Ayya Khema was born in Berlin in 1923 of Jewish parents. In 1938 she escaped from Germany with a transport of two hundred other children and was taken to Scotland. Her parents went to China and, two years later, Ayya Khema joined them in Shanghai. In 1944, however, the family was put into a Japanese concentration camp and it was here that her father died. Four years after the American liberation of the camp, Ayya Khema was able to emigrate to America, where she married and had a son and daughter. Between 1960 and 1964 she traveled throughout Asia, including the Himalayan countries, and learned meditation. Ten years later she began to teach meditation. Her experiences led her to become ordained as a Buddhist nun in Sri Lanka in 1979. She established Wat Buddha Dhamma, a forest monastery in the Theravada tradition, near Sydney, Australia, in 1978. In Colombo she set up the International Buddhist Women”s Center as a training center for Sri Lankan nuns, and Parappuduwa Nuns” Island for women who want to practice intensively and/or ordain. She was the spiritual director of Buddha-Haus in Germany, established in 1989 under her auspices. In 1987 she co-ordinated the first international conference of Buddhist nuns in the history of Buddhism, which resulted in the creation of Sakyadhita, a world-wide Buddhist women”s organization. In May 1987, as an invited lecturer, she was the first Buddhist ever to have addressed the United Nations in New York.
The Meditative Mind
– Sister Ayya Khema (Theravada Tradition)
People are often surprised to find it is difficult to meditate. Outwardly it seems to be such a simple matter, to just sit down on a little pillow and watch one’s breath. What could be hard about that? The difficulty lies in the fact that one’s whole being is totally unprepared. Our mind, senses, and feelings are used to trade in the market place, namely the world we live in. But meditation cannot be done in a market place. That’s impossible. There’s nothing to buy or trade or arrange in meditation, but most people’s attitude remains the same as usual and that just doesn’t work.
We need patience with ourselves. It takes time to change to the point where meditation is actually a state of mind, available at any time because the market place is no longer important. The market place doesn’t just mean going shopping. It means everything that is done in the world: all the connections, ideas, hopes and memories, all the rejections and resistances, all our reactions.
In meditation there are may be momentary glimpses of seeing that concentration is feasible, but it can’t be sustained. It constantly slips again and the mind goes right back to where it came from. In order to counteract that, one has to have determination to make one’s life a meditative one; it doesn’t mean one has to meditate from morning to night. I don’t know anyone who does. And it doesn’t mean we cannot fulfill our duties and obligations, because they are necessary and primary as long as we have them. But it means that we watch ourselves carefully in all our actions and reactions to make sure that everything happens in the light of the Dhamma — the truth. This applies to the smallest detail such as our food, what we listen to or talk about. Only then can the mind be ready with a meditative quality when we sit down on the pillow. It means that no matter where we find ourselves, we remain introspective. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk to others, but we watch the content of the discussion.
That is not easy to do and the mind often slips off. But we can become aware of the slip. If we aren’t even aware that we have digressed from mindfulness and inner watchfulness, we aren’t on the meditative path yet. If our mind has the Dhamma quality established within, then meditation has a good chance.
The more we know of the Dhamma, the more we can watch whether we comply with its guidelines. There is no blame attached to our inability to do so. But the least we can do is to know the guidelines and know where we’re making mistakes. Then we practice to get nearer and nearer to absolute reality, until one day we will actually be the Dhamma.
There is this difference between one who know and one who practices. The one who knows may understand the words and concepts but the one who practices knows only one thing, namely, to become that truth. Words are an utilitarian means not only for communication, but also to solidify ideas. That’s why words can never reveal the truth, only personal experience can. We attain our experiences through realizing what’s happening within and why it is as it is. This means that we combine watchfulness with inquiry as to why we’re thinking, saying and reacting the way we do. Unless we use our mind in this way, meditation will be an on-again, off-again affair and will remain difficult. When meditation doesn’t bring joy, most people are quite happy to forget about it.
Without the meditative mind and experience, the Dhamma cannot arise in the heart, because the Dhamma is not in words. The Buddha was able to verbalize his inner experience for our benefit, to give us a guideline. That means we can find a direction, but we have to do the traveling ourselves.
