Copyright © 2005 Thanissaro Bhikkhu
For free distribution only.
You may re-format, reprint, translate, and redistribute this work in
provided that you charge no fees for its distribution or use.
Otherwise, all rights reserved.
When I first went to study with my teacher, Ajaan
Fuang, he handed me a small booklet of meditation instructions and sent
me up the hill behind the monastery to meditate. The booklet written
by his teacher, Ajaan Lee began with a breath meditation technique and
concluded with a section showing how the technique was used to induce
the first four levels of jhana.
In the following years, I saw Ajaan Fuang hand the
same booklet to each of his new students, lay and ordained. Yet despite
the booklet's detailed descriptions of jhana, he himself rarely
mentioned the word jhana in his conversations, and never indicated to
any of his students that they had reached a particular level of jhana in
their practice. When a student told him of a recurring meditative
experience, he liked to discuss not what it was, but what to do with it:
what to focus on, what to drop, what to change, what to maintain the
same. Then he'd teach the student how to experiment with it to make it
even more stable and restful and how to judge the results of their
experiments. If his students wanted to measure their progress against
the descriptions of jhana in the booklet, that was their business and
none of his. He never said this in so many words, but given the way he
taught, the implicit message was clear.
As were the implicit reasons for his attitude. He had
told me once about his own experiences as a young meditator: "Back in
those days you didn't have books explaining everything the way we do
now. When I first studied with Ajaan Lee, he told me to bring my mind
down. So I focused on getting it down, down, down, but the more I
brought it down, the heavily and duller it got. I thought, 'This can't
be right.' So I turned around and focused on bringing it up, up, up,
until I found a balance and could figure out what he was talking about."
This incident was one of many that taught him some important lessons:
that you have to test things for yourself, to see where the instructions
had to be taken literally and where they had to be taken figuratively;
that you had to judge for yourself how well you were doing; and that you
had to be ingenious, experimenting and taking risks to find to ways to
deal with problems as they arose.
So as a teacher, he tried to instill in his students
these qualities of self-reliance, ingenuity, and a willingness to take
risks and test things for themselves. He did that not only by talking
about these qualities, but also by forcing you into situations where
you'd have to develop them. Had he always been there to confirm for you
that, "Yes, you've reached the third jhana," or, "No, that's only the
second jhana," he would have short-circuited the qualities he was trying
to instill. He, rather than your own powers of observation, would have
been the authority on what was going on in your mind; and you would have
been absolved of any responsibility for correctly evaluating what you
had experienced. At the same time, he would have been feeding your
childish desire to please or impress him, and undermining your ability
to deal with the task at hand, which was how to develop your own powers
of sensitivity to put an end to suffering and stress. As he once told
me, "If I have to explain everything, you'll get used to having things
handed to you on a platter. And then what will you do when problems come
up in your meditation and you don't have any experience in figuring
things out on your own?"
So, studying with him, I had to learn to take risks
in the midst of uncertainties. If something interesting came up in the
practice, I'd have to stick with it, observing it over time, before
reaching any conclusions about it. Even then, I learned, the labels I
applied to my experiences couldn't be chiseled in rock. They had to be
more like post-it notes: convenient markers for my own reference that I
might have to peel off and stick elsewhere as I became more familiar
with the territory of my mind. This proved to be a valuable lesson that
applied to all areas of my practice.
Still, Ajaan Fuang didn't leave me to reinvent the
dharma wheel totally on my own. Experience had shown him that some
approaches to concentration worked better than others for putting the
mind in a position where it could exercise its ingenuity and accurately
judge the results of its experiments, and he was very explicit in
recommending those approaches. Among the points he emphasized were
Strong concentration is absolutely necessary for
liberating insight. "Without a firm basis in concentration," he
often said, "insight is just concepts." To see clearly the connections
between stress and its causes, the mind has to be very steady and still.
And to stay still, it requires the strong sense of well being that only
strong concentration can provide.
