One of Ajahn Chah’s most well-known teachings is that of letting go. And one of the key phrases that he used to explain what letting go means, and how it is to be developed, is that we should let go “within action.” This immediately reminds us that letting go is not passivity or a refraining from action—the letting go takes place within the action itself.
Monks and nuns may sometimes be accused of attachment to the vinaya, attachment to a discipline. This is a difficult accusation to refute. If someone says you are attached to the vinaya, does that mean you have to stop keeping the precepts in order to prove that you’re not really attached? I think a distinction needs to be made between attachment and devotion.
In Pali there is an interesting distinction between two important words: upadana and samadana, both of which we usually translate as “attachment” or “clinging.” With upadana, we attach through ignorance. Samadana, however is the word for taking on a precept; it’s holding on to something with wisdom, for as long as it needs to be held. In explaining samadana, Ajahn Chah would say, it’s not that you don’t take hold of the object. For instance, you take hold of a water bottle, tip the bottle until you have as much water as you need, and then put it down. If you don’t hold on to the bottle at all, you are not going to get any water into the glass. So samadana is taking up a precept or practice with wisdom. Having undertaken it in such a way, one relates to it with devotion and loyalty.
Letting go doesn’t mean that we don’t take on responsibilities or practices, but that we let go within those practices. What exactly is it that we let go of? We let go of the five khandhas. They are body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts—wholesome and unwholesome dhammas in the mind—and sense consciousness. When we say we let go of them, this is a shorthand phrase meaning letting go of craving and clinging to those things through ignorance. But wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever practice we are undertaking, we are always dealing with these five khandhas or aggregates.
We let go of our attachment to the physical body. That doesn’t mean we are negligent or don’t take medicine when we get sick; rather, we examine our minds and are careful not to identify with the physical body. The pressure upon us to identify with the body is very strong, particularly in the present day. In previous times most people lived in quite small communities, with not much opportunity for travel. The number of times when you would be confronted with an image of someone more attractive than you would be quite small. But these days, everywhere you go, you are bombarded with images of attractive people. Whether it’s on billboards and television, or in magazines and newspapers, you are constantly being invited to compare your body with those bodies, and to feel disconnected from your own. Women in particular, throughout history, have been pressured into measuring their worth according to their body’s attractiveness.
You buy into an idea of yourself being a certain kind of person, and you dwell on it so much that it becomes a self-evident truth. Then one day in meditation, you see that it’s just a bubble.
Of course, if you identify with the body, you’re identifying with something that is going to betray you. The body is not a good friend. You do everything for your body, look after it so diligently, yet in the end, how does it repay you? It grows old, gets sick, falls apart, and dies. This is a reminder of the fundamental truth to which we should turn our minds again and again: nothing lasts. That’s such a powerful phrase. It’s the simple truth of anicca, impermanence. And it’s through turning our minds to simple truths that we recognize the resistance to them that we all have.
How much do we crave for things to last, at least the things we like? We see the romantic stories: moonlit night, young people in love. “I wish this night could last forever”—why might they say that? Because they know it doesn’t last. Precisely because the moonlit night and that intensity of romantic emotion don’t last, there comes this expression of, “If only this could last forever.” But it can’t. Nothing can.
This body doesn’t last. So the more we invest our sense of dignity, self-worth, and identity in the body, the more we set ourselves up for pain. It’s a matter not of adopting a particular attitude toward the body but of being willing to look at it very clearly. When we look at other people’s bodies, we can notice how particular, how biased we are, how much we tend to dwell on certain aspects of the body and try to turn our minds away from other aspects.
Consider also the extent to which our lives are dominated by vedana, feelings, how much they constrict our conduct. How many times do we turn away from wholesome, noble, beautiful actions simply because we fear dukkba-vedana, the unpleasant feelings that we might have to encounter? How often do we perform actions that we know are going to lead to pain—actions that are foolish, trivial, ignoble—merely because of the thirst for the pleasant feelings that will arise in performing them? How often do we betray our own ideals simply through the weakness that manifests as the love of pleasant feelings and the aversion to, and fear of, unpleasant ones?
In modern society, probably one of the most underrated and forgotten virtues is that of patient endurance. We don’t want to have to put up with things we don’t like; we want everything at our fingertips. Even monastics, who live at some remove from modern society, sometimes say, “Oh, it was terrible, but at least I got some patient endurance from it.” It’s like a kind of consolation prize. If we don’t get anything else from it, at least we got a little bit of patient endurance. Patience is not a virtue that anybody, even monastics these days, tends to encourage. And yet when we read the Ovada- patimokkba, the first set of rules given to the Buddha’s assembly, what does the Buddha say? He says that patient endurance, khanti, is the supreme incinerator of defilements.
