The Language of the Heart (1)

March 12, 2016

The purpose of learning about the forest tradition, the teachings of the forest ajaans and some of their history, is to bring their lessons inside. The phrase that you’d hear often about the ajaans is that they speak the language of the heart. In other words, they learned the Dhamma through listening, they learned the Dhamma through thinking about it, but then as they actually applied the Dhamma, they learned new lessons in their own hearts. And those are the lessons they wanted to convey. They saw that the purpose of the Buddha’s teachings was that they be put into practice until they led to a goal beyond them.

As the Buddha said on the night of his passing away, there were devas who were paying homage to him by sprinkling heavenly scents and heavenly flowers and playing heavenly music. And he told his attendant that that was not the way in which one paid homage to the Tathagata, the Buddha. The true way to pay homage was to practice the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma. In other words, the Buddha had spent all his many lifetimes to find awakening, and it wasn’t for the purpose of heavenly music, heavenly scents, or heavenly flowers. It was for the purpose of finding a skill that could be passed on to others: to solve his own suffering and then to teach that skill to others so that they could solve their own suffering as well. This was the whole point of the Dhamma. And so the ajaans went straight for the point.

And they encouraged others to do that as well. It’s interesting that, of the various Buddhist traditions in Thailand, the forest tradition was the one that attracted the most Westerners. They saw that it dealt straight with the problem in their hearts, too. It was simply a matter of translating the language of the heart into their hearts. And so it’s good to reflect on how to translate things into your heart right now.

On some levels, it’s not that hard. You’re focused on your breath. Try to bring your awareness to the breath and see what you can notice about what you’re doing that’s keeping the mind disturbed. Then clear away that disturbance so that it can settle down. That right there is where you can dig in. If you find that any of the teachings are directly related to what you’re experiencing, they can give you encouragement, give you guidance.

When I was newly ordained—it was my second year as a monk—a set of books by Ajaan Maha Boowa came out, which would be translated literally as, The Dhamma Collection for Getting Ready. It was a series of Dhamma talks he’d given to a woman who was dying of cancer. And it was an unusual set of circumstances. She didn’t have that much background in formal Dhamma training, but she had a very immediate problem that she earnestly wanted to overcome, which was how to face her own imminent death with skill. This set of circumstances inspired Ajaan Maha Boowa to give some of his best talks, in my opinion. Because on the one hand, they are directly related to the main problem, but they also explained a lot, and they are not bound up in too many technical terms. The talks he would give to his monks would often assume that they had a background in the Dhamma textbooks and some background in Dhamma language. But in her case, she didn’t have that background, so he started speaking straight from the heart, from his own experience.

In my particular case, I remember reading a passage where he talked about how thoughts begin to form in the mind with a little bit of a stirring, a perception is slapped onto them, and then they turn into full-blown thoughts. I had noticed that in my own meditation; I had never seen it explained anywhere. And so my immediate reaction was, “Finally, here’s somebody speaking directly to that problem.” And so it’s good, as you go through the teachings of the forest tradition, to find which teachings speak directly to your problem. And if you have some background in where the ajaans are coming from, it helps to translate some of their terms, so that you find that something which at first glance might not seem to be relevant actually is relevant to what’s going on inside—very relevant.

This problem of communication is a big one in passing on the teachings. After all, suffering is something that we each feel for ourselves. It’s not part of our awareness that we share with anyone else. It’s like your sense of the color red. You can’t take that and compare it to other people’s sense of red. We don’t really know how other people see red. We agree that a particular color we can point to is red, but what red looks like to other people, we don’t know. Your own pain is something even more private. It’s something that you feel exclusively yourself; no one else can feel your pain for you. But as it turns out, the solution to the problem of how you relate to the pain so that you don’t suffer: That solution lies within your awareness as well—the inner area of awareness, the private area of awareness. And so communication across that barrier can often be difficult because we let in some words and keep others out. If our frame of reference doesn’t allow for something, it just goes right past.

