This is day one of this January 2024 7-day Rohatusu sesshin. And I'm going to start out today reading from a book by Ajahn Sumedho, one of the Thai Forest teachers who will talk a little bit about more about his life who he is. And the title of the book is Teachings of a Buddhist Monk.
In Japan, you really don't have the same tradition, the same monastic tradition that exists in Southeast Asia and also exists in China, where monks who take a vow of chastity, who don't marry at some point in Japan's history, the government, I think, in order to have more control over Buddhists broke up that that tradition, and it's quite common now for Zen masters to have wives.
But this is a tradition that goes back to the time of the Buddha. And I'm, one of the reasons I want to read from this in this machine is because it is the Rohatusu sesshin in which we commemorate the Buddha's awakening is enlightenment is great effort. And his simple and direct teaching. I think that's what John semedo captures really, really well, is just the simplicity and the directness of what the Buddha discovered, and what people have rediscovered down through the centuries. What we can discover as well.
So a little bit of biographical information about him in the very first few pages of the book is original name was Robert Jackman. And he was born in Seattle in Washington, in 1934. So he's a little older than all of us. Would that make him 89 years this year, he's going to turn 90 if he hasn't already. He was brought up in an Anglican family with one elder sister. I studied Chinese and History at the University of Washington and then was a medic in the US Navy for four years. And then came back to university and got a BA in Far Eastern Studies.
Then worked for about a year with the US Red Cross as a social worker, and then graduated from college and now at Berkeley, with a degree master's degree in South Asian Studies.
followed that up with a stint in the Peace Corps ran from 1964 to 66. And then in 1966. He went to Thailand and took up meditation, and was ordained as a novice. In May 1967. He received full ordination
he ran into a disciple of John Cha, the famous Thai Buddhist teacher. Good. The word odd John By the way, it's kind of the equivalent of Roshi it means a teacher a master. There are a lot of our John's in the Thai Forest Tradition. And a number of them are Westerners now.
Says on encountering a disciple of our John Cha he saw out this meditation master in the forest monastery of what non pop Pong. He then became a disciple of John Cha, and remained under his guidance for 10 years.
Finally, he was authorized to lead a small community of monks establishing a forest monastery for Western monks. You know, they say monastery, but it's really not a elaborate building or anything. The monks are living in huts in the forest. So practice that was reintroduced in Thailand, I think early in the 20th century. Not sure about that history, but that's my recollection. He ended up visiting England visit his parents and when he was visiting his parents in America, he stopped over in England and was invited to stay in a small Buddhist monastery in London. And then he visited again a year later, though it had not been his intention that was the beginning of his residency in England. With much hard work and a lot of goodwill to large and impressive establishments have come to being an England, a forest monastery and Chittor, just west sussex and the Amaravati Buddhist monastery in great Gadsden, Hertfordshire. Then venerable semedo presently resides as Abbot at the Amaravati monastery.
Little pieces followed by a foreword written by Jack Kornfield. Many people are familiar with him. He studied with John Cha and has become a major teacher here in this country written a number of books that he wrote after the ecstasy, the laundry something like that.
It says I met John semedo in 1967, on a mountaintop, in a province of Northeast Thailand. He was living together with another monk and a cottage in the ruins of an ancient Cambodian mountain temple, after completing his first rains retreat, as a fully ordained Bhikkhu. bhikkhu is the word for monk without John chop. There he set on the corner of the porch of his tiny wooden cottage, wearing the dusty robes of a forest muck. First thing I noticed after paying respects was that he was covered with bees. He greeted me and we began talking about the monk's life and the dharma as if nothing special was happening. Apparently, there was a bee's nest in the corner of this cottage, and after his own reflection on this fact, he had simply made his peace with the bees, and let them walk all over him. Already, I knew I had met a remarkable man.
