Chapter 1 of Buddha’s Map:
A drop of sweat slid out of the hair on my head and tickled the back of my neck. Dave, the shuttle bus driver, smiled as he said, “Yep. Ninety-six degrees and ninety-seven percent humidity.” It was a little past three o’clock in the afternoon of July 2, 2007: my first visit to the Missouri Ozarks.
I sat in a torn-vinyl and fake-chrome chair in front of the Ozark Shuttle office in Farmington, Missouri. The waiting room was air-conditioned, but the walls were stained from tobacco and the air was gray with smoke. I waited outside.
I pulled the chair close to the building to take advantage of the bit of shade it offered. Then I took out my cell phone and called the Dhamma Sukha Meditation Center. “Yep, they’re on the way to pick y’up. Late as usual.” The voice was friendly, though the way he said “as usual” was more disparaging than I expected from a member of a Buddhist group. “They should be there in thirty or forty minutes.”
I put my phone away. “Good time to meditate,” I told myself. I closed my eyes.
A few moments later, I opened them. In the previous thirty hours, I had gotten two hours of sleep. Rather than try to meditate, I gazed absently at the traffic in the intersection.
At nine o’clock every morning, Dave drove the little bus north along Interstate 55 toward St. Louis. Once there, he hung around the Greyhound station until one o’clock in the afternoon. Then he started the return trip to Farmington.
The Dhamma Sukha Meditation Center is nestled deep in the Ozark Mountains about an hour from Farmington. This shuttle is the nearest public transportation.
In order to make the shuttle, I took a red-eye flight out of northern California where I lived. I changed planes in Atlanta and landed in St. Louis in the morning. The Metro Link train took me downtown to the bus station. I found Dave and let him know I wanted a ride. Then I waited around for a few more hours until the shuttle left.
Once in Farmington, I waited for someone from the center to pick me up. After stopping for groceries and other supplies, we drove the hour or so into the mountains. I arrived at Dhamma Sukha in the late afternoon, bleary and weary.
I’m tempted to say, “You can’t get to Dhamma Sukha from my house.” But that isn’t true. It just takes persistence. It felt like traveling in southern Asia, where the connections were complicated and uncertain. All I could do was point myself in the right direction and trust that sooner or later I’d get there (or some other interesting place).
The abbot of Dhamma Sukha is Bhante Vimalaramsi. When I first heard the name, I thought he was from South Asia. Actually, he is a Caucasian and grew up in Los Angeles. He’d once been a contractor, building high-end homes in California. He’d been quite successful. But he gave it up and went to Asia.
He spent many years training and teaching in Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Malaysia. Now he teaches around the world. But for the past decade, he has focused mainly on bringing his teaching back to his home country. And, if nothing else, the Missouri Ozarks are deep in the heartland of America.
I began meditating long before I’d heard of Dhamma Sukha or Bhante Vimalaramsi. In the mid-1970s, I was studying with Ram Dass, another American-born spiritual teacher with an Asian name. I got the impression that learning to meditate would somehow be a good thing. So I tried to teach myself. I sat for fifteen minutes one day, ten minutes the next, and fifteen minutes four days later. Developing momentum was hard.
With a recommendation from Ram Dass, I signed up for a ten-day meditation retreat at the brand-new Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. It was only a few hours’ drive from where I was living at the time. I understood that I would be doing nothing but meditating (sitting meditation, walking meditation, eating meditation) or sleeping the whole time. “That should build momentum,” I thought.
I was excited when I got to Barre and eager to start sitting. But after about a half hour, it dawned on me that this was all I’d be doing for the next nine days, twenty-three hours, and thirty minutes. A neon sign flashed in the back of my head: “Mistake! Mistake! Mistake!”
I stuck with it as best I could. I kept rearranging the cushions and pillows into piles worthy of Dr. Seuss. Still, my mind wandered and my body hurt. Stubbornness was the only thing that kept me going.
Nevertheless, when I left the retreat after ten days, I felt joyful and light. I didn’t know if that was meditative progress or just relief to be out of there. I thought, “This is the best thing I’ve ever done, and I’m glad I won’t ever have to do this again.”
