What Is a Signature?: A short introduction to the ancient doctrine of plant signatures
Printed in the Winter 2018 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Graves, Julia, "What Is a Signature? A short introduction to the ancient doctrine of plant signatures" Quest 106:1, pg 24-25
By Julia Graves
It is a fascinating approach, not only because of the satisfying symmetry of such correspondence, but because generally it is an accurate guide. I adopted the doctrine of signature as a teaching aid in identifying medicinal herbs.
—Ben Charles Harris (Harris, 4)
The celebrated physician Paracelsus (1493–1541) saw the doctrine of signature as a proof of how microcosm and macrocosm were analogous—as above, so below. He says in Astronomica magna: “The expert must know how to recognize the virtue of all things thanks to the signs, be it an herb, a tree, a living being, or an inanimate object.” While this thought originates from his alchemical studies, which are pre-Christian, as a devout Christian he concludes by writing that this is because God created things as such, and that he left signs for us to discover the virtues he has hidden in all of creation. It is quite noticeable how, throughout his work, entire passages are free from any Christian notions, while others attribute everything back to a creator God.
To Paracelsus, signatures are the knowledge of the inner essence based on outer characteristics (Jacobi, 53). He said, “Thou shalt know all internal [characteristics] by looking at the outside.” “God does not want things to stay hidden, which He created for mankind’s benefit and which he gave man as his property into his hand. . . . And even though He Himself hid it, so did He mark upon it outer, visible signs, that are special marks. Not different from One, who buries a treasure and does not leave it unmarked, because he puts a sign onto the spot, so he himself can find it again.” Calling it the “art of signs,” he writes, “As you see, every herb has been brought into the shape that is akin to its inner nature [by God]” (ibid., 169f.). Because of the law of correspondence, the universe is established lawfully enough for him to base his knowledge of medical plants upon it. He writes: “There is a further necessity that you know such shapes in the anatomy of herbs and plants and that you bring them together with the anatomy of the disease. The simile, according to which you should treat, makes healing understandable.” And, “Who writes about the power of the herbs without the signature, is not writing from knowledge. He writes like a blind man” (in Wood, Magical Staff, 21). Thus tumorlike plants such as tree fungi treat tumorlike diseases. Today, the reishi and chaga fungi, for instance, have been proven to have strong anticancer properties. Paracelsus’s definition might be paraphrased this way: “Like colors, shapes, and other characteristics in the plant cure those same or corresponding colors, shapes, and characteristics in the body” or “that which looks like a body part or disease in the plant cures that body part or disease in animals or humans.”
Paracelsus’s law of similes—“like cures like”—applied to herbology, means that a specific characteristic of the plant will cure the thing similar to it in the human body or mind. It looks like what it cures. Likeness or similarity here are ways of talking about the analogy contained in the doctrine of signature.
Paracelsus saw the innermost essence or essential properties of a substance as something like a secret. It was not secret in the sense of something one has not been told, but of something ineffable, beyond words. Who or what we ultimately are cannot be expressed in our limited language, and trying to put labels to it brings us away from the secret—the truth (ibid., 25). Unlike his contemporaries, he did not believe in the rational or analytical way of matching correspondences, such as curing the right eye of a human with the right eye of an animal. This did not work, because it was not in keeping with natural magic. His transrational magic of healing with natural substances meant that a flower with a luminous look, such as eyebright, something that was not an eye but eyelike—could, by way of that correspondence, cure the eyes as if by magic. Eyebright is one of the most efficient remedies for conjunctivitis.
The doctrine of signature is the practical application of the doctrine of correspondence. It is also the practical application of the law of contraries, since the signature of the plant, its quality, can be matched with the signature of the disease either by way of correspondence or by way of contrariness. While this might seem confusing and contradictory, it is not when one understands that the law of action and reaction as a healing principle encompasses both of these seemingly opposite laws.
Although one can say that the doctrine of signature is the applied form of the law of correspondences, one could also say in reverse that the doctrine of signature is the ancient foundation for the law of correspondences. The more modern version is the homeopathic like-cures-like based on the pathology created by a poison. While to Paracelsus, “it looks like what it cures,” Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, took the law of similarity to mean “it causes what it cures.”
The contemporary herbalist Matthew Wood explains that signatures represent configurations of energy or patterns—archetypes—in plants, and that these correspond to similar patterns in people. “We are not looking here for superficial resemblance, but for one that operates on the level of essence,” beingness (Wood, Herbal Wisdom, 21f). “The law of correspondence, the doctrine of signature, and the law of similars point to the existence of a core essence, configuration, or identity-pattern at the root of every natural substance” (Wood, Magical Staff, 25). He sees true signatures as more profound and magical if they are less rational, in keeping with Paracelsus’s understanding of natural magic. Ferns do not really look like spleens, yet their leaf pattern is the spleen signature, and that holds true like magic even in nonferns, such as sweetfern (Comptonia) or even wood betony.
