Still Water, Flowing Banks

By SANTIKARO - August 1, 2017

In honour of the 111th birth anniversary of Buddhadāsa, a speech presented at The 8th International Buddhist Research Seminar & The 2nd International Conference on Buddhadāsa Studies on 24 May 2017 at the Buddhadāsa Indapañño Archives, by Santikaro* (Kevala Retreat, USA), translator/editor of Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree, Mindfulness with Breathing, and Under the Bodhi Tree by Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu

Dhamma friends, venerables in yellow and white, and all the many colored participants:

I am honored to speak in remembrance of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, the beloved teacher who continues to have a huge impact on my life and how I live it. Because of him I am able to attend this seminar connected with his hundred and eleven “Age Teasing Day.” For my contribution, I would like to translate the highlights of a talk titled “Still Water, Flowing Banks” that he gave on his last conscious birthday. That was in 1992 when he turned 86 years old. Unfortunately, for his 87th birthday he was alive just legally. The stroke that eventually killed him, despite all the medical interference, prevented him from speaking in 1993. On his 87th birthday he was not alive in a way he would wish, that is, to perform his Dhamma or Duty of directing our attention to profound Dhamma of Awakening. So I go back a year to when he was still able to teach.

While we do not have sufficient time for a full, proper translation of that talk, I can offer an accurate paraphrase of its main points. “Still Water, Flowing Banks” includes teachings he emphasized in his last years of life. For Thai friends and those who read Thai, these are all available in printed form and recordings. For those who do not read Thai, I can give you a taste of what a pioneering Dhamma teacher choose to emphasize at the end of his long life of Dhamma service.

Here follows my paraphrase (with interspersed background and comments):

Sammatta, rightness, is the most important summary of the Buddha’s teachings. (This was a key theme in the last years of his life.) Not to be confused with samatha, tranquility or serenity, sammatta means rightness and sammattatā creates an abstract noun, “the state or reality of being right.”

“Still water, banks flowing.” Here, banks flowing is saṅkhāra, concocting, or prung-deng in Thai. (This extraordinary Thai word combines prung, to cook and season food, and deng, to decorate or dress up, such as clothing our bodies or putting on makeup. Prung-deng is the accepted Thai translation of saṅkhāra, meaning to cook up, season, and decorate. In English, I use “concocting” from the old French word meaning “to cook together.” I consider this an excellent and quite literal translation of saṅkhāra, that is, to put or make together, to fabricate.)

If we are able to see rightly, the banks are flowing. They are not solid or stable. There is nothing but prung-deng or saṅkhāra. Nothing but concocting, for example, concocting positive and concocting negative; fabricating supply and fabricating demands; concocting energy, too, and concocting matter, which the West is particularly good at.

All that concocting is turbulent, which many of us can recognize in what we call “the world.” We also concoct puñña, goodness, and pāpa, evil or badness. The banks are flowing with all these concoctings. Water stills with seeing clearly, the capacity to look deeply and see without positive and negative, good and bad, and similar oppositions. Just seeing.

With clear seeing, water is clear. It is calm. It is still and peaceful. Without vipassanā, citta keeps concocting and fabricating. [Citta is usually translated “mind”; however, the Greek “psyche” is probably a better equivalent of citta.] Psyche, mind, heart, or whatever we call it keeps concocting in the absence of vipassanā. Vipassanā is the actual seeing clearly which does not depend on any technique or teacher, especially when we cling to 'our vipassanā' as better than “their vipassanā” or as “the real vipassanā.”[1]

With genuine vipassanā, we see that daily activities like eating the lunch we ate a short while ago and perspiring as many of us are experiencing right now, along with the many kinds of taking in and excreting are all saṅkhāra, prung-deng, concocting, flowing. Visaṅkhāra, without concocting, is when flowing stops and there is stillness. In his talk, Ajahn Buddhadāsa mentioned his attempts to tell the foreigners of European heritage, people like me, that the peace in the world we claim to seek can only be found through stopping the concocting, visaṅkhāra. If we insist on concocting positive and negative, supply and demand, good and bad, we will never have peace.

A major theme of his last years was four aspects of sammatta, rightness.[2] These offer a skillful response to all the concocting, the many kinds of prung-deng. The first sammatta is the rightness of body systems. He did not phrase this simply as “body.” The body system is not merely robotic physical mechanisms. Body functions are necessarily dynamic, adaptive, and alive for the body system and its mechanisms to be right. Here, he included within the body system bones, muscles, blood, breathing, food, the material requisites, and sex and sexuality. For all of these to be right, adequate, and healthy is the first aspect or level of rightness.

In the Suttas, the persons conventionally referred to as “arahant” are spoken of as having faculties (indriya) that are bright and clear. Some of us have had the good fortune to meet people whose indriya show brightness and clarity because contaminating substances like tobacco are not introduced. This results in the body system being right.

The second sammatta in his reframing concerns the citta-system, the psychic system of mind and heart, of thoughts and emotions, moods and psychological states. This is not limited to the merely cognitive, intellectual, and rational. The whole psychic package is to be right. Here, he references the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Obviously, he does not have a crudely material understanding of the senses. The indriya or faculties are about the psychic system interacting with the world of the senses (āyatana). Matters concerning eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind become living experiences through the āyatana as channels for experiencing, which he sometimes explained as “media for connecting.” Experiences and the world happen through these media.

We cannot actually know a world “out there,” beyond our senses. What we have are worlds of experience arising dependent on eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and inner-sense, along with their counterparts in visual forms, sounds, odors, tastes, tangibles, and ideas, All of these interact in dependent co-arising.

