Let go of the past and move forward | Sunday Observer

Let go of the past and move forward

7 May, 2023
Ven. Ajahn Brahmavamso Maha Thera
Ven. Ajahn Brahmavamso Maha Thera

Ven. Ajahn Brahmavamso Maha Thera (known to most as Ajahn Brahm) is the Abbot of the Bodhinyana monastery, Western Australia, and the Spiritual Director of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. Reproduced below are excerpts from multiple interviews the writer had with the renowned Meditation Guru during his Dhamma tours of Sri Lanka.

Q: We come across different types of people in society. Some are popular and their company is always sought after. Some are not so. What meritorious acts should people indulge in during this birth to be reborn as popular in their next birth?

A: If you are to be reborn as a popular person, a person who is adored by all, you should be extremely generous. For example, you should always engage in meritorious deeds - you should give Dhana (offerings) to monks, and you have to be generous to your friends, parents, and relatives. You have to reach out to them whenever your assistance is required. Your mother may need a lift to go to the market or your friend would need your help as his child is sick. Such people who are generous with their time, and resources, who can share and forgive others would become very popular in their next birth.

Q: Though there were thousands of Arahants during the period of the Buddha, today we scarcely hear of them. What could be the reason? Is this due to complex social developments that have taken place in the modern world?

A: If one has a lot of high qualities and merit, he/she is more likely to be born in the time of the Buddha. The best students study in Colombo or the top students manage to go to Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard. Similarly, the very top students managed to get into the ‘best university’ which was in the time of the Buddha! When you have the best teacher and the best facilities you get the best students. The reason is not the situation of the current society. In fact in the time of the Buddha the society there was very prosperous.

But it too had many social and political problems. I think it is a wonderful time for Buddhism now because we have prosperity in many countries. But people have realised that just material prosperity does not give them much happiness. You have money in most homes, but most of the time people will say. ‘Is this all?’ Is this all we need?

Recently there was an article about an English woman who bought a huge mansion after winning a lottery. The mansion was so huge with many rooms that she found it really difficult to find where her children were! So she sold the mansion and bought a very small house. It was because she realised that in a small house, she’ll be with her children and her husband, but in the mansion, she’ll be alone.

Even in Sri Lanka, (though people think that this is a poor country) there are much better houses now. You can travel around the world and have a lot of pleasures. But most people feel that something is missing - what is missing is inner happiness or inner peace. In order to seek inner peace people have turned to Buddhism and there is a revival of Buddhism in the modern world.

Q: We like to offer Dhana to pious Bhikkhus. Doing so means we want to acquire merit. Isn’t this another kind of craving?

A: It is. It is called spiritual materialism. In one sense it is good. It is used to make merit. Giving is not a form of business. It is not like investing in the stock market expecting high returns. However, this is what most people do. They like to give alms to Bhikkhus who have achieved the Sovan status or to an arahant because high returns are guaranteed.

The Buddha said it is wiser to give it to the Sangha than to a Buddha. He has said that more merit can be acquired by giving it to both Sangha - Bhikku and Bhikkuni.

So it is better to offer Dhana to a monastery, instead of offering it to an individual. Because of this, it is my custom to return any personal donations. Even when anything is given to me such as medicine I always share them with my fellow monks and nuns.

Q: In Buddhism, we are often said to forget the past and live in the present. But if the past is not to bind us where can duty lie? For example, we are bound by duty to look after our parents because they brought us up in the past.

A: The PRESENT moment is important. Your parents are right here in front of you. They are not your parents only in the past. They’ll be your parents even in the future. Buddhism says, ‘Let go of your past.’ Otherwise, your parents might have said something to you that you are not happy with, but that does not mean you should not care for them right now.

So what we do in Buddhism, always, is to let go of the past, so that we can actually forgive. The past of many people is a place of anger, guilt, and remorse. It is because of this that many people have psychological problems.

Buddhism is the only religion that says that you can forgive yourself and you should forgive yourself. It is the only religion which does not practise punishment.

Q: The Buddha has said that it is alright to consume meat if the animal has not been deliberately killed for your consumption. But if all of us do not consume meat none of the meat stalls would function. Isn’t this contradictory? If the Buddha said that we should not consume meat, then there won’t be any meat stalls.

A: Remember that a Buddha never tells people what to do. He always advises people - advises them to be compassionate. So Buddhism is not a religion which says that you should not do this or that. It is called dictatorship and we all know the problems that may arise when there is a dictator. Societies, where you are often told what to do, would never be successful, because you have to think what to do, and why to do, rather than be told what to do.

In many countries, even in Sri Lanka, many rules have been imposed. For example traffic rules. We often see traffic rules being violated. Rules tell you what you should and should not do. Less people understand why. So they break these rules. So the Buddha was wise, as he never set rules - he did not say do it or not do it, but just explained why it is bad to commit evil deeds. He advised people to be compassionate and wise and be thoughtful.

Q: The Buddha himself consumed meat?