Logically speaking, if you are intent on the complete eradication of defilements, then when someone acts in an irritating way and you just have to be patient, you should be grateful to them—after all, they are helping you incinerate your defilements. When you find yourself in the position of having to exercise patience, that doesn’t mean you’re not practicing, or that it’s some kind of auxiliary, secondary practice. It’s the heart of practice. But there is a point to be made here: true patience, khanti, is one in which there is no sense of time. If you’re gritting your teeth, thinking, “How many more minutes?” or “When is this going to be over?” then that’s not really khanti. With khanti, there isn’t that sense of time. It is the perfection of patience.
What usually happens when your leg, your knee, or your back starts to hurt during meditation? Do you get depressed? Do you get upset? Do you become anxious? Do you feel averse? What kinds of reactions arise? If those negative reactions habitually arise when you experience a pain in your body while sitting, you can be quite sure that those same reactions arise in your daily life when you must endure something else unpleasant, whether it’s physical or mental. In meditation you are exposing, and looking more clearly at, the complex mental reactions to experiences that take place in daily life, but as if in a laboratory.
Similarly, some meditators are surprisingly afraid of pleasant feelings—afraid of getting carried away with them, afraid of becoming absorbed into them or attached to them. People may experience this to the extent that they hold back from fear of an overwhelming bliss. Sometimes the need to be in control can be even stronger than the movement toward inner peace and happiness. But the path to liberation, the path to the comprehension of suffering, can only be fully followed (and suffering can only be truly understood) by a happy mind, sukba. If you don’t have a happy mind, it’s always “my suffering.” The only way that you can comprehend suffering as a noble truth is when you are not suffering, when you are feeling happy, content, and at ease, at least on the level of vedana. So sukha is part of the path. The meditator, the practitioner, is seeking a wise, intelligent relationship with pleasant feelings—and that means letting go of them. It’s experiencing a pleasant feeling as pleasant feeling: just that much, no more, no less. It’s a beautiful thing—not the highest thing, yet we can appreciate it and make use of it on the path.
Letting go of unpleasant and pleasant feelings doesn’t mean that we have to turn away from them, or to become unfeeling. Far from it. But there’s a sense of awakening to the nature of unpleasant, pleasant, and neutral feelings. For most of us, because of a lack of clarity around feeling, there is constant discontent and unease in the mind. If someone says, “Look, I’m going to give you a bit of unpleasant feeling, just a bit of pain,” would you like that? No. Nobody would. But if the offer is “a little bit of bliss, just a tiny bit of bliss”? Yes, please! That’s a reflection of this movement within the mind.
One of the values of samadhi and the unshakeability of mind that comes about through its development is the enhanced ability to be with things without grasping on to them, to see feeling as feeling, whether pleasant or unpleasant. So if you’re sitting and you’ve got some aches and pains, that doesn’t mean you can’t meditate. This is what it’s about. It’s about coming to dwell more fully, more completely, to awaken to present reality and learn to let go within feeling.
We all have memories, perceptions—this is the khanda of sanna. But often the way we conduct our lives is too conditioned by our perceptions, by our unexamined ideas. I remember once speaking with a monk who was criticizing another monk (yes, even monks do that sometimes). He said, “Oh, monk so-and-so is coming to stay and he’s not a very nice monk. He’s got this bad quality and that bad quality.” And I said, “Oh, you know him very well, do you?”
He said, “Yes, we spent a rains retreat together five years ago.” He had this monk completely worked out, mapped out on the basis of a three-month period five years previously. This is a good example of how we see other human beings as selves, as something fixed and immutable, whereas in fact we are changing beings. There’s nothing fixed, nothing immutable about us at all. And this is particularly the case for those on the path of practice.
In Thailand, and indeed in many countries, fortune tellers and palmists are very popular. But good palmists will refuse to look at the palm of someone who is seriously meditating. They say that when someone starts a meditation practice, all bets are off; one cannot confidently predict the future of someone who has started to practice at the level of sila, samadhi, and panna, the inner-outer practice in simultaneous harmony. A change takes place. The Buddha expressed this beautifully on a number of occasions, saying that when those who were formerly heedless turn away from heedlessness and become heedful—when they embark on the path of practice— they illumine the world like the full moon appearing from behind the clouds. This is perhaps one of the essential and most characteristic of Buddhist teachings: the sense that we can change. Our future is not determined by God or gods or faith or stars. It’s determined by our own actions of body, speech, and mind. If we follow the eightfold path that the Buddha laid down for us, not picking and choosing, then we are capable of taking responsibility for our lives and effecting real, lasting changes.
To make those changes, however, we must first recognize to what extent we are limited by perceptions and memories. We have perceptions of ourselves as being hopeless, useless, inadequate (or perhaps of being capable and brilliant), but in the end these are just perceptions. You buy into an idea of yourself being a certain kind of person, and you dwell on it so much that it becomes a self-evident truth. And then one day in meditation, you suddenly see that it’s just a bubble. It’s just another thought, another perception. It’s just something that arises and passes away.