Years back, I was giving a Dhamma talk at CIMC—this was very early on in my time back in the States. At that time, I had a set of standard Dhamma talks I’d give in places where I wasn’t familiar with the people. And as I was walking into the room, I realized that it was my second or third year of giving a Dhamma talk there, and I couldn’t remember which talk of my standard set I had given the previous year. I was wondering what would happen if I gave the same talk again—what would people think? But as I was walking into the room, the woman who had been in charge of the tape recorder the previous year happened to be standing next to me. She turned to me and said, “You know, what you said last year meant so much to me.” I was all ears to hear what I had said last year, but she then said something I knew that I would never have said. I then realized that I could say anything that night, and no one would know I was repeating myself.

This reflects the fact that what we hear is often confined to what we allow ourselves to hear. Part of that allowance has to do with how much we trust the speaker, and part with how satisfied we are with the way we already see things.

This may be one of the reasons why the Buddha focused on the problem of suffering as the point of communication. Only when we admit to ourselves that we’re suffering, are we really open to listening to other people. As the Buddha himself said, there are two reactions to suffering. One is bewilderment: Why is this happening? The second is: Is there anyone out there who knows a way or two to put an end to this suffering? That’s when we’re interested in listening to other people—when there’s suffering—in hopes that maybe they can help.

So you look at yourself: What are you willing to take in from the teachings of the forest masters? To what extent do you feel that you are responsible for your own suffering and you’d like some help? That’s what it comes down to. To what extent do you trust them? My own experience with them is that they are eminently trustworthy. When you read Ajaan Maha Boowa’s account of how he tested his state of mind again and again, to make sure that a particular defilement, when it was gone, was really gone, you see the earnestness with which they practice. So try to bring the same earnestness to your own practice.

In a passage at the very end of Ajaan Maha Boowa’s biography of Ajaan Mun, where he recounts Ajaan Mun’s final sermon, there’s a part where he uses the analogy of a warrior going into battle. He describes how the different aspects of the practice can correspond to the food for the warrior and the warrior’s weapon. Discernment, he said, is the weapon. As I was reading the passage for the first time, I kept thinking, “Well, who’s the warrior?” And he finally got to the conclusion: The warrior, he said, is your determination not to come back and be the laughingstock of the defilements ever again.

In other words, you’ve allowed your greed, aversion, and delusion to drive you for who knows how long. They get you to do things that are not in your own interest. And in Ajaan Lee’s image, they get you to do these things and then, when the police come to catch you, they run away. You’re the one left to deal with the consequences of your actions. They’re probably laughing at how gullible you are. So how much longer do you want to put up with that? If you’ve decided you’ve had enough, okay, here are the teachings. These are the teachings from the hearts of the ajaans, from the hearts of the people who have practiced earnestly, and they’re offered freely for your assistance, for your aid.

Now, of course there has to be an element of translation to go through, even when the teachings are there in English. Every time there’s a communication from one person to another, you have to translate it into your own heart, into your own issues. When Ajaan Lee is talking about the breath, what does it correspond to in your experience? When Ajaan Fuang noticed that I was having trouble getting my head around the concept of breath energy in the body the first time I was there—the concept appealed to me, but I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it—he said that it refers to the sense of feeling already there throughout the body, it’s just a matter of learning to recognize that feeling as breath energy. Then you just start working with what you already feel, seeing it as a type of breath. So take that concept and see how it helps you to get the mind to settle down.

The question that was waiting for me tonight was: To what extent do people consciously decide they’re going to take on a jhana practice, and to what extent does it naturally come? The answer is “both,” in the sense that when you’re doing a mindfulness practice, you’re not thinking “jhana,” but jhana is the aim of mindfulness—to finally get mindfulness really solid and steady, like the flame of an oil lamp. As they say in the texts, the establishings of mindfulness (satipatthana) are the themes of right concentration. In other words, when mindfulness is really established and solid, you’re going to get the mind into jhana. Mindfulness gives you a frame of reference to look at what’s happening in the mind, to recognize certain states of mind as either skillful or unskillful. And when you know what the state of mind is, then you know—if you’ve read anything else in the Dhamma—how you should behave toward it: which are the things to abandon, which are the things to develop, which are the things to comprehend, and what techniques you can use to go about doing that. As you abandon things that are unskillful, comprehend whatever suffering you’re creating for yourself, and develop the path, the mind will naturally settle down. In getting far away from sensual thoughts, far away from unskillful thoughts, the mind has the tendency to want to settle down and find some peace. And there’s your jhana, regardless of whether you thought of it or not.

