The sixteen talks translated here are actually reconstructions of Ajaan Lee’s talks made by one of his followers—a nun, Arun Abhivaṇṇā—based on notes she made while listening to him teach. With a few exceptions—the talks dated 1958 and 1959, which were printed after Ajaan Lee’s death—all were checked and approved by Ajaan Lee and printed in a volume entitled, The Way to Practice Insight Meditation, Collected from Four Years’ Sermons, or Four Years’ Sermons for short. The entire volume runs to more than 600 pages in the Thai original, the first half consisting of aphorisms and short passages, the second half of reconstructions, some fairly fragmentary, others more complete. The selection here consists of all the reconstructions in Four Years’ Sermons that deal directly with the techniques of breath meditation, plus a number of passages dealing with the values underlying its practice.

To read these talks is, in effect, to eavesdrop on Ajaan Lee while he is teaching other people. This point is worth bearing in mind. Ajaan Lee’s remarks are directed at people whose background, preconceptions, and experiences in the practice may or may not coincide with our own. For this reason, his comments should be read selectively.

In particular, his descriptions of the breath sensations in the body and how to deal with them touch on a matter very subjective and subject to change. The way these sensations are experienced varies widely from person to person, and even with the same person can change radically with time. For someone with a Western background, Ajaan Lee’s explanations of these sensations will sound strange. They are based partly on Thai physiology, which unlike Western physiology describes physical processes as they feel from the inside, in terms of their four basic properties (see dhātu in the Glossary), rather than as they can be measured from the outside. Since in meditation we are exploring the body and mind from the inside, we would do well to familiarize ourselves with this approach and not dismiss it for its strangeness.

In any event, Ajaan Lee’s comments are best read as food for thought—pointing out an area to be explored, suggesting various ways to understand and deal with it—and not as hard and fast rules. Meditation is an art and a skill, to be mastered by using one’s own powers of discernment, sensitivity, and observation while practicing it, and not by adhering blindly to any set system of instructions.

Another aspect of these talks that deserves comment is the frequent use of Pāli words and phrases. For many readers, they will be unfamiliar; for Ajaan Lee’s listeners, though, they were not. They come mostly from chants that many Thai Buddhists—lay and ordained—repeat daily, or that monks chant at ceremonies in monasteries and homes. For many Thai Buddhists, the chants and the terms are Buddhism, and so Ajaan Lee makes reference to them to show that they reveal their true meanings only when related to the experience of the practice. For the reader unfamiliar with these terms, I have provided a glossary explaining the more important ones at the end of the collection. The remaining terms can be adequately understood from their context or, if not, passed over as stylistic devices—of interest to people already acquainted with them, but by no means necessary for understanding the meaning of what is being said.

I hope that these obstacles to eavesdropping on Ajaan Lee will not be deterrent, for the talks included here are among those that I personally have found most useful and inspiring my own practice, and my hope is that others will find them useful in theirs.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

(Geoffrey DeGraff)

Metta Forest Monastery
Valley Center, CA 92082-1409 USA