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Being nobody

Ajahn Sumedho

Try to note the cessation or the ending of things in little ways by paying special attention to the ending of the outbreath. This in your daily life, you're noticing the ordinary endings that no-one ever pays attention to. I've found this practice very useful because it's a way of noticing the changing nature of the conditioned realm as one is living one's daily life. As I understand it, it was to these ordinary states of mind that the Buddha was pointing, not to the special highly-developed concentrated states.

The first year that I practised, I was on my own and I could get into higlily-developed concentrated states of mind which I really enjoyed. Then I went to Wat Pah Pong (Thailand), where the emphasis was on the way of life in accordance with Vinaya discipline and a routine. There one always had to go out on alms-round every morning, and do the morning chanting and evening chanting. If you were young, and healthy, you were expected to go on these very long alms-rounds - they had shorter ones that the old feeble monks could go on. In the days, I was very vigorous so I was always going on these long, long, alms-rounds and then I'd come back tired, then there would be the meal and then in the afternoon we all had chores to do. It was not possible under those conditions to stay in a concentrated state. Most of the day was taken up by daily life routine.

So I got fed up with all this and went to see Luang Por Chah (Ajahn Chah) and said, 'I can't meditate here', and he started laughing at me and telling everyone that, 'Sumedho can't meditate here!' I was seeing meditation as this very special experience that I'd had and quite enjoyed and then Luang Por Chah was obviously pointing to the ordinariness of daily life, the getting up, the alms-rounds, the routine work, the chores: the whole thing was for mindfulness. And he didn't seem at all eager to support me in my desires to have strong sensory deprivation experience by not having to do all these little daily tasks. He didn't seem to go along with that; so I ended up having to conform and learn to meditate in the ordinariness of daily life. And in the long run that has been the most helpful.

It has not always been what I wanted because one wants the special; one would love to have blazing light and marvellous insights in Technicolor and have incredible bliss and ecstasy and rapture - not be just happy and calm - but over the moon!

But reflecting on life in this human form: it is just like this, it's being able to sit peacefully and get up peacefully and be content with what you have; it's that which makes our life as a daily experience something that is joyful and not suffering. And this is how most of our life can be lived - you can't live in ecstatic states of rapture and bliss and do the dishes, can you? I used to read about the lives of saints that were so caught up in ecstasies they couldn't do anything on any practical level. Even though the blood would flow from their palms and they could do feats that the faithful would rush to look at, when it came to anything practical or realistic they were quite incapable.

And yet when you contemplate the Vinaya discipline itself, it is a training in being mindful. It's about mindfulness with regard to making robes, collecting alms food, eating food, taking care of your kuti; what to do in this situation or that situation. It's all very practical advice about the daily life of a bhikkhu. An ordinary day in the life of Bhikkhu Sumedho isn't about exploding into rapture but getting up and going to the toilet and putting on a robe and bathing and doing this or that; it's just about being mindful while one is living in this form and learning to awaken to the way things are, to the Dhamma.

That's why whenever we contemplate cessation, we're not looking for the end of the universe but just the exhalation of the breath or the end of the day or the end of the thought or the end of the feeling. To notice that means that we have to pay attention to the flow of life - we have to really notice the way it is rather than wait for some kind of fantastic experience of marvellous light descending on us, zapping us or whatever.

Now just contemplate the ordinary breathing of your body. You notice if you're inhaling, that it's easy to concentrate. When you're filling your lungs, you feel a sense of growth and development and strength. When you say somebody's 'puffed up', then they're probably inhaling. It's hard to feel puffed up while you're exhaling. Expand your chest and you have a sense  of being somebody big and powerful. However, when I first started paying attention to exhaling, my mind would wander; exhaling didn't seem as important as inhaling - you were just doing it so that you could get on to the next inhalation.