Back home I found myself meditating forty-five minutes twice a day. And a year later, I went back for another ten-day retreat with Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and an Asian master, Munindraji. I was hooked.
The style of meditation was called vipassana or “insight meditation.”
I also tried other styles of meditation as well. I drove to Providence, Rhode Island, to do a sesshin (intensive retreat) with the Zen Master Seung Sahn. As I walked into my first interview, he pointed his finger at me and said, “There it is!” meaning a moment when I was fully enlightened. He was right. My mind was clear and spacious. “Now it’s gone,” he said. He was right. It was gone.
I realized we must all have those moments. But they go by so quickly we don’t see them. His gift was to catch one and point it out to me. I knew it was real.
But trying to stay within the strict Zen customs gave me the worst hemorrhoids in my life. So afterward I did another vipassana retreat, where the practice is more relaxed.
I studied with Sufi Master Pir Vilayat Khan. I loved the chanting and the sweet energy. But I missed the deep stillness. So I did another vipassana retreat.
I learned to channel and communed regularly with various disembodied guides. But the practice felt cluttered and busy. So I did more vipassana.
Then, at the end of one vipassana retreat, the teacher, Larry Rosenberg, said, “There are many styles of meditation. If vipassana doesn’t appeal to you, by all means try others.” I nodded agreement.
Then he said, “But if this works for you, for God’s sake, stop looking.”
His words hit between the eyes. I got it. This was home for me, not because it was the best for everyone, but simply because it resonated with me.
The instructions I heard from a variety of vipassana teachers were similar: concentrate exclusively on the breathing until the mind stabilizes. Then gradually open the field of awareness to include all body sensations, feelings, thoughts, and finally consciousness itself. If the mind remains steady, stay with this “choiceless awareness”—that is, just be mindful of whatever arises. If the mind drifts, narrow the focus until it steadies.
These instructions made sense to me. They were logical and coherent. I could see how they helped fellow students. But I found them very difficult to implement: my mind would not quiet.
Out of desperation, I experimented. I found that choiceless awareness—that is, just being mindful of whatever arose—was easier. And after a while, concentration came by itself. Rather than concentration being a foundation of mindfulness, mindfulness led to greater concentration. This made less sense at the time than it does now. But it worked for me.
Then a teacher, Corrado Pensa, remarked that the word for “concentration” came from the Pali word “samadhi.” A better translation of samadhi was “calm abiding.” The English word “concentration” implied too much effort and strain. He said samadhi was the way a mother watched her sleeping child: her attention was steady, but soft and receptive. Corrado said this was the way to practice.
“Hmm,” I thought. “Maybe there’s more to meditation than stubbornness.”
Corrado was helpful. Yet I still found it easier to begin with choiceless awareness than with samadhi, even in this softer form.
So I arranged a private interview with Larry Rosenberg at the Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts—about an hour from where I lived. I confessed to him my strategy of starting with choiceless awareness.
He said, “In vipassana, we don’t need that much samadhi before shifting to choiceless awareness. If you can count ten breaths ten times, that is more than enough samadhi.”
The interview lasted a half hour, so we must have talked about other things. But what I remembered most clearly was, “Counting ten breaths ten times is sufficient samadhi.”
I went home and started a project to count one hundred breaths without letting my mind drift once. I suspected I was taking Larry’s words more literally than he intended. But I was seeking tangible affirmation for my practice. This could be it. Besides, it gave me a new way to employ my talent for stubbornness.
Each day when I sat in meditation, I’d start noting: “breathing in” on the in breath and “one” on the out breath. Then “breathing in, two; in, three; in, four,” and so on. If I got to “in, fifty-seven” and thought, “this is going pretty well,” I’d recognize, “Oh, I just drifted.” So I’d start over: “breathing in, one; breathing in, two.”
It took me nine months, but finally I could count a hundred breaths without drifting once.
