Having tried for many years to integrate my Buddhist practice into lay-life, I more and more began to realise that if I truly wanted to go very far on this path, my life would have to change.
To me now, after 37 years as a Buddhist, I see the monastic way of life as the kind of life we naturally arrive at if we completely integrate our meditation into all aspects of our daily lives. We could see it as the monastic form having come about through the very process of forming a Refuge within the world for those with the deepest commitment. It is conversely also the best vehicle for this practice. We can gauge how well we have integrated our practice into our lives by how closely our lives resemble the Monastery. Right now, from where I stand, I can't see it another way.
Now I dread a situation where I am drawn into the city as a teacher to face over and over again the same underlying question after almost every talk: “That's all very well, Ajahn, but how am I going to practice in my busy job?”
Maybe quit the job. I did.
It is important in terms of Dhamma that there is an image of the body that can be formed in the mind and that is independent of the five senses and of sensations of pleasure and pain. This means that this image can remain in its pure form when the mind is withdrawn from the senses in samādhi. This is the way that an image is held and examined in a place where the mind is pure. This is the way we see the truth of the body and can let go of attachment to it and consequently attachment to all the rest. This is the end of inner suffering.
This inner image is then compared with the outer image of the body, our own and other people's bodies as seen from the outside. In this way we transform this image as well, allowing us to let go of desire related to the bodies of others as well as our own. This is freedom from suffering, inner and outer.
This body image, which is thus at the very heart of the quest for liberation, is formed through a combination of awareness of the movement, posture and elements of the body. Meditation experience (and also evidence from neuroscience) shows us that the mind has sources of the relevant information on these aspects of the body which do not involve the five senses or feelings of pleasure or pain. There are the sensations of the hardness of bones or the softness of the belly that are neutral, neither pleasant nor painful and that through awareness form an image over time of a part of the body in the mind. Then there are neural receptors in our joints that tell us the position of our limbs, giving us information on movement and posture. There are sensors of heat and cold and a sense of the position of the body in relation to gravity.
All this information can form a neutral image in the mind of the real body, in the same place as the real thing, which is not imagined but arises spontaneously. We then find that we can examine and manipulate this image and that this takes our samādhi deeper and deeper until we let go of the body completely.
This is the end of all stress. This can become established as a natural state and a permanent end to stress. Also, if we believe those who have realised such a state, it is clear to them that this is also the end of the cycle of rebirth and therefore an end to all future suffering.
What I mean by contemplation is a kind of enquiry that draws meaning out of things, seeing things the way they really are, rather than adding meaning, whether in terms of our personal feelings or ideals. We can all at times value art, philosophy or poetry but what potential do these things really have to lastingly change our lives? I would suggest that when used for truly deep contemplation they can transform us completely. Perhaps some would agree that such contemplation is transformative but even within contemplative circles how well is this process of transformation understood?
The Buddha gives us a model for understanding both the nature and method of contemplation and explains the process of transformation, what it is and how it works. Then, of course the Buddha has a particular goal in mind. Yet we do not have to be seeking the same goal to enquire in the same way. All we do is meditate to make the mind peaceful and take another look at life with a calmer, emptier mind in order to really take it in rather than imposing all our ideas on the world. As we do this then we can see what we are doing and the result for ourselves. The mind can become happier and calmer still. We can then also compare what we see with what the Buddha describes having seen or not, as we wish.
Then how we understand and express the results of our contemplation can become very important. Mastering all this can then help not only ourselves but also others. Contemplation can lead us all in a happy direction or it is possible for it to become another source of ideals or feelings that do not make us feel happy or free. It is then the further art of aesthetics, becoming aware of how we are looking, opening up to and appreciating things in different ways that can be developed to guide us. This art is more implicit than explicit in the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha simply paints a beautiful picture of the spiritual life. A sense of beauty that is based on truth and frees us rather than binds us. The presence of the Buddha and his disciples undoubtedly added to this. In the present day we may need to paint another kind of picture to inspire the mind.
Perception is the primary force in the mind. To gain control over this and take it in a good direction is what can take us to peace and liberation. The Western spiritual tradition is very rich in its creative art and intellectual expression. These skills seem to be a strength in the Western mind. I believe that the Buddha’s teaching can help us harness these skills into a genuine spiritual vehicle. Otherwise, as history shows us, these powerful skills can also be destructive.