Now reflect: one can observe breathing, so what is it that can observe? What is it that observes and knows the inhalation and the exhalation - that's not the breathing, is it? You can also observe the panic that comes if you want to catch a breath and you can't; but the observer, that which knows, is not an emotion, not panic-stricken, is not an exhalation or an inhalation. So our refuge in Buddha is being that knowing; being the witness rather than the emotion or the breath or the body.

With the sound of silence, some people hear fluctuations of sound or a continuous background of sound. So you can contemplate it, you notice that - can you notice it if you put your fingers in your ears? Can you hear it in a place where they are using the chain saw? or when you're doing exercises or when you're in a fraught emotional state? You're using this sound of silence as something to remember to turn to and notice - because it's always present here and now. And there's that which notices it.

There is the desire of the mind to call it something, to have a name for it, have it listed as some kind of attainment or project something on to it. Notice that, the tendency of wanting to make it into something. Somebody said it's probably just the sound of your blood circulating in your ears, somebody else called it 'the cosmic sound,' 'the bridge to the Divine.' That sounds nicer than 'the blood in your ears'. It might be the sound of the Cosmos or it might be that you've got an ear disease. But it doesn't have to be anything; it's what it is, it's 'as that.' Whatever it is, it can be used as reflection because when you're with that, there is no sense of self, there is mindfulness, there is the ability to reflect.

So it is more like a straight edge that you can go to, to keep you from going all wobbly. It is something you can use to compose yourself in daily life, when you're putting on your robes, when you're brushing your teeth, when you're closing a door, when you're coming into the meditation hall, when you're sitting down. So much of daily life is just habitual because we aim at what we consider to be the important things of life - like the meditation. So, walking from where you live to the Meditation Hall can be a totally heedless experience - just a habit - clump, clump, clump, slam bang! Then you sit here for an hour trying to be mindful.

This way you begin to see a way of being mindful, of bringing mindfulness to the ordinary routines and experiences of life. I have a nice little picture in my room that I'm very fond of - of this old man with a coffee mug in his hand, looking out of the window into an English garden with the rain coming down. The title of the picture is 'Waiting.' That's how I think of myself; an old man with my coffee mug sitting there at the window, waiting, waiting... watching the rain or the sun or whatever. I don't find that a depressing image but rather a peaceful one. This life is just about waiting, isn't it? We're waiting all the time - so we notice that, We're not waiting for anything, but we can be just waiting. And then we respond to the things of life, to the time of day, the duties, the things move and change, the society we are in. That response isn't from the force of habits of greed, hatred and delusion but it's response of wisdom and mindfulness.

Now how many of you feel you have a mission in life to perform? It's something you've got to do and some kind of important task that's been assigned to you by God or fate or something. People frequently get caught up in that view of being somebody who has a mission. Who can be just with the way things are, so that it is just the body that grows up, gets old and dies, breathes and is conscious? We can practise, live within the moral precepts, do good, respond to the needs and experiences of life with mindfulness and wisdom - but there's nobody that has to do anything. There's nobody with a mission, nobody special, we're not making a person or a saint or an avatar or a tulku or a messiah or Maitreya. Even if you think: 'I'm just a nobody.'even being a nobody is somebody in this life, isn't it., You can be just as proud of being nobody as of being somebody and just as deluded attached to being nobody. But whatever you happen to believe, that you're a nobody or a somebody or you have a mission or you're a nuisance and a burden to the world or however you might view yourself, then the knowing is there to see the cessation of such a view.

Views arise and cease, don't they? 'I'm somebody, an important person who has a mission in life': that arises and ceases in the mind. Notice the ending of being somebody important or being nobody or whatever - it all ceases, doesn't it? Everything that arises, ceases so there's a non-grasping of the view of being somebody with a mission or of being nobody. There's the end of that whole mass of suffering - of having to develop something, become somebody, change something, set everything right, get rid of all your defilements or save the world. Even the best ideals, the best thoughts can be seen as dhammas that arise and cease in the mind.

