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It may be, Ananda, that in some of you the
thought may arise, 'The word of the master
is ended, we have no teacher any more!'
But it is not thus, Ananda, that you should
regard it. The Truths, and the Rules of the
Order, which I have set forth and laid down
for all of you, let them, after I am gone,
be the teacher to you.

Digha Nikaya XVI -153

I’VE BEEN ASKED TO TALK on the human problem of preference and choice. People have many problems with preferring one monk, one teacher, or one tradition to another. They get adjusted, or attached, to a certain teacher and find that because of that they can't learn from any other teacher. This is an understandable human problem, because our preferences for one allow us to be open to what he or she is saying, and when somebody else comes along we don't want to open up and learn from them. We may not like them, or we might feel doubtful or uncertain about them, and so we tend to resent and not want to listen to them. Or, we may have heard rumours, and have heard opinions and views that this teacher is this way and that one is that way.

Now the structure of Buddhist convention is designed mainly to pay respect to Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha rather than to a particular personality or guru, in order to cut through this human failing of attachment to a charismatic teacher. The Sangha, as represented by the Bhikkhu-Sangha, is worthy of respect and worthy of alms if they live according to the Discipline [vinaya]; and that's a better standard than deciding whether we like them, or whether their personalities agree with ours.

Sometimes we learn a lot from having to listen to, and obey, some particular person we may not like very much. Human nature is to try to adjust our lives so that we are always with or following somebody we feel compatible with. For example, at Wat Nong Pah Pong, it was easy to follow someone like Ajahn Chah – because one felt so much respect and admiration for such a teacher that it was no problem to listen to what he said and to obey his every word. Sometimes one did feel conflict or resentment, but because of the power of such a person, one could always let go of one's pride and conceit.

But, at times we were faced with having to be with bhikkhus who were senior to us who we didn't particularly like or even respect, and we could see many faults and personality traits in them that we found offensive. However, in training under the Discipline, we would do what was proper, what was appropriate and suitable, rather than just be petty and run away, or insult, or carry unpleasant thoughts in our minds towards that particular person. It was a very good training. Sometimes Ajahn Chah would, I think, deliberately send us off to be with difficult people to give us a chance to mellow a bit, to give in a bit and to learn to do the right thing, rather than just to follow the particular emotion that might be aroused at the time.

All of us have our own kind of personality. We can't help that: our personalities are just as they happen to be, and whether we find then charming or boring, this isn't a matter of Dhamma but of personal preference and compatibility. In practice of the Dhamma, we no longer seek to attach to friendship or to liking someone – we are no longer seeking to be only with that which we like and esteem, but instead to be able to maintain a balance under all conditions. So our training under the Vinaya Discipline is always to do what is right through action or speech, rather than to use action and speech for what is harmful, petty, cruel, selfish or egotistical. Vinaya gives us the chance to practise under all kinds of situations and conditions.

I notice in this country that people have strong attachments to various teachers. They say, 'My teacher is this. He is my teacher, and I can't go to any other teacher because I'm loyal and devoted to my teacher.' This is a very English sense of devotion and loyalty to someone, to the point where it may become too much. One becomes bound to an ideal, to a person, rather than to the truth.

Our refuges are deliberately set up as Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, rather than as the personality of any teacher. You don't take refuge in Ajahn Chah, or in any of the bhikkhus here ... unless you are an unusually silly person. You could say, 'Ajahn Sumedho is my teacher; Ajahn Tiradhammo is not my teacher. I'll only learn from Venerable Sucitto and not from any other' – along like that. We can create all kinds of problems in this way, can't we? 'I'm a Theravada Buddhist; therefore I can't learn from those Tibetan Buddhists or those Zen Buddhists.' It's very easy for us to become sectarian in this way because, if something is different from what we're used to, we suspect it of not being as good as or as pure as what we've devoted ourselves to. But in meditation, what we are aiming at is truth, full understanding and enlightenment, inclining away from the jungle of selfishness, conceit, pride, and human passions. So it's not very wise to attach to a particular teacher to the point where you refuse to learn from any other.

