Ajahn Sundarā, a senior nun from the Amaravati community in England, spent the three-month vassa, or rains retreat, at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in the summer of 2001. She spoke to us just before her departure.
Thank you, Ajahn, for taking the time to talk with us this morning. Let me start by asking you something simple: What do you feel is the essence of dharma?[Laughter.] This is not such a simple question… The essence of dharma is liberation. Liberation from dukkha, from suffering in its widest meaning. And also liberation from any kind of delusion, any kind of ignorance.
Sometimes liberation is portrayed as a goal at the end of one’s path, and at other times one hears about moments of liberation and freedom. Can you clarify this?
Liberation is not out there somewhere, or an event that will happen sometime in the future. It begins right here right now. Many conditions are supporting the time when one might have a profound experience of letting go of some particular blind spot or pattern of attachment. Even though nirvana is presented as a goal—the goal of final liberation—each moment is a moment where there is a possibility of liberating the mind from its habitual grasping, its clinging, its blindness. So it’s the goal, and at the same time it’s happening in the moment. These do not contradict one another.
What do these moments feel like, when you actually experience insight?
It’s not like a major fireworks experience, where everything is suddenly just blown apart. For me, it can be very simple: just suddenly noticing an habitual way of the mind seeing things. You contact the world, and suddenly you see the dukkha and you KNOW. You just see the experience of tension, and the actual taṇhā [craving] behind it. You can experience both the wanting—and then the relaxing into that experience and allowing it to just be there. You see that you can stop acting on it.
When it becomes clear that grasping is the cause of dukkha, you just let go. Instead of clinging, you just release it. The peace that comes from releasing, that is nirodha, the experience of cessation, the third noble truth which is often hardly even noticed. The mind, under the influence of ego, is more inclined to notice what is exciting or interesting. Usually you might be pushing away the experience, or grasping it, or struggling with it, or making something out of it, or becoming it. And then, in this moment of insight, you see these as just reactive responses that we usually have out of ignorance towards our mind states, our bodily experiences, and so on. Cessation is peaceful: the ending of grasping, the ending of our problems, the ending of ME with my story and all its complexities.
You realize that there is no one there. The mind with its thoughts, feeling and perception just seems to arise out of nowhere, and disappears, and arises again. It is only through our delusion that we are constantly building up a sense of self around that, creating what we hope is some kind of secure landscape. We construct a person, again and again, out of our misapprehension of physical and mental phenomena.
So the noble truths are really revealed in experience moment after moment?
Yes. If you are awake.
And how do we wake up, or remain awake, in order to see these things in our experience?
Paradoxically, the experience of dukkha is part of our waking up. Somehow I’ve noticed that most human beings around me—including myself—seem to be spurred on by the experience of unsatisfactoriness. I don’t think any one of us is looking for that, or wants it, and it’s not necessarily unsatisfactory in the sense of being unhappy. But often with the experience of dukkha comes the realization that you are asleep; there is a lack of mindfulness, a lack of awareness and energy. A kind of contraction has already begun, and then suddenly you realize that you are not aware. You are not really present with what’s happening. You are seeing the world through the veil of habits, the veil of misery and depression, excitement, anger or frustration. As a well known teacher says, you are not meeting the moment as a fresh moment.
Do you mean that you need to be awake to see the noble truths in your experience, and at the same time, by seeing them, you wake up?
That’s right. When you really see suffering, you have already come to that place of wakefulness, which is not clinging and grasping. So in a way by seeing suffering, you have also almost seen the ending of suffering. It’s not like a linear sequence in time, one, two, three, four. It’s more like the case of a hand touching a cinder of hot coal. As soon as you pick it up you drop it, because you just know it is hot. You don’t wait, you just drop it. At some point it becomes as urgent as this.
And what might you say to help a person who can see the unsatisfactoriness arising again and again in their experience, but somehow just can’t seem to manage to see the holding that is underlying and causing it?