I would define a signature of a plant as a characteristic that can be detected by one of the senses—the eyes, ears, nose, tongue/taste, tactile sensation—in concert with the mind giving it meaning. These give rise in turn to the signature of the colors and shapes, of the sounds, smells, and the taste pharmacology so well developed in ancient Western as well as Indian and Chinese herbalism. Unbiased, skillful observation of nature is crucial. It does not extend to the molecular structure of the plant tissue, since to identify this in the scientific sense, we would need a microscope and other gadgets in a laboratory. The doctrine of signature is in this sense prescientific—positively so. It is a shortcut to plant knowledge when we do not want to wait for decades for the lab results, most of which become distorted by looking at isolated substances rather than at the vast orchestra of molecules playing in concert inside of herbal tissue. The molecular signature is not part of our direct experience of the plant. It is a mental construct that we reach with the help of technology, and that we believe based on scientific authority. Instead of anthroquines, we taste bitter and see yellow. Bitter and yellow is the signature, “anthroquines” a mental construct. However, we will not be surprised to find heart glycosides in a plant with such a strong and unmistakable heart-healing plant signature as foxglove or lily of the valley. I see the molecular structure as the expression of the signature on the molecular level. If we are right that the macrocosm resembles the microcosm, such as a characteristic of a planet and a plant, then it should also apply to the next levels down, as in the plant and their cells—and so it does.
We are entering an era when things are understood within the context of their energy or energetic fields. In this view, the doctrine of signature is the recognition that similar energetic patterns give rise to similar shapes and unfoldment in two different things—in this case, a plant or plant part, and a person or body part/mind-set. This is the correspondence of energetic pattern. It is with this in mind that we understand why the big, heavy peony buds that in their spherical compactness look so like a skull with sutures will yield a medicine for trauma to this hard, dense, heavy body part—especially helping to open up the blocked sutures, as verifiable in sacrocranial treatment.
My Haitian folk herbalist friend Jacquelin Guiteau put it succinctly: “The doctrine of signature is how the medicinal plants introduce their healing powers to the healer.” So it is, above all, a means of communication, a language.
A Poetic Language
The doctrine of signature is really a poetic language describing a multidimensional reality in which different facets of signature are simultaneously true, and in which the interplay of the countless elements cannot be exhaustively and finally interpreted. Since it is the human mind that gives meaning to nature, naturally the signatures and their categories shift from one cultural context to another, one adding to the other without contradiction but rather contributing another piece to the larger picture. I was challenged by my brother, who was thoroughly trained in natural science, when trying to explain to him the doctrine of signature: “But if you say that a mushroom growing on a tree is like a cancerous tumor, then, because a mushroom has mycelia, the tumor should therefore have them too.” I did not know what to reply in the moment, although an easy misunderstanding might assume that we are in the realm of mathematics, where if A equals B, then therefore B equals A. We are, however, in the realm of similars. If something is similar, it is not the same. There is a corresponding underlying principle, but the two corresponding things are not identical. The mushroom reaches out via mycelia, the tumor via chemical signals. If they were the same, they could not be a plant on the one hand and a human disease on the other. So since the doctrine of signature helps to draw parallels between a plant and a human condition, it can never be a pair of identical things. It can only be similar. We are entering a realm of analogies, and sometimes our modern minds have become so attuned to natural science that we lose sense of what an analogy is—it serves to make the point by one or more parallels, but if stretched too far, it will stop working. We should therefore always remember that the doctrine of signature is in the truest sense an art, and not a science reducible to mathematical formulas. As much as it is an art, it is also a science of observation in the sense that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe formulated for his approach to natural science. It was his idea, later promoted by Rudolf Steiner, that we should train our senses to a point where our mental force of observation of nature becomes like an organ.
The art of interpreting poetry means that there is never just one meaning, and that one can never find all the meanings. It would be impossible, for instance, to make a complete list of all the possible interpretations of Goethe’s Faust. In poetry, while a word might appear in the line, and the meaning of the word by itself is such and such, we might expect it to take the same meaning in the context of that very line. It is the beauty of the oscillating imprecision of language that the context, intonation, diacritical marks used, and even background of the listener can alter the meaning of that very word. In the same manner, the context in which one doctrine occurs in a plant with regard to its other characteristics can alter or override its meaning. In that sense, the doctrine of signature is an art of interpretation of the direct encounter with the plant, making thorough use of the associative function of the brain that fully engages both of its halves.
Within poetry, the same word or grammatical structure does not always mean the same thing. Depending on the context, the same word will mean different things in different lines. Similarly, yellowness in a flower will mean different things in different plants. In Oregon grape it means that it is a liver-healing plant; in dandelion, that it heals the solar plexus with its associated fear and power issues; in yellow day lily it means that it bestows happiness and joy, dispelling depression; and in sunflower it means that it strengthens the inner sun archetype, the inner father.
Being a poetic language, signature is also sometimes cryptic—it escapes us. We do not understand. It is too profound yet for us to decipher. It is not only a foreign language to learn, it is also a language that requires us to change our minds: to the degree that we still our mind chatter and become calm, allowing nature to talk to us, we will understand more clearly. To the degree that we tune more into nature herself, she will speak up.
Herbalist David Winston considers the doctrine of signature part of something much larger that he calls the “language of plants.” He regards the doctrine of signature as we know it as the last remnant of the European tradition of the language of plants, which includes as its physical aspect the doctrine of signature, then knowledge of the plant’s personality, and finally of its “isness.” This can only be known through well trained intuition, in direct communication with the plant. These three aspects together make up the full language of plants. I would add that the language of plants is part of the larger language of nature, which includes geomancy, palmistry, and face reading. The same principles can be used to decode the underlying characteristics of anything in nature, including landscapes, minerals and stones, animals, and humans.
Art and poetry engage the right brain, while science uses the left. The doctrine of signature is a thoroughly holistic approach, engaging both brain halves. In our analytical culture, “it’s a mystery” means that it cannot be understood or known. However, as Wood suggests in his book The Magical Staff (ix), mystery can communicate—not to the analytical mind, but to the holistic view, to intuition. What mystic and cryptic really mean is that we have not yet found words in the realm of duality to describe it. Thus nature and plants’ unfolding can never be pinned down in one finite definition of the truth, but will remain forever mystical and elusive, forever spurring us on to new visions of multidimensional layers of truth from a realm beyond words.