Having achieved my goal, I looked at my mind. It was like a steel trap—tight and clenched. “This is worthless,” I realized, “My mind is too tense and dense to see anything.”
I never told Larry what I’d done. I imagine him smiling and shaking his head in consternation.
In a strange way, this experience taught me three things: One, I probably did have enough samadhi. Two, all that stubborn strain is truly a dead end. And three, it is OK for me to use choiceless awareness—other qualities will follow.
After practicing for a dozen years or so, I was on another retreat with Larry Rosenberg and Corrado Pensa. Larry gave a series of dhamma talks on the “Anapanasati Sutta” (the Buddha’s talk on mindfulness of breathing). It was the first time I heard an explanation of an actual sutta.
In that sutta, the Buddha described various jhanas, or stages of meditation knowledge. I listened attentively until Larry mentioned piti, which means “rapture” or “joy,” and sukha, which means “happiness.”
I’d been chronically depressed all my life. My childhood pictures all have forlorn eyes. As an adult, I didn’t know anything was wrong. It was as if all I had ever known was black and white—I’d never experienced color and didn’t know what I was missing.
But when my marriage began to sour, I suspected the fault was in me. I sought a therapist who got me fully in touch with the depths of my depression. In pictures from those years, I look like death warmed over.
Fifteen years later with a lot of therapy, bodywork, and meditation, I was beginning to break clear of the depression. But still, I didn’t relate to rapture or happiness. They were too colorful. They were for real meditators, not someone as ordinary and stubborn as me. So when Larry spoke about piti and sukha, I closed my eyes in meditation and barely listened.
Then Larry described in detail the texture of piti and sukha—not just their names but also the sensations around them. They sounded familiar. I perked up. I’d felt similar things for years but dismissed them. I couldn’t believe he was talking about my experience.
After the talk I went up to him: “Larry, I’ve experienced states for years that may be what you’re talking about.”
He looked down slightly so he could listen to me more carefully.
I went on: “It’s like a white noise comes into my mind, only it’s silent. It becomes difficult to think. And I find myself smiling uncontrollably. I call it a ‘high-energy calm.’ When it is strong, it feels like a non-climactic, non-genital orgasm.”
He nodded his head: “Yes, that is piti.”
“After a while I am sometimes able to just let go into it. It spreads out and cools off. It gets very large and peaceful.”
He nodded again and said, “Yes, that is sukha.”
“Larry,” I said. “I thought they were just another distraction. I thought I should ignore them and try harder to stay with the breath.”
He looked up at me. “Oh, you can’t do that. They’re too powerful. When they arise, let go of the breath and let the state you experience be the focus of your attention. After a while, you’ll tire of them, and the meditation will go even deeper. In the meantime, they’re very healing. You’re ready to do real meditation now.”
I said to him, “I’ve struggled with depression for years. I find labels like ‘rapture,’ ‘joy,’ and ‘happiness’ to be confusing.”
His eyes twinkled. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I give you permission to be a happy person.”
I was touched and excited. I had thought my practice was getting nowhere. But some of the states I experienced weren’t a problem. They were signs of progress. There were references to them in the Buddha’s own words! I was experiencing what he was pointing to. They were early stages, to be sure. But they were part of the path.
I felt encouraged.
In the years that followed, I continued going on retreats. I’d sign up with any teacher whose retreat fit my complicated work schedule.
With each teacher, I described the experiences I was having and asked for guidance as to how to work with them.
Mostly I got blank stares. Sometimes a teacher suggested I should stop reading books and just watch the breath. Sometimes there was a hint of disparagement in his voice.
“But I’m not reading books,” I wanted to say. “I’m just describing what I see and feel.”
But usually I said nothing. I didn’t see the point if they didn’t recognize what I was talking about.
So I continued to practice as best I could—working with piti and sukha when they arose. But in truth, my practice plateaued. For ten or fifteen years, it went nowhere.
In 2000, my wife and I moved to northern California. A year or so later, someone showed me a flier for a retreat led by John Travis. I recognized his name from the vipassana community. I felt drawn.
