The daily schedule at Metta Forest Monastery includes a group interview in the late afternoon, and a chanting session followed by a group meditation period later in the evening. The Dhamma talks included in this volume were given during the evening meditation sessions, and in many cases covered issues raised at the interviews — either in the questions asked or lurking behind the questions. Often these issues touched on a variety of topics on a variety of different levels in the practice. This explains the range of topics covered in individual talks.
I have edited the talks with an eye to making them readable while at the same time trying to preserve some of the flavor of the spoken word. In a few instances I have added passages or rearranged the material to make the treatment of specific topics more coherent and complete, but for the most part I have kept the editing to a minimum. Don't expect polished essays.
The people listening to these talks were familiar with the meditation instructions included in "Method 2" in Keeping the Breath in Mind by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo; and my own essay, "A Guided Meditation." If you are not familiar with these instructions, you might want to read through them before reading the talks in this book. Further Dhamma talks are available on the Metta Forest Monastery website.
I would like to thank Bok Lim Kim for making the recording of these talks possible. She, more than anyone else, is responsible for overcoming my initial reluctance to have the talks taped. I would also like to thank the following people for transcribing the tapes and/or helping to edit the transcriptions: Paul and Debra Breger, Richard Heiman, Jane Yudelman, Dhammattho Bhikkhu, Gunaddho Bhikkhu, Susuddho Bhikkhu, and Khematto Bhikkhu. May they all be happy.
Whatever merit there may be to these talks comes from the training I received from my teachers, Ajaan Fuang Jotiko and Ajaan Suwat Suvaco. This book is dedicated to their memory, with utmost gratitude.
Metta Forest Monastery
Several years ago, when Ajaan Suwat was teaching a retreat at IMS, I was his interpreter. After the second or third day of the retreat he turned to me and said, "I notice that when these people meditate they're awfully grim." You'd look out across the room and all the people were sitting there very seriously, their faces tense, their eyes closed tight. It was almost as if they had Nirvana or Bust written across their foreheads.
He attributed their grimness to the fact that most people here in the West come to Buddhist meditation without any preparation in other Buddhist teachings. They haven't had any experience in being generous in line with the Buddha's teachings on giving. They haven't had any experience in developing virtue in line with the Buddhist precepts. They come to the Buddha's teachings without having tested them in daily life, so they don't have the sense of confidence they need to get them through the hard parts of the meditation. They feel they have to rely on sheer determination instead.
If you look at the way meditation, virtue, and generosity are taught here, it's the exact opposite of the order in which they're taught in Asia. Here, people sign up for a retreat to learn some meditation, and only when they show up at the retreat center do they learn they're going to have to observe some precepts during the retreat. And then at the very end of the retreat they learn that before they'll be allowed to go home they're going to have to be generous. It's all backwards.
Over in Thailand, children's first exposure to Buddhism, after they've learned the gesture of respect, is in giving. You see parents taking their children by the hand as a monk comes past on his alms round, lifting them up, and helping them put a spoonful of rice into the monk's bowl. Over time, as the children start doing it themselves, the process becomes less and less mechanical, and after a while they begin to take pleasure in giving.
At first this pleasure may seem counterintuitive. The idea that you gain happiness by giving things away doesn't come automatically to a young child's mind. But with practice you find that it's true. After all, when you give, you put yourself in a position of wealth. The gift is proof that you have more than enough. At the same time it gives you a sense of your worth as a person. You're able to help other people. The act of giving also creates a sense of spaciousness in the mind, because the world we live in is created by our actions, and the act of giving creates a spacious world: a world where generosity is an operating principle, a world where people have more than enough, enough to share. And it creates a good feeling in the mind.
From there, the children are exposed to virtue: the practice of the precepts. And again, from a child's point of view it's counterintuitive that you're going to be happy by not doing certain things you want to do — as when you want to take something, or when you want to lie to cover up your embarrassment or to protect yourself from criticism and punishment. But over time you begin to discover that, yes, there is a sense of happiness, there is a sense of wellbeing that comes from being principled, from not having to cover up for any lies, from avoiding unskillful actions, from having a sense that unskillful actions are beneath you.
