It is indeed a pleasure and an honour to have with us today Sámanera Bodhesako to take part in this short discussion. Venerable Sir, you have been a monk for the last five years and you take a very keen interest in the study, practice, and propagation of the Teaching of the Buddha. In fact, you have written a book on Buddhism, which was published by the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, entitled Beginnings: The Pali Suttas. Now, Venerable Sir, with regard to the doctrine of anattá, or no-self, which is one of the most abstruse teachings of the Buddha: Westerners find it extremely difficult to understand and comprehend this teaching. What is the basis for it?
SB: Well, I think that any person who is looking for an explanation is going to take this doctrine and use it to fit their own needs and desires, whether or not it is in accordance with the Teaching. You see, people have always been looking for answers to questions, they have always been looking for resolutions to situations. This is not only today and it’s not only Westerners; this is true for all times and for all people. People have always been looking for answers to questions. Now, somebody comes to this Teaching and they are told that the Buddha said that no matter where you look, you will not find anything that is self or that pertains to self. And they look for an explanation which they can understand within their own frame of reference. And so, because this Teaching is so different from what Westerners are accustomed to, they will try to adapt the Teaching to their own framework. What they need to learn to do is not to adapt the Teaching to their own point of view but to adapt their own point of view to the Teaching. This is called saddhá, or faith, and it means giving oneself to the Teaching even if the Teaching is contrary to one’s own preconceived notions of the way things are. This means that people, instead of looking for answers, what they need to do is to examine this need they have to ask questions. And this is what the Buddha teaches, that we must examine ourselves. When we have this need to ask questions, we have to discover the roots of this need and to find out what there is that gives rise to it. If we put our attention on the question instead of the answer, then we will be practising the Buddha’s Teaching.
Now, with regard to the doctrine of no-self or anattá, this philosophical aspect of the Teaching is accepted even by scientists and philosophers, both in the East and West — that there is nothing permanent, immutable, eternal, or unchanging in this world. Everything is a vortex of energy. The physicists say that atoms consist of protons, electrons, neutrons, positrons, and ultimately, they say, it is all vibrations. Now, philosophically, even the eminent scientists Einstein or Newton would accept the fact that everything is changing. But when it comes to the moral and ethical aspect of this Teaching, which is of vital importance in the teachings of the Buddha, why is it that people cling to things? Now Buddhists, they know that everything is changing, but they don’t act like that in connection with their families and the things of the world. What is the reason for this?
SB: Well, people do think that things will last forever. You have only to look at the way they live and you’ll see that it’s implicit in their whole lives. When they are told that things are not going to last forever, then of course they cannot deny this. They have only to look around them to see that things do change. Some things change quickly, some things change slowly, but sooner or later everything changes. Even this earth changes, as the people in the Upcountry who have had these terrible mud slides recently have found out. So we cannot put our faith in the enduring permanence of anything. Now scientists may give an intellectual assent to certain doctrines and they may think that this sounds very much like the Buddha’s Teaching. They may say, “Yes, we don’t find anything that we can call a soul, no matter where we look,” but they have not looked at themselves. They are looking for answers; they are not looking at the question. And the reason they don’t find anything they can call a “self” is not because they have made a thorough investigation of the question, but because they are not inclined to do insight meditation, they are not inclined to look inwards. Now if they looked inwards, they would also not find anything which they could call a “self”, but this requires a different sort of attitude, a different sort of viewpoint, to carry out this sort of investigation. In order to do this, we need to look at the need we have for looking for a self. It’s not just an intellectual question, “Is there or is there not anything that can be called a self?”, but rather why is there this need people have to find whatever they call it, whether it’s God, or atman, or soul, any name that they give it — people are looking for it, and if they don’t find it, they are not simply satisfied with the answer, but rather they are distressed in their innermost being. They may conceal this distress for themselves by various techniques, such as sitting down and watching television, or going to sleep, or any of the other devices that we have — but they do feel distress, they feel tension, they feel strain. This is one of the things that is so prevalent in modern society, and not only modern society. We can also find discussions of this in older societies; people feel stress, strain, need, because they are in search.
Venerable Sir, you said that there is stress and strain in modern society. People are living hectic lives, as it were, because life is moving at a tremendous speed today. Certain dramatic changes are taking place every moment, and people don’t have the moral stamina and the spiritual strength to withstand these changes. In the Buddha’s days, life was more calm and serene. What can you say about this?
SB: Well, I would say first of all that I don’t think we can condemn our present age as being any worse than past ages. This has been attested to by numerous people who have found quotations of Plato in which he complains that the modern generation, of his day, no longer respect their elders and so on. Then of course if you look in the Vinaya Pitaka, of the Pali texts, you will find that even in the time of the Buddha, both monks and laymen were capable of doing some rather shocking things. So I would say that the question of moral stamina and of moral dedication is not peculiar to our age. It is quite true that today, as in the past, there are many temptations and people would rather look to the present for their own immediate happiness than for some potential future gain. And people would rather live for the pleasures of the senses, for the pleasure of the emotions, than for the more difficult obtained pleasures of the spirit, pleasures of development, pleasures of purification. This requires putting forth effort, whereas the pleasures that defile us are easy pleasures. And most people want their lives to be easy.
It is a fact that today, unlike in the Buddha’s day, life is moving at a tremendous speed, each moment dramatic changes taking place. Technological changes influence people’s lives and they find it difficult to keep their peace of mind. Do you think that meditation may help such persons to maintain a certain balance and equanimity?
SB: In the Samyutta Nikáya, the Buddha says that “this mind arises as one thing and ceases as another”. So even in his time, the mind was changing every bit as quickly as it is today. External things were not changing as rapidly, but this is another consideration because, after all, it’s not change as such that people are afraid of. Sometimes we even desire a change when something unpleasant occurs; we may wish it to go away. What is unpleasant is the uncertainty of change, that things can change for the worse at any moment. This is what we fear. And whether things are changing rapidly or slowly, we are going to fear that that change could be for the worse. So where there is attachment, then there is fear. Even for the arahat, for one who is fully enlightened, there is still change, but he no longer has attachment, so there is no longer fear, there is no longer suffering.
We were speaking about meditation. Meditation has become very popular and is gaining ground in many of the countries in the West. One of the reasons is the stress and strain of modern living and the influence of mass media. We are constantly bombarded by sense stimuli today, on television, radio and that sort of thing, which was not present in the Buddha’s day. Due to that, people’s minds become distracted and they find it extremely difficult to concentrate, calm, and tranquillize their mind. So what about meditation?
SB: Well, it’s true that today we have more efficacious means of escape from reality than existed in the past, and so people are more accustomed to escaping from the facts of their present existence. Therefore, when they attempt to turn to that existence, they find that their efforts are not so easily rewarded as in the past when people did not have the various means of escape — television is the prime example, I guess — and so had no choice but to maintain a certain awareness of their present existence. Similarly, if they should turn to meditation, they would find that they were not so far from a state of full mindfulness as one who habitually turns away from reality. Meditation simply means facing our existence, living in the present, and not allowing ourselves to be enchanted so that we can see things as they are, instead of seeing them in the light of glitter. When you see some of these display windows where they are trying to sell merchandise, they have all kinds of glittery things strung up in the windows to capture your attention. But when somebody is really attached to something, you don’t need to string up the glitter; the glitter is in his eyes, and he will see things as glitter. Mindfulness and meditation is freeing ourselves from that glitter, we are becoming disenchanted.
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