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1. Profoundly Simple

Those who build canals channel the flow of water.
Arrowsmiths make arrows.
Woodworkers craft wood.
The wise tame themselves.

Dhammapada Verse 80

The abbot of ‘The International Forest Monastery of Bung Wai’ had expressed an interest in visiting our monasteries in Europe and spending some time here on retreat. Everything was in place for this to happen except there being someone to take over his duties during his absence. After living in Britain for twelve years, I was interested to return to Asia, so it was a joy when, in 1993, I found myself heading for Thailand for an extended stay in the place where I had done most of my initial training as a young monk.

Twilight was falling by the time I once again entered the monastery gates. Being greeted by old friends and new stirred feelings of nervousness, gratitude and wonder. So much had happened both inwardly and outwardly since I had lived there. The place was familiar and yet at the same time different. The dark all-encompassing silence of the forest, the fragrance of wild blossoms mingling with the scent of burning incense, took me back to being twenty-four years old again, full of hope for mystical experience and yet wonderfully empty of expectations. But now electrical sounds drifted across the paddy fields from the lit village of Bung Wai, where every house, not just the headman’s, had its own television set and stereo.

After a day or two I discovered that the monastery hadn’t changed too much. Although the dirt road from Ubon, the regional town, had been upgraded to tarmac, and mechanical rotavators had replaced the buffaloes in the fields, the monastery water was still pulled by hand from the well; leaves were still swept daily; dye for the robes was still made with resin extracted by hard labour from the jackfruit tree; and reading at night was still done by kerosene lamp-light. The message so characteristic of the Theravadin forest tradition, ‘Keep It Simple’, still sounded out, like the resonating temple gong heard for miles around, even above the new and modern noise.

The daily programme in the monastery was more flexible than I had anticipated, so there was time to reconnect with the other resident monks. There was also time to converse with local villagers. Miraculously, they seemed to remember those of us who had lived there when the monastery was founded in 1974. The older folk hadn’t kicked their lifetime habit of chewing betel nut, nor had they lost their radiant toothless smiles. We exchanged stories about developments in monasteries around the world, some in countries that many of them had not heard of.

As fortune would have it, there was an opportunity during this period of residence to visit some of the meditation masters of the north-east, including my first teacher whom I hadn’t seen since leaving his monastery eighteen years before. Venerable Ajahn Tate was a highly respected teacher somewhat senior to Ajahn Chah and had been a disciple of Ajahn Mun in the 1930s. Having become a monk at the age of fourteen, his whole life had been spent earnestly in the practice and service of the Dhamma. He grew to be – along with Ajahn Chah – one of the pre-eminent leaders of Thai Buddhism, eventually establishing and living at Hin Mark Peng monastery. At the time of my visit to Thailand, he was residing in nearby Wat Tum Karm, the mountain cave monastery of the late Ajahn Fun. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have spent the first months of my monastic life with him, before I came to live under the guidance of Venerable Ajahn Chah.

When I first went to stay with Ajahn Tate he was seventy-four and had recently been diagnosed with leukaemia. Eighteen years later, he was miraculously still offering guidance to anyone who sought his help. So with no small amount of joy and anticipation I joined the party travelling the few hours north to pay their respects. ‘‘What shall I give him? Will he remember me?” – such excited thoughts, memories about the hard time I’d had in those early years, and a child-like anticipatory delight filled my mind.

Even at the time I’d lived with him he had had a beautiful grandfatherly appearance. Now, at ninety-three, he had little physical strength left, yet his eyes shone, his quiet high-pitched voice was clear and his skin glowed. I choked with tears as I bowed in respect and gratitude. Although normally I was quite able to communicate adequately in Thai, I needed one of the other monks to express my intense joy at seeing him again. He didn’t recognise me and it didn’t matter as I sat at his feet again. “How amazing!” I thought to myself, “All those years ago, I struggled so much in my new life as a forest monk, enduring the furious inner fires, yet here I am feeling such happiness! How wonderful!”

Ajahn Tate had been the meditation teacher of my preceptor Somdet Nyanasamvara of Wat Bovornives in Bangkok, and I’d been introduced to his teachings in the form of printed translations. When I happened to meet some of Ajahn Tate’s disciples in Bangkok I was impressed by their conduct and outward demeanour, and so, with the blessing of my preceptor, I move up country to spend my first rains retreat (vassa) at Wat Hin Mark Peng. I travelled there in the company of another western monk I’d also met in Bangkok. We had coincidentally attended retreats around the same time in Australia, and now shared the same interest in spending time with this great teacher. Wat Hin Mark Peng was a remote monastery on the forested banks of the Mekong River, about thirty miles upstream from Vientiane, the capital of Laos. When I was there, the communists were invading Laos. My kuti was high on a cliff, directly above the river. When I first arrived we would go down to bathe each morning, but as conditions between Thailand and Laos deteriorated, Russian soldiers began patrolling the Mekong in their boats and there was too much shooting going on for it to be comfortable to continue.

