So much fear and desire come from that commitment to ‘I am’–to being somebody. Eventually they take us to anxiety and despair; life seems much more difficult and painful than it really is. But when we just observe life for what it is, then it’s all right: the delights, the beauty, the pleasures are just that. – Ajahn Sumedho

Ajahn Sumedho is a prominent figure in the Thai Forest Tradition. His teachings are very direct, practical, simple, and down to earth. In his talks and sermons he stresses the quality of immediate intuitive awareness and the integration of this kind of awareness into daily life. Like most teachers in the Forest Tradition, Ajahn Sumedho tends to avoid intellectual abstractions of the Buddhist teachings and focuses almost exclusively on their practical applications, that is, developing wisdom and compassion in daily life. His most consistent advice can be paraphrased as to see things the way that they actually are rather than the way that we want or don’t want them to be (“Right now, it’s like this…”).

He is known for his engaging and witty communication style, in which he challenges his listeners to practice and see for themselves. Students have noted that he engages his hearers with an infectious sense of humor, suffused with much loving kindness, often weaving amusing anecdotes from his experiences as a monk into his talks on meditation practice and how to experience life.

Pointers to the Ultimate

Ajahn Sumedho

In any religion there is the exoteric side — the tradition and forms, scriptures, ceremonies and disciplines—and the esoteric, which is the essential nature of that. So, in much of what we call religion, the emphasis is really on the external form. And of course this can be variable. There is no one external form that is totally right, making all the others inferior to it. The aim of a religion is to point to the truth or the deathless reality, immortality, or in Christianity to God. But what is God? If God is a being, then that’s a condition. If God is something that comes and goes, arises and ceases, then God is not an ultimate reality. So God must also mean ultimate, that which religion points to, that which is immortal and ultimately real and truth. God in Christianity is personified in the Trinitarian structure in which there is God the Father (the patriarchal form) and the Logos or the Word of God, where God’s Word was expressed through Jesus Christ. These are the traditional beliefs and the exoteric form of, say, Christianity.

Buddhism was established around the Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha — the teachings and the vinaya (the discipline for monks and nuns). In Islam I believe the emphasis is on the Koran, the Holy Book. Each religion has its unique emphasis. But these are the exoteric forms pointing at ultimate reality. You can have many pointers to the same thing, can’t you? We can all point to this bell. It’s not a matter of saying that my pointing to the bell is more right than yours; it doesn’t apply; it makes no sense. But yet we can become attached to the idea that you have to sit here and point like I do in order to see the bell. We can get very attached to the form or, in other words, to the conditioned realm.

We need a form, too. If you’re coming from just idealism alone, it doesn’t work. There are people now in England who talk about dhamma [the truth or teaching] who have thrown out Buddha and Sangha. They’re starting from the top where dhamma is. And they talk about dhamma almost as though it were God. They don’t see that a traditional form has a power and logic behind it, and they more or less take what they like out of it, maybe from idealism, and disregard the rest. This is somehow like trying to start your journey from the top of the ladder. But you have to start from the bottom.

God without a scripture or without a presence of, say, a Saviour remains too remote, too high, too far away from us. It’s like being at the top of the ladder where there are no rungs so that all you can do is just look up and admire, with no possibility of climbing. The actual forms are like rungs on a ladder — you actually learn how to put forth the effort to climb up onto the first rung and the second and so forth until you get to the top, eventually. This is just an analogy, but it can be used for contemplating on how to use a religious tradition.

Now is a time when religions are tending to say: We’re right. Our form is the best. One has more confidence within one’s own tradition because that’s what one has used. I teach Buddha-dhamma because this is the way I’ve done it. I can’t very well teach Christianity or Islam or Hinduism. If you’ve learned to play the violin, you can’t really teach somebody how to play the piano — not because you think pianos are somehow lesser or you despise them, but you just haven’t learnt how to play them. The point is that if you learn to play the one instrument well, then you can play in harmony with the others. A good pianist and a good violinist would have no problem making beautiful music together. But if you’ve got a lousy violinist and a terrible pianist — cacophony! So, if there are people of different religions who don’t know how to play their instruments, then you get a cacophony — it comes out all horrible and confused, and you just want to run away. You might think, `If that’s religion, I want nothing to do with it.’ But, then, if you hear people who have developed skill in their religion, it’s like a beautiful orchestra. It’s lovely to listen to; you want to draw near; you’re inspired; you’re pleased; it’s something that uplifts you.

In modern times, when we have to learn how to live with other religions, other ways of doing things, it’s really important to try to understand our own and to practise it, which doesn’t mean that we are in any way making critical comments about anyone else’s. Even if we do feel we like ours the best, that’s all right. After all, if we liked some other religion better we’d be doing that. It’s just that faith has been awakened in us through this way. And where we have faith, where we have confidence, that it something to trust… (Continue Reading)

Watch: Ajahn Sumedho “Like an Open Wound”