Non-duality

Ayya Khema

 

Ayya Khema was born in Berlin in 1923 of Jewish parents. In 1938 she escaped from Germany with her parents to Shanghai and spent the war years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. After the war she emigrated to America, where she married and had a son and daughter. She learned meditation while traveling through Asia with her family, and began teaching meditation herself throughout Europe, America, and Australia. She became ordained as a Buddhist nun in Sri Lanka in 1979, when she was given the name of "Khema", meaning safety and security (‘Ayya’ means ‘Sister’).

Ayya Khema established Wat Buddha Dhamma, a forest monastery in the Theravada tradition, near Sydney, Australia, in 1978. In Colombo she set up the International Buddhist Women’s Center as a training center for Sri Lankan nuns, and Parappuduwa Nuns’ Island for women who want to practice intensively and/or ordain as nuns. She was the spiritual director of Buddha-Haus in Germany, established in 1989 under her auspices.

In 1987 she co-ordinated the first international conference of Buddhist nuns in the history of Buddhism, which resulted in the creation of Sakyadhita, a world-wide Buddhist women’s organization.

She wrote over two dozen books on meditation and the Buddha’s teaching in English and German. Her books include Being Nobody, Going Nowhere, When the Iron Eagle Flies, Who is My-Self, Be an Island, Visible Here and Now and Come and See for Yourself: The Buddhist Path to Happiness.

Truth occupies a very important position in the Buddha's teaching. The Four Noble Truths are the hub of the wheel of the Dhamma. Truth (sacca) is one of the ten perfections to be cultivated in order to purify oneself.

Truth can have different aspects. If we want to find an end to suffering, we have to find truth at its deepest level. The moral precepts which include "not lying" are a basic training without which one can't lead a spiritual life.

To get to the bottom of truth, one has to get to the bottom of oneself, and that is not an easy thing to do, aggravated by the problem of not loving oneself. It naturally follows that if one wants to learn to love oneself, there must be hate present, and we are caught in the world of duality.

While we are floating around in the world of duality, we can't get to the bottom of truth, because we are suspended in a wave motion going back and forth. There is an interesting admonition in the Sutta Nipata, mentioning that one should not have associates, which prevents attachments. This would result in neither love nor hate, so that only equanimity remains, even-mindedness towards all that exists. With equanimity one is no longer suspended between good and bad, love and hate, friend and enemy, but has been able to let go, to get to the bottom where truth can be found.

If we want to find the basic, underlying truth of all existence, we must practice "letting go." This includes our weakest and our strongest attachments, many of which aren't even recognized as clinging.

To return to the simile of the truth to be found at the bottom, we can see that if we are clinging to anything, we can't get down to it. We're attached to the things, people, ideas and views, which we consider ours and believe to be right and useful. These attachments will keep us from getting in touch with absolute truth.

Our reactions, the likes and dislikes, hold us in suspense. While it is more pleasant to like something or someone, yet both are due to attachments. This difficulty is closely associated with distraction in meditation. Just as we are attached to the food that we get for the body, we are equally attached to food for the mind, so the thoughts go here and there, picking up tidbits. As we do that, we are again held in suspense, moving from thought to breath and back again, being in the world of duality. When our mind acts in this way, it cannot get to rock bottom.

Depth of understanding enables release from suffering. When one goes deeper and deeper into oneself, one finds no core, and learns to let go of attachments. Whether we find anything within us which is pure, desirable, commendable or whether it's impure and unpleasant, makes no difference. All mental states owned and cherished keep us in duality, where we are hanging in mid-air, feeling very insecure. They cannot bring an end to suffering. One moment all might be well in our world and we love everyone, but five minutes later we might react with hate and rejection.

We might be able to agree with the Buddha's words or regard them as a plausible explanation, but without the certainty of personal experience, this is of limited assistance to us. In order to have direct knowledge, it's as if we were a weight and must not be tied to anything, so that we can sink down to the bottom of all the obstructions, to see the truth shining through. The tool for that is a powerful mind, a weighty mind. As long as the mind is interested in petty concerns, it doesn't have the weightiness that can bring it to the depth of understanding.

For most of us, our mind is not in the heavy-weight class, but more akin to bantam weight. The punch of a heavy-weight really accomplishes something, that of a bantam weight is not too meaningful. The light-weight mind is attached here and there to people and their opinions, to one's own opinions, to the whole duality of pure and impure, right and wrong.

Why do we take it so personal, when it's truly universal? That seems to be the biggest difference between living at ease and being able to let the mind delve into the deepest layer of truth, or living at loggerheads with oneself and others. Neither hate nor greed are a personal manifestation, nobody has a singular claim on them, they belong to humanity. We can learn to let go of that personalized idea about our mind states, which would rid us of a serious impediment. Greed, hate and impurities exist, by the same token non-greed and non-hate also exist. Can we own the whole lot? Or do we own them in succession or five minutes at a time for each? Why own any of them, they just exist and seeing that, it becomes possible to let oneself sink into the depth of the Buddha's vision.

The deepest truth that the Buddha taught was that there is no individual person. This has to be accepted and experienced at a feeling level. As long as one hasn't let go of owning body and mind, one cannot accept that one isn't really this person. This is a gradual process. In meditation one learns to let go of ideas and stories and attend to the meditation subject. If we don't let go, we cannot sink into the meditation. The mind has to be a heavy-weight for that too.

We can compare the ordinary mind to bobbing around on the waves of thoughts and feelings. The same happens in meditation, therefore we need to prepare ourselves for becoming concentrated. We can look at all mind states arising during the day and learn to let go of them. The ease and buoyancy which arises from this process is due to being unattached. If we don't practice throughout the day, our meditation suffers because we have not come to the meditation cushion in a suitable frame of mind. If one has been letting go all day, the mind is ready and can now let go in meditation too. Then it can experience its own happiness and purity.

Sometimes people think of the teaching as a sort of therapy, which it undoubtedly is, but that's not its ultimate aim, only one of its secondary aspects. The Buddha's teaching takes us to the end of suffering, once and for all, not just momentarily when things go wrong.

Having had an experience of letting go, even just once, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that it means getting rid of a great burden. Carrying one's hate and greed around is a heavy load, which, when abandoned, gets us out of the duality of judgment. It's pleasant to be without thinking; mental formations are troublesome.

If we succeed even once or twice during a day to let go of our reactions, we have taken a great step and can more easily do it again. We have realized that a feeling which has arisen can be stopped, it need not be carried around all day. The relief from this will be the proof that a great inner discovery has been made and that the simplicity of non-duality shows us the way towards truth.



From All of Us Beset by Birth, Decay, and Death - Twelve Dhamma Talks On Practice given on Parappuduwa Nuns Island by Sister Ayya Khema

Copyright © 1988 Sister Ayya Khema. For free distribution only. You may print copies of this work for your personal use. You may re-format and redistribute this work for use on computers and computer networks, provided that you charge no fees for its distribution or use. Otherwise, all rights reserved. This electronic edition was originally transcribed from the print edition in 1994 by Maureen Riordan under the auspices of the DharmaNet Dharma Book Transcription Project, with the kind permission of the author.