Living in a war zone certainly added to the intensification of my experience. I was already trying to adjust to the food and climate, and I couldn’t speak the language either. Where I came from in New Zealand, living in the forest was a treat – no snakes, scorpions or even ants to be troubled by. But in the tropical forest of Asia real care needed to be taken as you got into bed at night in case a snake hadn’t crawled in there first. There were times when I would wake up in the middle of the night with my body covered in stinging ants, and the walls of the hut apparently moving as they teemed over the entire building.

The Heart and the Activity of the Heart

On the occasion of the first interview my companion and I had with Ajahn Tate, he was keen to hear about our practice. Since we were going to be living in his monastery at least for the duration of the Rains Retreat, he wanted to know what our understanding of practice was, so he called us up to his kuti.

After asking a few questions, he spoke to us for some time, during which he said something that has stayed with me; something that still seems as significant as it did then. Through the translator, he said, “Your task in practice is to realise the difference between the heart and the activity of the heart. It’s that simple.” As I recall this now, I can almost hear him saying it; his voice gentle yet strong and full, clearly rich in experience and unshakeable understanding. I hadn’t expected him to say something so straightforward. I suppose I had expected something more complex and difficult to understand, but my response when I heard what he said was, “Yes, I get that, I can relate to that.”

To observe inwardly, to direct attention so that we come to know intimately for ourselves that which is the heart and that which is the activity of the heart: this was and is the foundation of my meditation practice and my enquiry. The words he used were jit and argarn kong jit. Citta, a Pali word, is shortened in Thai to ‘jit’, and both words mean ‘heart’ or ‘mind’. Argarn kong jit means ‘the activity of the heart or mind’.

I had heard a lot of talk about developing jhanas – states of meditative absorption – and about attaining different levels of realisation and insight, but Ajahn Tate was pointing out that it is important not to be distracted by ideas of practice nor by the various experiences, sensations or mental impressions that we are subject to. We should view them all simply as the activity of the mind. They are all the content of the mind. If the heart or mind – the citta – is like an ocean, then the activities of the heart or mind are like the waves on that ocean. Our practice should consist in seeing these waves as waves, passing on the surface of the ocean.

Most of us are usually caught up in the activity. I still get caught up in the waves, in the movements of mind, and I forget, I lose perspective. Practice means remembering perspective, and cultivating an awareness that distinguishes the knowing itself from that which is known. We can know the sensations in the body; we can know feelings, energetic movements, mental formations, ideas, impressions, concepts, memories and fantasies. All these need to be known as activity. If we don’t know them as activity, what happens? We become the activity and get caught up in that activity. There is a poignant saying in Japanese Buddhism: ‘Laugh, but don’t get lost in laughter; cry, but don’t get lost in crying.’ We could also say, ‘Think, but don’t get lost in thinking; enjoy, but don’t get lost in enjoyment.’

Sometimes people come across Buddhist teachings or Buddhist meditation and they get the idea that peacefulness means getting rid of all the content of the mind, making the mind empty. In meditation it sometimes appears that the mind is very open and spacious and that there’s very little happening. However, this does not mean that we’ve made it, that we’re enlightened. In that state of openness, clarity and spaciousness, we might experience vitality and pleasure, and if we’re not properly informed and prepared, we can make the mistake of thinking ‘This is it! This good feeling is the point of it all.’ Ajahn Tate was saying that even this good feeling is also just the activity of the heart. The point of practice is to know this activity in relation to that in which the activity is taking place. What is it in which this activity is taking place? What is it that knows? We should cultivate an awareness that knows the knowing as well as that which is known.

The Effort to Remember

This teaching was the first gift I received from Ajahn Tate, a precious gift, and one that very much set me up for the practice that I have followed ever since. I was an enthusiastic beginner who’d had a bit of pleasurable experience in meditation. I was determined to get somewhere in my practice and I made a huge amount of effort. After having got up early in the morning and gone out on alms-round I would eat the one meal and, after a rest, spend the rest of the day sitting and walking. There were few books in English there, but the few I could find I reflected on seriously. The little talking I could do was with people whose language I couldn’t speak. The other Western monk was meditating on death, an object of meditation frequently recommended by the Buddha and favoured in the forest tradition, and he didn’t seem to want to pay much attention to me. As it happened, as the months went by, I looked more and more like death myself, and I think he began to find me an interesting object of contemplation. I hadn’t been getting on very well with the diet of sticky rice, pickled fish and chillies, and I lost a lot of weight. But I’d committed myself to stay for the three months of the vassa, and that commitment added to the intensity.