The Grammar Rules
Besides being a poetic language, signature is similar to the language of dreams in that there can be no negations—no “yes, but” and so on. Interestingly, Native Americans sought to acquire plant knowledge in dreamtime. It is a language of associated characteristics, all of which are a flow of simple, straightforward, positive statements: “I am like this and this and that,” simultaneously true all at the same time. In this language, adjectives play the main role: “I am soft, straight, yellow, cool, and bitter.” “I like humid, acidic soil.” So it is really those adjectives we should pay attention to. If in tuning into a tree someone comes up with “I just feel beauty, simply beauty,” then this is a good hint that one has tuned into something other than the plant itself—perhaps the abstract idea of beauty or love and light. Sometimes, instead of tuning into the plant and its essence, we tune into this something else, such as the landscape or the atmosphere of the moment. For instance, stately trees in general emit a sense of serenity and peace. That is due to their size and age, and is not specific to the tree species. While it is all right to get a sense of peace from tuning into a plant in true plant attunement, signature would not stop there, but would be precise and qualify the sense of peace. Sedating healing plants, or relaxing nervines, can bestow this feeling. So it can feel like “peaceful, cooling,” or “peaceful, relaxing.” Plants are not abstract. Not “out there.” They are earthy, juicy, and real. Right here!
These positive statements can seem to be contradictions. A plant such as nasturtium might be shade-loving and watery, thus cooling, and at the same time pungent in taste and warming. Cooling and warming are contradictory, but here the plant is saying that it contains both these in harmony. It can teach us about maintaining moderate warmth while staying moist.
Another example is the inflated seedpod of Lobelia inflata. It has been taken as a signature for the alveoli inflated in an asthma attack, or as having the form of a stomach. Being a stomach and being alveoli are contradictory, but looking similar in shape to both of them is not. Hence lobelia continues to be an excellent herbal remedy for both asthma and ills of the stomach.
In this context, it is worth pointing out that in holistic case taking as well as in psychotherapy, it is precisely those adjectives our clients use to describe their conditions—“I am heartbroken, discouraged, and down”—that are the most noteworthy things they are telling us, since it is these that will lead us to the right remedy. Thus we ask: how do you feel? It is telling that this very description of subjective symptoms is given no value in orthodox medicine (whose language abounds with nouns: “proliferation of streptococci in the trachea,” etc.).
The truth about nature is multidimensional and multifaceted. So whenever we find ourselves becoming dogmatic about it being only one way or another, we can be sure that we have fallen away from the ultimate truth about Mother Nature, who simply cannot be pigeonholed.
The Rules of Communication
The first rule is that you can only hear what you allow to filter through the constant chatter of your mind. Meditators trained in stilling and calming the ongoing flow of inner talk are very good at perceiving what is out there in a calm, unbiased manner.
The second rule is that we can perceive correctly only what does not get distorted by our layer of neuroses. It is well known in psychotherapy that any neurosis we might have will distort the inner messages we receive. A simple example is a woman who got very upset and offended at the mere sight of a calla lily, calling it “an ugly monkey penis.”
| Calla lily
She had been sexually abused. Our neuroses quite literally become colored glasses through which we see the world—it would be best to at least know we had them on our nose, and better still to know which color they were.
The third rule is to let reasoning and interpretation come only after the direct communication with the plant; before or during it will cut the communication. This requires some mental effort. It is to restrain ourselves, once we have found the slightest inkling of a signature, from running and writing it down and talking about it, rather than staying with the experience and let it unfold.
The fourth rule is that we forget when we go from one mental state to another. It is commonly known that people remember what they experienced while drunk when they become drunk again, but not while sober. We suddenly remember last night’s dream when slipping into sleep the next night. In the same way, as we “go under” into a meditative state to do the plant attunement, we tend to forget the images and message as we come out of that state back into our everyday mind. It is therefore helpful to learn to come across the threshold slowly and mindfully in order to avoid interrupting the link of memory.
Thus, the calmer, clearer, and more unbiased you are, the better. For a long time, I tried not to read anything about a healing plant before I went to sit with it to feel its essence. I found that not having read other people’s comments left my mind fresh and free. In Zen Buddhism, this is called beginner’s mind. Afterward it was also very helpful to go back and check my findings against those of others, to see how much overlap there was. It is a way of checking back later with oneself about whether one is indeed tuning into the plant and reading the signature, or just tripping. This all ties in with the principle known in psychological testing, as well as quantum physics, according to which the observer, especially the observer’s intention, influences the outcome of the experiment, and further, that objects under observation, even inanimate objects such as electrons, behave differently under observation than when not observed.
“The doctrine of signatures operates through at least two different subjective faculties, the intuition and the imagination” (Wood, Herbal Wisdom, 23). He explains the difference as follows: intuition is the ability to see patterns in the world; imagination is the ability to see images.
Ayurveda takes this into the context of direct yogic perception, a kind of insight gained based on perfect concentration, a completely still mind with an unmoving focus, a state in which the observing mind and the observed object are said to merge into union like water poured into water (Gyatso, 31ff). “The human being transmutes life into consciousness through perception. Through direct perception, the seer is the seen, the observer the observed” (Frawley and Lad, 5).
