A talk given
by Luang Por Sumedho in July 2003.
When I was a teenager in the United States, to say that someone
didn't have a personality was considered the biggest put-down. If
you said, 'Oh, she doesn't have any personality,' it was a real
insult. Because personality is terribly important if you're an
American, to be a charming, intelligent, attractive, interesting
person. A lot of social conditioning goes into being that, trying to
become 'personality-plus'. But now, if I heard someone saying,
'Ajahn Sumedho has no personality,' I'd be flattered, honoured.
When we hear of the Buddhist teaching of letting go, people might
think, 'If I let go of my personality what will be left? Will I be
just a zombie? If I don't have any personality, how am I going to
relate to anybody? I'll just be a blank, a totally empty form that
sits there. No matter what happens, there will be no kind of
emotion, no kind of language, or reaction.' It's very frightening to
think of no longer being a real person, a personality of some sort.
We conceive that without a personality we would be nothing, and
that's rather frightening. Even a negative identity would be better
than that: like, to be able to say, 'I'm a neurotic man because I
had abusive conditions in the past; because of misunderstandings and
unfairnesses I have a lot of emotional and psychological problems in
the present.' That would make someone interesting in a way, wouldn't
it? Even with a negative identity, I could still take an interest in
myself as a personality. So, to think of letting go of one's
personality would probably be rather frightening. If suddenly all
those views and opinions that make me into an interesting person or
a fascinating character or a charming gentleman or whatever... or a
famous monk, a great teacher, a meditation master.... These are the
things you get faced with when you're in my position. People have
even called me 'Your Excellency' or 'Your Highness'. Somebody once
even called me the Pope. So these honorific titles and superlatives
are meant to show politeness and respect. But if someone thought
they might suddenly become nobody, it could be rather frightening.
However, the Buddha's teaching on anatta, was to point out the
reality of non-self in very simple ways. It wasn't a practice where
your personality totally disappears for ever, where you no longer
have any emotional feelings whatsoever and where you're just a total
blank forever. Anatta is a practice for ordinary everyday life in
which you notice when personality arises and when it ceases.
When you're really observing it, you'll notice that personality is a
very changeable thing. Are you the same person all the time? You
might assume that you are. But in observing the actual nature of
personality, you'll notice that it changes according to who you're
with, the health of the body, and the state of mind. When you're at
home with your parents, when you're in a Sangha meeting, when you're
chairman of a committee, when you're just a junior member of the
Sangha, when you're the chores officer or the work officer or the
guest officer, what happens? Personality of course adapts itself to
those roles, those situations and those conditions.
So then, what is awareness of personality? I ask, because my
personality can't know my personality. There's no way this person
can know.... I cannot as a person know my own personality. To know
the personality, I have to abide in awareness, in a state of
openness and reflectiveness. There's discernment operating. It is
not a blank kind of vacuous zombie-like mental state. It's an
openness, intelligent and alive, with recognition, discernment and
attention in the present.
I used to make it a practice to play with personality rather than
merely trying to let go of it as the cause celebre of practice. To
think 'I've got to get rid of my personality and not attach to my
emotions' is one of the ways we grasp teachings of the Lord Buddha.
Instead, I would become a personality quite intentionally, so I
could listen to and observe this sense of me and mine. I would
practise bringing up the thoughts, 'Me, what about me?' 'Don't you
care about me?' 'Aren't you interested in what I think and how I
feel?' And 'These are my things, this is my robe, my possessions, my
bowl, my space, my view, my thoughts, my feelings and my rights.'
'I'm Ajahn Sumedho,' 'I'm a Mahathera' and 'I'm a disciple of Luang
Por Chah', and on and on like that. 'This is what makes me an
interesting person, a person that has titles and is respected and
admired in the society.' I would listen to that. I would listen, not
to knock it down or criticise it but to recognise the power of
words, how I could create my self; I would more and more find the
refuge in awareness, rather than in the conditions of my
personality, in the fears or self-disparagement or megalomania or
whatever else happened to be operating in consciousness.
In communal life one's personality is constantly being challenged in
some way. The structures that we use, monks and nuns as well as the
heirarchical positions - being ajahns, or majjhima monks or navakas
or samaneras or anagarikas, anagarikas, siladhara - are positions we
can take very personally. We can make them into personal property.
If we're not mindful and developing wisdom, then the life here
becomes one of developing an ego around being a monk or a nun.
So when the Buddha pointed to awareness, sati-sampajanna, he was
pointing to the reflective capacity. For this I use the phrase
'intuitive awareness.' Although 'intuition' is a common enough word
in English, I myself use it to refer to the ability to awaken and be
aware, which is a state of reflection. It isn't thought; it's not
filling my mind with ideas or views and opinions. It's an ability to
receive this present moment, to receive both the physical and mental
conditions as they impinge on me through the senses. It is the
ability to embrace the moment, which means the embracement of
everything. Everything belongs here, whether you like it or not.