To have a meditative mind, we need to develop some important inner qualities. We already have their seed within, otherwise we couldn’t cultivate them. If we want nutritious vegetables in our garden and there are no seeds, we can water and fertilize, yet nothing will grow. The watering and fertilizing of the mind is done in meditation. Weeding has to be done in daily living. Weeds always seem to grow better in any garden than the vegetables and flowers do. It takes a lot of attentiveness to uproot those weeds, but it is not so difficult to cut them down. As they get cut down again and again, they eventually become feeble and their uprooting is made easy. Cutting down and uprooting the weeds needs sufficient introspection into ourselves to know what is a weed and what is a nutritious food. We have to be very sure, because we don’t want to pull out all the life sustaining crop and leave all the weeds. A garden with many weeds isn’t life much use in sustaining your body/vehicle of awakening.
People’s hearts and minds usually contain equal amounts of nutritious crops and weeds. We’re born with the three roots of evil: greed, hate and delusion, and the three roots of good: generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. Doesn’t it make sense to try to cultivate one and discourage the other.
If we want to eliminate those three roots, we have to look at their outcrops. They are roots underneath the surface, but obviously a root sprouts and shows itself above the surface. We can see that within ourselves. Caused by delusion, we manifest various levels of greed and degrees of aversion. There are different facets of greed and hate, and the simplest and most common one is “I like,” “I want,” “I don’t like,” and “I don’t want.” Most people think such reactions are perfectly justified, and yet that they are forms of greed and hate. Our roots have sprouted in so many different ways that we have all sorts of weeds growing. We might have that quite a variety of unwholesome thoughts and emotions. They have different appearances and power but they’re all coming from the same roots. As we can’t get at the roots yet, we have to deal with what is above the surface. When we cultivate the good roots, they become so mighty and strong that the weeds do not find enough nourishment any more. As long as we allow room for the weeds in our garden, we take the nutriment away from the nutritious life sustaining plants, instead of cultivating those more and more. This takes place as a development in daily living, which then makes it possible to meditate as a natural outcome of our state of mind.
At this point in time we are trying to change our mind from an ordinary one to a meditative one and this is a long term process. We only have one mind and carry that around with us to every activity and also to the meditation. If we have an inkling that meditation can bring us peace and happiness, then it is most beneficial that we have a meditative mind already when we sit down. To transition it from a mode of busy-ness to quiet stillness can be difficult and progress to the benefits of meditation hindered.
The state of mind which we need to develop for meditation is well described by the Buddha. Two aspects of importance are mindfulness and the calming of the senses. Internal mindfulness may sometimes be exchanged for external mindfulness because under some circumstances that is an essential part of practice. The world impinges upon us, which we cannot deny.
External mindfulness also means to see a tree, for instance, in a completely new way. Not with the usual thoughts of “that’s pretty,” or “I like this one in may garden,” but rather noticing that there are live and dead leaves, the tree is home to many creatures, or the sunlight on the leaves feeds this tree. We can witness the growth, birth and decay all around us. We can understand craving very clearly by watching ants, mosquitoes, dogs. We need not look at them as a nuisance, but as teachers. Ants, mosquitoes and barking dogs are the kind of teachers who don’t leave us alone until the lessons are fully learned. When we see all in the light of birth, decay, death, greed, hate and delusion, we are looking in a mirror of all life around us, then we have Dhamma on show. All of us are proclaiming the truth of Dhamma constantly, only we don’t pay enough attention.
We can use mindfulness to observe that everything in existence consists of the four elements, earth, fire, water, air; and then check out what is the difference between ourselves and all else. When we take practice seriously and look at all life in such a way, then we find the truth all around as well as within us. Nothing else exists.
This gives us the ability to leave the marketplace behind where the mind flits from one thing to the next, never has a moment’s peace, is either dull and indifferent or pushing away and chasing after. But when we look at that which really is, we’re drawing nearer to what the Buddha taught, out of his compassion for all the beings that are roaming around in samsara from one discomfort and irritation to the next. He taught, so that people like us may awaken to the truth.
We should neither believe nor disbelieve what we hear or read, but try it out ourselves. If we give our wholehearted attention to this practice, we will find that it changes our approach to living and dying. To be whole-hearted is a necessity in anything we do. If we get married and are half-hearted about it, that cannot be very successful. Half-hearted practice of Dhamma provides an obscured result. Whole-heartedness may have at its core devotion, and a mind which goes beyond everyday thoughts and activities.
