Meeting at the Feeling Place: A Conversation with Ajahn Sucitto
In June, we had the pleasure of a visit by Ajahn Sucitto, Ayya Medhanandi and and other monastics for a 10-day retreat called "Holistic Awareness." Ajahn Sucitto was generous with his time in a number of ways - meeting with staff, attending to yogis and guiding monastics who attended the retreat. This interview is an excerpt of a conversation he had with Guy and Sally Armstrong.
Spirit Rock - SR: As a way for people to get to know you a little more, tell us how you got connected to dhamma practice and where you spent your early years as a bhikkhu (monk).
Ajahn Sucitto - AS: If I had to start somewhere, I'd say dhamma practice started in Thailand. There wasn’t very much around in Britain the ‘60s. I’d read a few books and I’d seen enough or read enough to feel there was something important happening in the East that I could benefit from. I ended up in Thailand because I couldn’t really connect to the pieces of Indian spirituality that I came across. Their devotional practices were too big a leap. But I did connect to meditation classes in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where they were teaching the Mahasi technique [developed by Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma], a direct form of practice. Just do it. Realizing I needed to do more of it, I went and stayed in a monastery, and thought,' I could do more of this. My visa’s running out but I’d like to come back for a longer stay. Might want to become a samanera, a novice monk.'
SR: That quickly?
AS: Yeah, yeah. I didn’t imagine it’d be for a lifetime. I was into that feeling of just follow your nose and go into it. I thought, well, I could do this for a couple months, two or three months was my initial sense of that. But after two or three months, I hadn’t finished yet. So I kept going.
SR: And when did you meet Ajahn Chah?
AS: I met Ajahn Chah in Britain in 1979. I was in central Thailand doing the Mahasi system for about three years. So I didn’t meet Ajahn Chah when I was in Thailand. But I did meet Ajahn Sumedho. One time I was sent up to Chiang Mai, to another monastery – Wat U Mong - and while there, a monk said, ‘Ajahn Sumedho’s in town. Why don’t you go and see him?’ I didn’t particularly want to see anybody, but out of politeness, I went along. So I met Ajahn Sumedho who had a deep impression on me. He seemed very relaxed, open, warm and happy. And I said, ‘ooh, interesting,’. Then he said he was going to Britain. This was ’76. I had no intention of going at that time to Britain but he’d been invited to go to Britain to set up a monastery so I just noted that. And then 1978, my father passed away so I had to go back to Britain, and I got his address, Ajahn Sumedo’s address in London.
AS: Yeah. So I rolled up and—
SR: And you were still in robes…
AS: Oh, yeah. Doorstep of the Hampstead in orange, ’78. Knock, knock. Hello? Again, I thought I’d just stay for a few weeks. Six weeks maybe, but then it turned into the rainy season, which is a three-month session. And then the next year Ajahn Chah came, ’79. Meeting him was a deeply impressive experience: you knew: ‘This is very different from just somebody who is teaching. This is somebody who’s got enormous amount of something else happening.’ Then after that, you see, he was experiencing dizzy spells. I thought he was amazing but they said, well, in the morning he has to take some time to gather himself; his faculties aren’t clear. Normally he’d go all day totally full on till midnight and so they had to drag him away because he’d just be teaching and testing people and then he’d be up again at four, popping it out. So the monks were concerned about these dizzy spells, and when he went back to Thailand, they took him out of Wat Ba Pong, his main monastery. No responsibilities, no duties: they wanted him to rest, though even then he was still active. Then the next year I think was when he had a stroke or something and started to go down, and then he had this hospitalization. He got a stroke or paralysis and his voice went, and it was just all down from ’81 onward. So that was it. I went to see him in ’86 and he was pretty much immobilized. He was in a special clinic kuti, they built there, and he wasn’t speaking but he could understand what was being said and he recognized me. He was clearly with it but he couldn’t communicate, and that was ’86 and he passed away in ’92.
SR: You’ve covered a few of the important points in your monastic life and training but as you look back what are the significant turning points for you personally in your monastic time and practice? And also for the establishment of the monastic form in the West, particularly in England, are there things that stand out for you?
