can do, sometimes there aren’t. But when we’re identified with action and responsibility, there’s a stress in the heart, and the sense of having to make things work. When we get it right in a holistic way — with regard to self and others, and towards Nibbāna — we can avoid the pitfall of getting stuck in trying to be good and dutiful.
In my own case, identifying with covering a lot of duties around the monastery makes me get functional, busy and intense. And that isn’t what people want from a Buddhist monk. (Continued next week 07 May 2021)
Image details: Seated Buddha, Gal Viharaya, Polonnawura, Sri Lanka 12th Century. Photo by Bernard Gagnon