After a long and lonely first year, sitting as a novice in a temple, some province, he met a mountain monk from what pop on one of the great forest monasteries and followed him to meet the teacher, John chott. In the forest, he had found a way of practice, harder but truer than isolated retreat. And even in a short time, I could sense how the integrity and depth of this path of practice had touched him, said it had not been easy, and that I John Chai not treated him in any special way, which is unusual, since Western monks usually receive rather grand treatment in Thailand. Even expressed some doubts about going back again, but the spirit of his words, and his connection to the commitment of discipline, honesty and simplicity in the forest life, made it sound like he was hooked. I also was hooked by the inspiration of his descriptions. And sometimes shortly thereafter, I went on the first of many visits to what pop Pong. And after completing my American Peace Corps tenure, I too, became a monk without John Cha. Do Jack Kornfield has subsequently disrobed? So he's a he's a layman. Now like us
The climb up to this Cambodian Temple was as a recall about 2000 steps. John semedo tells a story of how in the months following my visit during the hottest of the hot seasons in Thailand, he got very sick. He had dysentery and fevers and God knows what other tropical ailments and became far too weak to walk down the mountain several miles to a nearby village, and then up the mountain again simply to collect his day's food. Instead, he lay sick, stuck on the wooden floor of a small hut at the foot of the mountain, several miles from the next village. This hot, as many in Thailand had a corrugated tin roof which made it function as a particularly fine oven under the punishing rays of the hot season son. I visited him also in this hot and he told me that his weakness and fevers had made it so impossible for him to collect all of his food that devoted villagers from the nearby villages were coming and dropping off food for him, so that he might eat each day. As he describes it, he lay there sick, feverish, isolated, roasting, hot and miserably unhappy. All of the doubts that could undo a sale a young monk or a beginning meditator took over his mind. Why was he doing this to himself anyway? Living in such a wretched condition in the strange Buddhist robes. For what purpose? To what benefit question for himself. Why did I ever ordain? Why did I start meditating? Why did he not simply disrobe and returned to the west to enjoy good health, easy living music, camaraderie of friends and a full and happy life? The sicker and hotter he got, the stronger became the doubts. He says these doubts more than doubled his misery. The heat and the sickness of the body were bad enough. But having the mind filled with doubts with resentment, agitation and confusion was much worse. Somehow, looking at it, looking at himself in the height of his misery, he saw and understood that it was he who was creating most of the suffering he was experiencing at that moment. It was he was creating the suffering of doubting restlessness, agitation and confusion. And then he simply decided to commit himself to the monk's life, and and the suffering of doubting restlessness and confusion. He let go of the suffering of his mind and accepted his situation as a monk, even in these difficulties, and has not turned back for nearly 25 years that have followed.
It's always so inspiring when somebody sees clearly and then follows through, does what needs to be done. I've told the story before of the great physicist, Richard Feynman, who enjoyed a drink with friends when he was in Brazil. And one afternoon, he suddenly felt a pole to go to the bar and have a drink. And a light went on. And he realized where that was going. And he never drank again. It's just because he valued the clarity of his mind as a scientist, one of the great thinkers of the last century wasn't hard for him to give it up. The difficulty of doing what we kind of half know is what we should do is that we don't know it all the way. We're not fully convinced. Giving up grasping at what we want, is a path for us. Takes a while.
So many of us struggled through our early sessions. Not sure why we were doing it. Remember wishing there was some way I could get out from underneath? Some way I could leave with honor. I had one session. I was living on Goodman Street in Rochester and walking across the street for some purpose or another member just wishing a car would hit me I wouldn't have to go I did not at the time reflect on how my doubts and reservations were adding to my misery.
Right. Little further on, Jack Kornfield writes, as did the Buddha and John Cha Johnson meto teaches suffering and it's and in the first year long retreat he did as a novice alone in a hut in Nan chi province, he had faithfully practice the art of meditation. In these long months of solitary intensive practice, he experienced many of the traditional insights and Samadhi states that are the fruit of such retreats. But then, under his teacher, John Shah, he discovered a wisdom beyond all states, in all conditions. The spirit of the dharma of attaining nothing is practice and teaching became focused on just what is here and now, in this moment. Whatever arises in this moment, is the place of our suffering and bondage, and is the place of our liberation.
All his teaching points to the immediate mindfulness of this very body and mind, it is not through philosophy, or special practices. But here that wisdom arises. John's tomato has brought to the simplicity of the forest life and the freedom of the Dharma that grasps at nothing, and offered it to students in the West. To live the holy life the life of freedom is to stand nowhere to possess nothing to take no fixed position to open to what is moment after moment. It's pretty good Zen.
Jack Kornfield goes on to sort of effusively praise him, understandably going to skip over that.
