Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist? Fill out the form below or submit your question online.
What does Buddhism value most?
Ask an Ajahn
As I knew I’d be surrounded by plenty of experts while in Thailand this past April, I brought with me a backlog of Ask a Buddhist questions. I was lucky enough to be staying at Wat Marp Jan for a few weeks, a monastery run by the Abbot, Ajahn Anan. For many years he was the attendant of, and a senior disciple to, Ajahn Chah, the founder of the Maha Nikaya lineage of the Thai Forest Tradition. I’m front-loading all this back-story for the purpose of letting you know that the answers I’m conveying for the next installments should probably be titled, “Ask an Ajahn,” instead of “Ask a Buddhist.”
Even though he was ill, Ajahn Anan allowed me an extended conversation that I recorded. When I finished my personal questions, he asked if I had any more questions. I smiled, pulled out my notebook and said, “Well, actually, I have a whole lot of them from readers of a column I write back in the U.S.” My sense is that he doesn’t get asked these kinds of questions from the Thai laity (we are much more forthcoming with questions in the US), so he welcomed every last one.
If the answers he gave seemed too succinct or needed further explanation, I have attempted to do so according to my limited understanding and always-earnest quest to clarify the Dharma. We had to speak through a translator, and I noticed that sometimes the quantity of the words in the Ajahn’s responses seemed to get whittled down a little by the translator. One further caveat: these are answers from one of the major denominations of Buddhism that’s been adopted in the West—another group might shade the answers differently.
What does Buddhism Value Most?
The purified mind—that’s the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. To achieve a mind that is pure, that has no defilements, no longer suffers, is free from restrictions, and knows the wisdom of letting go.
Did I mention that some of the Ajahn’s answers might be succinct?
At the very least, perhaps I can define some of the terms from a Buddhist context. Purification for instance. As someone who has studied a variety of wisdom traditions, I’ve noticed that purification is a major component of every religion. These include obvious rituals like baptism (Christianity), ablution before prayer (Islam), obligations before eating (Judaism), sweat lodge ceremonies (native American religions), and bathing in the Ganges (Hinduism). But if you look closely at the function of prayer, hymns, mantras and nearly every aspect of religious canon and method, you’ll likely find an underlying intent of purification. (Because I’ve never had the excuse to air my pet theory in print, I have to mention that the advertising industry leverages this universal human urge of purification all the time—a new you, an escape, a start-over, a reclaimed youth etc).
Buddhism, too, has its unmistakable purification rituals such as when a monastic leaves behind all his/her worldly goods and birth name to don anonymous robes and a new Dharma name. However, Buddhism considers the entire Eight Fold Path a practical methodology for laiety and monastics alike to develop a purity of mind. The Visuddhimagga, the Path of Purification, is one of the major texts in Buddhism. The chapters in the Visuddhimagga—grouped by virtue, concentration and wisdom—are a detailed explication of each step of the Eight Fold Path. Although we may think of words such as defilement and purification as worn-thin-old-time moralities, in Buddhism, both terms outline the process and goal of the teachings of the Buddha, both are significant concepts for an understanding of human psychology and the ending of suffering.
In an article he wrote in accesstoinsight.org, Bhikkhu Bodhi, a leading translator and scholar of ancient Buddhist texts clarifies both purification and another term Ajahn Anan uses, defilement:
Purification of mind as understood in the Buddha’s teaching is the sustained endeavor to cleanse the mind of defilements, those dark unwholesome mental forces which run beneath the surface stream of consciousness vitiating our thinking, values, attitudes, and actions. The chief among the defilements are the three that the Buddha has termed the “roots of evil” — greed, hatred, and delusion — from which emerge their numerous offshoots and variants: anger and cruelty, avarice and envy, conceit and arrogance, hypocrisy and vanity, the multitude of erroneous views.
Defilements, said the Buddha, are the basis of all human suffering. Described as bonds and fetters born from ignorance of our true human predicament, defilements are eventually abandoned through the effort of inner cleansing. According to the Buddha, through the practice of virtue, meditation and wisdom, we are undertaking the purification of mind, and thus will see clearly before us the path to freedom and happiness.
Sarah Conover is a writer and teacher who, despite a fierce wanderlust, calls Spokane home. She has an MFA in poetry, and is the author of seven books on world wisdom traditions and spirituality. She and husband Doug Robnett are parents of two remarkable children long-ago nicknamed: “Swaminathan and the Material Girl.” Conover, getting old now, has enjoyed multiple careers. The best one yet is the latest: teaching creative writing, a course called “Making it Matter,” to the eldering through Spokane Community College ACT 2 program. She hosted the Ask a BuddhistFāVS column for several years.