“There is a huge difference between the use of the mind to think, to analyse, reason, criticise, to have ideas, perceptions, views and opinions, and intuitive awareness which is non-critical… We’re not interested in just developing our critical faculty, because usually in countries like this it’s highly developed already, but to trust in intuitive awareness (sati-sampajanna).” – Ajahn Sumedho
Intuitive Awareness – Ajahn Sumedho
In contemplating right understanding (samma-ditthi) I like to emphasise seeing it as an intuitive understanding and not a conceptual one. I have found it very helpful just contemplating the difference between analytical thinking and intuitive awareness, just to make it clear what that is, because there is a huge difference between the use of the mind to think, to analyse, reason, criticise, to have ideas, perceptions, views and opinions, and intuitive awareness which is non-critical. It includes criticism; it’s an inclusive awareness. It’s not that criticism isn’t allowed in it, criticism is included; so the critical mind is seen as an object. This is the tendency to criticise or compare, to hold one view, to say that this is better than that, this is right and that is wrong, criticism of yourself or others or whatever — all of which can be justified and valid on that level. We’re not interested in just developing our critical faculty, because usually in countries like this it’s highly developed already, but to trust in intuitive awareness (sati-sampajanna).
Sampajanna is a word that is translated into English as ‘clear-comprehension’, which is so vague and even though it says ‘clear’, it doesn’t give me a sense of the broadness of that clarity. When you have clear definitions of everything, then you think you have clear comprehension. So that’s why we don’t like confusion, isn’t it? We don’t like to feel foggy, confused or uncertain. These kind of states we really dislike, but we spend a lot of time trying to have clear
comprehension and certainty. But sati-sampajanna includes fogginess, includes confusion, it includes uncertainty and insecurity. It’s a clear comprehension or the apperception of confusion — recognising it’s like this. Uncertainty and insecurity are like this. So it’s a clear comprehension or apprehension of even the most vague, amorphous or nebulous mental conditions.
Some people find this approach frustrating because it’s easier to be told exactly what to do, to have a more methodical approach. But many of us have done that and even though it can be very skilful, it can also become addictive. We never get to the root of the cause, which is “I am this person that needs something in order to become enlightened.” This intuitive approach does not exclude methodical meditations. It’s not that I’m against the methods of meditation that exist in our tradition of Theravada Buddhism — not at all — but in saying this I am trying to put them into perspective. If you do go to these different meditation retreats, courses or whatever, intuitive awareness will help you to do the method in a much more skilful way than if you just start from faith in a method and never question or see beyond the ignorant perceptions of yourself. This encourages you really to question, really to look into these perceptions you have of yourself, whatever they might be: If you think you’re the best, greatest, God’s gift to the world, or you think you’re the absolute bottom of the stack; if you don’t know who you are and what you want; or sometimes you think you’re superior but sometimes you feel that you’re inferior — these things change.
The personality view (sakkaya-ditthi) with silabbataparamasa (attachment to rituals and techniques) and vicikiccha (doubt) are the first three fetters that hide the path and keep us from seeing the way of non-suffering. Trying to figure out how to be aware is an impossible task. “What is he talking about, anyway?” “Wake up, be aware“ — and then trying to figure it out and think about it, you just go around in circles, it’s frustrating. Intuitive awareness is frustrating to an analytical person whose faith is in thought, reason and logic. Awareness is right now. It’s not a
matter of thinking about it, but being aware of thinking about it. “How do you do that?”
My insight came when I was a samanera (novice monk). “How do you stop thinking? Just stop thinking. Well, how do you stop? Just stop. How do you just stop?” The mind would always come back with “How? How can you do it?”, wanting to figure it out rather than trusting in the immanence of it. Trusting is relaxing into it, it’s just attentiveness, which is an act of faith, it’s a ‘trustingness’ (saddha). It gives you perspective on anything you want to do, including
other styles of meditation. Even training the physical body with these various mindful practices — Yoga, Tai Chi, Chi Kung and things like that — can fit wellinto the intuitive approach. Ultimately, when we develop these techniques, it ends up that one has to trust in the mindfulness rather than in just “me and my wilful efforts” trying to do all these things.