A: He consumed what was offered to him as Dhana. So he did. The reason for that was because as a monk you have to eat what you are presented. I was a very strict vegetarian once I became a monk, but since I became a monk in Thailand I was told that I cannot survive as a strict vegetarian because I cannot buy my own food, I cannot order my food, instead, I have to take what I am given. The worst meal given was a boiled frog! We used to eat snakes, grasshoppers, ants, and many disgusting things. The fact is you have to survive on what you are given.

Q: Motherhood is held in high esteem in any society. But the same enthusiasm is hardly seen when a baby girl is born into a family. People are not very happy about it. What is the Buddha’s view about being born as a woman? Is it those who commit less meritorious deeds in this birth that are born as women in their next births?

A: The idea that you are born a woman if you have less Kamma is not true at all. Women have equal opportunities around the world. They have a different life and credentials in the Last Path. No way can it be said that it is better or worse.

In Australia right now [in 2011] the Head of State is a woman. The Governor General is a woman. Sri Lanka had the very first woman prime minister. So women also can reach great heights.

Q: But it has not conferred on them much importance. It is firmly believed that those who are born as females have committed less meritorious deeds in their previous births and that being born as a woman is insignificant.

A: No, no, no, no. A thousand times no (laughs). Even in the time of the Buddha many women became fully enlightened and became great teachers. They were praised by the Buddha. So women have the full opportunities in Dhamma. The Kamma which you have done in the past will give you a healthy body, a weak body, a sick body, a wealthy family, or a big family. But as far as Buddhism is concerned it does not matter what gender or what country you are born into. It is what you make of them. You may say that I had very bad Kamma in my past life as I was born in London, and not in a Buddhist country! Nevertheless, I struggled and strived and was happy to find Buddhism and became a monk!

Q: Does it mean that the gender into which you are born does not depend on your past Kamma?

A: Sometimes it depends on your past Kamma and also on your aspirations. The two causes for rebirth are your Kamma and also what you want to be born as. Sometimes people feel that they need to be reborn as a female in order to develop certain Paramitas. Even Ananda Thera was reborn as a female in one of his previous births. So it should not be considered as something bad. Different ends, but not bad.

Q: But the Buddha initially did not want to establish the Bhikkuni Sasana.

A: If the Buddha did not want to, why did he establish it?

Q: Isn’t it because Ananda Thera kept on insisting that Bhikkuni Sasana be established?

A: The Buddha’s wisdom is so strong and powerful, it does not need to be persuaded. The very idea that the Buddha needed somebody else to convince him was wrong. It does not make any sense to me.

The Buddha planned it from the very beginning. After Buddha’s Enlightenment Mara came to see him as he knew that the teachings of the Buddha would be a great burden to him. So he did not want the Buddha to teach.

The Buddha told Mara that he was going to establish a four-fold committee - Bhikku Sangha, Bhikkuni Sangha, Lay Upasaka, and Lay Upasika. Also when Mara came to the Buddha three months before Great Parinirvana, the Buddha told him that he had now established Bhikku Sangha, Bhikkuni Sangha, and many thousands of white-clad male disciples and female disciples. The point here is that the Buddha planned from the very beginning to initiate/set up a four-fold committee.

Q: The Buddha imposed eight major conditions on Bhikkhunis, but such conditions were not imposed on Bhikkus. This certainly makes us feel that the Buddha had a low opinion of women?

A: He did seem to impose eight major conditions for Bhikkhuni. For Bhikkhus also some conditions were imposed. Some were stricter for monks; some were stricter for women. So it goes both ways. Nevertheless, there is an argument that Bhikkhunis are discriminated against. This is not my argument. Some scholars have begun to argue whether these were actually included in the original teachings of the Buddha.

One of their arguments was that ‘Bhikkhu Vinaya’ was preserved very accurately simply because ‘Bhikkhu Sangha’ had continued without much interruption since the time of the Buddha. Since the Sangha Vinaya was very important to them they kept and preserved it. In a country like Sri Lanka too the Bhikkhuni Sangha disappeared about 900 years ago from the island. Bhikkhuni Vinaya had no real interest because it was just an academic exercise since there were no Bhikkhunis. This implies that the Bhikkhuni Vinaya could not have been remembered as accurately as Bhikku Vinaya as it had gone into disuse. So they argue that what we now see as Bhikkhuni Vinaya could not be as authentic as Bhikkhu Vinaya.

Q: Some religions advocate the killing of animals to propitiate gods and bring good luck. Can such offerings really bring people good luck?

A: Any god or any higher being would hate to see anybody suffer for them. This is such an ancient criterion. So all religions - Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, especially Buddhism should be subject to rational discussion. Just because such things are written in ancient books many years ago, they should not be accepted. Rational discussion has to take precedence. Two types of religions are found in the world today -those which bend the truth to fit the faith and those which bend the faith to fit the truth. I am not talking about Buddhism, Islam, Christianity or Hinduism, or any particular religion. Real religions should be always willing to bend the faith to fit the facts.

Q: How did the Buddha explain the original mind, the radiant mind, and the pure mind?

A: There is no such thing as an original mind. An original mind is impossible. The idea of an ‘original mind’ is like the idea of a god, an original being, and everyone-even philosophers years and years ago said that there was an original god. What caused it? The idea of anything original is philosophically bankrupt logic. It cannot happen.

