After spending time with the Western monk Ajahn Amaro, one is left with the unique feeling of having been in the presence of a truly happy man, and one whose happiness is born of wisdom. Ordained by Ajahn Chah in 1979, Ajahn Amaro has spent most of his life as a monk at the Amaravati monastery in England. In recent years he has lived in Northern California for several months each winter. Soon Ajahn Amaro will be taking up permanent residence in California on 120 acres of forested land in the Redwood Valley of Mendocino County where a Theravadan monastery will be established. The land was gifted to Ajahn Sumedho, abbot of Amaravati, and to the Sanghapala Foundation by the founder of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, Master Hua, who passed away this past Spring. The following interview with Ajahn Amaro was conducted by Wes Nisker and Terry Vandiver in March of 1995, on the porch of Ajahn Amaro’s residence in Sonoma County, California.
The interview appeared originally in “Inquiring Mind”, Volume 12, Number 1 (Fall 1995).
INQUIRING MIND: How would you assess the study of Buddha Dharma and the practice of meditation now being taught in the West?
AJAHN AMARO: In the West people tend to separate their meditation practice from their lives. Ajahn Chah emphasized that “if you have time to breathe you have time to meditate.” You breathe when you walk. You breathe when you stand. You breathe when you lie down.
I think part of the problem in the West is the emphasis on retreats. If you do a lot of intensive retreats you will develop strong concentration. Many of the people I meet in America have been doing retreats for 15-20 years and they are really quite accomplished concentrators. But I’m afraid they have not found much freedom.
Notice how the word “sitting” has become synonymous with meditation or with practicing Dharma. Sitting is the operative word, meaning, “I am here on my cushion, my eyes are closed, the world has dissolved into emptiness.” We have learned how to concentrate our minds and then to push out our worldly irritations and responsibilities. We create this great space inside and become very good at getting rid of thoughts and feelings. Meditation can thus become rather like being in a shooting gallery with the little ducks. You can become a great marksman or markswoman, shooting down the thought ducks and the feeling ducks.
IM: Is this emphasis on intensive meditation retreats unique to the West? Or is it imported from Asian traditions?
AA: One reason for the retreat emphasis, at least in vipassana circles, is due to the Asian systems that have fostered many of our teachers and styles of practice. Goenka-ji and Mahasi Sayadaw’s disciples emphasize a very controlled retreat situation as the primary path. Retreat, retreat, retreat. Those teachers have had enormous influence and have helped tens of thousands of people, but I think that their style has led to this imbalance, the unhealthy separation between life and retreat.
Of course, if you go on retreats for 20 years you can create tremendous inner space. But it can become almost like a police state. You just clear the streets of all the unruly inhabitants of your mind. And while you may get them off the streets, the guerrillas will still be active underground. So when you leave the retreat, you begin to experience your ordinary life as difficult and turbulent. Then you can’t wait to get to the next retreat. I am speaking very generally here, and maybe exaggerating a bit, but I think I am describing a pattern that many of your readers will recognize.
IM: In contrast, Ajahn Chah and teachers in the Thai forest tradition did not emphasize retreats so much, and placed equal importance on community and daily life.
AA: Ajahn Chah would have us do periods of intensive practice, but we would still go out on alms round in the morning and there would always be work to do around the monastery. So even the times of intensive, formal practice were not so separated from life or so completely free of stimulus.
When you focus on creating a clear, subjective, interior space, then your life is built around trying to be in that space with as few distractions as possible. That space then becomes a counterpoint to the external world. Even though we might have great brightness of mind or experiences of selflessness within that space, those states exist in counterpoint to our family, our society, and the entire phenomenal and physical world. We are losing half the picture. Furthermore, our peace and happiness becomes completely dependent on conditions.
I have recently been addressing this issue through the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment. During the course of the night, as the story goes, the Buddha-to-be made his vow not to get up from his seat until he was completely enlightened. The Lord of Illusion, Mara, tried to disturb his meditation with fearful and sensual images but was unsuccessful. By the end of the night, the Buddha’s realization into truth was complete, but although he was fully awakened the armies of Mara were still around him.