The retreat was the smallest I had ever been on—only fifteen or twenty people in a house high up in the Sierra Mountains.
During my first interview with John, I described my conversation with Larry Rosenberg and my experiences with piti and sukha. John seemed open. So I told him I felt slightly ridiculed for thinking I might be experiencing these states.
John shook his head and said, “They’re very real. They’re just what you thought they were.”
To my surprise, I began to cry.
John encouraged me to just let the tears flow. As I got to know him later, I understood that he had been through a lot of suffering in his life. It seemed to have just opened his empathy more and more. He was a bit of a wild man, to be sure. But he had a big, wise heart.
John lived about an hour and a half from me. So I began to visit him once or twice a month and went on at least one of his retreats a year. He became my root teacher and my first real spiritual mentor.
He recognized my jhana experiences and the pull they had for me. And he knew there were teachers who taught the jhanas. But they weren’t part of how he taught.
Nevertheless, he was helpful in getting my meditation to open up and deepen. And together he and I looked for a teacher from whom I could learn more about the jhanas.
But there was a problem. Most jhanas were taught in the Burmese style. This style was very severe, involving months of strenuous practice to make the first step. If anything, I already seemed to try too hard. John and I both felt the Burmese style wasn’t right for me.
In 2006, I had some sabbatical time from the Unitarian Universalist church I served in northern California. I decided not to go to Burma to train with a jhana master. But John thought it would be good for me to go to Asia anyway. “It’ll pull the rug out from under you and your practice, and that will help.”
I found a monk who had studied with Ajahn Tong, one of northern Thailand’s most revered meditation masters. But Ajahn Tong didn’t work with Westerners. The monk said I could train with him for three weeks. Then he’d introduce me to Ajahn Tong. In this way I’d be considered the monk’s student first and a Westerner second. Under those conditions, Ajahn Tong would accept me.
From Ajahn Tong, I discovered a mystical dimension in Buddhism that has largely been filtered out in the West in deference to our more critical mindset. He showed me how to invoke states and visions that I could not explain. I also learned about nibbana (or nirvana in Sanskrit), not as a vague, far-off concept but as something tangible and real. In the West, nibbana is often downplayed as too esoteric. But the Thai weren’t shy about it. Ajahn Tong saw nibbana as quite accessible and had an eight-step program to get there.
Like my first retreat in Barre, Massachusetts, my time with Ajahn Tong was both unsettling and wonderful. It took me six months to reintegrate after returning home.
But still I wanted to learn more about the jhanas.
A year after I returned from Thailand, John lent me a copy of a book he’d been given. He thought I might find it helpful. It was a commentary on the “Anapanasati Sutta” written by a monk named Sayadaw Gyi U Vimalaramsi.
I didn’t find the introductory part of the book helpful. But when I got to U Vimalaramsi’s actual commentary on the sutta, I thought I might have found someone who knew what I’d been looking for.
He made a distinction between absorption jhanas and tranquility (passaddhi ) jhanas. Absorption jhanas are taught in the Burmese schools. They are so concentrated and strong that while you are in one, the outside world is cut off. Someone could call your name, slap you in the face, or set off a gun, and you wouldn’t notice because your mind was so one-pointed on a single object.
The Buddha had trained in the absorption jhanas in his early years as an ascetic. They were commonly taught in his time. He mastered all eight of them. And when he had, he came out of them and said, “These don’t work. The underlying imbalances are still in me.”
The problem with absorption states is that their depth and power come from blocking out everything but the object of awareness. It takes a great deal of energy to do this. And when we relax, whatever we have pushed down tends to come back up.
Wisdom comes from seeing things clearly as they are, not by pushing them aside.
So when the Buddha sat down under the Bodhi tree to wake up, he took a softer approach: the tranquility jhanas.
The Buddha’s descriptions of the various jhanas included thoughts and sensations. He was not describing states of total absorption.
Obsessing over feelings or daydreaming obviously does not lead to awakening. But neither does repression. The Buddha taught a “middle way,” a subtle and nuanced balance that was neither of these extremes. This path stressed mindful awareness—knowing what was going on but not using blunt-force control of experience.
