Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1993

Living with Dying; Ajahn Munindo
Questions & Answers with Luang Por Chah: II
Dhamma Notes from Thailand; Ajahn Santacitto
A Buddhist Kingdom; Aj Pasanno & Jayasaro
Ten Rains; Sister Candasiri
First Rains; Ven. Sunnato
Wildlife in Hammer Woods; Mike Holmes

Signs of Change:


Questions & Answers - Luang Por Chah

The second in a series of extracts from a conversation between Luang Por Chah and a lay Buddhist.

Question: Does one have to practise and gain samadhi (concentration) before one can contemplate the Dhamma?
Answer: We can say that's correct from one point of view, but from the aspect of practice, panna (wisdom) has to come first. In conventional terms, it's sila (morality), samadhi and then panna, but if we are truly practising the Dhamma, then panna comes first. If panna is there from the beginning, it means that we know what is right and what is wrong; and we know the heart that is calm and the heart that is disturbed and agitated.

Talking from the scriptural basis, one has to say that the practice of restraint and composure will give rise to a sense of shame and fear of any form of wrong-doing that potentially may arise. Once one has established the fear of that which is wrong and one is no longer acting or behaving wrongly, then that which is wrong will not be present within one. When there is no longer anything wrong present within, this provides the conditions from which calm will arise in its place. That calm forms a foundation from which samadhi will grow and develop over time.

When the heart is calm, that knowledge and understanding which arises from within that calm is called vipassana. This means that from moment to moment there is a knowing in accordance with the truth, and within this are contained different properties. If one was to set them down on paper they would be sila, samadhi and panna. Talking about them, one can bring them together and say that these three dhammas form one mass and are inseparable. But if one were to talk about them as different properties, then it would be correct to say sila, samadhi and panna.

However, if one was acting in a unwholesome way, it would be impossible for the heart to become calm. So it would be most accurate to see them as developing together and it would be right to say that this is the way that the heart will become calm. Talking about the practice of samadhi: it involves preserving sila, which includes looking after the sphere of one's bodily actions and speech, in order not to do anything which is unwholesome or would lead one to remorse or suffering. This provides the foundation for the practice of calm, and once one has a foundation in calm, this in turn provides a foundation which supports the arising of panna.

Whatever one feels, whether it feels like there is a body or a self or not, this is not the important point.

In formal teaching they emphasise the importance of sila. Adikalyanam, majjhekalyanam, pariyosanakalyanam - the practice should be beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle and beautiful in the end. This is how it is. Have you ever practised samadhi?

I am still learning. The day after I went to see Tan Ajahn at Wat Keu-an my aunt brought a book containing some of your teaching for me to read. That morning at work I started to read some passages which contained questions and answers to different problems. In it you said that the most important point was for the heart to watch over and observe the process of cause and effect that takes place within. Just to watch and maintain the knowing of the different things that come up.

That afternoon I was practising meditation and during the sitting, the characteristics that appeared were that I felt as though my body had disappeared. I was unable to feel the hands or legs and there were no bodily sensations. I knew that the body was still there, but I couldn't feel it. In the evening I had the opportunity to go and pay respects to Tan Ajahn Tate* and I described to him the details of my experience. He said that these were the characteristics of the heart that appear when it unifies in samadhi, and that I should continue practising. I had this experience only once; on subsequent occasions I found that sometimes I was unable to feel only certain areas of the body, such as the hands, whereas in other areas there was still feeling. Sometimes during my practice I start to wonder whether just sitting and allowing the heart to let go of everything is the correct way to practise; or else should I think over and occupy myself with the different problems or unanswered questions concerning the Dhamma, which I still have.

* An elderly and highly-respected Meditation Master.
It's not necessary to keep going over or adding anything on at this stage. This is what Tan Ajahn Tate was referring to; one must not repeat or add onto that which is there already. When that particular kind of knowing is present, it means that the heart is calm and it is that state of calm which one must observe. Whatever one feels, whether it feels like there is a body or a self or not, this is not the important point. It should all come within the fields of one's awareness. These conditions indicate that the heart is calm and has unified in samadhi.

