He who with trusting heart takes a
Buddha as his guide, and
and the Order...When a man with trusting heart takes
himself the precepts ... that is a
sacrifice better than open largesse,
than giving perpetual alms, better than the
gift of dwelling
places, better than
Digha Nikaya V - 145,
I WOULD LIKE TO SAY a few words about the uses of conventional
religion. Of course, I am only speaking from my own experience as a
Buddhist monk, although I would say that in this respect one can recognise
the values of religious convention in whatever form.
Nowadays there is a tendency to think that religious convention
and form are no longer necessary. There is a kind of hope that, if you can
just be mindful and know yourself, then that is all you need to do.
Anyhow, that is how we would like it, isn't it? Just be mindful throughout
the day, throughout the night, whatever you are doing; drinking your
whisky, smoking your marijuana cigarette, picking a safe open, mugging
someone you met in Soho – as long as it's done mindfully, it's all
There is a brilliant Buddhist philosopher in Thailand who is
quite old now, but I went to stay at his monastery a few years ago. I was
coming from Ajahn Chah's monastery, so I asked him about the
Vinaya – the rules of the monastic order – and how important
these were in the practice of meditation and enlightenment.
'Well,' he said, 'only mindfulness - that's all you need. Just
be mindful, and everything is all right, you know. Don't worry about those
I thought: 'That sounds great, but I wonder why Ajahn Chah emphasises all
great respect for Ajahn Chah, so when I went back I told him what the
philosopher-bhikkhu had told me. Ajahn Chah said, 'That's "true", but it's
not "right" [See Note 1]
we are prone to having blind attachments, aren't we? For example, say
you're locked up in a foul, stinking prison cell and the Buddha comes and
says, 'Here's the key. All you have to do is take it and put it in the
hole there underneath the door handle, turn it to the right, turn the
handle, open the door, walk out, and you're free.'... But you might be so
used to being locked up in prison that you didn't quite understand the
directions and you say, 'Oh, the Lord has given me this key' – and you
hang it on the wall and pray to it every day. It might make your stay in
prison a little more happy; you might be able to endure all the hardships
and the stench of your foul-smelling cell a little better, but you're
still in the cell because you haven't understood that it wasn't the key in
itself that was going to save you. Due to lack of intelligence and
understanding, you just grasped the key blindly. That's what happens in
all religion: we just grasp the key, to worship it, pray to it ... but we
don't actually learn to use it.
then the next time the Buddha comes and says, 'Here's the key', you might
be disillusioned and say, 'I don't believe any of this. I've been praying
for years to that key and not a thing has happened! That Buddha is a
liar!' And you take the key and throw it out of the window. That's the
other extreme, isn't it? But you're still in the prison cell – so that
hasn't solved the problem either.
Anyway, a few years later the Buddha comes again and says,
'Here's the key,' and this time you're a little more wise and you
recognise the possibility of using it effectively, so you listen a little
more closely, do the right thing and get out.
key is like religious convention, like Theravada Buddhism: it's only a
key, only a form – it's not an end in itself. We have to consider, to
contemplate how to use it. What is it for? We also have to expend the
energy to get up, walk over to the door, insert the key into the lock,
turn it in the right direction, turn the knob, open the door and walk out.
The key is not going to do that for us; it's something we have to
comprehend for ourselves. The convention itself cannot do it because it's
not capable of making the effort; it doesn't have the vigour or anything
of its own other than that which you put into it – just like the key can't
do anything for itself. Its usefulness depends on your efforts and
modern day religious leaders tend to say, 'Don't have anything to do with
any religious convention. They're all like the walls of prison cells' –
and they seem to think that maybe the way is to just get rid of the key.
Now if you're already outside the cell, of course you don't need the key.
But if you're still inside, then it does help a bit!
think you have to know whether you're in or out; then you'll know what to
do. If you still find you're full of doubt, uncertainty, fear, confusion –
mainly doubt is the real sign – if you're unsure of where you are, what to
do or how to do anything; if you're unsure of how to get out of the prison
cell then the wisest thing to do, rather than throwing away keys, or just
collecting them, is to take one key and figure out how to use it. That's
what we mean by meditation practice. The practice of the Dhamma is
learning to take a particular key and use it to open the door and walk
out. Once you're out, then you know. There's no more doubt.
we can start from the high kind of attitude that mindfulness is enough -
but then what do we mean by that? What is mindfulness, really? Is it
actually what we believe it to be? We see people who say, 'I'm being very
mindful,' and they're doing something in a very methodical, meticulous
way. They're taking in each bite of food and they're lifting, lifting,
lifting; chewing, chewing, chewing; swallowing, swallowing,
you think, 'He eats very mindfully, doesn't he?', but he may not be
mindful at all, actually. He's just doing it in a very concentrated way:
he's concentrating on lifting, on touching, on chewing and on swallowing.