He says this a little later on. Spiritual Life is not about becoming someone special. But discovering a greatness of heart within us and every being. It is an invitation to inwardly drop our opinions, our views, our ideas, our thoughts, our whole sense of time, and ourselves, and come to rest in no fixed position. John semedo invites us all ordained and lay people like to enjoy the freedom beyond all conditions of freedom from fear is from gain and loss from pleasure and pain. This is the joy and happiness of the Buddha.
So after that big build up, we'll go on to John's tomatoes words.
He starts out this way, the title of this chapter is let go of fire. The Buddha's teaching is all about understanding suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path to its sustained cessation. So this is basically the Four Noble Truths Buddha's first sermon. He says, When we contemplate suffering, we find we are contemplating desire, because desire and suffering are the same thing. Desire can be compared to fire. If we grasp fire, what happens? Does it lead to happiness? If we say oh, look at that beautiful fire. Look at the beautiful colors. I love red and orange. They're my favorite colors, and then grasp it We would find a certain amount of suffering entering the body. And then if we were to contemplate the cause of that suffering, we would discover it was the result of having grasped that fire. On that information, we would hopefully then let the fire go. Once we let fire go, then we know that it is something not to be attached to. This does not mean we have to hate it, or put it out. We can enjoy fire, can't we? It's nice to have a fire keeps the room warm, but we do not have to burn ourselves in it. When we really contemplate suffering, we no longer inclined towards grasping hold of desire, because it hurts is painful. There is no point in doing it. So from that time on, we understand Oh, that's why I'm suffering. That's its origin. Now I understand. It's that grasping hold of desire that causes me all this misery and suffering, all this fear, worry, expectation, despair, hatred, greed, delusion. All the problems of life come from grasping and clinging to the fire of desire. Since the second noble truth life is suffering, the cause of suffering is egotistic desire. Or we can say our self preference
our frantic attempt to find a way to protect ourselves our preoccupation with looking ahead, what's coming down the road? What do we need to avoid? What's the worst that could happen?
For most people, there's never a moment when that Flame of Desire isn't flickering.
Hoping for things to turn out the way we want, hoping to get what we want, getting tired of what we get, looking for something more. Dancing about to get a good opinion from other people.
Demello says we're like monkeys, twist our tail and we'll do tricks for you.
He says the human habit of clinging to desire is ingrained. We in the West think of ourselves as sophisticated and educated. But when we really begin to see what is going on in our minds, it is rather frightening. Most of us are horribly ignorant. Anyone who reflects on themself, who knows the monologue that goes in and on in our heads, realizes how ignorant we are easily triggered, petty, selfish.
We do not have an inkling of who we are, or what the cause of suffering is, or of how to live rightly not an inkling. Many people want to take drugs, drink and do all kinds of things to escape suffering, but their suffering increases. How conceited and arrogant we Western people can be thinking of ourselves as civilized. We are educated as true. We can read and write. And we have wonderful machines and adventures. In comparison, the tribal peoples of Africa, for example, seem primitive and superstitious, don't they? But we are all exactly in the same boat is just that our superstitions are different. We actually believe in all kinds of things. For instance, we try to explain our universe through concepts, thinking that concepts are reality. We believe in reason and logic, which is to say we believe in things we do not know. We have not really understood how it all begins and ends. We read a book and believe what it tells us believing what the scientists say. We are just believing. We think we're sophisticated. We believe in what the scientists say. People have PhDs we believe in what they say. We don't believe in what witch doctors say they're stupid and ignorant. but it is all belief, isn't it? We still do not know. It just sounds good. The Buddha said we should find out for ourselves and then we do not have to believe others
to go back once said that if pain didn't exist in Zen practice than it should. Pain didn't exist in sesshin that it should find out so much from our reaction. or unwillingness to just be with things as they are. Some of us it takes a long time to find our way. Just a little bit
so much that can be learned. When things don't go the way we want them to. Physical pain, there's mental pain, bearer, embarrassment, everything as a teacher
instead of pushing it away, begging for it to stop, we open up to it and look at what we've got. We can learn things change. We want to find a technique and follow a prescription and have our troubles taken care of. That's not how we grow wise.
It's not how we find our heart. Then how we find out who we are.
