Ajhan Viradhammo, a Thai forest monk in the tradition of Ajahn Chah, is a westerner whose teachings are accessible and insightful. This blog explores some of teachings from his podcasts.
This has been a difficult period in my life. In addition to having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which periodically leaves me virtually incapacitated from exhaustion, I recently was diagnosed with pernicious anemia, meaning a severe Vitamin B12 deficiency. It was diagnosed when I went to the doctor because of increased fatigue as well as peripheral neuropathy (numbness in the legs and hands) – both classic symptoms of B12 deficiency. There’s also been a number of frustrations for various other things lately. In addition, I’ve been watching my wife take care of an ailing (91-year-old) mother; that, and turning 61, have caused me to reflect more on the process of growing old, the possibility of eventually having to be cared for by someone else.
I had fallen out of a daily meditation practice and found myself in a bit of a state, with worry and fear, that the neuropathy would be permanent and that I’d always have this debilitating fatigue.
In the midst of this, I began listening to some of the talks of Ajhan Viradhammo that are available on podcasts. Ajahn Viradhammo is one of the resident teachers at Tisarana Buddhist Monastary (offsite, opens in new window) in Ontario, Canada, a monastary in the forest tradition of Ajahn Chah. Born in 1947, he’s roughly contemporary (I was born in 1950); he studied for 4 years in Thailand with Ajahn Chah. I’ve gotten his podcasts through iTunes, though you can also find some here: Tisarana – Podcast: Ajahn Viradhammo (offsite, opens in new window).
His teachings are a good supplement to the words of Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Viradhammo’s teachings are approachable and reassuring – Ajahn Chah is sometimes a bit daunting. Ajhan Viradhammo has a practical way of talking about the teachings, one that reassures because it presents the teachings as doable, it reassures that Buddhist practice is something we can all do.
Here are some of the concepts and ideas, reported through my understanding, that have proved useful.
Understanding “Negative” States of Mind
A good meditation can bring insights and diamond-like flashes of insight and can also result in a tranquility and peace of mind that is very alluring. It’s all too easy to judge your condition on whether or not you have that clear-sighted tranquility and whether or not it persists for long periods of time.
In the midst of difficult times with massive doses of despair, fear, anxiety, worry, etc., the so-called “negative” states of mind, it’s easy to feel discouraged, to feel that all that meditation, all the awareness and hard work really means nothing. The mind set is that these “negative” states of mind indicate failure.
Ajahn Viradhammo points out that these difficult mind-states are not to be lamented and feared, rather they are to be worked with. As he says, you can’t develop equanimity if you are already equanimous. It is during the difficult times that we can actually do the work that will help to nourish positive states of mind.
This means an illness doesn’t have to be used as an excuse and an explanation for feeling so miserable (“If I weren’t sick, I could practice better, I’d be successful”). Instead, it can be used as a teacher. It’s not the illness that is causing the suffering: the illness is just a collection of bodily sensations. The suffering comes from wanting it to be different than what it is. The unpleasantness of the body can be observed in terms of sensations and the mind watched to see what it is adding to the sensation. The suffering is in the mind.
I tend to want to run away from or change mind-states that I don’t enjoy. Instead of wishing the mind-state was different, I can, instead, examine it minutely: how does it feel and what are the thoughts associated with it. How long does it persist if I just watch it?
But I think the point of it is that we have enough presence of mind to see that the very conflicts of life are also the liberators of our consciousness. Because our consciousness, . . . in the conflicting part of our life, as long as we see them as problems that we’re trying to get rid of, or that we are to be blamed for, or that we are hopeless basket cases, or whatever way we go, if we don’t see them as liberating possibilities, then we just try to get rid of them: “Get out of my way, I’m trying to get to Nibbana.” And yet if we see them as the very things where our consciousness gets localized, gets contracted, gets detached, we see that if we’re going to realize the boundless in consciousness, rather than this limited sense of self, the little body and all the rest of it, then right there, in that conflicting part, right there is the part, the source of liberation, to some extent
Ajahn Viradhammo, “Knowledge, Insight and Practice,” released 4/12/10, after about 17 minutes and 22 seconds
The Concept of a Practice
Another persistent theme in Ajahn Viradhammo’s podcasts is the concept of working on the mind as a practice.
So much of Buddhism is honing awareness of what the mind is thinking and how we get carried away by thoughts. So much of one’s discouragment from practicing Buddhism comes because it is very difficult to change habitual ways of thinking.
Ajahn Viradhammo compares practicing Buddhism or Vipassana (insight) meditation to learning of any kind. One example he uses is that a couple of times he was taught to use a computer scanner; however some time later when he wanted something scanned, he couldn’t remember how to do it because too much time had passed. Like anything we learn, if we want to retain something we need to work with it, to practice with it.
