In our day and age, the practice of going into the forest
to meditate and follow the ascetic dhutanga practices began
with Phra Ajaan Sao Kantasilo, the teacher of Phra Ajaan Mun
and, by extension, Phra Ajaan Singh and Phra Ajaan Lee. Phra
Ajaan Sao was inclined to be, not a preacher or a speaker,
but a doer. When he taught his students, he said very
little. And those who studied directly under him are now
elders who speak very little, who rarely preach, having
picked up the habit from their teacher. Thus, as Phra Ajaan
Sao was not a preacher, I would like to tell you a little of
the way in which he taught meditation.
How did Phra Ajaan Sao teach? If it so happened that
someone came to him, saying, "Ajaan, sir, I want to practice
meditation. How should I go about it?" he would answer,
"Meditate on the word 'Buddho.'"
If the person asked, "What does 'Buddho' mean?" Ajaan Sao
would answer, "Don't ask."
"What will happen after I've meditated on 'Buddho'?"
"Don't ask. Your only duty is simply to repeat the word 'Buddho'
over and over in your mind."
That's how he taught: no long, drawn-out explanations.
Now, if the student was sincere in putting the Ajaan's
instructions into practice and was persistent in practicing
the repetition, if his mind then became calm and bright from
entering into concentration, he would come and ask Ajaan
Sao: "When meditating on 'Buddho' my state of mind becomes
such-and-such. What should I do now?" If it was right, Ajaan
Sao would say, "Keep on meditating." If not, he would say,
"You have to do such-and-such. What you're doing isn't
For example, once when I was his attendant novice, a
senior monk of the Mahanikaya sect came and placed himself
under his direction as a beginning student in meditation.
Ajaan Sao taught him to meditate on "Buddho." Now, when the
monk settled down on "Buddho," his mind became calm and,
once it was calm, bright. And then he stopped repeating "Buddho."
At this point, his mind was simply blank. Afterwards, he
sent his attention out, following the brightness, and a
number of visions began to arise: spirits of the dead,
hungry ghosts, divine beings, people, animals, mountains,
forests.... Sometimes it seemed as if he, or rather, his
mind, left his body and went wandering through the forest
and wilderness, seeing the various things mentioned above.
Afterwards, he went and told Ajaan Sao, "When I mediated
down to the point were the mind became calm and bright, it
then went out, following the bright light. Visions of
ghosts, divine beings, people, and animals appeared.
Sometimes it seemed as if I went out following the visions."
As soon as Ajaan Sao heard this, he said, "This isn't
right. For the mind to go knowing and seeing outside isn't
right. You have to make it know inside."
The monk then asked, "How should I go about making it
Phra Ajaan Sao answered, "When the mind is in a bright
state like that, when it has forgotten or abandoned its
repetition and is simply sitting empty and still, look for
the breath. If the sensation of the breath appears in your
awareness, focus on the breath as your object and then
simply keep track of it, following it inward until the mind
becomes even calmer and brighter."
And so the monk followed the Ajaan's instructions until
finally the mind settled down in threshold concentration
(upacara samadhi), following which the breath became
more and more refined, ultimately to the point where it
disappeared. His sensation of having a body also
disappeared, leaving just the state in which the mind was
sitting absolutely still, a state of awareness itself
standing out clear, with no sense of going forward or back,
no sense of where the mind was, because at that moment there
was just the mind, all on its own. At this point, the monk
came again to ask, "After my mind has become calm and
bright, and I fix my attention on the breath and follow the
breath inward until it reaches a state of being absolutely
quiet and still -- so still that nothing is left, the breath
doesn't appear, the sense of having a body vanishes, only
the mind stands out, brilliant and still: When it's like
this, is it right or wrong?"
"Whether it's right or wrong," the Ajaan answered, "take
that as your standard. Make an effort to be able to do this
as often as possible, and only when you're skilled at it
should you come and see me again."
So the monk followed the Ajaan's instructions and later
was able to make his mind still to the point that there was
no sense of having a body and the breath disappeared more
and more often. He became more and more skilled, and his
mind became more and more firm. Eventually, after he had
been making his mind still very frequently -- because as a
rule, there's the principle that virtue develops
concentration, concentration develops discernment,
discernment develops the mind -- when his concentration
became powerful and strong, it gave rise to abhiñña
-- heightened knowledge and true insight. Knowledge of what?
Knowledge of the true nature of the mind, that is, knowing
the states of the mind as they occur in the present. Or so
After he had left this level of concentration and came to
see Ajaan Sao, he was told, "This level of concentration is
fixed penetration (appana samadhi). You can rest
assured that in this level of concentration there is no
insight or knowledge of anything at all. There's only the
brightness and the stillness. If the mind is forever in that
state, it will be stuck simply on that level of stillness.
So once you've made the mind still like this, watch for the
interval where it begins to stir out of its concentration.
As soon as the mind has a sense that it's beginning to take
up an object -- no matter what object may appear first --
focus on the act of taking up an object. That's what you
The monk followed the Ajaan's instructions and afterwards
he was able to make fair progress in the level of his mind.
This is one instance of how Phra Ajaan Sao taught his
pupils -- teaching just a little at a time, giving only the
very heart of the practice, almost as if he would say, "Do
this, and this, and this," with no explanations at all.
Sometimes I would wonder about his way of teaching. That is,
I would compare it with books I had read or with the Dhamma-talks
I heard given by other teachers. For example, Phra Ajaan
Singh wrote a small handbook for the practice of meditation,
entitled, Taking the Triple Refuge and the Techniques of
Meditation, and in it he said that in practicing
meditation you must, before all else, sit with your body
straight and establish mindfulness directly in front of you.
That's how he put it, but not how Ajaan Sao would put it.
Still, the principles they taught were one and the same, the
only difference being that Ajaan Sao was not a preacher, and
so didn't make use of a lot of rhetoric.
As he explained to me: "When we make up our mind to
repeat 'Buddho,' the act of making up the mind is in itself
the act of establishing mindfulness. When we keep thinking 'Buddho'
and are not willing to let the mind slip away from 'Buddho,'
our mindfulness and alertness are already healthy and
strong, always watching over the mind to keep it with 'Buddho.'
As soon as our attention slips away, so that we forget to
think 'Buddho' and go thinking of something else, it's a
sign that there's a lapse in our mindfulness. But if we can
keep our mindfulness under control and can think 'Buddho,
Buddho' continuously, with no gaps, our mindfulness is
already strong, so there's no need to go 'establishing
mindfulness' anywhere. To think of an object so that it is
coupled with the mind is, in and of itself, the act of
getting mindfulness established." That was how he explained
it to me.
This was one instance of how I saw and heard Phra Ajaan
Sao teaching meditation, and should be enough to serve us
all as food for thought.