I remember before I was a monk, before I had considered making the big step into monastic life, I was considering, “What am I going to do with my life in a way which is actually going to be beneficial for the world?” The idea of making the world a better place seemed so overwhelming to the point of being hopelessly idealistic. It was like trying to clean up the entire environment in the world; it seemed like such a daunting task. But I realized: “well, I may not be able to clean up the entire environment in the world, but this one little corner of the environment called the body and mind, there is at least some semblance of control, at least a delusion of control over this one little corner of the environment.” Entering into Buddhist practice it was very much the momentum of working towards bringing a sense of peace into the world, starting from the center and working out.
I remember when I was a young monk, a common meditation method used in Thailand was to recite the mantra “Buddho” in the mind, and I tried that for a while but somehow it didn’t stick as easily as another word that I came up with, which was “peace.” So I just started using “peace” as a mantra. When I was sitting I would just say “peace,” silently repeating it to myself,feeling it reverberate—“peace, peace, peace.” Then when I was doing walking meditation, walking back and forth with each step I’d say “peace, peace, peace.” Whether I was working or on almsround, eating, even in conversation I found that every time that I could bring my mind back to the center of “peace, peace,” then everything started to come back into balance. I realized it was a quality that I needed. So it was a reminder. It was also a focus of concentration—always coming back to “peace, peace.” When the mind was getting upset, I’d just remember, “Right. Peace. Just be peaceful.” When I desired a delicious taste, just “peace, peace.” Or when I was confused or uncertain about what was going to happen in the future—just “Peace, peace. Right here, right now, just be peaceful.”
It was very much in line with how I was beginning to understand the law of kamma. It’s like everything in the universe, the whole history of the universe just reaching up to this one moment right here and now, and what has happened already—there’s nothing we can do about it. But our reaction to this moment can very much determine the amount of peace in our lives. So I realized, “Well, I’m creating my future moment-by-moment. If I respond in a way which is going to be agitating, it’s going to lead to an agitated future. But if I respond with this sense of peace…” So whatever it was, whatever the whole history of causes and conditions had produced in this moment, pleasant or unpleasant, I could create my future moment-by-moment through responding with peace. Meditation is of course a central feature in our lifestyle. Before I went to Wat Pah Nanachat I was doing a long meditation retreat in Thailand, and it was more of the vipassanā style. I was told “Well, you’re welcome to do samatha meditation if you want, but it’s basically a waste of time—it makes you a little peaceful, you get a little happiness, but you get attached to it and then you end up just as stupid as you ever were. But vipassanā—that’s the essence of wisdom, that’s the thing which is going to liberate you.” So I said “great!” and put all of my energy into it. By the time I got to Wat Pah Nanachat, I realized, “Actually what I need is some peace.”
And Luang Por Chah, he didn’t make this big distinction between samatha and vipassanā. He said, “Well, we know what flowing water is. You can go down to the creek and study how water flows by and around the rocks and it’s a real study and learning about our minds as well, just watching how water flows. If we’ve had the experience of seeing a really still pool somewhere,” Ajahn Chah would say, “Well, we know what it’s like when it’s still, absolutely still.” I had been a ranger up in the Sierra Mountains up above the tree line and had seen these pools and lakes that were just snow melt, freshly melted from snow and glaciers—absolutely still and clear. No wind, and you could look right through the water and no matter how deep it was it seemed you could see all the detail of the rocks and everything on the bottom. That was such a beautiful simile for the still mind. “But,” Ajahn Chah says, “even if we know what water is like when it’s still, what we don’t know is still flowing water.”
This is one of my favorite similes of Ajahn Chah’s—still flowing water—this paradox: when water flows, then we can understand that and when it doesn’t flow then it’s still. And when it’s still it doesn’t flow, it’s not moving. But how can it be flowing and still at the same time? This is what we need to figure, this is what we need to know firsthand. And as we know, the Buddha didn’t just teach the Dhamma. He taught Dhamma‑Vinaya. When he talked about meditation he didn’t just teach vipassanā, he taught samatha‑vipassanā. I think it was Ajahn Buddhadasa who first came up with this simile of samatha and vipassanā being very much like a knife.