Reading the commentary, I sensed that this monk was intimately familiar with the subtleties and nuances of this tranquility jhana path.
The next time I saw John, I told him I was excited by what I’d read. John said that the monk was traveling in California at that time, and that he knew a person with whom he was going to stay for a week.
I got the number, called, and was able to set up an interview.
I had understood the monk’s proper name to be Sayadaw Gyi U Vimalaramsi. Sayadaw means “meditation master” or “monk’s teacher.” “Gyi” means “deeply honored” or “venerable.” These were titles his students had given him while he was teaching in Asia. But he preferred to be called simply Bhante, which means “monk.”
He said, “Vimalaramsi means ‘pure’ or ‘radiant,’ and U is equivalent to ‘Mister.’ So my name is ‘Mr. Clean.’”
He had a good sense of humor. And he did look a bit like the Mr. Clean of floor-cleaner fame. Bhante was six feet four with a shaved head—except he didn’t wear a genie ring and did wear monks’ chocolate-brown robes.
At the interview, I sat across from him in his host’s living room. I described many meditation experiences I’d had over the years.
There was nothing I said that was not familiar to him. In fact, he could tell me the conditions that preceded my experiences and what came after them. He said some of my experiences had important qualities to be cultivated. Others were distractions to be released. In fact, even the important experiences were best noted and released to keep the meditation going deeper.
I got the impression that he had a roadmap that went from the light, energetic joy of piti all the way to nibbana. Later I learned that the jhanas are markers along this path.
I also had the impression that his meditation instructions evolved as one progressed. So I asked him pointedly what he thought I should be doing in meditation.
He asked me a series of focused questions in the form of, “Have you experienced ______?”
At first I answered “yes” to each of these and elaborated on my experience to be sure we were talking about the same thing.
Then after five or six of these, he asked me about something I wasn’t certain about. “I’ve felt that,” I said, “but only fleetingly.”
“OK,” he said. “From where you are, this is how you might practice.” And he gave me specifics.
Several days later I flew to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The sangha there had rented a dude ranch. It was mud season: the snow had melted or was too slushy for skiing, and the ground was not dry enough for hiking. So they could rent the ranch at off-season rates and use it for a ten-day retreat. They had invited John Travis to come and teach. John encouraged me to ignore the general meditation instructions he was giving everyone else and just follow Bhante’s.
Bhante emphasized ease. When the mind’s attention was pulled away, I was to first just recognize where my mind had gone. Then I was to release or let go of the distraction, relax, smile, and then return to the primary object of meditation.
He called this “the Six Rs: recognize, release, relax, re-smile, return, and repeat.” It was so simple as to sound more like a jingle than serious instructions. I was reminded of the old Burma-Shave roadside commercials from my childhood—I pictured a series of red signs: “Recognize,” “Release,” “Relax,” “Re-smile,” “Return,” “Repeat,” “Burma-Shave.”
Jingle or not, the Six Rs worked amazingly well. I didn’t fully understand them or use them correctly at the time. But they suggested I needn’t fight inevitable distractions. When my attention wandered, rather than stubbornly or even gently pulling it back, I just saw where my mind had gone and relaxed into it. This may have been what Corrado Pensa meant by “calm abiding.” But Bhante’s technique gave me the practical tools to do it. This was enough to get my practice to take off.
Rather than worrying about my mind getting distracted, I now looked forward to it. Each time I recognized a distraction, let it be, and relaxed, there was a blast of joy. And since I was relaxing, it was easier to sit longer. My mind-heart became so clear and energized that at times I felt like I was on psychedelics.
One of the interesting by-products of this practice was a change in my visual field. For example, in walking meditation I usually kept my eyes down slightly, watching the ground flow through my field of vision. But while doing this practice, there were times when the visual field jerked rather than flowed. It was like watching a movie that projected a rapid series of still images on a screen. The mind normally blended them into a smooth flow. But now, I was seeing each frame.