But some teachers encourage this attitude. They say, 'Once you take me as your teacher, then don't you go to any other teacher! Don't you learn from any other tradition! If you accept me as your teacher, you can't go to any other.' There are a lot of teachers that bind you to themselves in that way, and they have very good reasons sometimes, because people just 'go shopping'. They go from one teacher to another teacher, and another ... and never learn anything. But I think the problem is not so much in 'shopping' as in attaching to a teacher or tradition to the point where you have to exclude all others. That makes for a sect, a sectarian mind, with which people cannot recognise wisdom or learn from anything unless it's in the exact words and conventions that they are used to. That keeps us very limited, narrow and frightened. People become afraid to listen to another teacher because it might cause doubt to arise in their minds, or they might feel that they are not being a loyal student of their particular tradition. The Buddhist Path is to develop wisdom, and loyalty and devotion help in that. But if they are ends in themselves, then they are obstacles.

‘Wisdom' in this sense means using wisdom in our practice of meditation. How do we do that? How do we use wisdom? By recognising our own particular forms of pride, conceit, and the attachments we have to our views and opinions, to the material world, to the tradition and the teacher, and to the friends we have. Now this doesn't mean that we think we shouldn't attach, or that we should get rid of all these. That's not wise either, because wisdom is the ability to observe attachment and understand it and let go – rather than attach to ideas that we shouldn't be attached to anything.

Sometimes you hear monks or nuns or lay people here saying, 'Don't attach to anything.' So we attach to the view that we shouldn't be attached! 'I'm not going to attach to Ajahn Sumedho; I can learn from anybody. I'm going to leave, just to prove I'm not attached to Venerable Sumedho.' Then you're attaching to the idea that you shouldn't be attached to me, or that you've got to go away to prove that you're not attached – which isn't it at all. That's not being wise, is it? You're just attaching to something else. You may go to Brockwood Park and hear Krishnamurti' [See Note 1] and then you think – 'I'm not going to attach to those religious conventions, all that bowing, Buddha images, monks and all that stuff. Krishnamurti says it is all poppycock: "Don't have anything to do with it, all that is useless." ' So you attach to the view that religious conventions are all useless, and you shouldn't have anything to do with them. But that's also an attachment, isn't it? – attachment to views and opinions – and if you attach to what Krishnamurti says, or you attach to what I say, it's still an attachment.

So we're recognising attachment, and it's wisdom that recognises attachment. This doesn't mean that we have to attach to any other opinion, but to just recognise and know attachment frees us from being deluded by the attachments we do make.

Recognise that attaching does have a certain value. We have to learn to walk first of all by crawling, just by waving our arms and legs. When a baby is young, the mother doesn't say, 'Don't wave your arms and legs like that! Walk!' or 'You'll always be dependent on me, nursing at my breast, clinging to me all the time, you'll just be clinging to your mother all your life!' The baby needs to attach to the mother. But if it's the mother's intention to keep the baby attached to her all the time, then it's not very wise of her. When we can allow people to attach to us in order to give them strength, so that when they have strength they can let go of us, that's compassion.

Conventional forms are things that we can use according to time and place, and wisely consider and learn from – rather than forming an opinion that we shouldn't be attached to anything, but be completely independent and self-sufficient. The position of a Buddhist monk is a very dependent existence. We are dependent on the requisites offered by lay people: on food, on robes, on a place to live, and medicine for illness. We have no money, no way of cooking food, growing food, or providing for ourselves. We have to depend on the kindness of other people for the basic necessities of life. People say, 'Why don't you grow your own food, and become self-sufficient so that you don't need all these people? You can be independent.' That's highly valued in our society's terms – to be self-sufficient, independent, not in debt to anyone, not dependent on anything. Yet there are these rules and conventions designed by Gotama the Buddha – they weren't designed by me. If I had my way, I would probably have designed it differently: it would be nice to be self–sufficient, have my little cabbage patch all to myself, my private funds, my little hermitage – ‘I don't need you, I'm independent and free, self-sufficient.'

When I took ordination, I didn't really know what I was getting into; I found out later that I had made myself totally and completely dependent on other people. My family had the white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, self-sufficient, independent, don't-depend-on-anyone type of philosophy. In America we call it the W.A.S.P. – White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant – syndrome. You're not like Southern Europeans that depend on their mamas and all that. You are completely independent from your mother and father; you're Protestant – no Popes, none of that stuff, you are not subservient, Black people might have to be in a subservient position, but being White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, means that you're at the top of the social scale – you're the best.