We confuse mindfulness with concentration.
robbing a bank: we think, 'Well, if you rob a bank mindfully, it's all
right. I'm very mindful when I rob banks, so there's no kamma [See Note 2]. You have to have good powers
of concentration to be a good bank robber. You have to have mindfulness in
the sense of fear conditions, of being aware of dangers and possibilities
– a mind that's on the alert for any kind of movement or sign of danger or
threat ... and then concentrating your mind on breaking the safe open and
in the Buddhist sense, mindfulness – sati – is always combined with wisdom
– pañña. Sati-sampajañña and sati-pañña: they use those two words together
in Thailand. They mean, 'mindfulness and clear comprehension' and
'mindfulness-wisdom'. So I might have an impulse to rob a bank - 'I need
some money so I'll go rob the National Westminster Bank' – but the
sati-pañña says, 'No, don't act on that impulse!' Pañña recognises the bad
result if I acted on such an impulse, the kammic result; it confers the
understanding that such a thing is wrong, not right to do.
there's full comprehension of that impulse, knowing it as just an impulse
and not-self, so that even though I might have the desire to rob a bank,
I'm not going to make neurotic problems for myself out of worrying about
those criminal tendencies. One recognises that there is just an impulse in
the mind that one refrains from acting upon. Then one has a standard of
virtue – sila – always as a conventional foundation for living in the
human form in this society, with other beings, within this material world
– a standard or guideline for both action and non-action.
Five Precepts consist of not killing; not stealing; refraining from wrong
kinds of sexual activities; not lying or indulging in false speech; and
not taking drink or drugs that change consciousness. These are the
guidelines for sila.
sila in Buddhism isn't a rigid, inflexible kind of standard in which
you're condemned to hell if you in any way modify anything whatsoever – as
you have in that rigid, hard morality we all associate with Victorian
times. We all fear the prudish, puritanical morality that used to exist,
so that sometimes when you say the word 'morality' now everybody shudders
and thinks, 'Ugh, Victorian prude! He's probably some terrible moralistic
person who's afraid of life. We have to go out and experience life. We
don't want morality – we want experience!'
you see people going out and doing all kinds of things, thinking that
experience in itself is all that's necessary. But there are some
experiences which it's actually better not to have – especially if they're
against the ordinary interpretation of the Five Precepts.
example, you might say, 'I really want to experience murdering someone
because my education in life won't be complete until I have. My freedom to
act spontaneously will be inhibited until I actually experience
people might believe that ... well perhaps not so much for murder, because
that's a really heavy one – but they do for other things. They do
everything they desire to do and have no standard for saying
'Don't ever say "no" to anything,' they say. 'Just say "yes" –
go out and do it and be mindful of it, learn from it.... Experience
you do that, you'll find yourself rather jaded, worn out, confused,
miserable, and wretched, even at a very young age. When you see some of
the pathetic cases I've seen – young people who went out and 'experienced
everything' – and you say, 'How old are you? Forty?' And they say, 'No,
actually, I'm twenty-one.'
sounds good, doesn't it? 'Do everything you desire' - that's what we'd
like to hear. I would. It would be nice to do everything I desire, never
have to say 'No'. But then in a few years you also begin to reflect that
desires have no end. What you desire now, you want something more than
that next time, and there's no end to it. You might be temporarily
gratified, like when you eat too much food and can't stand to eat another
bite; then you look at the most delicious gourmet preparations and you
say, 'Oh, disgusting!' But it's only momentary revulsion and it doesn't
take long before they start looking all right again.
Thailand, Buddhism is an extremely tolerant kind of religion; moralistic
attitudes have never really developed there. This is why people are
sometimes upset when they go to Bangkok and hear horrendous stories of
child prostitution and corruption and so on. Bangkok is the Sin City of
the world these days. You say 'Bangkok', and everybody's eyes either light
up or else they look terribly upset and say: 'How can a Buddhist country
allow such terrible things to go on?'
then, knowing Thailand, one recognises that, although they may be a bit
lax and loose on some levels, at least there isn't the kind of militant
cruelty there that you find in some other countries where they line all
the prostitutes up and shoot them, and kill all the criminals in the name
of their religion. In Thailand one begins to appreciate that morality
really has to come from wisdom, not from fear.