At first I was startled. As I tightened slightly, the familiar visual flow returned. But when I relaxed, I saw a discrete series of separate images.
Another phenomenon showed up after the retreat. On the return flight, I pulled a Sudoku math puzzle out of the airline magazine. I enjoy math puzzles and am reasonably good at them. But my mind was so relaxed, it wouldn’t go into hyper-calculation mode. I couldn’t do even the easiest puzzle, though the hardest ones used to be simple for me. (Since then, my old capacity has returned just fine.)
The breakup of the flow of the visual field and the short-term suspension of mathematical thinking were overt and impossible to ignore. But a more important and less definable effect of the retreat was a sense of ease, spaciousness, and irrepressible smiles.
The retreat had been in silence. So at the end, John had us all go around and give our names and where we were from. When it was my turn, I said, “I am Bliss Bunny, and I don’t know where I’m from.”
When I got home, I contacted Dhamma Sukha and asked if I could come out to Missouri for a few weeks during my summer break.
Thus it was on that July afternoon that I was sitting in a vinyl chair outside the Ozark Shuttle office where Dave had left me.
Thirty minutes later a big maroon pickup truck pulled up in front of me. The reflection of the sky off the windshield made it difficult to see into the cab. But there was a sign in the windshield—a set of wooden letters painted bright yellow: “Smile.” I knew it was either Bhante or his attendant, Sister Khema. It was both.
I put my duffle into the back between gasoline cans, a box of dog food, and some farm tools. We stopped at a big-box grocery store. I was vegetarian. They weren’t. They wanted to make sure they had food for me to eat. (The Buddha was not a vegetarian either—but that’s a topic for another time.)
A few hours later, the truck pulled off the small country highway onto a dirt road that wound up a small hill into a clearing. We stopped beside an eight-by-twelve-foot barn-shaped shed.
This was to be my kuti (meditation hut) for the next few weeks. The inside was unfinished. In fact, the structure had only been delivered a week before. But there was a cot, a chair, a crate for shelves, a few candles, and a jug of water. I was delighted.
Bhante started my practice over at the beginning. I was familiar with most of the elements he taught. I had experience with them through other Theravadan practices of vipassana (“insight”) and metta (“loving kindness”). But the way he put them together was a little different.
And there were two elements that were new to me, at least in formal practice. These were the relaxing and smiling parts of the Six Rs I mentioned earlier. I had survived many of life’s tough spots through grim determination. Relaxing and smiling seemed foreign to something as serious as spiritual practice. As a recovered depressive, the smiling seemed particularly foreign. But he was quite insistent. He also insisted, “Doug, you’ve got to relax and lighten up.”
I was suspicious that he was just making this stuff up. “Where’d you learn this?” I asked.
He smiled in a relaxed way and said, “The Buddha taught me.”
Then he opened his thick copy of the Majjhima Nikaya: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. “For example, look at one of the best-known discourses, the ‘Satipatthana Sutta.’” He ran his finger down to section 4. He read, “‘One trains thus…’ Anytime you hear this phrase, it means we’ve come to the heart of the matter. What came before may be important in setting the stage. But what comes after is the essential core of his teaching.” He went back to the text, “One trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in tranquilizing the bodily formation;’ One trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquilizing the bodily formation.’”
“Bhante,” I said, “When I hear ‘tranquilizing,’ it reminds me of tranquilizers. I think, ‘It’s hard to believe the Buddha wants me to dope myself up. I don’t get this. So never mind.’ So what does this word mean in Pali?”
He said, “That’s one of the difficulties with translations: the word ‘tranquilize’ has associations in English that don’t exist in the Buddha’s original language.
“But even in English, the words ‘tranquilize’ and ‘tranquility’ have the same root. Tranquility comes closer to the Buddha’s intent. He was saying ‘Bring tranquility to the body formations or to the bodily experience. Soothe, soften, and open.’ In other words, ‘Relax.’ With each in breath, relax. With each out breath, relax.”
I knew that in Pali, the language of the suttas, the word “passaddhi” meant “tranquility.” So I asked Bhante if passaddhi was the original word used here.