I remember when I started Hatha Yoga years ago, I’d see these pictures of yogis doing all these fantastic postures and I wanted to do them, the really impressive ones. I had a big ego and didn’t want to do the boring kind of things that you start out with, but really aimed at the fantastic. Of course you’re going to damage yourself trying to make your body do what you want before it’s ready; it’s pretty dangerous! Intuition is also knowing the limits of your own body, what it can take. It’s not just wilfully making it do this and do that according to your ideas or ideals of what you want it to do, because, as many of you know, you can damage the body quite badly through tyrannically forcing it to
do something. Yet mindfulness (sati-sampajanna) includes the body and includes its limitations, its disabilities, its sicknesses as well as its health and its pleasures.
In Theravada Buddhism, as celibate alms-mendicants especially, we can easily see sensual pleasure in terms of something we shouldn’t enjoy. The Western mind will easily see it in terms of denying pleasure, happiness and joy. We do the asubha practices; we say the body is foul, loathsome, filled with excrement, pus and slime and things like that. If you’re a monk you should never look at a woman, keep your eyes down, and you shouldn’t indulge in the pleasures of beauty — of anything. I remember in Thailand hearing that I shouldn’t even look at a flower, because its
beauty would capture me and make me think worldly thoughts. Because I’m from a Christian background which has a strong puritanical ethic to it, it’s easy to assume that sense-pleasure is bad and that it’s dangerous, you’ve got to try to deny it and avoid it at all costs. But then that’s another opinion and view that comes out of an analytical mind, isn’t it?
From my cultural background, the logic in seeing the foulness and loathsomeness of the body (the asubha practices) is easy to see in terms of being repelled and seeing the body in terms of something absolutely disgusting. Sometimes you even look at yourself when you’re fairly healthy and you feel disgusted — at least I can. It’s a natural way to feel about yourself if you identify with the body and you dwell on its less appealing aspects. But for the word asubha, ‘loathsome’ is not a very good translation, because to me ‘loathsome’ is feeling really repelled and averse. If something is loathsome, it’s dirty and foul, bad and nasty; you just develop aversion and want to get rid of it. But asubha means ‘the non-beautiful’. Subha is beautiful; asubha is non-beautiful. That puts it in a better context — of looking at what is not beautiful and noticing it, usually we don’t notice this. We tend to give our attention to the beautiful in the worldly life, and the non-beautiful we either ignore, we reject or we don’t pay any attention to. We dismiss it because it’s just not very attractive. So the vowel ‘a’ in asubha is a negation, like Amaravati: ‘the deathless’. Mara is death; amara is deathless. I found that a better way of looking at asubha practice.
Some of you have seen autopsies. I do not find that these lead to depression or aversion. Contemplating a dead human body at an autopsy when they’re cutting it up, if you’ve never seen it before, it can be pretty shocking. The smells and the appearance — you can feel averse to it at first. But if you can stay beyond the initial reaction of shock and aversion, and with sati-sampajanna be open to all of this, then what I find is a sense of dispassion, which is a cool feeling. It’s very clear, very cool and very pleasant to be dispassionate. It’s not dispassion through dullness or
just through intellectual cynicism: it’s just a feeling of non-aversion. Dispassion arises when we no longer see the human body in such a standard way as being either very attractive and beautiful or ugly and foul, but of being able to relate to it, whether our own, somebody else’s or a corpse, in terms of sati-sampajanna. Sati-sampajanna opens the way to the experience of dispassion (viraga).
Lust, on the other hand, is a lack of discrimination. The experience of sexual lust is a strong passion that takes you over and you lose your discriminative abilities. The more you absorb into it, the less discriminatory you get. It’s interesting that critical people (the dosacarita or anger/aversion types) usually like the asubha practises. They like very methodical meditations: “You do this and then you do that,” very intellectually well presented “Stage one, stage two”, in a nice little outline. If you’re critical, it’s easy to see the body as foul and disgusting. A kamaragacarita, a lustful, greedy type person, they like metta meditation the best. You teach metta (loving-kindess meditation) and they go “Ooh!” with delight because metta is not critical, is it? With metta you are not being critical about anything.
