Tough but Highly Effective training on Mindfulness

From the Autobiography of Ajahn Mun (1870 – 1949)

Since his time at sarika cave, Ãcariya Mun possessed a mastery of psychic skills concerning all sorts of phenomena. Over the years, his proficiency grew to such an extent that there seemed to be no limit to his abilities. As the monks living with him were well aware of these abilities, they took strict care to be mentally self-controlled at all times. They couldn’t afford to let their minds wander carelessly because their errant thoughts could become the subject of a Dhamma (Spiritual Truths) talk they might receive at the evening meeting.

They needed to be especially vigilant during the meeting when Ãcariya Mun was actually speaking to them. In those brief moments when he stopped speaking – perhaps to catch his breath, perhaps to observe something – if he detected any stray thought among the monks, he immediately made an issue of it. The tone of his voice changed dramatically as he mimicked the unmindful thoughts of one of those present. Although Ãcariya Mun did not mention anyone by name, his tone immediately startled that individual who became quite frightened to ever dare think like that again.

Another time to be careful was when they followed him on alms round. Those who were unmindful then were bound to hear about their wayward thoughts at the next meeting. Sometimes it was very embarrassing to have to listen to a talk on one’s own wayward thoughts as other monks cast sidelong glances around the assembly, not knowing who among them was being reprimanded. But once discovered, all the monks and novices tended to react similarly in a positive manner.

Instead of feeling angry or disappointed after leaving the meeting, all would appear cheerful and content; some even laughed as they inquired of each other: “Who was it today? Who got caught today?” It’s remarkable how honest they were with their fellow monks about their errant thoughts. Instead of trying to keep his indiscretion a secret, the guilty monk would confess as soon as someone asked: “I’m really stubborn and I couldn’t help thinking about … even though I knew I was bound to get told off for thinking like that. When those thoughts came up, I forgot all about my fear of Ãcariya Mun and just felt full of myself thinking such crazy thoughts. I deserved exactly what I got. It will teach me a good lesson about losing my self-control.”

In most cases, practicing monks received a severe rebuke from Ãcariya Mun because of affairs pertaining to external sense objects. For example, sights and sounds are the most likely sense impressions to cause trouble. And the most likely occasion for monks to be scolded was the morning alms round. Walking to the village for alms is an essential duty of every monk. On these occasions, monks encounter sights and sounds, and are bound to think about them. Some become so infatuated with what they encounter that their thoughts swirl into disarray without their actual knowledge. These are the primary causes of mental distraction, enticing the mind even when one has no desire to think about them. By the time a monk regained mindfulness, it was time for the evening meeting and the tongue-lashing he received would prompt him to try to be more controlled.

After a time, he again encountered the same enticing objects and reopened the sore. Upon returning to the monastery, he would receive another dose of ‘strong medicine’, in the form of another scolding, to apply to his sore. A great many monks and novices lived with Ãcariya Mun and most of them had such festering sores. If one monk didn’t get a dose of his medicine then another did. They went to the village and were confronted by attractive sights and sounds until they were unable to stay out of trouble. Consequently, upon their return to the monastery, when the opportunity arose, Ãcariya Mun would have another go at them.

It’s natural for someone with kilesas (negative thoughts or mental habits) to have a mixture of good and bad thoughts. Ãcariya Mun did not give a lecture for every bad thought. What he criticized was the tendency to think in harmful ways. He wanted them to think in terms of Dhamma, using mindfulness and wisdom, so that they could free themselves from dukkha (suffering). He found that, instead of easing their teacher’s burden with rightful thinking, monks preferred to think in ways that troubled him. Since many such monks lived with him, there were scolding nearly every evening.

Paid FieldOnce, due to his fear of Ãcariya Mun, a monk thought about the ferocity Ãcariya Mun’s admonitions. When the monk next saw him, Ãcariya Mun immediately addressed the question, “Almost everything we use – from our food to our requisites to the robes we wear – must pass through various stages of preparation before being turned into useful items. Rice must be planted, harvested, and cooked; wood must be cut, sawed, and planed; and cloth must be woven and sewn into robes. Isn’t that right? These things don’t become finished products ready for use or consumption unless a lot of work is done on them. Food and shelter are the product of man’s labor. They do not simply materialize from nowhere. Only corpses are totally inactive, lying lifeless and having no need to provide for their own livelihood. With no reason to adjust their behavior, they have no need for a teacher to scold them and give instructions. But you are alive and still seeking a teacher’s guidance. Yet you’re unreasonably afraid of your teacher, citing his fierce admonitions as a rationale. Then again, if your teacher simply kept his mouth shut, you would probably accuse him of failing to teach you and thus be even more upset. In the final analysis, nothing quite suits you. Your thoughts jump around like a monkey jumping up and down in the trees. If it keeps jumping about long enough, it will jump on a rotten branch and end up in a heap on the ground. Which do you want to be? Do you want to be a monkey jumping on a rotten branch, or a monk with a teacher to guide you?”

All of this serves to illustrate that Ãcariya Mun’s subtle ability to know the thoughts of others was very real. As for those reprehensible thoughts, they did not arise intentionally but accidentally, due to occasional lapses in mindfulness. Nevertheless, as a teacher imparting knowledge and skill to his students, Ãcariya Mun quickly sounded a warning when he noticed something inappropriate, so that the perpetrator could become conscious of his lapse and learn to be more self-controlled in the future. He did not want his students to get trapped into such thinking again, for it promotes habitual thought patterns that lead directly to misfortune.

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