In search of true happiness

Extracts from an interview with Ajaan Suchart (Abhijato Bhikkhu)

Q: For those who have sinned, can they be redeemed?

A: No. Sin or unwholesome action, once committed, will bring on the result that will hit us sooner or later. Maybe not in this lifetime. Maybe in the next life. The immediate result that we can feel right away is in the mind. We feel bad, worried and afraid. When we see a cop we can get very scared. This is already the result of our sin. We cannot absolve or wash it away.

Q: Is there really hell or heaven after life?

A: Hell and heaven are already here in this life and also in the after life. When we feel good after having done something good, this is heaven already. It’s all in the mind. When we do something bad, we feel bad, this is hell already, right in this life. In Buddhism, heaven and hell also exist after we die, depending on our karma, what we have done.

For instance, when we die and it’s time for our bad deeds to bear fruit, then we’ll have to go to hell. If it’s time for our good deeds to bear fruit, then we’ll go to heaven. But heaven or hell is not a place or a location. It’s a state of mind.

The nature of the mind is very difficult to grasp. We all have the mind. Without the mind, we will not be conscious, be able to feel or to know. The mind is the consciousness, “the one who knows,” the seed of our emotion, suffering and happiness, resulting from what we do, say and especially what we think.

When we think good, we feel good. We are already in heaven at that moment. Whatever we do, good or bad, will accumulate and become a habit that will compel us to do it again and again.

Heaven and hell are inside the mind that cannot be perceived with the naked eyes. The only way to perceive the mind, to get to know the mind is through meditation whereby we focus our attention on one particular mental object, such as the in-and-out breathing until the mind converges and rests in peace and calmness. That’s when we will get to see the mind because during that time the mind is temporarily detached from the body and all the sensual objects like sight, sound, smell, taste, and tactile objects that come through the corresponding sense doors of eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body. There, we’ll see the mind in its pure form and will know that heaven and hell are in the mind itself.

Because when the body breaks up, the mind doesn’t break up with the body. The mind will continue on with the state of mind we have developed. If we have consistently done good, good mental states like heaven and nirvana will appear. In nirvana the mind is totally free from all forms of suffering because the three defilements of greed, hate and delusion have been completely eliminated. If we have consistently done bad, woeful state of mind like stress, worry and anxiety will consume the mind. This is hell.

So, to answer your question whether hell and heaven really exist. The answer is yes. It’s not a place or a location though, but a state of mind at the time of the dissolution of the body and can last for a long time, but will eventually disappear and a new state of mind will take over. If it is a happy state of mind, it is heaven If it is a state of mind consumed by the fire of suffering, anxiety, worry, hate and fear, it is hell that will remain for a while and will eventually be supplanted by another state of mind that goes on and on, driven by the karmas that we have committed previously until reaping the state of mind of a human being. We will then take a human birth again. If it is a state of mind of an animal, then we will be born as an animal.

The thing that separates humans from animals is the observance of the five precepts. If we can keep the five precepts, then we are creating the state of mind of a human being. But if we keep breaking the five precepts, then we are creating the state of mind of animals. It’s good and bad karmas that make us humans or animals, that send us to heaven or hell.

Q: You told us about the duty of a monk in a temple, what do you think the duty of a Buddhist is?

A: For lay people, the three categories of actions that I mentioned earlier on also apply but in a lower level of intensity. Doing good for lay people means to help other people, like helping the sick, the elderly, the needy, and also the monks because monks have no occupation. They rely on the support of the lay people to exist. That’s why lay people give food to the monks every morning if there are monks who happen to pass by their houses. If not, they will wait until the weekly religious observance day to come to the temple to give food to the monks. This is what I meant by doing good, just a brief example. But it can cover every form of charity and everything you do that is beneficial and not harmful to other people and animals. If you see stray dogs and give them food and shelter, this is also doing good. But Thai Buddhists believe that giving to monks will earn them the most merits because monks study and practice the teaching of the Buddha, and then teach the lay people who have no time to study. So they have to rely on the monks to teach them the Dhamma.

