New Moon Day: Turning Coal into Diamond

November 27, 2008

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Turning Coal into Diamond

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‘Insignificant is the loss of wealth, relatives and fame:

the loss of wisdom is the greatest loss.

Insignificant is the increase of wealth, relatives and fame:

the increase of wisdom is the highest gain.’ *

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Coal

Let us bring that black and dirty substance coal to mind: it is coarse, it is bland, it is nothing special. We don’t want to handle it more than is necessary. True, it’s invaluable to us, but it’s still a very unrefined material. The black stuff is, putting aside its usefulness, one of the less desirable substances on earth.

But, given the right conditions, what happens to coal after a certain period of time? It turns into the most precious material on earth. It turns into diamond.

Our suffering is like coal. It is dirty, it is unrefined, we don’t like to handle it; we’d rather put it down. There’s also plenty of it.

But, being like coal, it has the potential to become something very special. This is because, given the right conditions, our suffering will eventually be transformed into the most precious thing – material or immaterial – on earth. Our suffering will transform into wisdom.

But for this to happen the correct conditions are required. Without these conditions the coal stays black and dirty – our suffering remains as suffering. So, these conditions that are required for suffering to be transformed into wisdom, where are they to be found? In the Noble Eightfold Path.

Our suffering and our experience of defilement is to be valued precisely because it is this that will lead us to develop wisdom. For those who do not realise they suffer there is little impetus to develop wisdom.

It is traditionally said that the human realm is the most suited to the development of wisdom; the devas are far too busy enjoying themselves to question anything; and the animals-on-down are, for the most part, too immersed in the struggle to survive from this day to the next (except Ajahn Tommy). Even in the human realm we see the extremes of struggle and ease, though more of the former. Think of the difficulty a family with bulging stomachs and flies nibbling their eyelashes in Ethiopia would have in successfully following the Eightfold Path. And so we are very fortunate! Don’t wish you were in a heavenly world! This life is a precious opportunity – but it won’t last long.

As average humans we generally experience a balance between suffering and happiness; between pleasure and pain. For the most part, unlike the devas, we do not think that life is one long pleasure trip as we are well aware of suffering. But, unlike the animals and so on, we are not overwhelmed by the struggle simply to survive; we have the leisure to cultivate the path without too much difficulty. It is this balance between happiness and suffering that provides us with fertile soil in which to develop wisdom. We are neither deluded by happiness nor are we so overwhelmed by interminable suffering so as to be unable to practise. And our life span is short enough for us to perceive impermanence but not too short to render it hopeless.

Now, out of our happiness and our suffering it is the latter that we can learn most effectively from. Why is this? It is because it makes us look for a way out of that same suffering.

There are two ways in which people attempt to deal with their suffering: they either run away from it or they confront it. As Ajahn Chah said, however, to run away from your suffering is to actually run towards it. To fear it is to strengthen it. To confront it is to weaken it and eventually destroy it. We confront it by being mindful and watchful of it. We investigate our suffering and learn from it, eventually freeing ourselves from it.

And so it is by carefully watching our suffering that we can develop wisdom. Think of when you are suffering and when you are reasonably comfortable. Which experience is clearer to you? Which is more apparent? I should guess that it is the suffering that is clearer. When something is clearer to us it is easier to examine. This is why suffering is more valuable to us. Suffering sharpens us up; it wakes us up. It forces us to address it. When we are comfortable then our mindfulness can weaken: it is not being challenged to develop wisdom.

Therefore we should value our suffering.

Wise and experienced monks are well aware of the pitfalls of monastery life. Without the watchful eye of a good teacher one can slip into a bit of a rut. You eat well; you sleep well; you don’t have a mortgage to pay; and you have plenty of time to yourself. Now, if you’re not self-disciplined and you don’t have a pile of suffering to get through then you can become stuck; stuck in a routine, stuck in your defilements. You are not challenging your defilements as you should and therefore your wisdom has little to exercise itself upon.

And so it is the duty of a good teacher to add a little chilli pepper to this bland mixture of life that you have concocted. A good teacher will know that his disciples will sometimes need shaking up and knocking out of their complacency, aware that without challenges the opportunities to develop wisdom are few. A good teacher will therefore create those opportunities – whether you like it or not….

Having the privilege of living under Luangpor’s guidance I get to hear his many first hand accounts of life with Ajahn Chah. By the sound of it Ajahn Chah could certainly turn up the heat on occasions.

