Two years ago I was in Sri Lanka, getting ready to return home to ordinary life. Life that had to go on, life that would, with all its accompanying routines. As I sat in the home I had grown up, surrounded by all the things that my mother had left behind, quite as though she had just run out for a moment, I felt a deep sense of dread about leaving. I saw no point in life. I did not know how or when I would ever stop grieving. My brothers were both worried about me for they understood that while they would continue to live in the place where she had lived, continue to be comforted by the many rituals of our Buddhist faith, I was going to a place where I would be alone with my grief. One of them offered to have his wife apply to study for her doctorate at one of the universities near my home. “We could live there,” he said, though I knew that living here was not something either of them would want to do for any length of time, their lives were in Sri Lanka. The other brother, an anti-Apple brother, but a musician to whom I had once boasted about my acquisition of an iPod, said “I will put some sermons on a CD for you. You can download them onto your iPod. They will help you.” They did. There was nothing else that I could listen to but those sermons. I don’t know that I understood each one, but there was something calming in the warm and, often, merry voice of the priest whose name I did not know.
Today, my father sent me this sermon and it turns out that it was delivered by the same priest whose words had helped me through the worst year of my life, publication of my first novel notwithstanding. Then, as now, I am often in the position of having to set aside what I am feeling in order to be light, rock, beacon or hope to the people I love. And as I do those things I have often wondered when I might find that illusive state of being called peace of mind. Below, the sermon:
‘RIP now while you can still enjoy it’
WORDS OF WISDOM from Ven. Ajahn Brahmavanso on his 60th Birthday
Achieving peace of mind is a lovely way of describing the meaning of life. It is something that everyone aspires to. However, peace of mind is often like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – it tends to be elusive for most people. I would like you to reflect on the times when you were the happiest. You would probably find that your happiest times were when you experienced a deep sense of contentment or peace of mind. But when you reflect on these experiences, you realize they didn’t occur because everything around you was perfect. On the contrary, you realized that peace of mind occurred, in spite of your surroundings not being perfect, in spite of difficulties problems and imperfections of life.
That is my first important point. Don’t think peace of mind only comes once you have fixed up all your problems and finished all your business. All your worrying, all your striving and struggling.., has it ever got you where you really wanted to be? You can’t control the world and change it the way you would like it. Therefore, you can only find peace of mind and achieve the meaning of life by embracing the imperfections of life. How do you do that?; by knowing that imperfection is the nature of the world. So make peace with imperfection. Another thing you can’t change is the past and yet lingering on the past, people worry about and feel guilty and angry about it, but since you can’t change it, the only wise thing to do is to make peace with it. But how do you do that when there is so much unfinished business? You make it finished.
One of my favourite stories is about the abbot who was building the main hall for his monastery. It takes a lot of time and effort to make such a big building, and the building work was still in progress when the time came for annual rains retreat. The abbot told the builders to go home and come back in 3 months. A few days later, a visitor came to the temple and asked when the hall was going to be finished the abbot replied ” It is finished ” the visitor was quite stunned and said ” What do you mean it is finished? There is no roof are you going to leave it like that? There is no glass in the windows, there are pieces of wood and cement bags all over the floor”. To which the abbot unforgettably replied: “What is done is finished.”
What a beautiful response that was. It is the only way to find peace in life. If you want all your building work to be finished before you stop to find peace, all your jobs out of the way, all your letters and emails replied to, you will never find peace of mind, because there is always more to be done. As I have often said, the only place in our modern societies where you find people resting in peace, is in the cemeteries, but then it’s too late to enjoy it. So I say RIP now, while you can still enjoy it. I’m making the observation that you only find peace, when you realize that what’s done, is finished. The past is gone; let it go. One of the signs of true spirituality – of whatever tradition – is forgiveness and letting go. I was once asked how many times you should forgive, and I replied, ”Always one more time,” that is, forever.
Forgiveness is one of the most beautiful acts that humans are capable of. In South Africa, Just after apartheid had been dismantled and Nelson Mandela had been made president, instead of seeking revenge, instead of punishing all those people who punished him, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Anybody who had done a crime was able to go to this commission and confess, what they’d done. As long as they were truthful, no matter how horrendous their crimes, they would be given amnesty and forgiveness. It was a brilliant way of dealing with the past. One of the moving events of that commission was a policeman recounting, in the presence of the man’s widow, how he had tortured and killed her husband, a black African activist from the ANC. Can you imagine this scene? There was a woman whose husband had disappeared…, probably in the middle of the night, and she suspected what had happened, but didn’t know the true story. Now she was facing a man who was confessing in detail, how he had tortured and killed her husband, the father of her children, the man she loved. Apparently this white police officer was shaking and trembling as he recounted the details of what had happened. At the end of her testimony the widow rose from her seat and went towards him. The guards were supposed to stop her but they froze. She went up to him put her big black arms around him and said “I forgive you.”