The sages of ancient India approached healing and herbs with this same consciousness [of total communion with the plant]. Theirs was not a science of experimentation, but a form of direct participation. Experimentation implies distance, a division between the observer and the observed, subject and object. As a result, it is mediated, measured, translated. In dissecting the corpse, the penetration of the soul is missed. Direct perception, or meditation, is the science of yoga. Yoga allows the essence, the thing-in-itself, to disclose itself. When this happens, a full revelation of material and spiritual potential occurs.
The seers, through the yoga of perception, let the plants speak to them. And plants disclose their secrets—many of which are far subtler than a chemical analysis would uncover. Approaching plants in the same way today, not as objects for self-aggrandizement but as integral parts of our own unity, the true value of a plant will flourish for our unselfish use.
To become a true herbalist, therefore, means to become a seer. This means to be sensitive to the being of the herbs, to commune in receptive awareness with the plant-light of the universe. It is to learn to listen when the plant speaks, to speak to the plants as another human being, and to look upon it as one’s teacher.(ibid., 5f.)
The Universal Language
In a realm free from human culture and from language stuck in the limitations of dualism, we can imagine a world made from energy—in the physical sense of its definition, as something immaterial that functions to do work. Energy has received all kinds of labels through the ages and times—the Chinese call it chi, the Indians prana or vayu; it has been called life force in the West and medicine power by the northern Native Americans. It matters little what it is called—it is the dynamic, immaterial aspect of life that propels things, making them function. It is the difference between a living body and a corpse, a live herb and a dried one. In Ayurveda, prana or vayu (wind), as it is called, is said to be the flow of energy that courses the body in set patterns, in part following the nerves and blood vessels, and which propels physiological functions, such as breathing, urination, or blood circulation. It is called wind to illustrate its transmaterial nature as well as its dynamism and mobility. In traditional Chinese medicine, chi and blood are said to be like two sides of a coin, that is, they go together. So the flow of blood and the flow of chi are coupled, again giving chi a dynamic, nonmaterial aspect. Greek humoral medicine thought of the humors or body liquids in a similar fashion, and this is how holistic practitioners of today use the term energy. Energy language is becoming a universal language and an accepted principle, surprisingly uniting such disciplines as quantum physics and chakra healing.
In this universal language of energy, we find that we can establish the doctrine of signature based on a universally observable correspondence of underlying energy patterns and their development.
These can occur at any level: ginseng roots looking like little persons and therefore being the supreme tonic for humankind as a whole; resins oozing out of injured barks, healing and sealing them, hence being powerful antiseptic wound healers; wild snapdragon with yellow flowers shaped like huge jaws helping with digestion and temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ: tight jaws and teeth grinding).
Frawley, David, and Vasant Lad. The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine. Santa Fe, N.M.: Lotus Press, 1986.
Gyatso, Lobsang. Lorig Nyerkho Kun Tu [blo rigs nyer mkho kun btus]. Dharamsala, India: Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, 1998. A Mahayana Buddhist monastic text on cognitional theory.
Harris, Ben Charles. The Compleat Herbal: Being a Description of the Origins, the Lore, the Characteristics, the Types, and the Prescribed Uses of Medicinal Herbs, Including an Alphabetical Guide to All Common Medicinal Plants, 2nd ed. New York: Bell, 1985.
Jacobi, Jolande. Paracelsus: Arzt und Gottsucher an der Zeitenwende. 2nd rev. ed. Olten, Germany: Walter, 1991.
Wood, Matthew. The Magical Staff: The Vitalist Tradition in Western Medicine. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic, 1992.
——. The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 1997.
JULIA GRAVES grew up in Germany in close communion with nature. She trained in Anthroposophic massage therapy, herbalism, and medicine from an early age. Julia has traveled around the world, from North America to the Himalayas, to study the doctrine of signatures. She is a practicing herbalist, a maker of flower essences, and a naturopathic doctor. She organized a naturopathic relief clinic in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and presently lives on her farm in France. This article and the accompanying illustrations are excerpted from her book The Language of Plants: A Guide to the Doctrine of Signatures (Lindisfarne Books, 2012) and reprinted with the kind permission of Lindisfarne Books.
Keeping the Water Still: An Interview with Ajahn Brahm
Printed in the Winter 2018 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Smoley, Richard, "Keeping the Water Still: An Interview with Ajahn Brahm" Quest 106:1, pg 13-18
By Richard Smoley
Ajahn Brahm, the extremely popular Buddhist teacher, belongs to the Theravada (“elder”) lineage of the Buddhist tradition. Born Peter Betts in London in 1951, he took a degree in theoretical physics from the University of Cambridge and then traveled to northeast Thailand, where he became a monk in the lineage of Ajahn Chah.
In 1983 he was invited to Perth by the Buddhist Society of Western Australia to join Ajahn Jagaro, another monk in Ajahn Chah’s lineage. Later that year the BSWA purchased ninety-seven acres of forested land in Serpentine, south of Perth. Ajahn Brahm became the cofounding monk and deputy abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery there in late 1983. In 1995 he became abbot of Bodhinyana, a position he still holds.
Ajahn Brahm travels internationally, teaching Buddhism and meditation. His genial, humorous, and down-to-earth approach to the teachings—exemplified by the titles of two of his books—Don’t Worry, Be Grumpy and Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?—have won him a wide and admiring following. Another book of his is entitled Kindfulness.
Ajahn Brahm came to Olcott in June 2017 to lead a retreat. While he was here, I was able to interview him. With us was former monk Ajahn Jagaro, now known as John Cianciosi, director of programming at Olcott and a good friend of both Ajahn Brahm’s and mine. Also present was a glass of water that enjoyed a few minutes in the limelight.
