Dhamma Video Conference Talk and Q & A with Ajahn Anan – September 13th, 2019
Note: One can listen to this talk here.
L uang Por Anan: Welcome to everyone. Today is the full moon lunar observance day that marks the two month point of the annual three month rains retreat. All of us here are learning regularly, which requires patience. We have effort and diligence, with which we build our spiritual merit and spiritual qualities. Effort and diligence lead to success, whether it is success in work, school, or meditation practice. So today we look at one particular monk in the Buddha’s time who had built a lot of parami, or spiritual perfections, throughout many previous lifetimes with many Buddhas. We will see in the video, what kind of effort did he put forth and what was the result of that effort?
Welcome to all the faithful lay people and to all the monks and novices. Today we learn about the biography of Venerable Sona Maha Thera, who was the foremost of all the monks in putting forth effort. He had built his parami, or spiritual perfections, from the era of the Buddha Anomadassi, the Buddha Padumuttara and the Buddha Vipassi. And in between those eras he had met Pacceka Buddhas. He had built halls, walking paths, meditation huts, and offered meals all through a period of 3 months to offer to Samma-Sambuddhas and to Pacceka Buddhas.
Venerable Sona had made great merit and built a lot of parami, and, in the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, he was named Siri Vaddhana Setthi. In this life he made the mental aspiration to be the foremost of all monks in putting forth effort. The Buddha rejoiced in his aspiration and blessed him, “May you succeed in your aspiration.” The Buddha foresaw that he would succeed in his aspiration.
Siri Vaddhana Setthi practiced goodness all his life and was reborn only in the human and deva realms. In our Buddha’s era, he was born as a human in a family of noble status. He had radiant skin and was very handsome. The palms of his hands and the soles of his feet were like the color of a cockscomb. On the bottom of his feet were circles like diamond earrings. His complexion was the colour of precious gems. His skin was soft to the touch, softer than fine cotton fibres. The rich father had his maids give breast-milk to nurture his son. He was a deva child. This was his merit and parami he had built from past lifetimes.
King Bimbisara heard about this and so had the rich man bring the child to the palace. The rich man took Sona and 80,000 villagers to go meet the King. The King examined the child Sona and gained faith in the power of Sona’s merit and great parami. The King looked at the soles of both feet of the child and saw the mark of Brahma. The King then told the rich man, Sona and all of the 80,000 villagers to go see the Buddha for their benefit.
Sona and all the 80,000 villagers went to where the Buddha was residing. At that time Ven. Sagata Thera was the Buddha’s attendant. Ven. Sagata stepped down from the half-moon step to tell the Buddha. This made Sona and the 80,000 gain great faith in Ven. Sagata. And even when the Buddha had taken the seat that was set out for him, the people were still looking at Ven. Sagata with great faith. Here, Ven. Sagata had the blessing of the Buddha to show his psychic powers, like rising into the air, and walking, standing, sitting in the air.
After coming down he then prostrated at the feet of the Buddha, and spoke faithfully to the Buddha, “I am a disciple of the Lord Buddha. The Lord Buddha is my teacher. I am his disciple.” This made the 80,000 people praise what they had witnessed as amazing, and that if a disciple had this many psychic powers, then what must the teacher be like? So they had great faith and their hearts were fully attentive to the Buddha and were not captivated by Ven. Sagata any more.
The Buddha then proceeded to give a talk on dana, the benefits of dana, sila, the benefits of sila, to see the drawbacks of sensual happiness, and to see the benefit of the homeless life, of renouncing. When their minds were ready, malleable, devoid of the mental hindrances, and their minds were uplifted and bright, then the Buddha taught them the 4 Noble Truths. Here, the eye of Dhamma arose in Sona and all the people. When they had seen the Dhamma, attained Dhamma, known Dhamma, they expressed their approval to the Buddha by saying, the Buddha is our refuge, the Dhamma and the Sangha are our refuge. May the Buddha receive us as lay-followers who have gone for refuge on this day and for as long as life lasts.
