I know how reticent monks are to talk about themselves, but I cannot help but begin by asking about your own Jātaka story. How did you wind up as a Buddhist monk living in England?
Well, where does it all begin? I suppose around the age of six or seven I started to recognize something of what death was about: that we all die. I remember talking to my brother about it and he said, “Oh, don’t think about it, it will be all right.” Now he is a businessman and I’m a monk. (Laughs.) I remember even then not feeling interested in the general flow of society; feeling, “Well, what are we doing here? Just passing the time.” You wonder where it all begins…
After graduating from university (English and American literature at Warwick) I thought I owed it to myself, having done 18 years of schooling, to just move out of the program and see the wider view of things. I spent about four years traveling around. This was the sixties and seventies, so things were pretty wild. After awhile I thought, “Well no, this isn’t it. I need to find some proper way of cultivating clarity.” So the only intuition I had was—“go to the East.”
So you hit the road and went to India?
I went to India when I was 24 with the thought, “Well, you’ll find it here somewhere.” But, I just got very ill; so I escaped India. I had a Traveler’s Guide to the World which had one paragraph about Thailand in it. Thailand sounded like it was cool and friendly, while India was very chaotic and wild. So, I jumped on a plane to Thailand. After only one day in Bangkok I took a train to Ayutthaya (ancient capital) and found myself wandering among the ruins—colossal Buddhist remains, big pagodas, gigantic Buddha statues. And I thought to myself, “Well, what’s this?”
A few days later I was in Chiang Mai. I saw a sign in English saying, “Meditation Classes Being Taught.” I thought, “That must be part of what it’s about. Learn to focus, get your mind together. I’ll do that.” I went to one meditation class and there was a monk teaching in this vihāra [monastery]. He was an English monk. He was sitting by a window which didn’t have any glass in it. He had an oil lamp beside him. I noticed that flying ants were coming in through the window and crawling all over him as he was talking. He was very carefully picking them off his skin, occasionally out of his mouth, without getting upset. To me it looked so irritating but it didn’t seem to bother him. We only did about 15 minutes of meditation; and just in that time the obvious realization came, “Hey, there’s all this thinking, and there’s a silence that’s not thinking, a silence that’s attending to this. What’s that?” I thought, “I must investigate that.”
So you got a taste of…what?
Some awareness, some silence, some quality of attention. I mean, whenever you put it into words it doesn’t quite work, does it? You find you’re in a different key than you were before: before you were very much in the music and now, somehow, the music’s happening but you’re not moving with it.
So I talked to the monk afterwards and said, “I’d like to do more of this.” But I recognized that I was not going to do this while staying in a cheap hotel with five other guys smoking dope and playing guitars. So I asked, “Can I come and stay in your monastery?” A couple of days later I just packed up and hitchhiked a couple hundred miles down the road to where he was living and wandered in. He gave me a kuṭi [meditation hut] and came down the next day to give me some teaching instructions. He was teaching the Burmese satipaṭṭhāna [mindfulness] method.
I thought, “Three months ought to do it. ”
That was 22 years ago.
Did you take to meditation from the start?
Yes, I did. I was really interested in the mind and in exploring. It wasn’t a decision, really; it was innate. I’d always been interested in it, but I hadn’t had a framework. Within about a week I started to piece things together: “Well, you know, this is not bad. You’re in this little hut. They’re pretty nice. They bring you food. And you get to work on clearing your mind.” I felt happy. I recognized that whatever you do in life, basically you want to feel you’re doing something with purpose and you want to be happy. I wasn’t really missing out on much by being in the monastery. I didn’t need much. I’d come from a working class background, which means that you work hard your whole life. Working class people have to activate a lot of effort and energy and attention and aggravation to get the four requisites [food, shelter, clothing, and medicine] together—and there at the monastery that was just laid on. It was simple, but laid on. So I thought, “I’d like to do more of this.”
So you stayed on?
