by Venerable Ajahn Brahmavamso
So there I was, in a foreign
land, trying so hard,
giving up so much - and for what?
I wasn't quite sure.
was very young I wanted desperately to become a train driver. My
grandfather had taken my brother and me to Euston Station in London
where I began an infatuation with those massive, black and green steel
machines that hissed, with so much strength. Wouldn't it be wonderful,
I dreamt, one day...if...
Some years later I wanted desperately to become enlightened. I had
read all about it in the books. To a starry-eyed young man, the idea
of living in permanent bliss and saving humanity at the same time was
irresistibly appealing. Wouldn't it be wonderful, I used to dream, one
day. ..if. ..
When I first heard the story of the Lord Buddha's enlightenment, I
was still many glasses of beer away from being a monk. I was a
student, doing most of those outrageous activities students enjoyed in
the late sixties - and regretted in the late seventies. But I had been
meditating off and on - mostly the former - for some time, and I had
begun to notice some unmistakable changes in my daily life. I was
attending the Vesak celebration at the local Buddhist Society and as
the Venerable Sri Lankan monk was reading out the Enlightenment Story,
I became more and more inspired and excited. I especially relished the
bit where the Buddha-to-be sat at the root of the Bodhi Tree and made
that earth-shaking resolution:
Though my blood dries up and
my bones turn to dust, I will not move from this spot until I have
penetrated to Supreme and Complete Enlightenment!
As the story moved on, a thought began to solidify in my mind. I could
hardly wait until the end of the chanting. I impatiently gulped down
the cup of tea, which was all but obligatory at the occasion, and then
I hurried back to my room at college. I had heard enough talks on
Buddhism, I had read plenty of books on the subject. I had been
meditating for a whole year now, at least once a week - well most
weeks anyway. If the Buddha could do it, why not me?
Thus it was that I, in the arrogant stupidity of youth, a novice
mediator who could hardly manage to sit still for thirty minutes,
decided that it was time to become enlightened. It was now or never, I
resolved, for the next day I had an exam. I locked the door of my
room. I sat down on my meditation cushion. I collected myself. Then I
pronounced in a low, clear, solemn voice:
'Though my blood dries up and my bones turn to dust, I will
not move from this very cushion until I, also, become
was it. No more mucking about. I was dead serious.
minutes later I was in extreme agony. Though my blood appeared as
liquid as ever and no disintegration of my bones was discernible yet,
my knees were giving me hell! What was really worrying me though, was
that over half an hour had gone by and I hadn't seen the anticipated
brilliant and flashing lights yet. There hadn't even been a twinkle to
suggest that I was getting near. It was very depressing - and very
painful. I gave in. I got up very disappointed. Not becoming
enlightened had spoiled the whole day.
A few years later and a little more sensible - though only a little
- I was at London airport being sent off to Thailand by two Thai
bhikkhus. I was going to Bangkok to be ordained. I still remember the
parting words of the senior of the bhikkhus, who was my teacher then:
'Please come back when you become enlightened.' I was planning to be a
monk in Thailand for two years at most. I had told my relatives and
friends that I'd be back within two summers. After all, two whole
years as a Buddhist monk in Thailand - surely that is long enough even
for those of slow intelligence to become enlightened. As for me, I had
a degree from university, so there was no doubt in my mind that I
would be back in England within two years, enlightened. Once I had got
that out of the way, I planned to get married and go live in a commune
- in Wales of course. I had made enquiries before I left.
Two years down the track, it was becoming obvious that this
enlightenment business might not be so easy. For some reason, though I
was a Westerner with a good degree from a top university, I was acting
more stupidly than the Thai monks who had barely finished grade four
in village schools. My conceit was taking a fair hammering. The
strange thing was that, even though I still wasn't enlightened, I was
enjoying the peace, simplicity and morality of monastic life. I didn't
want to leave. What I had in mind to do on the commune in Wales had
lost its appeal.
In my fourth Rains Retreat I was pulling out all the stops. Word
had come to Thailand that Chithurst House had been bought, a Sangha
was being established in England and they needed more bhikkhus. This
would be a great time to become enlightened. I was in a very quiet
monastery. My meditation practice was in high gear. All the omens were
favorable. Then it happened!