When we learn a craft (bookbinding is one of his examples), our first efforts can be pretty pathetic. That’s just how it is. With each subsequent attempt, our skill level goes up.
This leads us to . . .
It is possible to be aware of mental states and have a choice about how to react or respond to them.
Watching the mind is the same as learning a craft. An example is someone saying something that makes us angry. Often, we just react to that with anger and lash out. As awareness grows, we may notice that we are angry and then react by lashing out anyway. The next time we may hold onto the anger for a longer period of time until we fall into our habitual response. Eventually, we may even get to a place where we just observe the anger and don’t act on it at all.
Ajahn Chah says: “If someone curses us and we have no feelings of self, the incident ends with the spoken words and we do not suffer.” ( A Still Forest Pond, p. 24.) Getting to this point is a practice: over and over, as anger arises we can hone our awareness of the anger as an object (and not who we are) and habitual reaction; then we can choose how we want to respond. It is truly a practice. Even our feeling of “Oh, I blew it again” is something to be observed and practiced on.
The Gift of Repetition
Ajahn Viradhammo talks about one benefit of monastic life as the opportunity provided by repetition. If one is bored by an activity that is ongoing, you’ve got an opportunity over and over again to look at that boredom.
Well, we get that gift of repetition in lay life as well.
Recently someone who has never taken a class posted two untrue reviews obout Kasma’s classes and included a personal attack on me. This is the sort of thing that I tend to obsess about: Why would someone do such a thing? How to respond? Did we respond correctly? What should we do now? And on, and on, and on, and on: the mind can really run away with itself.
Rather than falling into this trap, of identifying with the affront and anger or trying to figure out how to make it better each time the obsession reappears, I tell myself that the recurring feelings are not an indication of the failure of the practice: it’s an indication of the obsessive nature of the mind. They very repetitive nature provides many opportunities to see the workings of the mind and the consequenses of taking things personally. The very repetition provides more opportunities for growth in awareness.
It actually can be easier to practice in the midst of uncomfortable or negative feelings. When things are going well, when things are pleasurable, there’s less tendency to look at the way the mind operates. It’s only when I begin to suffer a little that I again start practicing awareness.
The conditioned can not lead to the unconditioned.
Ajahn Chah says: “Everything mental and physical, everything conceived and thought about without exception, is conditioned. (Food for the Heart, p. 183.)
In at least a couple of podcasts Ajahn Viradhammo talks about this – that we should not look for lasting peace and enlightenment in anything conditioned: it has to be found somewhere else.
One of the concepts of Buddhism is how happiness is followed by sorrow; how then sorrow is followed by happiness. If we spend all our energy manipulating conditions so that we’ll be happy, it will eventually turn over and result in unhappiness. Trying to change conditions will result in this endless cycle of happiness and unhappiness.
We can cultivate positive qualities (generosity, gratitude).
Ajahn Viradhammo’s teachings reinforce the necessity of replacing negative states of mind with more positive ones by cultivating positive qualities. Generosity and gratitude are sometimes said to be qualities of an enlightened being with the implication that they just flow out from such a wonder without thought.
They can also be cultivated. Ajahn Viradhammo had talked about an instance where a friend was going to be traveling to Europe. One response could be: “I’m so jealous of you.” A more generous response would be: “I’m very happy for you.” This idea shows generosity to be more than physically giving someone something; there is also generosity of spirit, something we can practice almost any time and in any circumstance.
Recently I ran into a friend who’s about to take the trip of a lifetime: he’s going to be riding (on a motorcycle) from Oakland to the East Coast of Canada. As we were talking I caught myself about to say: “I’m jealous of you.” Instead, I said “I’m so happy for you.” Fred got a big smile on his face and instead of feeling jealous, I got to share in his happiness about his adventure.
Recently I was standing at the fish counter about to order some fish. A woman came up and the guy behind the counter immediately went to help her. In the past I probably would have spoken in anger and told them: “I was here first.” They both would have felt badly. This time I caught myself: I told myself to just be generous, that it didn’t make any difference if she went first. I took a deep breath and worked on letting it go. At that point, the woman turned to me and asked if I was ready to order, that I could go first. I smiled and told her to go ahead, I wasn’t in a rush. She thanked me and the guy behind the counter smiled at me. A much better result!
One of my biggest challenges is to be generous to myself. I’m practicing not buying into all the judgments and negative opinions that the mind throws up.
This is something to explore more: the possibility that by acting generous, I can begin to feel generous. This, too, is a practice. And why not? We’re going to act a certain way in any case; if we can catch ourselves before we act out our normal conditioned response, why not try something different (like generosity) that may produce a better result?
More Thoughts on Buddhism
Written by Michael Babcock, November 2011