Then I found myself in a Buddhist country, taking samanera [novice] ordination at the age of thirty-two. In Thailand, little boys ordain as samaneras, so I had to sit with the little Thai boys all the time. Here I was, six foot two, thirty-two years old, having to sit and eat my meals and fall in line with little boys – it was very embarrassing for me. I had to be dependent on people to give me food, or whatever; I couldn't have any money. So I considered this: 'What is the purpose of this? What is the value? What did the Buddha mean? Why did he do it this way? Why didn't he follow the White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant values like my parents?'

But I began to appreciate the need, the goodness, of being dependent in the right way, of admitting interdependence. It takes some humility to learn to be dependent on others again. With pride and conceit, one thinks, 'I don't want to be in debt or owe anything to anybody.' Here, we humbly recognise our dependence on each other: dependence on the anagarikas [postulants], on the lay people, on the junior monks. Even though I'm senior bhikkhu here, I'm still very dependent on the rest of you. This is always to be considered in one's life, rather than to be rejected or be resented, because we recognise that we are always interdependent, helping each other. This is a dependence based on conventions and on the material world, and on compassionate and joyous relationships. Even if we don't have any joy or love for each other, we can at least be kind, not vindictive or nasty to each other. We can trust each other.

Don't expect any social situation, any society, any organisation or group to be perfect or to be an end in itself. It's only a conventional form, and like anything, it is unsatisfactory if we're expecting to be completely satisfied by it. Any teacher or guru that you attach to will inevitably disappoint you in some respect – even if they are saintly gurus, they still die ... or they disrobe and marry 16-year-old girls.... They might do anything: the history of religious idols can be really disillusioning! I used to consider, when I was a young bhikkhu in Thailand, what would I do if Ajahn Chah suddenly said, 'Buddhism is a farce! I want nothing to do with it! I'm going to disrobe and marry a rich woman'? What would I do if Ajahn Buddhadasa, one of the famous scholar-monks of Thailand, said, 'Studying Buddhism all these years is a farce, it's a waste of time. I'm going to become a Christian!'?

What would I do if the Dalai Lama disrobed and married an American lady? What would I do if Venerables Sucitto and Tiradhammo and all these people just suddenly said, 'I'm going to leave. I want to get out and have some fun!'? If all the anagarikas suddenly said, 'I'm fed up with this!'? All the nuns ran away with the anagarikas? What would I do?

Does my being a monk depend on the support or devotion of all the other people around me, or the pronouncements of Ajahn Chah or the Dalai Lama? Does my practice of meditation depend upon support from others, encouragement, and having everybody live up to my expectations? If it does, it could be easily destroyed, couldn't it?

When I was a junior monk, I used to consider that I must have confidence in my own insight and not depend on every, one around me supporting my particular position. Through the years I've had many chances to be disillusioned in this life ... but I keep reflecting, rather than depending on everything going in a positive way for me. What I'm doing I have confidence in, from my own understanding of it, not because I believe or need the support and approval of others. In your life you must ask these questions: is your becoming a samana – a monk or a nun – dependent upon me encouraging you, upon others, upon hope, expectations for the future, upon rewards and all that? Or are you determined in your own right to realise the truth?

Then stay within the particular conventional form, pushing it to its ultimate just to see how far it can take you, rather than give up when it doesn't, when you begin to be disillusioned with the whole thing. Sometimes at Wat Pah Pong I felt so fed up with things and felt so negative towards the other monks, not because they did anything very wrong, but just because I became depressed and couldn't see anything other than negative views. Then it was necessary to observe it, rather than to believe it, for one endures through the unendurable ... to find that one can endure anything.

So we're not here to find my teacher, but to be willing to learn from everything – from the rats and the mosquitoes, from the inspired teachers, from the depressed ones, from the ones that disappoint us and the ones that never disappoint us. Because we're not trying to find perfection in conventional forms, or in teachers.

