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"Finding Refuge": A Conversation with Ajahn Sucitto (Keywords: Buddhism; Mind-Body; Perception)

White house on hill

The Meditation Hall at Chithurst Buddhist Monastery, UK

From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 ("Where is Philosophy Going?").

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Ajahn Sucitto is a Buddhist monk in the Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah. He is also a highly respected teacher who runs retreats all across the world. As he has so many calls on his time, this interview ended up being conducted as our editor, Anthony Morgan, drove him to Southampton airport for a flight. All necessary precautions were taken to ensure that Anthony kept his eyes on the road while doing the interview. The conversation that follows considers Buddhist perspectives on some perennial philosophical themes, including the mind-body problem, free will, and the nature of truth.

Anthony Morgan (AM): Working with the body is central to your teachings, so I was hoping you could start by saying a few things about how a material body interacts with a seemingly immaterial mind, also known as the mind-body problem.

Ajahn Sucitto (AS): This would depend on what we mean by “mind” and what we mean by “body”! Since Descartes and his famous “Cogito, Ergo Sum”, we have tended to take the mind to be the thinker, but in Buddhism thinking is an aspect or a product of mind but does not encompass all that mind is. For a start, thinking is not the experience that gets liberated, and, frustratingly for intellectuals, nibbāna (Sanskrit = nirvana) is non-conceivable so the final goal of Buddhism is not something you can get a satisfactory idea or a theory around. In fact, many of the Buddha’s teachings are conceptually rather paradoxical, something that we find especially emphasised in the Zen tradition. The Buddha himself frequently points to the dangers of conceiving, highlighting how the world is in a trap of nāma (naming and conceiving), and sees release from concepts as central to the liberation that he was teaching. If we pause to think about what this may mean not to conceive, it is pretty mind-blowing! It can be very difficult to even imagine what this may be like.

So the thinking mind certainly has its relevance, but is by no means the total sum of mind or even the aspect of mind that could be liberated. Thinking is an activity of mind, and the organ of this is called mano, but the broader (and in my opinion much more useful) word used to describe mind is citta which can be translated as “mind” or “heart” or “awareness”. Citta is that which is liberated, although it is worth teasing out what exactly this might mean. For there is not an entity that is liberated but the very configuration of citta is freed from all configurations! It’s rather like the question of what a fist is like when you open your hand. It’s not that it’s not a fist – it’s just that you never even knew what an open hand was.

Another way I like to think of citta is as the experience of “I” before “am”, an “I” that has no predicate or object: a sense of complete subjectivity with no object or image. I think that many people with even basic meditation experience will momentarily touch into this sense that there is somebody or something here that is behind the thinking, something that knows it is thinking. We can say what it feels like or what it does, but we can’t find it. We could say, then, that citta is the subject behind any of the adjectives or descriptions that happen. But as a result of avijjā (or ignorance), this is generally not what is seen. What is more clearly seen are all the activities into which citta gets organized or configured, and these activities are of two fundamental qualities.

The first quality is receptive activity through which citta feels, perceives, is affected, is touched, shivers, spins, sinks, and so on. And the other quality of citta is responsive activity: it reacts and responds, either carefully or carelessly, either with mindfulness or without. So citta is both affective and responsive, and both of these elements result from the citta being activated. We might say that one of the results, even the final result, of Buddhist mind training is the ceasing of this activity. To the uninitiated, this may sound like death or numbness, but it is actually acute (even unimaginable) sensitivity and exquisite peacefulness. Within this, the citta has no object and is not conceiving or formulating anything. Another way of trying to explain this is that the ear hears sounds but by itself does not like or dislike the sound: this is what the mind does. What, then, is the quality of hearing as distinct from the heard? Is it acute? Is it attentive? Mind training is a process of developing citta to the point at which one is aware of the “mindingness” of things rather than the objects, to the point at which the objects themselves fade in significance, and all that is left is a supreme “minding” which is no activity other than to be awake.

Turning to body, we can look at it from two perspectives. Firstly, it is a big hunk of meat and bones and hair that can be perceived as old or young, attractive or unattractive, and so on. This body can be studied externally or can be cut open and inspected from the inside. It grows old, falls ill, and it dies. But there is another way of experiencing the body other than as an object, and this is revealed when we consider the vitality of the body. It feels alive, numb, tense, relaxed, and so on. What are these sensations? We can hardly just reduce them to activation of body tissues, so, broadly speaking, we could call it nervous energy. Or we might call it bodily intelligence: this is not a conceptual intelligence, but a capacity to be affected and respond just as the mind does. Consider a toddler learning to balance itself. This is not something that can be figured out as an idea in the head; rather, the body learns how to balance itself. In this way, it is very similar to citta: it is both affective and responsive, and has an intelligence to it.