AS: Well, probably the biggest single thing would be meeting Ajahn Sumedho. That was certainly a huge turning point because up to then it had really been me doing long retreat, wearing some robes. And so that was the time that I saw this is actually a thing you could live in as just the sort of normal way of being. Ajahn Sumedho’s breadth of interest, breadth of mind, breadth of being, and availability - presented a living somebody and an entry to that relational sense, where you work, you serve him, and he looks after you. You have some warm, friendly, humorous times together. You’re living together so you’re learning all the time through the skin, you might say. So that was really a different way of experiencing Buddhism - that was huge. Also training more fully under the Vinaya, which has more than rules - all sorts of protocols, procedures, allegiances, loyalties, relational stuff - it’s a huge social bond. And then obviously starting Chithurst monastery was a big thing. Starting my own monastery at Harnham after my fifth Rains was another- well, that’s a bit grandiose – it was just the building squad for the foundations of a place up in Northumberland; but it was the first time I was sent off on my own to try and start something. And then, what else? Training nuns, trying to encourage women in the holy life was a huge thing; and then becoming abbot of Cittaviveka. Being the abbot of a monastery is also a huge thing because as the saying goes, when the buck stops here, it’s a different experience.
SR: So how many years now have you been abbot?
AS: This is 21, 21 years. And there’s no guidebook. You just go and do it.
SR: Because you mentioned the training of nuns you sound like you have been very supportive of monastic training for women, could you say more about that?
AS: Well, to me there’s a couple of main points. One is that people who live the holy life can be male or female. If you want to renounce, do it. I think it’s very important there are women who model it for other people, for other women and for men. So that people can see that way of life being presented through the male or female forms – that seems very important to me. But when we started, nobody knew what to do, because nobody had trained any women. But some very sincere women wanted to do it, so Ajahn Chah said to Ajahn Sumedho, you can do it: he was always pushing people over the edge. But he never said how! So Ajahn Sumedho asked me to do it. Now I’m not in a position to recognize bhikkhunis or not, because nobody cares what I recognize. But I want to support the Dhamma; I want to give advice on renunciation, on training, how to live together. It’s up to others to work out the legal rights and wrongs and official recognition.
SR: In your meditation instructions and dhamma talks, you talk a lot about working with the body. In this recent retreat you were leading qi gong in the mornings, again putting a lot of emphasis on the body. I’m curious where that came from for you. How did it come into your teaching, this strong connection with the body?
AS: Before I really got into dhamma practice, I started with hatha yoga. And that was the first time I’d ever realized that my mind could possibly stop thinking, even for a moment. I didn’t realize it ever would; I never even thought it could stop thinking. So that’s what took me in, was the recognition that the mind can stop and that this is an embodied practice.
Doing qi gong happened because a qi gong teacher turned up in the monastery and said, , I’ll show the monks a few things as a session. And again in that spirit, fair enough, let’s have a look at this. Why not? So it’s starting to do that and finding the qualities, the sensitivity and the awareness you develop with qi gong is very helpful to experience the body much more on the somatic level than on the sensory level. With qi gong you’re looking at the internal organization, experience the internal sensitivities, organization of intelligence of the body rather than just the physical contact. I found that quite rich. Particularly, as I think and sense that a lot of mindfulness of breathing had been pretty much just focusing on the sensations at the nose tip, but it didn’t get any further than that and it wasn’t really opening into a richer sense of piti sukha -happiness and ease. Practice had remained rather dry and just sticking to a point again and again. The quality of vicara (assessment) wasn’t very full.
But with qi gong, I began to sense how the energy of the body relates to the energy of the mind. When the energy of the body is more settled and steady, the effect on your mind stares you in the face: the mind has calmed and steadied and deepened. So this was beneficial for my practice. At first I thought it was something rather like doing hatha yoga- it’s going to make your legs more supple, you won’t get so much knee pain. But then I began exploring meanings of words like kaya sankhara and citta sankhara, which are translated as bodily formations and mental formations (or karmic formations or volitional formations). I don’t know what that means in terms of direct experience. But when I noticed that the Buddha doesn’t teach watching the breath, but to be mindful of breathing, I reckoned he was referring to a process which is a distinct rhythmic flow – simply speaking, the flow of energy through the nervous system. This is kaya sankhara – it gives subtle ‘inner form’ to the experience of the body. Then take the word anapana, (breathing in and out) and relate that ‘pana’ to one of the standard yoga practices, pranayama. Pranayama begins with the ‘outer breath’, the respiration, but that’s just the trigger for the inner breath which is the energy that comes up with it. In Chinese, this is chi (qi). The Asian tradition sees breathing as much more than just respiration, but the chi (qi), the prana, the flow, the energy flow of life that moves through the subtle channels of the body. There is an energetic quality of rapture, of suffusion, of calming that comes through skillful access to this prana, qi energy. Qi gong helps with that.
