This article was distilled from two talks given by Ajahn Buddhadasa to Western retreatants in 1986 and 1988. Santikaro is solely responsible for the translation, arrangement and elaboration. He hopes they do justice to his teacher’s intentions.
Let’s consider “the life that bites its owner.” Look at the wounds that cover our bodies and minds. When you look at a dog that is covered with scars and wounds, how do you feel? When you see a person with leprosy whose body is covered with sores, how do you feel? How strange, then, to find ourselves covered with all sorts of sores and wounds that are results of life biting itself.
Here, we must examine the lack of freedom in life. Everybody talks about freedom, demands freedom, struggles for freedom and fights for freedom. Freedom is in the news; people make speeches insisting they be given their freedom. This shows both that people desire freedom and that they haven’t yet found it. This lack of freedom is the source of a great deal of dukkha and amounts to life biting itself.
There is a secret to this matter that requires deep exploration. Where is the lack of freedom and where is genuine freedom? For example, when we criticize and insult someone, we may feel a sense of freedom, but in fact we don’t have any real freedom. To insult someone is to be dominated by egoistic emotions. Where’s the freedom in that? Likewise, when we are violent or when our military invades another country, whatever the pretext, creating havoc and destruction, aren’t we just sacrificing our freedom to our own stupidity and selfishness? Yet such crazy thinking runs the world.
In the mere name of freedom, huge professional armies with high-tech weapons are ready to destroy the actual freedom of others. If our aggression is truly for democracy’s sake, why don’t we listen to their opinions and let them choose? What comes of this imposition? The result of such political opportunism and militarist madness is far from genuine freedom. While we may think we’re achieving material freedom, we are losing our spiritual freedom in the process.
Giving Up Freedom to Greed, Anger and Fear
When experiencing the deliciousness of something, we think that we have the freedom to experience this deliciousness. For the sake of some physical delight, we abandon our spiritual freedom. In fact, we have surrendered our freedom to the power of that delicious thing. But people seldom understand this. They simply think they’re getting something and never look more deeply to see what’s really happening.
On the other hand, when angry with or hating something, we also lose our freedom to that thing. When the mind is full of anger or hatred, we ought to notice that we’ve lost all freedom and these things are biting and clawing us, so that we’re covered with wounds. When afraid of something, we surrender our freedom to that thing. Nowadays, our world is full of fear and terror such that no spiritual freedom remains. The left is always afraid that it will lose to the right, and the right is equally afraid of the left. Both the left and the right are constantly worrying and fretting they will lose out to the other side.
Here’s the question: When we fight, compete or go to war, do we do so for the sake of freedom or to lose our freedom? Don’t answer too quickly, merely on the basis of what you want to believe. Please look at the facts. Even when “winning,” do we lose what’s most important, our spiritual freedom? Have we surrendered to our selfish emotions, to Mara and Satan? When we fight for freedom, our very actions destroy freedom, biting our hearts and minds.
Only the correctly established mind is free, so we must learn how to establish mind so that it retains its freedom. When positive values arise, our minds are taken over by greed and lust. When negative values come up, our minds are lost to anger and hatred. Only when we investigate such basic realities do we start to find out where genuine freedom lies. Living without any hopes or wishes is to live with total freedom. Most people insist this is impossible. But in fact, living without desires, wants and hopes is the most artistic way to live.
The Land of Hungry Ghosts
The Buddhist term for the life of wishing and hoping is preta (hungry ghost). Hungry ghosts are popularly pictured as having mountain-sized stomachs and needle-sized mouths. Their huge stomachs can never be satisfied through their tiny mouths, so they are constantly hungry. This low, pitiful existence derives from the constant hunger of gnawing hopes, wishes and desires. Another kind of preta lives in cesspits eating only what humans deposit there, while an even lower form of preta lives off of the excrement of the superior preta. Can we recognize anything familiar in pretas?
We might ask ourselves whether we “advanced” modern people are living like hungry ghosts. Are we unable to control our hunger and indulgences, along with our anger, hatred, fears and confusion? Do they all happen so easily and quickly that we’re unable to do anything about them? We may even describe them as “natural” or “normal.” We seldom think of these as the manifestations of life biting its owner. Don’t you see how they are just our emotional, psychic and spiritual wounds? Our bodies may be in pretty good shape, while our relationships with family and community may be in turmoil. When mind can’t control itself, it bites itself. The rabid mind keeps biting and chewing. Sometimes we recognize this in others, but we don’t want to see it in ourselves.