Richard : Fifty years ago, meditation was very little known in this country and in the West in general, and now it’s very well known. What do you make of all this?
Ajahn Brahm: It’s about time, but it’s also the case that when things become popular, many people jump on the bandwagon, and they teach without really having much background. They think it’s the silver bullet which will change everything. Sometimes it gets overvalued. Like many things, meditation is just one part of a big change in people’s attitudes towards life in society. So you have to keep it in context.
Richard : People often seem to say many different things when they talk about meditation. When you hear meditation in the popular frame, how does it relate to what you think of as meditation?
Ajahn Brahm: Again, people look at meditation, and they see what they want to see in it. A lot of times, I say that meditation, first of all, is stress reduction. [He holds out a glass of water.] How heavy is my glass of water? The longer you hold it, the heavier it feels. After thirty seconds, my arm will start to ache. After one minute, I’ll be in pain. After two minutes, I’ll be in agony. What should I do when this gets too heavy to hold?
Richard : Put it down.
Ajahn Brahm: Put it down, and take a rest. After about thirty seconds of resting your arm, you pick it up again, and it feels lighter. This is hard to do with stress.
First of all, stress has nothing to do with how much responsibility or how many duties you have. It has everything to do with the fact that when you get tired, when your brain can’t handle the job, instead of pushing and pushing and pushing, you put it down and relax and rest. When you pick it up again afterwards, after doing a bit of meditation, your brain is reenergized, it’s clear again, and it is productive.
If you’ve ever been writing an essay or an email, and the words just don’t come, ideas are just not arising, it’s because you’re tired. So instead of pushing, just take a rest. Meditation is the best way of putting things down. Then, when you go back to the computer screen afterwards, ideas flow.
I taught that at a computer conference years ago, and it got into the Australian newspapers, and then from there to Harvard. So it’s taught at Harvard now. They call it investment in time. If you want to be productive, take half an hour out.
Richard : When you teach meditation to beginners, how often and how long do you advise them to start with meditating?
Ajahn Brahm: Oh, just one moment. In other words, get rid of the idea of time. If you say you’re going to do it for ten minutes, then you’re always wondering when ten minutes is up. So take away the clock and just as long as you’re having some peace, it’s working, keep on going. If it’s not, get up. It’s not forcing the mind. It’s kindfulness.
We always think that discipline is force, but in original Chinese Art of War, there was a story of the general in the imperial army who had the best discipline of all the generals, and the emperor wanted to know his secret. The general said, “I only teach my soldiers to do what they want to do, which is why they always follow orders.”
Now of course there must be something deeper than that, because if I was a soldier, and I did what I wanted to do, I wouldn’t go to battle. He meant that before he gave the orders to go into battle, he’d so motivated his soldiers that they couldn’t wait to go in. They wanted to.
Discipline always comes from motivation. The job of any teacher, manager, is not to just bully the staff, it’s to convince them why, which means that there’s no negativity or resistance to the order. You just can’t wait. You want to help. When you use the words of business, the language of economy, productivity, innovation, then people get interested. You’re talking their language.
It’s the same with meditation. Just see the benefits of it. Just see how peaceful, how happy it is, and then you want to do it. “Oh, please, can I do another ten minutes?” It changes the whole attitude.
Richard : Well, it is very much opposed to the American way of doing things, where there’s this underlying assumption that if you’re not tense and in a hurry, somehow you ought to be.
Ajahn Brahm: Yes, but that just gives you heart attacks. It shortens your lifespan and lessens your productivity. It’s not how much you push yourself. It’s not just forcing people, because then they get rebellious. It’s learning how to motivate and convince a person that this is worthwhile doing, and then people just want to do it. It’s like The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “If you want a person to build a ship, teach him to love the ocean.” It’s all about motivation.
Same thing about meditation. You can’t motivate people—please excuse me—like the Zen people do, with a stick. In Hong Kong, I heard this story from a Chinese monk. There was a retreat in China, and the master there walked behind the meditators with a big stick. There was one woman there who was nodding, and he hit her on the back. She took out her cell phone and called the police. The police came and took the monk away.
You can’t do that anymore. That’s illegal. Now there’s a warning.
Richard : I visited a Zen monastery years ago in the Catskills, with John Daido Loori. They’re very well-mannered. They stop, and they bow before you, and ask if you want to be hit on the shoulder, which is more civilized.
Ajahn Brahm: I can understand that. It’s compassionate. You don’t hit people—and of course, it’d be against the law. You get sued for that, so be careful.
Richard : There is a lot of talk about mindfulness in corporate culture today. Does this have much to do with what you consider mindfulness?
Ajahn Brahm: Very little, because it’s just taking something out of context. It does have some benefits, but a lot of times people force themselves to be mindful. It’s not natural, and they get stressed out trying to be mindful.
It’s just like the happiness movement. You have to be happy, so you have a smile on your face, and that stresses you out, because you feel miserable. “Why do I have to feel happy? I’ll get the stick if I don’t feel happy. I’m doing something wrong.” People already have enough stress in their lives. It just makes it worse.
Richard : People have a tendency to feel guilty, at least in American society, because they’re not happy. In addition to all the other things you have to do, you have to be happy.
Ajahn Brahm: There was a lady at one of my retreats. She came for an interview, and she said, “I feel so terrible.” I said, “Why?” She said, “I feel miserable, I feel grumpy, and everyone else is smiling and happy. I feel like a total failure.”