Then Mara asked him, “What right do you think you have to claim enlightenment?” The Buddha then reached down and touched the earth, invoking the Earth Mother who appeared and said, “This is my true son and he has done everything necessary to claim complete and full enlightenment. He is the supremely awakened one.” Then from her hair she produced a great flood of water which washed away the armies of Mara, who eventually returned carrying flowers and other offerings.
I think the story is saying that if our liberation is simply a subjective, mental, interior experience then we are only half-cooked. Wisdom has to reach out into the world. Even the Buddha has to make that gesture of humility and ask the earth for her blessing. In order for the armies of Mara to really be dispelled, we have to open our eyes and step out of that blissful interior space. For liberation to be finalized we have to touch the earth.
IM: What prompted you to become a Buddhist monk?
AA: When I first visited Ajahn Cha’s monastery in Thailand, I found a group of Westerners like myself, with very similar backgrounds, who were living in the forest doing Buddhist meditation practice. And they all seemed remarkably cheerful.
When they explained their way of life and the basis of their practice, it made perfect sense to me. Previously I had assumed that freedom came from having no rules and no boundaries. I’d never really questioned that premise, even though trying to live that way had been painful and difficult. These monks suggested that I look for freedom where it could actually be found. They pointed out that the material world is filled with limits, and you don’t look for that which is boundless in the place where you find limitation. They explained that by living a life which is disciplined, simple, and harmless one could discover the true freedom that lies within us. Upon hearing their words, my immediate reaction was, “How could I have been so stupid?” I felt simultaneously embarrassed and relieved.
IM: Did the monk’s life live up to your initial expectations?
AA: Absolutely. Even though the last thing I would have planned for myself was a lifetime of celibacy and renunciation, what I discovered was a new delight in simplicity and the deep satisfaction that comes from not actively seeking satisfaction. It is a strange but sweet irony that in the monastery I find the very delight that I was so rabidly searching for outside the monastery. It just looks like I’ve given up everything, but actually, the inner experience is one of great delight. In fact, this monk’s life is a feast! When I was first ordained I used to think, “I don’t deserve this,” or “I’m not going to get away with this for very long.”
IM: Are there any particular difficulties that you encounter as a Buddhist monk in the West? How do you feel walking around in robes in this culture?
AA: For me it has always seemed like the most normal thing in the world. I think, to a degree, we all feel like outsiders in life. We all feel slightly different from other people in one way or another, and being dressed like a Buddhist monk in the West is just another form of being different.
Besides, even though we are Buddhist monks and nuns, we are only alien when we are outside the monastery. Inside the monastery it is normal to have a shaved head and wear brown robes. The women have shaved heads and the men wear skirts.
Living as part of a Buddhist monastic community makes all the difference, whether you are in the West or the East. Ajahn Chah always emphasized the Sangha, the community, as a method of practice in and of itself. It wasn’t a matter of living with a bunch of other people just in order to do meditation practice. The life of the community of monks and nuns was itself a method of practice and a method of liberation. Although Ajahn Chah did teach individual meditation techniques, over and over again he stressed the importance of community. I think that is one of the reasons why our monasteries have succeeded in the West.
Also, when you live in a community, then the monastic traditions make a lot of sense. They work and they work well. We aren’t just trying to sustain some archaic Asian system as a curio or a formality. The life of renunciation — living on alms, wearing the same robes as everyone else — and all of the rules are methods whereby we train ourselves. Through those forms the heart can be liberated.
IM: Most Westerners don’t seem to be very attracted to community as a path. Perhaps one reason is because that path clashes with our cultural belief in the primacy of the individual, the importance of going it alone.
AA: I would agree. Community life is about setting aside my own desires for the sake of the group. It’s self-sacrifice. To the individualist, that sounds like death. But the training in communality is, for many Westerners, a blessed shift in perspective. Because what makes us suffer most of all in life is having “me” at the center of it all. Our society supports and validates that attitude, which has led to deep feelings of alienation and insecurity.
