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Being Nobody Going Nowhere
Ayya Khema

Meditations on the Buddhist Path
Published by Wisdom Publications/Boston in 1987
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002

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Hop on a plane and fly to Sri Lanka for a ten-day meditation course or prop open this book - either way you'll get the same talks that are included in this 192 page paperback book by Ayya Khema.

[page 7] When our feelings become free of emotional reactions and dwell in love and compassion as their natural abode, our mind will be open to the great truths of universal significance.

What is meditation if it is not living in the moment? And yet for many of us the present moment is spent living in the past or the future. Khema calls this a human absurdity, and certainly it deserves that adjective because in the animal kingdom there is no attention to the past or the future.

[page 9] One of the human absurdities is the fact that we're constantly thinking about either the future or the past. Those who are young think of the future because they've got more of it. Those who are older think more about the past because for them there is more of that.

What we attend to is what we have more of - that is a thought worth pondering - more past, we attend to matters that are past; more future, to matters that are to come. What is lacking in this approach to life is the understanding that both the young with more future and the old with more past have an abundant present that is available to them every second of their lives! Eternity is now. There is no meaning to eternity unless we are alive at this very moment. I am alive as I run my fingers speedily over the keyboard as I type these words, and you, dear Reader, are alive as you run your eyes speedily over these words. Stop for a moment and ponder, think deeply about eternity - is it not merely one present moment after another? Live those moments fully that you are experiencing now and you construct your eternity, one brick at a time, one second at a time.

The interesting paradox of meditation is that living fully resembles from the outside doing nothing. In a culture in which doing nothing is equated with sloth, torpor, or laziness, meditation would be difficult to explain or understand. And yet Ayya Khema accomplishes the task of explaining meditation and its benefits admirably in the talks recorded in this book.

She uses simple words and concepts: (1) "When the body gets tired, we quickly rest it. But what about the mind? Only the meditator looks after the mind." (2) "The first thing we need to do with the mind is wash it, clean it up, not only once or twice a day as we do for the body but in all our waking moments. . . Mind can only be cleansed by mind. . . . One second of concentration in meditation is one second of purification. . . ."

If we work in our garden our body picks up dirt, grime, soil, and small pieces of plant matter and we must wash the physical matter from our physical body by use of physical cleansing agent, namely water with the help of a little cleansing agent like soap. A few minutes of shower cleanses our body and it feels fresh and clean and ready to serve us well. A few minutes of meditation likewise cleanses our mind. What does it mean to cleanse our minds? Khema says it means simply "to drop those thoughts which are unwholesome."

In my mid-twenties, I was confused, upset, and distraught in my daily life. I had a good job, a wife and children, but I had no peace. All my thoughts were focused on what might go wrong. And the more I talked to others about these thoughts, the worse my thoughts became. Then one day I found a small booklet called "Thought Conditioners" in which the author (1) said, "We do daily conditioning exercises for our bodies, why not daily conditioning exercises for our thoughts?" I carried that booklet with me and used the thought conditioners every day. This was the beginning of my journey out of my morass of unwholesome thoughts. My mind had been opened to the idea that the mind must do its own cleansing. From the day onward I have spent each day developing a strong mind by cleansing away unwholesome thoughts. If cleansing the mind seems to be a lifelong task, it should not seem any more onerous than the lifelong task of cleansing one's body. Daily showers for the body and daily meditations for the mind.

We take our body on holidays or vacations, but if we bring along our mind, it's a working holiday for the mind. All the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and things to do. Meditation is the only true vacation for the mind. I like the word vacation over holiday because its origin is in the word vacate, which means to empty out. In meditation we empty out our mind in order to give it a true rest.

In Chapter 4, "Four Friends," we are introduced to the "four divine abidings":

1. loving kindness
2. compassion
3. joy with others
4. equanimity

These are not things we are born with, but rather things we must learn to develop during the course of our lives.

In the movie "Green Mile" John Coffee says that the killer of the two young girls "used their love against them." This was a difficult concept to understand until I read Khema's words in the next passage on loving kindness:

[page 37]The next grade of loving-kindness we might call friendship. We feel friendly towards a certain group of people - our friends, our neighbours, people we know or someone who does us a favour. Friendliness is a step towards loving-kindness but it isn't real loving-kindness yet. It is a quality which is endearing to the heart and endears other people to us. But it has the near-enemy of love embedded in it, namely affection. Although we think of affection as something positive, it has attachment in it. Attachment to our friends and associates, to those who help us, to those who live with us. That attachment creates hate, not towards the people we are attached to, but towards the idea that they might be lost. There is fear and we can only fear what we hate. Therefore the purity of love is lost. The attachment makes it impure and thus less satisfying. No total fulfilment can be found. This is what happens within the family. That is why there is always unsatisfactoriness in that kind of love.

