Skillfulness : Excerpted from Wings to Awakening: An Anthology of the Pali Canon

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

Skillfulness : Excerpted from Wings to Awakening: An Anthology of the Pali Canon

We can say that the Dhamma — in terms of doctrine, practice, and attainment — derives from the fully explored implications of one observation: that it is possible to master a skill. This point is reflected not only in the content of the Buddha’s teachings, but also in the way they are expressed. The Buddha used many metaphors, explicit and implicit, citing the skills of craftsmen, artists, and athletes to illustrate his points. The texts abound with explicit similes referring to acrobats, archers, bathmen, butchers, carpenters, farmers, fletchers, herdsmen, musicians, painters, etc., pointing out how their skills correspond either to the way the mind fashions stress and suffering for itself, or to the skills a meditator needs to develop in order to master the path to release. On the implicit level, the passages dealing with meditation are filled with terms derived from music theory. In his younger days as a prince, the Bodhisatta — like other young aristocrats of his time — was undoubtedly a connoisseur of the musical arts, and so was naturally familiar with the theory that lay behind them. Because the terminology of this theory is so pervasive in the teachings he formulated as a Buddha, it will be useful to discuss it here briefly.

Unfortunately, we do not have a full treatise on the theory of musical performance as practiced during the Buddha’s time, but there are enough references to music scattered through the texts for us to piece together the outlines of that theory. The first step in performance was to tune one’s instrument, “establishing” one’s tonic note (literally, “base,” thana) to make it on-pitch (“even,” or sama), then to fine-tune or attune (“ferret out” or “penetrate”) the remaining notes (again, “bases”) of the scale in relation to the tonic. This required a great deal of skill, sensitivity, and some mathematical knowledge, as the well-tempered scale had not yet been developed, and many different ways of calculating the scale were in use, each appropriate to a different emotion. The musician then picked up the theme (nimitta) of the composition. The theme functioned in several ways, and thus the word “theme” carried several meanings. On the one hand it was the essential message of the piece, the image or impression that the performer wanted to leave in the listener’s mind. On the other hand, it was the governing principle that determined what ornamentation or variations would be suitable to the piece.

These musical terms recur throughout the Buddha’s discussion of meditation [SN 51.20, SN 48.50, AN 6.55, AN 5.28, MN 128, etc.]. For instance, in one context the Buddha says that one should establish one’s persistence to the right pitch, attune the remaining faculties to that pitch, and then pick up one’s theme. In other contexts, he says that one should become attuned to a particular theme, or that one should develop meditation in tune with a particular object. Impossibilities are said to be “non-base,” analogous to tones that cannot function as musical notes. There are enough passages to show that the Buddha used this terminology conscious of its musical connotations, and that he wanted to make the point that the practice of meditation was similar to the art of musical performance. We should thus try to be sensitive to these terms and their implications, for the comparison between music and meditation is a useful one.

In the most general sense, this comparison underlines the fact that the knowledge needed for release from suffering is the same sort as that involved in mastering a skill — a continued focus on the present, a sensitivity to one’s context, one’s own actions, and their combined consequences, rather than a command of an abstract body of facts. To develop the path is to become more and more sensitive to the present — in particular, more sensitive to one’s own sensitivity and its consequences. This is similar to the way in which a musician must learn to listen to his/her own performance, a process that ultimately involves listening to the quality of one’s listening itself. The greater one’s sensitivity in listening, the more profound one’s performances become. In the same way, the greater one’s sensitivity to one’s own mind in the development of skillful qualities, the more one abandons the causes of suffering and realizes its cessation.

In addition to this general observation, the comparison between music and meditation highlights a number of practical points in the development of meditative skill. First, it underscores the need for flexibility and ingenuity in the practice, tempered by an awareness of the limits of how far that flexibility can go.

A skilled musician in the Buddha’s time had to master not one but many tuning systems so as to handle a full range of musical themes, while simultaneously knowing which ways of tuning were unworkable. In the same way, a skilled meditator should know of many valid ways of tuning the mind to the theme of its meditation — and should have a command of them all so as to deal with various contingencies as they arise — but at the same time must be aware that some varieties of meditation simply do not lead to Awakening. In this light, the seven sets of the Wings to Awakening can be viewed as the Buddha’s complete list of workable systems for tuning the mind. (There is evidence suggesting that seven is the number of musical tuning systems (gramaraga) recognized in the Buddha’s time.) The implication here is that any path of practice deviating from these systems would be like an instrument tuned to a discordant scale, and would not be in harmony with the way of the contemplative (samana) who aims at a life in tune (sama) with the Dhamma.

A second point is that the musical analogy makes vivid the need for balance in meditative practice, a lesson that appears repeatedly in the texts [SN 51.20, AN 6.55, SN 46.53, MN 128]. Just as a musical instrument should neither be too sharp nor too flat, the mind on the path has to find a balance between excessive energy and excessive stillness. At the same time, it must constantly watch out for the tendency for its energy to slacken in the same way that stringed instruments tend to go flat. The “rightness” of right view and other factors of the path thus carries the connotation not only of being correct, but also of being “just right.”

A third point is that this analogy helps clarify passages in the texts that speak of attaining the goal without effort [SN 1.1]. Taken out of context, these passages seem to contradict or totally negate the many other passages that focus on the need for effort in the practice. Viewed in context of the music analogy, however, they make perfect sense. Like a musical virtuoso, one develops skill to the point where it becomes effortless, but the perfection of the skill does not negate the fact that it took a great deal of effort to reach that level of mastery.

In fact, the Buddha’s path is a meta-skill — the full art or science of skillfulness, in and of itself — in which one focuses on the mind as the source of what is skillful and unskillful, learns to deal skillfully with unskillful states of mind, then to deal more skillfully even with skillful states to the point of focusing not on the skill, but on the skill of acquiring a skill, so that one ultimately sees what lies both in the skillfulness and beyond [MN 78].

Ajahn Thanissaro is the abbot of Metta Forest Monastery near San Diego, CA. The book Wings to Awakening and many other works by Ajahn Thanissaro can be found at .