To avoid doing evil is to maintain the five precepts, that is suitable for lay people: to abstain from killing, stealing, committing adultery, lying and consuming alcoholic drinks. The reason why we have to abstain from alcoholic drinks is because we will lose our ability to control our thoughts and mind. We will think crazy things and then do crazy things that will hurt other people. But if you really wanted to drink, you should first tie yourself to a bed or something. So when you get drunk, you’ll just go to sleep, you will then not hurt yourself or other people.

To eliminate greed, hate and delusion effectively we have to meditate. The simplest form of meditation for Thai lay Buddhists is to chant Buddhist verses. By concentrating on chanting and not thinking about other things the mind will gradually become calmer and more content, because it has no time to think and worry. This is the simplest form of meditation that will develop into a more advanced level whereby we will just concentrate on one particular mental object, such as the in-and-out breathing for example.

The goal of meditation is twofold: mental calm and wisdom or insight into the true nature of all physical and mental processes. Once the mind is calm, it becomes reasonable, logical and unemotional, readied to be taught the truth of life that we will all have to face in our lifetime. Having been born, we are all subjected to aging, sickness and death that no one can escape. The best way to face them is to be ready for them.

The body doesn’t know that it will age, get sick and die. The mind does. Due to delusion the mind thinks the body to be itself and clings to it. When the body becomes sick, old and dies the mind thinks it is the one that gets sick, gets old and dies, when in fact it doesn’t. The mind, as I said, goes on after the dissolution of the body.

So we have to teach the mind to be brave, to face up to the truth of the body. Once the mind becomes calm and composed it will accept it, free from anxiety and agitation. This is the development of wisdom in Buddhism: to know the truth of life and face it squarely and calmly. Because the mind doesn’t get old, get sick or die. It’s the body that does. Due to delusion the mind thinks that it is getting old, getting sick and dying.

Once the mind has learned the truth and embraces it, it will no longer resist or be afraid. It will accept it just like anything else. Like the rain, the storm, good and bad weather. They come and go, but the mind doesn’t change with these things. The mind just knows.

These are the three duties that the Buddha prescribes for Buddhists. To practice charity, to abstain from morally objectionable behaviour by keeping the five precepts, and to practice meditation to calm the mind and instill it with the truth of impermanence.

Q: How do we get rid of material possessions and why do we have to do that?

A: Material possessions have benefits and harm. We need some materials in order to live a comfortable life. The body needs the four requisites of food, shelter, clothing and medicine to maintain life. But we shouldn’t have more than what we need. The surplus will only be a burden because we have to take care of them. If we live a simple lifestyle, we can get rid of a lot of material possessions. Ask yourself this question every time you wanted something: “Do I need it? Can I live without it?” If you can live without it and don’t really need it, then you shouldn’t have it.

Q: What do you think of people’s perception of Buddhism in today’s age?

A: Today people’s understanding of Buddhism is quite far from the core of Buddhist teaching. The Buddha always teaches the principle of karma. You have to rely on yourself. Even the Buddha cannot help you. But sometimes people go to the temple and pray and ask from the Buddha images. This is not the teaching of the Buddha because the Buddha has always said that you are your own refuge.

You have to do good in order to reap good outcome. You have to avoid doing bad if you don’t want to reap bad consequences. You have to overcome your greed, hate and delusion. But instead you go to the Buddha with your greed. You want your wife or husband to be faithful to you. You want to always have good health. These things the Buddha can’t give you because good health depends on how you live your life. If you abstain from alcohol and do a lot of exercise, you’ll have better health than someone who drinks and doesn’t exercise. You have to rely on yourself, not the Buddha. The Buddha is just a teacher.