Another facet which goes together with mindfulness, is clear comprehension. Mindfulness is knowing only, without any discriminating faculty. Mindfulness does not evaluate of judge but pays full attention. Clear comprehension has four aspects to it. First: “What is my purpose in thinking, talking or doing?” Thought, speech and action are our three doors. Second “Am I using the most skillful means for my purpose?” That needs wisdom and discrimination. Third: “Are these means within the Dhamma?” Knowing the distinction between wholesome and unwholesome. The thought process needs our primary attention, because speech and action will follow from it. Sometimes people think that the end justifies the means. It doesn’t. Both means and end have to be within the Dhamma. The fourth step is to check the results, were they beneficial, and if not, why not.
If we live with these steps in mind, we will slow down, which is helpful for our reactions. Not inactivity, that is not the answer, but the meditative quality of the mind, which watches over what we are doing. When we use mindfulness and clear comprehension, we have to give time to investigate. Checking minimizes mistakes.
Our deluded thinking creates the danger of making bad kamma and takes us away from the truth into nebulous mind-states. The Dhamma is straight forward, simple and pure. It needs a pure mind to stay with it. Otherwise we find ourselves outside of it again and again.
External mindfulness can also extend to other people, but here we need to be very careful. Seeing and knowing others engenders negative judgment. If we practice external mindfulness towards other people, we have to realize that judging others is making bad kamma. We can pay attention with compassion. People-watching is one of the most popular pastimes but usually done with the intention of finding fault. Everyone has faults. To observe other people as our mirror is very helpful because they reflect our own being. We can only see in others what we already know about ourselves. The rest is lost to us.
If we add clear comprehension to our mindfulness and check our purpose and skillful means we will eliminate much grief and worry. We will develop an awareness which will make every day, every moment an adventure. Most people feel bogged down and burdened. Either they have too much or too little to do; not enough money to do what they like or they frantically move about trying to occupy themselves. Everybody wants to escape from unsatisfactory conditions, but the escape mechanism that each one chooses does not provide real inner joy. However with mindfulness and clear comprehension, just watching a tree is fascinating. It brings a new dimension to our life, a buoyancy of mind, enabling us to grasp wholeness, instead of the limitations of our family, job, hopes and dreams. That way we can expand, because we’re fascinated with what we see around and within us, and want to explore further. No “my” mind, “my” body, “my” tree, but just phenomena all around us, to provide us with the most fascinating, challenging schoolroom that anybody could ever find. Our interest in the schoolroom increases as mindfulness increases.
To develop a meditative mind, we also need to calm our senses. We don’t have to deny our senses, that would be foolishness, but see them for what they are. Mara the tempter is not a fellow with a long tail and a flaming red tongue, but rather our senses. We hardly ever pay attention to what they do to us when they pull us from here to there.
A sense contact has to be very fleeting, because otherwise it becomes a great source of irritation. Let’s say we are offered a very nice meal which tastes extremely good. So we say to our host: “That’s a very nice meal, I like it very much.” The host replies: “I have lots of food here, please stay around and eat for another two or three hours.” If we did, we would not only get sick in body but also disgusted in our mind. A meal can last twenty or at the most thirty minutes. Each taste contact can only last a second, then we have to chew and swallow. If we were to keep it in the mouth any longer, it would become very unpleasant.
Maybe we feel very hot and go to take a cold shower. We say to our friend waiting outside: “Now I feel good, that cold water is very pleasant.” Our friend says: “We have plenty of cold water, you can have a shower for the next five to six hours.” Nothing but absolute misery would result. We can enjoy a cold shower for ten or twenty minutes at the most.
Anything that is prolonged will create dukkha. All contacts pass quickly, because that is their nature. The same goes for sight, our eyes are continually blinking. We can’t even keep sight constant for the length of time we’re looking at anything. We may be looking at a beautiful painting for a little while and really like it. Someone says: “You can stay here and look at the painting for the next five hours, we’re not closing the museum yet.” Nobody could do that. We can’t look at the same thing a long time, without feeling bored, losing all awareness, or even falling asleep. Sense contacts are not only limited because of their inability to give satisfaction. They are actually waves that come and go. If we are listening to some lovely music, after a few hours the same music becomes unbearable. Instead we can take in sensory experience without clinging to it or pushing it away, contemplating impermanence, and open to the next moment.
If we watch our senses again and again, this becomes a habit, and is no longer difficult. Life becomes a flow of experience.
A meditative mind is achieved through this very mindfulness, clear comprehension and calming the senses. These three aspects of practice are to be done in everyday life, to grow the Buddha mind. Peace and harmony will result, and our practice and meditation will flourish and bear fruit.