Whether you want it or don't want it is not the issue. It is the way
If I get caught in preferences, views and opinions about what I need
for my practice, I'm coming not from intuitive awareness, but from
an ideal: 'It has to be like this, quiet and subdued. I have to
control the situation. I have to calm myself. I have to make sure
that the things around me aren't challenging me in any way, and
aren't disrupting or irritating me.' So I become a control freak.
Having an ideal of what I want, I try to make it an experience for
myself. I feel that if those conditions aren't present, I can't
possibly practise. Then I could start blaming: 'Too many people
here, too much going on, too many meetings, too many things to do,
too much work, ba ba ba!' Then I go into my, 'I want to go to my
cave'. I have this troglodytic tendency, wanting to be a recluse in
a cave, to go off somewhere nice and quiet, somewhere protected from
the dangers of life, somewhere where there's no challenges; because
people are challenging, aren't they, when living in community with
them. It's always a challenge, because we affect each other all the
time in one way or another. That's just the way it is; it's nobody's
fault. It's the way communities are.
In the Buddhist tradition, the third refuge is in Sangha, which for
us means this community. Sangha is the Pali word for 'community.'
Then you might say, 'Well, that means only the Ariyan Sangha: the
sotapannas, sakadagamis, anagamis, arahants. So I need to find a
community where I'm only living with sotapannas at least; and if
there's sotapannas, hopefully a few arahants will be around too.'
But then, try to find a community where that exists.... With a
grasping mind, even if you found it, you wouldn't recognise it,
because even arahants can be irritating. So instead of trying to
find the ideal community, I use the community that I'm in.
When living in this community, people affect me; thus my personality
arises, together with various emotional reactions. The refuge,
however, is in the awareness of this, in trusting our ability to be
aware. When we are committed to awareness, then whatever happens, it
belongs. When we are confident in awareness, there's nothing that
can be an obstruction except ignorance and forgetfulness.
The style of practice that we use here points us always to the
present. It is about learning, recognising, exploring and
investigating. What is the self? What is personality? Don't be
afraid of being a personality, but rather, be conscious of it.
Personality arises and ceases in consciousness. It changes according
to conditions. But awareness is a constant thing, although we might
forget it, getting lost in the momentum of emotions and habits. So
it's helpful to have ways of reminding ourselves, like the mantra 'Buddho'
that we use. 'Buddho' means 'awake', 'wake up', 'pay attention',
In practice I've used the listening faculty. I listen. When I
listen, I listen to myself, and I listen to the sounds that impinge
on my ears: the sounds within and the sounds without. This attentive
listening is very supportive to intuitive awareness. So I listen to
the rain, I listen to the silence. When I listen to the silence, I
listen to the sound of silence.
If you consciously notice this awareness, and appreciate it, you
move more towards being nobody, towards not knowing anything at all,
rather than being someone who knows everything about everything, and
having all the answers to all the questions, and knowing the
solutions to every problem. To be nobody knowing nothing is scary,
isn't it? But this attitude helps to direct us, because there is a
strong desire in us to become, to attain and achieve. Even with the
best of intentions, if that kind of desire is not recognised, it
will always control you, whether it is the desire to become
something, the desire to control things, or the desire to get rid of
annoying things or bad thoughts or irritations around you. So trust
in this awareness, this openness, this receptivity, attention,
listening. And question the personality. For instance, I bring up my
own personality, 'I'm Ajahn Sumedho. These are my robes, and these
are my spectacles.'
Somebody sent me a lovely card the other day. It had a quote that
says 'There is no way to happiness: happiness is the way.' Simple as
that. Happiness is the way, or mindfulness is. Mindfulness, how do
you become mindful? And then we can give all kinds of advice on
meditation techniques, developing mindfulness in this and that, and
yet you can still have not a clue what mindfulness is, even though
you've got it all figured out. So stop trying to figure it out.
Trust in it, in your awareness in the present, even if you feel
you're someone who can't do it; you think you're a heedless person
with too many emotional problems, and think you have to get this
level of samadhi before you can possibly attain anything. Listen to
that. That's all self-view, sakkaya-ditthi operating. No matter how
intimidated you are by your thinking, trust in the awareness of it
and not in the judging of it. You don't need to get rid of it, but
recognise: thinking is like this, views, opinions, attachment to
views and opinions are like this. Then you'll begin to see what
attachment is as a reality, as a habit that we've developed. And
you'll see personality, when it arises and when it ceases, when
there's attachment to it and when there's non-attachment.
Personality is not the problem; the problem is the attachment to it.
So you're always going to have a personality, even as an arahant;
but an arahant has no identity with it and no attachment. So we have
ways of speaking and talking and doing things that might seem very
personal or unique or eccentric or whatever.