He said, “No. The word is ‘pas’sambaya.’ ‘Passaddhi refers to a general state. ‘Pas’sambaya’ is more specific. Pas’sambaya is interesting in that it can be a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb depending on how it’s used in a sentence. In this case, it’s used as a verb. It’s something we do. It’s not a noun. It’s not a state to be experienced or the quality of a state. It’s something we do: Breathing in, one relaxes the body and mind. Breathing out, one relaxes the body and mind. Breathe in, relax. Breathe out, relax.
“When we relax deeply, we tend to smile. And when we smile, we tend to relax. They support each other.”
I was beginning to absorb Bhante’s instructions. When the mind wandered off, I was to recognize where my attention had gone and release the object that awareness had grabbed onto. Then I was to relax and smile before going back to the primary object of meditation.
The effect of this simple relaxing and smiling was remarkable, as I had discovered in John’s retreat months earlier. When the mind-heart was distracted, there was some tension. By relaxing, the tension was released (or at least some part of it). By smiling or at least allowing a lightness to flow into the mind-heart, the quality of attention brought back to the object of meditation was both relaxed and light.
As my body and mind relaxed, I found myself sitting in meditation for three hours or more for the first time in my life. As the mind-heart lightened and brightened, it became clearer and suffused with joy and equanimity. Then it went into deeper states of peacefulness, spaciousness, and silence.
In the “Path” section of this book, we’ll look at these states in more detail. For now it’s enough to appreciate how simple and penetrating this practice is. And it’s all right there in the Buddha’s instructions. I wondered how I’d missed it all those years.*
When I first arrived at Dhamma Sukha, there was only one other student. He’d been there for a few weeks and had to leave the next day.
A few days later, another guy arrived. He reminded me of Gomer Pyle. He had little meditation experience and goofy ideas about spirituality—like channeling energy from other dimensions. But he followed Bhante’s instructions as best as he could. And I could see him quieting and opening in a very deep way.
It was clear that whatever I was experiencing was not unique to me, nor was it due to many years of meditation. The practice worked for all kinds of people.
John Travis once told me that the only difference between most of us and a fully enlightened being was confidence. The practice the Buddha taught encouraged relaxing into our deeper nature and learning to trust it to emerge on its own.
As I said in the introduction, waking up is not easy. But without ease, it is impossible.
The metaphor of climbing the mountain conveys some of the patience and stick-to-itiveness that are important on the path to awakening. But it may not convey how essential it is to relax and soothe the mind-heart so it can open to its natural spacious clarity.
I call this process “easing awake.”
With its emphasis on easing awake, Buddhism is not so interested in what we think or believe. It is interested in how we become more alive right now. After all, waking up in the morning is not about what we think or believe. It is about opening our eyes.
In this way Buddhism is not so much a philosophy or study of ideas. It is a phenomenology, or an exploration of what we actually experience.
So in the next section, we'll begin to explore the Buddha’s insights by looking at everything that we can experience.
But first, we’ll consider some simple instructions for getting started in this practice.
One of the reasons I first missed some of the Buddha’s basic instructions was because much Theravadan practice today is rooted in the Visuddhimagga rather than the suttas. The suttas are the earliest extant records of the Buddha’s actual talks. The Visuddhimagga was written in the fifth century CE by Buddhaghosa to reconcile some of the schools of Buddhism that had arisen in the ten centuries since the Buddha’s time.
Buddhaghosa was a master of the Vedas—the ancient sacred text of Brahmanism (Hinduism)—before becoming a Buddhist monk. He was a scholar more than a meditator. So he drew heavily on his knowledge of the Vedas and Brahman meditation in his writing.
The Buddha was also deeply versed in the Vedas and Braham meditation. When he mastered those practices, he discovered they didn’t work as advertised.
So when he sat down under the Bodhi tree determined to find full enlightenment, he practiced in ways that were significantly different from the Brahman practices. His teaching is more accurately preserved in the suttas than in Buddhaghosa’s commentary.