We all go through this. We can often feel the misery of dukkha and not be able to drop it. It is as if we were addicted to it. I think all of us are in the same boat. But this is where practice makes a difference. With meditation we have tools that help us to investigate the nature of our experiences and to see our habitual grasping. Much of the practice is about being very patient and willing to bear with our habits until they run out of fuel.
When you enter the practice, you enter a fire.
It’s as though we were starting a program of detox: it doesn’t feel so good. We can experience the withdrawal symptoms of addiction to delusion. For a while you just feel very ill at ease because you are not feeding the habits of grasping. Many people come to practice thinking, “Oh, it’s going to be really nice. I’m going to find peace, and I’ll be confident and more clear.” They don’t realize that actually when you enter the practice, you enter a strong fire.
And what helps us make the breakthrough? Is it just the gradual effects of patiently returning our attention to the present? Or is it a momentum that grows from moments of insight getting closer together, or more deep?
Sometimes it is just a matter of patiently bearing with difficult states of mind, mood, emotion, perceptions, old conditioning and so on. As we keep taking refuge in mindfulness, moment by moment, we are not fueling our habits and our grasping begins to loosen up. It does not seem like very much at first, yet you begin to notice how certain situations, certain people, certain moods that used to agitate your mind do not have any hold anymore.
We don’t have to be afraid of the heat generated by the shadow side of our personality.
When I first learned about practice, my teacher emphasized right view. His teaching constantly reminded me to observe experiences as changing—and to notice when there was suffering or not. Paying attention, I began to be aware when I took things personally and when I did not, when the sense of self was present or not. The more it hurt, I noticed, the more I was invested in what I experienced. I was noticing the patterns of attachment in my life and the lack of inherent seflhood of the mind.
I think sometimes in the West we see the practice and the path of training the mind in a way that is a little narrow. We think of it, perhaps, as a technique or some kind of special conditions to reach a breakthrough. We often forget that every aspect of life is a tool to realize Dhamma. Everything in life influences us, and awareness is key. Awareness of mistakes can take us right into the fire. Sometimes not getting it quite right is what wakes you up, much more sharply than developing a lot of techniques to be aware. Transformation sometimes needs fire, and we don’t have to be afraid of the heat that’s generated by the shadow side of our personality.
It becomes possible to be at peace with whatever is happening.
But what is the wisdom component of that? For many people, when their ego gets thrown down, they feel bad about themselves; and this can just fuel more unskillful states. What is the crucial factor that will allow one to use this as a tool for growth rather than for further suffering?
Wisdom can help discern the suffering that perpetuates itself and the suffering that takes us to the end of suffering. Most people identify with what they experience. So when they feel miserable, they don’t know how to let awareness reflect back their experiences. If we are still desperately clinging to being successful, or being loved, or being praised, or being famous, or whatever—then we won’t be able to see the bigger picture. We won’t be able to reach the state of peace that Ajahn Chah was pointing to when he said:
“If you let go of a little you have a little peace. If you let go of a lot you have a lot of peace. And if you let go completely, then you have complete peace.”
When you have seen through insight that the things we crave are not really worth making ourselves miserable, it becomes possible to be at peace with whatever is happening.
Is this easier to do in a monastic environment?
Certainly in the beginning it’s easier to practice in an environment where people share a common interest and commitment, and whose lifestyle is designed to support the practice and realization of Dhamma. It is also an advantage to be away from a lot of situations where the worldly assumptions hold undisputed sway. In our Western secular society, to be famous, and successful, and loved, and praised is the only goal isn’t it? That is what you are brought up to believe from childhood. But when you are in a monastic environment for a while you have many encouragement to just drop the whole thing and to see what happens when you don’t cling to these ideals. There are also very clear ethical standards, which is a big help.
Sīla (morality) provides clear guidelines that remind us to be mindful of all aspects of our life: mind, body, speech and our interaction with the outside world. But these guidelines would not be very useful if they were seen simply as another set of ideas to be clung to. Wisdom and a compassionate attitude must be present to use them skilfully, and to realise that our mistakes as well as our success are valuable material for practice.
So even as a monastic you still have an occasional opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them?
