The text below is a transcript of a talk by Ajahn Sumedho, the founder of Amaravati Monastery.
For me, it can feed into collaborative creative work (even across different disciplines).
And although he is here addressing a group of people interested in meditation, I think it is possible to substitute the word “life ” for the word ” meditation” , and it still works.
It is not a million miles away from John Cage’s writings.
(Taken from a talk given during a retreat held at Amaravati in August I985 and printed in “The Middle Way”, U.K.)
In meditation we can be alert, attentive; it’s like listening, being with the moment as it is — just listening. Now see if you can hear the primordial sound. It is like a high pitch — it is quite difficult to describe really. Even if you plug your ears, put your fingers against your ears, or if you are underwater in a swimming pool or under the sea, you can hear it. It is a background sound, not dependent upon the ears, because when they are bunged up there is still this high-pitched, vibrating sound. We can use this in meditation, because what we are doing now is learning how to observe the way it is; that which we can experience which we can notice and be aware of — even bad thoughts and bad moods can be used, rather than just rejected.
What we are doing is bringing into awareness the way it is, noticing space and form, emptiness and form; the unconditioned and the conditioned. We can see this as the archetypal symbol: the male – the female; the space – the form.
For example, we begin to notice the space in this room. Most people probably wouldn’t notice the space, they would notice the things; they would notice the people, the walls, the floor, the shrine, the furniture. But to notice the space, what do you do? You withdraw your attention from the things, and bring your attention just to the space. This is not getting rid of the things, nor denying the things in the room — their right to be here; it is merely not concentrating on them, not going from one thing to another.
Beginning to notice the space around people is a very different way of looking at somebody, isn’t it? We look at the space around them rather than looking at them. This is a way of beginning to open oneself. When one has a spacious mind, then there is room for everything. When one has a narrow mind, then there is only room for a few things; everything has to be manipulated and controlled, so that you have only what you think is right — what you want is there — and everything else has to be pushed out. Now life on that level is always suppressed and constricted; it is always a struggle — there is always tension to keep every thing in order all the time. If you have got just a very narrow view of life, the disorder of life always has to be ordered for you, so you are always busy, manipulating the mind, pushing things out or holding on to things. This is the dukkha (suffering) of ignorance, which comes from not understanding things.
Now the spacious mind has room for everything. It is like the space in this room, which is never harmed by what goes in and out of this room. In fact, we say ‘the space in this room’, but actually the room is in the space; the building is in the space. When the building has gone the space will still be here. So we can have a perspective, we have the actual walls and the shape of the room, and the space. Right now we can see the limit of this room, and the space of this room is contained by the limits of this building.
Space is something that we tend not to notice, because it doesn’t grasp our attention, does it? It is not like a beautiful flower something really beautiful, or something really horrible — which pulls your attention right to it. You can be completely mesmerised in an instant by something exciting, fascinating, horrible or terrible; but you can’t do that with space, can you? To notice space you have to calm down — you have to contemplate it.
This is because spaciousness is not extreme, it has no extreme qualities. It is just spacious, whereas flowers can be extremely beautiful, with beautiful bright reds and oranges and purples, beautiful shapes — extremely beautiful shapes — that are just so dazzling to our minds. Or something else can be really ugly and disgusting.
But space is not dazzling, it is not disgusting, and yet without space there would not be anything else; we couldn’t see. If you had just this room, and filled it up with things so it became solid, or filled it up with cement — a big cement block — there’d be no space left in this room. Then, of course, you couldn’t have beautiful flowers or anything else; it would just be a big block. It would be useless, wouldn’t it? So we need both; we need to appreciate the form and the space, because they are the perfect couple, the true marriage, perfect harmony — space and form. We contemplate this, we reflect, and from this comes wisdom. We know how things are, rather than always trying to create things the way we might want them to be.
Now apply this to the mind. Use the ‘I’ consciousness to see space as an object to the ‘I’. We can see that mentally there are the thoughts, emotions — the mental conditions — that arise and cease. Usually we are dazzled, repelled or just bound by the thoughts and emotions; we go from one thing to another — trying to get rid of them or reacting, controlling and manipulating them. So we never have any perspective in our lives, we just become obsessed with repression and indulgence; we are caught in those two extremes.
With meditation we have the opportunity to contemplate the mind. The silence of the mind is like the space in the room; it is always there, but it is subtle. It doesn’t stand out, it doesn’t grab your attention. It has no extreme quality which would stimulate and grasp your attention, so you have to pay attention, you have to be attentive. Now one can use the sound of silence (or the primordial sound, sound of the mind, or whatever you want to call it) very skilfully, by bringing it up, paying attention to it. By concentrating your attention on that for a while, it becomes something that you can really begin to know. It is the mode of knowing in which one can reflect. It’s not a concentrated state you absorb into, it’s not a suppressive kind of concentration. The mind is concentrated in a state of balance and openness, rather than absorbed into an object, so that one can actually think and use that as a way of seeing things in perspective — letting things go.
Now I really want you to investigate this so that you begin to see how to let go of things rather than just have the idea that you should let go of things. You might come away from this retreat with the idea that you should let go of things. Then, when you can’t let go of things, you’d start thinking, “I can’t let go of things,” — but that is another ego problem that you have created. “Only others can let go, but I can’t let go. I should let go — Venerable Sumedho said everybody should let go.” But that very simple thing is another “I am”, isn’t it?
Now you can take that simple thing and begin to notice, reflect and contemplate the space around those two words; rather than looking for something else, you just sustain attention on the space around those two words. It’s like looking at the space in this room; you don’t go looking for the space, do you? ‘Where is the space in this room?’ thinking, ‘I am looking for the space in this room, have you seen it?’ What do you do? You look at it; you are open to it because it is here all the time. It is not anything you are going to find in the cupboard or in the next room or under the floor. It is right here now — so you open, you begin to notice.
If you are still concentrated on the curtains, or the window or the people, you don’t notice the space. But actually you don’t have to get rid of all those things to notice the space; instead you begin just to open to the space, to notice it. Rather than focusing your attention on one thing, you are opening the mind completely; you are not choosing an object — a conditioned object — but the space where the conditioned objects are.
It’s the same with the mind, you can apply that inwardly. When your eyes are closed, you are not looking at something, but it is like listening to the inner voices that go on — those things that say, ‘I am this, I should not be like that’… you use those for taking you to the space, rather than making a big problem about the obsessions and fears that go on in your mind. In this way, even the devil, or an evil thought, can take you to emptiness.
This is very skilful, because it is no longer a battle where we are trying to get rid of evil and kill off the devil. It is letting the devil have his due. The devil is an impermanent thing it rises and ceases in the mind — so you don’t have to making anything out of it. Devil or angels — they are all the same really. Before, you’d think, ‘devil!’. Now trying to get rid of the devil, or trying to grasp hold of the angels is dukkha. But if we take up this cool position of Buddha-knowing — knowing the ways things are — then everything becomes the truth of the way it is. So we see that the good, the bad, the skilful, unskilful, or neither skilful or unskilful dhammas are all qualities that arise and cease.
This is what we mean by reflections, beginning to notice the way it is. Rather than assuming that it should be any way at all, you are simply noticing. So what I am saying now is to encourage you to notice — rather than telling you — how it is.