For over two decades, Australian John Cianciosi (known in Thailand as Venerable Ajahn Jagaro) had been a fully ordained Buddhist monk in the Thai Theravada tradition, and abbot of the International Forest Monastery in northeast Thailand. Then he accepted an invitation from the Buddhist Society of Western Australia to establish a Forest Monastery to the south of Perth. He worked there tirelessly as abbot, meditation teacher, counselor and manager for the growing Buddhist community, and as with the monastery in Thailand, it flourished mightily under his direction. During his time there, he gained a national reputation for his oratory; until he left the monkhood in 1995, he appeared frequently on national television. His ability to express the Buddhist teachings in a clear and direct modern idiom are universally praised.
The Monthly Aspectarian: John, it's very interesting what you're doing, bringing the teachings of an ascetic forest Buddhism to a modern, urban Western setting and teaching it. How do you think it will translate into this setting?
John Cianciosi: The aspects that I'm taking, which predominantly have to do with meditation and skillful living, will translate very well, I think, because it has already translated into Western culture. From my own experience, meditation is very popular in both Australia and America; there's a lot of interest in it.
As far as the forest ascetic tradition, the monastic aspects are not really relevant or applicable to lay life . . . and certainly not to a modern culture such as what we have here in the West. But the principles of exploring and training the mind in order to develop a greater sense of well-being, serenity, understanding and better means for living a healthy life, I think, is very relevant, applicable and, one could say, even more necessary in this time when life is so stressful and hectic.
TMA: I couldn't agree more. I've always said that you don't have to go live in a cave to meditate. In fact, especially in the West, with the way the world is going, it's essential that we begin to learn these things and use them in our lives.
JC: Yes; one could look at it in terms of mental health in comparison to physical health. We all need physical health; we all need to be fit to a degree; very few of us will want to take it to the extent of going into training to become a professional runner or professional gymnast at the level of Olympic standards, but all of us want good health and appreciate the need to do some sort of exercise -- be it in a health club or even just going for walks for the sake of physical well-being. One could compare that to mental well-being by not all of us wanting to take on full time, intensive retreats in a monastery -- but maybe all of us can benefit from the degree of well-being that can be acquired from a very simple mental training on a daily basis . . . or just even applying the principles of that training in our daily lives.
TMA: It seems to me that especially here in the West, if we're going to keep up with what's going on in the world, we're forced to process so much more information than in the past. I mean exponentially more amounts of information.
JC: Well yes, there is this sense of overload and people are suffering a lot of stress. As a result of that stress, there's a lot of social problems and family problems . . . because when we're under stress and don't have the coping mechanism to react, the way we relate to our partners and our children and society and work environment is from the position of a stressed state. That makes us very irritable, very aggressive, very impatient, very confused; we make bad decisions, we do things and say things that we regret, and we get burned out. And so because life is so much more demanding, I think there is a greater need for having a center of stillness -- or a degree of that, anyway -- which can help us process and respond to the amount of input without losing it.
TMA: Many more people are being drawn to various types of meditative and esoteric practices, but I think most people come into it without ever having thought about the process of thinking. I mean, contemplating what occurs when one thinks, what is going on, who is the thinker, what is the thought.
JC: For most people, that's a little way down the road. You see, in order to explore the mind in that way, you need to have a basis of introspection. In other words, you've got to be able to pay attention to the inner workings and the inner process of the mind. Most people are not at all able to do that because our education and the conditioning we receive throughout life is to pay attention to external things, as if the world and everything is out there. We don't really notice the inner world, that which is the real world, because everything we experience is an internal experience through our senses. It registers in the mind as a mental experience and perception.
Thought is that which shapes what we are and how we live and what we do, yet we're conditioned to pay attention to the outer world. If you say to somebody, "Be aware" or "Notice what you're thinking," "Listen to your thinking," "What are you feeling right now?" it's very difficult for people to be aware of that. That's why one could say that as a preliminary, people need to have some means of training, some technique for beginning this inner journey to introspection.
TMA: Would you say that one of the first great accomplishments is to understand the difference between self and thought?