SR: You had another phrase you used during the retreat. It was something like the heart on its own is just driven by its reflexes and can go in many different directions but the body starts to hold it. You can say it better and what you meant by that…
AS: The word citta is often translated as mind. In Thai you can use either mind or heart to translate that, and they have slightly different nuances. For us, mind tends to be the cerebral experience and heart the emotive experience, and although citta touches into both those areas, it’s more the intuitive, instinctive, impulsive, you might say right brain aspect. So this citta experience, the conditioning agents or the things that trigger it are perception and feeling.
The only other aspect of our experience that has feeling is the body. The eyes don’t have feeling, the nose doesn’t have feeling, tongue doesn’t have feeling so you’ve got the two feeling or effective senses. And it’s pretty obvious in our normal experience when we experience a strong passion, there’s a bodily sense as well as a heart sense with that. When we experience fear or grief, we experience that bodily and in our heart. And so as you begin to sensitize you realize that the basic colorations of the heart have bodily references to them. And, I guess for most people, the experience a lot of the time is they’re pretty oblivious to their bodies. They’re a head, or a thought, on wheels; just this thought rushing around in a disconnected head. And then what we so often experience to that is there has to be something to latch onto. This attention has to get jumping from this to that to this to that to this to that, to find something to hold onto. So my sense is when you’re trying to meditate and keep trying to find something to hold onto with your mind, on that basis it’s always a sense of trying to hold it, push it, get it to sit there.
But then in the suttas it says if your body’s relaxed and comfortable you don’t need to make any particular push. The heart will be happy. And when the heart is happy, it will be concentrated. So body, heart, concentration, yeah, and happiness. So the connection there the Buddha’s making is the body needs to be a relaxed, open body, and the heart, the mind, needs somewhere to sit. Otherwise it’s going to have to keep jumping from this to that to find a basis. Now because the heart’s affected profoundly by feeling and the body’s affected by feeling, they can meet at the feeling place. And if the body feels steady and comfortable, the heart will feel steady and comfortable. And it’s not the case that by an act of will I can make my heart/mind steady and comfortable. Can’t say ‘be quiet, be happy,’ but I can get my body to relax and steady. When you come into what we call classic deep meditation the initial instruction is mindfulness of body, as you deepen into that your heart will come to it. So then the body acts as “the parent.” You know, the one that can hold the little heart when it’s frightened and desperate, needs things to hold onto. Says ‘you’re here, you’re okay’, and then it does settle.
SR: That’s beautiful. Thank you. You also spoke a number of times in the retreat about the pervasiveness of conflict. For example, when two humans are together they’ll find something to disagree on. What have you learned about working with conflict?
AS: Well, I think I’d broaden conflict to mean dissonance. You know, it’s not necessarily that there’s a real conflict
but certainly ‘I don’t get what she’s talking about.’ Like ‘why is he like that? Isn’t it obvious that it should be this way? Doesn’t everybody see that?’
SR: ‘Why don’t they see it the way I do?’
AS: Exactly. And that’s it. When you get to that point, why don’t they see it the way I do, you realize that’s the problem. And what can we do with this? Well, immediately, the immediate point is the way I see things is part of the problem. You know, now I can work with that bit - which doesn’t mean I’m going to see it another way, but at least I’m going to hold that a little more loosely as not ultimate truth, fixed reality, but just this is my perspective at this time. Now that’s softening it a little. And you realize the other person, for him or her that’s the way they see it, and they’re probably thinking this is quite normal, why don’t we see it this way? It’s obvious. Then there’s a feeling of, ‘Oh, my goodness. What are we in?’ We’re in these very subjective systems that don’t actually meet, you know?
