During my second year as a monk, I was invited to give a Dhamma talk to the woman—whom I knew only as “Aunty”—who had raised the woman who had sponsored my ordination. Aunty had suddenly fallen ill, and her relatives were sure that she didn’t have much longer to live. In her time, she had known many of the great masters of the forest tradition, so rather than give her a talk of my own, I decided to read her some by Ajaan Lee. When I finished, she asked, “Whose talks were those?”

“Ajaan Lee’s,” I told her.

“That’s what I thought,” she replied. “Nobody could give a Dhamma talk as beautifully as he.”

I’ve often thought of her comment since then and, in particular, of what she meant by beautiful. For most Thais of her day, a beautiful talk was one that made use of formal, courtly language, with heavy literary embellishments, often saying as little as possible with a maximum number of words. That, however, was not Ajaan Lee’s style. What I think Aunty meant was a different kind of beauty: a directness and clarity of expression, with imaginative similes and metaphors. Ajaan Lee was skilled at making obscure points of Dhamma clear, and more familiar teachings memorable. Although he had a poet’s sense of how to play with words, the beauty of his talks was more a natural beauty of the mind than of studied verbal effects. In this book, which is drawn from Ajaan Lee’s collected talks, this is the kind of beauty I have kept in mind in selecting the passages for translation.

Only in the last year of his life were any of Ajaan Lee’s talks tape-recorded. We owe our records of his earlier talks to a handful of followers who took notes while he spoke: a nun, Arun Abhivaṇṇā; a monk, Phra Bunkuu Anuvaḍḍhano; and a lay woman, Thao Satyanurak, who included some of Ajaan Lee’s talks in her diary, which was published after her death. In compiling this book, I have drawn on notes made by all three. Of the three, Arun Abhivaṇṇā was by far the most prolific. For years she took notes of Ajaan Lee’s talks—sometimes simply jotting down catchy phrases, other times reconstructing entire talks. Her notes—together with those by Phra Bunkuu and transcripts of the recorded talks—have more recently been collected in two large volumes. Because of their haphazard arrangement, the collections are hard to read straight through, but they are excellent companions for meditators who simply want to open to a passage at random, read enough to throw light on their problems, and then return to the practice.

Ajaan Lee was unique among the forest masters in leaving behind systematic guides to meditation and Buddhist practice in general: books like Keeping the Breath in Mind, The Craft of the Heart, Frames of Reference, and Basic Themes. Anyone who wants to understand the general outlines of his teaching should turn to those books first. His talks, though, are where he reveals something of his rough-and-ready personality, giving small asides that throw a revealing light on his more systematic teachings and making points that he makes nowhere else. I have already translated a number of the talks in Lessons in Samadhi, Food for Thought, and Inner Strength. Those volumes, though, consist entirely of reconstructed talks that fit around specific themes. In this volume, I have given a more general selection, including a few full talks, some short passages, and sometimes even half-thoughts, if they seemed provocative enough.

This book is designed to be read reflectively, a little at a time. Many of the short passages, in particular, will reveal their meaning only after repeated thought. Also, some of the passages that present Ajaan Lee’s personality will challenge many current ideas on how a Dhamma practitioner ought to speak. As Ajaan Lee cautioned his listeners, Dhamma teachings should not be accepted or rejected right off hand. Instead, they should be listened to with an open mind and then put to the test in experience to see if they can help uncover unwitting preconceptions. This is how I hope this book will be read.

In the course of selecting the passages that make up this book, I found that two themes in particular stood out. The first, which has provided the book with its title, is Ajaan Lee’s frequent portrayal of Buddhism as a skill. This skill involves mastery not only of the techniques of meditation, but also of adroit ways of viewing the world and events in daily life so that one can gain freedom from all the burdens that the unskillful mind places on itself. This approach culminates in what he calls the skill of release, the awareness that brings about the mind’s total liberation. The second theme concerns the central role that breath meditation plays in developing this skill. For Ajaan Lee, Buddhist doctrines show their true meaning only when one refers them to the practice of keeping the breath in mind. To underline this point, I have included a section on the Wings to Awakening—the Buddha’s own list of his central teachings—to show how Ajaan Lee interprets them in terms of the breath.

Although the passages presented here have been arranged so that the book will stand on its own, they are also meant to fill in some of the gaps left by Ajaan Lee’s other writings. My hope is that this will give the English-speaking world a more rounded picture of the skill of release and of the beauty with which Ajaan Lee presented it.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

(Geoffrey DeGraff)

Metta Forest Monastery

Valley Center, CA 92082

November, 1995