JC: Yes, that would be an appreciation which will grow on you as you begin to objectify thought. In other words, you can be aware of thinking as a process that's taking place in consciousness. Once you can appreciate that, once you have this objectification of sorts and know that what you can see coming and going can't be you, then you can appreciate, maybe, "Thinking is an activity of mine" . . . but in the final sense, it's not necessarily what you are.
TMA: How do you proceed with a -- for lack of a better word -- neophyte? A new seeker on the path?
JC: This is what I'm exploring now with a series of meditation workshops: to introduce people to this process. First off, I don't like people to begin a training without understanding the context, so I present an overview of what we are endeavoring to do . . . so that a person sees that in context and understands the theory.
Given that, then, one would be taught very basic, simple, natural techniques for, say, calming the mind, centering the mind, techniques of relaxation and concentration. When you try to do that, you begin to become aware of what the mind is doing -- that it is not peaceful, that it is not concentrated, that there is a lot of noise, that the mind is thinking about the past and the present and the future. Because of this technique of trying to concentrate, you become aware of mental activity. In that process, you begin to train the mind and understand its workings. It's continuous, very systematic; it's very gradual, it's very natural, there's nothing forced. But the person becomes, let's say, hopefully, as a result of that understanding, more skilled in training the mind towards serenity and awareness.
TMA: Could you give a brief version of the overview that you mentioned?
JC: First of all you must dispel a lot of the peripheral notions about meditation that are not necessarily inaccurate, but aren't really important -- all the superstition, all the magical aspects of it, the supernatural aspects of it. As far as I'm concerned, they are peripheral and non-essential, and I don't put any emphasis on that. I see this as a very simple -- scientific, one could almost say, or a natural process of enhancing things that we already have. We all have the ability to be aware. We all have the ability to focus our attention. We all have the ability to concentrate. But they are not highly developed abilities, so through a systematic technique, just like mental calisthenics, we can strengthen these certain qualities such as awareness, self awareness, concentration -- the ability to focus your mind, hold your attention on one thing so that you can channel your mental energy fully. Through this process you experience the benefits, and one benefit is a sense of inner clarity, a sense of stillness and silence, a sense of serenity.
As a result of that, you have this -- one could say, power. The power is nothing unnatural; it's just the power to channel your mental energy, put it where you want to put it, what you want to concentrate on. You concentrate on that . . . thereby, whatever you do will be done more fully. You are fully present. You are fully listening. You are fully speaking. You are fully reading. You are fully involved. You are fully seeing and hearing and tasting, and therefore you are fully living. And when you are fully present, you can be in charge. You can make the choice that you want to make, rather than acting out of habit, acting mechanically, reacting out of just the sense of compulsion and obsession whereby we lose choice in life. This is the context that I want the meditation to be in.
Once we've developed this foundation through having trained the mind, of having some choice and some control, then we can cultivate certain aspects like loving-kindness and compassion. We can work through the unresolved emotional conflicts, unresolved grief and unresolved resentment that have accumulated because they just have never been fully conscious and not addressed. Then we can clear our mind of a lot of accumulated negativity. That frees us from so much.
TMA: When one can stop the mind and have silence, one breaks the hold that the illusory world has -- momentarily, at least. But then how does one maintain that on an ongoing basis? I find I can do it when I need to but then the rest of the time, I'm pretty much on automatic, like most people.
JC: Well, you have to apply the principles of that brief experience in a more general sense. That is, what you can take with you is not the silence of those thoughts, no-thought, or the silence of full concentration on one thing or object . . . but just the awareness that can flow with what you're doing, with what you're experiencing. You can have silence amid activity or amid noise. In other words, you can have the skill of meditation in daily life, meditation in action. The only way we achieve that is not by every few minutes sort of closing our eyes and going into a trance, but remaining centered and remaining fully, as much as possible, aware, and, one can say, in charge.
TMA: While washing dishes, driving a car, whatever.