I said, “No, you’re allowed to be grumpy at my retreats.” I went to the office, got out a piece of letterhead, and, in Gothic script, I printed out a grumpy license: “You’re my disciple, so I give you permission to be grumpy at any time, for any reason, or no reason whatsoever, to be grumpy for the rest of your life,” and I signed it, “Your teacher.”
I presented it to her. Now she had permission to be grumpy, and she laughed all over her face, and now she was happy.
You can see that trying to be what you’re not is, of course, a source of stress. If you are tired or sleepy, a stick doesn’t help, fear doesn’t help. If you are tired, it’s because you have what every psychologist knows is called sleep deficit. People don’t sleep enough, so there is a time when you’re relaxing, and your body just takes control and you go to sleep.
You’re welcome to be sleepy on my retreats. I quote one of the sutras of the Buddha. The Buddha was going with his attendant, and saw one monk in the forest sitting perfectly straight, not moving at all. Perfect meditation posture. The Buddha turned to his attendant and said, “I’m worried about that monk.” A couple of weeks later, the monk was disrobed.
Deep in the forest, he saw another monk, who was nodding all over the place, half asleep, and the Buddha smiled. “I’m not worried about him.” A couple of weeks later, he became enlightened with all the psychic powers.
When I teach that on my retreats, I look at all the people who are nodding and say, “You have great potential.” There’s a reason for that. People who are holding themselves straight are control freaks, and they’re control freaks because they’re afraid. You’re afraid of being hit with a stick, afraid of failure, afraid of being diminished because you’re not good enough, because that’s how you’ve been taught since you were a kid.
The one who was nodding was authentic. These people, in their present reality, were tired. They let it happen. Those are the ones who actually become peaceful. They’re not fighting. They’re making peace with whatever they’re experiencing right now.
Richard : Maybe you could tell us a little bit about what enlightenment is according to Buddhist teachings and your own experience.
Ajahn Brahm: OK. My father was poor, mother poor. My father died when I was young, but I went to a really good high school—scholarships all the way. It was such a good high school that they had a chaplain. It was Anglican—Christian.
I went to see that chaplain once to ask him, “What is God? I just don’t get it. Please explain it to me.” I remember the chaplain saying, “God is ineffable. He’s beyond words. He’s the alpha and omega. He’s the ground of all being. He’s the ultimate.”
I said, “But what does that mean?” It was all gobbledygook to me. Because he couldn’t give a really easily understandable answer, I assumed he didn’t know what he was talking about.
Later on, when I met a Buddhist monk, I said, “What is nirvana—enlightenment?” He said the same. He said, “It’s ineffable beyond words. It’s the alpha and omega, the ground of all being.” I said, “I’ve heard that before.”
In other words, it’s—can I say the word bullshit? It’s bullshit. When I was at Cambridge, there was a quote from Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum physics. People think quantum physics is hard to understand, but he is quoted as saying that if you understand quantum physics, if you really understand it, you can explain it to the barmaid serving you a beer in the pub. She will understand it. Your ability to explain something is a measure of how much you understand it.
Later on, you learn how to explain nirvana and enlightenment. There’s a story. There’s five children playing the wishing game, and the rules are whoever comes up with the best wish wins the wishing game.
The first kid said, “If I had a wish, I’d wish for the latest Nintendo game because I like playing computer games.”
The second kid said, “Well, if I had a wish, I’d wish for a computer game shop, because with my own shop, I can get many computer games. Whenever there’s a new one out, I can get it.” It was obviously a better wish.
The third kid said, “If I had a wish, I’d wish for one billion dollars, because I like playing computer games too, but my mom keeps telling me I should do my homework and do my studies first. So if I had a billion dollars, I’d first of all buy my own computer shop, and then I would buy my own school. If I owned a school, and paid the teachers, then I could always make sure I got good grades, even if I don’t hand in the homework. I could play computer games, and once I graduate from my own school, then I’d buy my own university, just like Trump did, and I’d give myself any degree I want, and I can keep playing computer games.”
With a billion dollars, unless you’re in government, it doesn’t ever run out. It’s more money than you could ever spend in a whole lifetime. So that was a billion-dollar wish, which was obviously winning. There’s two more kids who had their wishes.
The fourth kid said, “If I had a wish and said, two billion dollars, it’s the same as one billion. It’s more money than you could ever spend.” So he said, “If I had a wish, I’d wish for three wishes. That’s a wish. For my first wish, I’d have a computer game shop. My second wish, I’d have a billion dollars. For my third wish, I’d have three more wishes. That way, I could go on forever. Beat that.”
There was one more kid left. That fifth child said, “If I had a wish, I’d wish I was so content, I’d never need any more wishes ever again.”
That kid won the game. He managed to see a wish which was far more superior than the infinity of wishes granted.
That’s enlightenment. The end of craving. The end of wanting. You’re so content, you don’t need any more wishes. That’s something people can understand.
Richard : To what extent is it possible to achieve this?
Ajahn Brahm: Why not? Of course it is. I quote Obama: “Yes, we can.” If it wasn’t achievable, it’d be just a waste of time even trying.
Richard : Is there a way of trying so that it itself becomes a kind of distraction?
Ajahn Brahm: Of course there is: “Try to let go. Come on, let go. I dare you, let go”—it’s the total opposite of letting go.
That’s why this whole self-help movement is fatally flawed, just like that person who went to the bookshop and asked the person at the counter where the self-help section was. The person said, “If I told you, sir, it would defeat the purpose.”
So I don’t write self-help books. That defeats the purpose. Write your own book.
Richard : I think some of them do that. I think that’s where they get many of these self-help books, all of which say basically the same thing, it would seem.
