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Questions from the City, Answers from the Forest: Simple Lessons You Can Use from a Western Buddhist Monk

Questions from the City, Answers from the Forest: Simple Lessons You Can Use from a Western Buddhist Monk

by Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu

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"Sincere inquiry always sparks our movement towards truth. Deep questions signal the manifestation of the very energy through which we outgrow ourselves." -- from the Introduction.

Born in Chicago, a law school graduate and real estate professional, Ajahn Sumano abandoned his comfortable American lifestyle for the begging bowl and simple cave home of an


"Sincere inquiry always sparks our movement towards truth. Deep questions signal the manifestation of the very energy through which we outgrow ourselves." -- from the Introduction.

Born in Chicago, a law school graduate and real estate professional, Ajahn Sumano abandoned his comfortable American lifestyle for the begging bowl and simple cave home of an ordained Buddhist monk in the tradition of the Thai forest meditation masters. In 1994-95, he conducted a series of question and answer evenings at a guest house in Thailand's Kowyai National Park with English-speaking tourists eager to meet a Western Buddhist monk. The heartfelt questions of these "city" people and the clear and penetrating answers Sumano gave from his "forest" perspective form the basis of this remarkable book.

Written on a battered, battery-powered laptop in his meditation cave, Sumano's enchanting personal story and his refreshingly down-to-earth blend of American sensibility and Eastern practice will fascinate newcomers to Buddhist ideas as well as experienced practitioners.

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Questions from the City, Answers from the Forest

Simple Lessons You Can Use from a Western Buddhist Monk

By Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu

Theosophical Publishing House

Copyright © 1999 Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8356-3068-9


Turning to Spiritual Life

Q: As you see it, what is the best way to walk through this world?

A: Your way. You must pursue your life according to the stream of your karma, which will pretty much dictate the manner and mode of your life. It will incline you toward particular vocations and obscure openings into others. That's your karmic destiny. But if all you do is go along with it, you won't have much spiritual leverage on your life. You will be pushed from behind by a litany of "likes," which you will go after, and "dislikes," which you will turn away from.

When you have matured enough to reflect upon your life experience—and at this point meditation is very helpful—you will be able to gain a greater perspective and see a larger horizon at the frontier of human potentiality. You will begin to see that there is a grander life outside the limitations of one's karmic inheritance, and you will want to explore this dimension.

This is the awakening state. You carry on living your life as you have been doing. From the outside, everything appears to be the same. However, your focus has now shifted from the events of the outside world to the mechanisms and movements that trigger your thoughts and actions. You turn your attention to cause rather than effect. This is the awareness of a person who knows that he or she has been wounded by a poison arrow and is no longer struggling to suppress the suffering from that poison but rather seeks a cure to the toxicity of the poison itself. Those who overcome the effects of the poison or avoid it altogether are the sages and noble ones who have walked this world in the wisest of ways.

* * *

Q: Is there a particular set of factors that, when they come together, constitute a kind of spiritual flash point? Or said differently, are there certain experiences, such as the death of a friend or family member, that turn the mind out of its normal, foolish way of behaving?

A: There is no particular set of circumstances. But adversity, separation from loved ones, aging, and the death of intimate companions have more spiritual impact on the mind than does the relatively pain-free yet semi-conscious state of mind we have when everything is just skimming along. When life is easy, we tend to be absorbed in the things of the moment, just letting the good times roll. But every good roll ends. If this weren't the case, the saga of human beings on this planet would be entirely different.

The factors that stimulate awakening depend upon a person's karma. They also depend to a large extent upon the times. Several generations ago a key factor would have been the world wars. A generation ago there was widespread disappointment in many Western countries as the era of far-left liberal political ideologies drew to an end. I experienced that myself. A wave of hope and enthusiasm had crashed and burned, causing a fallout of considerable disillusionment and suffering, and leaving many intelligent and sensitive people adrift. When people see their hopes and visions collapse, they often turn inward to religion and spirituality.

At present, an awakening to the critical need for spirituality often arises just because of the chaos of daily living. Life at the end of the twentieth century is particularly full of stress and anxiety. The quality of our environment has drastically degenerated. When people can no longer see the moon and the stars or enjoy the trees and flowers, life becomes acutely distressful, and even psychotic. The unsuitable living conditions of most cities have driven people to seek a more sane way of life, mostly through meditation and spiritual practice. People are very much aware that there is something basically wrong at the core of contemporary society.

In my own case, I had become conscious of the ever-changing mix of success and failure in my life. I didn't like failure, so I struggled for continual success—an impossible goal, of course. What I found even more distressing was the fact that within success itself there was failure. There was winning, yet I wasn't winning. This led me to look at things more deeply. And this inevitably led to spiritual reflection and the yearning to embrace a spiritual lifestyle.