JC: Yes, but to develop that, you see, requires some training. That is why we begin by the training of formal meditation -- to get a feel, an appreciation for what it is that the mind is doing, what it is to be aware, what it is to direct attention. We gradually expand that to meditation in action by taking specific daily activities, such as washing the dishes and learning to relax, by being aware. That doesn't mean not thinking. That doesn't mean not doing anything; it means just being present in what you are doing . . . and being aware of what you're thinking.
TMA: When one stops thought, one is confronted with the real self, yes?
JC: When one's thoughts stop, one is confronted with the silence of the mind, but --
TMA: And that's who you are, yes?
JC: Let's say that you are getting a little closer to the center, but I would not jump to the conclusion of saying that that is what you are -- because you have to look even more deeply. You have to go that center. In actual fact, as long as there is an object and a subject, then it is a duality; you are not there.
TMA: Ah. You take it that far.
JC: For that sort of exploration, you do need quite a deep meditation, and you need to train the mind quite fully. Now for most people, it's very difficult to come to that sort of depth of meditation -- especially, as we were just saying, in our busy lives when meditation forms only one portion of life rather than a predominant portion. To really explore that in depth -- the question of self and the breaking through the delusions about what we are and what, in reality, we are not -- is getting into some pretty . . . one could say, an Olympic standard of meditation. [laughter] I think for many people, it takes a lot of time.
TMA: Let's come back to that, perhaps near the end. Now I was taught to meditate by Huey, Dewey, and Louie -- do you know who I mean? Donald Duck's nephews. You grew up in Australia; Disney is there too, right?
TMA: When I was about ten years old, I bought a Donald Duck comic book . . . and in this comic book, Huey, Dewey, and Louie go out to play and they come upon a flying saucer. And in this flying saucer is an alien that they make friends with. They discover that this alien can control their actions by getting inside their minds, and that the only way they can stop the alien from doing that is to think no thoughts. So they're walking around with empty bubbles over their heads in this comic book, thinking no thoughts to avoid this alien controlling them. Remember, I'm ten years old. And I'm thinking, Hey, cool. I wonder if I can do that? So I practiced it and practiced it and got pretty good at it. I forgot all about it of course -- and then a few years later I started getting interested in metaphysics and meditation, and I was like, Hey, I know how to do that!
I found that in fact that one incident is part of my inspiration for being in publishing and in communications -- because I see from that experience how mass media can be used to help people come to understand themselves better, to teach meditation and such.
JC: Some of the comic books, like Calvin and Hobbes, have some very good insights. I read those and am quite a fan . . . and there's this one book, The Tao of Pooh. It gives a description of Taoism through the story of Winnie-the-Pooh. In Calvin & Hobbes, there are a lot of quite intuitive insights into the nature of life, into the nature of relationships and into the nature of the mind. Obviously, somebody has observed themselves, observed the mind, observed how they work, and then can illustrate it through these comics, which are very readable, very enjoyable.
TMA: Well, somebody at Disney knew what they were doing. Somebody there put that comic out there for me and whoever else could read it and make use of it. I still haven't tracked down who the artist and writer were, but I'm very curious to know. As a result of that, I have found in my life and in my practice that it's easy to stop the mind and break the hold. When I come right back into regular life, I come back refreshed. I come back knowing that it's not as real as it seemed before I took my break.
JC: This is what we were saying previously. People who have never been trained or who've never had that experience, can't appreciate the noise of the mind because they've never heard the silence.
TMA: They don't know that it's noise.
JC: But once you hear the silence, you can appreciate the noise; and so the experience gives you a new perspective on life and a new perspective on your mind. But even in that silence there has to arise not just a new perspective but a deeper understanding of the nature of thinking and the nature of that silence. This requires, one could say, a deepening of understanding as well. So we have concentration or serenity, and then we have wisdom, the wisdom that comes from the understanding of the experience.
TMA: Well, there's also the level of emotion. Now in the Eastern systems -- correct me if I'm wrong -- there's a tendency to lump the emotions and the mind together as one thing.
