Half Moon Day: Untouched by the World

May 27, 2008


Untouched by the World


Just as a blue or red or white lotus born in water, grows in water and stands up above the water untouched by it, so too I, who was born in the world and grew up in the world, have transcended the world, and I live untouched by the world.” AN II, 37


The Buddha was the One Who Knows. What did he know? He knew the world. Having known the world he rose above it and remained unaffected by it. When we recollect the Buddha in Morning and Evening Chanting we say he saw through the world (lokavidu). In Buddhist language the world is characterized by the eight worldly dhammas, the eight worldly conditions: gain and loss; fame and disrepute; praise and blame; happiness and suffering.

With the Buddha’s enlightenment came a perfect equanimity that lifted his mind well clear of these four pairs. People in the world whose minds are not trained are infatuated with these conditions; they are continually spun around by them. They get thrown from one to the other like a rubber dingy on a raging ocean. We must follow the Buddha and cultivate an awareness that sees these four conditions and their opposites as essentially the same: impermanent, unsatisfactory, and without self. None can be relied upon; all are void of meaning.

It is a general rule that if you attach to one of the pairs you will inevitably suffer when its opposite arises. However, if we can manage to loosen our grip on these conditions, then whatever arises, be it happiness or gain, fame or praise, then when their opposites arise we do not suffer over them.

Take, for example, happiness. We all know someone who frequently soars upwards to a happy, happy mood, only to come crashing down not long after. These people can be a source of wisdom. You see that this person is on a high. They’re smiling; they’re laughing and joking. Everything’s great… for a few minutes. They are completely taken in by this good mood. And while you’re watching this person you’re checking your watch, wondering just how long it’s going to be before the aeroplane of happiness that they’re flying on begins to conk out and start to dive. You wait and, sure enough, the engine shows signs of failure, the propellers start to falter – chut…. chut…. chut…. and then….. neeeeeeowwwwwww — CRASSSHHHH!!!!!!!! You knew it was going to happen. And now, with the same blind attachment that they clung to the happy mood with, they cling to this bad mood. “OHHH! Everything’s so terrible! I’ll never laugh again! I don’t want to be alive!!!!!!” And what were they saying ten minutes before?

So, if we hold tight to, and get thrown around by our happy moods, then when its partner in crime – unhappiness – arises, we will almost inevitably hold tight to that and be at the mercy of that mood. We cannot have just one of each of the pairs. If we have and hold onto happiness, we will have and hold onto suffering. If we cling to praise then we will cling to blame. If we cling to gain then we will cling to loss. If we cling to fame then we will cling to disrepute. And so this never ending cycle rolls on and on.

As we contemplate in this way we begin to see with wisdom that the happy moods are actually a refined form of suffering. Why is that? Because they are unreliable! We cannot depend on them because they are changing and unstable. Watch yourself get tricked by your moods. Happiness comes along and we get tricked by it. Then it goes and unhappiness takes its place. We constantly get tricked by them. We must develop wisdom and let them all go.

If a happy mood arises – that’s alright, just don’t hold on to it. At least tell yourself that this mood has arisen and consequently it will fall, that’s guaranteed. As the Buddha said: “All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.” By knowing the unreliable and undependable nature of these moods we can experience them with an element of detachment. If you’re happy, know that it won’t last. Then when unhappiness comes you will carry that detached attitude through to that and you will not suffer over it.

As we develop in this way as soon as happiness arises we think: “Oh here we go again, a happy mood….” Then unhappiness arises “Yep, seen you before, how long are you going to last?” We develop this attitude to all that arises. Happiness – how long are you going to give it? Five minutes, ten minutes, a whole day? Suffering – how long for this? We will gradually become disenchanted with these good and bad moods and we’ll find that cutting straight through the middle of them all with equanimity is the way to real peace, something far superior to these relentlessly changing moods of ours.

One of the things about being attached to our moods is that when it is present we project it onto the future and sometimes on to the past too. So, say we’re depressed, we cannot see how we will ever be happy again! And sometimes when we’re like this we even think that we have always felt like this, which is rubbish. This is one of the ways that the mind deludes us. And so we’re depressed. It’s darkness for as far as we can see. But what happens after a few days, or a few hours, or even a few minutes? Those dark clouds of depression begin to part and a sunny good mood shines down. Now we’re happy. “How was I ever depressed?” we think! Tiring, isn’t it?

British Weather

These minds of ours are just like British weather – notoriously unpredictable and changeable! When Ajahn Chah first visited the UK in 1977 with Luangpor he was quick to say that the weather here teaches good Dhamma. Here you can get four seasons in a day. The other week we had several unusual days of very hot and sunny weather. I foolishly got used to it and uncharacteristically started to make plans for the following days, plans which depended on the weather staying sunny. How long have I lived here? So, we’d get the lawn mowed on this day, then paint the pagoda on that day…. Unsurprisingly the lawn didn’t get mowed and the pagoda didn’t get painted.