But most Thai Buddhists don’t realize this. We think the Buddha is a god who will always answer our prayers and wishes. If we wanted to be admitted into a university we pray to the Buddha, spending three days in a temple. Then we will be accepted by the university. Sometimes it happens, not because of our prayer but because we studied hard and have the qualifications. That’s all. Those who cannot separate cause from effect will believe that Buddha images and famous monks can work magic for them. If they need anything, they will donate some money and pray for it.

When they get it, they will tell other people how good and effective this monk or this Buddha image is. People will then rush to this particular monk or Buddha image without thinking that it’s just a coincidence. Many Thai Buddhists have this erroneous belief because they don’t study the Buddha’s teaching.

Q: Why do foreigners become monks and stay in the temple and what makes them so interested in Buddhism?

A: Because they study Buddhism. They understand and appreciate the teaching and know that if they practice they will benefit from it. Just like me when I first studied Buddhism and then applied it in my daily life by practicing meditation, I found something that I never had before right inside myself, inside all of us. But we keep looking outside. We look for money, for material possessions. But we are never truly happy with what we have, because material possessions are not the answer to our happiness. The real happiness is waiting for us inside ourselves. By meditating we can corral the mind into a state of single-mindedness where we will experience the kind of happiness that we have never experienced before.

This is one of the reasons why foreigners become monks in Thailand. First they study the Buddha’s teaching, then practice it in their daily life by giving to charity, abstain from bad behavior, and meditate. Having experienced the result it makes them want to have more. The best way to do it is to become monks. And there’s no better place in the world to become monks than in Thailand. Because Thailand has a long established tradition of monkhood. I think this is the reason why most foreigners come to Thailand to become monks. Plus the fact that they have found that material possession is not the answer. They come from countries more advanced and developed in material products than Thailand and know that they are not the answer to the happiness they are looking for.

Q: Lastly, what words of wisdom would you give to our foreign audience?

A: My word of advice to you is to be thankful to have come across the teaching of the Buddha, because what the Buddha knew and what he told us is a hard-to-come-by transcendental truth, that will make us happy all the time, free us from all forms of stress and grief. If you study his teaching and apply it in your daily life I’m sure you’ll always be happy.

First of all, the Buddha said you have to do good by giving to charity, help those who are less fortunate than you are. Secondly, don’t hurt other people. No matter what you do. Thirdly, find some peace of mind by doing meditation. You can start by mentally chanting some verses you know. Just keep chanting and not thinking about anything, in order to rid your mind of restlessness. When you think you’ll agitate your mind. When you stop thinking the agitation will disappear. You will then have peace of mind and happiness. The Buddha said that the happiness that arises from peace of mind surpasses all other happiness.

But it’s not easy to do, because the mind by its nature keeps thinking all the time, like a monkey that keeps moving from one tree branch to the next. The mind thinks about one story, then moves on to the next story, on and on. At the same time, it creates all kinds of emotions along with it. If you think good, you’ll feel good. If you think bad, you’ll feel bad. If you helped someone today, made him happier, made his life better, when you think about it, you’ll feel good. If you did something bad to someone, hurt someone, when you think about it, you’ll feel bad.

Learn how to control your mind. Steer your mind to think good thoughts, prevent it from thinking bad thoughts. In order to do this, you have to live simply. If you don’t, your greed will push you to do things that you’ll be sorry later on. If you live simply, you won’t do things that will cause problems or hurt other people.

So this is my advice to you. Be happy with what you have. Live as simply as you can. Just have the four requisites of life: food, shelter, clothing and medicine. Once you have this, there’s no need to have anything else, because what you have will give you problems and stress. When you possess something, you want to keep it as long as possible. But things don’t last forever or remain the same. They always change. They come and go. If you cling to them, when they leave you, you will feel terrible. Take it as it comes. Don’t cling. Then you will always be happy. I hope what I have said to you today will help you somewhat to understand Buddhism and the monkhood.

- (The above is an interview Ajaan Suchart gave to a Pattaya cable tv channel on January 11, 2007.) 

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