Not just the two of them wept, but apparently the whole room.
This sort of beautiful act is one of true spirituality. Both the victim and the perpetrator would move on and become better people. They would learn real compassion, gain real wisdom, and find a real way of moving forward. Now if that woman could forgive the murderer of the man she loved, then each one of us – if we really put our minds to it – is capable of forgiving anything.
I was once counselling a woman who was dying of cancer. I asked her what was the worst thing she’d ever done, an act she might carry to her grave and feel terrible about. She told me she had kissed a man who was not her husband. I said ” If that’s the worst thing you’ve done, you’ve lived a pretty good life.” When she saw my reaction, she realized for the first time, that it wasn’t all that bad. To me it seemed like a small thing, but she had been eaten up inside. It was such a release for her to tell someone.
When you keep things to yourself, even the smallest things can become huge. When you acknowledge them, especially if you tell a good friend, you can see that they’re no big deal and you can let them go. The way to forgiveness is to realize that you’re worth forgiving and so is the other person. That realization is step number one. That black woman in South Africa saw something in that policeman who had killed her husband, something she could respect, something worth saving, so she forgave. Remember, there’s no such thing as a murderer; no such thing as a thief; only a person who has stolen; no such thing as a cheat, only a person who has cheated. If you understand that, you understand why forgiveness is possible: there’s something more to any person than the bad acts. And that’s true of each of one of you. No matter what you’ve done, there’s always something inside of you, that is worthy of forgiveness.
Worrying about the future
Another thing which stops inner peace is worrying about the future. People often think they need to worry about global warming, the credit crunch, the wars, the natural disasters, AIDS, and the cancers. But it’s only worthwhile thinking about things you can do something about. If you can’t do anything, why worry? In addition, you can’t predict the future; It’s totally uncertain.
On one occasion when I was just a school kid, my mother told me I was going to the dentist the following morning. I told my mum ” Mummy don’t send me to the dentist; you don’t love me; you’re sending me to the torturer.” But try as I might, I couldn’t get off it. When I went to bed that night, I was worried and didn’t sleep well. The following morning my mother had to drag me to the dentist, and I was screaming and crying. But I eventually got to the surgery, my appointment had been cancelled. All that worry, all that crying for no reason. That was a very important experience for me. I learnt, there’s no point worrying about the future, when you don’t know what’s going to happen. Life is completely unpredictable. When you understand that, you can have peace of mind in the present moment.
You can have peace of mind, even when you’re dying. Why not? No more worries about taxes, global warming or anything else, because you’re soon, about to depart, The problems of the world become irrelevant. When there are no problems, you become peaceful. And because you never know how much time you’ve got left, you might as well be peaceful now. This was Ajahn Chah’s great teaching to me, when I was sick in hospital. He came to visit me and gave me the sort of teaching you remember for the rest of your life. He told me ” Brahmavamso you’re either going to get better or you’re going to die.” That really didn’t hurt at first, because it wasn’t what I had expected. It wasn’t the usual bedside manner of your best friend. But when I started to think about it, I realized that it meant the sickness wasn’t going to last. That was such a relief. Sometimes, you meet people who have understood this; They are dying and supposedly in agony, but they still tell jokes. They’re happy and peaceful.
You must also make peace with whatever you have to do in life, with your duties and responsibilities. Peace of mind is not achieved by always trying to do what you like. On the contrary, you find peace of mind, by making peace with whatever you are called to do. Whatever your role, whatever your duties, you can always have fun, enjoy it, put happiness into it and make peace with it. You can make peace and have fun with anything, anywhere. Peace of mind is not found by searching for a deep cave, in a perfect monastery; in a wonderful place high in the Himalayan Mountains. If you’re looking for peace that way, you are looking for what Ajahn Chah called, a tortoise with a moustache. People look for the impossible and of course, they can’t find it. There is no such thing as a tortoise with a moustache.
You find real peace of mind, by accepting your life as you have it now, even in the midst of great tragedy. What a wonderful thing that is. How do you find this peace? Let go of all the past and guilt, by forgiving, don’t worry about the future, and learn to appreciate the moment. Do your duty and put fun into whatever you have to do.
Peace of mind is as free as the air: Drink it, enjoy it, and take it with you. It’s always there, if only you look in the right place.
Ven. Ajahn Brahmavanso