Years back, there was a lay Dhamma teacher who was going to spend some time in the Forest Refuge and do some work on the breath. So he asked me if he could have some interviews over the phone. One of his first conditions was, “Don’t try to get me to do jhana, okay?” I said, “Okay.” But as he started working with the breath, he found himself getting into the stages of jhana in spite of himself. So it’s not necessary that you think of jhana. In fact, jhana is not the topic of jhana; the breath is the topic. Not one of the factors of jhana is the thought, “jhana.” You direct your thoughts to the breath, you evaluate the breath, you evaluate the relationship of your mind to the breath, and as you get more and more interested in that one issue, the mind gathers around one place. Then the sense of pleasure, the sense of rapture, will follow.

Now, when you hear these words, what do they mean? Look into your own experience and try to gain a sense of how they’re talking about things happening in your mind. Some of these sensations you’re already quite familiar with. I remember one time, when I got into a state of concentration, that there was a certain feeling in my mouth. And I said to myself, “I haven’t had that feeling in my mouth since I was a child”—a certain relaxation that I remembered from childhood and that for some reason I had forgotten during all those years of being a tense teenager and a tense young adult. In many cases, concentration is a matter of settling into areas that you’ll find familiar once you get there, and say, “Oh, this is what they’re talking about.” This is how you translate the language of their hearts into the language of your heart.

So what they’re talking about is not all that foreign. They’re talking about their experience as experienced from within. To benefit from what they’re saying, you bring it into your experience as you experience it from within. And in cases where you find that their vocabulary is helpful, okay, apply it; where their perceptions are helpful, you apply them. It’s like learning how to be a professional taster. Part of the training they have for professional tasters is not only for developing a sensitive palate, but also for giving you a vocabulary to describe smells and tastes. The larger your vocabulary, the more distinctions you can make, and the more subtleties you can actually detect. It’s like that Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin is saying, “Ah! The smell of fall! It’s so indescribable.” And Hobbes says, “No, I think it’s describable. It’s a snorky, bramblish smell.” And Calvin comments, “I should have realized that tigers, with a more sensitive nose, would have a bigger vocabulary to describe smells.” In other words, their sensitivity is what gave them their vocabulary.

But sometimes it works the other way around: The more extensive your vocabulary for describing your inner experience, the more you begin to detect things in your own experience that you had glommed together—things you hadn’t really paid attention to. As in the book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, where the art teacher talks about teaching art students how to do very realistic drawings of people’s faces by telling the students not to look at the eyes or the nose or the mouth, but to look at the spaces between the nose and the mouth, the space between the nose and the eyes, the space between the eye and the eyebrow, and depict those: She found that people who ordinarily had trouble drawing could actually do really good drawings because they were looking at something they had never really paid attention to before, so they had no preconceived notions about how the space between your eye and eyebrow should look. It’s by calling attention to these things that they began to notice what was already there.

So a lot of this language of the heart is trying to point your attention to things that have always been there but you just didn’t notice. As I said earlier, your motivation for listening and absorbing is that you see that you’re suffering and would like to find a way out. So keep that motivation in mind, and keep that willingness to learn in mind, so that when you take in the language of the heart and it becomes the language of your heart, it doesn’t stop with just the words—it gets to the things that the words are pointing to, their whole purpose.

There’s that word attha in Pali—which is not the same as atta, which means self. This is attha, with an h. It means “goal,” but it also means “meaning.” The two words, dhamma and attha, are paired very often in Thai Buddhism, and they’re sometimes paired in the Pali Canon. And it’s interesting that “meaning” and “goal” and “profit”—which is another meaning of attha—all come down to the same word. In other words, the meaning of the Dhamma—i.e., the attha of the Dhamma—is also its goal. The words point you to get to that goal. When you reach the experience of the goal, that’s when you can say that you really understand them. That’s when you’ve mastered the language of the heart.