I actually had to leave Thailand to get a new visa. I thought I’d have a look around while I was out, so I traveled around Indonesia for a while—but with an increasing sense of nibbidā, or world-weariness. I was doing all the things you’re supposed to do to make life enjoyable. I was going to some very beautiful countryside, to mountains, beaches, and lakes. But it just was not connecting; it wasn’t sinking in. It was like looking at everything through a glass. I was somewhere else. I ended up living in Bali, where everybody was hanging out. But I just couldn’t go through that whole scene anymore. There was no energy for it. I found that all I wanted to do was meditate—sit and walk. I thought, “This is crazy, doing it in this place.” So I went back to Thailand. It was a very instructive excursion.
After three days at the monastery I shaved my head and became a sāmaṇera, a ten-precept novice monk. It’s a much less highly calibrated discipline than full ordination, but the basic stuff is there. Then I got into meditation. After about six months or so there were other Westerners who had turned up, and they were all interested in becoming bhikkhus [monks]. I was happy where I was. But the others would say, “You’ve been here longest. You should become a bhikkhu before us.” I said, “No, no, I’m fine.” I didn’t like the idea of being somebody.
However…I was living in a very secluded part of the monastery, and both the teacher and I felt it would be good to go on alms-round because that’s part of what being a monk, even a novice, is about. So I began going out every day on piṇḍapāta—alms-round. And that was really tremendous. I suddenly got the whole social aspect of it, which is very potent. We’d go out early in the morning. People were just getting up, getting themselves together. They’d come out with bowls of rice to put food in our bowls. The people were eager, concerned to make sure they got their rice in your bowl. I could see that there was a tremendous focus of attention. You create something for people. You set up their day. If a monk didn’t go by, they would be very upset. So you’re part of some greater meaning than the personal. The fact of being that kind of focus is an incredible spur to practice.
Can you say more about why that’s so? Is it a feeling of gratitude for what you’ve been given, or the service you’re providing to the people?
It’s partly gratitude, but it’s not exactly that. It’s more like recognizing you’re part of something very big that’s gone on for thousands of years and is holding a society together in some form. It’s holding people’s minds together, giving them a sense of direction. It’s certainly not given to one personally: “Hey, I like you. Here’s some food.” People don’t even look at you. They just see the robe, the bowl. You don’t say anything. It would be very inappropriate to start conversing. But bearing the sign of the monk you realize that somehow you’ve stepped into something very, very big. These people are born and will die with that sign in their mind. They grow up as toddlers with that sign in their mind. When they’re in trouble, that sign in their mind will come back to them.
In the West, my experience had been of being very much out of context. You’re one fragment with a bunch of other fragments around you. The bonding is minimal, perfunctory, and mostly out of functional necessity. Suddenly you are part of something whole. And it is carrying people’s values. As a monk your values are simple things: Rather than get angry, I’ll calm down. Rather than cheat, I’ll be honest. Rather than kill, I’ll refrain. Very simple stuff. And yet, you’re carrying that for a society in some way. So you think, “My bit in this situation is to be worthy of alms by carrying the sign of goodness.”
It’s not an obligation. Nobody’s asking, nobody’s checking up. It’s a real level of connectedness in which something…is transformed. You get to points in your meditation where your mind could go flaky—but it doesn’t. It comes back into the good because of that connection to goodness. There are times when you could just think, “Oh, forget it.” But you say, “No, keep going.” It’s intuitive. It’s something you feel in your heart.
How did you wind up accepting full ordination?
The specific cause was a response to the local community. Twice a year the monastery hosted hundreds of women to come to the monastery and meditate. They would all wear white, take the eight precepts, and sleep wherever a spare patch of floor could be found—there just weren’t enough kuṭis. And they would do a ten-day meditation retreat. Now, aspects of the feminine play a big part in monastic culture—either through women themselves or through the receptive and suffusive elements of Dhamma practice. The feminine offers a key to transformation. My own ordination was a good case in point.
Buddhist values are a crucible; but if you just put the material in and don’t heat it up—you won’t get the gold.