We can all acknowledge that our emotions register in our body, and that in this sense body is not distinct from mental activation.

There are plenty of everyday examples that show how these two aspects – body and mind – are correlative. If we feel angry in our minds, we feel heated and aroused in our bodies. If we feel grief or depression, out chest can feel hollow, and the body can feel very heavy and sluggish. So we can all acknowledge that our emotions register in our body, and that in this sense body is not distinct from mental activation. The problem for the average person, however, is that they do not know how to disengage the body from mental signals. Because of the compulsive activation of the thinking mind with its correlative effect upon the body, there is a cumulative impact upon the body which takes the form of stress, agitation, pressure, and so on. One central element of meditation is to work on this intimate relationship between mind and body, and it aims to reverse the often deeply entrenched negative feedback loops between the thinking mind and the feeling body. Meditation especially enhances the parasympathetic system as we are attuning wisely with the aim of understanding how stress in this system can be alleviated.

AM: Would the kind of abstract thinking about the mind-body problem that we find in much Western philosophy be considered pointless in terms of Buddhist practice?

AS: One definitely needs some abstract thinking in order to understand and get motivated. And there are certainly no shortage of books and verbalized teachings available. But the idea would be that once you have got the grasp of a teaching conceptually, you then try and put it into practice. This will generally involve trimming thinking down to just two functions: bringing something to mind (vitakka) and evaluating what is brought to mind (vicāra). It is certainly the case that some aspects of Buddhist meditation are conceptual: we conceive of the body, we conceive of death, we conceive of those to whom we feel grateful or loving. And having conceived these things, we dwell in them, we make much of them, and gradually the conceiving mechanism calms down and we are left more directly with a felt experience that could be sober, wise, reflective, warm-hearted, and so on. In the depths of these non-conceptual experiences we can experience the absorptions of the mind (jhāna) in which the citta is so deeply absorbed in a skilful mode of perception that its thinking becomes extremely minimal, and there is instead a dwelling in an experience which is both bodily and mental, and is characterized by lightness, brightness, and suffusion with pleasure. This is a pleasure that is born of non-attachment insofar as it is not dependent upon attachment to sense objects. It is like an extremely deep and refined experience of relaxation or happiness.

In terms of the relationship between mind and body, what we find is that the body gives the mind something to anchor in so that it does not need to keep thinking incessantly. This idea is a very challenging one as most people would only feel secure and grounded if they are thinking, as this is the prime mode of orientation for most of us: we are forever planning or remembering or dreaming. It is quite a process to begin to trust in something non-conceptual, but the invitation comes from a realization of how overloaded and stressed we get when we are dominated by thoughts and emotions.

Another consequence is that we end up living in the future or in the past, with endless things to do and endless things we should be, but we’re not actually where we are. As a result, this other world – the direct experience of the world in the present moment – becomes illusory. And when we look at the big picture, we can see how distanced we have become from the natural world. We may feel concern for it but we really don’t feel a part of it. Ever since the scientific revolutions of the sixteenth century, human beings have become extremely adept at witnessing objects as “out there”: via telescopes, printing presses, ideas, and notions. This is all marvellous and amazing stuff, and can bring objects closer to us and help us to measure them, but at the same time we are always behind the screen or the telescope, and this leaves us separated from our environment. This essential dissonance between human beings and our environment has resulted in many negative consequences, not least the fact that we have trashed the environment: there is nothing sacred in it anymore, so we see it as stuff we can just rip up and do what we like with. The abstract has taken over: it no longer serves us, we serve it. We are slaves to it.

AM: I was hoping you could say a few things about where ideas of freedom or free will come into Buddhism, given that there is such an emphasis on kamma (Sanskrit = karma) as an inheritance over which we seem to have little or no control.