To gain insight into a state of concentration, you
have to stick with it for a long time. If you push impatiently from
one level of concentration to the next, or if you try to analyze a new
state of concentration too quickly after you've attained it, you never
give it the chance to show its full potential and you don't give
yourself the chance to familiarize yourself with it. So you have to keep
working at it as a skill, something you can tap into in all situations.
This enables you to see it from a variety of perspectives and to test it
over time, to see if it really is as totally blissful, empty, and
effortless as it may have seemed on first sight.
The best state of concentration for the sake of
developing all-around insight is one that encompasses a whole-body
awareness. There were two exceptions to Ajaan Fuang's usual practice
of not identifying the state you had attained in your practice, and both
involved states of wrong concentration. The first was the state that
comes when the breath gets so comfortable that your focus drifts from
the breath to the sense of comfort itself, your mindfulness begins to
blur, and your sense of the body and your surroundings gets lost in a
pleasant haze. When you emerge, you find it hard to identify where
exactly you were focused. Ajaan Fuang called this moha-samadhi,
The second state was one I happened to hit one night
when my concentration was extremely one-pointed, and so refined that it
refused settle on or label even the most fleeting mental objects. I
dropped into a state in which I lost all sense of the body, of any
internal/external sounds, or of any thoughts or perceptions at all
although there was just enough tiny awareness to let me know, when I
emerged, that I hadn't been asleep. I found that I could stay there for
many hours, and yet time would pass very quickly. Two hours would seem
like two minutes. I could also "program" myself to come out at a
After hitting this state several nights in a row, I
told Ajaan Fuang about it, and his first question was, "Do you like it?"
My answer was "No," because I felt a little groggy the first time I came
out. "Good," he said. "As long as you don't like it, you're safe. Some
people really like it and think it's nibbana or cessation. Actually,
it's the state of non-perception (asaρρi-bhava). It's not even
right concentration, because there's no way you can investigate anything
in there to gain any sort of discernment. But it does have other uses."
He then told me of the time he had undergone kidney surgery and, not
trusting the anesthesiologist, had put himself in that state for the
duration of the operation.
In both these states of wrong concentration, the
limited range of awareness was what made them wrong. If whole areas of
your awareness are blocked off, how can you gain all-around insight? And
as I've noticed in years since, people adept at blotting out large areas
of awareness through powerful one-pointedness also tend to be
psychologically adept at dissociation and denial. This is why Ajaan
Fuang, following Ajaan Lee, taught a form of breath meditation that
aimed at an all-around awareness of the breath energy throughout the
body, playing with it to gain a sense of ease, and then calming it so
that it wouldn't interfere with a clear vision of the subtle movements
of the mind. This all-around awareness helped to eliminate the blind
spots where ignorance likes to lurk.
An ideal state of concentration for giving rise to
insight is one that you can analyze in terms of stress and the absence
of stress even while you're in it. Once your mind was firmly
established in a state of concentration, Ajaan Fuang would recommend
"lifting" it from its object, but not so far that the concentration was
destroyed. From that perspective, you could evaluate what levels of
stress were still present in the concentration and let them go. In the
initial stages, this usually involved evaluating how you were relating
to the breath, and detecting more subtle levels of breath energy in the
body that would provide a basis for deeper levels of stillness. Once the
breath was perfectly still, and the sense of the body started dissolving
into a formless mist, this process would involve detecting the
perceptions of "space," "knowing," "oneness," etc., that would appear in
place of the body and could be peeled away like the layers of an onion
in the mind. In either case, the basic pattern was the same: detecting
the level of perception or mental fabrication that was causing the
unnecessary stress, and dropping it for a more subtle level of
perception or fabrication until there was nothing left to drop.
This was why, as long as your awareness was still and
alert all-around, it didn't matter whether you were in the first or the
fourteenth jhana, for the way you treated your state of concentration
was always the same. By directing your attention to issues of stress and
its absence, he was pointing you to terms by which to evaluate your
state of mind for yourself, without having to ask any outside authority.
And, as it turns out, the terms you can evaluate for yourself stress,
its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation are the issues
that define the four noble truths: the right view that the Buddha says
can lead to total liberation.