The Buddha always said that Sabbe Sankara Anichcha. All things are impermanent, and subject to change, even the universe is one of a series of universes. The whole idea of ‘origin’ is like the simile of an ant that is walking on a football. The ant goes round and round the football looking for the beginnings or the end of the ball. The football is round. It does not have edges. In the same way, time or life does not have edges. It goes on and on and on.

As the Buddha said the mind that is free from hindrances is called ‘Radiant’ or ‘Prabashwara Chitta’. This is the mind you experience in deep meditation when the five hindrances disappear.

The pure mind is the mind of an arahant- pure from defilements.

Q: Does the pure mind die?

A: The pure mind does not die, because it is not born. It finishes, it ends, it ceases.

Q: Jhanas are a result of ‘letting go’. It is achieved in different stages. What if one develops a liking to be in that stage or rather gets attached to these stages?

A: Can you get too attached to letting go? If you love to be in that stage you can’t get them. If you desire them, it becomes impossible. If you stop desiring, then they happen which is why it cannot be called attachment. If you get attached to them, they’ll go! They are not born by attachment, they are destroyed by attachment. Even if you look at ‘Prasarika Citha’ in Deega Nikaya, the Buddha said anyone who indulges in Jhanas (Here I use the word ‘indulge’ because it is wrong to see the word ‘attached’) can expect four sequences- Sovan, Sakadagami, Anagami, Arahat. This is what happens, said the Buddha in ‘Prasarika Citha’ if you indulge in the Jhanas.

Q: Buddhists believe in rebirth. Compared to the past, the human population has increased today. How can you explain this?

A: Buddhists do not believe in rebirth, they know that rebirth is a FACT. The human population has increased, and the animal population has decreased. So where do you think that all these human beings have come from? Many human beings alive today had their previous lives as animals. Do you think there is a huge distinction between animals and human beings? Animals and humans are not that far apart. It is not only animals that are reborn as animals; humans too, are reborn as animals.

Q: People generally like to know what their future would be like. So they go to astrologers. According to them, when they know what their future would be like, they can even take precautionary actions if some mishap is supposed to occur. What is the view of the Buddha concerning astrologers?

A: You go to an astrologer, he gives a prediction and you take measures to ensure the prediction does not happen. This means the prediction is wrong, to begin with!

Most of the time, the prophecies of the astrologers are self-fulfilling. If they were really good fortune tellers there would not have been so many deaths in the tsunami a few years ago, there would be no problems from terrorist attacks in the world, or floods or earthquakes. How many astrologers predicted the credit crunch? So too, a Cambridge scientist who did the same using evidence. I’d say that astrologers are 99 percent false. Sometimes the predictions are accurate. But most of the time they are inaccurate. If you really want to look after your future, if you want a happy, healthy, and successful future, the advice of the Buddha is to look at the place where your future is being made which is right now- the PRESENT.

So if you are studying for an exam, don’t waste time going to a fortune teller, stay home and read your books!

Q: Some people who had been addicted to lots of unethical activities during their youth would tend to compensate for those acts by engaging in meritorious deeds towards the latter part of their lives. Is it possible?

A: They can. If they can let it all go they can change their whole lives. Just consider this example. When Nelson Mandela took over the presidency of South Africa after serving 27 years in prison the country was in chaos. Grave crimes had been committed by both the government and the ANC activists. Nelson Mandela instituted a novel way of dealing with the situation by establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Anybody on either side who had committed a crime could go to this Commission, and confess honestly what they had done. If they confess they were given amnesty.

On one of these occasions, a South African policeman was confessing how he tortured and killed a Black African activist. In front of him was this activist’s widow listening to his confession in which he mentioned in detail how he had tortured and killed the man she loved, the father of her children, the person she devoted her whole life to. The policeman was still shivering in fear and was sobbing even after the testimony was over. At this point the widow stood up and approached this man, not to take revenge as many would have thought, but instead held the man, hugged him, and said. “I forgive you.”

It was such a moving moment, a beautiful act of forgiveness that the whole court started crying. A woman who just heard how her husband whom she loved dearly was taken away from her, how he was tortured and brutally murdered, had the inspiration to go up to the `criminal’ and forgive him. If she can forgive the man who killed her husband why cannot you forgive those who have done a much lesser wrong deed?

Q: But did not she do injustice to the deceased by forgiving his killer?

A: Injustice is not as same as revenge. Sometimes people confuse finding justice with having/taking revenge. That is not the way to do justice. Justice means finding the truth, having a just settlement, and moving forth, not carrying around the past.

Otherwise, the world would be like Israel and the Gaza Strip - endless wars, tit for tat - killings, revenge, and seeking a violent form of justice rather than two parties coming together, hugging each other, and saying “I forgive you”.

That is how a conflict should end. That is how we say to ourselves one day that whatever I have done in my youth, whatever I am doing now I forgive myself. That is justice and let it go. If you acknowledge what you did and learn from it, it is called `growth’ in the Buddha’s teaching. That is how you grow.

(The full interviews were originally published in the Sunday Observer and the Daily News in 2009, 2011, and 2019.)