The Real World

by Ajahn Sumedho


This is adapted from a teaching given by Ajahn Sumedho during the 1988 winter monastic retreat at Amaravati.

Tonight we will once again reflect on the way life is as a human being. Birth in the human form means there is a feeling of separateness, consciousness works within the limitations of the body, so each one of us has to see things from that particular position. Right now I'm sitting right here, I have to see things from this position. Sister Kalyana is way over there in the corner, and Anagarika Bill is here in front - but no matter how far away or close, there is this sense of division or separation. Consciousness is the discriminative function of the mind, so if we attach to consciousness as our identity, there is always the sense of isolation and separation.

There are romantic views of finding someone to have communion with. There's a longing in all human beings for some kind of communion or sense of oneness, yet that is a totally impossible thing to have on the level of the discriminative mind - which is where most people seek it. If I am this body, this consciousness, then how can I ever be one with anything? Even though momentarily there may be a sense of oneness - through physical union or emotional unity - there is also separation, because that which comes together must separate. This is the inexorable law. If one is attached to an idea of union, unity or communion, and one feels a moment of it, that conditions the sense of isolation; there is always a sense of loss.

So the more we seek communion and oneness in terms of body and consciousness, the more we feel alienated and lonely. Even when there isn't physical or emotional aloneness, we can still feel lonely, because of the existential problem of ignorance - the illusion of separation which is created through identification with consciousness.

One can be sitting in a room full of people and feel totally alone. In fact, I think one of the loneliest experiences of my life was when, at about age 24, I went to New York City to live. I was surrounded by millions of people, yet I felt so lonely. Where did the loneliness come from? It was due to the longing, the attachment to the belief in 'the real world' and the feeling of not having entered "the real world' in the same way others had. I didn't realise that everyone had the- same problem, actually. I used to think it was a personal flaw in my character, that somehow I was a misfit and that everyone else fitted in - only to find that most people felt that they were misfits.

This sensory world doesn't fit us, really. It's a kind of passage that we take in order to learn a lesson. (Hopefully we will learn it!) We don't fit into these roles - we are not realty people; you are not really women; you are not really men. These forms are like costumes, they're temporary things that we have to learn to live with. We have to learn how to accept them and know them. We have to learn from this suffering, this sense of alienation that comes from ignorance.

It probably starts from the moment you're born, from the time you are thrown out into the world. Babies usually cry when they are born - they don't come out laughing. I've never heard of one doing that! You are one with your mother, and then the umbilical cord is cut. That is the end of chat relationship and then you are a separate being; that must be very traumatic for every baby. You see so many people longing to get back into that relationship again. We'd like a mother to nurse us and take care of us, protect us, keep us warm and all that. I've seen that myself - wanting to have some nice warm womb to crawl back into, some safe place where I'll be protected and be told, 'I love you dear, forever, no matter what you do, and everything's going to be all right. There's going to be plenty of everything - warmth, food and comfort - forever more.'

If you practise meditation and develop insight into the Dhamma, you can investigate to see the real problem. Is there any real separation, or is it merely an appearance of separation, brought about by attachment (through desire) to the five khandhas*?

*five khandhas: the five components or "heaps of human psycho-physical existence, i.e. form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness.

Consciousness implies desire, because as a result of consciousness there's feeling. There are feelings of attraction, repulsion or neutrality and we tend - until there is enlightenment - to react to feeling with desire. We incline towards beautiful, pleasurable things. We try to get rid of, to run away from, ugly or painful things. And the whole range of neutrality is usually unnoticed - unless you write poetry or do something to be more mindful. Usually we're caught in the more extreme reactions to the attractiveness and repulsiveness of sense experience.

There is culture, refinement and beauty in the sensory realm, and we can appreciate celestial and ethereal planes of mental creativity. However, it is the lower elements which tend to be the easiest things to absorb into: violence, sex, survival, which are the instinctual functions of the animal world. If you want to turn on masses of people, you have to appeal to that level. We must learn how to touch the earth and accept instinctual nature, the four elements and planetary life as it is. Meditation isn't an escape from the instinctual world, but an opening up to it; it's a way of understanding the world, apart from the reactions of indulgence or suppression.

We are not trying to deny the animal functions or instincts - or reject them, suppress them - or identify with them as 'me' or 'mine'. But we can reflect, we can note, we can accept them for exactly what they are, rather than for what we believe them to be. Then we can appreciate the intelligence and creativity of a human mind too, without becoming attached to it.

This attachment (upadana} is really the crux of the matter. Identification is attachment: 'I am this person, this personality.... I am this body, this is "me". ... I am this way. ... I should be ... I shouldn't be. . . .' And because of "I am' and 'me', there's 'you' - because on this level of consciousness there is separation. We are separate, aren't we? I'm here, and you're there.

If we understand this separation to be simply a conventional reality, there is no attachment. We are merely using it for communication and for practical reasons. But for most people that separation is the real world: "Look after yourself. You have to look after yourself first.' 'I have to protect myself. I only have one life, and I've got to see that I can get everything I can out of it.' Parents say, 'Now, Sonny-boy, you've got to be careful, you are not getting any younger. You've got to make sure that you have your pay cheque and your social security, your insurance, your hospital and medical insurance.' People think, 'When I get old, I don't want to be a burden.' The elderly can be perceived as burdensome and they see themselves as burdensome, because of identification with the age of the body.

Contemplating this, we can observe all that we create out of these illusions: 'I don't wane to be a burden. ... 1 should, I shouldn't. ... I would like to be ... You should be, you shouldn't be ... You ought, you ought not to . . .' and on and on in this fashion. Views, opinions, identifications, preferences, attachments of all kinds - this is what we call 'the real world', this is what we believe in as reality.

