Longing for Certainty: Meditation Book Review

Friday July 29, 2005

Longing for Certainty by Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano

Wisdom Publications 2003 $14.95/£10.95 p/b

The Pali texts tell us the following story. Bahiya the ascetic walked halfway across India to track down the Buddha. Arriving at the Jeta Grove, he heard that the famous teacher was going about his alms-round. Too impatient to wait until later in the day, Bahiya set out in pursuit. When he had found the Buddha, he pestered him for a teaching. Eventually the Buddha relented and gave Bahiya a teaching the concision of which may not have been entirely unrelated to his eagerness to attend to the important matter of lunch. ‘In the seen,’ the Buddha said to Bahiya, ‘will be merely what is seen; in the heard will be merely what is heard; in the sensed will be merely what is sensed; in the cognised will be merely what is cognised. In this way you should train yourself, Bahiya.’ Whereupon Bahiya experienced a profound insight into the nature of things, and the Buddha continued on his way undisturbed.

This is a teaching about attentiveness. It is so seemingly simple that one is tempted to read into it all manner of esoteric meanings; but perhaps it is necessary to read it straightforwardly, and in all its clarity. ‘In the seen will be merely what is seen.’ Does this ‘merely’ intend to reduce the world to a handful of bare phenomena, laid out before us as if on a laboratory bench; or does close attentiveness, on the other hand, return us to the living, breathing reality of things? Desire, grasping and wanting: are these not the things that truly reduce the world? And if we leave behind our ideas about the world, if we abandon our grasping and our wanting, do we not find that the object we ‘merely’ see is richer, stranger and more inexhaustible than any object of our desires could possibly be?

The story of Bahiya is a reminder of how, while maintaining a suspicion of desire, there has always been a kind of sensuality in Pali Buddhism. This sensuality can be found in hymns written by ancient monks and nuns who sing of delight in the wilderness. It can be seen in the parables and stories of the Buddha, who loved the solitude of the forest. And this quality is also evident in Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano’s latest book.

Nyanasobhano, a Theravadin monk and former playwright, aims to lead us, as the Buddha led Bahiya, towards this attentiveness to the world of the senses, in all its richness and fullness. Buddhism, one might say, is a matter of seeing things as they truly are. Yet learning to see clearly is not to see the world as scientists, nor as gods removed from the world, but precisely to see the world as human beings who are immersed in it, attentive and open. Taking us from the ‘closed rooms’ of learning, Nyanasobhano challenges us to consider whether we have ‘ever till now, marching and surviving under the brilliant, cold sky, fully breathed in the words and matched their meaning to what we hear and sense?’

Nyanasobhano is a poet of nature and of human suffering, whose close observation of the world is anything but abstract. These meditations are deeply infused with life, with human feeling, and with a love of solitude. It is here, in the woods, by the side of quiet streams, and in quiet reflection on those things that are most deeply and intimately human, that he reads the teachings of the Buddha. Eschewing all kinds of exoticism or mysticism, Nyanasobhano points again and again to the fleeting, shifting world of the senses, to our liquid thoughts, to our longing for freedom from distress, anxiety and pain, to the way our hearts go out to others. His Buddhism is not a doctrine about the world, neither is it a system of belief. It is a call to pay close attention to the world in which we live and to our own fragile being in this world, alongside others.

Nyanasobhano ends this lovely book with an elegiac meditation upon the belongings we leave behind after our death. His writing is at its most powerful as he meditates upon the husk of a life that has now passed away, sitting amid the detritus of the concerns of days past, finding himself in a world of goods from which the living presence has departed. This final meditation awakens a kind of longing to return to the ‘small occurrences of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and thought’ that make up the landscapes of our world. And it awakens a longing to live well, with kindness and care: attentive to the world, to our own being, to the needs and the sufferings of others. It is the simplest of teachings, perhaps. But, Bahiya discovered, maybe this attentiveness is all we need.

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