So by the time you come to meditation through the route of giving and being virtuous, you've already had experience in learning that there are counterintuitive forms of happiness in the world. When you've been trained through exposure to the Buddha's teachings, you've learned the deeper happiness that comes from giving, the deeper happiness that comes from restraining yourself from unskillful actions, no matter how much you might want to do them. By the time you come to the meditation you've developed a certain sense of confidence that so far the Buddha has been right, so you give him the benefit of the doubt on meditation.
This confidence is what allows you to overcome a lot of the initial difficulties: the distractions, the pain. At the same time, the spaciousness that comes from generosity gives you the right mindset for the concentration practice, gives you the right mindset for insight practice — because when you sit down and focus on the breath, what kind of mind do you have? The mind you've been creating through your generous and virtuous actions. A spacious mind, not the narrow mind of a person who doesn't have enough. It's the spacious mind of a person who has more than enough to share, the mind of a person who has no regrets or denial over past actions. In short, it's the mind of a person who realizes that true happiness doesn't see a sharp dichotomy between your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others.
The whole idea that happiness has to consist either in doing things only for your own selfish motives or for other people to the sacrifice of yourself — the dichotomy between the two — is something very Western, but it's antithetical to the Buddha's teachings. According to the Buddha's teachings, true happiness is something that, by its nature, gets spread around. By working for your own true benefit, you're working for the benefit of others. And by working for the benefit of others, you're working for your own. In the act of giving to others you gain rewards. In the act of holding fast to the precepts, holding fast to your principles, protecting others from your unskillful behavior, you gain as well. You gain in mindfulness; you gain in your own sense of worth as a person, your own self-esteem. You protect yourself.
So you come to the meditation ready to apply the same principles to training in tranquillity and insight. You realize that the meditation is not a selfish project. You're sitting here trying to understand your greed, anger, and delusion, trying to bring them under control — which means that you're not the only person who's going to benefit from the meditation. Other people will benefit — are benefiting — as well. As you become more mindful, more alert, more skillful in undercutting the hindrances in your mind, other people are less subject to those hindrances as well. Less greed, anger, and delusion come out in your actions, and so the people around you suffer less. Your meditating is a gift to them.
The quality of generosity, what they call caga in Pali, is included in many sets of Dhamma teachings. One is the set of practices leading to a fortunate rebirth. This doesn't apply only to the rebirth that comes after death, but also to the states of being, the states of mind you create for yourself moment to moment, that you move into with each moment. You create the world in which you live through your actions. By being generous — not only with material things but also with your time, your energy, your forgiveness, your willingness to be fair and just with other people — you create a good world in which to live. If your habits tend more toward being stingy, they create a very confining world, because there's never enough. There's always a lack of this, or a lack of that, or a fear that something is going to slip away or get taken away from you. So it's a narrow, fearful world you create when you're not generous, as opposed to the confident and wide-open world you create through acts of generosity.
Generosity also counts as one of the forms of Noble Wealth, because what is wealth aside from a sense of having more than enough? Many people who are materially poor are, in terms of their attitude, very wealthy. And many people with a lot of material wealth are extremely poor. The ones who never have enough: They're the ones who always need more security, always need more to stash away. Those are the people who have to build walls around their houses, who have to live in gated communities for fear that other people will take away what they've got. That's a very poor kind of life, a confined kind of life. But as you practice generosity, you realize that you can get by on less, and that there's a pleasure that comes with giving to people. Right there is a sense of wealth. You have more than enough.
At the same time you break down barriers. Monetary transactions create barriers. Somebody hands you something, you have to hand them money back, so there's a barrier right there. Otherwise, if you didn't pay, the object wouldn't come to you over the barrier. But if something is freely given, it breaks down a barrier. You become part of that person's extended family. In Thailand the terms of address that monks use with their lay supporters are the same they use with relatives. The gift of support creates a sense of relatedness. The monastery where I stayed — and this includes the lay supporters as well as the monks — was like a large extended family. This is true of many of the monasteries in Thailand. There's a sense of relatedness, a lack of boundary.