So our minds are just like British weather. One minute it’s sunny; seconds later the clouds come and it’s raining. An hour or so later they clear, only to come back with vengeance, complete with thunder and lightning.

So, we need to leave these moods alone and let them take their natural course. We understand that the good and the bad are essentially equal. They are all impermanent, unreliable and not ours. We understand that this is how the mind behaves. It goes up and it goes down. Leave it at that.

We must contemplate every mood and mental state that arises. Meditation brings us peace but we must go further and develop wisdom, then we will have peace in all situations. We contemplate our good moods and our bad moods. We develop our awareness so that it doesn’t get stuck in these moods. Ask yourself: “Is this happiness going to last? Is it reliable?” Show your mind what it’s like. When you’re suffering: “Is this mood permanent or impermanent? Have I felt like this before? Did it last when I did?” See its impermanence and the mind will begin to let go. I used to think that letting go meant that the thing you were attached to would disappear. But that isn’t necessarily the case. Letting go means that you don’t attach, even if something is present. You just leave it alone and allow it to follow its nature – which is to change and pass away. This is how it must be with our moods.

And so we develop this equanimity; the middle way. Some people misunderstand the concept of the middle way, they think of it as being a dullness and a numbness, but this is inaccurate. Dullness and numbness are in the same bag as all the ups and downs. Equanimity and the middle way transcend these things, they rise above that whole level of experience. They are extremely subtle and satisfactory states of mind. In short, they’re great!

Once, in the early days of my life at the monastery my father came for a visit and we went for a walk. On this walk I decided I’d better fill him in on a few Buddhist teachings. This was where I learnt a very important lesson. That lesson was: never, ever, EVER try to explain the Buddhist concept of rebirth to your father…. Then came our next outing, several months later. This time my little lesson would focus on something rather more tangible – the Middle Way…. “WHAT?!!” he exclaimed. “Emotions are what being human’s all about! You want to be a load of robots?!” (or something like that). I don’t really talk to him about Buddhism these days.

So to really understand the middle way and the equanimity that rises far above the whirlpool of the eight worldly conditions we need to practise.

I haven’t said much about the other three pairs, but essentially all are viewed in the same way as happiness and suffering.

Take praise and blame. Praise – who can resist some of that? Good Dhamma teachers are experts at torturing the defilements that like praise. I might get a compliment for something I’ve done and feel elated, then very soon after I’ll get a nasty poke with a bit of blame. Oooh! – it hurts! I attached to the praise and I suffered when the blame came. When I got hurt by the blame I knew I’d attached to the praise. If I hadn’t attached to the praise, I’d have been unaffected by the blame. It’s interesting to watch your mind like this. What we must understand is that it’s not the praise or blame that elates and dejects us, it’s our attachment to them. Praise: is it right or wrong? – probably both. Could be right, could be wrong. Blame: could be right, could be wrong. Someone compliments your new shoes. You’re elated. Someone says they’re horrible. You’re dejected. How can both be right? Neither are right! There’s nothing to them. Let them go and rise above them. See through them as the Buddha did. (Note: I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t listen to criticism or that criticism itself is wrong, the Buddha himself criticized when necessary. When criticized we should see if there is anything in it and act accordingly, but we don’t have to suffer over it.)

Gain and loss, fame and disrepute. They’re all just a load of trouble.

So, to summarise. If we attach to one of the pairs we’ll suffer when its opposite inevitably arises. You cannot have one without the other. Wisdom is born in part though contemplating these things. Just as the lotus grows in the water, wisdom grows in these conditions. And just as the lotus eventually emerges from the water and stands above it displaying its beauty, so to our wisdom will eventually emerge from the spinning seas of these eight conditions and stand above them, displaying its unsurpassed peace and purity.


The next teaching will be on:

The New Moon Day, Tuesday, 3rd June


2 Responses to “Half Moon Day: Untouched by the World”

  1. David Spenser said

    Lovely words and a good reminder for me. I remembered our short trip around the monastery and when we briefly talked about the crystal on top of the pagoda. It is my B/day too, so Thank you.

  2. Mark Arthur said

    yes, i feel that i am creating this world, creating my world. i create this world then attach to my creations. pleasure, pain, gain, loss, praise, blame, fame and disrepute – all creations of the mind. i like it, i don’t like it. this is me, this is not me. i want this to be, i don’t want this to be. i try not to get sucked in, see the transitory nature of all things, all creations and take up refuge. i hope to see clearly what is driving these acts of creation, this process of fabrication and just…stop
    thank you for the reminders

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