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On Campus: Awareness of Awareness

It’s good to be sitting here, and to be aware of sitting here, and to be aware of being aware of sitting here, finally typing the article about awareness that I’ve been thinking about typing for the last few weeks.

Sunday 31 October 2021, 11:00AM

Photo: Aj.Peter Gerard Coan

Photo: Aj.Peter Gerard Coan

There’s an old Buddhist joke that sums up the value of awareness really well. It goes something like this:

One fine morning, the Buddha gave a brilliant lecture to some monks. He thoroughly explained the difference between right and wrong, and why it is better to do the right thing than the wrong thing; he described in great detail every part of the path from suffering and ignorance, through understanding and equanimity, to bliss and enlightenment; and, by the end, he was filled with joy, knowing that he had said exactly what needed to be said. 

“Monks,” said the Buddha, “Let us all be grateful, for today we have all become enlightened!”

But there was some discontent among the monks, and one of them said, “I’m sorry, sir, but I am still not enlightened!”

“Ah, what a pity!” sighed the Buddha. “Still, let us all be grateful, for today at least we all learned how to become enlightened!”

Again, the monks looked uncomfortable, and another monk said, “Sir, I’m sorry, but I still don’t know how to become enlightened.”

“Oh!” said the Buddha. “Well, perhaps my lecture was not as easy to understand as I thought. Still, let us all be grateful, for today, we learned a lot!”

Several of the monks were from distant lands, and couldn’t speak the Buddha’s language very well, so one of them stood up and said, “I’m sorry, sir, but I didn’t learn very much at all. Could you speak more slowly, please?”

The Buddha smiled, and said, taking his time, “Ah! I’m sorry if I spoke too fast. Next time I will remember not to hurry. Anyway, let us all be grateful, for today, at least we learned a little.”

But one monk walked in just as the Buddha was saying this, and he said, “I’m sorry, sir, but I didn’t learn anything! Sorry I’m late!”

The Buddha laughed and said, “Well, let us all be grateful, for at least we all ate a good breakfast this morning!”

But one monk stood up and said, “Sir, I didn’t eat this morning – I rushed to come to listen to your talk, and all I’ve been thinking about all morning is how hungry I am!”

The Buddha laughed again, a hearty belly-laugh, and after taking a couple of calming breaths, said, “Then let us all be grateful, for every one of us is aware. Right now, in this very place, each one of us holds an unsurpassable jewel: Awareness, the most valuable treasure in the world. What else would any of us willingly take in exchange for our own awareness? Monks, let us all sit in silent awareness of awareness for one minute, and be grateful.”

One central teaching of Buddhism is the Eightfold Path, the advice to do right in each moment, in eight ways: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi.

So how did the Buddha find out which actions were right and which were wrong?

He used his awareness. He noticed what people did, and what the results were; and most of all, he observed himself, and his own life, to see what results came from his own actions.

Awareness is a miraculous thing. How did human beings develop such a power? We evolved over millions of years from sand and seawater by processes science is far from fully understanding; we are made of the same raw materials as rocks and plants, and yet we have this amazing ability to be aware. Where did it come from?

To be able to look around, and see what is here – the blue sky, the trees, the flowers, the faces of friends and family; to be able to hear the birds singing, people laughing, people talking, the wind rustling the leaves of the trees; to feel the sunshine on our skin, and to smell the rain on the soil; to know when we are feeling happy, or sad, and to be able to explore the question of why we feel the way we do – all of this is awareness.

To take time to sit, quietly, and enjoy our own awareness is one of the greatest rewards we can offer ourselves.

Tastier than an ice cream, and more enjoyable than a glass of beer – with no hangover afterwards either – this simple, calming practice of sitting quietly for a few minutes, being aware of our own awareness, is what is known as “samadhi”.

The opposite of awareness is unawareness, or ignorance; not knowing, or not noticing, or denying whatever we do notice.

When we do not notice pain, or do not know the causes of pain, or do not know the way to end the causes of pain, this is ignorance; and the solution for ignorance is to be just a little more aware.

It’s interesting to imagine what the world might be like if everyone were just a little more aware than they already are. 

If we were just a little more aware of how to cook healthy food, following a whole-food plant-based diet, then perhaps we might enjoy our food a little more, and benefit animal welfare and the environment as well.

Perhaps racism, nationalism, violence and war might end if we all became just a little more aware of their results, and a little more aware of the happiness and freedom that can be present in all human lives when we live peacefully, seeing all human beings as friends and equals, not as enemies or inferiors because of the country they were born in or the colour of their skin.

Awareness is what makes human beings the intelligent, creative, fun, fascinating people we are; awareness is what makes us such outstanding artists, musicians, poets, chefs, scientists, gardeners, engineers, and editors; and the more we are aware of ourselves, of other people, and of the world around us, the more insightful, honest, and helpful our work tends to be.

We are aware, you and I; and for that, we can be truly thankful.

By Peter Coan

NOTE: The view and opinion expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PSU Phuket and its employees or official policies of PSU Phuket.

Peter Coan is an English lecturer at the Faculty of International Studies, Prince of Songkla University (PSU) Phuket Campus. This article was featured in ’The Phuket Collegiate Magazine’, the university magazine published by Milla Budiarto at PSU Phuket. For more information, visit: https://www.phuket.psu.ac.th/en/magazine or to share ideas with Milla email: magazine@phuket.psu.ac.th

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