So there’s the turning point, in most every situation, is compassion, when you realize this isn’t a personal conflict, this is an existential dilemma. And I don’t want to be just forcing him or her to believe in me. Doesn’t feel right. And I don’t want them to do it to me, it doesn’t feel right. So it’s softening around the view. That’s the first thing. And that to me is so necessary because we also have this wonderful gift of empathy. It’s a gift. You don’t have to try to be empathic, you basically are empathic. What gets in the way of empathy is the views, and the stronger they are the more that natural empathy is cut. So when you have a view, a political view, the person on the other side is an idiot. And then at a certain point you can kill them. They’re beyond - they are just the enemy, evil. That’s the horror of it. And how much has been done (due to) religious views which people hold with absolute blazing rigidity and conviction, and the amount of death and destruction, pain caused around these things, which is the most dire irony. Because they’re all based on love and…
SR: Unity and…
AS: Unity and God loves everybody. So once you begin to soften the view, say this is just a view, and you soften it, soften the emphasis on it, to me quite naturally one feels some sense of empathy for other people which means I recognize you too want happiness, you suffer too. You have limitations; I have limitations. Suddenly we’re on the same ground. And then negotiation is possible. So it’s really recognizing what sets us apart is the ditthi (view). And what will I gain from holding my view? I will gain perhaps for a brief time the glorious surge of feeling right - which will flood me with righteousness. How good is that? Because I’m going to have to keep being right, I’m going to have to knock the next person down as well. Do I really want that? What I could do is gain a sense of trust, non-conflict, ease, humor, compassion, meeting, affection. I could do that. Would it work for what was better? For me. For you. For everybody. I think that’s the way to go.
There’s this enormous possibility for empathy with our children, our family, our friends, people who are doing the same sorts of things as us has got to be the one profound way of development. Surely the wider that field of empathy can stretch, the more peaceful, the more harmonious, the more capacity we have for non-conflict. So I’m very cautious about rights and wrongs, personally. In any life, but particularly religious life, spiritual life, when you really want to get it right. You want to make sure you get it right and this is important to get it really right. So you tend to do that -focus. There’s somebody else who’s getting it wrong, not right. Looking in the sutta, like Samagama Sutta [Majjhima Nikaya 104], where the Buddha talks about his disputes, dissensions about details of protocol, procedures is a trifle. He said the important thing to remember is the way out of suffering and one should live with a sense of deference and respect towards the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, that’s the priority. So you think, ‘would the Buddha be happy to see us quarreling?’ I don’t think so. Would he be happiest to see us talking things out, you know, meeting in concord? I think he’d be happy with that.
SR: We’ve heard rumors that you’re retiring. Any truth to that?
AS: It’s more putting aside or sieving through the abbot’s duties and leading community, so I’m looking at putting down or relinquishing that. I took on. leading community, overseeing administration, overseeing management .Ajahn Sumedho asked me to take this on so I took it on for a little while. It’s now 21 years and I have done a lot. I’m now 63. Brain is not so quick and I don’t want to be in a driver’s seat if its faculties aren’t up for that. That is the sheer fact of aging, and feeling, that sense of fulfilling one’s duties. And then, to be frank, fulfilling my duty or my aspiration to the Buddha - to myself. I’m a Buddhist monk, a renunciant, and my own personal inclination is towards Nibbana, non-suffering. I might have fifteen, twenty years left of life, who knows. My attention is conditioned to always be on the lookout for things that need to be done, checking things, sorting things out, receiving messages, responding to, building, baby blessings, monastic problems, publications, agendas, yadda yadda. My attention is there for that, and so what about changing it? Because what you attend to naturally affects one’s mind. So are those things ultimate truth? No. Could they be put down? Yes. And then see what it’s like from that newer perspective.
On other reflection, having done something for 20-odd years, then maybe the community could also benefit from a fresh way of looking at things, fresh influence, somebody else steering. So this process of transmission has to happen. Why not do it consciously, full awareness and alertness rather than wait till I go out on my back. Why not do it in full conscious awareness, where you can still be around to, advise or check in, so that that transmission can occur smoothly. My inclination is generally a natural wish to help, be a part of what I’ve built, so I imagine I’ll continue offering what I can.
SR: Where do you think you might go? Will you go anywhere, or land anywhere?