And the wealthy Sona wanted to gain more knowledge and had the desire to ordain. When he had become a monk and wanted to put forth effort, he saw the monastery as too distracting and so asked permission to go to Sittavana, a cremation ground. He put forth effort as one who had gone forth. And, even though there were difficulties, he put forth relentless effort. He walked meditation until the skin on his feet was broken and bleeding. But he still didn’t stop. He kept putting forth effort like this. The Buddha saw that this Venerable was putting forth too much effort and persistence. So he asked the monks whose walking meditation path this was and why was it stained with blood? The monks said it was Ven. Sona’s walking path, and it was stained in blood because he had put forth excessive effort.
The Buddha said to Ven. Sona, that you dwell in a secluded place, and you think you have put forth effort a lot, but your mind still has not yet been liberated? Sona agreed. The Buddha asked, how do you understand the meaning of this? When you were a layperson – you were skilled at playing the veena. When the strings on the veena were too tight – was the veena pleasant sounding and fit for playing?
“No I couldn’t play it.”
And when the strings on your veena were too loose slack, could you play?
“No I couldn’t, Lord.”
Any time when the strings were too tight or too loose, then how was the sound?
“It wasn’t good.”
And if the strings of your veena were not too tense or not too loose?
“The sound was pleasing, Lord.”
The Buddha said that, in the same way, Sona, you put forth too much energy and this leads to restlessness. Just as being too loose leads to sluggishness. So you need to establish an evenness in your effort. Then the spiritual faculties will gather together evenly and you will be able to attain to Dhamma.
Then Ven. Sona practiced according to the Buddha’s teachings and established his effort in an even way. His spiritual faculties were balanced. Dwelling alone, not being heedless, having effort, then in no long time his mind gathered together, and he attained to become an arahant. This was his last life. The bhramacariya, the holy life had been fulfilled.
The Buddha declared Ven. Sona as the foremost in putting forth effort.
We can reflect on this Venerable Maha Thera at the times when our effort becomes slack. We can think of him and by the power of his parami, may we have more effort to put into our Dhamma practice. May we see and know the Dhamma like this Venerable Maha Thera.
May you be determined in this. Mostly for us here, it won’t be effort that is too tense but rather it will be putting forth too little effort on the side of laziness. So may you be determined. If you are a monastic or novice, then be determined in chanting, meditation, practicing Dhamma, determined in sitting meditation and contemplating Dhamma.
And for the lay people when you have fulfilled your duties, then be determined to practice Dhamma. Make your minds have samadhi, have this firmness in the mind, and may you all have wisdom bright in the mind.
May you grow in blessings.
Questions and Answers:
1. Q: Was there a Bhikkhuni, layman, or laywoman who was foremost in putting forth effort in the Buddha’s time?
Luang Por Anan: Yes, there was a Bhikkhuni pronounced foremost among the Bhikkhunis in terms of effort. Her name was Venerable Sona Theri. She had an interesting story, as well. When she was a laywoman she came from a very wealth family and married a man from another wealthy family. They had 14 children together. Later the husband died. The children asked for the inheritance, which she distributed amongst all the children. At that time she was already quite elderly. She didn’t want to live with any of the children so she went to ordain. It was difficult for her to do all the monastic practices due to her old age. She was given the duty of boiling water and giving the hot water to the other Bhikkhunis to use. Whether while working or at other times, she practiced seeing life as uncertain—she felt that she was already old, and that she should put forth a lot of effort while she still could. She mainly reflected on the 32 parts of the body. At one point the Buddha sent metta to her and that manifested as the Buddha appearing in front of her, giving her a teaching. The Buddha taught her that it is better to live one day seeing the Dhamma than to live 100 years not seeing the Dhamma. She realized freedom from suffering with this teaching. In the past, Venerable Sona Theri was born in the era of Padumuttara Buddha. She saw the Buddha bestowing the title of Bhikkhuni foremost in effort to one of the nuns. Then she aspired to realize that same position. Padumuttara Buddha saw that her aspiration would be filled in the time of the present Buddha. So, for ourselves, we should be determined, as well, and practice now even up to old age because life is uncertain. Our old spiritual qualities that we have built may be sufficient to see the Dhamma in this life even if we are old.