We hear so much talk on "interconnectedness." Many times it's explained in terms of the teaching on dependent co-arising, which is really an inappropriate use of the teaching. Dependent co-arising teaches the connectedness of ignorance to suffering, the connectedness of craving to suffering. That's a connectedness within the mind, and it's a connectedness that we need to cut, because it keeps suffering going on and on and on, over and over again, in many, many cycles. But there's another kind of connectedness, an intentional connectedness, that comes through our actions. These are kamma connections. Now, we in the West often have problems with the teachings on kamma, which may be why we want the teachings on connectedness without the kamma. So we go looking elsewhere in the Buddha's teachings to find a rationale or a basis for a teaching on connectedness, but the real basis for a sense of connectedness comes through kamma. When you interact with another person, a connection is made.
Now, it can be a positive or a negative connection, depending on the intention. With generosity you create a positive connection, a helpful connection, a connection where you're glad that the boundary is down, a connection where good things can flow back and forth. If it's unskillful kamma, you're creating a connection, you're creating an opening that sooner or later you're going to regret. There's a saying in the Dhammapada that a hand without a wound can hold poison and not be harmed. In other words, if you don't have any bad kamma, the results of bad kamma won't come to you. But if you have a wound on your hand, then if you hold poison it will seep through the wound and kill you. Unskillful kamma is just that, a wound. It's an opening for poisonous things to come in.
The opposite principle also works. If there's a connection of skillful behavior, a good connection is formed. This sort of positive connection starts with generosity, and grows with the gift of virtue. As the Buddha said, when you hold to your precepts no matter what, with no exceptions, it's a gift of security to all beings. You give unlimited security to everyone, and so you have a share in that unlimited security as well. With the gift of meditation, you protect other people from the effects of your greed, anger, and delusion. And you get protected as well.
So this is what generosity does: It makes your mind more spacious and creates good connections with the people around you. It dissolves the boundaries that otherwise would keep the happiness from spreading around.
When you come to the meditation with that state of mind, it totally changes the way you approach meditating. So many people come to meditation with the question, "What am I going to get out of this time I spend meditating?" Particularly in the modern world, time is something we're very poor in. So the question of getting, getting, getting out of the meditation is always there in the background. We're advised to erase this idea of getting, yet you can't erase it if you've been cultivating it as a habitual part of your mind. But if you come to the meditation with experience in being generous, the question becomes "What do I give to the meditation?" You give it your full attention. You give it the effort, you're happy to put in the effort, because you've learned from experience that good effort put into the practice of the Dhamma brings good results. And so that internal poverty of "What am I getting out of this meditation?" gets erased. You come to the meditation with a sense of wealth: "What can I give to this practice?"
You find, of course, that you end up getting a lot more if you start with the attitude of giving. The mind is more up for challenges: "How about if I give it more time? How about meditating later into the night than I usually do? How about getting up earlier in the morning? How about giving more constant attention to what I'm doing? How about sitting longer through pain?" The meditation then becomes a process of giving, and of course you still get the results. When you're not so grudging of your efforts or time, you place fewer and fewer limitations on the process of meditation. That way the results are sure to be less grudging, more unlimited, as well. So it's important that we develop the Noble Wealth of generosity to bring to our meditation.
The texts mention that when you get discouraged in your meditation, when the meditation gets dry, you should look back on past generosity. This gives you a sense of self-esteem, a sense of encouragement. Of course, what generosity are you going to look back on if there is none? This is why it's important that you approach the meditation having practiced generosity very consciously.
Many times we ask, "How do I take the meditation back into the world?" But it's also important that you bring good qualities of the world into your meditation, good qualities of your day-to-day life, and that you develop them regularly. Thinking back on past acts of generosity gets dry after a while if there's only been one act of generosity that happened a long time ago. You need fresh generosity to give you encouragement.
So this is why, when the Buddha talked about the forms of merit, he said, "Don't be afraid of merit, for merit is another word for happiness." The first of the three main forms of merit is dana, giving, which is the expression of generosity. The gift of being virtuous builds on the simple act of giving, and the gift of meditation builds on both.
