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The Way of the Noble Ones
Sometimes we separate out our aspiration for freedom or liberation from what is practical. We can idealize it to such a degree that it seems distant and separate from us. So what does the Buddha mean by freedom? How does he actually describe it?
There is a discourse in the Aṅguttara Nikāya that I find quite inspiring. The Buddha describes the qualities and skills of a Noble One and what it means to stand in his noble lineage. Most of it focuses on contentment and the non-holding of self:
There are these noble lineages—pristine, of
long standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated
and never before adulterated, which
are not being adulterated and which will not
be adulterated, not despised by the wise.
[A] monk is content with any kind of robes
(the same repeats for alms-food, lodging,
and meditation) and he speaks in praise of
contentment with any kind [of requisites],
does not engage in wrong search in what is
improper for the sake of these [requisites].
If he does not get these [requisites] he is not
agitated with it, not blindly absorbed in it,
seeing the danger in it, understanding the escape.
Yet, because of this, he does not extol
himself or disparage others.
Any monk who is skilled in this, energetic,
clearly comprehending, and mindful, is said
to be standing in an ancient, pristine, noble
lineage. (A 4:28)
I don’t think these criteria are beyond any of us, monastics as well as laypeople. Everyone needs clothing, food, and lodging to survive. If freedom is our goal, we need to learn how to relate to these in noble ways. These ways are simple, humble, and dignified. Each day we can choose to live with contentment, in service of the holy life, rather than in service of the ego.
Chasing after the requisites of existence, trying to build an identity around them and relying on them as enduring sources of satisfaction, creates suffering. Pressures from the external world make it easy to look for something in the material world for our sense of gratification. We can see that even if it’s not gratification we seek, there is still that sense of longing to search for something new, better, different, or more. We need to make contentment a conscious quality. When we realize that our basic needs are satisfied, it is much easier for contentment to arise. Actually, what we have is enough. The food that we have, the lodging that we have, the clothing that we have is enough.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t receive anything or that we must live in some sort of extraordinarily austere, impossible way. It is about having the quality of contentment threading through and underlying our lives. That’s freedom, the way to stand in the noble lineages.
There’s a story about a brief exchange between the Buddha and a samaṇa from another sect (M 77). The samaṇa admires the Buddha and praises him for adhering to strict standards of austerity, to what he perceives as the Buddha’s preferences for offerings small in quantity and poor in quality. The Buddha responds to the wanderer with a few simple facts: “I have disciples who are far more austere than I am…I sometimes eat the full contents of my alms bowl or even more…I sometimes wear robes given by householders, robes so fine that pumpkin hair is coarse in comparison” (M 77:9). This is how the Buddha teaches the way to enter the noble lineage. The
Buddha speaks in praise of contentment. He is satisfied with a lot, a little, or with nothing at all. The question is, can we be?
It all comes down to our willingness to reflect: “What is enough? Is this enough? Is this appropriate? How am I relating to this? Are my basic needs being satisfied? Is my behavior being guided by noble restraint rather than being engaged in an unworthy or ignoble search?” If that is the case, we need to return to a quality of recognition, a place of contentment, and speak in praise of it. This is the way of the Noble Ones.
Before I came to England for this celebration, several highly respected monks visited Abhayagiri: Ajahn Liam, the abbot of Wat Pah Pong; Ajahn Jundee, the abbot of Wat Ampawan; Ajahn Nyanadhammo, the abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat; and Ajahn Uthane, Ajahn Liam’s secretary. I arranged a road trip so they could visit a small affiliated monastery in Canada. The group spent the night at Shasta Abbey, a Zen Buddhist monastery located in a rural part of Northern California.
Just as they were leaving the following morning, one of the Abbey’s lay guests mentioned a nearby shop that he claimed “had the best cinnamon buns in the world.”
The laypeople got very excited about making these presumably special buns part of the meal offering and decided this would be their destination for the morning meal. They set off in search of this shop, and, as it turned out, the driver got lost. Time was running out, as it was a very rural area with little habitation, and the laypeople were getting really upset, even a bit panicked. Eventually, they found a tiny “greasy spoon” truck stop. But it had only one hot plate for cooking. So there they all were, out in the middle of nowhere, putting together a very odd meal offering to these very senior monks. For the laypeople, what began as a seemingly benign desire for the “best cinnamon buns in the world” ended with a certain amount of discontent and without a cinnamon bun in sight! In contrast, the senior monks received the offerings with gratitude and contentment, standing firm in the pristine, ancient, original tradition of the Noble Ones.
The spiritual quality of contentment is something that we need to be attentive to in our own search: How do we manage to live as the Noble Ones do? We can practice these standards every day. When we get drawn into desire and discontent with the requisites, we can recognize that, and then return to a place of contentment.
Oftentimes we may measure contentment in misguided ways: “Do I have insights and wisdom? Do I have jhānas or one of the sublime meditations?” When we use these kinds of attainments as measures of contentment, we usually come up short. Then we feel even less content or even more discontent. Whatever way we put it, how could anything peaceful, sublime, or clear come from that? Bring qualities of gratitude, ease, and acceptance into daily life, relating them both to the world around you and to your spiritual practice. Keep things simple: can we be happy with just sitting and watching the breath?
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