Over the past several years we have had the good fortune to meet with Ajahn Jumnien, a delightfully happy, wise and playful Thai forest monk. Trained in intensive meditation with Ajahn Dhammadaro, Ajahn Jumnien has also traveled as a wandering ascetic, and mastered a diverse panoply of concentration meditations. No matter what the technique, he constantly urges us back to seeing our true nature. The following interview was conducted at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, by Inquiring Mind editor Barbara Gates, with Jack Kornfield acting as translator.
Inquiring Mind: In this country, people don’t seem to understand renunciation. There is an assumption that if someone is renouncing worldly things or going off to the forest to live monastically, that it implies a rejection of the world or denigration of life. Do you feel this is a misconception about monasticism?
Ajahn Jumnien: Monks and nuns are not renouncing the world because they have aversion to it. Instead, they seek a release from the complexity and conflict of ordinary life. They wish to live in a way that creates the least suffering, both for themselves and others. To do that they choose to live simply and to cool the heart in concentration and stillness.
All of the Buddhas in Buddhist mythology first leave the world in order to find a place of peace. Only in a place of peace can they study and understand the heart and come to a place of freedom. Then they reenter the world with that understanding, bringing it as their gift. Once the heart is truly still, then you can live anywhere and remain at peace. It doesn’t matter where you go.
IM: You said that when you were a young monk you did a lot of meditation in the charnel grounds. What effect did that practice have on you?
AJ: I received great benefit from the charnel ground meditation. There I faced all my fears of ghosts and death. When you see the bodies in front of you and reflect that this is your destiny as well, you develop fearlessness, a wisdom and balance of heart, and compassion for all of life. When one leaves the charnel grounds, however, often the forces of greed and delusion can become even stronger. I came out of the charnel grounds, and the ladies were still as lovely as ever, maybe more so.
Practice in the charnel ground doesn’t go to the deepest essence of what the Buddha taught, which is the question of who we really are. So after doing the charnel ground meditations for some time, I entered the monastery of a vipassana teacher. In vipassana we learn how the whole sense of self and separation take birth in the heart, accompanied by sorrow. In vipassana practice, I began to understand the Buddha’s profound liberation.
The charnel ground meditation was a good preparation for vipassana because it gave me courage and inner strength. Often monks today will learn the teachings and gain a lot of wisdom and purity of heart, but they lack the courage and strength that comes from being an ascetic or wanderer. For that reason, I haven’t found anyone in my community yet who can take the role of abbot in my monasteries. The masters for whom I have the deepest respect have all gone through a period of very profound renunciation, like an initiation, where they were tested in the forest, with very little food, wild animals—all those difficult conditions—until they found an unshakable quality in their being that they could bring to their life and teaching.
IM: We don’t have charnel grounds or forests with wild animals around us here in the west where most of us are practicing. How do we find this inner strength as lay people?
AJ: If lay people in America want that kind of training, they can leave their comfortable meditation centers. You could organize year-long wilderness retreats for lay people, who would go into the forest and live very simply with limited food and with the elements of sun, rain and insects. You don’t have to ordain as monks and nuns.
In my years of teaching, I’ve seen that when conditions are difficult, people are brought together in a harmonious way. They share what they have, and the purity of the heart deepens. When practice conditions are too comfortable, then people want even more amenities, and they start competing for them. There’s jealousy over who has the nicest room and best meditation cushion. (Laughs) I’m sorry to say that the dharma often grows most deeply in the soil of difficulty.
Remember, as long as the Buddha was in the palace and there were beautiful dancing girls, the best food and all the luxuries, the deep impetus for awakening remained dormant. The Buddha was only called to find liberation after he was confronted with sickness, old age and death.
All of our difficult experiences in life are the heavenly messengers, just like the ones that came to visit the Buddha. They come to us and teach us. They are the ambassadors of the heaven realms. So when we get sick, the illness is teaching us, saying, “This is the nature of the body.” It has come to show us the truth of life. We can see our illness or whatever suffering as the dharma itself, the way things are, a teaching.
The Buddha made it clear that there is no way to run from suffering. You can run as fast and far as you can and it will still be there with you. Instead, he said we need to stay exactly where we are and cultivate the power of awareness, the Great Awareness, mahasati. And only in that way, right where we are, we can free ourselves from suffering.
If we develop the power of awareness, then the whole world shows itself as holy teachings. We can bow to everything as holy, even the suffering and the impermanence. When we see with the heart of wisdom, we bow even to Mara, the evil tempter, to the holy quality of Mara for teaching us the dharma. We are turning the mud into the beauty of the lotus. From this place of great knowing, even the defilements of the heart themselves are holy. We bow to all things, holy impermanence, holy suffering, and holy selflessness.
Rest in this place of great knowing because that is the place of the deathless. Rest in the pure consciousness that is unmoved by what arises, and then you will see that the nature of all worldly phenomena is transient. Examine all the experiences that arise through the senses, and see that they have no substance to them. From this place of knowing, you will then live in a skillful way, without fear or grasping.
Be careful not to suffer too much with things. If fear arises in relation to something, then turn your attention back to the knower and say, “Who is it that is afraid?” Turn back to the source of the knowing. Get to the root of the matter. If suffering arises, you need to turn and ask, “How did this arise? And to whom is this happening?”
Within this body and mind we can see how suffering arises and where liberation is found. This very body is the container for suffering. Let yourself reflect and see that the very processes of body and mind are of the nature of suffering, are of the nature of dukkha. Let yourself know that, absolutely. You have to see this life for what it is.
The Buddha said that the beings of the world are like moths who get drunk on the flame of light. There are certain other kinds of little flying insects in Asia called drunken insects. They get drunk on the light and then they go and burn themselves in the fire. Like those insects, we accept the lure of greed or grasping, and so we enter into the fire of suffering. Or we allow anger or confusion to come into our living room with us, and they take our hand and lead us right into the fire.
If you sit and it is a hot day, let the heat be the teacher. Sit with the truth of heat. As you do this you will begin to realize the selflessness of all phenomena and the emptiness of all of it. From this place of wisdom, all the world becomes free for you, and all the world becomes holy.
So we sit in meditation and see that whatever arises is holy or sacred, everything being an expression of the elements doing their dance, their appearance, their showing themselves, just as we see the nature of mind reveal itself as it knows the arising of the elements.
If you practice genuinely in this way, you will see that the dharma is only one thing. There is this consciousness—this knowing, this pure awareness—and then there are the impermanent phenomena of the world that have their characteristics. This truth is what brings a human heart to realization.
Always have this dharma in front of you, have the dharma teach you constantly, and then you can always turn and offer it to somebody else.