Walking on my meditation path one evening, my mind already calm
from many hours of sitting, I suddenly understood the cause of all
problems and my heart immediately felt the joy of release. All around
seemed brilliant. Bliss filled my whole being. Energy and clarity were
there in abundance. Though it was late at night I sat in meditation
perfectly mindful, perfectly still. Then I lay down to rest, sleeping
oh-so-lightly for just a few hours. I rose at 3 a. m. and was first in
the grass Meeting Hall for the morning meditation. I sat through until
dawn as if without effort and without the slightest drowsiness. That
was it! It was immeasurable joy being enlightened. Pity it didn't last
The monastery where this happened was very poor and the food was
very coarse. It was the sort of North-Eastern Thai monastery where you
were happy to eat just one meal a day - facing such an ordeal twice
in one day being beyond the pale! The morning after my experience of
'release', though, the fare was more reasonable. Along with the staple
'rotten-fish curry', which is actually made from stewing small fish
which have been kept most unhygienically until they go 'off, there was
a saucepan of pork curry. That day even the Thai abbot visibly reacted
at the sight of the reeking fish stew and took a whopping big helping
from the pot of pork curry. I didn't mind; I was second in line and
there was plenty left for me. However, the pot of pork never reached
me. Instead, the abbot poured what was left of the pork curry into the
mess of rotten fish stew and stirred it all up saying that it all gets
mixed up in the stomach anyway. I was incensed! Of all the hypocrites!
he really thought that, then why didn't he mix the curries before he
took out his share? I peered angrily into the saucepan he handed me -
rotten smelly pieces of rubbery fish swimming alongside my delicious
pork- my one lucky meal ruined. Oooh, that abbot, was I mad at him!
Was I angry!
Then a thought struck me with a depressing thud, or rather a
sickening squelch - maybe I wasn't enlightened at all. Enlightened
beings aren't supposed to get angry. Arahants don't care if they eat
putrid fish or delicious pork. I had to admit I was angry – therefore
I had to own up that I wasn't enlightened. What a letdown. Utterly
depressed, I scooped a ladle of rotten fish cum pork into my bowl. I
was too disappointed to notice the taste of what I ate that day.
In spite of these spiritual hiccups coming from Dhamma -
indigestion (a poor ability to assimilate the Teachings), my following
years as a bhikkhu were definitely producing results of more
tranquility, clarity and joy. It was the humble insights, the sort
that arrive without a fanfare, which were proving the more effective.
My wish to become enlightened now appeared suspiciously akin to my
childish wish to become a train driver, or to my later ambitions to
become the first English astronaut. ..a professional footballer. .: a
lead guitarist in a rock band. ..the greatest lover in my college.
..(I am too embarrassed to mention my other aspirations). In a way,
wanting to become enlightened was even more foolish. At least I had
some idea of what driving a train was about. As for enlightenment, I
wasn't quite sure what that was! And whenever I would try to find out
by asking one of the senior monks, I would never get a straight
answer. So there I was in a very foreign land, eating rotten fish and
things much worse, enduring ravenous mosquitoes and unending heat,
trying so hard and giving up so much -and for what? I wasn't quite
sure. So the only rational thing to do was to give up trying to become
enlightened until I knew what enlightenment was! I didn't want to give
up being a bhikkhu, I understood that and it made sense. I just had to
let go of chasing my fantasies, and my idea of enlightenment was the
On the other side of insight one seldom thinks that one is now
wise, for one is overwhelmed by the thought of how stupid one has
been. How could I have been so thick? It is written in so many of the
Buddhist scriptures, and it is emphasized by so many fine teachers,
that BECOMING IS SUFFERING - becoming anything. The Buddha, speaking
as plain as ever, thundered that he didn't recommend ANY becoming.
Becoming is what the ego does all day. Becoming fashions the identity.
Becoming is the 'skin' which holds together the bubble of self. Stop
all becoming and the illusion is shattered.
So that was the end of my becoming enlightened. I focused instead
on the question of WHO it was who wanted to become enlightened, if
there was anyone there at all? I investigated no-self, which is much
more illuminating than trying to become enlightened. But still people
ask me, as they do of other bhikkhus, the bottom-line question: Are
you enlightened? Now I have a splendid answer, which I plagiarize from
the late Venerable Ananda Mangala Mahanayakathera (I know he won't
mind) who, terrific teacher that he was, gave the perfect reply to
this very question:
No sir!, replied the
venerable Sri Lankan Thera,
I am not enlightened.
But I am highly eliminated!