Ajaan Lee’s Teachings
It was 56 years ago today that Ajaan Lee passed away, so this morning—in memory of him—I’d like to discuss a few points about his teachings that are distinctive, and in particular, those that are relevant to the practice we’re doing right now.
The first point has to do with his treatment of the breath. To begin with, it’s distinctive that he taught that we can play with the breath, to try different kinds of breathing as a way of providing the mind a good place to settle down. Before I had encountered his teachings, I had always been told that you don’t adjust the breath. Just leave it as it is and then don’t do anything to it at all. I found it very boring and had difficulty staying with the breath as a result. Then when I encountered his teaching that you could adjust the breath, it felt liberating—especially when it relates to the second point, which is that we’re not just watching the in-and-out breath, but we’re also looking at the breath energies in the body. At first, I found the concept of breath energies strange but intriguing. As a child, I had always had trouble staying in contact with my body. I was always bumping into things, and so now I saw this as a good way of getting back in touch with my body—and also of dealing with various ailments in the body.
It’s interesting to know how Ajaan Lee arrived at this technique. In the late 1940’s, he had gone to India and had noticed all of the yogis who could sleep on beds of nails or stand on one leg all day. So he asked himself, how did they do that? His way of answering that question was not to go ask them but to sit in meditation and to pose the question in his mind. The answer he came up with was that they were playing with the breath energies in the body. So he decided to give it a try himself, not for the purpose of sleeping on beds of nails, but to see if it could help with concentration and also to deal with his own personal ailments. After he returned to Thailand, he wrote down what he had learned in what is now Keeping the Breath in Mind, Method 1.
A few years later, he went off to spend the Rains retreat in a part of the jungle in northern Thailand, a place that required three days just to walk there. Soon after he arrived, he had a heart attack. There were no doctors around, no medicine, nothing. So what was he going to do? He decided to use the breath energies. You’ll notice, if you look at Method 1, that most of the breath energies he was dealing with there were in the head. With Method 2, he was more interested in energies in the body. Because he was dealing with a heart ailment, he started with the energy in the back of the neck. If you’ve ever had a heart problem, you’ll know that there’s a lot of tightness in that part of the body.
From there, Ajaan Lee expanded his research into the breath energies to the point where he was dealing with the entire body. And it worked: His heart condition improved, and at the end of the Rains retreat he was able to walk out of the jungle. Then he wrote down Method 2, and that’s what he taught for the rest of his life.
When I say that he wrote these things down, he didn’t actually take a pen in hand. He would get into meditation and dictate the book, and then someone else would write down what he was saying. I once talked to the person who actually wrote down Method 2, and he said the problem with taking dictation from Ajaan Lee was that he spoke very fast. So this person would just make a sketch and then read back to Ajaan Lee what he had, and then Ajaan Lee would make corrections.
Those are the first two aspects of his teaching that are really distinctive and that I found particularly attractive: Breath isn’t just the air coming in and out of the lungs; it’s a matter of the energies in the body, and you can play with those energies to make the meditation interesting and the body a good place to stay. In fact, one of the themes that we find running throughout all of Ajaan Lee’s teachings is that when you try to get the mind to settle down, you don’t just force it to be still. You have to use your discernment to figure out how to make it want to settle down. This relates to the topic of motivation that we discussed last night.
The third point that was really special about Ajaan Lee’s teachings was how he treated the topic of mindfulness. We use the word sati when we’re translating “mindfulness” into French because by and large there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what mindfulness is. As Ajaan Lee translated the word sati into Thai, he actually followed the old meaning in the Pāli Canon, which is that mindfulness is a function of your memory: the act of holding something in mind. In Thai, he used the word ralyk, which means thinking back on something or bringing it to mind.
When Ajaan Lee wrote a book on the topic of mindfulness, he placed a lot of emphasis on the three qualities that are brought to bear on mindfulness practice. The first is mindfulness itself. The second is alertness, which means noticing what you’re doing in the present moment and the results you’re getting. The third quality is ardency, which is basically putting your whole heart into trying to do this well. These qualities are listed in the Buddha’s standard formula for establishing mindfulness, and Ajaan Lee insisted that all three qualities need to be brought together when you’re dealing with issues in the body, with feelings, with the mind, or with mental qualities. To understand these frames of reference and the process of establishing mindfulness, you have to make the most of all three of these qualities.
