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.

Theosophical Society - 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.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.”



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