The Thai women stepped forward, very eager to offer support—making that offering meant a lot to them. For a Westerner to go forth was regarded as significant and impressive because it’s not part of our culture, not something we would do as a matter of course. So the women were very keen to sponsor a Westerner to become a bhikkhu. They thought, “You’ve got so much. You’ve got education, and money, and so many other things. And you’re giving it all up.” And I felt, “Well, they’ve given so much. I’ll do it for them.” So the result was that everyone was uplifted. Like the Buddha, a monk “leaves home” to take up the holy life—but sponsorship is a later development. It connects the “Going Forth” to the society—a very “feminine” thing. Anyway, I was a bhikkhu. I stayed where I was and continued to practice meditation, but I also joined in more with the community life of the Sangha.
One of the most inspiring things about being a bhikkhu was that once a fortnight we would go to the pāṭimokkha recitation. We’d sit in a hall listening to one monk recite the training rules at high speed. (It takes about forty-five minutes nonstop.) We’d just sit there, with our hearts open, listening. And at that time I felt this incredible sense of bonding with all these humans; and also with people like the Buddha, Sāriputta, and all the people who have been doing very much the same thing for 2500 years. They all listened to and lived according to these rules being recited. The recitation is a chance to acknowledge one’s own failings or weaknesses, and incline towards clearing the effects and doing better. You feel again that you’re part of the human need, the human urge to do good, which is an urge as basic as our more sensual urges. Because it’s low volume, we don’t normally hear it. But I think the urge is intrinsic: we want to do good.
So, except for what circumstance would you still be there to this day?
Well, my father died, so I went back to England to see my mother and sort out any family affairs. You know, my own personal stuff. And at that time Ajahn Sumedho was living in London. I had met him briefly in Thailand on one of my visits to another monastery. He struck me as someone with some accomplishment. His presence was peaceful; it was gentle; it was warm and spacious; it was resonant. So when I found out he was in Britain, I thought I would go see him. He was staying in a little place in London near Hampstead Heath, and I went down there and stayed a few days. There were two other monks there as well. I liked what they were doing. They were forest monks—whereas the place I had been trained was more a city monastery. And they brought with them a sense of fuller application to things like making robes, to a whole way of living. I found that interesting. So I thought, “While I’m in Britain, I’ll stay a bit longer—three months ought to do it.” (Laughs.) That was 22 years ago.
Was it distracting to your life as a monk to have to deal with the social newness of what you were doing in the English culture?
If you go back to the idea of receiving alms-food: I recognized that I was part of something big, a ripple in a pond. My experience in meditation was revealing a lot of the difficulties—hindrances, confusions, wrong views—that needed to get worked out in a wider, social context. So living with a group of monks and engaging was very helpful. It helped to open things up, work things out, take things in; to feel the sense of a larger sphere. English culture wasn’t really a problem because it places a high value on nonintrusion. People don’t tend to come in on you unless they’re invited. And there’s a place for monasteries in the culture.
It still must have been quite a change for you. You mentioned the sense of connecting to a long social tradition in Thailand, and this would have been very different in England.
Ajahn Sumedho is a very gifted teacher, in that he talks about Buddhism from the perspective of what’s happening now. Where are we at now? How are we mindful of what’s happening now? How do we find harmony? He teaches from the earth up, rather than from the sky down. He set a good example for us. People could relate to the goodness of what we were about. Then the vinaya [guidelines for the monastic life] helped to guide the connections between bhikkhus and the society, and the sanctuary of the monastery provided the situation for meeting.
After living in London we moved to a derelict house in Chithurst, West Sussex, which we had to work together to rebuild. That was more of a challenge, really, because all I’d ever done before was formal practice. Here we had to do a lot of manual work, we had to talk with people. We didn’t have much time for formal practice. And because English people generally didn’t know what bhikkhus were all about, we’d often have to be more forthcoming to warm them up and make them feel okay and not nervous.
In a lot of what you’ve been saying you’ve indicated the importance you give to human relatedness, the value of other human beings. This also seems reflected in how much people seem to want to be around you and in the care you give them. What do you see as the place of relationship in your path?