AS: Most discussions of kamma refer to old kamma or past kamma which are the results or consequences of actions that have been undertaken or situations that have been generated. This kind of kamma links to ideas around rebirth or further becoming: that the citta does not die when the body does, and all its unresolved tendencies – its actions and reactions – will then incline towards the arising of consciousness in a subsequent body. But there is also the kamma that relates to this lifetime and to actions that we have taken, and this action can be both considered and decisive or unconsidered and reactive; it can be skilful and unskilful or it can just be blind and compulsive. And even if our actions are not just blind or compulsive, they will still be limited by the vision that we have which determines the range of actions open to us. For example, instead of simply answering yes or no in relation to engaging in an action, we can also hold silence or engage in counter-questioning or simply notice what thoughts are arising in our minds. These are all actions we can undertake which don’t necessarily appear to be actions in the strong sense of the word; rather we might call them subtle actions. Meditation itself is a series of subtle actions.

So this other kind of kamma is focused on action rather than result or inheritance, and there are limitations on the freedom of this. The freedom of our actions, or what we might call free will, is dependent on the basis upon which we are acting. In the sensory domain, for example, as we look with our eyes there are certain limitations to the choices we can make that depend upon that visual field – sensory consciousness has limitations. And in the ethical domain there are degrees of freedom dependent upon our chosen intentions (cetanā), and these can be more or less skilful, more or less conducive towards skilful reflective action rather than unskilful blind reaction. Building up the degree to which we can make choices is a very significant feature of kamma, because if we can widen our ethical understanding to consider not only what it good for me but what is good for other people and even what is good for other creatures or the environment, then we can deepen and widen our range of possibilities for action.

AM: Please can you say something about the role of meditation in this?

AS: Meditation is the main Buddhist tool for working with this expansion of our range of freely chosen actions because it allows us to contemplate the responses that are coming up in our minds in relation to a set of events. Cultivation of mindfulness (sati) allows us to bring things to mind in a sustained way such that we can investigate everything from the thinking process to the quality of attention and intention itself. This is refined kamma, the kamma of meditation, and is certainly not something we see in the animal kingdom, nor is it something that we can assume we as humans will possess simply by virtue of being human; rather it is an ability that must be cultivated and trained.

Through meditation, we develop the ability simply to hold a thought in mind, which then allows us to investigate it or to take it apart or to quieten it down.

For an untrained person, a thought arises and they feel that they have to do something about it: either they have to work it out and resolve it or try and push it away and distract themselves from it. There are strong driven energies that push them towards a rather limited range of chosen options. Through meditation, we develop the ability simply to hold a thought in mind, which then allows us to investigate it or to take it apart or to quieten it down. There is no requirement to agree with or disagree with the thought, to block it or follow it; rather we can look into it and deconstruct it. This process frees us from a lot of personal bias which so often determines our actions, and opens up greater freedom of action simply because we are no longer acting as a result of panic or drives or compulsions or habits or assumptions.

But this is not the end of the story. For while this training allows for a far greater choice of action because the mind is acquiring greater skills in how to respond, it also allows us to lessen the kinds of intentions that lead to action as we learn how to remain quiet and take our time. Through this the mind can learn to open up new dimensions that we could not access or even conceive of when it was being busy and active. This is the deactivated citta that is experienced as sublimely peaceful and pleasant. Through accessing this, we begin to cultivate freedom from kamma itself as the mind is no longer rehashing old stuff, regurgitating its old assumptions and programs, and generating new comments and tactics. Meditation involves recognizing that a thought or feeling has arisen, and neither suppressing it nor following it but deconstructing it. How can I open to this? How can I relax around it? How can I let it arise and pass through without snagging on it? Through this process, it will begin to deconstruct itself, and this is like a long-running conversation in our mind that is finally allowed to come to an end. This is the cessation of kamma and a glimpse of nibbāna, which is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice.

AM: Is it the case that a mind that is less free is also less capable of discerning the truth?

AS: Descartes had his ideas of what truth was: they were ideas that he could testify to through his rational mind, and in terms of his framework of rationality that was what he ended up calling truth. But his truth was limited by the organ that was experiencing it, namely the rational mind. We are far more than just rational, however: we are emotional and we are impulsive, we have experiences of compassion, of joy, of release, of pain, of warmth. These aren’t rational – we are not driven by rationality. The Buddhist word for truth is sacca, but as with our discussion of citta being more than what we generally mean by “mind”, sacca encompasses more than what we generally mean by “truth”. Terms like “reality” or “actuality” or simply the idea of the way things really are, come closer to capturing the richness of sacca. If we take the Four Noble Truths as an example, these are truths about the nature of the conditioned world or the kammic experience, and the unavoidability of incompleteness, irresolution, inadequacy, separation, loss, and struggle within this world, all captured under the term dukkha which generally translates as “suffering” or “stress”.