But that's not a problem. It's the ignorance and attachment that the
Buddha was always referring to again and again as the cause of
This awareness, sati-sampajanna, intuitive awareness, is not
something that I can claim personally. If my personality started
claiming it, it would just be more self-view, sakkaya-ditthi again.
If I started saying 'I'm a very wise person,' then it would be
self-view claiming to be wise. So when you understand that, how
could you claim to be anything at all? Of course, on a conventional
level I'm willing to play the game. So, when they say 'Ajahn Sumedho'
I say 'Yes'. There's nothing wrong with conventional reality either.
The problem is in the attachment to it out of ignorance.
Avijja is the Pali word for spiritual ignorance. It means not
knowing the Four Noble Truths. In the investigation of the Four
Noble Truths, avijja ceases. Awareness, the awakened state, takes
you out of ignorance immediately, if you'll trust it. As soon as you
are aware, ignorance is gone. So then, when ignorance arises, you
can be aware of it as something coming and going, rather than taking
it personally or assuming that you're always ignorant until you
become enlightened. If you're always operating from the assumption
that 'I'm ignorant and I've got to practise in order to get rid of
ignorance,' then grasp that assumption, you're stuck with that until
you see through the grasping of that view.
So I encourage you to develop this simple immanent ability. It
doesn't seem like anything. It's not an attainment. Maybe you
conceive of it as an attainment, and so think you can't do it. But
even if you can't do it, be aware of the view that you can't do it.
Trust in whatever is going on. Because when I talk like this, people
accuse me, 'Oh, Ajahn Sumedho's been practising a long time; he
always had good samadhi, and so he can talk like that.' They go on
like that, thinking that I'm a highly attained person, and that that
therefore justifies their position. They compare themselves to their
projection of me, without seeing what they're doing. They don't know
what they're doing. They're lost in views about themselves and about
So I recommend that you trust in the immediacy, to give enough
attention, which is not an aggressive wilfulness, but a relaxed
openness, a listening and a resting. More and more through practice
you recognise it, rather than pass it by or overlook it all the
time. Then you can focus on whatever you like, on the breath or
being aware of what's going on in your body for instance.
If this awareness is well established then you can decide what to
focus on in any situation; but of course, you have to be aware of
time and place. If I want to be aware of just bodily experience in
the present and if I do that in the wrong place it doesn't work.
Right now giving this talk, if I say, 'I'm going to do my sitting
practice. Everybody shut up!', you know it's not the right time and
place. But when I get down from here and go back to my meditation
mat, it might be a good thing to do, to be aware of the physical
sensations or the tensions or the breath, without judging or
criticising, but just noticing, 'It's like this', accepting,
allowing things to be what they are, rather than always trying to
change or control them.
Once you see through self-view, the development of the path is then
very clear. You trust in this awareness, in non-attachment. You are
able to see that attachment is like this, non-attachment is like
this. There's a discernment.
When you attach to things, really attach, so that you get the
feeling of what attachment, upadana, really is. Don't just grasp the
view that you shouldn't be attached to anything, because then you
get attached to the view not to attach. So really be attached to
being this, or to having a view; but observe attachment, really
notice the power of attachment, upadana, of ambition, of wanting to
get something, wanting to get rid of something. Make it fully
conscious. And then once you really see attachment, you can inform
yourself to let go of it. Let go. Let it be. So you are more
accepting of things until they fall away. Of course, you can't keep
anything, because things are always changing. Even if you delude
yourself that you can keep something by holding on, you'll
eventually see that that's an impossibility.
Finally in practice, we're left with the existential reality of our
humanity. We've still got these primordial drives, sexual desire and
anger. But now we know better than to make them personal. With
sakkaya-ditthi, self-view, we're always judging our sexual desires,
and our anger, hatred, aversion and fear, and making them very
personal. But now we can look at them for what they are. They're
energies, they're a part of being human, of having a human body and
being in a sensitive and vulnerable space. We begin to see and
understand the nature of lust, greed, anger, hatred and delusion,
because we have taken the sakkaya-ditthi, the self-view out of it,
the attachment to it on a personal level. We see that these energies
arise and cease according to conditions. However, if you still
haven't seen through sakkaya-ditthi, then your whole life you'll be
celibate and feel guilty about sexual desire and anger and hatred.
You'll become neurotic through identifying with those energies and
forces that are in fact part of human reality, and are not personal.
We all have these primordial drives as human beings. They are common
to all of us. They are not a personal identity. Our refuge is in
awareness rather than in judging these energies that we're
experiencing. Of course, our religious form is celibate, so when
sexual energies arise, we're aware of them, and don't act on them.
They arise and cease just like everything else. Anger and hatred
arise and cease. When the conditions for anger arise, it's like
this; likewise fear, the primal emotion of the animal realm. But the
awareness of lust and greed, the awareness of anger, the awareness
of hatred and fear, that is your refuge. Your refuge is in the
Newsletter: January 2004, Number 67