Well, we’re all bobbing around in the pond… Maybe awareness of relationship begins there. I think how we relate to others is a key issue nowadays: the instruction to be our own refuge, to go into solitude, etc., has to be balanced against the Buddha’s frequent use of dialogue to teach, his having disciples live and work with their teachers, and his establishing the Sangha [the monastic community]. Nowadays, a perception of “the other” can bring up anxiety, fear of judgment, competition, etc., and the teacher as “The Other” can be the implacable judge, the parent for whom one was never good enough. All this clogs up Dhamma practice. So I try to enter the practice field with the group and stay connected and responsive—action and speech follow from there. And silence…in a shared silence Dhamma seems to spread by osmosis. I enjoy group practice; maybe that comes across.
What would you say about the relationship between what has come to be called formal practice—intensive meditation in a retreat environment—and what has come to be called everyday life?
There are different forms for Dhamma practice. Or perhaps you can think of it like Chinese boxes—one is inside another, which is inside another. In my situation, I’m coming out of meditation into a more open form, but another formal training, which is the vinaya. The vinaya is continually steering and nudging: “Don’t go here; things are done in this way; be aware of what you’re doing now.” I’ve got that happening all the time—not just at the level of a precept, but in observance and manner. “That’s not the way to treat your bowl.” Or, “That’s not the way to talk in this context: softening the voice would have a better effect. That’s not the way to walk in; come in more gently.” And as a mendicant, I learn to let go into insecurity. These things offer a great advantage for cultivating the Dhamma.
It is more perilous for a lay meditator who is on a formal retreat and then comes out into a situation which has no training guidelines. They’ve just got to work it out themselves. They come out of a situation where the skin is being peeled off; they come out all pink and sensitive, and suddenly they’re in the circus and they have to perform. Insecurity has to be denied. So in the last decade or so, people are addressing more the issue of daily life context. Having experienced some of the uncovering that occurs on a meditation retreat, the questions become, “How do we practice in relationship? What is right livelihood?”
Actually this is pretty much the way the process unfolded for the Buddha and his early followers. He taught the meditation and the Dhamma first, and then the vinaya evolved from that. You can see the same sort of things happening for the lay community here. After some practice, people begin to see, “We’ve got to have precepts. We’ve got to set standards. As teachers we have to be honorable. That has to be very clear.” So a kind of vinaya culture, more or less, starts to happen. There’s a natural interest in it.
So you see some evolution in the Western lay person’s encounter with the Dhamma?
Oh yes, there is now a much wider field of corroboration. There is inquiry into things like, “How do we have families? How do we raise children? What constitutes a lay vinaya?” It’s not just a set of precepts or a code. It’s a culture, a Buddhist culture. The culture of awakening. We have a Buddhist school now in Britain. Alms-food gets offered on the streets. There are people who’ve grown up as Buddhists and are familiar with these things.
Is it the meditation practice that is so transformative, or is it the core values of the entire Buddhist tradition?
In certain respects the culture and the meditation practice are happening on different levels, although they overlap in the personal context. To integrate the two is the major practice. The culture is carried “externally” by the society (though it doesn’t always live up to its ideals). When you’re in a social context you, are often dealing with functional requirements, language and a conventional reality, which is not set up for Awakening. And we’re often relating through the convention of personality. So establishing some sound norms for these connections is basic sanity.
With meditation, you’re getting nearer to the core. Meditation practice is intimate. It’s really taking you past the ideals and the socialization of values. In the meditation practice you get back to something primary: “I feel this. I know this.” So, it’s a place of release. It’s the place of encountering hindrances intimately, and of firing up the enlightenment factors. Aspects of Buddhist “culture”—patience, generosity, letting go, for example—really support that penetration. Then, as you calm down and get closer to a core experience, the convention of personality starts to unfold into energetic patterns—patterns that are ephemeral but kammically potent when they’re held onto. Buddhist values are a crucible; but if you just put the material in it and don’t heat it up—you won’t get the gold.