She says above that "Friendliness . . . has the near-enemy of love embedded in it, namely affection." How can affection be the near-enemy of love? What John Coffee saw was the killer told each girl in turn, "If you make a sound, I will kill your sister." Out of their affection to each other, neither screamed and they were both killed by a killer who used their love against them. On an everyday level, we may see affection in its role as a "near-enemy of love" when a family member is near death, and one family member attempts to force other family members to do things in the name of love. It is those who are most tightly bond to possessions who are likely to view love as a form of possession; it is those who are likely to pervert the process of allowing the others to love according to their own volition. And when such a perversion of love takes place in a family, it engenders a hotbed of emotions.

[page 38]The love one has for one's family can be used as a seedbed to experience the feeling of lovingness. Then one can cultivate it, make it grow, spread it further. Only then does family love have its proper significance. Otherwise it becomes a hotbed of emotions - as it so often is - like a boiling kettle with the lid on. The loving feeling in the family must be used to cultivate that true feeling of loving-kindness in one's heart, which is not dependent on conditions, such as 'my husband, my wife, my daughter, my son, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my father.' That is all 'my-making and mine-making.' Unless we can transcend that and grow into unconditional love, the family love has not been used for its full purpose. It has been used for ego support and survival instead. Since survival is a lost cause, it doesn't need our effort. Atom bomb or not, we are not going to survive. There is only one place where we are all going to, where we will all meet.

Do you practice loving-kindness in your life? Would you like to have a gauge as to whether you do or not? Here are three gauges that I have found in Rudolf Steiner's writings and Buddha's. One can readily apply the gauge to one's life. It seems that we live in a society in which sleeping pills instead of loving-kindness are considered the cure for insomnia, up until now.

[page 40] 'One goes to sleep happily, one dreams no evil dreams, and one wakes happily.'

So often the truly compassionate person is accused of not having pity. If we are truly feeling compassion we are being sorry with another person, whereas feeling pity, we are sorry for another person. (page 45) What happens is that the person feeling pity has no empathy with which to notice that the person they are pitying and the compassionate person are feeling the same feeling. (The difference between with and for is the difference that psychotherapists call associated and dissociated.)

During the past two weeks, Hurricanes Isidore and Lili have threatened the area in which I live. I love September hurricanes. I have since I was a kid. They brought us welcome relief from the otherwise sweltering weather of September when I was in grade school. Those cool, blustery days were a delight to me and remain so today. My equanimity during these two weeks was severely challenged by the rampant fear that I observed in the people around me. This fear was fostered by the news and weather channels who, in their ardor to use Category 4 labels before the storm winds actually reached that level of intensity, reminded me of when I worked for the US Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans. Our office was close to the Carrollton gauge which is used to judge the flood level of the Mississippi River. Each day on break the employees would go outside and try to nudge the flood gauge above 17 feet at which point they would get over-time work and more money. Fear is the opposite of compassion. If we want something for "me" we lose our compassion and are subject to all kinds of fear.

[page 46] When there is fear there is no compassion because fear is based on hate. We only fear what we don't like. We don't fear what we love. The more fear there is in the heart, the less compassion. Fear is always based on the ego concept. There is no fear in a person who's enlightened. There is nothing to fear because there's nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It has all become immaterial, without significance. The more ego, the more fear. Fear of the dark, fear of thieves, fear of bad weather, fear of the future, all kinds of fear. Fear is always based on the protection of the illusory 'me.' And the more we want to protect 'me' the less we can have compassion.

Khema tells us that the near-enemy of joy is affectation or hypocrisy, which is "saying one thing and meaning another." True joy is devoid of an affectation it is pure and clear as a mountain stream, which may be why we enjoy being near such a stream. One cannot be depressed in its presence.

[page 49] Joy with others is a sure antidote for depression. Anybody who suffers from depression is suffering from the lack of joy with others, the lack of sympathetic joy. One cannot always have joyful occasions, joyful thoughts in one's own life, but if one has joy with other people one can surely find something to be happy about.