some Thai monks will teach morality on a less strict basis than others. In
the matter of the first precept, non-killing, I know a monk who lives on
the coast of the gulf of Thailand in an area where there are a lot of
pirates and fishermen, who are a very rough, crude kind of people. Murder
is quite common among them. So this monk just tries to encourage them not
to kill each other. When these people come to the monastery, he doesn't go
round raising non-killing to the level of 'You shouldn't kill anything –
not even a mosquito larva' because they couldn't accept that. Their
livelihood depends very much on fishing and the killing of
I'm presenting isn't morality on a rigid standard or that's too difficult
to keep, but rather for you to reflect upon and use so that you begin to
understand it, and understand how to live in a better way. If you start
out taking too strict a position, you either become very moralistic,
puritanical, and attached, or else you think you can't do it, so you don't
bother – you have no standard at all.
the second precept is refraining from stealing. On the coarsest level,
say, you just refrain from robbing banks, shop-lifting, and things like
that. But then if you refine your sila more, you refrain from taking
things which have not been given to you. As monks, we refrain even from
touching things that are not given to us. If we go into your home, we're
not supposed to go around picking up and looking at things, even though we
have no intention of taking them away with us. Even food has to be offered
directly to us: if you set it down and say, 'This is for you,' if we stick
to our rules, we're not supposed to eat it until you offer it directly to
us. That's a refinement of the precept to not take anything that's not
there's the coarse aspect of just refraining from the grosser things, like
theft or burglary; and a more refined training – a way of training
find this a very helpful monastic rule, because I was quite heedless as a
layman. Somebody would invite me to their home, and I'd be looking at
this, looking at that, touching this; going into shops, I'd pick up this
and that – I didn't even know that it was wrong or might annoy anybody. It
was a habit. And then when I was ordained as a monk, I couldn't do that
any more, and I'd sit there and feel this impulse to look at this and pick
that up – but I'd have these precepts saying I couldn't do that.... And
with food: somebody would put food down and I'd just grab it and start
through the monastic training you develop a much more graceful way of
behaving. Then you sit down, and after a while you don't feel the urge to
pick up things or grab hold of them. You can wait. And then people can
offer, which is much more beautiful way of relating to things around you
and to other people than habitually grabbing, touching, eating and so
there's the third precept, about sexuality. The idea at the present time
is that any old kind of sexuality is experience, so it's all right to do –
just so long as you're mindful! And somehow, not having sexual relations
is seen as some kind of terrible perversity.
the coarsest level, this precept means refraining from adultery: from
being unfaithful to your spouse. But then you can refine that within
marriage to where you are becoming more considerate, less exploitive, less
obsessed with sexuality, so you're no longer using it merely for bodily
can in fact, refine it right down to celibacy, to where you are living
like a Buddhist monk and no kind of sexual activity is allowed. This is
the range, you see, within the precepts.
lot of people think that the celibate monastic life must be a terrible
repression. But it's not, because sexual urges are fully accepted and
understood as being natural urges, only they're not acted upon. You can't
help having sexual desires. You can't say, 'I wont have any more of that
kind of desire. . . .' Well you can say it, but you still do! If you're a
monk and you think you shouldn't have anything like that then you become a
very frightened and repressed kind of monk.
heard some monks say: 'I'm just not worthy of the robe. People shouldn't
give me alms food. I'll have to disrobe because I've got so many bad
thoughts going through my mind.' The robe doesn't care about your
thoughts! Don't make a problem out of it. We all have nasty thoughts going
through our minds when we're in these robes just like everybody else. But
we train ourselves not to speak or act upon them. When we've taken the
Patimokkha discipline, we accept those things, recognise them, are fully
conscious of them, and let them go – and they cease. Then, after a while,
one finds a great peacefulness in one's mind as a result of the celibate
Sexual life, on the other hand, is very exciting. If you're
really upset, frightened, bored or restless, then your mind very easily
goes into sexual fantasies. Violence is very exciting, too, so often sex
and violence are put together, as in rape and things of that nature.
People like to look at those things at the cinema. If they made a film
about a celibate monk keeping the discipline, very few people would
appreciate that! It would be a very boring film. But if they made a film
about a monk who breaks all the precepts, they'd make a
fourth precept is on speech. On the coarsest level, if you're a big liar,
say, just keep this precept by refraining from telling big lies. If you
take that precept, then at least every time you tell a big lie you'd know
it, wouldn't you? But if you don't take any precept, sometimes you can
tell big lies and not even know you're doing it. It becomes a
you refine this from the coarse position, you learn to speak and use
communication in a very careful and responsible way. You're not just
chattering, babbling, gossiping, exaggerating; you're not being terribly
clever or using speech to hurt or insult or disparage other people in any
intentional way. You begin to recognise how very deeply we do affect one
another with the things we say. We can ruin whole days for each other by
saying unkind things.