Often people come to spiritual practice and meditation, thinking, “I don’t like who I am. I’d like to be a different person.” This idea that you are somebody you don’t really like, and you would like to be somebody else, is mistaken and ultimately frustrating. Instead, when you look closely, your intention should be to see and learn from what is present. Then you will recognize that those ideas of being “somebody” are just things that arise and pass away. There’s nothing substantial to them at all.
You can’t live without perceptions and memories—you have to let go from within them. And you do that by seeing memory and perception as just what they are. It’s just this way. That’s the way the mind is, and that’s all right.
The fourth khandha is sankhara. It’s the khandha of kamma.
We can talk about the five khandhas in different ways. Of the five khandhas, rupa (body), vedana (feelings), sahha (perception), and vihhana (sense experience) are vipaka, the results of kamma in the past. Sankhara khandha, on the other hand, is led by volition. It is the khandha of kamma creation: kusala kammas and akusala kam- mas, wholesome and unwholesome actions. And volition, thought, and intention are the dhammas that we need to let go of.
Here, we make a distinction between kusala and akusala. We let go of certain kinds of volition by refusing to pay attention to them. There are certain volitions, certain trains of thought that are so poisonous that we don’t dare allow the mind to indulge in them at all. When the mind becomes aware that these kinds of poisonous dhammas—thoughts of violence, of hurting or taking advantage of others, for instance—are in the mind, this calls for sharpness, for the warrior-like cutting off of those selfish, lustful, angry, destructive kinds of volitions. Here, the letting go is much more forceful. With the wholesome volitions, meanwhile, it’s a matter of taking them on but not identifying with them. We take on the practices of mindfulness, take on development of loving-kindness, take on the practice of patient endurance, of constant, unremitting effort. These are tasks we take upon ourselves, but without creating a new “self” or a new “being” out of them. Thus we are letting go—we are not allowing our minds to be pulled around by how things “should be.” Once you have an idea of how things should be, you will be affronted or disturbed by all the things that are not that way.
Why do you consider certain people’s behavior to be so offensive? Usually it’s because you have an idea that they shouldn’t be like that. So when the mind dwells on “should” and “shouldn’t,” you’re setting yourself up for suffering. Why shouldn’t people be selfish? Why shouldn’t they be aggressive? Why shouldn’t they do all the terrible things they do? Why not? If their minds are like that, if they look at things like that, have that kind of view, those kinds of values, why not? Such behavior is then perfectly natural. When the causes and conditions are like that, the conduct will be like that.
The more you can see things in terms of causes and conditions, the more you can let go. If somebody speaks very harshly, you see it stems from their way of looking at things. Perhaps they’ve developed that kind of habit; perhaps they’ve always spoken like that. The more you can see the conditions underlying the behavior, the more you can let go.
Where does our sense of uniqueness lie? We say, “This is who I really am. This is what makes me different from everyone else.” That’s where delusion lies. That’s where attachment lies. This neurotic need to be different, to stand out from the crowd or sink into the shadows—these are reactions to the basic need to create a safe haven, a refuge in the wrong place. We look for refuge, for something that is stable, permanent, happy, but we seek it in that which is impermanent and unstable. There is nothing wrong with body, nothing wrong with feelings, perceptions, thoughts, seeing, hearing, tasting, all these things. Those things are just that way. But problems arise when we demand, hope, crave for those things to provide that which they cannot provide. What we desperately seek are permanence, happiness, and stability, and those things can only be found in freedom from attachments, from penetrating the four noble truths.
The Buddha didn’t want us to believe in his teachings. This isn’t a belief system. He has given us tools to use to penetrate the nature of our lives, and to align ourselves more and more clearly, more and more authentically, with what is really going on here and now.
So we let go and see what a burden it is to hold on to things—how heavy and limiting and dark it is to hold on to body, feelings, perceptions, all these aggregates, hoping and praying that they will give us something they can never provide.
In the Pali texts we find an interesting pair of words, abamkara and mamankara, that may be translated as “I-making” and “minemaking.” They point to a sense that “I” and “mine” are not inherent in the mind but are created, moment by moment, through ignorance. Letting go within action requires us to learn how to fulfill our responsibilities to ourselves and others without falling into the grasping, frustrating world of “I” and “mine.”
The more we let go, the lighter we feel, the happier we feel. It’s through the happiness of letting go that the mind becomes brave enough, and has the power, to penetrate the way things are. Without that inner stability of concentration, the unhappy mind is weak and scattered. It’s only through the ability to let go of indulgences like thoughts of the past or future, along with the renunciation of very small, rather trivial pleasant feelings, that the mind can penetrate into that which is more profound.