The fourth of the "four friends" is equanimity or even-mindness. Khema tells us that its enemies are anxiety, restlessness and indifference. If we understand that everything changes, then we have made great strides towards our equanimity. A family member dies the family changes, but life goes on. A king of old wanted to practice equanimity and asked for the royal jeweler to forge him a ring that would help him. The jeweler designed a special gold ring and inside it engraved the following terse phrase, "This too shall pass."

Khema tells us that security is an illusion and if we seek after an illusion, we will never find it and thus we will never attain equanimity, but always be seeking instead.

[page 51] The only reason we have no true equanimity is because of ego protection. We fear that 'I' may be in some sort of danger, some sort of attack on 'me,' which may make my life less secure. The security that everyone is looking for is a myth anyway. It is an illusion. There is no security. Everybody is subject to death. Everything we have is subject to destruction. everyone we love is subject to death, decay, disease, disappearance, changing their mind. There is no security in any of that. The lack of equanimity which arises when things happen which we don't like is based on the illusion that we've lost something that is really significant to our well-being. This is our ego-protection. But even our well-being is an illusion because there is nothing that can ever make us truly well and lastingly secure.

We live in "constant flux, constant flow" Khema tells us. And yet when we attempt to change that flux and flow into something fixed, we reify our experience and end up living in an illusory world of our own construction, one that will often remind us of the difference between our fixed illusion and the quickened rush of reality.

[page 52] Without that flux and flow, we wouldn't be here and yet we try to make that flux and flow permanent. We try to make it solid. 'This is me and I want to make sure that everybody knows this is me. I've got a name and there are certain people and possessions that belong to me. I've got viewpoints and want to make sure everybody knows them.' This is trying to instil permanency into a person. Yet there can only be a person because it is constantly changing and in the end it's going to change into a corpse. Then we can start all over again.

We must learn to say with Buddha, "I don't quarrel with the world. The world quarrels with me." When we can say this and mean it, we can sure we have found our equanimity. (page 52)

Obviously there must be hindrances to keeping to these "four divine abidings" of loving kindness, compassion, joy with others, and equanimity or else everyone would experience them in their lives already. In Chapter 6 Khema lists and explains the "five hindrances":

1. sensual desire
2. ill-will
3. sloth and torpor
4. restlessness and worry
5. sceptical doubt

She spends the entire chapter explaining them, but gives us one antidote for all five hindrances, "noble friends and noble conversation." These are friends who are not given to discussions of "gossip, weather, politics" but rather conversations that allow us to look into ourselves, conversations that feed us not rubbish or poisons, but provide healthy nourishment for our souls.

[page 63] Those kind of friends are the important people in one's life. When Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and attendant, once said to the Buddha, 'Sir, a good friend is half of the holy life,' the Buddha said, 'Do not say so, Ananda. A good friend is the whole of the holy life.' There is nothing to take the place of a spiritual friend. This is the most important person in one's life the kind of friend who helps one remember to be on the path.

As we travel on the eponymous path of 'being nobody, going nowhere' we will meet many types of people. If we were able to ask the Buddha to help us understand the various types, he might use his metaphor of the four kinds of clay pots.

[page 100] The first kind has holes in the bottom. One pours the water in it and it runs right out. What is heard is immediately forgotten. The second pot has cracks. After the water is poured in, it seeps out. By the time one gets up from one's seat and out of the door, all is forgotten. The third kind is full to the brim. Those are the people who say, 'I know.' They either don't listen at all or what they hear has no impact. One can pour anything in, they are full of their own knowledge and viewpoints. Then there is the clay pot without holes and cracks, totally empty. One can pour clean new water in and it will remain and be refreshing and uplifting to all who drink it.

If we would wish to become like the fourth pot, we must start as Buddha did, to fill in the holes, seal our cracks and empty our pot of all water so that we hold the clean new water to refresh and uplift all who would drink it. If it seems to you that this would take a supreme effort, you are right, but it will be supremely beneficial. And the Buddha offers some help for you in these "four supreme efforts" which he recommends as a "skillful means" of achieving this Right Effort:

[page 170] They are worded like this: 'Not to let an unwholesome thought arise, which has not yet arisen. Not to let an unwholesome thought continue, which has already arisen. To make a wholesome thought arise, which has not yet arisen. To make a wholesome thought continue, which has already arisen.'

~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~~ footnotes ~~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^
1 The author of "Thought Conditioners" was Norman Vincent Peale. Each thought conditioner was a Bible verse followed by a brief meditation on the verse written by the author..
Return to text below footnote.



Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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