We may have done amazing things with the rational mind in the centuries since Descartes, and yet there is still pain, anxiety, and depression.

We may have done amazing things with the rational mind in the centuries since Descartes, and yet there is still pain, anxiety, and depression – all experiences which our profound rationality, with all its skills, has not been able to master because the core of experience is not rational. We can know about something, but at the same time we don’t really “get it” at a deep level. We can give an amazing number of details about a thing in terms of its height, weight, colour or chemical composition at a sub-particle level, but the same questions always remain: “Yes, but what is it? What is it once you have stripped back all these descriptors and adjectives?” Consider who we are once we look to direct experience. We are something like a sense of simply being here, and beyond that there is not much we can say! But this is important knowledge, albeit of a direct and non-conceptual kind. “Intuitive” is a reasonable way to describe this kind of knowledge. It’s to do with sensing the whole quality and balance of things, a sense of how things cohere, a sense of getting the whole picture rather than just trying to piece together the whole picture out of thousands of tiny fragments. A true practitioner is not bound by beliefs or pre-existing systems. This is especially apparent in the Zen tradition where there is plenty of paradox and even irreverence when it comes to the conceptual realm or belief systems. What this is all pointing to is the fact that the quality of awakening is not bound by any concepts or beliefs.

AM: But surely we can’t just throw out concepts altogether?

AS: Despite the non-conceptual nature of liberation, the practitioner can always decide upon the most suitable or skilful set of concepts to use at any time. The Buddha would always be thinking about the appropriate teaching for each individual practitioner rather than simply trotting out the same set of beliefs irrespective of the context. The Buddha would be asking: “How does this seem to you? Is this conducive to your welfare or not?” In this sense, we may think of Buddhism less as a rigid set of beliefs so much as a set of inquiries into the nature of direct experience designed to stimulate the mind of the listener. In one of the Buddha’s famous discourses, he describes views and opinions as “fetters” and “contortions”. He imagines the Sophists of his time endlessly debating over whether the self is eternal, non-eternal, finite, infinite, in the world, out of the world. Or is it neither or is it both? The Buddha understood these kinds of views to be both attractive and dangerous, and through understanding this he released himself from this particular fetter. Of course the Buddha understood that until you are firmly embedded in trans-conceptual experience, you will need concepts and views and beliefs in order to negotiate the world, so his teachings would aim to help people cultivate skilful structures to hold the mind in a suitable frame of reference that is conducive to its liberation.

AM: You have written about the dangers of stretching an event into an entity. Please can you explain what you mean by this and how we are to work with this deeply ingrained human tendency?

AS: It’s true that I emphasize this belief in real entities – in me, in you, in cars, in animals, and so on – as a particularly powerful manifestation of ignorance (avijjā) because it is not normally seen in this way at all. The reality of these discrete things seems so obvious that to bring it into question seems preposterous, but once we investigate the ways in which we come to know entities or things we can begin to uncover some of the assumptions that go into creating them. Firstly, you can ask, “What happens to this visual impression when I close my eyes?” And you realize that as you cannot see what it is doing or where it is when your eyes are closed, the reality of it is in your mental notion of it. But if the reality of a thing is in your mental notion of it, what happens when you forget something? Has it simply disappeared? We tend only to remember a few poignant details of a person or a place, and our memories are largely built around higher intensities of experience – we are more likely to recollect something that was especially pleasurable or painful, and we are then able to construct new memories out of these. We don’t tend to remember the inconsequential moments or actions. Through this process, we transform an event in the mind (a memory or a perception or a moment of recognition) into a definite thing, and this “thinginess” is held and sustained by the mind.

AM: But when I look out the window and see a field and cows and trees and other things, these are definitely real things. They are not just created by my mind like hallucinations!

AS: In response to this, I would encourage you to consider the visual scene more closely, to think about everything that can possibly be seen by your eyes. What else is there? You may reply that there are other things like the sky, clouds, and so on. However, you would be unlikely to consider elements of the visual field like the sense of distance. If you were to respond that the cow is five feet away and the clouds are a few miles away, I would ask you where exactly that distance is? Is it a thing? If it is such a central part of how that reality is structured, presumably you should be able to say where it is or what it is.

What we are experiencing is a visual field of shapes and colours, and some of these seem close and some seem far away. And within this field, certain aspects will be focused on and given outlines, for example we perceive edges where a colour changes dramatically. But there’s no edge there in itself; all that happens is that the mind perceives a change of colour, and from this it concludes that there is one thing with another that is outside of it. The eye itself just sees unbroken shifting colours, whereas through an organ called attention the mind selects particular localizations within that field, and in this way distinguishes one object from another.

