Ajhan Chah was my teacher’s teacher. He was a Thai monk who left the urban monastery where he was ordained and went to live in the forest to follow the Buddha’s example and teaching in as authentic way as was possible. At the time in the late 19th and early 20th century this forest movement was radical. It was a rejection of the excepted belief that Enlightenment was no longer possible, that a monk could only hope to live a good life but not find the freedom the Buddha taught as this was thought to be a degenerate age which no longer supported the arising of insight. Instead these monks followed their hearts and their conviction that by diligently following the Buddha’s example, going into the forest, meditating and observing their own minds and hearts they could find freedom from suffering.
Initially doing this for themselves, as their reputation as wise beings started to spread communities grew up around them as others went to live in the forest with them, to learn from them and be trained. Thus it was that my teacher Ajahn Sumedho, an American who had found his way to Thailand in the 60s, went to live with a group of Westerners who had gathered around Ajhan Chah.
I never met Ajhan Chah as he died before I was living in the monastery. By all accounts he was a man full of laughter and joy. Those that I have met who seem more free all share this quality of joy and a lightness of heart, whilst having a deep empathy for the suffering they see in others.
The quote at the top of this essay is one I often refer to in my own practice and when I teach. It says so much in so few words. The way one seeks to become something, even when looking for freedom: the seeking to be the one who is free, rather than resting into the freedom that is here. His simple encouragement to “let it be” resonated with me when I first read it: no longer fighting how things are or regretting the past or worrying about the future, but instead allowing for the simple truth of: “this is how it is, it’s like this”. Whenever I met with Ajhan Sumedho he would respond to my anxieties and fretting worries with this simple reply “this is how it is”.
But it was only this month that I saw this version of the quote. Before it ended with “resist nothing”. Which is a very clear encouragement to be open to what is present without judgement or favour. But the whole message of this quote is given deeper meaning by the last sentence:
“If you haven’t wept deeply, you haven’t begun to meditate”
This struck me in the gut as I read it and makes me wonder in some respects if I have even begun to meditate! I have certainly not wept deeply. I have stayed on the surface of the ocean of worry and despair, but only because this is a familiar and comfortable place to be. It is a habit pattern of the mind that is known and strangely comfortable to inhabit. But how would it be to dive in? To feel fully?
The two wings of Awakening: Wisdom and Compassion
Something I have realised recently is that the teaching consists off two wings: wisdom and compassion. With only one wing one cannot fly. Both are needed, but it is easy to focus on one more than the other depending on one’s tendencies.
Wisdom sees that this is all passing, that there is no permanent self and thus no-one to suffer. There is only this moment arising right now, born of conditions that give rise to it. Allowing those conditions to subside this experince will pass and in seeing this one sees that all experience is empty of any inherent, permanent self or ego. All of this is known by Awareness, which is a dispassionate presence that witnesses without being impacted by what is seen, like the sky holding the clouds.
But the Buddha always taught that Enlightenment is composed of both Wisdom and Compassion. That one on its own is not enough to give rise to liberation, nor is it a full expression of freedom. Wisdom without compassion can be a cold knowing that does not feel the pain of humanity and dismisses it as foolish weakness.
Compassion opens to, embraces, holds and is tender to the suffering that is here in one’s own heart and the hearts of others. Compassion without Wisdom though could be sentimental or get lost in overwhelming feelings of sorrow for the pain in the world or a desire to fix others.
Ajhan Chah’s last sentence suggests to me the importance of allowing oneself to feel fully. To open to being fully with the sorrow, the pain and hurt that this human life can hold. Whilst also maintaining the Wisdom element of dispassion that knows not to grasp at this as being me or mine or a permanent and fixed state.
How to do this?
I wish I knew. Then I would be what my About pointed to when he gave me my Buddhist name. As a monk I was known as Bodhinando, which translates as the Bliss of Enlightenment. I was very far from Bliss when he gave me the name and at times it feels I am no nearer now! But it is a reminder that Awakening is Bliss, that my true nature is freedom and joy.
The Buddhist training always required one to take a teacher, a guide whose insight was a little deeper than one’s own. They did not have to be a fully liberated being, but one who could give one enough guidance, encouragement and perspective to help one rest more deeply in to freedom. The Buddha went so far as to say that such friendship was the whole of the spiritual life. As a guide and teacher, or spiritual friend in Buddhist terminology, they could see one more clearly than one might see oneself and through their guidance and encouragement one would come to see something that by simply observing one’s own habit partners of thinking and behaviour might never become clear. As such the modern equivalent to a wise teacher or spiritual friend is a therapist.
I have recently been looking at various opportunities for therapy and one option has now arisen for starting in April. When I was at the monastery there were two camps: the monks who believed meditation and the monastic training was enough, and those who saw therapy as a way to deepen the practice and open more to allowing a shift to take place. I was in therapy for much of the time I was in the monastery as my Abbot believed it to support the training. But since leaving I have not been able to continue this until now. But I do feel ready for a shift, to face the patterns of thoughts and feelings with support and to see how they can be held, felt , seen and allowed to shift into a place of greater freedom.
Healing in Relationship
As I often quote: “we are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship” and if I am to allow myself to explore connecting deeper into my heart I hope that by entering into a relationship with a therapist it will help me to feel more deeply, to recognise the patterns of feeling and thinking that are so close they seem to be me, but are constructs, created over time and maintained simply out of habit rather than because they are true.
I often feel sad. And often wake up feeling that I want to cry. The sadness of life, its fragility and uncertainty: this life “that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”
I asked Jeff Foster about this experience of waking up with a sense of sadness. He had been talking about his own experience of this in the past and how he found that resisting it did not make it go away, instead he needed to fully allow that it was there, as an experience. But the shift was of seeing that it it could be held with love. To see that sadness, that crying deeply, does not then mean I am a sad person, only that in this being there is a feeling of sadness….and it can be held. The risk of applying only Wisdom to this is that we try to find ways to never have to feel sad, as we label it as wrong, but if we bring in Compassion then we fly on the two wings of liberation: Wisdom and Compassion. The loving heart that feels deeply and the wise knowing that lets it go. But to let go one first needs to feel, and hence to be ready to weep deeply in meditation….or with one’s therapist or a good friend who can hold it without fear or judgement.