Further on, he says there was a monk I knew once who was quite sophisticated compared to some of the other monks. He had lived in Bangkok for many years, been in the Thai Navy could speak pidgin English. He was quite intelligent and rather impressive. But he had this terrible health problem and felt he could no longer exist on one meal a day. In fact, his health was so bad that he had to disrobe leave the Buddhist order. After that he became an alcoholic. He could give brilliant talks, while listening. But while being smashed out of his mind, he had the intellect, but no morality or concentration. On the other hand, we can have very strict morality and not have any wisdom, then we are moral snobs or bigots. Or we can become attached to concentration and not have any wisdom. I'm on a meditation retreat, and I've developed some concentration some insight. But when I go home, oh, I don't know if I'll be able to practice anymore. Even if I'll have time. I have so many duties, so many responsibilities. But how we live our ordinary lives is the real practice. retreats are opportunities for getting away from all those responsibilities and things that press in on us. So as to be able to get a better perspective on them. But if the retreats are just used to escape for a few days, and that is all then they are of no great value.
If on the other hand there used to investigate suffering, why do I suffer? Why am I confused? Why do I have problems? Why is the world the way it is? Then we shall find out if there is anything we can do about suffering? We shall find out by investigating this body and this mind. We could add this moment so much happens when we stay at home stay with this present moment this experience we want to create mental pictures and make them come into being but what we need is already here. Where else can we find it
John Chow says or exceed the John semedo says ignorance is only the scum on the surface. It does not go deep. There is no vast amount of ignorance to break through that ignorance here and now that attachment to the fire here and now we can let it go. There is no need to attach to fire anymore. That is all there is to it. It's not a question of putting out the fire. But if we grasp it, we should let it go. Once we have let it go, that we should not grasp it again. In our daily lives, we should be mindful, what does it mean to be mindful, it means to be fully aware right here, concentrating on what is going on inside. We are looking at something for instance, and we try to concentrate on that, that a sound comes that a smell then this, the net distractions changes. We say I can't be mindful in this environment. It's too confusing. I have to have a special environment where there are no distractions, then I can be mindful. If I go to one of those retreats, then I can be mindful, no distractions there. Peace and quiet, noble silence. Can't be mindful in Edinburgh or London, too many distractions and I've got family children, too much noise but mindfulness and we could also use the word awareness but awareness is not necessarily concentrating on an object. Being aware of confusion is also being mindful. If we have all kinds of things coming at our senses, noises, people demanding this and that we cannot concentrate on any one of them for very long. But we can be aware of the confusion or the excitement, or the impingement, we can be aware of the reactions in our own minds. This is what we call being mindful.
The Path of Mindfulness is the path of no preferences. Of course, that's the first chant that we do in the mornings, and so sheen. The great way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose. When preferences are cast aside, the way stands clear and undisguised. How many times we chanted that our likes and dislikes, the cloud the mind. We miss what's in front of us.
chasing after what we prefer, we end up finding what we don't want.
says when we prefer one thing to another, then we concentrate on it. I prefer peace to chaos. So then in order to have peace, what do we do? We have to go to someplace where there is no confusion. Become a hermit. Go up to the Orkneys find a cave. I found a super cave once off the coast of Thailand. It was on a beautiful little island in the Gulf of Siam. And it was my sixth year as a monk. All these Westerners were coming to what pop Pong, Western monks. And they were causing me a lot of sorrow and despair. I thought I don't want to teach these people. They're too much of a problem. They're too demanding. I want to get as far away from Western monks as possible. The previous year I had spent a rains retreat with five others What a miserable rains retreat. That was I thought I'm not going to put up with that. I didn't come here to do that. I came here to have peace. So I made some excuse to go to Bangkok. And from there, I found this island. I thought it was perfect. It caves on the island and little huts on the beaches, perfect setup for a monk. One could go and get one of those huts and live in it and then go on alms round in the village. The village people were all very friendly, especially to Western monks. Because to be a Western monk was very unusual can depend on having all the food we could possibly eat and more. It's not a place that was easy to get to being out in the Gulf of Thailand and I thought oh, they'll never find me here. Those Western monks. They'll not find me here. And then I found a cave. One with a jog rom that's a path for walking meditation. And it was beautiful. That inner chamber that was completely dark and no sounds could penetrate. I crawled in through a hole inside there was nothing. I could neither see nor hear anything. So it was ideal for sensory deprivation. Oh this is exactly what I've been looking for. or I can practice all these hygienic states. I can go in this cavern and just practice for hours on end with no kind of sense stimulation. I really wanted to see what would happen. But there was this old monk living in the cave who was not sure whether he was going to stay. Anyway, he said I could have the grass hot on the top of the hill. I went up there and looked and down below with the sea and I thought, Oh, this is also nice, because now I can concentrate on the sea which is tranquilizing?