So these are upayas (skilful means) to get perspective. If one is a lustful type, then the asubha practises can be very balancing. They can be very skilfully used for developing a more discriminative awareness of the unpleasantness, of the non-beautiful. For the dosacarita, then, metta: being able to accept what you don’t like without indulging in being critical, rejecting and being averse to it. Metta meditation is a real willingness. It can be done in a kind of stylised way, but basically it’s sati-sampajanna. Sati-sampajanna accepts, it includes. Metta is one of those inclusive
things, much more intuitive than conceptual.
When you try to conceive metta as “love”, loving something in terms of liking it, it makes it impossible to sustain metta when you get to things you can’t stand, people you hate and things like that. Metta is very hard to come to terms with on a conceptual level. To love your enemies, to love people you hate, who you can’t stand is, on the conceptual level, an impossible dilemma. But in terms of sati-sampajanna, it’s accepting, because it includes everything you like and dislike. Metta is not analytical; it’s not dwelling on why you hate somebody. It’s not trying to figure out why I hate this person, but it includes the whole thing — the feeling, the person, myself — all in the same
moment. So it’s embracing, a point that includes and is non-critical. You’re not trying to figure out anything, but just to open and accept, being patient with it.
With food, for instance, we eat here in the dhutanga tradition — that is, eating from alms bowls — I, at least, can no longer convince myself that I’m only eating one meal a day any more because of this breakfast thing! But however many meals a day you eat, there’s a limitation. Not because there’s anything wrong with enjoying a meal; it’s not that food is dangerous and that any kind of pleasure you receive from eating will bind you to rebirth again in the samsara-vatta (the circle of birth and death) — that’s another view and opinion — but is a matter of recognising the simplicity of the life that we have. It’s simplifying everything. This is why I like this way.
Just notice your attitude towards food. The greed, the aversion or the guilt about eating or enjoying good food — include it all. There’s no attitude that you have to have toward it other than an attitude of sati-sampajanna. So it’s not making eating into any hassle. When I used to go on fasts, Luang Por Chah would point out that I was making a hassle out of my food. I couldn’t just eat; I was making it more difficult than it needed to be. Then there is the guilt that comes up if you eat too much or you find yourself trying to get the good bits. I remember trying to get the good pieces for myself and then feeling guilty about that. There’s a greed that really wants the tasty bits and then feels
guilty about it. Then it gets complicated. I couldn’t just be greedy and shameless, I also had to have a strong
sense of guilt around it and hope that nobody would notice. I had to keep it a secret, because I didn’t want to look greedy, I wanted to look as if I wasn’t.
I remember that whilst staying with Luang Por Jun, I was trying to be a really strict vegetarian then, really strict. At the monastery (Wat Bung Khao Luang) they had certain kinds of dishes that didn’t have any kind of fish sauce in them, or any kind of meat or fish. But, as most of you know, in Thailand most of the food has fish sauce in it or some kind of animal mixtures in it. So it was difficult because I had very little choice and people would always have to make special things for me. I always had to be special. It had to be Phra Sumedho’s food and then the rest. That was hard to deal with — to be a foreigner, a “Phra Farang”, and then to have a special diet and special privileges. That was hard for me to impose on the group, as I was helping to pass out the food, I’d get very possessive. The vegetable dishes they did have, I felt I had a right to have a lot of, because the other monks were eating all the fish, chicken and things like that. I found myself aiming for the vegetarian dishes first so that I could pass them out according to my own needs. It brought up a really childish tendency in me. Then one day another monk saw me doing this, so he grabbed the vegetarian dish first and only gave me a little spoonful. I was so angry when I saw that. I took this fermented fish sauce, this really strong stuff and when I went past his bowl, I splattered it all over his food! Fortunately, we were forbidden to hit each other. This is an absolute necessity for men — to have rules against
I was trying to live up to an ideal of vegetarian purity, and yet in the process having these really violent feelings towards other monks. What’s this about? It was a vindictive act to splatter all that strong chili sauce with rotten fish in it over some monk’s food. It was a violent act in order for me to keep a sense that I’m a pure vegetarian. So I began to question whether I wanted to make food into such a big deal in my life. Was I wanting to live my life as a vegetarian or what? Was that the main focus that I was aiming at? Just contemplating this, I began to see the suffering I created around my idealism. I noticed Luang Por Chah certainly enjoyed his food and he had a joyful
presence. It wasn’t like an ascetic trip where you’re eating nettle soup and rejecting the good bits; that’s the other extreme.