AS: See what causes and conditions come together. And I don’t feel I want to be zooming around every which way. These are new topics, new areas for us, whether to stay in the monastery or leave for a few years and just come back and be somewhere in the background. I don’t know. And as a practice, it’s good to not know. I mean, because you spend so much of your time just popping the soap bubbles of fantasy that after a while you can’t really blow ‘em that hard, thinking, ‘Oh, I want to be in the idyllic.’ You know, we’ve been there. Bop. ‘This is going to be the answer to my life.’ Bop. So I don’t feel like blowing any soap bubbles of fantasies, and then I go to that place of, well, then what? And then go, well… Stop. Let it be open. What’ll you do then? Stop. Let it be open. Because then it really is a change of gear, it’s not just another strategy, it’s just life will take care of you - and wing it. Life will take care of you. And see, just see what seems to be the most beckoning causes and conditions that seem to lead onwards.
SR: So before that happens, still in all of these roles, what do you do now to relax?
AS: Well, I do like to be with nature, so walking and just being with nature, I like that very much. Meditating seems relaxing. Don’t know. I mean by and large an average day spent pretty much in meditation, chores, duties, work, meeting people, take a shower, do some exercise, meditation, puja - that’s the day. That’s the day and that goes on day after day, so—
SR: You don’t get weekends off.
AS: No. I try to take a day off every week and in that day I just stay unplugged. And that day I often just wander round vaguely. Trying to just be open and live with nature and take my time and slow down, and let myself muse and maybe pick up a book or something, and, but it generally goes back to meditation in the end as the thing that everything comes back to. Writing, painting, I could do. That might happen. I think painting’s quite a good thing to do because it seems to activate certain parts of the brain, but there hasn’t been any time for it.
SR:One last question. Any advice for us at Spirit Rock - moving forward?
AS: I don’t know if I can advise Spirit Rock. I have a sense of what could be helpful for the Dhamma-scene in general is an enrichment of community. If that can occur here will be enormous value for practitioners, enormous value. Because there’s there’s a good deal of books, teachings, CD’s, talks, information is there. There are a number of places you can go to do formal practice. I think what really is a major undertaking, enormous benefit, is people feel the sense of connection and belonging and that social aspect. Because we’re so built into being alone, being independent, and there’s massive dysfunction in that. And the idea of meditation as only part of dhamma practice, it’s the kalyana mitta quality to me which is much more than just a teacher. It’s the sense of kinship and relational sense. And the Buddha says only two factors are supremely important for right view. One is deep attention, the other is spiritual friendship. So unless we have that relational sense, I think we don’t learn fully. So Spirit Rock can, move in that direction, I think that would be a great benefit. And great challenge.
And frankly because my practice is so based in monasteries, I have to look from that perspective. But I know that monasteries are an amazing lung for people to drift into and drift out of and has this spreading influence into the society. Because people come in who don’t meditate, they just come in and dig the peace. And some come, having done that for a while, then they do come and sit, and then they gradually come in that way, and there’s something about the soft boundary that enables people naturally and has its effect on the community at large, on the society at large.
Is there some place where (it) is a lot looser, with maybe families, kids. Even if somebody in the community goes out into town with something in a park or people could come listen to some talks for free or whatever. So that would be wonderful.
SR: You make a really good point because one of the challenges at Spirit Rock is when the retreat finishes, it’s usually empty. Whereas in a monastery, there’s a real heart to it. You said lungs, but there’s a real living presence there. And here everyone’s so busy and widespread and there isn’t that sort of centering at Spirit Rock, and so it is a challenge for us at times.
AS: Yeah, there’s always somebody mowing the lawn or somebody doing a bit of woodwork in the monastery and people drifting in with “Can I help?” “Yeah, sure, you go over there and you do that.” You know, somebody you can just hang out with. That soft threshold that people come in.
SR: I loved what you said about imperfection, how we’re just to accept all of the imperfections. It is imperfect, and 80 percent effort, not 100 percent is the best way to practice. . Eighty percent is definitely good enough. Better than 100 percent.
AS: Eighty percent is the new 100 percent.
SR: Anything else you particularly want to communicate to the audience?
AS: The world should be here –
SR: Yes. Thank you so much, Bhante.