Saturday, October 10, 2009

Why Knowing Too Much Pali, Abhidhamma, Suttas can block your progress

Intellectual knowledge itself can become a hindrance to our meditation practice. The only way to have true insight knowledge arise in our hearts is through meditation- anything other way such as scholarly studies with Abhidhamma would only introduce concepts and the knowledge is only at sanna (perception) level. If the heart never fully comprehend, there is no use.

When one earnestly meditate, true wisdom will arise in the heart- there is no need to know Pali or Abdidhamma or have profound knowledge of suttas. Many early Masters of the Thai Forest Tradition do not read books- except to do chanting. They stay in forest, cemetries, etc and practice till true insight arise in their hearts.

Luangta Maha Boowa was skilled in Pali studies, and yet when he met Luang Phor Mun, he was told to put his knowledge aside and practice, which he did in earnest. I have spent almost 10years studying Buddhist texts- I have especially favored Abhidhamma before I encounter the Thai Forest Tradition. When I read the book by Luangta, I felt this was what I have been searching for. When I meet my current teacher, I was told to drop the knowledge too. And to be very honest, the concepts that I've learned in the past had interfered and causing my meditation not to be able to progress. Imagine, as my mind was about to calm down, the thought almost automatically come from habitual conditioning: 'hmm... I am supposed to see such and such a thing- how come it does not appear? What stage am I going into?'. And the moment one starting thinking, the stage of calm is gone. My teacher said that had it not been for all that knowledge, my practice would have been much better than it is now.

It took me a while to let go of my intellectual knowledge and just focus on my meditation word and watch my own heart- the arising of good thoughts, bad thoughts, to be mindful. It's back to basics- and it's tough. My teacher was strict with me. That sometimes hurt my ego and there are times I want to give up. Then, I was told, 'this has been what you want- you came all the way here despite challenges and difficulties you've encountered. And now, you want to give up because you thought you don't have enough parami- you should not think like that for it takes away the strength in your heart. If you give up now, you'll always give up in future. You must fight your kilesas (defilements) and overcome your ego'.

So I stayed on and fought on. There were anger, there were tears. Finally, I began to understand - and I value the teachings of my teacher. Now, I understand why Luangta had said in his book that he would never hesitate to lay down his life for Ajahn Mun- the gratitude he felt for his beloved teacher was enormous. When you began to see what is the true meaning of inner peace, you will have so much gratitude for the teacher who have shown you the way that you would do anything you possibly can to repay the teacher.

Decades of conditioning does not make the task easy. And letting go of something that I thought was valuable (my knowledge), leads me to get what is more valuable. As it is said, in order to reach for a higher branch, you have to let go of the lower branch- sometimes you are so comfortable in that branch that there will be a lot of inner resistance and excuses that your ego and defilements give you.

But understand that wisdom that arise from the heart is not the type of knowledge that can be learned- no words can describe it. It is something that only can be known by yourself, exclusively through practice. For instance, if you sincerely have faith and repeat Buddho, Buddho non stop, you'll come to a certain realisation that no words or textbook can describe.

Ajahn Thanissaro has recently translated the teachings of Ajahn Sao. It is rare to find any materials writen by Ajahn Sao, who is Ajahn Mun's teacher. The article sums up a lot and is really profound. It's a real treasure- I've enclose the article below.

My sincerest gratitude to Ajahn Thanissaro for his translation that enable this simple yet profound teachings to be made available to the English speaking world.

Ajaan Sao's Teaching: A Reminiscence of Phra Ajaan Sao Kantasilo", transcribed from a talk by Phra Ajaan Phut Thaniyo, translated from the Thai by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, June 7, 2009,

In our day and age, the practice of going into the forest to meditate and follow the ascetic dhutanga practices began with Phra Ajaan Sao Kantasilo, the teacher of Phra Ajaan Mun and, by extension, Phra Ajaan Singh and Phra Ajaan Lee. Phra Ajaan Sao was inclined to be, not a preacher or a speaker, but a doer. When he taught his students, he said very little. And those who studied directly under him are now elders who speak very little, who rarely preach, having picked up the habit from their teacher. Thus, as Phra Ajaan Sao was not a preacher, I would like to tell you a little of the way in which he taught meditation.
How did Phra Ajaan Sao teach? If it so happened that someone came to him, saying, "Ajaan, sir, I want to practice meditation. How should I go about it?" he would answer, "Meditate on the word 'Buddho.'"

If the person asked, "What does 'Buddho' mean?" Ajaan Sao would answer, "Don't ask."
"What will happen after I've meditated on 'Buddho'?"
"Don't ask. Your only duty is simply to repeat the word 'Buddho' over and over in your mind."
That's how he taught: no long, drawn-out explanations.

Now, if the student was sincere in putting the Ajaan's instructions into practice and was persistent in practicing the repetition, if his mind then became calm and bright from entering into concentration, he would come and ask Ajaan Sao: "When meditating on 'Buddho' my state of mind becomes such-and-such. What should I do now?" If it was right, Ajaan Sao would say, "Keep on meditating." If not, he would say, "You have to do such-and-such. What you're doing isn't right."