JC: We think of emotions as a composite of various aspects of mind including feelings, perception -- and thinking, in particular. So you have basic feelings which are then thought on or embellished by thinking, based on certain perceptions bringing you to the experience of a certain emotion. So emotions are not completely separate from thought but a composite like a cake or something that's made up or a dish that's made up of a combination of things . . . and the end product is a particular real experience. An emotion of, say, love, is a real experience. But it is a composite of many things.
TMA: So it's not so much to discount the emotions as to see them as an aspect of mind?
JC: An aspect of mind that needs to be understood and needs to be worked with to the extent that they are not all-powerful in your mind . . . because emotions have their role. But emotions also have to be seen in perspective, because not all emotions are good. When I say "good," I mean healthy, good for you, good for others. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't have them -- but if you've got them, it's what you do with them.
TMA: Uncontrolled emotions would be just as good or bad as uncontrolled thought.
JC: Exactly. It's just another aspect of mind. The mind is the most extraordinary thing. It's like an empty sky in which any sort of cloud formation can appear. Sometimes it's clear, sometimes there are white clouds just floating by, sometimes there are very dark and heavy clouds, sometimes there's a raging storm up there with lightning and thunder. The mind can facilitate all of those various experiences, and they need to be understood and dealt with. The understanding of it comes from introspection, dealing with it. Having the ability to choose and direct comes from mindful awareness, concentration, clear intention. It's like getting to know the mind, training the mind, and then directing it, liberating it so that it becomes a very wonderful garden rather than just a jungle.
TMA: I see the mind of most people, and myself, all too often, as having almost a life of its own. That's probably giving it too much power, but my point is that it likes to do what it likes to do. And it's not the least bit interested in being trained by us and, in fact, it will resist.
JC: Certainly. And it's the most difficult thing to train. It's a lot easier to train an animal! It's a lot easier for us to achieve external things, to be successful in external activity. That's why most of us prefer to do that than to try to train the mind. We want to change the external rather than change the internal. The mind is the most difficult thing to train. One, it is abstract; it is so fast, it changes so quickly. It requires a tremendous amount of patience. And the development is slow.
TMA: It's downright resistant. You try to gain control of it and it will offer up anything: your greatest fantasy, your greatest fear. It'll tell you any lie.
JC: Yes, exactly. On the other hand, it has the greatest rewards as well. Any achievement or any success that we have in understanding and training the mind brings the greatest rewards, because it is the center of our existence. A well-trained mind is the greatest gift one can have.
TMA: We know that there are a million ways to meditate. But most people, when they think of meditation, think of little more than just trying to have silence in their mind. They will say, I've tried it, I can't do it.
JC: There are a million ways to meditate, but the basic principles, especially the fundamental aspects of meditation, are very simple and you'll find them in every method or in every tradition. The first thing is to get hold of the mind. In other words, what is the attention on, where is the attention. And the second thing is to simplify or learn to calm and concentrate.
One is to get to know where the attention is . . . in other words, this sense of introspection, being aware of what you're paying attention to now, what the mind is doing now as much as possible, but then to train it to simplify, to focus on one thing. Gentle effort, repetitive effort of training the mind to pay more attention to one object. Every time the mind goes to something else you know it, you bring it back to that object. Different techniques teach you to pay attention to different things, but the principle is almost always the same. You can make it as complicated as you want; that principle will hold true.
It's getting to be aware of where the attention is and then making gentle effort and continuous, sustained effort to train the mind to pay attention to one thing. It's through this training that you experience calmness and concentration, which are the basic tools for every other form of meditation.
TMA: When one seeks to attain silence in the mind, especially in the beginning stages, you discover it's almost like peeling an onion, layer after layer.
JC: Exactly. The more sensitive you become -- in other words, the more aware you become, the more you notice the subtle movements, the subtle activities of the mind. At first, most people only become aware of their mind when they're experiencing some intense anger, and then, you know, Oh, I'm angry. Or tremendous restlessness, that we notice: Oh, I'm restless. But as you develop meditation, you become more sensitive and eventually you begin to notice the little ripples and gentle breezes of the mind's activities.