When body and senses are experienced without clarity and understanding, pleasure and pain (vedanā) are felt foolishly. Vedanā means “feeling,” but this is often misunderstood as emotion or physical sensations. Vedanā is more like the realm of pleasure and pain. When vedanā are ignorantly apprehended and we stimulate reactions. Along with feeling the experience as pleasant or unpleasant, they are regarded as “this” and “that,” “good” and “bad,” etc. Such saññā (recognitions, regardings) assume something there that is both more substantial and less whole than the actual reality. Ajahn Buddhadāsa's explanation of saññā includes regarding something as being “some thing.” We see someone and perceive a “monk” or “lay person,” a “woman” or a “man.” We might recognize something as an “iPhone,” a “Samsung,” or whatever it seems to be. On the basis of vedanā and saññā, thoughts, emotions, and stories are volitionally concocted (saṅkhāra). Finally, viññāṇa, another tricky word to translate effectively, cognizes any of the above “objectively.” Objective, discriminating knowing lifts entities out of experience and inserts a subjective knower. Thus, we fabricate objectivity and subjectivity, and a world of foolish concocting with “me” and “mine” as its glue.

For the psychic system to be right, there is no kilesa, no reactionary thoughts and emotions like greed, anger, hatred, shame, guilt, fear, and boredom. The psychic system functions rightly when not gummed up by clinging to “me” and “mine.” The instincts, natural intelligence, and knowledge function without egoism and passion. That is the second kind of rightness.

The third kind of rightness is when the self-system is right. This one confused me at first. Ajahn Buddhadāsa explains it as the self-system, which generally takes ourselves too personally and seriously, being free from ahaṃkāra (I-making), mamaṃkāra (my-making) and mānānusaya (the underlying tendency towards conceit, that is, conceiving “I am”). Fabricating egoism, possessiveness, and “I am” as a basis for comparing with others deepens the ruts of kilesa and suffering.

When the self-system does not concoct “me,” “mine,” and egoistic comparisons it is right. We might assume that it exists solely for such fabrications and how could it not do so. Yet, we can observe moments when such illusory concocting is not happening. This is the third rightness.

An important lesson I learned from his words and life are that we do not need to debase ourselves, pretend false humility, or deny our unique talents. Nor is it the kind of “selflessness” that lets others, especially people with power and authority, tell us who we are. Instead, we learn to be truly ourselves so that we can also be of benefit to others and to Dhamma. This is rightness of the self-system.

He often spoke of “duty for duty's sake,” which I take to be the same thing. When we deeply and truly see our duty, without needing somebody to tell us, pressure us, or pay us, we simply do it. When truly clear in ourselves, we can act without “me,” “mine,” and self-centeredness. When our acts are in line with Dhamma and part of the path of liberation from I-making, my-making, and the underlying tendency towards conceiving “I am,” we do our duties for the sake of Dhamma and the self-system is sammā.

The fourth system is the emptiness system. The Thai waang can mean both “empty” and “free,” as in “free time” or “the chair is empty (free).” At home in the United States, I emphasize this connection between emptiness and freedom to help Americans wrap their heads around suññatā (emptiness). Emptiness is freedom and freedom is emptiness. With suññatā there is no prung-deng; nāma and rūpa are not concocted.

Some Buddhists teach nāma and rūpa (name and form) as basic realities, as absolutes, and that confuses their inherent emptiness. Ajahn Buddhadāsa did not agree with that understanding. Nāma and rūpa are fabricated through ignorant objectivity. Name and form are mental contrivances in which limited awareness gets stuck.

For the emptiness system to be correct means that there is genuine emptiness. First, suññatā is not confused with nothingness, as has happened in Thailand and elsewhere. Some people mistake it a kind of vacuum or a blankness. Second, genuine emptiness is not clever languaging that cloaks “I” and “mine” in “I am nobody” or false humility.

Rightness of the emptiness system can be realized through the ten sammattā, which are the eight sammā of the noble path, plus sammāñāṇa (right knowledge) and sammāvimutti (right liberation). This was a favorite theme of his in his last years.

With vipassanā, the water does not flow but banks are flowing, saṅkhāra still flow. The nature of concocting, such as digestion and thinking, is to flow. If there are banks, they must flow. Mind stops within real pabhassara (luminosity). Mind stops even if the banks are still flowing. That is rightness.

But there is more. When pabhassara really sees, there is just emptiness. Emptiness does not flow. All stupidity, foolishness, and ignorance stops. Everything stops. Saṅkhāra stops; the banks no longer flow. Just emptiness. The highest, fullest rightness.

With what we might call “ordinary pabhassara,” psyche is still but concoctions are still moving. The stuff of experience is still moving. When the pabhassara-citta sees most profoundly, not only does psyche stops, all the concocting stops. Water remains still and the banks stop as well. This is the truest and most profound seeing of emptiness. There is no flowing at all. Ordinary, we still have banks that need to flow. That is their nature. In the most profound emptiness, however, nothing flows.

Ajahn Buddhadāsa concluded the talk with the English phrase “all right.” All sammā.

Though he was in very poor health, in the last years of his life he still did what he needed to do to convey the heart of Buddhayāna. He often mentioned to me to forget about the diverse Buddhisms of Theravāda, Mahāyāna, Zen, and the like. We all need Buddhayāna, the core vehicle of awakening unobscured by later concoctions.

Then all is right (sammā).

[1] Here, Tan Ajahn is not referring to the particular styles or techniques of certain teachers and centers. Vipassanā is not a matter of method or technique.

[2] In doing so, he condensed and reframed the 10 sammattā found in Suttas.

Aj. santikaro 8th ibrs