For example, once when I was his attendant novice, a senior monk of the Mahanikaya sect came and placed himself under his direction as a beginning student in meditation. Ajaan Sao taught him to meditate on "Buddho." Now, when the monk settled down on "Buddho," his mind became calm and, once it was calm, bright. And then he stopped repeating "Buddho." At this point, his mind was simply blank. Afterwards, he sent his attention out, following the brightness, and a number of visions began to arise: spirits of the dead, hungry ghosts, divine beings, people, animals, mountains, forests... Sometimes it seemed as if he, or rather, his mind, left his body and went wandering through the forest and wilderness, seeing the various things mentioned above. Afterwards, he went and told Ajaan Sao, "When I meditated down to the point were the mind became calm and bright, it then went out, following the bright light. Visions of ghosts, divine beings, people, and animals appeared. Sometimes it seemed as if I went out following the visions."

As soon as Ajaan Sao heard this, he said, "This isn't right. For the mind to go knowing and seeing outside isn't right. You have to make it know inside."

The monk then asked, "How should I go about making it know inside?"

Phra Ajaan Sao answered, "When the mind is in a bright state like that, when it has forgotten or abandoned its repetition and is simply sitting empty and still, look for the breath. If the sensation of the breath appears in your awareness, focus on the breath as your object and then simply keep track of it, following it inward until the mind becomes even calmer and brighter."
And so the monk followed the Ajaan's instructions until finally the mind settled down in threshold concentration (upacara samadhi), following which the breath became more and more refined, ultimately to the point where it disappeared. His sensation of having a body also disappeared, leaving just the state in which the mind was sitting absolutely still, a state of awareness itself standing out clear, with no sense of going forward or back, no sense of where the mind was, because at that moment there was just the mind, all on its own. At this point, the monk came again to ask, "After my mind has become calm and bright, and I fix my attention on the breath and follow the breath inward until it reaches a state of being absolutely quiet and still — so still that nothing is left, the breath doesn't appear, the sense of having a body vanishes, only the mind stands out, brilliant and still: When it's like this, is it right or wrong?"
"Whether it's right or wrong," the Ajaan answered, "take that as your standard. Make an effort to be able to do this as often as possible, and only when you're skilled at it should you come and see me again."

So the monk followed the Ajaan's instructions and later was able to make his mind still to the point that there was no sense of having a body and the breath disappeared more and more often. He became more and more skilled, and his mind became more and more firm. Eventually, after he had been making his mind still very frequently — because as a rule, there's the principle that virtue develops concentration, concentration develops discernment, discernment develops the mind — when his concentration became powerful and strong, it gave rise to abhiñña — heightened knowledge and true insight. Knowledge of what? Knowledge of the true nature of the mind, that is, knowing the states of the mind as they occur in the present. Or so he said.
After he had left this level of concentration and came to see Ajaan Sao, he was told, "This level of concentration is fixed penetration (appana samadhi). You can rest assured that in this level of concentration there is no insight or knowledge of anything at all. There's only the brightness and the stillness. If the mind is forever in that state, it will be stuck simply on that level of stillness. So once you've made the mind still like this, watch for the interval where it begins to stir out of its concentration. As soon as the mind has a sense that it's beginning to take up an object — no matter what object may appear first — focus on the act of taking up an object. That's what you should examine."

The monk followed the Ajaan's instructions and afterwards he was able to make fair progress in the level of his mind.

This is one instance of how Phra Ajaan Sao taught his pupils — teaching just a little at a time, giving only the very heart of the practice, almost as if he would say, "Do this, and this, and this," with no explanations at all. Sometimes I would wonder about his way of teaching. That is, I would compare it with books I had read or with the Dhamma-talks I heard given by other teachers. For example, Phra Ajaan Singh wrote a small handbook for the practice of meditation, entitled, Taking the Triple Refuge and the Techniques of Meditation, and in it he said that in practicing meditation you must, before all else, sit with your body straight and establish mindfulness directly in front of you. That's how he put it, but not how Ajaan Sao would put it. Still, the principles they taught were one and the same, the only difference being that Ajaan Sao was not a preacher, and so didn't make use of a lot of rhetoric.

As he explained to me: "When we make up our mind to repeat 'Buddho,' the act of making up the mind is in itself the act of establishing mindfulness. When we keep thinking 'Buddho' and are not willing to let the mind slip away from 'Buddho,' our mindfulness and alertness are already healthy and strong, always watching over the mind to keep it with 'Buddho.' As soon as our attention slips away, so that we forget to think 'Buddho' and go thinking of something else, it's a sign that there's a lapse in our mindfulness. But if we can keep our mindfulness under control and can think 'Buddho, Buddho' continuously, with no gaps, our mindfulness is already strong, so there's no need to go 'establishing mindfulness' anywhere. To think of an object so that it is coupled with the mind is, in and of itself, the act of getting mindfulness established." That was how he explained it to me.
This was one instance of how I saw and heard Phra Ajaan Sao teaching meditation, and should be enough to serve us all as food for thought.


Nui said...

Thank you very much for your blog. Please keep on sharing.

HikerBob said...

Warmly appreciate the connections and articles and links.

Anonymous said...

Very profound article full of insight and inspiration.

Johann said...

Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!

Thanks for the share and let me do some further pattidana and share this further.


metta & mudita