If you pick up a London newspaper you'll find all about "the real world'. You can read about the financial problems and the business world, the economic problems of Britain, the United States, the problems of the Soviet Union, and the problems of the Third World countries. Problems of individuals: who's divorcing whom, who's having an affair with whom. Who's being a burden, who's not being a burden, and all kinds of advice over what you should or shouldn't be. That's "the real world', encapsulated in a few sheets of paper, with photographs.

Now that 'real' world is a poverty stricken world. It's meaningless. If one believes in that and attaches to it then life is a very depressing, increasingly depressing experience - because the world of separation, alienation and division is a world of despair. It's anguishing. Most of it is not particularly joyful - it's dukkha, it's suffering. So what does it mean to be fully human? To be fully human is to be moral: you can't say you are fully human unless you keep at least the five moral precepts - otherwise you are only human some of the time. Now moral responsibility, willingness to be responsible for one's actions and one's speech, is not instinctual, is it? Instincts don't care about speech and actions. In instinctual nature, if some- thing is in your way then you just kick it out or kill it. The animal kingdom doesn't have very much to say; the animal world doesn't seem to have developed highly complicated speech patterns like humans. It's survival of the fittest in the animal kingdom, because there's not the ability to rise up to a moral commitment. To be responsible on the moral plane is a uniquely human opportunity. So, in Buddhist terms, it's only when we rise to that moral plane that we can say we are fully human. This is fulfillment of our humanity, not a rejection of it.

Note that so much of the violence and murder is done in the name of something noble: 'Kill the Heretics! . . . Kill the Communists!' But this is all from the position of a 'not-quite' human, isn't it? It's non-humans that do all this - because to be human, you have to be moral. The first precept - Panatipata veramani, to refrain from intentionally taking life - is actually applied, for us, to all beings. It is not for us to decide who is going to live and who isn't. Other beings have as much right to be here, to live on this planet, to breathe, as we do. So this is the beginning of Humanity, because this is something we can choose - instinct doesn't choose to do this. If somebody is being a threat or a bother, our instincts tell us to get rid of them as quickly as possible. But the human side says, 'Would I like to be treated like that? Is that fair, is that right, is that a proper thing to be doing?'

My instincts say, 'Kill the mosquitoes! They're a nuisance, they give you malaria. . . . Kill those blasted midges; get rid of them as quickly as possible!' But then the human side says that they have as much right to be here as I do. Who am I to think chat I, somehow, am more important or have more right to breathe and to live my life than midges do? So then from that position, I'm a little kinder, aren't I? I'm not so quick to destroy that which I don't like - which bothers me or is a nuisance - and I am much more willing to give it a chance, to try and understand it, to respect it for what it i?, even though I may never like it. I can't imagine myself ever liking midges - they are just not likeable to humans. But one can accept them for what they are. When you contemplate the amount of irritation they cause, then it's not that much; one can put up with it, one can bear it - it's just the way things are. Their lives are as important to them as my life is to me.

That is rising up to the plane of humanity. But I'm sure that the midge doesn't reflect like that; I'm sure the midge doesn't say, 'Look, there's Venerable Sumedho - he keeps the moral precepts, I'm not going to bite him!' They are not human; they cannot rise up to the human plane.

But we can sink down to their's very quickly. They are pain of the sensory realm and following the instinctual tendencies of those bodies with their survival mechanisms and all that. What we are doing in Buddhist practice is rising beyond mere human existence towards the refuges of Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha - towards the transcendent, the Death-less, Nibbana. For this, the human foundation is necessary; we have to be fully human before we can expect to get beyond that. In order to transcend it, we have to fully accept the instinctual plane and respect it for what it is; we no longer condemn it or identify with it. We can respect the midges, and the mosquitoes, and all the other beings. So we are not judging the instinctual plane, or exalting it. It is what it is - it's like this. We refrain from doing evil - from intentionally doing cruel, unkind, selfish, mean things, or using our ability to speak for harming others. Then from that human plane we can aspire to the transcendent Deathless Realm, Amaravati. Our bodies will die when it is the time for them to go; they die - that is their nature. The human realm is not an end in itself. We have to learn from the human experience - to know it, and rise up to it - but no longer attach to or identify with it, because humanity is not what we are. We are not really humans either! But, paradoxically, we have to be fully human to realise we are not human. From the human plane we can contemplate the instinctual plane. When you are caught in the instinctual plane you can't very well contemplate it, be- cause you are just caught into that level of activity and reaction. But going to the human plane, one can be very much aware of the instinctual one for what it is. Then, from the transcendent plane, we can understand the human one. Much of our meditation is on seeing our own human limitations for what they really are; that's why morality is such an important part of our training. Daily reflections are also very important. We take time to consider what it is to be human, and what is necessary for human survival: 'What do we really need?', rather than 'What do we really want?' 'What is necessary for living in the society in the right way?' As a Sangha, we must consider how to be living examples for the society to see the beauty of humanity, the gentleness, the kindness, the propriety of it - the wisdom of the human realm. However, we are definitely not just pointing to the human realm, but also beyond it. 1 find it very helpful to just be able to contemplate what it is to be a human being - to be conscious. What is it to be born and to age? All the things-that are affecting each one of us are to be contemplated; none of it is to be dismissed or rejected. The instinctual realm, the realm of survival and procreation, the emotional realm, the intellectual realm, the ability to feel and to love and to hate and so forth - all these are natural phenomena (dhammas) for us to reflect on and to understand. Then as you awaken more and more, and contemplate and understand more of the Dhamma, you can understand why this world is the way it is.

Forest Sangha Newsletter: January 1991, Number 15

Source : http://www.forestsangha.org


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