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The Eye of Discernment - From the Autobiography
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From the Autobiography

I make it a practice to wander about during the dry season every year. I do this because I feel that a monk who stays put in one monastery is like a train sitting still at HuaLampong station — and everyone knows the worth of a train sitting still. So there's no way I could stay in one place. I'll have to keep on the move all of my life, as long as I'm still ordained.

Some of my companions have criticized me for being this way, and others have praised me, but I myself feel that it brings nothing but good. I've learned about the land, events, customs and religious practices in different areas. In some places it may be that I'm more ignorant than the people there; in other places and with other groups, it might be that I know more than they, so there's no way I can lose by traveling about. Even if I just sit still in the forest, I gain by it. Wherever I find the people know less than I do, I can be their teacher. In whatever groups I find that I know less than they do, I'm willing to be their student. Either way I profit.

At the same time, living in the forest as I like to do has given me a lot to think about. 1) It was a custom of the Buddha. He was born in the forest, attained Awakening in the forest, and totally entered nibbana in the forest — and yet how was he at the same time able to bring his virtues right into the middle of great cities, as when he spread his religious work to include King Bimbisara of Rajagaha.

2) As I see it, it's better to evade than to fight. As long as I'm not superhuman, as long as my skin can't ward off knives, bullets and spears, I'd better not live in the centers of human society. This is why I feel it's better to evade than to fight.

People who know how to evade have a saying: 'To evade is wings; to avoid is a tail.' This means: A tiny chick, fresh out of the egg, if it knows how to evade, won't die. It will have a chance to grow feathers and wings and be able to survive on its own in the future. 'To avoid is a tail': This refers to the tail (rudder) of a boat. If the person holding the rudder knows how to steer, he'll be able to avoid stumps and sand bars. For the boat to avoid running aground depends on the rudder. Since this is the way I see things, I prefer living in the forest.

3) I've come to consider the principles of nature: It's a quiet place, where you can observe the influences of the environment. Wild animals, for example, sleep differently from domesticated animals. This can be a good lesson. Or take the wild rooster: Its eyes are quick, its tail feathers sparse, its wings strong and its call short. It can run fast and fly far. What do these characteristics come from? I've made this a lesson for myself. Domesticated roosters and wild roosters come from the same species, but the domesticated rooster's wings are weak, its call long, its tail feathers lush and ungainly, its behavior different from that of the wild rooster. The wild rooster is the way it is because it can't afford to let down its guard. It always has to be on the alert, because danger is ever-present in the forest. If the wild rooster went around acting like a domestic rooster, the cobras and mongooses would make a meal of it in no time. So when it eats, sleeps, opens and closes its eyes, the wild rooster has to be strong and resilient in order to stay alive.

So it is with us. If we spend all our time wallowing around in companionship, we're like a knife or a hoe stuck down into the dirt: It'll rust easily. But if it's constantly sharpened on a stone or a file, rust won't have a chance to take hold. Thus we should learn to be always on the alert. This is why I like to stay in the forest. I benefit from it, and learn many lessons.

4) I've learned to reflect on the teachings that the Buddha taught first to each newly-ordained monk. They're very thought-provoking. He taught the Dhamma first, and then the Vinaya. He'd begin with the virtues of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, followed by the five basic objects of meditation: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth and skin. Then he'd give a sermon with four major points:

a) Make a practice of going out for alms. Be an asker, but not a beggar. Be content with whatever you are given.

b) Live in a quiet place, such as an abandoned house, under a projecting cliff face, in a cave. People have asked if the Buddha had any reasons for this teaching, but I've always been convinced that if there were no benefits to be gained from these places, he wouldn't have recommended them. Still, I wondered what the benefits were, which is why I've taken an interest in this matter.

c) The Buddha taught monks to make robes from cloth that had been thrown away — even to the point of wearing robes made from the cloth used to wrap a corpse. This teaching made me reflect on death. What benefits could come from wearing the cloth used to wrap a corpse? For a simple answer, think for a moment about a corpse's things: They don't appeal to anyone. No one wants them — and so they hold no dangers. In this point it's easy enough to see that the Buddha taught us not to take pride in our possessions.

d) The Buddha taught that we should use medicines near at hand, such as medicinal plants pickled in urine.

These teachings of the Buddha, when I first heard them, sparked my curiosity. Whether or not I would benefit from following them, there was one thing I was sure of: that the Buddha was not the sort of person who would hold blindly to anything, and that he would never teach anything without good reason. So even if I wasn't totally convinced of his teachings, I should at least respect them. Or if I didn't yet have confidence in my teacher's ability, I owed it to him and to the traditions of the Sangha to give his teachings a try.

I was reminded of the words of MahaKassapa, who asked to be allowed to follow such ascetic practices as living in the forest, eating one meal a day (going out for alms) and wearing robes made from thrown-away rags all of his life. The Buddha questioned him, 'You've already eradicated your defilements. What is there left for you to strive for?'

MahaKassapa answered, 'I want to observe these practices, not for my own sake, but for the sake of those yet to come. If I don't follow these practices, who will they be able to take as an example? If a person teaches by example, the students will learn easily, just as when a person teaches students how to read: If he has pictures to go along with the text, the students will learn much more quickly. My observing these practices is the same sort of thing.'

When I thought of these words, I felt sympathy for MahaKassapa, subjecting himself to all sorts of hardships. If you were to put it in worldly terms, you could say that he was already a multimillionaire, deserving a soft bed and fine food, but instead he slept and ate on the ground, and had only coarse food to eat. Thinking of his example, I'd be ashamed to look for nothing more than creature comforts. As for MahaKassapa, he could have eaten fine food and lived in a beautiful home with no danger of his heart's being defiled. But — and it's not surprising — he was more concerned with benefiting those who came after.

