The following is an excerpt from an interview with Ajahn Sundara, a French-born ordained monastic in the Buddhist Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah. She has been teaching and leading retreats in Europe and North America for 20 and currently resides at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in southeast England.
May this sharing inspire you to discover the simplicity in your dharma practice!
It Can be Very Simple
An interview with Ajahn Sundara
Thank you, Ajahn, for taking the time to talk with us this morning. Let me start by asking you something simple: What do you feel is the essence of dharma?
[Laughter.] This is not such a simple question… The essence of dharma is liberation. Liberation from dukkha, from suffering in its widest meaning. And also liberation from any kind of delusion, any kind of ignorance.
Sometimes liberation is portrayed as a goal at the end of one’s path, and at other times one hears about moments of liberation and freedom. Can you clarify this?
Liberation is not out there somewhere, or an event that will happen sometime in the future. It begins right here right now. Many conditions are supporting the time when one might have a profound experience of letting go of some particular blind spot or pattern of attachment. Even though nirvana is presented as a goal—the goal of final liberation—each moment is a moment where there is a possibility of liberating the mind from its habitual grasping, its clinging, its blindness. So it’s the goal, and at the same time it’s happening in the moment. These do not contradict one another.
What do these moments feel like, when you actually experience insight?
It’s not like a major fireworks experience, where everything is suddenly just blown apart. For me, it can be very simple: just suddenly noticing an habitual way of the mind seeing things. You contact the world, and suddenly you see the dukkha [stress, suffering] and you KNOW. You just see the experience of tension, and the actual tanhà [craving] behind it. You can experience both the wanting—and then the relaxing into that experience and allowing it to just be there. You see that you can stop acting on it.
When it becomes clear that grasping is the cause of dukkha, you just let go. Instead of clinging, you just release it. The peace that comes from releasing, that is nirodha, the experience of cessation, the third noble truth which is often hardly even noticed. The mind, under the influence of ego, is more inclined to notice what is exciting or interesting. Usually you might be pushing away the experience, or grasping it, or struggling with it, or making something out of it, or becoming it. And then, in this moment of insight, you see these as just reactive responses that we usually have out of ignorance towards our mind states, our bodily experiences, and so on. Cessation is peaceful: the ending of grasping, the ending of our problems, the ending of ME with my story and all its complexities
You realize that there is no one there. The mind with its thoughts, feeling and perception just seems to arise out of nowhere, and disappears, and arise again. It is only through our delusion that we are constantly building up a sense of self around that, creating what we hope is some kind of secure landscape. We construct a person, again and again, out of our misapprehension of physical and mental phenomena.
So the noble truths are really revealed in experience moment after moment?
Yes. If you are awake.
And how do we wake up, or remain awake, in order to see these things in our experience?
Paradoxically, the experience of dukkha is part of our waking up. Somehow I’ve noticed that most human beings around me—including myself—seem to be spurred on by the experience of unsatisfactoriness. I don’t think any one of us is looking for that, or wants it, and it’s not necessarily unsatisfactory in the sense of being unhappy.
But often with the experience of dukkha comes the realization that you are asleep; there is a lack of mindfulness, a lack of awareness and energy. A kind of contraction has already begun, and then suddenly you realize that you are not aware. You are not really present with what’s happening. You are seeing the world through the veil of habits, the veil of misery and depression, excitement, anger or frustration. As a well known teacher says, you are not meeting the moment as a fresh moment.
Do you mean that you need to be awake to see the noble truths in your experience, and at the same time, by seeing them, you wake up?
That’s right. When you really see suffering, you have already come to that place of wakefulness, which is not clinging and grasping. So in a way by seeing suffering, you have also almost seen the ending of suffering. It’s not like a linear sequence in time, one, two, three, four. It’s more like the case of a hand touching a cinder of hot coal. As soon as you pick it up you drop it, because you just know it is hot. You don’t wait, you just drop it. At some point it becomes as urgent as this.
And what might you say to help a person who can see the unsatisfactoriness arising again and again in their experience, but somehow just can’t seem to manage to see the holding that is underlying and causing it?
We all go through this. We can often feel the misery of dukkha and not be able to drop it. It is as if we were addicted to it. I think all of us are in the same boat. But this is where practice makes a difference. With meditation we have tools that help us to investigate the nature of our experiences and to see our habitual grasping. Much of the practice is about being very patient and willing to bear with our habits until they run out of fuel.
It’s as though we were starting a program of detox: it doesn’t feel so good. We can experience the withdrawal symptoms of addiction to delusion. For a while you just feel very ill at ease because you are not feeding the habits of grasping. Many people come to practice thinking, “Oh, it’s going to be really nice. I’m going to find peace, and I’ll be confident and more clear.” They don’t realize that actually when you enter the practice, you enter a strong fire.
And what helps us make the breakthrough? Is it just the gradual effects of patiently returning our attention to the present? Or is it a momentum that grows from moments of insight getting closer together, or more deep?
Sometimes it is just a matter of patiently bearing with difficult states of mind, mood, emotion, perceptions, old conditioning and so on. As we keep taking refuge in mindfulness, moment by moment, we are not fueling our habits and our grasping begins to loosen up. It does not seem like very much at first, yet you begin to notice how certain situations, certain people, certain moods that used to agitate your mind do not have any hold anymore.
When I first learned about practice, my teacher emphasized right view. His teaching constantly reminded me to observe experiences as changing—and to notice when there was suffering or not. Paying attention, I began to be aware when I took things personally and when I did not, when the sense of self was present or not. The more it hurt, I noticed, the more I was invested in what I experienced. I was noticing the patterns of attachment in my life and the lack of inherent selfhood of the mind.
I think sometimes in the West we see the practice and the path of training the mind in a way that is a little narrow. We think of it, perhaps, as a technique or some kind of special conditions to reach a breakthrough. We often forget that every aspect of life is a tool to realize Dhamma. Everything in life influences us, and awareness is key. Awareness of mistakes can take us right into the fire. Sometimes not getting it quite right is what wakes you up, much more sharply than developing a lot of techniques to be aware. Transformation sometimes needs fire, and we don’t have to be afraid of the heat that’s generated by the shadow side of our personality.
But what is the wisdom component of that? For many people, when their ego gets thrown down, they feel bad about themselves; and this can just fuel more unskillful states. What is the crucial factor that will allow one to use this as a tool for growth rather than for further suffering?
Wisdom can help discern the suffering that perpetuates itself and the suffering that takes us to the end of suffering. Most people identify with what they experience. So when they feel miserable, they don’t know how to let awareness reflect back their experiences. If we are still desperately clinging to being successful, or being loved, or being praised, or being famous, or whatever—then we won’t be able to see the bigger picture. We won’t be able to reach the state of peace that Ajahn Chah was pointing to when he said:
“If you let go of a little you have a little peace. If you let go of a lot you have a lot of peace. And if you let go completely, then you have complete peace.”