Of course, a large part of the meditation is letting go: letting go of distractions, letting go of unskillful thoughts. If you're used to letting go of material things, it comes a lot easier to begin experimenting with letting go of unskillful mental attitudes — things that you've held on to for so long that you think you need them, but when you really look at them you find you don't. In fact, you see that they're an unnecessary burden that causes suffering. When you see the suffering, and the fact that it's needless, you can let go. In this way, the momentum of giving carries all the way through the practice, and you realize that it's not depriving you of anything. It's more like a trade. You give away a material object and you gain in generous qualities of mind. You give away your defilements, and you gain freedom.
Two important questions you have to answer about meditation are "how?" and "why?" — how to do it and why you are doing it — because meditation is not just a technique. There's a context for the practice, and only when you see the practice in context can you really understand what you're doing and get the most out of it.
The "how" is pretty simple. With breath meditation, sit straight, hands in your lap, right hand on top of your left hand, your legs crossed, right leg on top of the left leg, your eyes closed. That's getting your body into position. Getting your mind into position means focusing it in on the present moment. Think about the breath and then notice how the breath feels as it comes in, how it feels as it goes out. Be aware of the breathing. That means you have two qualities at work: the thinking or mindfulness, which reminds you where to stay; and the alertness, which tells you what's happening with the breath. Those are two of the qualities you want.
The third quality is what the Buddha called atappa, or ardency, which means you really put an effort into it. You really focus on what you're doing. You're not just playing around. You give it your whole attention. You try to be ardently mindful and ardently alert.
Ardently mindful means that you try to keep your mindfulness as continuous as possible, without any gaps. If you find that your mind has slipped off the breath, you bring it right back. You don't let it dawdle here or sniff at the flowers there. You've got work to do and you want to get it done as quickly, as thoroughly, as possible. You have to maintain that kind of attitude. As the Buddha said, it's like realizing that your head is on fire. You put it out as fast as possible. The issues we're dealing with are serious issues, urgent issues: aging, illness, and death. They're like fires burning away inside us. So you have to maintain that sense of ardency because you never know when these fires are going to flare up. You want to be as prepared as possible, as quickly as possible. So when the mind wanders off, be ardent in bringing it back.
Ardently alert means that when the mind is staying with the breath, you try to be as sensitive as possible in adjusting it to make it feel good, and in monitoring the results of your efforts. Try long breathing to see how it feels. Try short breathing, heavy breathing, light breathing, deep, shallow. The more refined you can make your awareness, the better the meditation goes because you can make the breath more and more refined, a more and more comfortable place for the mind to stay. Then you can let that sense of comfort spread throughout the body. Think of the breath not simply as the air coming in and out the lungs, but as the flow of energy throughout the whole body. The more refined your awareness, the more sensitive you can be to that flow. The more sensitive you are, the more refined the breath becomes, the more gratifying, the more absorbing it becomes as a place to stay.
This is the basic trick in getting the mind to settle down in the present moment — you've got to give it something that it likes to stay with. If it's here against its will, it's going to be like a balloon you push under the water. As long as your hand has a good grasp on the balloon, it's not going to pop up, but as soon as you slip a little bit, the balloon pops up out of the water. If the mind is forced to stay on an object that it really finds unpleasant, it's not going to stay. As soon as your mindfulness slips just a little bit, it's gone.
Or you can compare it to parents raising a child. If the parents are constantly beating the child, the child is going to run away from home as soon as it finds the chance. Even if they lock the windows and doors, it's going to look for an opening. As soon as they turn their backs, it's gone. But if the parents are kind to the child — give it good things to play with, interesting things to do at home, lots of warmth and love — the child will want to stay home even if the windows and doors are left wide open.
So it is with the mind. Be friendly with it. Give it something good to stay with in the present moment — like comfortable breathing. Maybe you can't make the whole body comfortable, but make at least part of the body comfortable and stay with that part. As for the pains, let them be in the other part. They have every right to be there, so make an arrangement with them. They stay in one part, you stay in another. But the essential point is that you have a place where the mind feels stable, secure, and comfortable in the present moment. These are the beginning steps in meditation.
