by Ajahn Sumedho
Truly, wisdom springs from meditation;
without meditation, wisdom wanes;
having known these two paths
of progress and decline,
let one conduct oneself
so that wisdom may increase.
– Dhammapada 282
We have been discussing the First Noble Truth – suffering – which becomes increasingly apparent as you sit here contemplating your own body and mind. Just be aware of what happens: you can see that when good thoughts pass by, or physical pleasure, there's happiness, and when there's pain or negativity, there's despair. So we can see we are always habitually trying to attain, or maintain or get rid, of conditions. The Second Noble Truth is that of being aware of the arising of the three kinds of desire that we have – desire for sense pleasure, for becoming, or for getting rid of something – and how this arises according to conditions. The penetration of the Third Noble Truth is to see how that which arises has a cessation. We become aware of the cessation, the letting go, and thus develop the Fourth Noble Truth, the Truth of the Eightfold Path – right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration – in other words, the path of awareness.
To be aware we have to use skilful means, because at first we're mystified. We tend to conceive awareness and try to become aware, thinking that awareness is something we have to get or attain or try to develop; but this very intention, this very conceptualisation makes us heedless! We keep trying to become mindful, rather than just being aware of the mind as it tries to become and tries to attain, following the three kinds of desire that cause us suffering.
The practice of 'letting go' is very effective for minds obsessed by compulsive thinking: you simplify your meditation practice down to just two words – 'letting go' – rather than try to develop this practice and then develop that; and achieve this and go into that, and understand this, and read the Suttas, and study the Abhidhamma... and then learn Pali and Sanskrit... then the Madhyamika and the Prajña Paramita... get ordinations in the Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana... write books and become a world renowned authority on Buddhism. Instead of becoming the world's expert on Buddhism and being invited to great International Buddhist Conferences, just 'let go, let go, let go'.
I did nothing but this for about two years – every time I tried to understand or figure things out, I'd say 'let go, let go' until the desire would fade out. So I'm making it very simple for you, to save you from getting caught in incredible amounts of suffering. There's nothing more sorrowful than having to attend International Buddhist Conferences! Some of you might have the desire to become the Buddha of the age, Maitreya, radiating love throughout the world – but instead, I suggest just being an earthworm, letting go of the desire to radiate love throughout the world. Just be an earthworm who knows only two words – 'let go, let go, let go'. You see, ours is the Lesser Vehicle, the Hinayana, so we only have these simple, poverty-stricken practices!
The important thing in meditation practice is to be constant and resolute in the practice, determined to be enlightened. This is not to be conceited or foolish, but resolute, even when the going is rough. Remind yourself of Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha, and stay with it – letting go of despair, letting go of anguish, letting go of pain, of doubt, of everything that arises and passes that we habitually cling to and identify with. Keep this 'letting go' like a constant refrain in your mind, so it just pops up on its own no matter where you are.
At first we have to obsess our minds with this, because our minds are obsessed with all kinds of useless things – with worries about this and that, with doubt, with anger, vindictiveness, jealousy, fear, dullness and stupidity of various kinds. We have obsessive minds that are obsessed with things that cause us pain and lead us into difficulties in life. Our society has taught us how to fill up the mind, jam it full of ideas, prejudices, regrets, anticipations and expectations – it is a society for filling up vessels. Look at the book stores here in Oxford, filled up with all the information you could possibly want to know, published in very nice bindings with pictures and illustrations... Or we can fill our minds by watching TV, going to the cinema, reading the newspapers... That's a good way to fill your mind up – but look at what's printed in the newspapers! It appeals to people's lower instincts and drives – all about violence, wars, corruption and perversities, and gossip.
All this has its effect on the mind. As long as our minds are obsessed with facts, symbols and conventions, then if we stuff any more into it, it becomes jam-packed full and we have to go crazy. We can go out and get drunk – it's a way of letting go! What do you think pubs are for? There we can dare to say all the things we want to say but don't have the nerve to say when sober. We can be irrational, be silly, laugh and cavort, 'because I was drunk, I was under the influence of alcohol'.