All of these things have given me food for thought ever since I was first ordained.

Speaking of living in the forest, I've learned a lot of unusual lessons there. Sometimes I've seen death close at hand and have learned a lot of lessons — sometimes from seeing the behavior of animals, sometimes from talking to people who live there.

Once there was an old man who told me of the time he had gone with his wife to tap tree sap deep in a large forest. They happened to run into a bear, and a fight ensued. The wife was able to get up a tree in time and then called down to her husband, 'If you can't fight it off, lie down and play dead. Don't make a move.'

When her husband heard this, he came to his senses and so fell back on the ground, lying absolutely still. Seeing this, the bear climbed up astride him, but then let go of him and simply stood looking at him. The old man lay there on his back, meditating on the word, 'buddho, buddho,' and thinking, 'I'm not going to die. I'm not going to die.' The bear pulled at his legs and then at his head, and then used its nuzzle to push him left and right. The old man kept his joints loose and didn't react in any way. After the bear had decided that the man was dead, it left. A moment or so later the man got up and walked home with his wife. His head was all battered and bloody, but he didn't die.

When he had finished telling me the story, he added, 'That's the way forest animals have to be. If you can't fight, you have to play dead.'

Hearing this, the thought occurred to me, 'No one is interested in a dead person. Since I live in the forest, I should play dead. Whoever praises me or attacks me, I'll have to be still — quiet in thought, word and deed — if I want to survive.' This can also be a good reminder in the way of the Dhamma: To free yourself from death, you have to play dead. This is a good lesson in maranassati, keeping death in mind.

Another time, early one morning when I was staying in the middle of a large forest, I took my followers out for alms. As we were going through the forest, I heard a mother chicken cry, 'Kataak! Kataak!' Since she didn't fly away, I figured she probably had some baby chicks, so I sent the boys to run and look. This frightened the chicken and she flew away over the trees. The boys saw a lot of baby chicks running around, but before they could catch them, the chicks scurried into a large pile of fallen leaves. There they hid themselves and lay absolutely still. The boys took a stick and stirred around in the leaves, but the chicks didn't move. They didn't even make a peep. Although the boys kept looking for a while, they couldn't find even a single chick. I knew that the chicks hadn't gone anywhere. They had just pretended to be fallen leaves. So as it turned out, of all those little tiny chicks, we couldn't catch a one.

Thinking about this, I was struck by their instincts for self-preservation, and how clever they were: They simply kept themselves quiet in a pile of fallen leaves. And so I made a comparison for myself: 'When you're in the wilds, then if you can keep your mind still like the baby chicks, you're sure to be safe and to free yourself from dying.' This was another good lesson.

In addition to the animals, there are other aspects of nature — such as trees and vines — that can set you thinking. Take vines, for instance. There are some that don't turn in any direction but right. Observing this, I've made it a lesson for myself. 'If you're going to take your mind to the highest good, you'll have to act like the vines: i.e., always to the right, for the Buddha taught, 'Kaya-kammam, vaca-kammam, mano-kammam padakkhinam' — going to the right in thought, word and deed. You'll always have to go right — by keeping yourself above the defilements that flare up and consume the heart. Otherwise you'll be no match even for a vine.'

Some kind of trees make themselves quiet in ways we can see: We say that they 'sleep.' At night, they fold up their leaves. If you go lie under them, you'll have a clear view of the stars in the nighttime sky. But when day comes, they'll spread out their leaves and give a dense shade. This is a good lesson for the mind: When you sit in meditation, close only your eyes. Keep your mind bright and alert, like a tree that closes its leaves and thus doesn't obstruct our view of the stars.

When you can think in this way you see the value of living in the forest. The mind becomes confident. Dhamma that you have studied — or even that you haven't — will make itself clear because nature is the teacher. It's like the sciences of the world, which every country has used to develop amazing powers. None of their inventions or discoveries came out of a textbook. They came because scientists studied the principles of nature, all of which appear right here in the world. As for the Dhamma, it's just like science: It exists in nature. When I realized this I no longer worried about studying the scriptures, and I was reminded of the Buddha and his disciples: They studied and learned from the principles of nature. None of them followed a textbook.

For these reasons I'm willing to be ignorant when it comes to texts and scriptures. Some kinds of trees sleep at night and are awake during the day. Others sleep by day and are awake by night. The same is true of forest animals.

Living in the forest, you also learn from the vapors that each plant exudes. Some plants are good for your health, some are bad. Sometimes, for example, when I've been feverish, I've gone to sit under certain kinds of trees and my fever has disappeared. Sometimes when I've been feeling well I've gone to sit under certain kinds of trees and the elements in my body have become disturbed. Sometimes I've been hungry and thirsty, but as soon as I go sit under certain kinds of trees, my hunger and thirst disappear. Learning from trees in this way has caused me to think about the traditional doctors who keep a statue of a hermit on their altars. Those hermits never studied medical textbooks, but were able to teach about medicines that can cure disease because they had studied nature by training their minds the same way we do.

Similar lessons can be learned from water, earth and air. Realizing this, I've never gotten very excited about medicines that cure disease, because I feel that good medicines are everywhere. The important point is whether or not we recognize them, and this depends on us.

In addition, there's another quality we need in order to take care of ourselves: the power of the mind. If we're able to keep the mind quiet, its ability to cure disease will be tens of times greater than that of any medicine. This is called dhamma-osatha: the medicine of the Dhamma.

All in all, I can really see that I've gained from living in forests and other quiet places in order to train the mind. One by one I've been able to cut away my doubts about the Buddha's teachings. And so, for this reason, I'm willing to devote myself to the duties of meditation until there's no more life left for me to live.

The gains that come from training the mind, if I were to describe them in detail, would go on and on, but I'll ask to finish this short description here.


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