It’s time to stop and take an honest look at our addictive way of life. Does it come from the desire of vijja, correct knowledge, or the desire of avijja, ignorance? When we don’t know whether our desires are wise or stupid, then we don’t know ourselves. When we don’t know ourselves, we don’t understand life. When we don’t know what life is, we can’t know its purpose. Consequently, this life keeps biting and devouring until it’s covered with sores, wounds and scars.
Imagine for a moment what life would be like if it no longer bit itself and all of the wounds disappeared. In Buddhism, we call this “the cool life,” which is the meaning of nibbana. In other words, it’s the life that doesn’t bite itself. Strangely, the life that bites its owner has tremendous attraction and charm. What about the life that bites itself attracts, seduces, tricks and addicts us? Why are people, for the most part, more attracted to the life that bites its owner than to the life that doesn’t bite?
Once we sense what has been going on and begin to lose our satisfaction with this biting and wounded life, we start looking around for an alternative. Usually, though, we have no idea where to look. This is quite interesting and strange. Those who’ve come here looking for the wisdom of the East should know that it’s very simple—the life that doesn’t bite its owner. All the knowledge and practices of Buddhism, such as mindfulness with breathing (anapanasati), aim solely for realizing the life that doesn’t bite. Amusingly, this comes down to “not owning life.” Don’t own anything. Don’t try to possess life. Don’t take it as being “I” and “mine.”
Not Owning or Having Anything
A passage in the Bible (1 Cor 7:29–32) teaches us that when going to the market and buying things, we should return home as if having purchased nothing. Likewise, when marrying, having a wife or husband as if not having one at all. Conventionally one is married; spiritually one is free because there is no attachment to a spouse as “I” or “mine.” Otherwise, that husband, wife or lover will bite. With wealth and possessions, as long as they are obtained honestly, use them as if not owning anything. Once you own them, they immediately become heavy and oppressive. When one acts towards them responsibly without any possessiveness, they have no power to bite or oppress. Everything—land, house, car, computer—can be had as if owning nothing. Believing we own them is like piling them upon our heads and carrying them around all the time. Our necks get stiff with the tension and stress.
There are two sides to everything. There is the material, conventional, legalistic side, and there is the spiritual side. Although one may own something materially and conventionally in the eyes of ordinary people, on the spiritual side one realizes that there’s nothing to cling to as “I” or “mine.” This surely beats all the biting, wounding and heartache.
In the same way, can you just be happy as if there weren’t happiness? There can be joy, satisfaction and contentment without feeling or acting like we own them. Joy is just a natural thing, there’s nothing wrong with it, but grab onto it as “I” or “mine” and it bites immediately. Cling with indulgence or greed and it bites immediately. Equally, when you don’t get the happiness you seek, clinging with dissatisfaction bites just the same. Positive and negative clinging have the same results—a wounded life. It’s much wiser not to bother clinging to anything. Just leave happiness to nature without being concerned.
When we say that something belongs to nature, it doesn’t mean that nature is the owner. Nothing can own other things, not even nature itself. Everything is completely free of ownership and being owned. The essence of Buddhism is doing what needs to be done without any ideas of “me” or “mine,” without any ownership or possessiveness.
Freedom is Coolness
Relinquishing ownership, possession and clinging to “me” and “mine” amounts to the classic Buddhist goal of relinquishing attachment to the five aggregates of life (body, feeling, perception, thought and consciousness). These aggregates are the naturally functioning subsystems necessary for human life. When they function without clinging, there is freedom. The clung-to aggregates are the prison of life. Letting go of them is like a convict being released from prison.
Call it salvation, deliverance, liberation or release, these all amount to the same thing—freedom, the cool life that doesn’t bite itself. Such a life does whatever needs doing, according to its mindfulness and wisdom. In this freedom, egoism, selfishness and the reactive emotions no longer obstruct. In Pali, this is also described as viveka, the singleness or oneness of heart-mind where nothing can disturb, afflict, entrap or harm it in any way. Does the power of this kind of freedom interest you?
