One of the things that drew me to the Thai Forest Sangha was the radically simple teachings of Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho. Here were teachers who did not believe in the past or the future, but knew these as either uncertain memories or imagined possibilities that we can be aware of in this moment. Reading Ajahn Chah’s talks one is struck by the directness, the humour, the lack of dogma and the humanity. At no point does he give an impression that he wants to convert us to Theravada Buddhism or that he regards beliefs, books and religious rituals as anything more than potentially helpful conventions. And Ajahn Sumedho has followed in his footsteps.
Ajahn Sumedho is sometimes said to have only given one teaching during his long career – it is just that he has given it thousands of times. And this is because he focuses on the present moment, how he perceives and experiences ‘now’, and in encouraging those he is teaching to let go of thinking and to ground awareness in knowing whatever conditions are present.
Ajahn Sumedho has long been an inspiration to me because not only is he living and teaching from a radical mindful awareness, but because he also has a naturally sceptical outlook – one which I share – as do many others educated in European and American culture. Indeed, scepticism is a popular contemporary attitude. In his practice teachings he offers little to doubt because he does not encourage belief. He discourages anyone from taking on a Buddhist identity or becoming a Theravada Buddhist and uses very little of the Pali Canon – the scriptural source for Theravada Buddhism.
Had Ajahn Sumedho presented sets of doctrines or texts to learn and believe, I am sure that my sceptical mind would have quickly found fault and I would have looked elsewhere. Ajahn Sumedho has never spoken about kamma and rebirth or Buddhist cosmology as beliefs to be taken on, or confirmed that he is aware of spirits and other worlds, or has memories of previous lives or regards these as important and central doctrines that mark one out as properly Buddhist. In fact, quite the opposite - he has regularly described such beliefs as uncertain and not neccesary for awakening. I recall him saying that memories of past lives – for example if he recalled being Cleopatra - would just be memories in this moment – uncertain, unsatisfactory and impersonal – the three characteristics of any memory and any condition.
Ajahn Sumedho interprets conditioned arising (dependent origination) as applying in this moment – in fact has said that this is the only way that it can operate – given that the past and future are just conventions.
Ajahn Sumedho’s sceptical and pragmatic approach towards Buddhist ideas, beliefs and scriptures - and his interpreting them as only applying in the present moment - has made him seem radical and unorthodox to some conservative Buddhists. These are people who tend to believe that scriptures are of central importance, that Asian Buddhist institutions are at the heart of authentic Buddhism, and who have faith in a literal understanding of kamma, rebirth, other realms, and a magical interpretation of enlightenment. These are the kind of attitudes that are commonly associated with religions of all kinds and which repel many people otherwise attracted to the wisdom teachings of Buddhism.
It is Ajahn Chah’s and Ajahn Sumedho’s unwavering focus on the practice of awakening in this moment, that has made their message a universal one independent of the particular Theravadan convention that it comes from. And the wide appreciation and appeal of this approach to people from all cultural backgrounds is a testament to its integrity and power. Ajahn Sumedho has been a very successful teacher because of his sceptical and pragmatic attitude and his focus on present moment practice.
Were it not for the fact that Ajahn Sumedho is an exemplary Theravada bhikkhu, one would find his teachings very secular. And this dissonance – a robed bhikkhu talking in a very non-dogmatic, pragmatic and secular way – is part of what creates a depth and universality to his message and makes it so appropriate to this time.
Ajahn Sumedho emphasises abiding in the present moment and this is his key message (and the key to awakening). It is a much needed and healthy focus on practice and direct opening to the reality of our lives, rather than living in a fantasy life based on an unwitting elevation 'mere imagination' over everything else.
This message is important; there are Buddhist authorities and organisations that purvey an intellectual Buddhism and assume that thinking oneself to enlightenment is possible, or who regard enlightenment as just superstition. So Ajahn Sumedho’s simple and direct pointing to awakening is a much needed antidote, bringing insight rather than ‘cleverness’, and opening the possibility of awakening to all.
However, taken in the wrong way, his appearing to dismiss the value of conventions, external form and discursive thinking can mislead. His teachings are meant as important guidelines and attitudes for practice, but may themselves harden into beliefs – anti-intellectualism and a passive ultra-conservatism, or even nihilism, being possible outcomes.
Belief in nihilism and passive acceptance are common in both ordained and non-ordained Buddhists, and in some traditional Sangha’s they can appear as virtues.
One great attraction of traditional Sangha’s for many is their appearance of following a way of life and practice that originates from the Buddha. So, any significant change of behaviour or adaptation to contemporary conditions could alienate support.
The traditional Sangha is in effect re-enacting what many idealise as the original way of life of the Buddha. It is hardly surprising that the Sangha discourages innovation, independent thinking, reform and adaptation, and encourages sticking to traditional rules and behaviours.
However, although one can see how 'ultra' conservatism serves to maintain the traditional reputation of the Sangha, such conservatism cannot be applied in the lives of the non-ordained contemporary Buddhist. Certainly if this leads to or is combined with adopting a passive, nihilistic, anti-intellectual attitude, or pathologically ‘nice Buddhist’ persona, or imagining that one is a proxy nun or monk, this can be disastrous in a context of work and relationships, and may mean that one fails to realise one’s potential and creates unnecessary suffering for friends and family.
Turning practice guidelines into misguided beliefs in this way is not being kind or honest to oneself and also fails to accept the different context and potential value of living an engaged life in the world.
More than that, these are beliefs that fail to honour our own particular life and this time.
Courage, adaptation, creative thinking, enterprise and initiative are usually essential in order to make a living and to thrive in the world as a non-ordained Buddhist and interestingly enough, these behaviours can sit very well alongside meditation and mindfulness practice…they are not mutually exclusive.
Indeed, the challenges and opportunities for the non-ordained Buddhist in this time are potentially vast. Using the noble eightfold path as a framework for an engaged, ethical and enterprising life is not only entirely possible, it is what it is meant for. Why else does one third of the eightfold path focus on action and livelihood?
And, contrary to some opinions, awakening is not something confined to ordained Buddhist clerics and refined monastic lifestyles. This does not mean that non-ordained practitioners have nothing to learn from the renunciant lifestyle and those who gain their livelihoods as Buddhist clerics – quite the reverse - but it does mean that we each have to work within our life context and value and honour our particular lives, rather than seeing them as inferior in some way to an imaginary idealised (idolised) Buddhist lifestyle.
Too many of us become infatuated with magical and romantic religious fantasies and have lost sight of the fact that this - just this - is the time of our lives - and our lives are short.