So, one doesn't have to look for a special set of factors for awakening to arise. Right smack in the middle of daily life, if one looks into it carefully, lie the seeds of discontentment. The suffering inherent in all aspects of an unenlightened life signals the need to find a radical approach to living, one that transcends and transforms the heart.

* * *

Q: I am a businessman with a computer software company, and so far we are a success. I have learned a great deal about electronics, administration, public relations, and all the other skills involved in running this kind of business. But someday I hope to cash in my stock and begin another life. I will probably study the various Eastern religions, as they attract me. I want to find peace of mind.

A: Your life's story sounds similar to mine. If I were you, I wouldn't wait for "someday," for it may never come. You seem to be one of those people of the postmodern age who know all there is to know about the world but haven't the faintest idea of who they are. You know how to market a product, how to surf the Internet, the number of bonus points you get for renting a car from Avis, and the price of airline tickets all over the world. But you don't know what you are, how you came to be born, where you are going, the meaning and purpose of life, and how it came to be that even though you are successful, you live in turmoil and sorrow while your spirit longs for peace and happiness.

You are living your life backwards. You should first attend to these questions. I hazard a guess that if you looked carefully at your situation, you would find that you have already accumulated enough of what you think you need to be able to quit. Go-getters like yourself can withdraw from the business world knowing that you have the fortitude and skills to come back again and build up another business. Decide to stop in six months and you'll see that in six months, conditions will have arranged themselves so you can let go. Once you are out from under all that, you will move into a better, grander life. You will be ready to examine your life. Realize the truth of your life and you will find what you really want—peace.

* * *

A man came to visit me more out of curiosity about the way I live than interest in why I live as I do. He didn't know much about Buddhism. He had read that Buddhism says life is an immersion in suffering and conflict. This immediately turned him off from any further inquiry. Yet there remained some part of him that wouldn't turn away.

We talked casually about the weather, the changes in Thai culture over the past few years, and, of course, Bangkok's famous traffic jams. After a while, he got around to asking me if it was true that the Buddhist religion sees life as a sea of suffering. I guess he wanted to confirm his understanding but felt confined by the religious norms he was accustomed to. A fear hung over him that deviating from what he had been taught as a child would land him in hell. Thus it's not surprising that he was reluctant to step outside the boundaries of his faith and look into another.

I took his question as the inquiry of someone who would really like to know more about life. I asked him, "Is there suffering in your life? Do you experience suffering in your daily living?" He answered, "No, not really. Sometimes things go well, sometimes they don't. A lot of the time things just go along."

I responded, "I'm not asking you how things go. I am asking you about your emotional and psychological states in the course of the day. Are you aware of how much pain you go through in a day? Have you ever counted the sad moments that arise in just one twenty-four-hour period? How much of your day do you spend floundering in doubt, fear, or anxiety? When you find that you have made a mistake or can't decide where to have lunch, are you at ease?

"When you go home, close your eyes and observe the moments of pain that manifest in your mind, in your heart. Just count the flashes of disappointment, regret, anxiety, fear, and confusion that infiltrate your mind in one day. Only if you don't see a continuous pattern of such dis-eased thoughts can you truthfully say that there is no suffering in your world."

The teachings of the Buddha are nothing less than a foolproof approach to eradicating the whole mass of suffering. They provide a window of opportunity for escaping from the endless wheel of birth and death and birth again.

* * *

Q: My life is continually filled with problems. I never seem to be able to get out from under them.

A: I have heard you complain about your problems many times. And I keep telling you that you are fooled into believing that certain situations are problematic.

Look instead to bigger problems—for instance, the problem of life and death. If you contemplate this greater problem, your so-called problems will fade away. I'm not saying that they will stop appearing. They will go on for sure. But you will see them in a way that will help resolve the questions surrounding your very life and death.

* * *

Q: Why do I feel so unstable most of the time?

A: Because right from the start you are trying to grasp things. This is bound to make you feel restless and topsy-turvy. You are easily drawn toward things, which in the long run creates a no-win situation. If you don't get what you want, you are disappointed or even despondent. Then, after you have accepted the situation and collected and consolidated your energies, you're off on another happiness-seeking offensive. When you finally get what you want, you are happy. But it is momentary, the kind of happiness that makes you restless. Think about the lyrics to all those love songs we hear on the radio. Do you think that the love they are glorifying will bring enduring happiness? Do you think that if people actually could manifest their hopes and dreams, they really would go on to love someone else forever? No way. Winning happiness merely at the worldly level necessarily brings more agitation.

The insatiability of greed, the heat that comes from endless desire, the illusion of a real self, the incessant presence of change in this world—these need to be contemplated. Not in the head, but in the heart. If we don't know their nature, we don't stand a chance of finding happiness.

As an example, I know a woman who felt she needed to succeed and make her mark in the world. She did this. Then she needed a long retreat to recover. Then she needed a new lifestyle: a house in the country, a dog, a man, a baby, a four-wheel-drive Jeep. Then she needed another change and a retreat, and so the cycle began again. And ended. And then began again. Every three to four years I get a letter from her when she is at the end of one of these cycles. Now she is married again and living abroad. Not yet happy, of course. She is destined to continue to spin around until she comes to seek a change not in the external world but in her heart.