Maybe we could talk a little bit about your background and what drew you into not only Buddhism, but into this particular school of philosophy.
Ajahn Brahm: When I was sixteen, I got my first school prize; it was in math. I didn’t know what to do with the money, so I asked the teacher, and he said, “Get some math books.”
So I went to this big bookshop in London and saw these math books, and they were so boring. This was my first school prize. I wasn’t going to spend it on this rubbish.
On the opposite side of the road, in the annex, on the top floor, which was almost like the forbidden section, there were all the books on religions, especially non-Christian ones, and I decided, “I’m going to get a paperback on each religion and read them to find out what religion I should choose in life.” These days we call it market research. Why not? You don’t buy the car your father owned. You check which one is the best for you.
So when I heard of Buddhism, it wasn’t that it converted me; it was that’s who I am. That’s my belief system. That fits me. That’s who I am. It’s not that I’d been converted by the ideas. It was discovering that I already was a Buddhist. I never knew the name.
Later on, when I was at university, there was a societies fair—all the different clubs and societies you could join. They were all in a big hall. It was at a coin exchange in Cambridge. There they had horse and hounds, the foxhunting team, tiddlywinks; from the sublime to the ridiculous, everything was there. But there was also the Buddhist Society. It was just amazing: there were other Buddhists in the U.K.
I went up and said I wanted to join. The student manning the booth said, “You don’t have to join. Just come and see.” I said, “No, I’m a Buddhist. I want to join.” He said, “No. You don’t have to. Just come to a few lectures and see if you like it.”
I took a pound note out of my wallet—that was the joining fee—and slammed it on the table. “Join me.” He became one of my best friends. He is Professor Bernard Carr. He was a very close associate of Stephen Hawking’s, they’re both into theoretical physics, and he was featured on the movie The Theory of Everything. He’s a Buddhist, a theoretical physicist, and emeritus professor at Queen Mary College, London University. We started our life in friendship with this huge argument.
Later on, when I decided to become a monk, I checked out all the different traditions. The thing which convinced me was not what they said, but how happy they were.
At that time, it was close between Thai monks and Tibetan monks, but the Thai monks I knew smiled more, and that was the only reason why I went to Thailand. I thought that if you’re going to have a spiritual life, if it doesn’t make you happy—and I want to see that on people’s faces and in their body language, because people can spot a lot of bullshit, and I wasn’t looking for that.
I was looking for something deeper. Is this authentic? I wanted to see the smile. Of course, as John would say, when you went to see someone like Ajahn Chah in Thailand, that guy was just so impressive. Really smiley, happy in amazing situations. It’s easy enough to be happy while life goes along like a song, but the one who is worthwhile is the one who can smile when everything goes all wrong.
I really thought at the time that I’d just spend one or two years in Thailand as a monk, get enlightenment out of the way, and then come find a partner, get married. I had a great degree; it would be easy to find a job and get a career.
Enlightenment, I thought, was something you just did and then just went back and did something else in your life until you realize it was not just enlightenment; it’s a whole lifestyle. It’s so peaceful, so beautiful. Kind, wise, simple.
Richard : One thing you tend to see in discussions of enlightenment is it’s a point to be reached. It’s kind of what you were just saying. “By George, I haven’t gotten there yet, but by George, I’m going to get it, and once I do, things will be great”—presumably. Sometimes the traditions and teachings sound a bit like that. To what extent is that correct, and to what extent is that, shall we say—?
Ajahn Brahm: That is just more of the same bullshit, which causes people stress and disappointment. I call it the three spirations: aspiration leads to desperation leads to expiration. You give up.
There’s the simile of the donkey and the carrot. Donkeys are very stubborn animals, but they’re very strong, and they can pull carts, people, for long distances. If you want that donkey to move, using a stick to beat it doesn’t work.
Instead you use that stick. You tie it to the donkey’s neck, so the front of the stick is two feet in front of the donkey’s head. On the end of the stick you put a string. On the end of the string, a carrot.
So there’s a carrot right in front of the donkey’s mouth. Donkeys like carrots, so the donkey moves towards that carrot. When it moves, the stick moves, the string moves, and the carrot moves, so you can almost see the carrot. You move towards it, and the carrot moves away. You move a bit further, you start running, the carrot’s still two feet in front of your mouth.
That is like life. Getting the best job. Getting the lovely partner, the beautiful relationship, fulfillment in life. You can actually see it there. You move towards it, and it moves away. You never quite catch it. You move towards it, and it moves away from you.
But fortunately, there is a way that donkeys catch the carrots, and once you understand it, it’s so simple. You wonder why you never thought of that. The donkey has been running towards the carrot for such a long time, so the donkey decides to stop and let go. The donkey stops perfectly still, and, because of momentum, the carrot moves further away. It’s never been so far away before; you let it go.
Then the carrot starts moving towards you. It’s two feet in front of your mouth, but for the first time coming at high speeds towards your mouth, and it comes so close to your mouth. There’s one last thing you must remember. Compassion. “Carrot, the door of my mouth is open to you.” That’s how donkeys catch the carrot.
You’ve been chasing it for too long. You stop, you let go, and you have enough confidence and faith just to wait and let it move towards you. That’s how it works.
I have another simile. Meditation is all about learning how to be still. Even in the Psalms, I think it is. “Be still and know that I am God” [Psalm 46:10]. It’s amazing how that got in the Bible without being edited out. That is really controversial, but that’s actually pretty true. That’s why samadhi means stillness and never concentration.
