* Buddhist Reflections on the Spiritual Life
for Ven Ajahn Chah
* An anthology of teachings by
English-speaking disciples of Ajahn Chah
* Source: dhammatalks.net, holybooks.com
KWAN YIN AND THE NOBLE ELEPHANT - Venerable Sucitto
Venerable Sucitto was born in
He spent three years in
Venerable Sucitto was the first senior incumbent of the Harnham Vihara. Since 1983 he has been involved with establishing a training for ten-precept nuns, and in 1984 he moved to Amaravati Buddhist Centre where he still resides.
In the winter of 1986-87, Venerable Sucitto was in
"Something in me let go and listened
to the sounds of the world ... and the silence behind it all
seemed to encompass everything.
No sound could stain the silence of the listening mind."
SIRAJA IS NOT A PARTICULARLY BEAUTIFUL TOWN. It's part of that urban overspill to the east of
It seemed like a good idea: even before the festival began, life in the city was noisy compared with the forests of the Isan. The little monastery that we were staying in occupied a few acres squashed up against a hillside on the outskirts of the city of
So one evening we went down to the seafront and walked out to a small island that was connected the mainland by a pier. On this island there was one of those Chinese Buddhist temples, of which there are very many in
By the next afternoon, unseen wheels had turned and we were able to get a ferry boat out to the
We walked on down to the rocky seashores, the beaches and the sparkling water. We decided to make the best use of the situation by separating and practising on our own most of each day. I had already resolved to fast for the five days that we'd be out there, because whenever I fast then I find that this gives a clarity to my mind, and a greater refinement to my attention. The physical energies calm down and level out and there is less need to sleep.
The weather was beautiful. December in
So after a few days of this I was getting pretty blissed out. Then, I think it was on the third clear day, I came across a beautiful old wooden palace structure that was half burnt down, set in grounds with frangipani trees -- and that was quite amazing. It was near the ruined temple, and exploring further I found a cave which opened into the ground. You could walk down inside this great cleft in the ground, which then opened out to reveal long galleries where you could do walking meditation, and niches in the rock where you could sit and meditate. Then you could go down even further until you couldn't see or hear anything; so you could be completely enfolded in the earth's womb. A hermit's dream!
I thought, 'This is amazing, this is really wonderful!' And it was the day of the full moon. My mind immediately constructed the evening confrontation with Mara: I was near the ruined temple, so I could sit there with Ajahn Mun, or I could go down into the cave and practise, or I could do walking meditation out under the frangipani trees with the cool evening breezes blowing and the full moon beaming down. 'This is it,' I thought, 'this is going to be the night when I really get into some samadhi.'
I was feeling very light, almost skipping up the slope with expectation, when I noticed some people coming along -- which was kind of strange. They were all dressed in white; then I recognised that it was one of the anagarikas from the monastery in Siraja we'd been staying at, and he had some lay women with him who were also dressed in white. I quickly realised that they must have come to see us; but I didn't want to be bothered with polite conversation -- particularly as I couldn't speak the language. However, they'd seen me: I couldn't ignore that, so I decided to make the best of it, come over, be nice, and hopefully it wouldn't last too long. We sat down by a big bodhi tree outside the ruined temple and they had one of those refrigerated boxes with some Coca Cola in it, so I accepted a bottle and drank some. They started asking questions and talking and I couldn't get very much of what they were saying. I just smiled and said I didn't understand and thought that sooner or later Ajahn Gavesako would happen along. Then he could talk to them, and I could go off and sit somewhere and get into some samadhi.
But somewhere in the back of my mind was an anxious voice: 'Why have they come? I wonder what it is?'
Then Ajahn Gavesako came along. I sat with him for a while, but he seemed quite at ease listening and talking to them, so I thought: 'Well I'll just move off.' I started to slip away; but as I was slipping away he turned around and said: 'Oh, Tuhn Sucitto, pack your bag, will you? We're going back.'
My mind stopped: 'Back, what?' He said, 'We're going back to Siraja.' And I said, 'What for? What are we going back for?' Suddenly my evening of samadhi dropped away. 'Oh, they've invited us.' I looked at him questioningly, and he added, 'I don't know what for. It doesn't matter. They've invited us so we'd better go. It wouldn't be polite to refuse.'
