In the summer of 1989, Larry Rosenberg — one of the guiding teachers at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts — invited Phra Ajaan Suwat Suvaco to lead a two-week retreat at IMS the following spring. Ajaan Suwat had been living in the United States for several years at that point, founding monasteries for the Thai communities in the Seattle and Los Angeles areas, but this was his first opportunity to teach large numbers of non-Asian Americans. The retreat was held in the first two weeks of May, 1990, with approximately 100 people attending. I was brought from Thailand to serve as interpreter.

The format of the retreat was simple. The retreatants did sitting and walking meditation from early morning to late at night. There had been a plan to encourage them to do walking meditation in the stately forest behind the center, but the weather was so chilly and rainy throughout the retreat that everyone was confined to the building. One pleasant exception was the evening of Visākha Pūja — the holiday celebrating the Buddha’s birth, Awakening, and final passing away. This occurred toward the beginning of the retreat, and provided an opportunity for the retreatants to perform a candlelit circumambulation of the IMS complex as a full moon rose in the clear, cold, twilit sky over the pines.

Throughout the retreat, Ajaan Suwat led small group interviews in the afternoon and then met with all the gathered retreatants in the evening, either to give a Dhamma talk or to answer questions. Larry, meanwhile, led individual interviews in the mornings and afternoons. Sadly, the taping of Ajaan Suwat’s teachings was rather haphazard. None of the afternoon sessions were taped, and as for the evening sessions, there were days when both the Thai and the English were recorded; other days when only the English was; and other days, nothing. Thus our record of the retreat is fairly haphazard and incomplete.

Still, what was recorded is extremely valuable, as this sort of opportunity — for a Thai ajaan to speak directly to Westerners in their own environment, and for them to ask him questions — is rare. A number of Ajaan Suwat’s students have transcribed the Thai portion of the tapes, and this translation is taken from that transcription. I haven’t gone back to listen to the English passages on the tapes — which are available for anyone who is interested — partly out of embarrassment at my own shortcomings as an interpreter, but also because I wanted to present the retreat as it sounded to Ajaan Suwat himself: what he heard in the questions as they were translated to him, and what points he was trying to get across.

Although the aim of the retreat was to teach meditation, there were a few instances in which the discussion got off the track into political and social issues. For the sake of unity, I have deleted these passages from this printed edition. Anyone interested may find them in the Internet version of these transcripts, available at

A few of the teachings Ajaan Suwat gave during the retreat are etched indelibly in my memory and yet didn’t make it onto the tapes, so I’d like to record them here. One was the comment he made to me after the second day of the retreat, on how grim the retreatants were in their approach to the meditation. He admired their dedication, but was worried that they weren’t finding any joy in the practice. He attributed this to their coming directly to meditation without having first gained the sense of joyful confidence in the Buddha’s teachings and in themselves that can come with a good foundation in generosity and morality. His attempts to lighten the mood of the retreat are obvious in his talks.

Two exchanges in the question and answer sessions also have remained vividly in my mind. One was from an afternoon session. A man new to the practice commented, “You guys would have a good religion here with this Buddhism if only you had a God. That way people would have some sense of support in their practice when things aren’t going well.” Ajaan Suwat responded, “If there were a God who could arrange that, by my taking a mouthful of food, all the beings in the world would become full, I’d bow down to that God. But I haven’t yet found anyone like that.”

The second exchange was during an evening session. A woman who had sat several retreats complained to the effect: “I’m finding myself frustrated in my practice of meditation. Now that I’ve gotten started, I can’t turn back, and yet I don’t seem to be getting anywhere.” Ajaan Suwat’s simple response: “Where are you trying to go?”

After a brief moment of silence, the woman laughed and said she was satisfied with the answer.

I hope that the talks and discussions translated here will provide satisfaction for you, the reader, as well.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

Metta Forest Monastery

October, 1999

This edition of Fistful of Sand also includes the talk, “The Strategy of a Peaceful Mind,” and the collection of Ajaan Suwat’s talks, The Light of Discernment, that was printed in his honor after his death on April 5, 2002.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

May, 2011