Occasional? [Laughter] People have such a funny idea about monasticism. It’s a place where your shortcomings become magnified and you have to face yourself as you are rather than as an ideal you may be trying to uphold. You have many mirrors of yourself in a community. It can be quite a shock sometimes to realize how many identities you are living with!
How did you come to the dharma? Who has been your teacher?
I always think of Thomas Merton and Krishnamurti as the people who gave me an inkling of an inquiring mind and the dimension of awareness. But it all really began for me with Ajahn Sumedho. I met him early in 1978, when he came to visit the university where I was studying at the time. One of the students, who had been a monk with Ajahn Chah, had started a Buddhist Society where some meditation was being taught.
What really struck me is that Ajahn Sumedho was describing in his talks a lifestyle which I had been looking for but never imagined I could ever find in our culture. I had always lived in metropolitan areas, in a world of artists and intellectuals where tranquility and peace was not exactly the aim of life. He spoke of the simple lifestyle of a monk in Thailand and I saw somebody who was intelligent, reflective, bright and humorous. He embodied qualities which I appreciated. I remembered his humor more than anything.
There was a certain freshness about his outlook on things that was very reassuring. Having trained as a dancer, I was familiar with the kind of focused attention and concentration you need to be in the present moment. You can’t dance by thinking, or with a manual in your hands—you’ve got to be right there. I was looking for something that could sustain that experience of presence in my everyday life, but there was nothing in our society that seemed able to provide this.
Presumably as a dancer you were well trained in mindfulness and concentration. If these are factors that lead to awakening, why don’t all dancers have wisdom?
Well, concentration and a certain degree of mindfulness are present, but not what the Buddha calls right mindfulness. There was no shortage of suffering and opportunity to see the Dhamma, yet I didn’t know how to find a skillful way to deal with it. Even though I had learned a lot about the body, I did not know what it was about. It was a bit like a doctor who might know every detail about the human body, but who is totally ignorant of its real nature. I eventually found the dancer’s world ego-centered and narcissistic.
So how did you get from there to the monastic community?
Inspired by the teaching of Krishnamurti, I started inquiring into what I was feeling and thinking, sitting quietly and simply being present. In the stillness there was a strong awareness of the restlessness of the mind, the fear, the agitation, the frustration and so on. It was like opening the gates to all that which did not want to be present. And I began to see how mind and body interacted with one another, which triggered my curiosity: “Oh that’s very interesting. What’s going on here?” I had never known that I was living with such an active mind and body. All sorts of things were becoming conscious, not just difficult aspects of the mind but also some very positive ones, which came as a surprise. Suddenly I felt a great wish to be generous, and not being so preoccupied with myself, I had more time and wanted to share what I had. So there was a slow transformation happening beyond my control.
This was a very unfamiliar experience, because like most people I thought that my strength and ability to act and respond to life came from getting actively involved—not by relaxing and just being at peace in the present moment. Yet so many experiences were coming up by doing nothing, by just being present. There were also some changes in my professional and personal life taking place, raising many questions which I knew had no real answer. Somehow the answers were not so important, but I felt that the questions were.
We’re getting closer. And the final step?
The turning point was a retreat with Ajahn Sumedho. I discovered that I loved getting up at four o’clock in the morning and eating only one meal a day. I did get totally bored, miserable, hungry and critical at times—yet to me, because of the presence of mindfulness, it was 10 days in heaven! I discovered that I had enough space to see my critical mind reflected everywhere: “I don’t like him. I don’t like it here. She’s not practicing right” and enough compassion to let things be. This incredible simplicity of the present moment, and all this energy to just be here now and to notice what was going on in the mind, fascinated me.
However, the last thing I thought is that I would wind up at a monastery. I had all sorts of ideas and plans for the years ahead. And at some point I was talking to Ajahn Sumedho about all of this—going on about the greatness of the challenges of the world. When I stopped he just said “Yes, and it’s a matter of knowing where the world is, isn’t it?” And that was like a lightening bolt. It changed everything. Suddenly I realized something that I had read in many books, that I was actually making my world and was free to lead my life as I wanted.