Luangpor relates how once, at Ajahn Chah’s monastery, when the meeting hall was packed with the resident monks and visiting lay people, Ajahn Chah felt the need to stir things up. There sat the monks very peacefully and quietly when all of a sudden there was a commotion at the front of the hall around him. What was going on? Everyone was attentive. Then the news spread like wild fire: a lay person had lost their chilli dish. Now, in Thailand, these things are as common as tea cups and so to lose one is nothing. But it seems Ajahn Chah saw an opportunity. He ordered EVERYONE in the monastery to get up and hunt for this chilli dish. First the novices filed out… then the junior monks… then the middle monks…….. And then even the senior monks. Even the senior monks needed shaking up. Ajahn Chah, in a few minutes, had virtually the whole monastery frantically (if Ajahn Chah told you to do something you didn’t dawdle) searching everywhere for this measly chilli dish!

In monasteries, when there is a gathering late in the evening, it’s a favourite practice of the teacher to keep his monks awake longer than they’d like. We call it ‘torturing the kilesas’. Or at any time when it’s clear that you’d rather not be wherever you are he’ll keep you there. Torturing the kilesas. We see these (or should) as opportunities to get to know and examine our suffering.

One of the defining characteristics of the Thai Forest Tradition is its emphasis of the dhutangas. The word ‘thudong’ comes form this term. These dhutangas are a list of thirteen ascetic practices laid down by the Buddha. Unfortunately these practices have begun to disappear in many monasteries which have their roots in the Forest Tradition. Dhutangas are ‘bitter practices’; they ‘shake up the defilements’. They are therefore effective in bringing about wisdom in the one who observes them. In this monastery we keep a number of these dhutangas: we eat only one meal a day, and we eat it all from the one bowl. Often monks will keep the other practices such as staying in a charnel ground (our novice wants to go and stay in the local graveyard…), or under a tree, wearing only rag robes, sleeping out in the open, not lying down, and so on. The Buddha praised these practices as means to speed up one’s development of wisdom.

Some of you may heave heard of the ‘Crazy Wisdom’ teacher called Gurdjeiff. Also knowing the dangers of the quiet life he too was adept at keeping things challenging. He led a community of disciples in a big old house where they lived together very peacefully and harmoniously….. Well, they would have done, had it not been for one person. This person was awful. He was like a wolf in a field full of sheep: he enraged, he grated, he disturbed. He was a nightmare; “Why does Gurdjeiff allow this man to stay?” thought his disciples. “We would all live so peacefully if it wasn’t for this man!”

Years later it emerged that Gurdjeiff had actually been paying this man to stay!

Difficulties are to be valued because they make us develop wisdom. Without difficulties we become heedless.

My life as a monk hasn’t been plain sailing, still isn’t! My fourth year was especially difficult. My difficulties have been largely internal, though there have been notable external ones (these weren’t paid to stay! – at least I don’t think they were….). But, looking back, I now truly value those difficulties; if I hadn’t have had them I might no longer still be in robes. They made me develop wisdom – I HAD to develop it. If I hadn’t have developed my wisdom my suffering would have sunk me. I could see no other way to continue other than to face my suffering and develop wisdom. Now I am beginning to appreciate the value of my experience of suffering. It is sometimes said that the amount of wisdom one develops is relative to the amount of suffering one experiences.

Therefore, if you have a lot of coal, you’re going to be very rich later on. If you practise, that is.

And so we must learn to be mindful of our suffering. As I said, suffering forces us to address it. It is uncomfortable, we want to be free of it, and to be free of it we must understand it. How do we understand it? By being mindful and watchful of it. As we continually do this then we begin to see its nature. Look closely at it and you’ll see that it is not static. By seeing that it is a moving and changing thing you see its unreality. You start to see that it is a purely empty mental phenomenon. As we do this our attachment diminishes. When you are very aware of your suffering you should probe it; ask yourself: “WHERE’S the suffering? WHERE’S the suffering? WHERE’S the suffering?” Where is it?! You won’t be able to find it. It isn’t anywhere. It is nothing. See for yourself; it’s not difficult. Can you find it? Where does it live? If you can do this you’ll start to see that it really isn’t anything, it’s just your attachment that makes it into something.

And that’s the problem – our attachment. The suffering isn’t the problem, it’s our attachment. We attach and we give it life, we make it into a ‘thing’, we make it real and threatening. However, if we investigate and probe it and look closely at it we will begin to uproot the illusion that it is real and something to be got rid of and our attachment will weaken and consequently we will be at ease.

So we must value our suffering. It is a great teacher.  

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* (Anguttara Nikaya 1, viii, 6-10. Trans. Nyanaponika Thera)

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The next teaching will be on:

The Full Moon Day, Friday 12th December

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2 Responses to “New Moon Day: Turning Coal into Diamond”

  1. thank you for the teaching.

  2. ant said

    A very healthy way of viewing life’s difficulties. Very good.

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