His simile was of the practitioner as someone who’s carving away through a dense jungle, a dense thicket. One doesn’t need to cut down the whole jungle; one just needs to cut a path through the jungle to get to the other side. The tool to work with is the meditation. To be able to use the tool effectively, to have an effective tool, it’s got to be both heavy and sharp. To try to get through the jungle with just a razor blade, clearly is not going to work. To try to get through the jungle with just a dull stick is not going to work. But when you combine the sharpness and the heaviness then you get one of these Thai machettes and with systematic effort and persistence, you can make your way through the jungle bit-by-bit, vine-by-vine, tree-by-tree. This was Ajahn Buddhadasa’s simile for samatha and vipassanā. Vipassanā was that sharpness, that clarity of mind, that investigative edge, where samatha was the weight behind it, the oomph, the power. It gives it some-thing. Even if there’s a lot of energy, if you just have this tiny razor blade edge, it doesn’t work very well. Actually one of the similes I like with samatha and vipassanā is that I see samatha to be a rock and not to roll. And vipassanā is pure rock and roll.
If we look at how the Buddha talked about the causes and conditions that lead to enlightenment and liberation, if we look at yathā‑bhūta‑ñāna‑dassanam, seeing things as they clearly are in accordance with reality, what’s the cause and condition for that? Well, it’s samādhi. It’s a very important thing. Also it’s important to recognize that the cause and condition that the Buddha said led to samādhi was sukhā, happiness, and how important that sense of happiness is in one’s life, in one’s meditation. It’s something we can systematically develop. We tend to think, “Well, at the end of the path there’s going to be happiness, maybe I’ll have suffering in between but finally, someday I’m going to be happy.” But the Buddha was saying even before we get to advanced stages of insight, even before we can learn how to really make the mind peaceful, we have to learn how to be happy enough, developing happiness in the lifestyle, in the meditation, actually focusing on it.
One of the paradoxes of spiritual life I find is that we have everything we need to be happy right here and now and yet, at the same time, there’s clearly something to be done. So if we have everything we need to be happy right here and now, why not just be lazy and complacent? But if we realize that we have enough right here and now to give rise to a certain level of contentment, then whatever it is—pleasant, painful, a lot or a little, it’s enough to be content with it. This type of contentment is that happiness which can lead to peace of mind. Going back into “peace, peace, peace,” Then it’s just natural. The more calm the mind is, the more clarity there is. And the more clarity there is, the more we let go of all the things which agitate and disturb the mind. And then the more peaceful the mind becomes, the more clarity there is. So the way the ajahns in the Forest tradition talked about the whole samatha‑vipassanā issue was not to make a big distinction between the two from the very beginning. We’ve got to use wisdom every moment throughout the day to try to understand why it is that we’re not peaceful. What are the obstacles to peace?
Whatever our lifestyle is, monastic or lay, we’ve got to deal with these worldly dhammas, these things which are upsetting to the mind or bringing the mind away from a point of peaceful balance. This takes wisdom all the time. And yet there is this constant emphasis on “just sit and be still and meditate.” Make the mind calm and peaceful, allow it to be peaceful. If we don’t stir it up, then peace arises all by itself. One of the great insights for me in the early days of meditation practice was, “Well, this peace of mind which I’m seeking is very much intertwined with everything I’ve ever done and said.” So then I saw the connection between what I was doing, my behavior, everything I said, even everything I thought and my state of mind when I was sitting in meditation. Again it comes back to that basic law of kamma. Everything we do, moment-by-moment, there’s this opportunity to direct it to a certain future course.
And that very much depends on what we want from our life. So over and over I try to ask, “What is it that I most deeply aspire to?” I believe the highest happiness is peace. That does seem like something worth aspiring to. So I keep coming back to this “peace, peace,” and then looking at these behaviors: what I’m doing, my actions, are these coming from a peaceful intention? When I’m speaking, reflecting before and afterwards, if I wasn’t mindful at the time then I try to reflect afterwards, “Was this coming from peace? From the inclination towards peace, or not?” When it wasn’t coming from a sense of leaning, inquiring toward peace, then the effect usually wouldn’t be very good, very beneficial either for myself or for others. It wasn’t leading to an increased peace in the world. As we know, the Buddha didn’t just teach one technique, such as following the breath. He taught a whole range of different ways to approach training the mind based on personal inclination or where a person was off balance, based on where the strengths of their defilements were, based on a particular period in their lives. So whether we do anapanasati or loving-kindness or going through the components of the body or reflecting on the qualities of the Buddha and so on, all of them incorporate this balance of wisdom (pañña) and samādhi.
Still flowing water. If the methods are going to be successful they have to be used in a way which is going to bring the mind back to a point of being centered and peaceful. Peaceful with clarity. Not a dull, dumb peace. Not the kind of meditation where we sit down and say, “Boy, that’s really peaceful. Wow, I’m feeling so peaceful…” And then forty-five minutes later the bell rings and “Wow! That must have been really deep samādhi. That time passed so quickly and I feel really refreshed. I must be getting close!” No, it’s a type of peace that’s got this astute clarity happening, moment-by-moment.