This kind of meditation can be used for all sorts of purposes, but the Buddha realized that the most important purpose is to get the mind out of the whole cycle of aging, illness, and death. And when you think about it, there's nothing more important than that. That's the big problem in life and yet society tends to slough off the problems of aging, illness, and death, tends to push them off to the side because other things seem more pressing. Making a lot of money is more important. Having fulfilling relationships is more important. Whatever. And the big issues in life — the fact that you're headed for the sufferings and indignities that come with an aging, ill, or dying body — get pushed off, pushed out of the way. "Not yet, not yet, maybe some other time." And of course when that other time does arrive and these things come barging in, they won't accept your "not yet," won't be pushed out anymore. If you haven't prepared yourself for them, you'll really be up the creek, at a total loss.
So these are the most important things you need to prepare for. A lot of other things in life are uncertain, but a couple of things are certain. Aging comes. Illness comes. Death is going to come for sure. So when you know something is going to come for sure, you have to prepare for it. And when you realize that this is the most important issue in life, you have to look at the way you live your life. Meditation — the practice of the Buddha's teachings — is not just a question of sitting with your eyes closed every now and then. It's about how you order your priorities. As the Buddha said, when you see there's a greater level of happiness that can be found by sacrificing lesser forms of happiness, you sacrifice the lesser ones. Look at your life and the things you hold onto, the little places where the mind finds its pleasure but doesn't gain any real fulfillment: Are those the things you really want to hold onto? Are you going to let them be the factors governing your life?
And then you can think of larger issues. The chance for a happiness that goes beyond aging, illness, and death: Will that be the first priority in your life?
These are questions we all have to ask within ourselves. The Buddha doesn't force our answers. He simply sets out what the situation is. He says that there is a possibility for happiness lying beyond the happiness that comes from simply eating and sleeping, looking after the body and having a comfortable time. This possibility is the good news in the Buddha's teachings, especially since most of the world says, "Well, this is all there is to life, so make the most of it. Satisfy yourself with these immediate pleasures and don't think about other things. Don't let yourself get dissatisfied with what you've got." When you think about this attitude, it's really depressing because all it means is that you grab at what you can before you die. And when you die, you can't take it with you.
But the Buddha said there's a form of happiness, there's a form of knowing in the mind, that goes beyond aging, illness, and death, and that can be attained through human effort if you're skillful enough. So that's both good news and a challenge. Are you going to let yourself just live an ordinary life frittering your time away? Or are you going to accept the challenge to devote yourself to more important things, devote yourself to this possibility?
The Buddha was the sort of person who put his life on the line. He didn't have anyone telling him that this was a possibility, but he thought that the only way life would have any dignity, any honor would be if you could find a happiness that doesn't age, doesn't grow ill, doesn't die. And he ran up against all the things he would have to sacrifice in order to find that happiness. So he made those sacrifices — not because he wanted to sacrifice those things, but because he had to. As a result he was able to find what he was looking for. So the story of his life and his teachings are meant as a challenge for us — how are we going to lead our lives?
Here we are sitting together meditating. What are you going to do with a still mind, once it's become still? If you wanted to, you could simply use concentration practice as a method of relaxation or a way of calming the nerves. However, the Buddha says that there's more to it than that. When the mind is really still, you can dig deep down into the mind and begin to see all the currents that lie underground within it. You can start sorting them out, understanding what drives the mind. Where is the greed? Where is the anger? Where are the delusions that keep you spinning around? How can you cut through them?
These are the questions, these are the issues that can be tackled in the meditation — as long as you have a sense of their importance, that they're your real priorities. If you don't have that sense, you don't want to touch them because they're big issues and they snarl at you when you get near. But if you really dig down, you find that they're just paper tigers. I once saw a meditation manual that contained a drawing of a tiger. The face of a tiger was very realistic — all the details were very scary — but its body was made out of folded paper. And that's what a lot of issues are in the mind. They come at you, looking really intimidating, but if you face them down they turn into origami.
But in order to face them down you've got to have a sense that these are the really important issues in life and you're willing to give up an awful lot for their sake. You're willing to give up whatever you have to give up. That's what makes the difference between a practice that goes someplace, that really knocks down the walls in the mind, and a practice that simply rearranges the furniture in the room.
So when you practice meditation, you realize there is both the "how" and the "why," and the "why" is really important. Often the "why" gets pushed off to the side. You simply follow this or that technique, and then what you want to do with it is up to you — which is true in a way, but doesn't take into account the possibilities. When you put the possibilities into the context of the Buddha's teachings, you see the values that underlie the practice. You see how deep the practice goes, how much it can accomplish, and what an enormous job you're taking on. It's enormous, but the results are enormous as well.