Now, you might think that this is a barren philosophy of life because there's a lot more heart and feeling in being somebody who's going to save all sentient beings. People with self-sacrifice who have missions and help others and have something important to do are an inspiration. But when you notice that as dhamma, you are looking at the limitations of inspirations and the cessation of it. Then there is the dhamma of those aspirations and actions rather than somebody who has to become something or has to do something. The whole illusion is relinquished and what remains is purity of mind. Then the response to experience comes from wisdom and purity rather than from personal conviction and mission with its sense of self and other, and all the complications that come from that whole pattern of delusion.

Can you trust that? Can you trust in just letting everything go and cease and not being anybody and not having any mission, not having to becomes anything? Can you really trust in that or do you find it frightening, barren or depressing? Maybe you really want inspiration. 'Tell me everything is all right; tell me you really love me; what I'm doing is right and Buddhism is not just a selfish religion where you get enlightened for your own sake; tell me that Buddhism is here to save all sentient beings. Is that what you're going to do, Venerable Sumedho? Are you really Mahayana or Hinayana?'

What I'm pointing to is what inspiration is as an experience. Idealism: not trying to dismiss it or to judge it in any way but to reflect on it, to know what that is in the mind and how easily we can be deluded by our own ideas and high-minded views. And to see how insensitive, cruel and unkind we can be by the attachment we have to views about being kind and sensitive. This is where it is a real investigation into Dhamma.

I remember in my own experience, I always had the view that I was somebody special in some way; I used to think, 'Well I must be a special person. Way back when I was a child I was fascinated by Asia and as soon as I could, I studied Chinese at the university, so surely I must have been a reincarnation of somebody who was connected to the Orient.'

But consider this as a reflection: no matter how many signs of being special or previous lives you can remember or voices from God or messages from the Cosmos, whatever - not to deny that or say that those things aren't real - but they're impermanent. They're anicca, dukkha, anatta. We're reflecting on them as they really are - what arises ceases: a message from God is something that comes and ceases in your mind, doesn't it? God isn't always talking to you continuously unless you want to consider the silence the voice of God. Then it doesn't really say anything does it? We can call it anythiny - we can call it the voice of God or the divine or the ringing of the cosmos or blood in your ear drums. But whatever it is, it can be used for mindfulness and reflection - that's what I'm pointing to, how to use these things without making them into something.

Then the missions we have are responses, not to experience, that we have in our lives - they're not personal anymore, it's no longer me, Sumedho Bhikkhu, with a mission as if I'm specially chosen from above, more so than any of you. It's not that any more. That whole manner of thinking and perceiving is relinquished. And whether or not I do save the world and thousands of beings or help the poor in the slums of Calcutta or help to cure all lepers and do all kinds of good works - it's not from the delusion of being a person, it's a natural response from wisdom.

This I trust; this is what saddha it is - is a faith in the Buddha's word. Saddha: it's a real trust and confidence in Dhamma; in just waiting and being nobody and not becoming anything, but being able to just wait and to respond. And if there's nothing much to respond to, it's just waiting - coffee cup, watching the rain, the sunset, getting old, witnessing the ageing process, the comings and goings in the monastery - the ordinations and the disrobing, the inspirations and the depressions, the highs and the lows, inside the mind, outside in the world. And there is the response because we have vigour and intelligence and talent, then life to us asking us to respond to it in some skilful and compassionate way, which we are very willing and able to do. We like to help people. I wouldn't mind going to a Buddhist leper colony - I'd be glad to - or working in the shanty towns of Calcutta or wherever, I'd have no objections; those kinds of things are rather appealing to my sense of liability!

But it's not a mission, it's not me having to do anything; it's trusting in the Dhamma. Then the response to life is clear and of benefit because it's not coming from me as a person and the delusions of ignorance conditioning mental formations. And one observes the restlessness, the compulsiveness, the obsessiveness of the mind and lets it cease. We let it go and it ceases.

Ajahn Sumedho
07 February 1989
Amaravati Buddhist Monastery , U.K.

Source: "The Way It Is", Ajahn Sumedho, Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, U.K., 1991

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