So “The world is in this fathom-long body.” [M1:82] Is that what he was referring to?
Yes. “You cannot reach the end of the world by walking, but you cannot end dukkha without going to the end of the world” the Buddha said. I didn’t realize the impact it had until I realized my mind had stopped somehow. Soon thereafter I thought, “Well, ten days did a jolly good job. How about three months? That should sort yourself out for the rest of your life.” Of course, that first month turned out to be so fascinating I stayed on, and eventually joined the order of nuns.
And how developed was the nuns community at that point?
Well, there was nothing. We were four lay-women who happen to come to the monastery at about the same time. We were ordained together a few weeks later. Learning to live together under the same roof was an extraordinary classroom. We were four incredibly strong individuals—very different. [Laughter] It was an entirely different lifestyle for all of us, to suddenly find ourselves with three other people day in and day out in really rough conditions. In the early years the monastery was a really tough place to live. It was virtually a building site, stripped from the cellar up to the roof. It was cold and damp, and there was a kind of spooky atmosphere at times.
We got up at four and had to be up at the main house at five o’clock in the morning. Since we were fifteen minutes walk up a tiny deserted lane from the bottom of a hill, we had to get up even earlier than the men. Each week there was an all-night vigil where we meditated until four or five o’clock in the morning. We lived on one meal a day, we didn’t have breakfast for two years. Being French (food is important!), that was really quite a drastic change for me. [Laughter] A real mind-stopper!
And there must have been some special difficulties around the fact that nuns and monks were relatively close together?
Yes, of course. It was quite an extraordinary situation. The monks had just moved from Thailand to the West, in an entirely different culture. They did not have the support of an Asian society that is predominantly Buddhist, and had never lived close to nuns. Personally, not knowing much about this tradition, it wasn’t too bad as I remember at the time, because I just took on board the situation as it was. As a female monastic I never felt particularly inferior in those days—I think I was too conceited to feel that I was inferior, anyway. But I have to say we were very well treated, very respected.
Over the years a great mutual respect between the male and female members of the community has developed.
I am often asked questions like “How can you cope with the fact that women are subordinate to men“ [according the ancient monastic codes] and so on. This has been an issue in our community not just for the nuns but for the monks too, and has not been an easy one. We have had to learn to work with a situation that challenges much of our conditioning around being strong and independent western women.
The practice helps us respond to the way things are, rather than projecting some sort of ideals onto a monastic form which is to be used as a skillful means rather than an end in itself. But this is an ongoing challenge, and the question remains: “How do we relate to this whole convention skillfully, and translate into our culture a tradition that is so incredibly different from what we know in the West?”
In the last decade, the nun’s community has become much more independent, and administers its own internal affairs. The responsibilities of running the monastery are shared, and most decisions are made by a group of senior monks and nuns. Over the years a great mutual respect between the male and female members of the community has developed.
In this and many other ways there seems to be a good deal of evolution in the modern Sangha.
I have noticed, since I have been in the United States more over the last 10 years, that there is a sense of growing interest in monastic life that I had not seen so much before. There seems to be a deeper understanding of what monastic life means for us, and a greater interest in supporting monastics. I think the more understanding there is between the lay community and the monastic community, the more mutual respect naturally develops. This will surely benefit and enrich each other’s experience and quality of practice. It was not too long ago that more polarity existed, and I feel this is a really positive development.
The growing connection between our Sangha on the one hand, and the larger retreat centers in America such as IMS and Spirit Rock is very heart-warming. I was at Spirit Rock recently when Ajahn Sumedho was there teaching a group of senior lay dharma teachers, and was very happy to see a bit more of the harmony within the communities of which the Buddha so often spoke when he reminded us to meet often, meet in concord, and part in concord.
Any last thoughts, Sister?
I would just like to express my gratitude and appreciation to everyone at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies and at the Insight Meditation Society for the kindness, generosity and support that I have received during my three-month stay, and to thank particularly those who made it possible for me to spend the Vassa here.