I really was determined to escape, I wanted peace, and I found the Western monks very confusing. They would always ask lots of questions, and we're so demanding. So I was all set to spend the rains retreat in this idyllic situation. And then this foot, my right foot became severely infected. And they had to take me off the island into a local hospital on the mainland. I was very ill, they would not let me go back to the island, and I had to spend the rains retreat in a monastery near the town. Sorrow, despair and resentment arose towards this foot. All because I was attached to tranquillity wanted to escape the confusion of the world, I really longed to lock myself in a tomb, where my senses would not be stimulated with no demands would be made on me. Where I would be left alone, incognito, invisible. But after that, I contemplated my attitude. I contemplated my greed for peace. I did not seek tranquility anymore. I never did return to that island. The flood healed fairly well. And I had a chance to go to India. And after that, I went back back to what pa Pong. And by that time I had decided not to make preferences, my practice would be the way of no preferences. I would just take things as they came. And I returned to what pop Pong I was put in the responsible position of being a translator for Rajon Cha. I detested having to translate for Westerners. But there I was, I had to do it. And I also had to teach and train monks. A year or so after that they even sent me off to start my own monastery. Within two years there a 20 Western monks living with me, and then I was invited to England. And so I have never escaped to that cave because I no longer made preferences. responsibilities and teaching seem to be increasing, but it is part of the practice of no preferences. And I find through this practice, my mind is calm and peaceful. I no longer resent the demands made on me, or dwell in aversion or confusion about the neverending problems and misunderstandings that arise in human society. So the practice is just mindfulness or just awareness. Tranquility comes in I see it as impermanent, confusion comes impermanent, peacefulness, impermanent, war, impermanent. I just keep seeing the impermanent nature of all conditions. I've never felt more at peace with the world than I do now living in Britain, much more so than I ever did when I was say, those few days on that island.
Says the later this attachment to peace and conditions, inevitably brings fear and worry along with it, because all conditions can easily be taken away or destroyed. The kind of peace that we can get from no preferences, however, can never be taken, can never be taken away because we can adapt. We're not dependent on the environment for tranquility. We have no need to seek tranquillity or longing for it or resent confusion. So when we reflect on the Buddhist teaching, is seeing suffering, its origin, its cessation and the path to its sensation, we can see that he was teaching the path of no preferences. The Buddha was enlightened. He spent six years and as an ascetic, doing tranquil isation practices attaining the highest states of absorption. And he said, No, this, isn't it. This is still suffering. This is still delusion. And from that realization, he found the Middle Way, the path of no preferences, the path of awareness
we should not expect high degrees of tranquility if we are living in an inviting environment where people are confused or not tranquil, or we have a lot of responsibilities and duties, we should not think, oh, I want to be somewhere else I don't want to be here, then we are making a preference, we should observe the kind of life that we have, whether we like it or not, it is changing anyway, does not matter. In life, like tends to change into dislike, dislike tends to change into like, even pleasant conditions change into unpleasant ones. And unpleasant conditions eventually become pleasant. We should just keep this awareness of impermanence and be at peace with the way things are not demanding that they be otherwise. People we live with the places we live in the society we are part of, we should just be at peace with everything. But most of all, we should be at peace with ourselves. That is the big lesson to learn in life. It is really hard to be at peace with oneself. I find that most people have a lot of self aversion. As much better to be at peace with our own bodies and minds than anything else, and not demand that they be perfect, that we be perfect, or that any everything be good. You can be at peace with the good and the bad.
It's like dropping a heavyweight burden of having to measure up course we make a strong effort. But without regard to the result. long as we're measuring ourselves and measuring other people clinging to what we want to have happen. We can't be fully present, can we because we're doing those other things. How can we be fully present in this moment when we have an agenda? Best agenda is no agenda. The freedom of letting go. Even a little bit is so wonderful. It's dropping that burden of ego
no longer feeling the withering gaze of others
digging in right here, discovering that we're good right to the bottom
the sesshin hard and difficult as it is. It's a great place to do that. We'll stop now and recite the Four Vows