I certainly experienced some benefits from the effort I made during this retreat period of intensified practice. About halfway through the three months, I had an experience of clarity that I can remember vividly – it was a night or two before my twenty-fourth birthday. It was quite spontaneous; I wasn’t doing any special practice. I was sitting there in puja one evening, surrounded by the other monks. Puja took place in a very basic, unattractive, open-sided wooden building with the usual grass mats rolled out over the polished concrete floor. We chanted in the same way as every other day, with the same mosquitoes biting and my knees hurting as they usually did. Suddenly, without warning, I found myself experiencing the most wonderful clarity – unlike anything I had ever known before. I experienced an utterly natural yet at the same time extraordinary sense of well-being. It seemed as though this perspective on things should now last forever, because, in reality, things had always been that way, only I hadn’t noticed it. When puja finished I felt so elevated that I mentioned it to one of the other monks, and he said, “Let’s go and speak to Ajahn Tate about it.”

There was a tradition in the monastery that eight or ten monks would go and see Ajahn Tate after evening chanting and massage him, all at the same time. Thai massage is gruesome. You dig your elbows in as deeply as you can. Those Thai monks would really get to work on Ajahn Tate. Somebody would be on his foot, someone else on his leg, someone else on an arm, all digging away. He’d go through this every night. On this particular evening, as we talked about what had happened to me, he stopped the massage, sat up and said, “I want to hear more about this.” So I explained what I had experienced. That evening he gave me what I consider the second most helpful piece of advice that I’ve ever received on practice.

He said, “These moments of clarity, this mindfulness and presence that you have experienced, are very good. From now on what you have to do in your practice is just to remember like this more quickly.” We were talking through a translator, which wasn’t easy. If we’d been speaking directly, he might have said, “Keep exercising mindfulness in the moment and learn to come back sooner to this clear way of seeing. It’s that simple – make the effort to remember.” Little by little, with the right kind of effort, with consistent practice, as I am sure many of you have realised, we can make a difference.

It was not for another seven years until, wrapped in a blanket during a winter retreat in England, that I was able to acknowledge more fully the relevance of what Ajahn Tate had said that evening. After that conversation I had fallen into hell. The profound, amazing experience I had had during that evening had soon been followed by horrendously unpleasant mind states, indescribably terrible states of self-doubt. This is why I often speak about how important it is to prepare oneself properly for practice. At that time I hadn’t long been off the hippy trail. Only a few months before my time with Ajahn Tate I had left the commune in which I’d been living and had hitchhiked across the Australian desert. After that, I island-hopped through Indonesia, stopping for a little diving in Timor, batik-painting in Java, and then went on up through various beach resorts and restaurants in Malaysia to Thailand. And then, I found myself with a shaved head and in robes, doing this intensive practice. I definitely wasn’t properly prepared.

Thanks to Ajahn Tate’s loving-kindness and consistent caring attention, I survived those very unpleasant states. But it was about seven years before I was able more fully to appreciate what he’d told me on that occasion. Now I encourage people to make this effort to remember. Sometimes, when we forget what we have learned, we can devalue experiences that we’ve had, effort we’ve made, insights that have arisen. Ajahn Chah had an image for this. He’d say, “These moments of mindfulness and understanding are like drips of water coming out of a tap. In the beginning it’s drip – drip – drip, with big gaps between the drips.” If we’re heedless during those gaps, if we’re caught up in our thinking, caught up in the content of the mind and the sensations we are experiencing, we can think that our mindful moments were invalid and dismiss them as accidents. But Ajahn Chah said, “Little by little, with consistent effort, these moments become drip, drip, drip then dripdripdrip and then they become a stream.” With constant effort, you enter a continuous stream of mindfulness. The moments themselves are the same, but they’re uninterrupted.

We forget, but the good news is that we can remember. We sit in formal meditation, gathering our hearts and mind together, and we settle into stillness. We gain perspective, we remember. The mind wanders off. ‘If only I hadn’t done that,’ we think; or, ‘Why did they say that?’ We wander into the future, thinking, ‘Have I got my ticket for tomorrow? Where did I put it?’ We get caught up, we get lost, but then we remember because our hearts are committed to remembering. If we simply remember, that’s good, but if we come in with some sort of judgement and say, ‘I shouldn’t have forgotten my practice is hopeless,’ then we’ve lost it again. Remembering is the point. We don’t need to dwell on our forgetting.