* * *

Q: I'm fed up with the world. It is depressing, disgusting, and obscene. I am ready and eager to begin my search for enlightenment. Now what? Where should I go? I need your advice.

A: Actually, you don't need to go anywhere. Going here and there will just spin you back into the very world that so pains you. But I can see that you cannot understand this yet. If I tell you that all that you need to discover is closer than the tip of your nose, you won't understand what I am alluding to.

Like those who have gone before you on the path to enlightenment, you need to begin at the beginning. Begin by living simply and morally. This cultivates the ground in which concentration can develop. You should try to spend time in natural surroundings, where the environment helps to settle the mind. As the mind cools and quiets down, insight will begin to develop. Insight is a characteristic of a mind able to concentrate. You will begin to see that you are on your way.

What I just said answers your question of how to go about your spiritual quest. As to where to go, I would suggest first attending a meditation retreat. In a ten-day or two-week retreat you will find some moments of silence and experience a few moments of peace, which are not part of your usual busy life.

After you have had time to digest the effects of the first retreat, take a second one. If the teachers of these courses are able to encourage and guide you in observing the nature of change and suffering and the fact of no self, you will be pointed in a new direction. If the teachers are mature practitioners, they will be excellent examples of the benefits that meditation brings to a human life. I believe that we human beings learn best by example. That is, we learn respect and admiration for the Buddha-Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, from those who exhibit the light of awareness.

* * *

The world and the meditative environment face in opposite directions. The five senses, along with the mind, pick up stimuli, which produce feelings. If we search for satisfaction and happiness in these feelings, we are engaged in a hopeless and helpless endeavor. Pleasant music can stimulate feelings of pleasure. Lovely forms can bring pleasure to us based on the beauty and attractiveness of a form. Pleasing tastes work the same way. The mental pictures and video tapes that memory plays back for us can be pleasant experiences as well. That is why we dither around in our memory banks. But all of these are temporary. The pleasant things we search for are time-dated. They run out. Hooked on wanting more of the same, we will run to the refrigerator, call a friend, play another song, switch on the TV, or just lie on our bed and conjure up a beaten-to-death romantic moment out of our adolescence.

Sincere seekers begin to lose confidence in this way of living. They turn inward, away from the beckoning of a chaotic and confused world. If they take up the practice of meditation with the same kind of enthusiasm to excel that they bring to learning the piano or practicing ping-pong, they will succeed in the practice. Their meditation practice will develop steadily, and their perspective on the world will shift into harmony with the-way-things-are. What is really important in a human life, and what activities lead to happiness and peace and which ones lead down a futile road to nowhere, all become clear.


The World through a Seeker's Eyes

Q: Just look around at all the marvels brought into the world by science and technology. Are you not impressed?

A: I'm not so much impressed as depressed. Look beyond the invention of all this marvelous and powerful technology. How is it being used?

I am using the word depressed more as an expression than to refer to an attitude of mind. My mind no longer becomes depressed over the tragic misuse of nature. Nothing can alter this course; it is the way it is.

* * *

Q: What is the cause of all the wars erupting at this time?

A: Who can say? These events have innumerable karmic tentacles that connect the past to the present and the present to the future. A supercomputer couldn't trace all the factors creating any one event. This planet is full of dangers. All kinds of deadly toys are set to go off, and many of these dangerous things are in the hands of crazy people—or angry people, which amounts to the same thing.

But the world isn't dangerous just because crazy men have arsenals of chemical and nuclear weapons, or because angry, vengeful demons control fleets of nuclear submarines and long-range missiles. The great and present danger is the fact that our minds are out of control. Each of us still trapped and living under the sway of our defilements is in a state of jeopardy. Anyone in this situation can fall into the lower realms of life energy and become a raging demon or a denizen of the hell realms. These realms are actually states of being that we can and do experience in our everyday life—fortunately not for long. If we practice properly, we can put a cap on these states of experience and abide continuously in peace.

Stop the war within yourself and you will do the world and humanity the greatest service.

* * *

Q: Why do political agreements, sweated and hammered out after hours and hours of negotiations, collapse? In the end, all the dialogue, all the wheeling and dealing, and all the promises come to nothing.

A: Because the people involved in these agreements have no political integrity. Perhaps political integrity is an oxymoron; politics and integrity are in two altogether different domains. We shouldn't expect much good to come out of the political arena, for the different parties don't agree to participate within an honest, moral, and ethical framework. There isn't much common ground. No side has the intention to give away anything of real value.

Personally, I don't follow the news, so I am not emotionally affected by world events.


Excerpted from Questions from the City, Answers from the Forest by Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu. Copyright © 1999 Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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