TMA: We are going to have to wrap it up. Are there points you would like to make before we finish?
JC: Well, yes. Basically, to restate that we should not isolate meditation. To remember that it's very, very important to expand the practice of meditation to incorporate as much as possible of life by learning to live in a meditative or wakeful state where we are more self aware of what we're doing and how we're relating -- and can then direct our lives so that we live them more peacefully, with more serenity . . . and experience silence in the midst of noise . . . and experience the stillness in the midst of activity. I feel this is probably the greatest benefit that meditation can give to people of this time and in this environment, when life demands us to be active.
TMA: That's an excellent and very important point. So many people think they can't do meditation because they can't afford to sit for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening; that they just don't have the time to do it -- when almost all time is open to it.
JC: When people make that excuse, my teacher used to always ask, "Well, do you have enough time to breathe?" Meditation can become a very natural process that flows with life. We have to develop that skill.
TMA: There's one thing I want to ask you because I haven't had the chance to ask somebody who represents the tradition at the level that you do. My understanding, and correct me if I'm wrong, is that the goal of the Buddhist practice, which I understand really is not a religion but appears to be a religion, is merging into the One and a complete losing of the self. Is that a true statement?
JC: There is truth in it, but it's not completely correct because it almost lends itself to a misunderstanding. One would say that the Buddhists' goal is to "peel that onion" to the very end.
TMA: Right, but to what end?
JC: Exactly. To the end which is free of all delusion. Of course we would like to know, Well, what is it? Let's say that . . . the Buddhist teaching is that there is no self. In other words, this is beyond duality and beyond concept. As long as you can name it and think it, it is a created object; it is something created. And what is created is in duality.
TMA: Right. But if the goal is to transcend duality, then what you're left with is a complete loss of self, and is this not kind of a spiritual death wish?
JC: It's the death of mortality or the death of that which is mortal, a death of all that is conditioned and limited and in duality, which always dies anyway. What is born dies. So anything that is born, any concept, any notion of self, any notion of an entity that is standing apart from something else (which means it's in duality) will die.
TMA: But if you were to merge back into the One, the ride would be over. Do you know what I mean?
JC: Mortality would be over, yes. Birth and death would be over. Duality would be over.
TMA: I guess I personally don't know if I really want that.
JC: It's because it's so hard to appreciate that maybe non-duality and this non-standing apart could be something desirable or could be something better. But let's say that one will only come to that when one has seen fully and completely that duality is not satisfactory, that being a separate entity and existing in the mortal realm where there is birth and death is not really satisfactory. In other words, we're talking about appreciating something that is very different from all of our experience, and the only time we're going to turn to that is when we're fed up with the realm of birth and death.
TMA: It's said that all life is suffering, and yet it really isn't.
JC: That quote and others like it are correct, but they lead to kind of a basic misunderstanding. All life is suffering -- not in the sense that there is no happiness or there is no pleasure or there is no good experience, but only in the sense that all conditions or all mortality are states which come and go and thus are basically unsatisfactory. They can never really satisfy us and give us security.
TMA: But if we accept impermanence, then it's okay.
JC: But we don't, you see. None of us really likes the thought of losing that which is nice and pleasant and dear to us. And it does bring us grief. We accept that to the extent that we're willing to live with it.
TMA: But if we can truly accept impermanence, then we can enjoy our duality.
JC: The more we can accept the nature of life as it is, the reality of life, make your contribution in order to make it as best as possible but willing to tolerate "What if the unsavory side of it turns up?" -- of course the more at peace we will be with it, and the more we will be able to enjoy the good side of it.
In other words, we have a good, healthy attitude. And that's wonderful. This is why I think that for most people, we want to emphasize that aspect rather than to go into the idea of transcending duality and getting beyond them because you have to come to that, and it has to be a natural progression where you've made life as best as possible; but there is just so much and it's still not really satisfying. You're not really fulfilled. You're not really completely at ease. So there is a highest, but most of us just aim at making life better.
Source: The Monthly Aspectarian - The World's New Age Magazine, Online Edition, September 1997
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