With meditation you develop samādhi [concentration]. You’re getting past thinking, getting underneath sense contact, getting to an experience of your body which is different. You experience yourself more like an energetic sphere of sensitivity than as a six-foot-tall vertebrate who’s a man or a woman. You’re coming to something much more primary. The mind itself becomes different. If you meditate properly, the mind is much more sensitive. It is there, in the pond, part of what’s going on. In samādhi you don’t get the sense of the mind being some separate thing that thinks and decides. You realize that thinking and deciding are part of the ripple. You can undo that and become more intuitive, more attuned to sensitivities.
I see samādhi as essentially a deconstruction of the mind. From that, one can come back to dealing with things in terms of conventional entities, duties, responsibilities, time, place, and so forth. When you’re in a more constructed state, you use mindfulness and the clarity that has arisen, and then some stored guidelines which act as your conventional guides. But in the context of a lot of kammic activity the mind is much more likely to be in a stressed or tense state, and on the level of social construction you often have to deal with all sorts of emotional strangulation.
The course you’re teaching here at BCBS, on energy or viriya, addresses this issue. How are you approaching the subject?
From my own experience over the years, as well as working with others, I have come to realize just how damaged we all tend to be, both physically and emotionally. As such, many people haven’t got the resources to apply themselves to Dhamma. It’s rather like lifting weights. You come in and you haven’t warmed up. You try and lift a weight, and you just rip a muscle. It’s not that you don’t want to lift the weight. It’s not that you aren’t trying. The body just isn’t primed for it.
People’s bodies are pretty damaged energetically. They’ve sat in chairs all their lives; they’ve been wired to unnatural energy for decades. People often find it difficult to even know where their bodies are. Their mind has abstracted itself from the body. So when you meditate, you’re in this kind of disembodied experience—a frantic mind is pumping out thoughts, but you’re not getting any energy from the body. You meditate and meditate, but you’re basically cut off, disembodied. So it’s not just a matter of effort. It’s a matter of accessing the resource of balanced energy in the body.
The other issue is emotional. We do sharing and devotional practices because often people’s emotional energies are out of whack. They feel isolated, fragmented, alone, competitive. Everybody’s looking at each other, perhaps feeling annoyed because somebody is sniffing or rustling. You know, you’re in your own little box. It’s like going out on the freeway, and everybody’s in their little box driving along. In that sort of situation people’s emotional experience is not extensive, it’s not unfolding, it’s very much folded up with personal interest and personal protection. Often people find devotional practices help to restore a quality of natural connectedness and emotional resonance.
When these two bases of body and heart are restricted, I don’t know where you get the energy to practice. Perhaps its just idealism, or will power; but people run out of that. Because of it’s restraint and discipline, Theravada Buddhism can seem heartless, cerebral, world denying, and body denying—a very cramped thing. But when you read the texts, you find the Buddha talking a lot about joy, bliss, rapture, tranquility, vitality. So people have to tap into this field, this pool of uplifting energy, and they can only do this by healing some of the damage done by our modern world. So I teach body and heart practices to open them into this field of energy.
You have often mentioned returning to the suttas [texts]. Is this important only for teachers, or for all practitioners?
My own personal interest has been in trying to look into the suttas and to get past the cultural accretions. I think an interest in what the Buddha said naturally develops from living and practicing in this tradition.
It might start with a simple curiosity, “What did the Buddha say on mindfulness? Well, let’s have a look—Oh, the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta.” And that leads you on to, “What does he mean by feeling? What does he mean by citta [mind]?” You start to check the Pali against the English. So often you think you understand, but you’re not getting the entirety of it. You find that citta and “mind” don’t exactly relate. So you have to investigate that.
For me it’s been very much a process of, “What do I need to know?” And then I can check a scripture and see what the Buddha said, which isn’t always the most populist “Buddhist” message.
I still think meditation is the leading edge. But you need right view to know where to apply that. And certainly right view is enhanced by some accurate study. So you owe it to yourself to go back to the Buddha. You’d be foolish not to try to get as close as you can to the Master.