What’s also interesting about his treatment of these three qualities, is that the one he identified with discernment is ardency—the wisdom lying in realizing that the Buddha’s teachings are not there just to look at or to read or to think about, but to put into practice, and that the practice is what develops your wisdom. It’s in learning how to figure out how to solve a problem that you develop your discernment.
My teacher Ajaan Fuang, who was Ajaan Lee’s closest disciple, boiled these three qualities into two words that he kept emphasizing in his instructions: one, be observant, and two, use your ingenuity. In other words, try to be careful in noticing what’s actually going on, what you’re doing, detect where the problems are, and then try to figure out on your own how you might solve those problems. Those two activities of being observant and using your ingenuity are mindfulness, alertness, and ardency in action.
I’ll give you an example. When I was first staying with him, I was a typical Westerner. I would say, “Wouldn’t it be better if we did it this way or did it that way?” And so he told me, “Look, you’re a Westerner. Your opinions are not wanted here.” So I said to myself, “Okay, I’ll just do what I’m told.” And then sometimes he would ask me, “Can’t you think for yourself?”
He began to realize that I was having trouble trying to figure out which instruction to follow at which time, so one night he took pity on me and told me a story about his time with Ajaan Lee. They were building an ordination hall in Ajaan Lee’s monastery and, as with all the ordination halls in Thailand, they assumed that the Buddha image would be on the west side of the hall and facing east, because of the belief that the Buddha was facing east on the night of his awakening. So they placed the cornerstone—a big concrete box, in which they put auspicious things like relics and Buddha images—under where they thought the Buddha image would be near the west wall of the hall.
But when they actually moved the Buddha image into the hall, Ajaan Lee changed his mind. He said, “Let’s put it on the east side facing west.” And even to this day, people ask why Ajaan Lee changed his mind. Ajaan Fuang said it’s because Ajaan Lee saw that Buddhism was coming West—and it so happened that that was the hall in which I was ordained.
At any rate, this meant that the original concrete box was now not under the Buddha image. It was under a part of the floor that everybody could walk over, which you don’t do in Thailand. You don’t walk over sacred objects.
Someone brought this to Ajaan Lee’s attention one night, so he turned to Ajaan Fuang and said, “Move that tomorrow.” Ajaan Fuang thought to himself, “There’s no way we can move it.” It was buried deep in the ground. But he knew that if he said that to Ajaan Lee, Ajaan Lee would say, “If you don’t have faith in me, I’ll find someone else who does.” So the next day, Ajaan Fuang got all the able-bodied monks and novices in the monastery down beneath the ordination hall. They tied ropes around the concrete box, they tried crowbars to move it, they worked all day long, but the box didn’t budge.
So that evening Ajaan Fuang went to see Ajaan Lee, and said, “How about if we do it in a different way? Can we make a new box under the Buddha image, break open the old box, and then move all the objects from the old box to the new box?” And Ajaan Lee, who was chewing betel-nut at the time, simply shook his head, “Yes.”
So that solved the problem.
Ajaan Fuang then summarized the lesson of the story by saying, “That’s how you show respect for your teacher.” The conclusion I drew from the story is, one, you do what you’re told; two, if it doesn’t work, try to think up a way of solving the problem yourself; and then three, suggest that alternative to the teacher. So, you’re not just being obedient. You have to use your own powers of observation. And you’re not asking for help until you’ve shown that you’ve tried to figure out a solution on your own. You’re not expecting to get the answer handed to you on a platter.
So this is a theme that ran all the way through the teachings both of Ajaan Lee and of Ajaan Fuang: that you develop your discernment through your desire to do something well. Wisdom comes, not through simply watching things, but from being ardent in mastering your tasks.
This relates to the fourth point that’s distinctive in Ajaan Lee’s teachings, which has to do with the way he taught jhāna. Like the rest of the forest tradition, he saw no clear line dividing mindfulness practice from concentration practice. However, he was distinctive in how he discussed the five factors of the first jhāna, and in how he equated three of the factors of the first jhāna—directed thought, singleness of preoccupation, and evaluation—with the three qualities of mindfulness, alertness, and ardency.
Directed thought is the act of directing your thinking to an object. The second jhāna factor is singleness of preoccupation, in which you keep focusing on that one object. The third factor is evaluation, which is where you use your powers of observation and ingenuity to see: Is your focus right? Is the breath right? If it’s not, what can you do to change? And then, when you’ve made the change, you evaluate the results of your change. You keep this up until you find something that works.