fifth precept is refraining from alcoholic drinks and drugs which change
consciousness. Now that can be on the level of just refraining from
drunkenness – that's what everybody likes to think it means! But then the
sober side of you says maybe you shouldn't have a drink of any kind; not
even a glass of wine with your dinner. It's a standard to reflect upon and
you've committed yourself to these precepts, then you know when you've
broken them. So they're guidelines to being a little more alert, a little
more awake and also more responsible about how you live. If we don't have
standards, then we just tend to do what we feel like doing, or what
someone else feels like doing.
have a very natural kind of moral nature. I've never really liked being
immoral. But when I lived in Berkeley, California, because the more
clever, intelligent and experienced beings around me that I greatly
admired seemed to fully commend immoralities, I thought: 'Well, maybe I
should do that too!' Certainly, when you're looking up to somebody, you
want to be like them. I got myself into a terrible mess, because people
can be very convincing. They can make murder sound like a sacred
sila is a guide, a way of anchoring yourself in refraining from
unskillful actions with your body and speech, both in regard to yourself
and to the other beings around you. It's not a kind of absolute standard.
I'm not telling you that if you kill a worm in your garden you'll be
reborn in the next 10,000 lifetimes as a worm in order to frighten you
into not killing. There's no wisdom in that. If you're just conditioned,
then you're just doing it because you're afraid you'll go to hell. You
wouldn't really understand; you've not reflected and watched and really
used your wisdom to observe how things are.
you're frightened of action and speech then you'll just become neurotic;
but, on the other hand, if you're not frightened enough and think you can
do anything, then you'll also become confused and neurotic!
Sigmund Freud had all kinds of people coming to him with
terrible hang-ups and, as sexual repression was the ordinary thing in
Europe and America at the time, he thought: 'Well, if we just stop
repressing, then we won't have these problems any more. We'll become free,
happy, well-integrated personalities.' But nowadays there's no restriction
– and you still get hysterical, miserable, neurotic people! So it's
obvious that these are two extremes springing from a lack of mindfulness
in regard to the natural condition of sexuality.
have to recognise both what's exciting and what's calming. Buddhist
meditation – why is this so boring? Repetitions and chanting ... why don't
we sing arias? I could do it! I've always wanted to be an opera singer.
But on the conventional level of propriety, or when I'm sitting on the
teacher's high seat doing my duty, then I chant in monotone as best I can.
If you really concentrate on monotone chanting, it's
night, we were sitting in our forest monastery in Thailand meditating,
when I heard an American pop song that I really hated when I was a layman.
It was being blasted out by one of those medicine sellers who go to all
the villages in big vans with loudspeakers that play this kind of music in
order to attract the villagers to come and buy their quacky medicines. The
wind was blowing in the right direction and the sound of 'Tell Laura I
Love Her' seemed right here in the meditation hall itself. I hadn't heard
American pop music for so many years, so while this smarmy sentimental
song was playing I was actually beginning to cry! And I began to recognise
the tremendous emotional pull of that kind of music. If you don't really
understand it, it grabs your heart and you get caught up in the excitement
and emotion of it. This is the effect of music when you're not
our chanting is in monotone, because if you concentrate on it it's not
going to carry you away into sentimental feelings, into tears or ecstasy.
Instead, you feet tranquil, peaceful, serene. Anapanasati [See Note 3] also tranquillises, because
it has a gentle rhythm – subtle, not exciting. And though the monastic
life itself is boring in the sense of lacking romance, adventure and
excitement, it is tranquillising, peaceful, calming....
Therefore, reflect in your life upon what excites and what
calms, so that you begin to understand how to use Pañña: your wisdom
faculty. As Buddhists, we do this so that we know what's affecting us. We
understand the forces of nature with which we have to co-exist. We can't
control everything so that nothing violent or exciting ever happens around
us – but we can understand it. We can put forward some effort towards
understanding and learning from our lives as we live them.
1. That is to say, although
the statement is quite correct, taken out of context it could be used - as
this talk points out - to justify any action. Similarly, the meticulous
'mindfulness practice' described later can also be used unskilfully. Ajahn
Sumedho is not criticising these views, but pointing to the danger of
attaching to any view.
2. kamma: action which comes from
habitual impulse, volitions, or natural energies, leading to an inevitable
reaction. See also 'Kamma and Rebirth'.
3. 'anapanasati': a widely used
meditation technique. One composes the mind by focussing attention on the
inhalation and exhalation of breath.