The Analogy of How to use the Key to Freedom

The Analogy of How to use the Key to Freedom

Ajahn Sumedho tells this story (headings added by me)…

Now we are prone to having blind attachments, aren’t we?

Imagine we are given these instructions

For example, say you’re locked up in a foul, stinking prison cell and the Buddha comes and says, ‘Here’s the key. All you have to do is take it and put it in the hole there underneath the door handle, turn it to the right, turn the handle, open the door, walk out, and you’re free.’…

The 2 Extremes that won’t get you anywhere

  1. Wanting to grasp it as an end of itself – grasping it blindly

But you might be so used to being locked up in prison that you didn’t quite understand the directions and you say,

‘Oh, the Lord has given me this key’ – and you hang it on the wall and pray to it every day.

It might make your stay in prison a little more happy; you might be able to endure all the hardships and the stench of your foul-smelling cell a little better, but you’re still in the cell because you haven’t understood that it wasn’t the key in itself that was going to save youDue to lack of intelligence and understanding, you just grasped the key blindly. That’s what happens in all religion: we just grasp the key, to worship it, pray to it … but we don’t actually learn to use it.

2.  Wanting to get rid of it – rejecting it, trying to annihilate it

So then the next time the Buddha comes and says, ‘Here’s the key’, you might be disillusioned and say, ‘I don’t believe any of this. I’ve been praying for years to that key and not a thing has happened! That Buddha is a liar!’ And you take the key and throw it out of the window. That’s the other extreme, isn’t it? But you’re still in the prison cell – so that hasn’t solved the problem either.

Using it wisely

Anyway, a few years later the Buddha comes again and says, ‘Here’s the key,’ and this time you’re a little more wise and you recognise the possibility of using it effectively, so you listen a little more closely, do the right thing and get out.

The key is like religious convention, like Theravada Buddhism: it’s only a key, only a form – it’s not an end in itself. We have to consider, to contemplate how to use it. What is it for? We also have to expend the energy to get up, walk over to the door, insert the key into the lock, turn it in the right direction, turn the knob, open the door and walk out.

It’s about putting in the right effort combined with wisdom

The key is not going to do that for us; it’s something we have to comprehend for ourselves. The convention itself cannot do it because it’s not capable of making the effort; it doesn’t have the vigour or anything of its own other than that which you put into it – just like the key can’t do anything for itself. Its usefulness depends on your efforts and wisdom.

Another example of the desire to get rid of it

Some modern day religious leaders tend to say, ‘Don’t have anything to do with any religious convention. They’re all like the walls of prison cells’ – and they seem to think that maybe the way is to just get rid of the key. Now if you’re already outside the cell, of course you don’t need the key. But if you’re still inside, then it does help a bit!

The Bottom Line

So I think you have to know whether you’re in or out; then you’ll know what to do. If you still find you’re full of doubt, uncertainty, fear, confusion – mainly doubt is the real sign – if you’re unsure of where you are, what to do or how to do anything; if you’re unsure of how to get out of the prison cell then the wisest thing to do, rather than:

  • throwing away keys, or
  • just collecting them,

is to take one key and figure out how to use it. That’s what we mean by meditation practice. The practice of the Dhamma is learning to take a particular key and use it to open the door and walk out. Once you’re out, then you know. There’s no more doubt.

From Cittaviveka, Teachings from the Silent Mind by Ajahn Sumedho

5 thoughts on “The Analogy of How to use the Key to Freedom

  1. You could also take the key, study metallurgy for some years, melt it down, create an effective file, cut through the bars, and be free.

    This is an analogy of an overly intellectualized approach to Dharma study. It isn’t useless, and it may work for some, but why not keep things simple?

    Ajahn Sumedho’s great teacher, Ajahn Chah, had little or no formal education. There’s nothing wrong with reading and education — Ajahn Sumedho did an advanced degree at Berkeley — but Brainy Buddhists beware: excessive study tends to generate (false) self view.

  2. The main point is to recognize that we have these teachings left to us by the Buddha – the Dharma – they are the keys. Rather than just pray to them or reject them as being useless, we’ve just got to work out how to use these keys in a way that we can free ourselves from our own sufferings. Then we can walk out straight out of the prison of our sufferings.

  3. We see a lot of religious Buddhism in Sri Lanka and other nominally Buddhist countries. I suppose most people take refuge out of fear of suffering. But if they really want relief from suffering, they should follow the Buddha’s instructions, not some religious interpretation or distortion of the Dhamma.

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