And the issues are urgent. Aging, illness, and death can come at any time, and you have to ask yourself, "Are you prepared? Are you ready to die?" Ask yourself in all honesty and if you're not ready, what's the problem? What are you still lacking? Where are you still holding on? Why do you want to hold on? When the mind settles down and is still, you can start digging into these issues. And the more you dig, the more you uncover within the mind — layers and layers of things that you didn't suspect, that have been governing your life since who knows when. You dig them out, you see them for what they are, and you're free from them. You realize all the stupid things that have been running your life, picked up from who knows where. You can't blame anyone else. You're the one who picked them up and you played along with them.
Now, when you realize that nothing is accomplished by playing along — that it's better not to play along with these things, and you don't have to — then you can let them go. And they let you go. What's left is total freedom. The Buddha said that it's so total it can't even be described by words.
So that's the possibility the meditation points to, and it's up to each of us to decide how far we want to go in that direction, how much we do really care for our true happiness, for our own true wellbeing. You would think that everyone would say, "Of course I care for my happiness and true wellbeing." But if you look at the way people live their lives, you can see that they really don't put that much energy or thought into the quest for true happiness. People usually see other people do things in this or that way, so they follow along without looking for themselves, as if true happiness were so unimportant that you could leave it up to other people to make your choices for you. Meditation, though, is a chance to look for yourself at what's really important in life and then do something about it.
"Days and nights fly past, fly past: What am I doing right now?"
The Buddha has you ask that question every day, both to keep yourself from being complacent and to remind yourself that the practice is one of doing. Even though we're sitting here very still, there's still a doing going on in the mind. There's the intention to focus on the breath, the intention to maintain that focus, and the intention to keep watch over how the breath and the mind are behaving. Meditation as a whole is a doing. Even when you practice non-reactivity or "being the knowing," there's a still an element of intention. That's what the doing is.
That was one of the Buddha's most important insights: that even when you're sitting perfectly still with the intention not to do anything, there's still the intention, and the intention itself is a doing. It's a sankhara, a fabrication. It's what we live with all the time. In fact, all of our experience is based on fabrication. The fact that you sense your body, feelings, perceptions, thought-constructs, consciousness — all of these aggregates: To be able to experience them in the present moment you have to fabricate a potential into an actual aggregate. You fabricate the potential for form into an actual experience of form, the potential for feeling into an actual experience of feeling, and so on. This element of fabrication lies in the background all the time. It's like the background noise of the Big Bang, which hums throughout the whole universe and doesn't go away. The element of fabrication is always there, shaping our experience, and it's so consistently present that we lose sight of it. We don't realize what we're doing.
What you're trying to do as you meditate is to strip things down so you can see the very elemental fabrications going on in the mind, the kamma you're creating with every moment. We're not making the mind still simply to have a nice restful place to be, a nice experience of ease to soothe our stressed-out nerves. That may be part of it, but it's not the whole practice. The other part is to see clearly what's going on, to see the potential of human action: What are we doing all the time? What are the potentials contained in this doing? Then we apply that understanding of human action to see how far we can go in stripping away the unnecessary stress and suffering that come from acting in unskillful ways.
It's important that we always keep this in mind as we meditate. Remember: We're here to understand human action, in particular our own human actions. Otherwise we sit here hoping that we don't have to do anything, that we can just wait for some Imax experiences to come whap us upside the head, or some nice glowing sense of oneness to come welling up inside. And sometimes things like that can come unexpectedly, but if they come without your understanding how or why they came, they're not all that helpful. They're restful for a while, or amazing for a while, but then they go away and you have to deal with your desire to get them back. And, of course, no amount of desire is going to get them back if it's not accompanied by understanding.
You can't totally drop human action until you understand the nature of action. This is really important. We like to think that we can simply stop doing, stop doing, stop doing, and things will settle down, get calm, and open up to emptiness. But that's more like zoning out than meditating. There is an element of stopping in the meditation, an element of letting go, but you can't really master it