Then, when there’s a sense of well-being, you evaluate it further: “What’s the best thing to do with this?” You don’t just sit with it. You spread it throughout the body, which gives you a better foundation for your concentration. That relates to the next two factors for the first jhāna: pleasure and pīti, which can be translated as rapture or refreshment. These two factors are the results of the first three jhāna factors. If your directed thought, evaluation, and singleness of preoccupation are working, then the pleasure and the rapture will have to come. Ajaan Lee is the only person I’ve known who singles out the first three factors as being the causes and the other two factors as the results. In other words, pleasure and rapture are not things that you create directly. You develop them through the other three factors—which is what you’re doing right now. You’re directing your thoughts to the breath, you’re trying to stay with the breath as your single preoccupation, and you’re evaluating the breath to make it comfortable. Ajaan Lee was also distinctive in equating evaluation with discernment: It’s what ardency does to get the mind to settle down.
Another aspect of jhāna that Ajaan Lee taught has to do with the six elements or properties in the body. These terms, too, I found foreign when I first learned about them, but I came to realize that they’re describing how you directly experience the body. In other words, you already do have a sense of warmth in your body, and that’s what’s meant by the fire element or fire property. Similarly with the water element: There are already sensations of coolness in the body. Similarly with the earth element: You already have sensations of solidity. And then the wind element—in Thai, the word for wind is the same as the word for breath: You already have sensations of movement and energy in the body. And so basically, to develop concentration and discernment at the same time, you try to get sensitive to these aspects of your awareness so that you can bring these things into balance in the body, creating a greater sense of pleasure and ease.
How do you do that? First, you try to notice if the body is out of balance—too hot or too cold, too heavy or too light-headed or dizzy—and then you try to think of the opposite element. For example, if you’re feeling too cold, there’s too much water element, so you ask yourself, “Where in the body right now is the warmest spot?” That’s the fire element. Focus there, and just think “warmth.” Hold in mind the perception of warmth as you focus there, and you find that the combination of the sensation and the perception will actually augment the actual feeling of warmth. Then you can spread that sensation through the body in the same way that you spread the breath energy through the body. Similarly with balancing breath and earth: When you’re too light-headed, focus on the solid parts of the body and let the sensation and perception of solidity spread.
By bringing the elements into balance like this, you find that you’re creating a better sense of well-being in the body right now and that, at the same time, you’re learning about the power of perception. You also realize that you do have choices in the present moment: The sense of the body isn’t just a given. It’s full of potentials. This relates to that point we were making about the Buddha’s principle of cause and effect two days ago: In the present moment you have many different potentials, and it’s up to you to decide which potentials you’re going to develop for the best effect. The larger purpose of all these instructions is to show you that there are more possibilities than what you might have thought of on your own.
And so, as I said earlier about Ajaan Lee’s teachings with the breath, all of his teachings give you a sense of possibilities you might not have thought of before. And this is liberating. Even if you don’t attain the total ending of stress and suffering in this meditation, at the very least you learn how to deal with issues as they come up in the body, and you master more tools for creating a sense of well-being and clarity in the mind.
A theme that underlies all of Ajaan Lee’s teachings is that we’re working on meditation as a skill. He would often use analogies involving skills—learning how to sew a shirt, to weave a basket, or to make clay tiles—to explain how to learn through your meditation. He said that you learn the basic principles from your teacher, but if you’re really going to get good at that skill, you have to learn directly from the materials that you’re working with and from your own actions: in other words, from your ardency and your evaluation.
For example, suppose you’re going to weave a basket. You try weaving one and then, once you’ve got the finished product, you look at what you’ve got and evaluate it to see what’s wrong with it. Then you weave another basket, trying to solve the problem with the previous one, noticing very carefully what you’re actually doing so that if you don’t like the second basket, you can try a third one based on what you’ve observed. And if you’re ardent in using your powers of observation and evaluation in this way, you eventually become a master basket-weaver. In the same way, when you meditate, you use your mindfulness, ardency, and alertness—all of which, when you’re getting settled in concentration—turn into evaluation to become a master breather. It’s the same sort of process. Be alert to your breath. If you don’t like this breath, try another one, a little different. If you don’t like that one, change the next. If you find one you like, keep it going and develop it. All of this involves your ardency. By doing this, you find that you can eventually get the mind to settle down using both your discernment and your powers of concentration, ending up with a state of mind that’s both still and clear. Then, when you’ve found something that works, you use your mindfulness to remember that lesson for meditation sessions in the future. In this way, your mindfulness, concentration, and discernment all work together. In fact, all five of the faculties are working together at the same time.