2. Q: How do we know if we are making excessive effort or if our effort is balanced?
Luang Por Anan: We need to begin by putting forth lots of effort in the practice. We have to start out maybe even being on the side of very strenuous effort. We can try eating little, speaking little, and sleeping little. Really practicing to cultivate collectedness of mind, which, in turn, brings up wisdom. When wisdom arises then we start to understand what balanced effort really is. When we are close to seeing the Dhamma, then effort in the practice is continuous and there is no laziness arising. That is when the faculty of mindfulness is strong, we are beginning to develop wisdom, and we are beginning to get a sense for what balanced effort in the practice is.
3. Q: In the talk, you mentioned making an aspiration to be someone foremost in a particular quality. Do we have to make such an aspiration in front of a Buddha, or can we do so even today and still meet with success?
Luang Por Anan: In the present day, after finishing chanting, for example, one can make an aspiration in front of a Buddha image—a vow of truth. Then we practice in line with that aspiration. As we do this throughout many lifetimes, our aspiration will become more firm and solid and then maybe we will have a chance to meet a Buddha in the future and make that aspiration again. Over time one can succeed in that aspiration.
4. Q: When there is tension in the body or mind, what should I do? It happens during walking or sitting meditation, and also reading Dhamma books. Sometimes I want to give up, but, really I want to go on.
Luang Por Anan: Feeling that tension is a sign that you are making too much effort—you are too focused and intent. You should try to be more at ease. You can try to breathe in and out deeply, just try to be more at ease and make the mind relaxed. In walking meditation, for example, try to relax the body and mind, perhaps look at a beautiful view that helps to relax the mind.
5. Q: Why does it feel difficult to put forth effort in this life? Is it every life that it is this difficult or is it just this life?
Luang Por Anan: Putting forth effort is difficult this life, and, last life, it was also difficult. This life it is still difficult because one has not put in the causes for the future to be easier—one had not put forth effort in the past and it was difficult back then. If one had not put forth effort in the past and the mind was not peaceful, then, in this life, it will be difficult to put forth effort. And so one has to put forth more effort in this life, then in the next life it will be easier. If today, we do not do anything and do not put forth effort, then tomorrow it will be difficult to put forth effort because we haven’t made the causes in the present. So we should be determined.
We can compare this to people’s monthly salaries. For example, for some, it is difficult to make 10,000 Thai baht per month, and for others, this is easy. But for those who can easily make 10,000 baht per month, 50,000 baht per month will be difficult, and again, for others it will be easy. And for those that can easily make 50,000 baht per month, 100,000 baht per month would be difficult.
The abilities of people are different. Individual’s merit and spiritual accumulations differ, just as the ability of individuals to get a certain monthly salary differ. So, people have different mindfulness and wisdom—for some, certain levels of mindfulness and wisdom are easy, for others that same level is difficult.
Another simile is that it is like trying to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. If we rub them together for a while and the sticks start to get warm then hot, but then we get lazy and stop rubbing them, then it gets cold again. Then, later, we decide to start rubbing the sticks together again, but then the same thing happens, we get lazy and stop. So no fire comes out, which is just because we do not have enough continuity. Then after doing this intermittent effort for a time, we may conclude that it is impossible to get any fire from rubbing these two sticks. But, really, it is because we do it and then stop, then do it and then stop.
In the same way, it we haven’t developed mindfulness to be continuous, but we stop sometimes, meaning our effort to develop mindfulness is not continuous, then the results we get from practice may be very little. So we need to put forth effort in such a way that mindfulness arises more continuously and then we’ll gain results.
Luang Por Anan: (To another person): How many minutes do you meditate?