When we don't understand the nature of things, we are very suggestible. You see in our society how suggestion works on teenagers. Now it's the punk-rock generation – everybody in that generation thinks of themselves as punks and acts like it. Fashions are all suggestion – for women you are not beautiful unless you are dressed in a certain way. Cinema films suggest all kinds of delights to the senses, and we think maybe we should try that, maybe we are missing something if we aren't experiencing it... It's so bad now that nobody knows what is beautiful or ugly any more. Somebody says that harmony is cacophony, and if you don't know and are still subject to suggestion, you believe that. Even if you don't believe at first, it begins to work on your mind so you start thinking: 'Maybe it is that way, maybe immorality is morality, and morality is immorality.'
We feel obliged to know all kinds of things – to understand and to try to convince others. You hear my talks, you read books, and you want to tell others about Buddhism – you might even feel a bit evangelical after the retreat – but keep letting go of even the desire to tell others. When we feel enthusiastic, we begin to impose on other people; but in meditation we let go of the desire to influence others until the right time for it occurs – then it happens naturally rather than as an aggressive ambition.
So you do the things that need to be done, and you let go. When people tell you should read this book, and that book, take this course and that course... study Pali, the Abhidhamma... go into the history of Buddhism, Buddhist logic... and on and on like that... 'let go, let go, let go'. If you fill your mind with more concepts and opinions, you are just increasing your ability to doubt. It's only through learning how to empty the mind out that you can fill it with things of value – and learning how to empty a mind takes a great deal of wisdom.
Here in this meditation retreat, the suggestions I am giving you are for skilful means. The obsession of 'letting go' is a skilful one – as you repeat this over and over, whenever a thought arises, you are aware of its arising. You keep letting go of whatever moves – but if it doesn't go, don't try to force it. This 'letting go' practice is a way of clearing the mind of its obsessions and negativity; use it gently, but with resolution. Meditation is a skilful letting go, deliberately emptying out the mind so we can see the purity of the mind – cleaning it out so we can put the right things in it.
You respect your mind, so you are more careful what you put in it. If you have a nice house, you don't go out and pick up all the filth from the street and bring it in, you bring in things that will enhance it and make it a refreshing and delightful place.
If you are going to identify with anything, then don't identify with mortal conditions. See what identification is – investigate your own mind to see clearly the nature of thought, of memory, of sense consciousness, and of feeling as impermanent conditions. Bring your awareness to the slower things, to the transiency of bodily sensation; investigate pain and see it as a moving energy, a changing condition. Emotionally, it seems permanent when you are in pain, but that is just an illusion of the emotions – let go of it all. Even if you have insight, even if you understand everything clearly – let go of the insight.
When the mind is empty, say ' Who is it that lets go?' Ask the question, try to find out who it is, what it is that lets go. Bring up that not-knowing state with the word Who – 'Who am I? Who lets go?' A state of uncertainty arises; bring this up, allow it to be... and there is emptiness, voidness, the state of uncertainty when the mind just goes blank.
I keep stressing this right understanding, right attitude, right intention, more towards simplifying your life so that you aren't involved in unskilful and complex activities. So that you don't live heedlessly, exploiting others and having no respect for yourself or the people around you. Develop the Precepts as a standard, and develop nekkhamma – renunciation of that which is unskilful or unnecessary – and then mentally let go of greed, let go of hatred, let go of delusion.
This is not being averse to these conditions; it is letting go of them when you find you are attached. When you are suffering - 'Why am I suffering? Why am I miserable?' Because you are clinging to something! Find out what you are clinging to, to get to the source. 'I'm unhappy because nobody loves me.' That may be true, maybe nobody loves you, but the unhappiness comes from wanting people to love you. Even if they do love you, you will still have suffering if you think that other people are responsible for your happiness or your suffering. Someone says, 'You are the greatest person in the world!' – and you jump for joy. Someone says, 'You are the most horrible person I've met in my life!' – and you get depressed. Let go of depression, let go of happiness. Keep the practice simple: live your life mindfully, morally, and have faith in letting go.
It's important for you to realise that none of us are helpless victims of fate – but we are as long as we remain ignorant. As long as you remain ignorant, you are a helpless victim of your ignorance. All that is ignorant is born and dies, it is bound to die – that's all, it's caught in the cycle of death and rebirth. And if you die, you will be reborn – you can count on it. And the more heedlessly you lead your life, the worse the rebirth.
So the Buddha taught a way to break the cycle, and that's through awareness, through seeing the cycle rather than being attached to it. When you let go of the cycle, then you are no longer harmed by it. So you let go of the cycle, let go of birth and death, let go of becoming. Letting go of desire is the development of the Third Noble Truth which leads to the Eightfold Path.