If you try to attend to the entirety of the visual field (which is actually very difficult to do!), what happens is that the objects become very fuzzy. You can only hold an object in awareness through focusing on a local aspect of that visual field; and the sharper you wish that focus to be, the narrower your field has to get. But because this happens more or less instinctively we are generally unaware that we are doing it. “But I can see the spots on the side of the cow”, you may protest. Yes, but you wouldn’t be able to if you changed your focus! Focusing is part of that experience, as is turning your head one way or another. These events are a very important part of what generates these objects in our visual field; without these events happening you would only see a swimming field of colours.

AM: But you wouldn’t deny that there are real things out there like cows and trees?

AS: We can’t say that there’s nothing (or no things) out there, but what we can say is that what is out there is dependent upon one’s attention. And even once we have got an object in focus, what we see will be very different depending on our intention. For example, a burglar will see a house very differently to an estate agent or an architect. My intention very much affects what I see. And in addition to attention and intention, impression is also a significant element in what makes a thing into a thing. Consider showing a computer to a toddler. They would probably feel it, they may be mesmerized by the glowing screen, but they would not be thinking in terms of words and programs. And impressions can have very powerful effects: just consider shade of skin and how this can impact upon how someone is seen and treated. Or consider how much time and effort is spent on making “a good impression” – looking good, wearing appropriate clothes, saying the right things, and so on. So all these events – the focusing on the event, why we focus on the event, and the registering of the event – create what a thing is.

This is more than just an interesting quirk of our perception; it’s profoundly effective as we end up storing in our minds things called “terrorists”, “criminals”, “immigrants”, and “enemies”, as well as more nebulous things like “plans”, “ambitions” and “ideals”. These things can haunt us and give us strong emotions that can create everything from excitement to despair. In this way, an event becomes something that has a pressing reality to it and pins us by returning time and again. So getting some control over this process through which we convert an event into an entity is crucial: we need to deconstruct the event so that we can understand the various feelings and perceptions that are operating in our creation of it as an entity rather than simply a series of micro-events. If this process goes unheeded, we lose freedom, we lose responsiveness, we become cemented, and we lose our possibility for potential as we only see things in very limited ways.

Most geniuses have explored what everyone else can see, but have been able to see it in a radically new way. Human potential really occurs in our ability to understand this apparent reality – sensory and conceptual – and tinker with it. We have the potential to generate extremely refined actions or kamma that create new possibilities and greater vistas for us, that help to deconstruct pain, fixed opinions, dogmas and biases, that can clear the past and make the future something that is open rather than prefigured. We can learn to operate more skilfully through deconstruction; this is the great potential of skilful kamma.

AM: As a final question, what need do you think Buddhism is speaking to in the West, and especially the monastic tradition of which you are a part and which has only taken root here in the very recent past?

AS: Monasteries may seem strange at first, but in fact they are very human places. They are not just places where people can live within a community that is really committed to training human beings. Anybody can just wander in, and wander out again when they want: you don’t have to pay to enter or stay, you can just pick up a free book or chat with someone or just sit in silence. They offer sanctuary, and people need sanctuary in this day and age.

Refuge is a very powerful term in Buddhism. It encourages a positive orientation that stands in opposition to the orientations of the global economy or fears of terrorism and violence.

Buddhism deals in calm, in trust, and in safety. Refuge is a very powerful term in Buddhism. It encourages a positive orientation that stands in opposition to the orientations of the global economy or fears of terrorism and violence. And this is not just a fantasy orientation, but one that is directly experienced – as calm, love, honesty, and integrity. We all know these as ideas but Buddhism is a practice – all the ideas are geared towards trying to make it a felt reality, something we directly experience in ourselves, rather than something we believe in or pray for or hope somebody else will give us.

The Buddha offers ground: the ground of direct experience and the immense relief of knowing that whatever life throws at you, you have the resources to remain open to it and unshaken by it. And from this foundation, we then have the possibility of being able to respond more skilfully to what comes our way. Buddhism is an extremely detailed assembly of skilful means that is unrivalled in terms of angles and details on practical tips and means that you can act in. You can find plenty of conceptual stuff elsewhere, but in terms of real practical skills it’s huge. And they’re doable. That’s what’s on offer.


From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 ("Where is Philosophy Going?").

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