The Language of the Heart (2)

August 29, 2018

A couple of years after Ajaan Fuang passed away, some people from Bangkok came to the monastery and wanted to hear about miracles. What miracles had we seen since Ajaan Fuang passed away? What miracles had I seen while he was alive? There had been quite a few things about Ajaan Fuang that were uncanny. But for this group of people—they were from the Ministry of Education—I decided to say something more important, which was that I thought it was miraculous that during all those years I was with him, even though I was a Westerner and he was a Thai, he always treated me as a human being, and our communication was always on a human level. In other words, our differences in culture didn’t seem to get in the way. He had obvious compassion for me as a fellow human being.

Now, of course, I had my problems adjusting to the culture over there—and it may have been because I was learning the Dhamma in a second language—but there was sometimes a feeling at the very beginning that it was almost like make-believe: “Okay, we’ll take this on as a game.” I didn’t consciously think of things in quite those terms at the time, but I remember one day in particular when it really hit me that that was what I had been doing. I was going through the six elements, which are a fairly foreign-sounding teaching, and I suddenly realized, “These words are talking about things that I’m directly experiencing.” The language of the Dhamma pointed directly at my experience of my own body, my experience of my own mind. Something frozen in my heart suddenly melted. And only when I was willing to take on the teachings at that level did I find that I benefitted the most.

And the fact that Ajaan Fuang was able to communicate on a level that wasn’t just Thai-to-Westerner was because he was living in line with what you might call the customs of the noble ones. This was a teaching Ajaan Suwat used to like to talk about quite a lot: that we’re here not to practice in line with Western customs or Thai customs or anybody’s customs, except for the customs of the noble ones, because the noble ones are the ones who’ve found how to put an end to suffering. They’ve understood their minds and hearts in a way that allows them to bring suffering to an end.

What this means is that we have to learn how to understand our minds and hearts in that way, too. We can’t say, “Well, now that the Dhamma’s come here, I want Dhamma in line with my language or with my way of seeing things.” That’s putting up a barrier. After all, no matter what post-modernists may say, the Buddha was not trying to exert power over people. He was giving them a way of analyzing their minds so that they could understand, “This is where suffering comes from. This is why it happens. This is how I can put an end to it.” And part of putting an end to it requires that you understand it in those terms.

The four noble truths, the factors of dependent co-arising: These teachings may seem foreign at first, but that’s an indication of how alienated we are from our own minds or from understanding how our minds work. These teachings provide precisely the tools that are useful for taking those processes apart: understanding how we create suffering for ourselves and how we don’t have to. So the language here is not just a relic of some attempt at power. It’s an attempt to show kindness. And we’re kind to ourselves when we learn how to adopt the language and realize that these terms are speaking directly to us. It may take some time to sit with them in practice until you see that “Oh yeah, it’s talking about this thing that I’m directly experiencing inside.” But that’s time well spent.

You are submitting yourself to the Dhamma, but the Dhamma’s not there to exert power over you. The Dhamma’s there to help you find the way to end your own suffering. After all, your own suffering is probably the most intimate problem you experience. And the Dhamma’s talking directly about intimate aspects of the mind, intimate aspects of the heart.

There were times when I’d describe a meditation experience to Ajaan Fuang and he’d explain it to me in different terms. Sometimes I’d be resistant. I’d say to myself, “Well, no, it actually seems this way to me.” I didn’t actually say it to him, but I thought it. Only after I got to know my mind better did I realize that he was describing it precisely the way it was happening. It was because of my own blindness that I didn’t see it that way to begin with.

So try to open your heart to the lessons of the Dhamma, and particularly to the lessons of the Dhamma you don’t want to hear. This includes the lesson of how much effort has to go into the practice. Our modern belief is that we’ve learned how to do things in a much more streamlined and efficient way than they did in the past, and we often carry that attitude into the Dhamma, thinking that people in the past didn’t know how quickly or efficiently these things could be done. But the Buddha was the sort of person who, if there were an easier path to the end of suffering, would have taught it.

But the only path that works is a path that requires right effort, such as the four bases of success, three of which now are viewed with disdain in Western Buddhist circles: desire, persistence or “efforting,” and using your powers of judgment. The Buddha said that these are necessary for success in the practice. The only one of the bases of success that we still tend to follow is in intentness: that you have to pay attention. But then they say, “Well, there’s no such thing as success or not success. Everybody’s already awakened.” Well, no, we’re not. If we were already awakened, we wouldn’t be suffering.

And the Dhamma’s not a Dhamma of make-believe. The Buddha didn’t just sit around and think up ideas of what would be a cool vocabulary to pass on. He put his life on the line and he tried all kinds of approaches before he found the approach that worked. Part of that approach is right view, which means that you take on the opinions of the noble ones about how suffering should be understood. They don’t expect you to know for yourself just yet, which is why it’s called right view rather than right knowledge. It’s an opinion you adopt until it gives its results. That’s when it becomes right knowledge.

So you’re taking on the culture of the noble ones, the values around wanting to abandon unskillful actions and wanting to develop skillful ones in their place. And we take on their language—which the ajaans often call the language of the heart—for analyzing what is skillful, what’s not. How do things get developed? How do things get abandoned? These tools are all there for our own good, for our own happiness. It’s up to us to open ourselves up so that those tools can really do their work. And it’s then that we realize how really well designed they are.

Ajaan Lee makes a comparison. He says it’s like a recipe for medicine. If you’ve never made the medicine or used it to treat a disease, the recipe doesn’t have much value for you. It’s something that gets stashed away and forgotten in a pile of papers. But if you’ve ever realized, “Okay, I’ve got this disease, this is the medicine I need, I make the medicine, and it works,” then you treat that piece of paper with a lot of respect. And it’s the same with the practice: You take the Dhamma and you put it into practice. You really apply the Buddha’s analysis to your mind. He said that this is why you’re suffering. You say, “Okay, I’ll admit that. I’ll take that on and see what happens when I can understand my mind using his vocabulary, using his perspective.” When you see how it really works, that’s when you see why we bow down to the Buddha so much around here. That’s the appropriate response. He took the Dhamma out of his heart, and it’s meant to be taken into our hearts. That’s when we appreciate how good it is—so that when we chant, “The Dhamma of the Blessed One is well-taught, well-expounded,” we see how true that really is.