Layperson: About 10 minutes in the morning and 30-60 minutes in the evening.
Luang Por Anan: In the morning it sounds like too little. Try 30 minutes. 10 or 15 minutes could be too little to have the mind become peaceful. Sometimes people play various games for 1-2 hours at a time. We have to think, how much time do we spend doing other activities? We can increase the time we practice meditation. We have to like doing meditation.
6. Q: I have a friend who is good at giving knowledge, but dislikes giving money to strangers. How can we encourage people to give to strangers?
Luang Por Anan: That is good that he sacrifices and gives knowledge to others and enjoys doing that. I recommend that he should do the things that he likes to do, in this case, giving knowledge. You can suggest that giving material items is important, and maybe later on he will see the value of this. But, at this moment, he may not have the faith to do that. He may feel that giving knowledge is better than giving material things, and this is true to an extent. It is also true, however, that some people are in need of material items (food, shelter, clothing, and medicine; the four requisites), and, until they gain those items that they need, they will not be able to receive knowledge. But once they relieve their own suffering to a degree by gaining a material item, then they can receive knowledge and wisdom.
For example, if someone is starving, and someone else comes up to them and tries to teach them how to make a living and find work, then they cannot receive that knowledge because they are about to faint from hunger. So one first needs to give them food and water, and let them recover first, then they can receive that information.
Q: What if the intention behind giving is that one will only give knowledge or material things to people that one knows so that they might reciprocate and give one something in the future? My friend has this issue. Like not wanting to give to strangers because they will not give back, or, only going to a big charity event in order to network with other wealthy people. So how can we cultivate giving without wanting anything in return?
Luang Por Anan: It may not be that person’s time yet to change this view and develop the faith to give without wanting anything in return. This may take time and so, at the moment, he is looking for things in return for his giving. This is fine, let him do that first, and later on, when he sees the drawbacks of this view and the suffering behind this view, you can advise him at that time. Right now he may not be able to receive that advice. It is still good because he is still giving something. If he has dana, giving, and sila, morality, this is good, he’s not harming others. These things take time, so one must wait. You can even take him out to eat and pay for his food. Maybe later, he will think about giving back. But don’t do this so much so that all of your own money runs out.
There is one story of the parents of Venerable Nagasena when Ven. Nagasena was still a child. A venerable arahant monk came for alms every day to their house, but the parents did not have faith and never gave anything. They would scold this ven. monk regularly. Then, one day, they did not scold the ven. monk. The ven. monk then went to a neighbor’s house, and the neighbor asked, “Did you get anything from Nagasena’s parent’s house?” The ven. monk said that he did. Then when the parents head of this, they scolded this ven. monk the next day for being a liar, since they did not give him any alms the previous day. The ven. monk answered that “You did give me something because you did not scold me yesterday.” After this incident the parents gained a lot of faith and gave the ven. monk alms regularly after that. But this took a very long time until this results occurred.
So I can ask if you are able to treat your friend to meals until you get the result you are looking for? It may take a lot of effort.
7. Q: Why is it easier to do bad, unwholesome, things than it is to do good, wholesome, things?
Luang Por Anan: Habits of mind tend to be unwholesome, so it is easy for us to fall back into them. You can compare this to be being up in a high place—it is easy to fall to a lower place. In the same way, it is difficult to swim against the current of a stream, but it is easy to just float along downstream. The defilements of greed, aversion, and delusion are like a stream in our minds. We have to make effort to work against them. These defilements have conditioned and trained the mind for a very long time, so to go against them takes a lot of effort, mindfulness, and wisdom. So we have to really apply ourselves.
This is like lifting a 20 kilogram rock. We ourselves may be able to lift this rock, but a child cannot. You could describe this situation in two ways—you could say that the rock is too heavy, or that the person trying to lift it does not have sufficient strength. It is difficult because we do not have enough strength. If we have a lot strength, then it is no problem to lift. Dhamma practice is just like this, it is just the same.