Last night Venerable U Vamsarakkhita, known as U Vamsa for short, an eloquent and incisive Canadian monk in the Burmese Theravadan tradition, spoke at the beautiful Ariyasom Villa in Sukhumvit Soi 1 on The Paradox of Self. To a room packed full of people he opened, naturally enough, with the two elements that sit alongside the Buddhist concept of non-self, that of impermanence and unsatisfactoriness.
Impermanence, he said, was easy enough to intellectually agree on, but at a deeper level everyone hopes it’s not really true, something exacerbated by our tendency not to be in the present. And yet, the more one can accept impermanence, the more one can relax and really live. Likewise with unsatisfactoriness, despite an easy intellectual agreement, our tendency is to invest in activities we continue to hope will bring happiness.
Moving onto the concept of self, U Vamsa said that in relative terms there obviously is a self and, furthermore, that you need a thorough grounding in this relative self before you can see through to the non-self of absolute truth. He was clear that you need to get the self before you can give it up, and to explain this he talked about what the Buddha did not teach.
The Buddha did not teach detachment. He did not tell people to cast aside their bodies and thoughts and feelings. Rather, the Buddha taught people to examine them. To see them and how they arise and pass. And then, through this investigation, the practitioner will see that permanent happiness is just a fantasy and will be better able to live in the moment, experiencing a richer more fulfilling life.
The alternative is what most of us do most of the time. U Vamsa’s example was of someone driving home thinking about the shower he’ll have when he arrives. Then showering while thinking about the food he’s going to eat. Eating while thinking about something else, and so on. The result is that the entire experience is missed. Life like this is basically unlived.
But we don’t see it because everyone is doing it. The answer, according to U Vamsa, is a meditation practice which will allow you to investigate the true nature of things in the moment. He then gave the example of anger, how a practitioner can watch it arise and watch it go and so not invest a false “I” into any of its stages or component parts.
When we meditate, he said, we break the chain of arising, see that nothing really exists, and once we’ve done that “a few million times” we get to Nirvana. Until then, what the practice gives us is a series of insights, each one making samsara progressively less sticky. We see, at a fundamental level, how wholesome choices lead to wholesome results and how unwholesome choices lead to chaos and suffering.
Venerable U Vamsarakkhita finished by talking about how, through practice, we see both the relative and the absolute, and can hold the paradox of self and non-self, and thus make better choices. But, he emphasised, this can only be done through meditation. “What Buddha was doing under the tree” he said, “is what you should also be doing. Practice.”
The talk ended with twenty minutes of meditation and a few minutes of questions and answers. I asked about people who don’t have the time or inclination to meditate. Is there another route, a shortcut perhaps, for them? U Vamsa made it clear that, for him, there are no shortcuts at all, meditation practice is the only way. “What about the paths of devotion or ethics” I asked.
Again, U Vamsa said that the only way to reach the absolute, the full understanding of no-self and thus Nirvana, was through meditation. “Even” he said, ” if it does take a million lifetimes”.
Yes, who knows how many lifetimes it took to get here, who really knows how many more lifetimes of practice it might take to get to the end of this journey? But though I agree that meditation is an incredible tool, I know that even the seemingly simple practice of wholeheartedly keeping precepts, or of devotion, is enough to carry one a good way along the path.
I’m also sure that insight into non-self, impermanence, and unsatisfactoriness entails insight into the interconnectedness of all things. ‘No-self’ means no separation from the lives and existence of every other thing in the universe, an insight that can’t help but give rise to compassion and gratitude. Something U Vamsa will undoubtedly address next week in his talk on ‘The Dhamma Of Wealth’.