Last year, I went back to Thailand and saw Ajahn Chah very ill, not the same ebullient, humorous, loveable man I used to know ... just like a sack of flesh sitting there like that ... and I would think, 'Oh, I wish Ajahn Chah weren't like that. My teacher ... Ajahn Chah is my teacher, and I don't want him to be like that. I want him to be like the Ajahn Chah I used to know, that you could sit and listen to, and then you could tell Ajahn Chah stories to all the other monks.' You'd say, 'Do you remember Ajahn Chah said this, this wonderfully wise thing?' Then somebody else from another tradition says – ‘Well, our teacher said this.' So you'd have a competition as to who's the wisest. Then when your teacher sits there like a sack of flesh, you say, 'Ohhh ... maybe I chose the wrong teacher ... ' But the desire to have a teacher, the best teacher, the teacher that never fails you – it's suffering, isn't it?

The point of the Buddhist teaching is to be able to learn from living teachers or from dead ones. When Ajahn Chah dies, we can still learn from him – go look at his corpse! You might say, 'I don't want Ajahn Chah to be a corpse. I want him to be the ebullient, humorous, loveable teacher I knew twenty years ago. I don't want him to be just a rotting corpse with worms coming out of his eyes.' How many of you are willing to look at your loved ones when they are dead, when you want to remember them at their best? Just like my mother now – she has a picture of me when I was 17 years old, graduated from high school, wearing a suit and tie, with my hair nicely combed – you know how they take pictures in professional studios so that you look much better than you ever really do. So this picture of me is hanging in my mother's room. Mothers want to think of their sons as always being clean-cut and handsome, young ... but what if I died and started rotting away, maggots coming out of my eyes, and somebody took a picture of me and sent it to my mother? It would be monstrous – wouldn't it? – to put it beside the picture of me when I was 17 years old! But this is like holding onto an image of Ajahn Chah as he was five years ago, and then seeing him as he is now.

As a meditator, one can use this life as we experience it by reflecting on it, learning from it, rather than demanding that teachers, sons, daughters, mothers or whoever remain in their perfect form always. We make that demand when we never really look at them, never really get to know anyone very well, just hold onto an ideal, an image that we preserve and never question or learn from.

For a meditator, everything is teaching us something ... if we're willing to learn to coexist with it, with the successes and failures, the living and the dead, the good memories and the disappointments. And what do we learn? – that these are only conditions of our mind. They're the things that we create and attach to – and whatever we attach to is going to take us to despair and death. That's the ending of whatever begins. So we learn from that. We learn from our sorrows and grief, our disillusionment, and we can let go. We can allow life to operate following the laws of Nature and witness this, freeing ourselves from the illusion of self as being connected with the mortal condition. And so all conditions take us to the Unconditioned – even our sorrows and grief take us to emptiness, freedom and liberation, if we are humble and patient.

Sometimes life is easier when we don't have too many choices to make. When you have too many wonderful gurus it must be a bit frustrating, to have to listen to such fantastic Wisdom, bubbling out from so many charismatic, wise sages. But even the wisest sages, the finest human beings in the world today, are only conditions of our mind. The Dalai Lama, Ajahn Chah, Buddhadasa, Tan Chao Khun Paññananda, the Pope, Archbishop of Canterbury, Margaret Thatcher, and Mr. Reagan ... they are nothing but conditions of our own mind, aren't they? We have likes, dislikes and prejudices, but these are things conditioned into the mind – and all these conditions, hatred or love or whatever, take us to the Unconditioned, if we are patient and enduring and willing to use wisdom. You might find it easier to believe what I say – it's easier than finding out for yourself – but believing what I say is not going to nourish you. The wisdom that I use in my life is nourishing me only. It might encourage you to use wisdom, but you have to actually eat the food yourself to be nourished, rather than believe what I say.

The Buddhist Path is just that – a way for each one of us to realise the truth. It throws us back onto ourselves again, making us look and reflect on our lives rather than being caught in the devotion and hope that take us to their opposites.

So consider what I've said this evening and reflect on it. Don't believe it, don't disbelieve it. If you have any prejudices or opinions and views, it's all right, just see them as they are, as conditions of your mind, and learn from them.


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1. Brockwood Park, less than an hour's drive from Chithurst, is the site of a school run by followers of the late J. Krishnamurti. He was often resident there around the time this talk was given.

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