There is a beautiful quote of the Buddha’s from the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta that I have always enjoyed:
“So many births I have taken in this world, seeking in vain the builder of this house; in my search over and over, I took new birth, new suffering.
Oh! house builder, now I have seen you, you cannot make a new house for me; all your beams are broken, the ridge pole is shattered; my mind is freed from all the conditionings of the past, and has no more craving for the future.”
The Buddha would often teach through parables and poetry. This story does not give the logical mind much to hold on to, or make sense of, but does speak to the heart. When I first read it about 25 years ago I remember being intrigued by it and moved by the Buddha’s joy at expressing his freedom from the house builder – whatever that was!
To me it is suggestive of the deep insight that can arise in meditation through which we become free from the stories we tell ourselves of who we are. Reading some commentaries on the text they refer to Ignorance, which in the Buddhist tradition is the root of suffering: the ignorance that leads to thinking we are a separate and distinct entity rather than part of the flux and flow of life. This sense of isolation can give rise to the idea that this life is all about what I do and make happen: that there is a me to whom all these experiences occur and who is going to carry the weight and memory of them into the future. What the Buddha suggests is that with insight we learn to loosen this sense of an essential, unchanging ‘me’ to whom things happen. Instead there is what is here in the present moment, as it arises as part of a nexus of interconnected conditions and factors.
Seeing ourselves from the perspective of ignorance as a single separate self is like saying the tree is just as it is in any one moment of its constantly changing interaction with the environment in which it grows. Is the tree the fresh green leaves of Spring? Is it the heavy and fecund leaves and fruit of late Summer? Is it the brown and brittle leaves of Autumn? Is it the bare branches of Winter?
Are the leaves the tree or when they fall and rot and become soil at which point do they stop being the tree and at what point does the nutrient of the soil no longer be soil and again become tree?
The tree exists as an exchange and interaction with its environment: the sun, the carbon dioxide we breathe out, the soil.
At what point can we stop the flow of being that is the Universe expressing itself as a tree and say this is the basic non changing essence of this tree? Or do we just accept that there is no such thing as a tree in any unchanging state, only the interaction of numerous factors that are finding expression in this moment as something we call a tree?
It is the same with us. But we like to create the idea that because we can think of ourselves as an identity there must be a basic ‘me’ that is here experiencing all of this. As we meditate what we see is that there is experience but no one who experiences it. But we then create the notion of a subtle spiritual me who is witnessing the stillness of meditation. The ‘dark night of the soul’ that Christian mystics talk of may be that time in all contemplatives lives that faces them with the fear of letting go of even being a spiritual being or entity. This is the fear of the void – which the ego sees as destruction for it is impossible for self to conceive of how existence is possible without the ‘house builder’ who creates the notion of the container of ‘me’.
I wish I lived in this open space of being! But I am still well entrenched in my house!! But I do resonate with this teaching and in my daily practice the observing of the arising of identity through grasping at ideas of existing and ideas of not existing.
Ideas of existing arise every time I dwell on thoughts of who I was in the past or identify with thoughts of the future, or hold on to experience arising in the present as something fixed and eternal.
Ideas of not existing arise when I am trying to go into a peaceful place where there are no thoughts, where I can experience the stillness of being – but with the notion that it is me experiencing the stillness.
This week I have been faced with a powerful lession in how painful it can be to hold onto the creations of ignorance to build the house of self-idenetiy through anticipating the future. A few months ago I had some issues that led to seeing my GP for a prostate health check up and the result of some blood tests led to going in for an MRI scan. I went in last Monday morning, thinking I was just going to be told the results – instead I had a biopsy on the prostate!
This was relatively painless, the worst thing was the injections for the anaesthetic. By the time I was teaching that night it was a bit sore, but nothing too bad. The really difficult thing to work with has been the thoughts about it. It’s been fairly easy to keep coming back to the present moment, to reminding myself “unsure, uncertain” if the mind starts to create stories about the future. Until I get the results I simply don’t know – it may be all clear, or there may be some cancer there. No amount of thinking about it now tells me what the result will be so I can only stay in that place of not knowing, trusting that whatever action is needed will happen once I have the results. Once I know, the I will be in a position to respond to the known, not to an idea of what might be.
The procedure has had an impact on other things as well as for a few weeks to a couple of months there may be blood in the urine and ejaculate. This is a harder story to work with, as it ties into the story that I will not be wanted. Suddenly any thought of meeting for a date or anything intimate seems all too difficult. Again this is the story telling mind saying that it will all be awful for two months. I simply need to see how things progress over the next week or two and if the healing happens more quickly or takes its time. But the sense of dread and anxiety of imagining a future that is difficult and frustrating creates the feeling of it as if it were here right now.
At these times I have to remember Ajahn Sumedho’s consistent teaching: “this is how it is, it’s like this”. The ego house builder wants it to be how it thinks it should be and the struggle with this causes suffering: “it should not be like this”, “it’s not fair”, “why does it have to be like this”, “I don’t want this”……..Accepting, “this is how it is, it’s like this” I am then simply left noticing the house builder at work constructing ideas of me, the imagined future, and what might happen. It doesn’t stop the process, but it gives a chance to witness it and be less in its control. And perhaps in that way it is possible to see the house builder and deconstruct the edifice of self-identity he has erected using ideas of me and mine.