At that point something in me stopped. I turned round and walked off and went to where my bowl bag was and packed my alms bowl with my mind going: 'What do they want? What are we doing? I suppose we're going back to chant something or another, do some ritual. Why can't we stay here? We came here for a few days. We were going to go back in a couple of days anyway. We came here for a few days to practise and now we've got to go back to the town. What for? What do they want?' But I knew enough to recognise that resistance in the mind and not to follow it. So I packed my bag. We walked back from that haven to a road where they'd got a motorbike taxi to give us a ride out to the little harbour village. We waited there. I stared glumly at the sea, and then when the ferry came we all packed into it. The boat lingered for a few minutes, then turned and carried us away from the Noble Elephant back to the reeking
We returned to the temple in the city not knowing what for. I went to my kuti, unpacked my bag and sat there waiting for something to happen. And I sat and waited; and nothing happened except the sounds of the city swelled as the duskfall turned into night. Sounds of the traffic, sounds of the world -- and I had to listen to it as night turned into day. And it being Christmas Eve and Thai people, Christians as well as Buddhists, enjoying loud music, there were lots of loud Christmas songs -- in English. Perhaps it was because they were in English that it didn't seem to matter what they were about, because they weren't even Christmas carols that you could be inspired by. What came rolling into my kuti was Christmas Muzak, like 'White Christmas' and 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' -- again and again. I sat there in the night and I sat there in the morning; listening, waiting and listening to 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer', remembering the full moon, the ruined temple, Ajahn Mun, and samadhi.
But I did listen; and something in me got the point. Something in me stopped resisting and became at one with the way things are. 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' is quite a reasonable song actually, when you listen to it a few times; it's got a moral to it. And when something in me let go and listened to the sounds of the world, it seemed there was a vibrant silence behind it all. And the silence behind the sound of the world seemed to encompass and listen to everything. Profound or petty or inane, no sound could stain the silence of the listening mind; and in that acceptance was timeless compassion.
Nobody came for us; nor did anyone come to take us anywhere. They didn't want me to give a talk, do any chanting, bless anything, go anywhere, say anything. Maybe they were worried that we were getting lonely. Perhaps they thought we were not getting enough to eat; I expect the whole event arose out of compassion. But in the end I was grateful. Whatever the Law or compassionate Bodhisattva that arranges these events -- I have a lot to thank them for. They've always managed to catch me out; always turned me away from my attachments, and ideas of practice to make me listen to the way things are. Their emissaries are everywhere. They never let up.
And perhaps I learnt something about the Noble Elephant, the symbol of Dhamma practice. The Buddha himself is likened to the elephant: it's the symbol of the unstoppable aspiration to Nibbana that keeps going through anything. It is with such an aspiration that a tudong monk establishes his practice -- he inclines to be enduring, to be resilient, and to be tested by wild and lonely places. In fact for me it's always been a great pleasure to go to remote places, where I could be alone and independent. Yet I've also noticed that when I interpret the aspiration too literally, a mahout climbs on the back of the Noble Elephant. This mahout is always saying things like: 'I'm going to get into jhana tonight. This is the real place for practice, if I could stay in this place forever, I'd really develop.' And he's always asking the practice to come up with something fancy; like a mahout that wants his elephant to dance and prance and perform tricks. He's always been a burden, this mahout; and as long as he's driving the elephant I've never felt that satisfied, even in blissful circumstances. Instead my attitudes get caught up in trying to prove or attain or hold on to something -- a rather self-conscious striving that finally does not lead to coolness, detachment or liberation.
Of course, when one lives as a bhikkhu there are chances to undertake austerities and live alone sometimes, but the basic standard always entails a relationship with the society. The life is one of dependence; it's an interface. Yet if the Buddha established the bhikkhu life for liberation then we should trust the opportunity for selflessness that it presents. It's a bumpy ride at times, but I've learned to appreciate the tests of Sangha life, and the enigmatic compassion of The Way It Is: they always create predicaments where I have to let go.
When I came down from my kuti on Christmas Eve morning, Ajahn Gavesako was reading a newspaper. 'It says here there are four babies born in the world every second!' 'Better get used to group practice,' I commented.
Sometimes we need austerities, sometimes we need isolation, and sometimes it takes a Red-Nosed Reindeer to awaken us from ourselves.