Being Careful

Ajahn Tate’s advice was, “All you’ve got to do is remember more quickly.” I kept making an effort during that vassa and I was very diligent, although by this time I was in such a state of despair, occasional terror, distress and thorough unpleasantness, that it was really just a question of survival. At the end of the vassa I wasn’t well at all. They decided I needed to go down to Bangkok for a medical check-up and to rest. In fact I ended up in hospital. I saw Ajahn Tate before I left and he gave me a third significant and helpful teaching. He gave it with such kindness and wisdom; he wasn’t just being nice to me. He was so aware of the nature of this path. He said, “Be careful.” I still remember this vividly. He said, “The place you are at within yourself is very vulnerable – take care.”

I often begin our evening meditation at Ratanagiri by guiding us together into our inner settling by saying, “Carefully paying attention…” I think in many cases we could substitute the word ‘carefulness’ for ‘mindfulness.’ In the poor condition that I was in when I saw Ajahn Tate, his words were just what was needed. I was so unhappy that I could very easily have been unkind to myself, or heedless. You know what it’s like when you get a little miserable; you start blaming, thinking, ‘Well, someone has done something wrong.’ It’s very difficult to feel unhappy without feeling that somebody, probably including oneself, has done something wrong.

If we are feeling unhappy, what is called for is a willingness to simply be with that unhappiness. If we’re not careful, we say something’s wrong, though it doesn’t really help to say that. We say it either inwardly or outwardly. This projecting of blame is a consequence of having made an inner mistake of misperceiving our unhappiness, sadness or suffering as being something wrong. We don’t receive it just as it is. We don’t acknowledge it and feel it, allowing it to happen; we don’t have the ‘knowingness’ to see it as activity taking place in awareness. Because we don’t have that perspective, we struggle to do something about our suffering, to deal with it in some way. To say that something has gone wrong and that it’s somebody’s fault is a heedless way of dealing with our unpleasant experiences. The habit of consistently doing this is a symptom of what I call the compulsive judging mind. Ajahn Tate’s parting gift to me, ‘be careful,’ alerted me to this, intuitively if not conceptually.

One-Pointedness of Mind

I received a final teaching from Ajahn Tate on the occasion of visiting him with the group from Bung Wai in 1993. Only a few months later he passed away, at the age of ninety-four. We sat close to him so he didn’t have to speak loudly. I felt almost too ashamed to attempt to engage him in talk since he seemed so frail and tired; just to be near him was enough. Yet with visibly keen interest and with great kindness he responded to the questions he was asked. All the other visitors of the day had departed; only our small group remained. As I recall, one of the young monks asked Ajahn Tate if he could identify the essence of Buddhist teaching. “Buddhism, you want a definition of Buddhism?” he said. “Buddhism is one-pointedness of mind.” (Thai: ekaggata jit). A lot has been written and said about Buddhism, and that such a great being should give such a clear and simple presentation of the path was a precious gift.

For those who don’t yet have a foundation in practice it would be understandable if Ajahn Tate’s definition of Buddhism didn’t make sense. Even for those who do, for the most part we don’t yet know how to abide clearly, consciously and mindfully in a state of one-pointedness. If we do have an appreciation of one-pointedness, even to a small degree, then we will know that a mind that is distracted and fragmented is a mind that is confused and which misperceives the way things are. In this condition the natural well-being that we feel when there is one-pointedness is obstructed.

Many of us went through years of our early lives being chronically obstructed. We were trying to sort out the right philosophy, the right political statement, the right lifestyle, the right type of relationship, the right social arrangement, so that we would feel good about life. It wasn’t until my first meditation retreat, during which I learned to focus attention on the breath and to inhibit the tendency to follow distractions that I discovered, or uncovered, the natural state of well-being that comes when the mind is concentrated. Up until that point I thought I had to do something or imbibe something to feel good. When we remember or reconnect with the natural goodness of the heart – which is still, calm, peaceful and clear – then, through seeing clearly the nature of the world, our relationship with the world is changed. The world remains what it is and what it has always been. There is still pleasure and pain, both intense and mediocre. There’s still injustice and struggle, disappointment, joy, delight and happiness. But when we see with clarity that all of this comes and goes, when we see with awareness all of experience arising and ceasing, we no longer, from conditioned preference, invest ourselves in any experience in particular. We invest instead in understanding the nature of experience.

So the fourth teaching from Ajahn Tate that I recall is that what is really worth developing is not a sophisticated understanding of Buddhist theory or lots of retreat experiences and insights but an appreciation of how to abide more freely and more frequently with one-pointedness of heart and mind. When we know this state and it is rightly focused on the Way we will be best placed to progress in practice.

For these four simple yet wonderfully relevant teachings I will remain eternally indebted to Ajahn Tate and I am happy to share them with you.

Thank you for your attention.



© 2005 Aruna Publications