Sati-sampajanna, then, includes, and that’s the attitude of a samana (monastic), rather than the ascetic, which is “sensual temptations, the sensual world, sensual pleasures are bad and dangerous. You’ve got to fight against them and resist them at all costs in order to become pure. Once you get rid of sexual desire, greed for food, all these other kind of greedy sense things, these coarse, gross things, you don’t have any more bad thoughts, you don’t have any
more greed, hatred and delusion in your mind. You’re absolutely sterilised from any of those things. It’s eradicated, totally wiped out like these toilet cleansers that kill every germ in sight — then you’re pure.” Then you’ve managed to kill everything — including yourself! Is that the aim? That’s taking asceticism to the attakilamathanuyoga position of annihilation.
Or is the opposite extreme the aim the kamasukhallikanuyoga one of “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die? Enjoy life. Life is a banquet and most of the suckers are starving to death”. This is a quote from a fifties move called Auntie May. Auntie May managed really to enjoy life to the hilt, in the movie anyway. She’s a kind of icon, not a real woman but an icon of intelligence and beauty, one who just lives life to the hilt and enjoys everything. That’s a very attractive idol: to see this life is meant to be full of pleasure, happiness and love. So grasping that is
For the samana (monastic), it’s a matter of awakening to these; it includes both. It’s not like taking sides: that we’re rejecting or condemning Auntie May and “Life is a banquet”, or the extreme ascetic, the life-denying annihilator. But we can see that these are conditions that we create in our minds. Always wanting life to be at its best, just a party, a banquet, one pleasure after another, just assuming that is where it’s at, or thinking that to have any pleasure or enjoyment is wrong and bad, that it’s lesser and dangerous, these are conditions that we create. But the samana life is right now; it’s like this. It’s opening to what we tend not to notice when we’re seeking these two extremes as our
Life is like this. You can’t say it’s a banquet all the time. Breath going in… I wouldn’t describe it as a banquet, or that the sound of silence is life at its best, where it’s just one laugh after another. It’s just like this. Most of our experience is neither one extreme nor another; it’s like this. Most of one’s life is not peak moments, either in the heights or the depths, but it’s neither/nor, it’s that which we don’t notice if we’re primed to the extremes.
I find it helpful in terms of beauty, for example, to come from sati-sampajanna rather than from personal attachment. So with beautiful objects, beautiful things, beautiful people or whatever — coming from personal
habits is dangerous — because of the desire to possess them, to have them for yourself or be attracted and get overwhelmed by the desires that arise through seeing beauty through ignorance. Then with experiencing beauty from sati-sampajanna one can just be aware of the beauty as beauty. It also includes one’s own tendencies to want to own it, take it, touch it or fear it; it includes that. But when you’re letting go of that, then beauty itself is joy.
We live on a planet that is quite beautiful. Nature is quite beautiful to the eye. So seeing it from sati-sampajanna I experience joy from that. When we speak from personal habits — then it can get complicated. It’s complicated, no doubt, with wanting and not wanting, with guilt, or just not even noticing. If you get too involved with what’s in your head, after while you don’t even notice, anything outside. You can be in the most beautiful place in the world and not
see it, not notice it. So then beauty as experience, or sense-pleasure, is seeing something for what it is. It is pleasurable; good food does taste good; tasting a good, delicious flavour is like this; it’s purely enjoyable. That’s the way it is. So you may contemplate “Oh, I shouldn’t” — then you’re adding more to it. But from sati-sampajanna it is what it is. It’s experiencing the flow of life from this centre-point, from the still point that includes rather than from the point that excludes, the extreme where we want only the beautiful and the good, just to have one banquet after another. When we can’t sustain that delusion we get depressed. We go to the opposite, wanting to kill ourselves or
annihilate ourselves in some way.