When the heart has unified for a long period, for a few times, then there will be a change in the conditions and they say that one withdraws. That state is called appana samadhi (absorption) and having entered, the heart will subsequently withdraw. In fact, although it would not be incorrect to say that the heart withdraws, it doesn't actually withdraw. Another way is to say that it flips back, or that it changes, but the style used by most teachers is to say that once the heart has reached the state of calm, then it will withdraw. However, people get caught up in disagreements over the use of language. It can cause difficulties and one might start to wonder, 'How on earth can it withdraw? This business of withdrawing is just confusing!' It can lead to much foolishness and misunderstanding just because of the language.

What one must understand is that the way to practise is to observe these conditions with sati-sampajanna (mindfulness and clear comprehension). In accordance with the characteristic of impermanence, the heart will turn about and withdraw to the level of upacara samadhi (access concentration). If it withdraws to this level, one can gain an understanding through awareness of sense impressions and mental states, because at the deeper level (where the mind is fixed with just one object) there is no understanding. If there is awareness at this point, that which appears will be sankhara (mental formations).

"Practice is not dependent on any one posture, such as sitting or walking, it is a continuous flow of your own consciousness and feelings. No matter what is happening, just compose yourself and always be mindfully aware of that flow. Practice is not moving forward, but there is forward movement, it is not moving back, but there is backward movement, it is not stopping and being still. So ... practice eventually comes to a point where there is neither forward nor backward movement, nor being still - where is that?"

Ven. Ajahn Chah

It will be similar to two people having a conversation and discussing the Dhamma together. One who misunderstands this might feel disappointed that their heart is not really calm, but in fact this dialogue takes place within the confines of the calm and restraint which has developed. These are the characteristics of the heart once it has withdrawn to the level of upacara - there will be the ability to know about and understand different things.

The heart will stay in this state for a period and then it will turn inwards again. In other words, it will turn and go back into the deeper state of calm as it was before; or it is even possible that it might obtain purer and calmer levels of concentrated energy than was experienced before. If it does not reach such a level of concentration, one should merely note the fact and keep observing until the time when the heart withdraws again. Once it has withdrawn then different problems will arise within the heart.

This is the point where one can have awareness and understanding of different things. Here is where one should investigate and examine the different preoccupations and issues which affect the heart in order to understand and penetrate them. Once these problems are finished with, then the heart will gradually move inwards towards the deeper level of concentration again. The heart will stay there and mature, freed from any other work or external impingement. There will just be the one-pointed knowing and this will prepare and strengthen one's mindfulness until the time is reached to re-emerge.

These conditions of entering and leaving will appear in one's heart during the practice, but this is something that is difficult to talk about. It is not harmful or damaging to one's practice. After a period the heart will withdraw and the inner dialogue will start in that place, taking the form of sankhara (mental formations) conditioning the heart. If one doesn't know that this activity is sankhara, one might think that it is panna, or that panna is arising. One must see that this activity is fashioning and conditioning the heart, and the most important thing about it is that it is impermanent. One must continually keep control and not allow the heart to start following and believing in all the different creations and stories that it cooks up. All that is just sankhara, it doesn't become panna.

The way panna develops is when one listens and knows the heart, as the process of creating and conditioning takes it in different directions, and then one reflects on the instability and uncertainty of this. The realisation of its impermanence will provide the cause by which one can let go of things at that point. Once the heart has let go of things and put them down at that point, it will gradually become more and more calm and steady. One must keep entering and leaving samadhi like this and panna will arise at that point. There one will gain knowledge and understanding.

As one continues to practise, many different kinds of problems and difficulties will tend to arise in the heart; but whatever problems the world, or even the universe might bring up, one will be able to deal with them all. One's wisdom will follow them up and find answers for every question and doubt. Wherever one meditates, whatever thoughts come up, whatever happens, everything will be providing the cause for panna to arise. This is a process that will take place by itself, free from external influence. Panna will arise like this, but when it does, one should be careful not to become deluded and see it as sankhara. Whenever one reflects on things and sees them as impermanent and uncertain, then one shouldn't cling or attach to them in any way. If one keeps developing this state, when panna is present in the heart, it will take the place of one's normal way of thinking and reacting, and the heart will become fuller and brighter in the centre of everything. As this happens one knows and understands all things as they really are - one's heart will be able to progress with meditation in the correct way and without being deluded. That is how it should be.