Nibbana, the supreme reality of Buddhism, is simply this coolness. Thus, it’s important that we understand this coolness properly. Imagine a burning coal from a fire. When removed from the fire it glows red because it is still hot. After it cools down, it no longer glows red. When it’s no longer hot, we say that the coal is nibbana, it is cool. Even this physical example helps us understand nibbana, the coolness of something that was once hot. However, we’re really talking about the fires of mind, by which we mean the reactive emotions (kilesa, defilements). Should you honestly look at greed, hatred, fear and the like, you will realize they are truly fires burning the heart-mind. The going out of such fires is nibbana. In our lives, so easily distracted by consumerism and terrorism, we aren’t aware of these internal fires and so have trouble understanding what is meant by spiritual coolness and freedom.
Free of Dualities
Ignorance bites life by falling for the pairs of opposites—dualities such as good and evil, positive and negative, gain and loss. These dichotomous pairs, of which there are dozens, dominate our lives, constantly afflicting mind in different ways, forcing it this way and that according to the power ignorance gives them. One of the most basic dualities is that of good and bad, which arises from a foolish way of viewing life. The fool will say this is good and that is bad, this is winning and that is losing, this is positive and that is negative. People actually believe such suppositions to be true, and some consider them absolutely true. Yet clinging is the source of all duality. Holding to “me” and “mine” is the basis on which we discriminate. Something is good and we laugh like fools; something is bad and we cry like maniacs. Centering ourselves in non-clinging completely frees us of the influence and intimidation of all the opposites swirling around us. Then they have no bite and are no longer able to disturb the mind or force it in one direction or another.
There is a kind of knowledge that leads to clinging and a kind of knowledge that doesn’t lead to clinging. We speak of the latter knowledge as wisdom. The correct knowledge of good and evil is that there is really no such thing as good and no such thing as evil. These are just illusions. In fact, the same applies to birth and death and all other dualities. Such understanding is correct because it doesn’t lead to clinging.
This wisdom is to be used in daily life, beginning right here and now. When no longer concocted by clinging to the opposites, especially the most basic one of all—“me” and “mine”—mind doesn’t tremble, shake or move. Think of all the times you get excited by someone or something. Is that freedom? When will you realize that all this movement of mind is too much, that it’s wearing you out, that it’s impossible for mind to be clear and peaceful with all that moving and trembling going on? When you see this for yourself, you’ll see the value of ending the concocting of mind by removing clinging to things, to life, as “me” and “mine.” Then mind is truly peaceful, unbitten.
Freedom is Voidness
The path of freedom is living without egoistic “I” so there’s no egoistic mind to bite itself. When the arrogant “I,” the low self-esteem “I,” the obsessive “I” and the self-centered “I” have disappeared, there is nobody and nothing to bite. Life is not a burden or a problem. When the obsession with self in all its forms disappears, life is released.
This letting go readies one for the supreme level of freedom, which is the supreme voidness (suññata). Generally, voidness refers to a mind void of any idea or notion of “I” or “mine.” The Buddha called this the supreme unsurpassed voidness (paramanutarasuññata), which is the highest possible voidness. The Buddha himself said that he dwelt in the supreme unsurpassed voidness. Ordinary people think they live in material houses; the Buddha dwells in the supreme “spiritual home” where there is no egoism, biting or suffering. This is the ultimate reality that is empty and free of any kind of “self” (atta) or anything connected with “self” (attaniya). Whoever came to see the Buddha—kings, millionaires, students, courtesans, scheming cousins, rival teachers, Brahmins, beggars—no disturbance, excitement or agitation occurred in his mind. Changing conditions, such as going without decent food or becoming ill, didn’t disturb or excite him either. The Buddha always remained in the dwelling of paramanutarasuññata. This is the example for all of us to follow. It is the truest meaning of freedom.
When this meaning is realized, Suan Mokkh, the Garden of Liberation, will award its diploma: to die before dying. Death threatens all who cling to a sense of self. When that clinging dies, there’s nobody to be born or to die or to anything else. Suan Mokkh’s diploma recognizes this highest achievement of dying to self before the body dies.
Such freedom is the meaning of the life that doesn’t bite its owner. This is the momentous choice given us. What freedom do we choose? What life do we choose?