Just like this weather we’ve been having, it’s the kind that people think England is like all the time: cold, wet, damp, drizzly and grey! This is the worldwide perception of England. I decided to open to these conditions with sati-sampajanna. It is what it is, but I’m not creating aversion to it. It’s all right, and isn’t like this very often. I’ve lived in this country for twentyfour years. Some of the most beautiful weather I have ever experienced has been here in this country. Perfect days, so beautiful, the greenness, the beautiful flowers and hills and things like this. So sati-
sampajanna includes the cold, wet, drizzly and grey weather. There’s no aversion created in it. In fact, I find I like itin a way, because I don’t feel compelled to go out in it. I can sit in my kuti and keep warm. I quite enjoy feeling that I don’t have to go out anywhere just because the weather is so good. I can just stay in my room, whichI quite like; it has a nice feeling to it. When the weather gets really good I always feel I should be out. These are ways of just noticing even within what can be physically unpleasant, like cold, dampness and things like this that we find unpleasant as sensory experiences, that the suffering really is the aversion. “I don’t like this. I don’t want life to be like this. I want to be where there are blue skies and sunshine all the time.”
With the body-sweeping practice, I found paying attention to neutral sensation very helpful, because it was so easily ignored. When I first started doing it, years ago I found it difficult to find, because I’d never paid attention to neutral sensations, even though it’s quite obvious. My experience of sensation was always through the extremes of either pleasure or pain. But noticing just how the robe touches the skin, just one hand touching the other, the tongue in the mouth touching the palate or the teeth, or the upper lip resting on the lower, investigating little details of sensation
that are there when you open to them. They are there but you don’t notice them unless you‘re determined to. If your lips are painful you notice. If you’re getting a lot of pleasure from your lips, you notice. But when it’s neither pleasure nor pain, there’s still sensation but it’s neutral. So you’re allowing neutrality to be conscious.
Consciousness is like a mirror; it reflects. A mirror reflects — it doesn’t just reflect the beautiful or the ugly. If you really look into a mirror, it’s reflecting whatever: the space, the neutrality, everything that is in front of it. Usually you can only notice the outstanding ones, the extremes of beauty or ugliness. But to awaken to the way it is, you’re not looking at the obvious, but recognising the subtlety behind the extremes of beauty and ugliness. The sound of silence is like a subtlety behind everything that you awaken to, because you don’t notice it usually if you’re seeking the extremes.
When you’re seeking happiness and trying to get away from pain and misery, then you’re caught in always trying to get something or hold on to happiness — like tranquillity. We want tranquillity; we want samatha and jhanas (meditative absorptions) because we like tranquillity. We don’t want confusion, chaos or cacophony, abrasive sensory experiences or human contacts; we don’t want that. So we come into the temple and sit down, close our eyes and give off the signs: “Don’t bother me”, “Leave me alone” and “I’m going to get my samadhi.” That can be the very basisfor our practice — “Getting my samadhi so I can feel good, because I want that”. That leads to an extreme again — wanting, always grasping after the ideal of some refined conscious experience. Then there’s the others who say “You don’t need to do that. Daily life is good enough. Just in-the-market-place practice — that’s where it’s at. Where you’re not doing anything extreme like sitting, closing your eyes, but you’re just living life as an ordinary person and being mindful of everything.” That also can be another ideal that we attach to.
These are ideals; positions that we might take. They are the ‘true but not right; right but not true’ predicament
that we create with our dualistic mind; not that they’re wrong. In George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm there is a slogan: “Everyone is equal but some are more equal than others”. In the conditioned realm, this is how we think. We all think all human beings are equal, ideally. All human beings are equal, but with the practicalities of life, some are more equal than others. You won’t find the affluent Western World willing to give up much for the sake of equality in the Third World.
Reflect on the monastic form. It’s a convention, and its aim is connected to the world through its alms-mendicancy.
We need the society, we need the world around us, we need the lay-community for our survival. They are a part. Monasticism is not an attack on or a rejection of lay life. If we’re living in the right way, then the lay community bring forth their good qualities: generosity, gratitude and things like this. We can also move towards silence — this is encouraged — towards meditation and reflection. We can combine both samatha and vipassana (insight meditation); the life of solitude with the worldly life. It’s not to reject one and hold on to the other as the ideal, but to
recognize this is the way it is; it’s like this. The world we live in, the society we live in — we’re not rejecting it, turning against it or away from it, but including it. So we can include it in the silence and the solitude.
Text source: Ajahn Sumedho, Intuitive Awareness, Amaravati Publications 2004
Image credit: Theravada Dhamma