That’s one of my missions in life, to get this idea of concentration out of people’s heads. It has nothing to do with meditation. That’s too much effort. Too many meditation retreats become concentration camps. When I teach meditation, we don’t call it concentration camp. We call it Club Med—Club Meditation.
Anyway, to show how it works with an example. See this water here? [He takes the glass of water and holds it out on his hand.] I know my purpose is to keep this water perfectly still. Now you’re an honest guy. Has this water stopped moving yet?
Richard : No.
Ajahn Brahm: Because I’m not mindful. I’m not paying attention. So now I’m going to pay attention. Has it stopped moving?
Richard : Well, it’s still moving a little.
Ajahn Brahm: OK. It’s because I’m not concentrating. So now I’m going to concentrate.
Richard : It’s still pretty much the same.
Ajahn Brahm: It’s actually worse. This is how many people meditate, and they get frustrated because there’s no way. Think about it. Have a bit of an idea of just what happens in your arm. The arm is never still. It’s metabolizing, the muscles are moving, and the blood is pumping through your veins and arteries. There’s no way you can keep this still by holding it.
There is one way of keeping it still, though. Letting it go. As soon as I put it down, I just wait and be patient. After a very short time, effortlessly—how about now? [He puts the glass on the table.]
Richard : It’s still.
Ajahn Brahm: Exactly. That’s how we meditate. Some people are impatient. What they do is they put it down. “Is it still yet?” “Not yet.” So don’t interfere with the process. Just let it happen.
Richard : To change the subject somewhat, people are particularly fascinated with Tibetan Buddhism, Vajrayana, and you yourself were at least potentially drawn to that. How do you see that type of Buddhism in relation to your own, Theravada versus Vajrayana?
Ajahn Brahm: Well, you ask any Western Vajrayana monk or nun, and they will tell you that the meditation they use is Theravada meditation. They just don’t get the complexity of the Vajrayana teachings.
In any country in history where there’s been Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, the Theravada’s always taken over. That’s what’s happening now. It’s more simple, easy to understand, more basic.
Tibet had the advantage of being exotic, mysterious, in the mountains. People didn’t really understand what was going on over there. So the mystery of it gave it something which is similar to quantum physics. Not many people understand it, so they use their misunderstandings of quantum science to explain everything. You look at some of that, and that really is crazy stuff.
It’s the same with some of the Tibetan traditions, which are so hard to understand. But when you get to the heart of it, to the simplicity of the tradition, then it’s wonderful. You get the real masters, and then you can relate to them so well, because they’re the same as you are.
One thing that’s also important is the three conceits. It’s not just I’m better than everybody else. The second conceit is, I’m worse than others. It’s another form of measuring. The third conceit is, I’m the same as everybody else. Those are three wrong views. That’s personal, but it’s also religious. To say that my religion, or my form of religion, my interpretation of religion is better than others, it just shows a lack of understanding.
It’s like selecting an orchestra. Which is the best instrument? You need the wind section, you need the string section, and you need the percussion. You need all parts of that. They’re all necessary. You can’t say that one is better than the other. You can’t even compare them. They’re all part of the fabric of our life.
Richard : Every tradition has a certain essence to its teaching, whatever there is, and then there are the cultural forms that have been overlaid on it, say, for example, the orange or brown robe. When you are bringing these teachings to a new fallow ground, like the West, how do you as a teacher distinguish the two and keep, shall we say, what’s essential, or is it important to do that?
Ajahn Brahm: Yes, of course it is. For example, getting Australians to bow to a Buddha: they don’t understand what we’re doing that for.
I was once invited over to one of the big Christian schools in Perth to give the talk at the morning assembly.
We were waiting outside, and the principal turned to me, and said, “This is a Christian school. There’s a little image of Christ in the corner. We’re going to bow to it, but you’re a Buddhist. You don’t have to.”
I took my opportunity. I turned to him and said, “I demand my right to bow to your statue of Jesus.” I was making a point, and he said, “What the hell are you talking about?” I said, “I could see something in that symbol which I could bow to.”
Then I also discussed how whenever I bow to a Buddhist statue—you don’t bow to a lump of brass. You bow to what it means to you. For my first bow, I bow to virtue, goodness, because virtue, trust, goodness, is something which is so helpful and meaningful in our world. And every time I bow to it, because I raise it higher than I am, it’s respecting and reminding yourself of its power and importance. So it makes me more virtuous.
The second bow is for stillness, peace, peace in your own heart, peace in a community, peace in this TS center, and peace in the world. Every time I bow, I remind myself the importance of peace—no argument, not being right, but peace—and that makes me more peaceful, more creative with peace.
The last one, I bow to compassion and kindness. You can really see wonderful acts of kindness. People give, not just money, but their time to another person. They forgive them, and they let go of their past with friends; that compassion is so wonderful. I keep reminding myself, with my third bow, of the importance of compassion. So: virtue, peace, and compassion.
When I say that, you get all these Australian people bowing for the first time. They understand what they’re doing it for, even that Christian principal. We arranged for him to have a visit to the monastery where I live, and together both of us went into the main hall, and together we bowed three times to the Buddha. He got it.
That’s using the symbolism, the rituals with understanding, and it has a powerful purpose. This brown robe is just simplicity. If I have a cup of coffee or a cup of tea and spill it, it’s already brown, so I don’t need to wash it.
Richard : What’s your impression of the Theosophical Society, both coming here and out in the world?
Ajahn Brahm: Well, it doesn’t have much PR, so it’s not prominent. It could be a good thing; it could be a bad thing, but I think you need to market yourselves more. It’s nice having different people in the orchestra and working together and being able not to say, “I’m right and other people are wrong.”