When we learn how to surrender our own urges and biases, we are not inherently giving up our freedom or denigrating our individuality. Being able to listen and to yield to other people is a way of recognizing our relationship with them and our interdependence with all the life of the planet. As we let go of our selfish demands we begin to recognize the vastness of our true nature. That dynamic is extremely important in the full development of spiritual life.
IM: Do you feel there are significant differences between being a monk in Europe or America and being a monk in Asia?
AA: One of the great blessings of Buddhist monasticism in the West is that it becomes free of the formalism, ritualism, and cultural accretions of Asia. In many ways, it is much easier for Westerners to get to the essence of the teachings. Even our Asian teachers have remarked on this. They say, “You are really lucky. We have all this cultural baggage that we have to work through with our students.” Westerners don’t know anything about the “ism” of Buddhism before we start our studying and training.
IM: On the other hand, Western monks and nuns don’t get as much support from the lay population as their Asian brothers and sisters.
AA: Yes, and that respect and support is very sweet. When I go to Thailand, I get treated like a visiting dignitary. In the West we still have to earn our respect. I’ve had people say to me, “What do you do for a living? What do you contribute to the Gross National Product?”
IM: You should just tell them you are working on the Subtle National Product.
AA: I respond by asking them what makes a nation healthy? Does it depend on how many sacks of wheat it exports or how many tons of steel it sells? Or does the health of a nation include the well-being of individuals, and furthermore, is that well-being only dependent on their physical health and comfort, or does it also involve their peace of mind? I try to expand the definition of national well-being.
IM: What are the hardest monastic rules to keep when you are living in Western culture?
AA: It is different for different people, I think, but for many of us the hardest rules are those around celibacy, maintaining a kind of evenness in our relationships with other people. And it’s not just about refraining from sexual intercourse. Ordinary human affection and friendliness can easily lead to a flow of emotion that suggests something more intimate. While there is nothing wrong with that flow between human beings, when you have taken vows of celibacy, then that suggestiveness or flirtation is in violation of your commitment.
IM: What about entertainments? Do you miss listening to music?
AA: Not much, although I used to be a big music fan and listened to it all the time. Now that I don’t deliberately listen to it, I find that when I do happen to hear music, it’s as if I’m hearing it for the first time. Music used to be such a constant presence in my life that it had lost its power. If I hear it now, it has an astonishing quality of freshness. I am with every note, every phrase.
When we adopt the renunciate life we aren’t condemning the world of the senses, per se, because that leads to aversion and negativity. Instead we are learning to accept whatever is offered to us with full appreciation. Whatever arrives is received and cherished, but we don’t try to add anything. I think many people listen to music because they love the place that the music takes them to, which is the present moment. You are not thinking about anything else; you are experiencing the harmony, balance, and rhythm that the music suggests. But all of those qualities are present in a meditative mind. If we need music in order to get us there, then when there isn’t music (or delicious food or beautiful surroundings or whatever it might be), we are likely to feel bereft. We immediately start to look for another experience that will take us to that place of beauty.
What the precepts do is to shut the door on all our habitual sources of satisfaction so that our entire attention is directed inward. That is where we discover a beauty and clarity, and a vastness of being which is unshakable, independent of circumstances and conditions. Then when we hear a piece of music, or see a beautiful blue sky or the fine shape of a tree, that’s an extra.
Believe it or not, I became a monk because I am a hedonist at heart. The fun began when I became a monk. I am not trying to be flip by saying this. For me at least, being a monk is the way I can most enjoy my life, and I do mean en-joy. My life is en-joyed, filled with joy as an ongoing experience.
IM: Everybody is going to want to ordain after they read this interview!
AA: That’s fine. But remember that the joy only comes after the self-surrender and sacrifice. I think a a culture, we are afraid of sacrifice. We feel that we must own and accumulate things in order to be complete, and not just material objects but people and relationships as well. It is hard for us to understand that letting go is not a loss, not a bereavement. Of course, when we lose something that is beautiful or dear to us, there is a shadow that crosses the heart. But we enlighten that shadow with the understanding that the feeling of loss is just the karmic result of assuming that we owned anything in the first place. The renunciate life is based on the realization that we can never really possess anything.