We can investigate: Where has this hedonistic seeking of pleasure as an end in itself brought us? It has continued now for several decades but is humanity any happier as a result? It seems that nowadays we have been given the right and freedom to do anything we like with drugs, sex, travel and so on – anything goes; anything is allowed; nothing is forbidden. You have to do something really obscene, really violent, before you’ll be ostracised. But has being able to follow our impulses made us any happier or more relaxed and contented? In fact, it has tended to make us very selfish; we don’t think about how our actions might affect others. We tend to think only about ourselves: me and my happiness, my freedom and my rights. So I become a terrible nuisance, a source of great frustration, annoyance and misery for the people around me. If I think I can do anything I want or say anything I feel like saying, even at the expense of others, then I’m a person who is nothing but a nuisance to society.
When the sense of ‘what I want’ and ‘what I think should and should not be’ arises, and we wish to delight in all the pleasures of life, we inevitably get upset because life seems so hopeless and everything seems to go wrong. We just get whirled about by life – just running around in states of fear and desire. And even when we get everything we want, we will think there is something missing, something incomplete yet. So even when life is at its best, there is still this sense of suffering – something yet to be done, some kind of doubt or fear haunting us.
For example, I’ve always liked beautiful scenery. Once during a retreat that I led in Switzerland, I was taken to some beautiful mountains and noticed that there was always a sense of anguish in my mind because there was so much beauty, a continual flow of beautiful sights. I had the feeling of wanting to hold on to everything, that I had to keep alert all the time in order to consume everything with my eyes. It was really wearing me out! Now that was dukkha, wasn’t it?
I find that if I do things heedlessly – even something quite harmless like looking at beautiful mountains – if I’m just reaching out and trying to hold on to something, it always brings an unpleasant feeling. How can you hold on to the Jungfrau and the Eiger? The best you can do is to take a picture of it, trying to capture everything on a piece of paper. That’s dukkha; if you want to hold on to something which is beautiful because you don’t want to be separated from it – that is suffering.
Having to be in situations you don’t like is also suffering. For example, I never liked riding in the Underground in London. I’d complain about it: ‘I don’t want to go on the underground with those awful posters and dingy Underground stations. I don’t want to be packed into those little trains under the ground.’ I found it a totally unpleasant experience. But I’d listen to this complaining, moaning voice – the suffering of not wanting to be with something unpleasant. Then, having contemplated this, I stopped making anything of it so that I could be with the unpleasant and un-beautiful without suffering about it. I realised that it’s just that way and it’s all right. We needn’t make problems – either about being in a dingy Underground station or about looking at beautiful scenery. Things are as they are, so we can recognise and appreciate them in their changing forms without grasping. Grasping is wanting to hold on to something we like; wanting to get rid of something we don’t like; or wanting to get something we don’t have.
We can also suffer a lot because of other people. I remember that in Thailand I used to have quite negative thoughts about one of the monks. Then he’d do something and I’d think, ‘He shouldn’t do that,’ or he’d say something, ‘He shouldn’t say that!’ I’d carry this monk around in my mind and then, even if I went to some other place, I’d think of that monk; the perception of him would arise and the same reactions would come: ‘Do you remember when he said this and when he did that?’ and: ‘He shouldn’t have said that and he shouldn’t have done that.’
Having found a teacher like Ajahn Chah, I remember wanting him to be perfect. I’d think, ‘Oh, he’s a marvellous teacher – marvellous!’ But then he might do something that would upset me and I’d think, ‘I don’t want him to do anything that upsets me because I like to think of him as being marvellous.’ That was like saying, ‘Ajahn Chah, be marvellous for me all the time. Don’t ever do anything that will put any kind of negative thought into my mind.’ So even when you find somebody that you really respect and love, there’s still the suffering of attachment. Inevitably, they will do or say something that you’re not going to like or approve of, causing you some kind of doubt – and you’ll suffer.
At one time, several American monks came to Wat Pah Pong, our monastery in Northeastern Thailand. They were very critical and it seemed that they only saw what was wrong with it. They didn’t think Ajahn Chah was a very good teacher and they didn’t like the monastery. I felt a great anger and hatred arising because they were criticising something that I loved. I felt indignant – ‘Well, if you don’t like it, get out of here. He’s the finest teacher in the world and if you can’t see that then just GO!’ That kind of attachment – being in love or being devoted – is suffering because if something or someone you love is criticised, you feel angry and indignant.